Review: The Righteous Mind

Review: The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and ReligionThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I expected this book to be good, but I did not expect it to be so rich in ideas and dense with information. Haidt covers far more territory than the subtitle of the book implies. Not only is he attempting to explain why people are morally tribal, but also the way morality works in the human brain, the evolutionary origins of moral feelings, the role of moral psychology in the history of civilization, the origin and function of religion, and how we can apply all this information to the modern political situation—among much else along the way.

Haidt begins with the roles of intuition and reasoning in making moral judgments. He contends that our moral reasoning—the reasons we aver for our moral judgments—consists of mere post hoc rationalizations for our moral intuitions. We intuitively condemn or praise an action, and then search for reasons to justify our intuitive reaction.

He bases his argument on the results of experiments in which the subjects were told a story—usually involving a taboo violation of some kind, such as incest—and then asked whether the story involved any moral breach or not. These stories were carefully crafted so as not to involve harm to anyone (such as a brother and sister having sex in a lonely cabin and never telling anyone, and using contraception to prevent the risk of pregnancy).

Almost inevitably he found the same result: people would condemn the action, but then struggle to find coherent reasons to do so. To use Haidt’s metaphor, our intuition is like a client in a court case, and our reasoning is the lawyer: its job is to win the case for intuition, not to find the truth.

This is hardly a new idea. Haidt’s position was summed up several hundred years before he was born, by Benjamin Franklin: “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” An intuitionist view of morality was also put forward by David Hume and Adam Smith. But Haidt’s account is novel for the evolutionary logic behind his argument and the empirical research used to back his claims. This is exemplified in his work on moral axes.

Our moral intuition is not one unified axis from right to wrong. There are, rather, six independent axes: harm, proportionality, equality, loyalty, authority, and purity. In other words, actions can be condemned for a variety of reasons: for harming others, for cheating others, for oppressing others, for betraying one’s group, for disrespecting authority, and for desecrating sacred objects, beings, or places.

These axes of morality arose because of evolutionary pressure. Humans who cared for their offspring and their families survived better, as did humans who had a greater sensitivity to being cheated by freeloaders (proportionality) and who resisted abusive alpha males trying to exploit them (equality). Similarly, humans who were loyal to their group and who respected a power hierarchy outperformed less loyal and less compliant humans, because they created more coherent groups (this explanation relies on group selection theory; see below). And lastly, our sense of purity and desecration—usually linked to religious and superstitious notions—arose out of our drive to avoid physical contamination (for example, pork was morally prohibited because it was unsafe to eat).

Most people in the world use all six of these axes in their moral systems. It is only in the West—particularly in the leftist West—where we focus mainly on the first three: harm, proportionality, and equality. Indeed, one of Haidt’s most interesting points is that the right tends to be more successful in elections because it appeals to a broader moral palate: it appeals to more “moral receptors” in the brain than left-wing morality (which primarily appeals to the axis of help and harm), and is thus more persuasive.

This brings us to Part III of the book, by far the most speculative.

Haidt begins with a defense of group selection: the theory that evolution can operate on the level of groups competing against one another, rather than on individuals. This may sound innocuous, but it is actually a highly controversial topic in biology, as Haidt himself acknowledges. Haidt thinks that group selection is needed to explain the “groupishness” displayed by humans—our ability to put aside personal interest in favor of our groups—and makes a case for the possibility of group selection occurring during the last 10,000 or so years of our history. He makes the theory seem plausible (to a layperson like me), but I think the topic is too complex to be covered in one short chapter.

True or not, Haidt uses the theory of group theory to account for what he calls “hiveish” behavior that humans sometimes display. Why are soldiers willing to sacrifice themselves for their brethren? Why do people like to take ecstasy and rave? Why do we waste so much money and energy going to football games and cheering for our teams? All these behaviors are bizarre when you see humans as fundamentally self-seeking; they only make sense, Haidt argues, if humans possess the ability to transcend their usual self-seeking perspective and identify themselves fully with a group. Activating this self-transcendence requires special circumstances, and it cannot be activated indefinitely; but it produces powerful effects that can permanently alter a person’s perspective.

Haidt then uses group selection and this idea of a “hive-switch” to explain religion. Religions are not ultimately about beliefs, he says, even though religions necessarily involve supernatural beliefs of some kind. Rather, the social functions of religions are primarily to bind groups together. This conclusion is straight out of Durkheim. Haidt’s innovation (well, the credit should probably go to David Sloan Wilson, who wrote Darwin’s Cathedral) is to combine Durkheim’s social explanation of religion with a group-selection theory and a plausible evolutionary story (too long to relate here).

As for empirical support, Haidt cites a historical study of communes, which found that religious communes survived much longer than their secular counterparts, thus suggesting that religions substantially contribute to social cohesion and stability. He also cites several studies showing that religious people tend to be more altruistic and generous than their atheistic peers; and this is apparently unaffected by creed or dogma, depending only on attendance rates of religious services. Indeed, for someone who describes himself as an atheist, Haidt is remarkably positive on the subject of religion; he sees religions as valuable institutions that promote the moral level and stability of a society.

