"There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers." ~ Richard Feynman
Peace on Earth
Exclusive to STR
December 10, 2007
Even as a tree has a single trunk but many branches and leaves, there is one religion -- human religion -- but any number of faiths. ~ M. K. Gandhi
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Misuse of the Real
Basics are important.
One of the problems with organized religion -- and with government, for that matter -- is that the basics soon become overwhelmed by the growth of trivia and corruption; eventually, the system gets hijacked by an elite who use the once-healthy framework (assuming it ever was) in a way that creates and perpetuates political repression and emotional damage.
Thus, a religion of love became a tool for burning innocents alive during the Spanish Inquisition. Thus, a nation founded to protect freedom by restraining government power eventually created and now suffers under the most powerful government ever known.
As the evil grows, the healthy basics grow faint but remain visible, providing cover for the ongoing attack against founding principles. It is these basic principles which give the now-corrupt framework (which has morphed into a tool for wielding power) its legitimacy in the eyes of the masses. This is the sleight-of-hand that corrupt political and religious institutions rely upon: the State tells its victims that it is protecting their freedom and prosperity even as the State grinds the people's freedom and prosperity to dust. The Church tells its victims that it protects love, compassion, and the victims' supposedly immortal souls, even as it fosters cruelty and the destruction of the victims' real souls (deep personalities) in the here-and-now. Yes, that last was part of Jesus' message; that heaven is here, on Earth, within each one of us:
Luke 17:21 Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.
Watch history, and you will see the basics of religion and of "government as protector of liberty" (or as "protector of the poor" or whatnot) increasingly fade into lip-service; the basics eventually become mere slogans used to justify the organization's power. The power is used by and for the elite, at the expense of love, liberty, and even simple human decency.
How much easier it is to impose evil when you have a patina of love and virtue for camouflage!
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At the extreme, especially when the system is near collapse, the basics themselves become suspect and contraband. One sees this today in the United States , where the U.S. government has become increasingly brazen in not only violating but even criminalizing the libertarian principles that this very government was founded upon.
In many nations, the basics are effectively denied almost immediately; the former Soviet Union and every other Communist government are examples. The basic principle of "from each according to his abilities and to each according to his needs" was never anything more than an excuse and cover-up for raw tyranny by the Communist power elite; merely pointing out this misuse of Marxist principles would land a person in the Gulag. Many socialist nations have been similarly corrupt from Day One, but far from all; Sweden and Norway are certainly not in that category. No, the enlightened socialist nations of our time are following the slower path toward destruction that America chose: start with genuine respect for the announced basic principles (which is not to say that coercively implementing those principles is sensible or workable), and only gradually bury them under a growing mountain of corruption, failure-by-coercive-centralization, and tyranny.
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Love and Freedom
Gandhi's observation that there is only "one human religion" makes sense because we are, after all, only one human species. Cultural and other differences do not change the fact that we all have the same basic human needs. We all have the obvious physical needs of food, water, and air. We are all born needing love and care from our mothers or someone, because without that care in infancy, we literally die. Thus, the need for love is deeply, profoundly real; it is a central part of the human experience, right from the start of our lives. Throughout our lifetimes, although we become more independent and able to care for ourselves, we remain social creatures needing the company and love of others. Furthermore, we need the freedom to act and live as we choose; we are not made for slavery of any type, and the misery one sees in the oppressed, everywhere and throughout history, is proof of this beyond all doubt.
Love and freedom are the basic, central needs -- beyond the purely physical -- of our species, and to the extent that a religion, a philosophy, a political movement, or any other group or framework gets this right, it embodies truth. Miss this point and you aren't even in the ballpark.
Furthermore, love and freedom require each other and are in some ways equivalent; "love at gunpoint" is a contradiction in terms, for instance, because loving someone includes allowing them their freedom. Likewise, no free society long survives with widespread and severe emotional damage; for one thing, love and respect for others are necessary for the proper workings of the market. Emotional damage makes it less likely that we will feel and show love and respect for our fellow human beings; at the extreme, a lack of love and respect leads to literal slavery or genocide or other breathtaking violations of human decency. Without enough love and freedom, the potential for heaven on Earth degrades into Hell.
Here is Jesus on this most central of human needs:
13:34 A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.
13:35 By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.
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Sensitive Dependence on Early Conditions
One further point about basic needs: Their impact is far stronger early in life than later.
Early experience is crucial to what we become: happy or miserable; healthy or sick; loving or hateful; trusting or cynical; compassionate or cruel. Early events set the tone for later life. We see and feel the world through the lens of early experience, usually without noticing that the lens is there. This truth has been known for millennia: "As the twig is bent, so grows the tree."
Scientific evidence backs that up and shows ever more clearly that early experience sets the tone and character for later experience. Each person's life is powerfully affected by events from childhood, infancy, and even before.
Taking "sensitive dependence on early conditions" seriously is the only way to solve the problems so apparent in the human condition. Absolutely nothing will replace the need to treat pregnant mothers, newborns, infants, and children with compassion and love and respect.
The computer industry has a term: GIGO, meaning "garbage in, garbage out." That is what we have had in large parts of the world until now: garbage as input, in the form of mistreatment of the young, leading to garbage as output, in the form of crime, war, tyranny, emotional damage, etc., in the world at large.
The fix is simple: stop using garbage for input. In human terms, we need to move towards CICO -- "compassion in, compassion out."
Love begets love; pain begets pain. Take your pick.
The importance of early conditions -- of loving treatment for children, in particular -- is among the basics of every true religion I know. Here is Jesus on the topic of children, and on the extreme importance of not offending them -- that is, of treating them with love and respect:
18:1 At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
18:2 And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them,
18:3 And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
18:4 Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
18:5 And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.
