September 2, 2012

An Atheist, a Tea Partier & a Yogi Walk into a Gym. ~ Karl Erb

The Divisive Power of Belief Systems

The Tea-Partier asserts, “I must keep myself fit to be one of God’s soldiers.”

The yogi offers, “This body is my temple, I honor spirit and creation by caring for this temple.”

 The atheist says, “I don’t understand what either of you said, but I know I don’t believe in it.”

“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” ~ Albert Einstein


I recently saw an article on CNN’s Belief Blog about some atheist groups launching billboard campaigns criticizing the validity of the “faith” of the presidential candidates.

Their rationale for the campaign was, “Religion is silly and religion has components that are inherently divisive.”

Right on the heels of the Sikh shooting in Texas, I find myself again pondering the divisive power of belief systems.

From the Sikh to the belief that “legitimate rape” does not cause pregnancy, belief and knowledge are misconstrued. Recent beliefs, in the face of evidence to the contrary, have manipulated and corrupted government and civil liberties, like the recent Arizona law declaring pregnancy to begin up to two weeks prior to conception, in the name of “freedom” and “religious freedom.” Seriously.

As a citizen, a lover of science and nature, an empathetic conscious creature, a student of yoga and the vedic texts and an explorer of the essence of being, consciousness and nature, I have been ruminating for some time on how belief systems and the perceptions of “other” are affecting our socio-political fabric. Divisive, adversarial, polemic based belief, and identifying with one group over another is the norm in American politics and culture.

I see a road toward shared, universal values beyond divisions and adversarial psychology; discussing these billboards and the nature of belief is a step on that road. 

Source: atheistbillboards.com via Fred on Pinterest

Irrationality in the name of Reason

While criticizing apparently divisive views, these atheist billboards shouted their inclusive, unifying message by insulting the very foundation of others’ views about themselves and the world. In the name of reason, atheists then declare they don’t believe in a concept that has not deeply or thoroughly been explored by them or communicated to them.

Consistent in recent popular atheist positions, is the emphasis on rationality to legitimize their disbelief in unexplored concepts. By dismissing claims of a few theologies, atheists infer there exists no shared source, no “Creator.”

Atheists gathered in the spring of 2012 for a Reason Rally to join together in the choice to dismiss the unverifiable beliefs of others with political influence.

“We are here to celebrate our belief in reason, science and the power of the human mind,” comedian Paul Provenza said. “We are here to say to elected politicians … that there is a base for them to stand on to stand up to the religious right.

Does one believe in reason?

Reason and knowledge are distinct from belief.

And let’s be clear, standing up to the religious extremists seeking to control government, communications and commerce is not the same as dismissing all those who maintain spiritual values.

I’ve seen a few pieces on atheists in the press these days, which led me to read writings of various voices representing the atheists’ views. They’re particularly fascinating in light of the pervading divisive culture and politics of today. In the articles on atheists and writings by atheists I have explored, calling upon the integrity and undisputed bastion of reason seems to be a recurring thread.

In the name of bringing government back to governing, keeping religious agendas out of government, and bringing “more substance” to government, atheists have entered the fray, urging everyone to convert to their point of view.

To attack an individual politician’s belief system and to claim the action serves to balance religion and government is irrational and inconsistent.

Keeping religious institutions separate from government policies, electoral processes and so on, is not to be confused with disagreeing with a politician’s personal spiritual values or practices.

The atheists’ positions I have seen, and these billboards, mix up these two discussions. So, there are really two separate arguments that the atheist views have been blurring:

1. The role of religion in government.

2. The validity of someone else’s belief system.

In claiming to critique “government being rife with religion” (an unconstitutional development most people in the country would seek to prevent), the atheists attack the belief system of those running for office by simply stating, “Because I don’t believe…”

The billboards and articles don’t address how to mitigate the influence of religious groups on policy decisions, rather they attack and ridicule a politician’s beliefs. By ridiculing a figurehead’s beliefs they are defacto ridiculing all of his group, dismissing and offending a whole segment of society—and doing so in the name of inclusion and reason? These non-thinking attacks incite isolation by divisive labeling and calling for the of taking sides.

One can be critical of too much religion in politics, one can advocate for governance that adheres to the constitutional guidance on Church and State, without taking a stand on anyone else’s unverifiable beliefs.