The book ends with a proposed explanation of the political spectrum—people genetically predisposed to derive pleasure from novelty and to be less sensitive to threats become left-wing, and vice versa (the existence of libertarians isn’t explained, and perhaps can’t be)—and finally with an application of the book’s theses to the political arena.

Since we are predisposed to be “groupish” (to display strong loyalty towards our own group) and to be terrible at questioning our own beliefs (since our intuitions direct our reasoning), we should expect to be blind to the arguments of our political adversaries and to regard them as evil. But the reality, Haidt argues, is that each side possesses a valuable perspective, and we need to have civil debate in order to reach reasonable compromises. Pretty thrilling stuff.

Well, there is my summary of the book. As you can see, for such a short book, written for a popular audience, The Righteous Mind is impressively vast in scope. Haidt must come to grips with philosophy, politics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, biology, history—from Hume, to Darwin, to Durkheim—incorporating mountains of empirical evidence and several distinct intellectual traditions into one coherent, readable whole. I was constantly impressed by the performance. But for all that, I had the constant, nagging feeling that Haidt was intentionally playing the devil’s advocate.

Haidt argues that our moral intuition guides our moral reasoning, in a book that rationally explores our moral judgments and aims to convince its readers through reason. The very existence of his book undermines his uni-directional model of intuitions to reasoning. Being reasonable is not easy; but we can take steps to approach arguments more rationally. One of these steps is to summarize another person’s argument before critiquing it, which is what I’ve done in this review.

He argues that religions are not primarily about beliefs but about group fitness; but his evolutionary explanation of religion would be rejected by those who deny evolution on religious grounds; and even if specific beliefs don’t influence altruistic behavior, they certainly do influence which groups (homosexuals, biologists) are shunned. Haidt also argues that religions are valuable because of their ability to promote group cohesion; but if religions necessarily involve irrational beliefs, as Haidt admits, is it really wise to base a moral order on religious notions? If religions contribute to the social order by encouraging people to sacrifice their best interest for illogical reasons—such as in the commune example—should they really be praised?

The internal tension continues. Haidt argues that conservatives have an advantage in elections because they appeal to a broader moral palate, not just care and harm; and he argues that conservatives are valuable because their broad morality makes them more sensitive to disturbances of the social order. Religious conservative groups which enforce loyalty and obedience are more cohesive and durable than secular groups that value tolerance. But Haidt himself endorses utilitarianism (based solely on the harm axis) and ends the book with a plea for moral tolerance. Again, the existence of Haidt’s book presupposes secular tolerance, which makes his stance confusing.

Haidt’s arguments with regard to broad morality come dangerously close to the so-called ‘naturalistic fallacy’: equating what is natural with what is good. He compares moral axes to taste receptors; a morality that appeals to only one axis will be unsuccessful, just like a cuisine that appeals to only one taste receptor will fail to satisfy. But this analogy leads directly to a counter-point: we know that we have evolved to love sugar and salt, but this preference is no longer adaptive, indeed it is unhealthy; and it is equally possible that our moral environment has changed so much that our moral senses are no longer adaptive.

In any case, I think that Haidt’s conclusions about leftist morality are incorrect. Haidt asserts that progressive morality rests primarily on the axis of care and harm, and that loyalty, authority, and purity are actively rejected by liberals (“liberals” in the American sense, as leftist). But this is implausible. Liberals can be extremely preoccupied with loyalty—just ask any Bernie Sanders supporter. The difference is not that liberals don’t care about loyalty, but that they tend to be loyal to different types of groups—parties and ideologies rather than countries. And the psychology of purity and desecration is undoubtedly involved in the left’s concern with racism, sexism, homophobia, or privilege (accusing someone of speaking from privilege creates a moral taint as severe as advocating sodomy does in other circles).

I think Haidt’s conclusion is rather an artifact of the types of questions that he asks in his surveys to measure loyalty and purity. Saying the pledge of allegiance and going to church are not the only manifestations of these impulses.

For my part, I think the main difference between left-wing and right-wing morality is the attitude towards authority: leftists are skeptical of authority, while conservatives are skeptical of equality. This is hardly a new conclusion; but it does contradict Haidt’s argument that conservatives think of morality more broadly. And considering that a more secular and tolerant morality has steadily increased in popularity over the last 300 years, it seems prima facie implausible to argue that this way of thinking is intrinsically unappealing to the human brain. If we want to explain why Republicans win so many elections, I think we cannot do it using psychology alone.

The internal tensions of this book can make it frustrating to read, even if it is consistently fascinating. It seems that Haidt had a definite political purpose in writing the book, aiming to make liberals more open to conservative arguments; but in de-emphasizing so completely the value of reason and truth—in moral judgments, in politics, and in religion—he gets twisted into contradictions and risks undermining his entire project.

