Poetry: How we came to be

Note: Prometheus (forethought) and Epimetheus (afterthought) were spared imprisonment in Tatarus. Zeus gave them the task of creating man. Prometheus shaped man out of mud, and Athena breathed life into his clay figure.

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Unintelligent Design

Thus Zeus,
before humans roamed Earth,
set Forethought and Afterthought
to task. Animals lived and roamed
without reincarnation or karma
fish swam, birds flew, and each
creature of day or night,
did the natural things, no karma required.

Dinosaurs upset a jealous god—gone!
With Athena, Prometheus made man.
But then monkeys mated with people
and Afterthought declared, “now
we need second chances”—
reincarnation, and karma came to be.

Humans did not know
what they were nor what to do.
so they caused trouble for goddess Gaia,
fought, became reincarnated afterthoughts
in lower and lower life forms to learn,
but each time, the lower form of
human was worse than the last.

Afterthought said to Forethought,
“look now, lower forms we need
for karma, these are slow learners.”
They created Lumbricus terrestris.
Earthworms that eat dirt and crawl
into the ground and are slimy and ugly
and are both male and female,
thus confused and lost bird food.
But to no avail as human nature
continued to confuse the gods.

Nirvana was vast and empty
when Afterthought reminded
Forethought, “Have you noticed,
we create humans, they fuck with monkeys,
die into lower karma never moving up,
and Zeus is pleased, laughing at us?”

Forethought said, “Indeed. We need a cover story.
I have one about a talking snake, two naked
humans too dumb to know it, some other god,
a garden, a tree, and an apple or some variety of fruit.”
Afterthought said,
“Without reincarnation and karma, no one
will ever believe that story. You need
worms, snakes are too hissy.”

It’s All About How We Feel

All life is full of an unbalanced distribution of pain and suffering. Few, if any of us, intentionally seek out such afflictions. Yet misery finds us. Most animals, certainly humans, avoid these troubles. Unfortunately, many find suicide to be the only recourse to end hopeless permanent misery. While virtually all cling to life, the US suicide rate is at its highest point since WWII (lowest among people of Asian and Pacific Islander groups, highest among Alaskan native people).

Pain has its place. Doctors have denied me relief medication so as not to mask symptoms. I’ve sought medical treatment due to the pain I felt, which signaled something was amiss. I’ve sought support to alleviate my emotional distress, and many of life’s lessons came in the form of pain or shock.

Often, people who become chemically addicted had been seeking pleasure, pain relief, or withdrawal mitigation provided by the substance, either medicinal or nonmedical. Much the same can be said of social addictions. People often help us to feel better.

The goal is the pursuit of feeling happy, whatever that happens to be. A problem is the lie of some drugs, especially alcohol, provide in the form of temporary relief followed by dependence. While relief is the intent, loss of control accompanied by legal transgression is often the result.

And then we have the perverse, unwise, and often injurious idiom, no pain, no gain. I much prefer, listen to your body.

But I want to mention how religion, particularly Christianity, looks upon pain and suffering.

I was religiously taught that experiencing pain and suffering was good, perhaps blessed. While my secular world never supported this acceptance theory, my elementary school teachers, who were Catholic nuns, emphasized the suffering, sacrifice, and martyrdom of saints: holiness.

The passion (read suffering) of Jesus is emphasized dramatically as being caused by human sin. Thus, much, but not all, of Christianity is enamored with pain and suffering. I won’t over-do that here. It gets deep. There must be books and books about the art and science of suffering. Some even claim that one’s suffering contributes to the quality of one’s art.

Like most Catholics, I was taught to offer it up. They could have simply said, just deal with it. But on the mystical road to God works in mysterious ways, one must make life’s pain and suffering serve a useful purpose. That’s religion. And let’s not leave out the it’s your fault, and you should feel guilty and repent. Penance. More suffering which ironically may include prayer.

Fortunately, none of the physicians working in pain management tell their patients to do that, although many cautiously allude to it. However, I have not recently checked any Catholic hospitals.

I have had discussions with my medical providers about some of my pain, and we jointly decided I should endure exercise pain and work through it as it is the best alternative to dangerous surgery. Most properly done exercise is beneficial. I agreed, but dang! I wrote a poem about it.

