Sunday, September 28, 2008

√únintended Consequences

I'm in Eastern Europe for a few more days, trying to bang out this posting at a Prague hotel. Please excuse any weirdness that results from the foreignness of the keyboard; I'll clean things up when I get back to where I belong.

I came here for a Zen conference in Warsaw, and in my previous posting, I wondered why Zenning is so popular in Poland. I've found out part of the answer, which was kinda interesting. When the Communists controlled Eastern Europe, they tried to impose their atheism everywhere. It worked to a certain extent. A Czech guy in our group says that his country is the most atheistic in the world. But Poland was different.

Centuries ago, when barbarians attacked, denizens of Polish villagers would retreat to the local Church, as it was the best fortified building around. They'd rely on the protection of the Church building for days at a time. Maybe that's part of the reason why Catholicism became deeply connected to the Polish mindset. For example, every public schoolroom in Poland still displays a cross; though such Church-State mixing is forbidden, no police force would dare enforce the law.

So the Russians had little success in dislodging Christianity. When the Communists pushed atheism, the Poles responded like teenagers, doing the exact opposite of what the authorities told them to do.

The Russians in turn responded by supporting anything they saw as possibly weakening the Church. Back in the 70s, Zen Master Seung Sahn (founder of our school) had a student in the US who was a visiting professor from Poland. The professor encouraged the Zen Master to visit his homeland. When the Zen Master applied for visas etc, the Communists saw this strange brand of Buddhism as something that could maybe make people question Catholicism, so they smoothed his way at every turn.

In due time, Communism got swept into the dustbin of history. The Catholics maintained their hold on the Polish soul (with the Pope receiving much credit for the fall of Communism). But the stranglehold of Christianity got weakened ever so slightly by the foothold gained by this weird Zen stuff.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Dawkins and Atheism

I'll soon travel to Eastern Europe for a Zen confab in Warsaw. Zen is big in Poland. Go figure; maybe it has something to do with suffering, "the mother of all Buddhas." Afterwards, I'll tour Krakow, Prague, and Budapest, before hitting Amsterdam (of course) on the way home.

(My apocalyptic friends have warned me of predictions of world-wide collapse by the end of this month. Disturbingly, their emails arrived weeks before the current Wall Street chaos. If they're right, at least I'll be in Amsterdam on Sept 30, which will expand my options for cushioning the end-of-civilization blues.)

While away, I likely won't be blogging till October (if we live). Before the vacation, I wanted to share some online sites that I've been enjoying lately.

Richard Dawkins gained notoriety as the author The Selfish Gene, which has been called the best book of popularizing scientific ideas to the general public. I haven't read it yet, but I've developed a fondness for Dawkins after seeing him on TV and the net. He frequently lectures, riding the success of his more recent book, The God Delusion. I've been prowling Dawkins' site, which is billed as a "Clear-Thinking Oasis." Indeed, his discussion boards seem unusually civil and reasonable.

I don't share Dawkins' passion for atheism. I'd say: if we make an idea of God, we then can choose either to be Theists (aka Believers) or Atheists. But why make an idea of God one way or the other? If we don't make God, then the sky is blue, the grass is green, sugar is sweet, and a quarter is 25 cents.

I'm not sure I agree with Dawkins that Atheists must "come out" to resist the great threat posed by Believers. We all know about the horrors that religion has brought the planet over the centuries... but balancing that out is the fact that Believers in general are so much more charitable that non-believers. The power of religious extremism in America may well be exaggerated (and used by the Left as a straw man). Of course there are some extremists, but far more often, the people who tell pollsters that they're religious are likely to follow religion when it's convenient, but will ultimately follow reason in living their lives. (How many Catholics really eschew birth control?)

Nonetheless, I find Dawkins a wonderful speaker with great humor. His arguments against "God" can be stunning in their elegance. See for example this page, with clips from his appearance earlier this year in Berkeley. In the "Part 1" video, around 3 minutes in, Dawkins cleverly mocks the tendency to "suck up" to God. "You cannot have it both ways. Either God is simple, in which case he's not worth worshipping, or he's complex, in which case he doesn't exist." (The entire Q&A and the lecture itself are available online, and I look forward to watching the rest of it.)

The quote above reflects one of my favorite arguments from Dawkins. He says that you can only explain the complex in terms of the simple. The "God" that religions speak of is necessarily more complex than creation itself. "It is an utterly preposterous idea that the God that not only creates the universe -- which you'd think would be something you'd need to have a fairly good knowledge of physics and mathematics in order to do -- not only does that, but listens to the prayers of every one of 6 billion people simultaneously (such bandwidth!), forgives their sins, knows when they're thinking evil thoughts, worries about their sexual proclivities... how could anyone suggest that such a being, who's capable of doing all the things attributed to him, could possibly be simple?"

OK, that quote's a bit over the top, but the basic point is beautiful. Religious people say that existence requires an explanation, but the pseudo-explanation they offer relies on a complex God. This accomplishes nothing. Darwin, on the other hand, has the great virtue of explaining the complexities of the world as emerging from the simpler process of natural selection.

From the Dawkins site, I somehow surfed to "Unreasonable Faith," a blog written by Daniel Florien, a passionate evangelical Christian for over a decade, who has now become an unbeliever and skeptic. Daniel's thoughts on Dawkins are covered in the blog he posted today, "The futility of invoking a designer."

Daniel writes that we put God in the gaps of our knowledge of the natural processes that make sense of our world. As our knowledge grows, God is squished into tighter gaps. He seems to think that ultimately there'll be no gaps left. I don't share that view. What am I? Why am I alive? Why is there something rather than nothing? I can't imagine scientific knowledge answering those questions any moreso than religion. We'll always be left with some choices that come down to either holding a belief, or facing the big Don't Know.

I'm looking forward to reading more of "Unreasonable Faith," as it's unusual to have someone who was so deeply into the world of Believers, and can now discuss that world coherently. It's like, I dunno, falling into quicksand and living to tell the tale.

Finally, the Dawkins site also introduced me to Derren Brown, an incredible hypnotist, magician, showman, and believer-turned-skeptic. I've been watching Brown's online videos with fascination. I'll write a little about him in my next blog posting, which maybe I can squeeze in before departing for Warsaw.