Be that as it may, I think his research is extremely valuable. Like him, I think it is vital that we understand how morality works socially and psychologically. What is natural is not necessarily what is right; but in order to achieve what is right, it helps to know what we’re working with.

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Review: Institutes of the Christian Religion

Review: Institutes of the Christian Religion

The Institutes of Christian ReligionThe Institutes of Christian Religion by John Calvin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Many wicked lies get mixed up with the tiny particles of truth in the writings of these philosophers.

I am here writing a review of John Calvin’s most famous book, but I can’t say I’ve actually read it. I have read an abridged version, one that preserves about 15% of the original. This is still a fair amount, considering that the unabridged version runs to well over 1,000 pages; but there is so much I missed that I feel a bit self-conscious writing a review.

John Calvin is arguably the most important Protestant theologian in history. Karl Barth once called Hegel the ‘Protestant Aquinas’, but the title seems more apt for Calvin, whose Institutes put into systematic form the new theology and dogma of the budding faith. Calvin begins with knowledge of God, then moves on to knowledge of Christ, the Christian life, justification by faith, prayer, election and predestination, the church and the sacraments, and much more along the way.

Calvin was a lawyer by training, and it shows in his style. Unlike Aquinas, who made careful arguments and addressed objections using logic, Calvin’s primary mode of argument is to quote and interpret scripture, in much the same way as a lawyer might argue from legal precedent. You can also see his legal background in Calvin’s combative tone; he attacks and defends with all the cunning of a professional debater, and will use any rhetorical device available to win his case.

The two biggest theological influence on Calvin, it seems, were St. Paul and St. Augustine, both of whom were rather preoccupied with evil and sin. The gentleness of the Gospels seems totally absent from Calvin’s worldview. Perhaps this is due as much to his personality; he struck me as rather saturnine and bitter, a man disappointed with the world. His mode of argument and cutting tone—treating all his interpretations of the Bible as self-evident and obvious, and his enemies as wicked deceivers—also made him, for me, a rather authoritarian guide through theology. And his zeal was manifested in deed as well as word. It was Calvin, after all, who oversaw the auto-da-fé of Michael Servetus, a Unitarian who believed in adult baptism.

Besides being a powerful thinker, Calvin was a powerful stylist. This book, in the French translation, remains one of the most influential works of French prose. He can swell into ecstasies as he describes the goodness of God, the mercy of Christ, and the bliss that awaits the elect in the next life. At other times, he can rain down fire and brimstone on sinners and reprobates, accusing humanity of universal sin and condemning human nature itself. One of his most characteristic moods is a powerful disgust with sin, which he sees as an inescapable part of earthly life, a pervasive filth that clings to everything. This quote gives a taste of his style:

Even babies bring their condemnation with them from their mother’s womb; they suffer for their own imperfection and no one else’s. Although they have not yet produced the fruits of sin, they have the seed within. Their whole nature is like a seedbed of sin and so must be hateful and repugnant to God.

The most controversial part of this book is the section on predestination. Before even the creation of the world, God knew who would be saved and who would be damned. Our salvation is not ultimately due to any choices we make; we are entirely helpless, completely dependent on God’s grace. By ourselves, we earn and deserve nothing. Human nature can take no credit for goodness. The reason why some are saved and others damned is entirely mysterious. You can never know for sure if you are among God’s elect, but there are certain signs that give hope.

One thing I do admire about Calvin’s argument for predestination is that he achieves a brutal kind of consistency. God is all-powerful, and thus responsible for everything that happens; he is all-knowing, and so was aware of what would happen when he created the world; and he is infinitely good, so all goodness resides in him and not in us.

The only problem with this doctrine is that, when combined with the doctrine of heaven and hell, it makes God seem monstrously unjust. A God who creates a world in which the majority of its inhabitants will be inescapably condemned to everlasting torment is even worse than a man who breeds puppies just to throw them in the fire. Calvin makes much of the “inscrutability of God’s judgment”; but this is as much to say that you should believe him even though what he’s saying doesn’t make sense.

Calvin perhaps can’t be faulted too much for reaching this bleak conclusion. Theologians have been trying for a long time to square the attributes of God—omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenificence—with the qualities we observe in the world and the doctrine of heaven and hell. Everlasting punishment can only appear fair if the sinner brought it upon himself with his own free action (and even then, it seems like a stretch to call everlasting torment “justice”).

But how can free will exist in a universe created by an all-powerful and all-knowing God? For if God knew exactly what was going to happen when the universe was created, and is ultimately responsible for everything that happens (since he created the universe with full knowledge of the consequences), then that would make God responsible for the existence of sinners, and thus we get this same absurdity of people being punished for things they were destined to do.

For my part, I find this question of predestination and punishment extremely interesting, since I think we will have to face similar paradoxes as we learn to explain human behavior. As our belief in free will is eroded through increasing knowledge of psychology and sociology, how will it affect our justice system?