Still, my goals are to feel good or at least free of most pain and suffering, to remain healthy, and to live as long as reasonably possible. I ascribe to the idea that there is a long enough or too long, but we only seem to know that point when we reach or pass it.

Religions want to tell us what and how god is, and how we should feel about life, death, and god. Some seem to want it both ways. The health and wealth folks are into get mine here and now, but most Christians and Muslims seem ready to accept that heavenly gratification will happen after we die. That is when we will be truly happy and pain free—and dead. I mean cold stone dead.

Many have decided that god is all for the good, and whatever it is they chose to believe is what they want to believe because that is what makes them feel good. And that’s my point. We all want to feel good. They see the wealth and well-being of theirs juxtaposed with their own suffering as God’s will or his mysterious ways.

Be it religion or reality, it’s all about how we feel. I feel as though I am championing the obvious, but for some, this is controversial.

Bill

Angry with or Afraid of God

I understand. Anger is a normal, if often unhelpful, human emotion. Likewise, fear can be disrupting and controlling, or it may keep us safe. Yet, despite experiencing such emotions since childhood (still do today), I have never experienced those two, or any others I can think of, like love, regarding what I considered a god.

If someone had called me a god-fearing man, I would object. I was not afraid of god, though many people wished I was. Through various stages of my life and maturing religious beliefs, I cannot recall ever being angry with any spirit, even the devil himself.

I’m certain that being raised in the environment where I was, being up to my ears in the Roman Catholic Church, its traditions and dogma, left me with a concept of the Christian gods (Father, Son, Holy Ghost; all one god) that is different from how others might imagine the same god.

For most of my life, I have been a man who essentially believed in a god to one degree or another, or tried to. Much of my personal religious effort was focused on growing; on believing stronger or more ardently than I did. I said the prayer, Lord help my unbelief, so many times; more often when I realized which way my theism was going or had gone, which was south. The prayer (of course) changed nothing.

One day a friend told me that she was angry with god because her first marriage ended when her husband left her for another woman. Then her second marriage was to a man who eventually died from alcoholic liver disease (he was still alive when she told me this). I remember wondering how she could blame god for the problems in her life which were caused by the men she loved. At the time I pondered my own faith. Would I ever have enough faith (belief) in god to feel such anger toward him? Today, I doubt the sincerity of her anger.

I was able to share neither her emotional experience nor her theological logic. She is now on her third marriage and, as far as I know, god got it right this time, or maybe the third time adage applies.

I have never been angry with Santa Clause for not bringing me what I had requested; nor at the tooth fairy for leaving such paltry sums of cash under my pillow in exchange for baby teeth. I have never been angry with unicorns because of their preference for human females, nor at leprechauns for not sharing their rumored wealth. I may have mumbled the words, oh lord, why me? or what did I ever do to deserve this? But I was never angry with god (or the Catholic Church) for worldly misfortunes befalling me or those I loved. My atheism is defined by my skepticism, not by my anger or temperament.

Since the time when I said (and wrote) I am atheist, I’ve learned that the concept of disbelief is so foreign to many who believe in god, to one degree or another (just as I did), they attempt to rationalize it by thinking that I really do believe in god, but I must be angry with him for some reason. My friend on her third marriage turned to the refuges of church and religion and to god for solace during her difficult times. She has not embraced atheism or rejected her church (former Catholic now Episcopalian) and religion. If anything, she has become more involved in all of that.

For me to be angry with god would require greater faith and stronger belief than I’ve ever had. When I get angry at anyone, I may cut off communication, but I know they still exist (unfortunate in some cases).

I have always rejected most religions as do most Christians. Now I simply reject all religions more fervently than in the past. When I de-converted, I needed to add only a few religions to the list.

While I remain furious at the Catholic Church hierarchy for how they handled and continue to handle all sexual abuse (cover up), so are many practicing Catholics (although far too many play apologists and make insanely poor excuses for the priests and bishops).

If I discover one day that I am wrong and god exists, I may ask, what the fuck were you thinking? Depending on the answer I get, I may then become angry with god. Until then, I see no reason to waste my emotions on the invisible (and nonexistent) man in the sky. Either he is not there, or he doesn’t give a shit. Either way.