A discussion on the role of religion or spiritual views in governance can happen without seeking to win others over to one’s own unverifiable belief system; particularly not when one’s subjective belief system is seeking refuge in the skirts of reason.

To infer that reason cannot arrive at a spiritual view does not hold up to scrutiny and can be refuted, and this should be explored, not dismissed. Dismissal without scrutiny is empty and non-thinking. To uncover knowledge, any belief must either be subject to validation or refutation. Then, it becomes knowledge, no longer belief.

Thus, if I don’t “believe” or accept your view of self and creation, then it is up to me to disprove it through reason or to see the inconsistencies in my own held perception. I cannot simply claim disbelief, or raise a red herring of a new unverifiable belief to sway you.

Knowledge and Belief

When discussing the apparent chasm between science and religion, or the nature of what is the essence of nature, we need to be clear when we are talking about belief and when we are talking about understanding or knowledge. Neither Vedanta or the Yoga Sutras are a belief system. Rather, they are a means of knowledge, a pramana (Yoga Sutras 1.7) to understand what we observe about ourselves and the world.

The very title of CNN’s “Belief Blog”asserts a perspective in contrast to reason, observation and deduction.

Once a belief is verified or disproved it is no longer a belief.

If validated though empirical observation or cognitive proof, a belief becomes knowledge. Knowledge is that which cannot be refuted. That gravity exists, I accept. It is not subject to my belief or disbelief, nor can I refute that gravity exists whether or not I understand the cause.

“Knowledge is the grasp of what is. Experience is the direct perceptual participation in an event. Experience can lead to knowledge, but the impression of experience need not be knowledge. Experience has to be assimilated in terms of knowledge. Knowledge includes experience, Knowledge can contradict experience. Knowledge can also resolve the contradictions in experience. Knowledge cannot be contradicted.” ~ Swami Dayananda Saraswati

While the atheists turn to reason to refute, or take issue with, certain interpretations and manifestations of religious doctrine, their arguments only address certain theological assertions. These arguments do not explore or disprove the inference of a causeless cause, known by whatever name—a source, seen or unseen, known or unknown, an origin for laws we observe in creation not of our own making, beyond our control.

That we live in a world with laws not of our making, that we all participate in, cannot be refuted. Thus, for atheists to make the leap that no source exists because certain doctrines of unverifiable belief do not stand up to rational, deductive scrutiny is irrational. In the name of reason, atheists declare disbelief and then seek to convert others to this belief, calling it deduction.

Using reason, empirical study and ways to validate cognitive proofs is always helpful to validate one’s perceptions, especially in evaluating a claim made in the name of reason.

If we are using reason, we should all arrive at the same conclusions.

Humans across the globe and across time and culture come to shared conclusions around properties of gravity, movements of the solar system and such. So, if one belief system invokes reason in order to gain ground with political agendas, we should all pay attention. I propose reason is in fact relevant and necessary to uncover shared values and to arrive at irrefutable deductions that can unify humans, not perpetuate adversarial fragmentation.

Reason keeps our inferences and hypotheses in harmony with what we and others observe in ourselves, nature and the universe. Take evolution for instance, if one chooses to not believe in evolution then one is at odds with what we observe in the fossil record, in radioactivity and on and on. Bill Nye discusses the importance of having hypotheses that are not at odds with what is or with what we observe in ourselves, nature and the universe.

Highly rigorous, honest methods and means of knowledge—like Vedanta, theoretical physics and math—are required to explore these concepts and conclusions. We should be able to discuss inconsistent and irrational religious doctrines that impose social constraints or perpetuate conflict.

Through such discussions we arrive at shared values, universal human values, shared perceptions.

Questioning and debate are not assaults on religious freedoms. Likewise, it is reasonable to support and enforce those freedoms consistently across all faiths, not be selective with just those whose beliefs one shares.

Spirituality and Religion

A key distinction is missed in presenting the atheists’ concerns about religion—the distinction between religion and spirituality.

Here I use religion to describe a defined hierarchy with defined beliefs one must adhere to in order to belong and an institution that seeks to perpetuate said beliefs, often in distinction from another institution’s beliefs. Spirituality I use to describe one’s view of self and creation that may not be a part of an institution and thus, has no body deciding who does or does not belong, nor is there the drive to convert those perceived as “others” to one’s view.