In any case, I’m glad I read the abridged version, since I can’t imagine pushing myself through more than 1,000 pages of this book.
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Review: Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

Review: Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

Cutting Through Spiritual MaterialismCutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chögyam Trungpa
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We do not consider how we are going to vomit; we just vomit.

Chögyam Trungpa was a charismatic and controversial figure in the Western popularization of Buddhism. As a teenager in Tibet, Trungpa fled the Chinese in an escape that involved swimming across a river under gunfire, climbing the Himalayas, and running so short of food that he had to eat his leather belt and bag. Eventually he emigrated to the United States, where he founded several schools, and pioneered a secular interpretation of Buddhism, Shambhala Training. You may be surprised to learn that Trungpa, far from being an ascetic monk, also had notorious penchants for bedding his female students and for going on drunken debauches.

My interest in Trungpa was sparked by reading a book on meditation by his disciple, Pema Chödrön, which I thought was excellent. Spiritual Materialism, Trungpa’s most famous book, contains two series of lectures Trungpa gave, in 1970-71, about the pitfalls of the spiritual path and how to overcome them. As such, this series of lectures is largely theoretical rather than practical—how to think about the spiritual path rather than what to do once you’re on it—even if there are practical ramifications.

‘Spiritual materialism’ is Trungpa’s term for the ways that the ego co-opts spirituality for its own benefit. ‘Ego’ is our sense of self. In Buddhist thought, this sense of self is illusory; the self is a process, not a thing. Ego is the mind’s attempt to create an illusion of solidity where none exists. Put another way, ‘ego’ is the mind’s attempt to reject impermanence.

This attempt takes many forms. We modify our environment, manipulating the material world and bringing it under our control, in order to create a perfectly comfortable world that never challenges or disappoints us. We create intellectual systems—positivism, nationalism, Buddhism—that rationalize and explain the world, that define our place in the world and dictate to us rules of action. We also attempt to analyze ourselves: we use literature, psychology, drugs, prayer, and meditation to achieve a sense of self-consciousness, an awareness of who we are. All of these are the ego’s attempts to solidify both itself and its world, to see the universe as a series of defined shapes rather than an endless flux.

This project of solidification can even use spiritual techniques in its own benefit. The goal of meditation is the dissolution of the ego and the absence of struggle. And yet many who embark on the spiritual path see meditation as a battle with the ego, an attempt to break certain habits, to overcome certain mentalities, to free themselves from illusions. If spirituality is seen in such a way—as ‘you’ against ‘something else’—then you will hit a wall; and this wall will only get stronger the harder you push against it. Only when you give up trying to destroy this wall, when you stop struggling, does the wall disappear; for the wall was the product of your own ‘dualistic’ thinking—once again, ‘you’ against ‘something else’—and ceases to exist when you stop trying to destroy it:

“There is no need to struggle to be free; the absence of struggle is in itself freedom. This egoless state is the attainment of buddhahood.”

It is no use, therefore, to practice acts of extreme asceticism, forceful acts of self-denial. It is no use to try to overcome your own negative qualities—to strive to be good, kind, caring, loving. It is no use to accumulate vast amounts of religious knowledge; nor is it beneficial to accumulate religious titles or honorifics. True spirituality is not a battle, not a quality, not an ultimate analysis, and it is not an accomplishment. All of those things belong to a person, whereas enlightenment contains no sense of me and not-me.

This is my best attempt to summarize the core message of this book. (And please excuse the ponderous style; I’ve been reading Hegel.) Yet I’m not exactly sure how to go about analyzing or evaluating it. Indeed, such criticism seems totally antithetical to the ethos of this book. But I’ll try, nevertheless.

There is an obvious contradiction between Trungpa’s stance on intellectual analysis—as the ego’s vain attempt to solidify its world through intellectual work—and the analysis that he himself undertakes in this book. If all analysis is vain, what makes his any different? To this, I think he would respond that analysis is fine if we take the right attitude towards it—namely, as long as we keep in mind that our analysis is not identical with the reality it attempts to describe, that we can never describe reality perfectly, and that there’s always a chance we are wrong. More succinctly, I think he’d say analysis is fine as long as we don’t take it too seriously. By his own admission, there is no ‘final analysis’ of the human condition; and enlightenment is characterized by the absence of any need to analyze.

Still, there does seem to be the idea in Trungpa’s system that, in attaining this ego-less state, we are experiencing the ‘truth’ of reality, whereas before we were mired in the ‘illusions’ of the ego. In this, you might say that the system is esoteric: true knowledge is the purview of only the truly enlightened. True knowledge, in other words, is not transmissible through speech, but is the result of privileged state which only a few achieve. Bodhisattvas become authorities through their enlightened states, beings who must be listened to because of their special, higher perspectives. Again, I think Trungpa would respond that even the ideas of ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’ are dualistic (they involves the sense of ‘me’ knowing ‘something else’), and thus this idea is not applicable to the enlightened.