18:6 But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
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Belief in the Supernatural: Threat or Menace?
Most religions (but not all, it is worth noting) posit supernatural elements such as life after death in a supernatural heaven, an omnipotent and omnipresent deity, or reincarnation of the soul into a new body here on Earth. It is fashionable today to decry such beliefs as irrational -- which they are, especially given modern scientific knowledge -- as if "being irrational" made these beliefs also somehow bad or harmful.
How silly! Do the anti-religionists actually think that THEY are rational in everything they do or believe? What idiots they must be. More importantly, belief in a bearded Big Guy Upstairs may be irrational, but it is clearly harmless in and of itself. You cannot say the same about certain other irrational beliefs. For example, most of the militant anti-religion crowd holds at least one irrational belief that is not only bizarre but incredibly dangerous: belief in the supposed goodness and even necessity of a coercive State (many of these people are employed by the State, directly or otherwise, so this is not surprising).
The most dangerous and violent institution in all of history -- the tool with more blood dripping from it than any other -- the only institution other than organized crime based explicitly on violence and coercion, and which has been used to plunder the wealth and extinguish the lives of innocents by the hundreds of millions -- is believed by many atheists to be an essentially supernatural power (not that most atheists would put it that way) required by humanity because the State, and only the State, can do important things which mere people cannot.
Like what, one might ask? Like war and genocide? Like building and using atomic weapons against cities full of civilian men, women, and children? Leaving aside that the State is, in fact, nothing more than a group of people, what is it, exactly, that "only" coercive government can do that we really need?
In truth, every healthy want and need can be handled better, more efficiently, and far more safely by non-coercive means; this includes police protection, courts, roads, charity, and other common excuses for the State (see, for example, The Voluntary City: Choice, Community, and Civil Society, University of Michigan Press, 2002). On the other hand, war and genocide and widespread torture and systematic society-wide theft really do require a coercive power, which typically means the State. Organized religion can also serve this purpose, but by either becoming a de facto government or by allying itself with the State, as happened in the Crusades and the Inquisition; the Spanish Inquisition was actually established by the Spanish monarchy, for instance.
With science changing its mind about things constantly (consider just the whiplash effect we have seen on dietary advice over the past few decades -- fat is good; fat is bad; only animal fats are bad, so eat margarine instead of butter; oops -- the brand of margarine you've been eating is essentially a stick of trans-fat, the worst fat of all; some animal fat is good; no it isn't; is so; is not; fish oil [fat] and other omega-3 oils are very healthy, etc.), it should be clear that we are far less certain about the world than we would like to think. For that matter, much of today's scientific bedrock was unknown by our grandparents; somehow, this lack of cutting-edge knowledge did not lead to people treating each other badly. (A lack of love and freedom often did cause bad behavior, however -- but the problem was not a lack of scientific knowledge or a belief in, say, a supernatural heaven). Atoms were speculation until the 20th Century; most of quantum theory sounds so irrational that even physicists have trouble believing it -- although much of modern life (transistors, video screens, lasers, and everything they enable, for a start) would not exist if quantum physics were not functionally correct.
Whether a belief is "irrational" is not always knowable and, far more importantly, not the least bit relevant to whether the belief is positive, negative, or neutral in the human sense. In truth, we have such a tenuous, biased, and shallow grasp of reality that being concerned about whether beliefs are rational or not makes far less sense than worrying about whether or not they are compatible with love and freedom. An American Indian might "irrationally" believe in the spirit of the deer he is hunting and thus approach the deer with reverence despite needing to hunt the animal for food. Is irrational belief in the deer's spirit a bad thing in this case? For that matter, is it really irrational, or is the issue one of terminology and differing levels of modern technical knowledge -- is the Indian's conception of the animal's spirit much the same as (for example) my conception of the animal's soul, of its feeling and conscious self? I see the soul as software with self-awareness; other than not including an after-death component, is that so different from "spirit"?
In contrast, many scientists and others have convinced themselves "scientifically" that animals are not conscious and thus that what we do to them does not matter; a lab animal screaming and writhing in pain is merely an automaton acting mechanically in response to a particular stimulus. Which belief is more irrational: the scientist's or the Indian's? Which belief is more harmful? Which is more compatible with and conducive to emotional health?
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The Basics of Rational and Healthy Behavior
I am all in favor of being rational, but I believe many hyper-rational people have a poor understanding of the term -- in part because lower levels of consciousness are required in order to think and behave rationally, yet emotional damage, which is commonplace, reduces (by definition) our logical upper-brain's ability to connect accurately with lower levels of the brain. Those lower levels are the ancient home of deep feeling and emotion -- which, in turn, are the carefully-honed, genetically-based guideposts for healthy, natural, and generally rational behavior.
A society behaves rationally when its people are emotionally healthy and politically free. To the extent either of those qualities is lacking, rational thought and action will be harmed as well.
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Peace on Earth Requires Love and Freedom
This is the time of year -- around Christmas and Hanukah -- in which Americans traditionally remind themselves of the need for peace and compassion. But of course we need peace and compassion every day, and it is not only the Christian and Jewish religions that affirm this. As I pointed out earlier, every worthwhile religion, philosophy, and political movement understands this truth and thus has the values of love and freedom, including the importance of love and freedom for the young, at its core. Too often this core of truth is diluted or partially hidden beneath trivia and error, but if you look carefully, you will find it nonetheless (if you can not find it in your own religion, philosophy, or politics, then consider a change).
Love and freedom are the basic spiritual necessities of life, and it is their lack (not the holding of unscientific beliefs) that causes war and child abuse and racial prejudice and all the other human evils of this world.
With enough love and freedom, we really will have peace on Earth. Until then, we have work to do.
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Portions of this column were excerpted from the author's The Paradise Paradigm.