In either case, an unformed, irrational, subjective position on the politician’s beliefs are not among the many checks and balances keeping religion and governance separate.

The error many atheists, academics, theologians, scientists and philosophers make is that spirituality is a matter of belief rather than observation, deduction and reason; reason and spirituality do not inform each other. Beyond belief lies seeing what is, as it is, empirical observation; knowledge is that which cannot be refuted.

Such methods arrive at empirical, shared truths in which we all participate, like gravity and weather; these are not beliefs. Such is the method used in the empirical sciences, theoretical physics, in studies of cognition and so on. Such is the method in the yogic texts like the Upanisads and the Bhagavad Gita, these source teachings offer a method to inquire into self and creation, to inquire into what is.

Beyond Belief, Beyond Tribal

Since we all live in this creation, are all subject to the same laws of nature, the same laws of cause and effect, we should all come to the same conclusion about the nature and origins of self and creation. Like Nye’s comments on evolution, we are all faced with the same evidence. And yet, this one thing we undisputedly share is at the source of so much conflict and polarization of our views on our world and our lives in it. Weird.

Beyond belief lies what is. Beyond perceptions and constructs of us and them is a shared ground of being.

Our belief systems perpetuate our need to belong to one group versus another; to continuously define our sense of self by how we differ from this “other” we have created. This tribalism then perpetuates an adversarial stance between me, my group and the world. Thus, producing a strong drive to protect the belief system at any cost.

As a student of the natural sciences, I was continuously amazed by the order and wonder in nature. Observation, inquiry and deduction were the means of forming my views of the natural world, of creation. So, why not apply observation, inquiry and deduction as the means of knowledge to spirituality, to understanding the very nature of being, creation and creator?

Such is the method of yoga and Vedanta, such is the method in the source texts, the Upanisads and the Bhagavad Gita and the conclusions point to shared understandings with other deductive systems like theoretical physics. Many self styled scholars and theologians confuse study of these texts as a belief system or a religion, this is incorrect.

These texts are a means of inquiring into what is, of validating or refuting our perceptions and experiences.

How can you separate reason from a view of creation? Why would we want to? Likewise, how can we deny, through use of reason, the order, harmony and shared truths we see throughout creation? How can we deny the existence of laws not of our own making? How can we deny an unseen, inferred cause behind all we observe?

Let’s delve into that pursuit together, with open minds.

If someone should be inclined to not inquire, but to turn to unverifiable beliefs, we can still work on shared secular values, universal human values, laws of governance and agreements on the role of religion in government. There is no foundation upon which to discuss unverifiable belief. Let’s not mix up these discussions of governance with questioning of belief.

Swami Vivekananda said:

“Bhakti (devotion, faith, acceptance of laws beyond our control) without Jnana (knowledge which cannot be refuted, deduction, observation, reason, inquiry) is superstition. Jnana without Bhakti is madness.”

In this perceived polarity between knowledge and spiritual devotion also lie the roots of the science versus religion split.

This need not be the case, and in fact, from Einstein to the Dalai Lama many have spoken to the fictional and frivolous nature of this ill conceived perception. From the TV show Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman to the Science and Non-Duality Conference, which I will be speaking at in the fall, people are exploring where observation of the world and acceptance of a unifying unseen cause come together. Such an exploration, done together, uncovers our shared values, shared perceptions and unified understanding, not belief systems to protect and attack.

“Whether one believes in a religion or not, and whether one believes in rebirth or not, there isn’t anyone who doesn’t appreciate kindness and compassion.” ~ Dalai Lama

The implications are inspiring and rich in terms of how we choose to live our socipolitico lives.

So to the atheists I would say, be clear when you are talking about role of religion in government, and don’t mix it with ill formed non-thinking views of something you don’t believe in. If reason is a value, then we should all be able to accept critiques of our views, and thus seek to prove or disprove our conclusions. Otherwise, we will keep talking in circles, creating more cliques and tribes and perpetuate a polarized uncooperative, adversarial and scared society.

Karl is a citizen of the world exploring human empathy, interdependence and values in context of the Nature of Being, and the Essence of Nature. A longtime student of work mythologies, social change, social movements and a yoga student and instructor for almost 30 years, Karl brings the teachings of Swami Dayananda Saraswati in Vedanta into context for our modern daily life on yogaNexus.com.


Editor: Sara McKeown

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