Putting all this aside, it’s worth asking whether this ego-less state is even desirable. Could we have science, technology, literature, or love without a sense of self? An ego-less world might involve less suffering; but isn’t there something to be said for suffering? Trungpa describes the ego as a monkey creating various worlds—creating for itself its own heaven and hell, a world of animal desire and human intellect—and moving through these self-created worlds in a vain search for perfect happiness, only to have each of its own worlds collapse in turn. And yet, even if I accepted Trungpa’s premise that this struggle is vain, I still think it’s an open question whether perfect tranquility is preferable to vain struggle.

All reservations notwithstanding, I still thought that this book was an enlightening read. While I may be skeptical about the prospect of enlightenment and ego-death, I do think that meditation, as a method of slowing down, of savoring one’s own mental life, and of learning to accept the world around you, is an extremely useful technique. And as a technique, its end is an experience—or perhaps, better yet, an attitude—and the theory that goes along with meditation does not constitute its substance; rather, theory is just a pedagogical tool to help guide less experienced practitioners. It is in this light, I think, that these lectures should be read.

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Review: Spiritual Exercises

Review: Spiritual Exercises

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: Based on Studies in the Language of the AutographThe Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: Based on Studies in the Language of the Autograph by Ignatius of Loyola
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just as taking a walk, journeying on foot, and running are bodily exercises, so we call Spiritual Exercises every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and, after their removal, of seeking and finding the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491 – 1556), the founder of the Society of Jesus, has a claim to being among the most influential Spaniards in history.

His beginning was quixotic. The son of a Basque nobleman, his imagination was fed, like the Don’s, on tales of knight errantry and romance. This led to a career in the army, cut short by a canon ball that struck and permanently crippled his leg. His shattered bone had to be set, and then re-set twice, in order to heal properly; and by then his injured leg was too short, and he had to endure months of painful stretching. He walked with a limp the rest of his life.

During his convalescence, deprived of his usual adventure stories, he read about the lives of the saints. This, combined with the pain and immobility, worked a religious conversion in him. When he healed, he resolved to devote his life, no longer to earthly glory and the favors of young Doñas, but to God and the Catholic Church. Thus, eventually, the Society of Jesus was formed, which bears the military stamp of its founder in its dedication, organization, and devotion.

The Jesuits soon acquired a reputation for being excellent educators. Voltaire himself, no friend of anyone in a robe or a hood, received his early education from Jesuits, and always had a good word to say about his instructors and his tutelage. The success of the Jesuits in education is somewhat ironic, considering its founder’s lack of interest in formal schooling. In the words of this edition’s translator, St. Ignatius wrote in “limping Spanish,” since he had “only the elements of an education” and used the Spanish language “with little knowledge of its literary form.”

I should pause to note that this translation, by Louis J. Puhl, a Jesuit himself, is excellent. The language is clear, simple, and idiomatic. To achieve this, he had to depart somewhat radically from the original sentence structure, as well as abandon the sixteenth-century Spanish idioms used by St. Ignatius. He justifies this by noting that the book is meant to be a practical manual, not a work of literature, and I think he is right.

The Spiritual Exercises is meant for a month-long retreat. To that end, the exercises are divided into four weeks. We begin with an examination of our conscience. What sins are we committing? We are invited to compare our many sins with the fallen angels, now demons in hell, who committed only one sin. Then we are instructed to contemplate the sin of the rebellious angels and the first sin of Adam and Even in the Garden. What is the nature of those sins? What makes them tempting? What makes them abhorrent in the eyes of God? After that, we shall vividly imagine the tortures of the damned: the smell of burnt bodies, the screams and cries of the hopelessly sinful, the burning flames and the sea of writhing flesh. (The epic of Dante or the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch are helpful.) This is the first week.

The schedule is demanding: “The First Exercise will be made at midnight; the Second, immediately on rising in the morning; the Third, before or after Mass, at all events before dinner; the Fourth, about the time of Vespers; the Fifth, an hour before supper.” I don’t know how many hours that would be in total. Elsewhere, he says: “One who is educated or talented, but engaged in public affairs or necessary business, should take an hour and a half daily for the Spiritual Exercises.” I imagine this total number of hours would increase for somebody on a spiritual retreat.

Before I mention what I liked, I will state my reservations. For me, the fixation of sinfulness and the terrors of hell have always been the most disagreeable aspects of Christianity. I don’t think it is healthy to despise one’s own body, to focus relentlessly on one’s faults, or to act in accordance with a moral code for fear of eternal torment. For somebody, such as myself, who has grown up in the post sexual liberation era, quotes like the following are hard to swallow: “I will consider all the corruption and loathsomeness of my body. I will consider myself as a source of corruption and contagion from which has issued countless sins and evils and the most offensive poison.”