Miraculous Miracles

For there to be a miracle, there must be some sort of supernatural entity. Call it a god. The event happens when the supernatural entity transgresses a law of nature in a good way. Some may credit the paranormal or the occult with the event, but such happenings are usually referred to as magick, not miracles.

For miracles think of things like rising from the dead, walking on water, or curing leprosy or cancer with a short cheer two thousand years ago. No tricks or sleight of hand may be involved. It must be real, and someone needs to see it. Statues dripping water should not be located just below toilets or the urinal in the mens’ loo.

Dictionaries have added definitions of miracles that are not miraculous. Natural events or accomplishments with highly improbable positive outcomes are included as miracles, even though they are not. For example, “It’s a miracle he passed the test. Her recovery was a miracle.” And some might even invoke divine agency by saying it was miraculous instead of improbable or extraordinary.

Neither the Miracle on the Hudson (plane landing) or the Miracle on Ice (Olympic ice hockey game) are considered supernatural miracles, but amazing events. (But not really all that unusual. Sully was an excellent pilot and the USA ice hockey team was also great). And then there is the Hail Mary pass in football. Mary is a fan of which team?

When my son (Steven, if you’re keeping track) doubted the existence of any gods, he said he wanted a miracle, or a sign, in order to accept a deity. I grabbed a loaf of bread and set it in front of him and I claimed, “This is a miracle.” He said, “that’s not what I meant.”

While bread is one of nature’s awesome wonders in that a seed can be made to grow and be transformed into food, it is not a miracle in the sense that it is natural and routine and there is no evidence of supernatural interference.

Now, there was that one deal with Jesus and the cursing of the poor fig tree (Matthew 21:18–22) that some call a miracle, but that sounds like black magick woo-woo to me.

In the Abrahamic religions miracles play a vital role in each belief system. In Christianity, they’re essential. For Jesus to prove his divinity, he allegedly performed miracles. Muslims rely on miracles too, beginning with the writing of the Koran.

Jews may manage with fewer, but they have the parting of the Red Sea, the Plagues of Egypt, and some raising of the dead and others. Undoubtedly, a modern Jewish believer will be far less prone to attribute extraordinary events to a supernatural intervention, but his or her belief in God’s power will not allow them to deny the very possibility of miracles occurring.

A Hasidic Jewish saying has it that a Hasid (a kind of Jew) who believes that all the miracles said to have been performed by the Hasidic masters actually happened is a fool, but anyone who believes that they could not have happened is an unbeliever. The same can be said of miracles in general.

Most religions have some form of tie with supernatural miracles. The rest of us use the term in the second sense, which simply means unusual, but often it is not even that. A close family member of mine was recently extremely ill. She did what the doctor said and added other things like proper rest, and eating healthy (including ensuring intake of supplements and electrolytes). On her next visit to the doctor, he declared her recovery miraculous. Her recovery had indeed been much faster than anticipated. While many used the miracle term, no one claimed supernatural intervention.

The Catholic Church’s process for determining one’s sainthood ordinarily requires that at least two supernatural miracles must have been performed through the intercession of the dead but blessed person who is not yet sainted. The idea is that if they are indeed in Heaven (where a saint must be), it is assumed they would intercede with god as requested by prayer. My point is that two miracles are required. One is insufficient. (God, just to be sure, would you do that one more time?) However, this requirement is on and off and seems to be completely waived off at times.

This is not a complex issue for me because I don’t believe in god or spiritual stuff. But for believers, it is very complex. David Hume’s “Of Miracles” section of his mid-18th Century book, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, is considered a classic about miracles and belief.

Preparing to write this, I read Miracles by C. S. Lewis. In the introduction of the book Lewis claims that one must have the right philosophy. In other words, for one to believe in miracles, one must first believe in miracles. Later in the book he criticized circular logic. Don’t waste your time (believer or not). Most of the alleged apologist writings of C. S. Lewis were intended for Christians. Perhaps most others are as well. In Miracles, Lewis admits as much. But, you do sell more spiritual books when you preach to the choir.

Thomas Paine, one of the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution, wrote “All the tales of miracles, with which the Old and New Testament are filled, are fit only for impostors to preach and fools to believe.” That’s what I think too.