In one section, St. Ignatius even recommends hurting oneself for penance: “The third kind of penance is to chastise the body, that is, to inflict sensible pain on it. This is done by wearing hairshirts, cords, or iron chains on the body, or by scourging or wounding oneself, and by other kinds of austerities.” And in another section, he states that all believers must submit unhesitatingly and completely to the church: “If we wish to proceed securely in all things, we must hold fast to the following principle: What seems to me white, I will believe black if the hierarchical Church so defines.” Neither of these strike me as a good idea.

All these reservations aside—and if a pagan such as myself can judge—I think that this book can be profitably used by contemporary Christians seeking to have a deeper spiritual experience.

I myself tried to do some of the exercises in this book. This was a challenge. I am not a Christian and my knowledge of the Bible is not as intimate as could be desired. What is more, I did not have an hour and a half every day; the most I was willing to spend was half an hour. In any case, even if I was a practicing Catholic, these exercises are not meant to be used by oneself. My attempt to do the exercise was an experiment to see if I could interpret the mythology of Catholicism in a way that had meaning for my own life. And I am happy to report that, despite some struggles, I made considerable progress in experiencing this grand faith, which I have long admired as an outsider.

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Review: The Power of Myth

Review: The Power of Myth

The Power of MythThe Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have bought this wonderful machine—a computer. Now I am rather an authority on gods, so I identified the machine—it seems to me to be an Old Testament god with a lot of rules and no mercy.

Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces is a book that, for better or worse, will forever change how you see the world. Once you read his analysis of the monomyth, the basic outline of mythological stories, you find it everywhere. It’s maddening sometimes. Now I can’t watch certain movies without analyzing them in terms of Campbell’s outline.

But that book had another lasting effect on me. Campbell showed that these old myths and stories, even if you don’t believe them literally—indeed, he encourages you not to—still hold value for us. In our sophisticated, secular society, we can still learn from these ancient tales of love, adventure, magic, monsters, heroes, death, rebirth, and transcendence.

This book is a transcription of conversations between Campbell and Bill Moyers, made for a popular TV series. It isn’t exactly identical with the series, but there’s a lot of overlap. Moyers is interested in Campbell for seemingly the same reason I am: to find a value for myths and religion without the need for dogmatism or provinciality.

The book is mainly focused on Campbell’s philosophy of life, but many subjects are touched upon in these conversations. Campbell was, in his own words, a generalist, so you will find passages in here that will annoy nearly anybody. (A good definition of a generalist is somebody who can irritate specialists in many different fields.) Personally, I find Campbell most irritating when he talks about how bad the world is nowadays since people don’t have enough myths to live by. It seems obvious to me that the contemporary world, more secular than ever before, is also better off than ever before (Trump notwithstanding).

Campbell sometimes shows himself to be a sloppy scholar, such as his quoting of a letter by Chief Seattle, now widely believed to be fake. And I certainly don’t agree with his adoption of Jung’s psychology, which is hardly scientific. Indeed, to reduce old myths to Jung’s psychological system is merely to translate one myth into another. Perhaps Jung’s myth is easier to identify with nowadays, but I reject any claim of scientific accuracy. In sum, there is much to criticize in Campbell’s scholarly and academic approach.

Yet his general message—that myths and religions can be made valuable even for contemporary nonbelievers—has a special relevance for me. I grew up in an entirely nonreligious household, and I’m thankful for that. Nevertheless, I sometimes wonder whether I have missed out on something precious. Religious is as near to a human universal as you are likely to find, and I have no experience with it. Often I find myself reading religious books, exploring spiritual practices, and hanging around cathedrals. Although many beliefs and practices repel me, some I find beautiful, and I am fitfully filled with envy at the tranquility and fortitude that some practitioners seem to derive from their faith.

Campbell has been most valuable to me in his ability interpret religions metaphorically, and his insistence that they still have value. Reading Campbell helped me to clarify many of the things I have been thinking and wondering about lately, so I can’t help mixing up my own reflections with Campbell’s. Indeed, there might be more of my opinions in this review than Campbell, but here it goes.

One of the main lessons that art, philosophy, and religion teach us is that society imposes upon us superficial values. Wealth, attractiveness, sex, coolness, success, respectability—these are the values of society. And it’s no wonder. The economy doesn’t function well unless we strive to accumulate wealth; competition for mates creates a need for standards of beauty; cultural, political, and economic power is distributed hierarchically, and there are rules of behavior to differentiate the haves from the have-nots. In short, in a complex society these values are necessary—or at any rate inevitable.

But of course, these are the values of the game: the competition for mates, success, power, and wealth. In other words, they are values that differentiate how well you’re doing from your neighbor. In this way they are superficial—measuring you extrinsically rather than intrinsically. One of the functions of art, philosophy, and religion, as I see it, is to remind us of this, and to direct our attention to intrinsic values. Love, friendship, compassion, beauty, goodness, wisdom—these are valuable in themselves, and give meaning and happiness to an individual life.

How many great stories pit one of these personal values against one of the social values? Love against respectability, friendship against coolness, wisdom against wealth, compassion against success. In comedy—stories with happy endings—the intrinsic value is harmonized with the social value. Consider Jane Austen’s novels. In the end, genuine love is shown to be compatible with social respectability. But this is often not true, as tragedy points out. In tragedy, the social value wins against the personal value. The petty feud between the Capulets and the Montagues prevents Romeo and Juliet from being together. Respectability wins over love. But the victory is hollow, since this respectability brings its adherents nothing but pain and conflict.

Art thus dramatizes this conflict to show us what is really valuable from what is only apparently so. Philosophy does this not through drama, but reason. (I’m not claiming this is all either art or philosophy does.) Religion does it through ritual. This, I think, is the advantage of religion: it is periodical, it is tied to your routine, and it involves the body and not just the mind. Every week and every day you go through a procedure to remind yourself of what is really worthwhile.

But these things can fail, and often do. Art and philosophy can become academic, stereotyped, or commercial. And religion can become just another social value, used to cloak earthly power in superficial sanctity. As Campbell points out during these interviews, religion must change as society changes, or it will lose its efficacy. To use Campbell’s terminology, the social function of myth can entirely replace its pedagogical function. In such cases, the myths and rituals only serve to strengthen the group identity, to better integrate individuals into the society. When this is taken too far—as Campbell believes it has nowadays—then the social virtues are taught at the expensive of the individual virtues, and the religion just becomes another worldly power.

Myths can become ineffective, not only due to society co-opting their power, but also because myths have a cosmological role that can quickly become outdated. This is where religion comes into conflict with science. As Campbell explains, one of the purposes of myths is to help us find our place in the universe and understand our relationship to the world around us. If the religion is based on an outdated picture of the world, it can’t do that effectively, since then it forces people to choose between connecting with contemporary thought or adhering to the faith.

For my part, I think the conflict between science and religion is ultimately sterile, since it is a conflict about beliefs, and beliefs are not fundamental to either.

When I enter a cathedral, for example, I don’t see an educational facility designed to teach people facts. Rather, I see a place carefully constructed to create a certain psychological experience: the shadowy interior, the shining golden altars, the benevolent faces of the saints, the colored light from the stained glass windows, the smell of incense, the howl of the organ, the echo of the priest’s voice in the cavernous interior, the sense of smallness engendered by the towering roof. There are beliefs about reality involved in the experience, but the experience is not reducible to those beliefs; rather, the beliefs form a kind of scaffolding or context to experience the divine presence.

Science, too, is not a system of beliefs, but a procedure for investigating the world. Theories are overturned all the time in science. The most respected scientists have been proven wrong. Scientific orthodoxy today might be outmoded tomorrow. Consequently, when scientists argue with religious people about their beliefs, I think they’re both missing the point.

So far we have covered Campbell’s social, pedagogical, and cosmological functions of myths. This leaves only his spiritual function: connecting us to the mystery of the world. This is strongly connected with mysticism. By mysticism, I mean the belief that there is a higher reality behind the visual world; that there is an invisible, timeless, eternal plain that supports the field of time and action; that all apparent differences are only superficial, and that fundamentally everything is one. Plotinus is one of the most famous mystics in Western history, and his system exemplifies this: the principal of existence, for him, is “The One,” which is only his name for the unknowable mystery that transcends all categories.

Now, from a rational perspective all this is hard to swallow. And yet, I think there is a very simple thought buried underneath all this verbiage. Mysticism is just the experience of the mystery of existence, the mystery there is something instead of nothing. Science can explain how things work, but does not explain why these things are here in the first place. Stephen Hawking expressed this most memorably when he said: “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes universe for them to describe?”

It is arguably not a rational question—maybe not even a real question at all—to ask “Why is there something rather than nothing?” In any case, it is unanswerable. But I still often find myself filled with wonder that I exist, that I can see and hear things, that I have an identity, and that I am a part of this whole universe, so exquisite and vast. Certain things reliably connect me with this feeling: reading Hamlet, looking up at the starry sky, and standing in the Toledo Cathedral. Because it is not rational, I cannot adequately put it into words or analyze it; and yet I think the experience of mystery and awe is one of the most important things in life.

Since it is just a feeling, there is nothing inherently rational or anti-rational in it. I’ve heard scientists, mystics, and philosophers describe it. Yes, they describe it in different terms, using different concepts, and give it different meaning, but all that is incidental. The feeling of wonder is the thing, the perpetual surprise that we exist at all. Campbell helps me to connect with and understand that, and for that reason I am grateful to him.

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Review: How to Meditate

Review: How to Meditate

How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your MindHow to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind by Pema Chödrön
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Enlightenment isn’t about going someplace else or attaining something that we don’t have right now. Enlightenment is when the blinders start to come off.

When I was in high school, I spent a few years going to Tae Kwon Do classes. I was never any good. Every time we had sparring practice, I got whooped—that is, unless I accidentally kicked my opponent in the crotch (which I did a lot). But besides the fun of hand-to-hand combat, one thing that kept me coming back was the meditation. After every class, we would spend about ten minutes in a guided meditation. These were not easy. Most often, the master had us holding an uncomfortable or difficult pose, until all my muscles were quivering and shaking and I collapsed.

Sometimes all I felt was pain and struggle; but other times, something would happen. As I listened to the master talk about energy flowing through my body, I could actually feel it. I felt strange forces in my arms and legs, seeming to move through me. This was weird, since I didn’t believe anything the master was saying—at least not in a literal way. I didn’t believe in qi, or energy centers in the body, or any of that stuff; but I felt something, and it was interesting.

This experience left me with a lingering respect for and curiosity about meditation. A book by David D. Burns about anxiety recently reawakened this curiosity. As I read about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I kept thinking that it reminded me of what I knew (or thought I knew) about Buddhism. Besides that, Burns himself drew some parallels with Buddhism in his discussions of fear. So I decided to look into it. A Buddhist friend of mine suggested Pema Chödrön as a place to start; and this book, a practical guide to meditation, seemed perfect.

I was surprised by what I found. The type of meditation Chödrön advocates doesn’t involve holding difficult postures or enduring pain. You don’t even have to close your eyes. Instead, you find a spot, sit up straight, cross your legs (or don’t), and stay there, eyes open, breathing in and breathing out. You don’t focus on energy centers or the cosmic flow of qi. Instead, you just try to focus on your breath. You breathe in, breathe out, and try to keep your attention on the present moment.

I have been doing these exercises for a week now, and I can tell you that being present, focusing on the moment, is far more difficult than you’d think. My mind is like a boiling, bubbling cauldron. Memories randomly appear; fearful fantasies flash into being; my to-do list nags me; an itch on my head irritates; my leg’s falling asleep; a sound triggers an association; a smell makes me think of food; and spasms of impatience surge through me as the time wares on.

Meditation certainly hasn’t induced a Zen-like calm in me so far. But it says a lot that now I’m aware of all these things. Just sitting there noticing what happens in my head, and letting it all pass through me, has been tremendously interesting. I realize that my very brain is not totally under my control. Things are always happening in there, constantly, spontaneously, which draw my attention from the moment; and it takes effort not to get sucked in.

One of the things I like most about Chödrön’s approach is its versatility. You can make anything your object of meditation. You can focus on sounds, sights, tactile sensations, or the taste of an apple. You can focus on fear, anger, sadness, joy, on fantasies or memories. Anything in your life can be the object of meditation, as long as you use it as an opportunity to reconnect with the present moment. Meditation gives you the self-awareness—not through conceptual discussion, but first-hand experience—to learn what your mind is doing and how to interrupt your habitual patterns.

What I find especially appealing is the philosophy. Well, perhaps “philosophy” isn’t the right word; it’s more of an attitude or a mindset. Through the attempt to reconnect with the moment, you realize how much of your experience is transformed by the conceptual overlay you put on top of it. Our heads are full of judgments, opinions, beliefs. We are constantly telling stories about our lives, with ourselves as the protagonist.

Have you ever had an experience like this? When I was in college, I accepted a job doing surveys over the phone. But I was extremely nervous about it. I imagined respondent after respondent yelling at me, hanging up on me, and my manager angry at me and chastising me, and me having a breakdown and getting fired. This fantasy was so strong, I almost couldn’t make myself go to my first day of work. But when I finally did make myself go, shivering with fear, and when I finally made myself call, my voice quaking, I realized that I could do it. What seemed impossible in my imagination was easy in reality. In fact, I ended up loving that job.

This is what I like to call the “novelistic imagination.” Your mind is a natural dramatist—at least, mine is—and it can tell the most outrageous stories about your past, present, and future. But the interesting thing, I’ve found, is that we’re actually quite bad at imagining how things will be. We’re good at imagining possibilities—especially worst-case scenarios—but bad at imagining experiences. That’s because, when we use our novelistic imagination, we assume that life is a story with a beginning, middle, and end. But life is not a story: it’s a collection of moments. And the present moment is so different, and so much richer, than all the wild fantasies in our minds.

My hunch is that we evolved our novelistic imagination as a way of avoiding danger by running scenarios. “If I go so far away, maybe I won’t be back by sundown, and the hyenas over there might smell me, etc.” The problem is that this gets out of hand, which is why we humans get so many stress-related diseases—not to mention suffer from chronic anxiety. We developed the mental faculty to anticipate danger and avoid it; but we can’t turn it off, so we sense danger everywhere.

This is taking me pretty far from the book (so you know it’s a good book, because it’s making me think). I’ll only add that this book strikes me as an ideal introduction to meditation. Chödrön writes with warmth, humor, and understanding. She is brief and to the point, but you don’t feel that she’s leaving anything out. She is practical, encouraging, and inspiring. I encourage anyone whose curious to try it. You can be a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, a Muslim, or an atheist like me—it doesn’t matter. Meditation is not about believing certain things. To the contrary: it’s about getting past your beliefs about the world, and experiencing the world itself.

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