If everything is a miracle, is anything?

You fucked up. You trusted us.

My wife and I were watching television when a commercial came on for Peter Popoff’s Miracle Water, featuring the 73-year-old exposed con man himself. We had a good laugh and still joke about ordering some of that water every time a problem or unpleasant issue comes into our lives. Popoff, Robert Tilton (also 73), and other quacks offer solutions (even to cancer) if we send (seed) money. I decided to research and write about these charlatans for this week’s post on Dispassionate Doubt.

I was going to do my best to shred the phonies (aren’t they all?) and poke fun at the ignoramuses who fall for the legal untaxed scams by sending money, even if they must borrow it. Then something more interesting happened: I looked in my bathroom mirror.

I grew up as, and spent much of my life as, a practicing (or a non-practicing) Roman Catholic. I recall as a child when my religious family scoffed at the goofy frauds back then, be they on television, radio, or another media broad-or-narrowcasting. I laughed too. This has a lot to do with the formation of my anti-religion views, especially when my friends (critics) ask, what harm does it do? If you don’t know, keep reading, and watch John Oliver’s video.

Have you ever been to a catholic bookstore? It’s not all books. Superstition abounds in the Catholic Church, even while the ecclesiastical leadership attempts to dissuade parishioners from believing the nonsense of which they disapprove, while approving boatloads of crap they find reason to believe.

One day someone handed me a bottle of holy water from Lourdes, France. Lourdes is the location of several apparitions of Mary in the mid-1800s, which the church approved as real, even making Bernadette (the child who saw Mary) a saint. I rubbed a drop on a dry spot on the back of my left hand. Within a week the spot had vanished. If I believed it was the water that precipitated the cure, would it be a miracle or superstition?

I began to wonder if, as a man who probably spent (or sent) money for magical trinkets and may have at least accepted some of the superstition as possible, I might be a bit hypocritical by demeaning the TV crooks and the morons who send them money (oops, too late).

I was a major financial donor in my old parish. Money that was subsequently wasted by priests and bishops (that’s who controls parish or diocese funds) for their own personal benefit, not so unlike today’s TV crooks.

With a little help from a search engine, I found this site (click for link) which sells everything to procure the favor of a god, saint, or angel. Notice the list of items on the left. The 14th item down is a Saint Joseph home selling kit. Jesus’ stepdad was apparently the first real estate agent.

With the cautioned proviso that one does not see this as a superstition because it pisses off the Pope, one may purchase the kit, bury the statue of the saint in the back yard, upside down for some reason, and then pray like hell for top dollar for the house. It is a tradition, not a superstition (play canned laughter).

Reading a piece on the Friendly Atheist blog, I discovered his posting of a link to a 20-minute segment from John Oliver’s show on television evangelists. If you have not seen it, you should. It’s hilarious!

Quotes Attributed to Buddha

All that we are is the result of what we have thought. Or, the mind is everything. What you think, you become, which are apparently fake quotes probably drafted from, whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness.

I am looking at my statue of a meditating Buddha sitting on a shelf just across the room. Twenty years ago, a Catholic/Christian apologist said that if I had a statue of Buddha at home it was a serious sin. In my manner of reacting to such nonsense, I had mine within the week. I also have a meditation candle, a gift from my daughter. It has been sitting in my room for more than 20 years, usually near or around the statue of Siddhartha, which is also the title of a good novel.

Back in the 90s, I read extensively about eastern philosophy and religions such as Taoism and Buddhism as part of my spiritual growth at the time. Many are surprised to learn that I found the true living and enlightened Buddha, alive and well at a mall in San Antonio.

I approached the short chunky monkey buddha and asked him if it would be okay if I left my family and became a monk. He looked at me and started to laugh. He has been unable to stop. From that experience we now have the famous Laughing Buddha statue, which may not be a Buddha at all, but an alleged Chinese monk from 1,500 years after Siddhartha Gautama Buddha presumably hung out in what is now India.

I am not and never have been Buddhist. You may be interested to know that the singer and poet, Leonard Cohen, was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1996, but he was never of any other religion than observant Jew his entire life. I’ve had friends who claimed to be Gautama followers, but Buddhists savor sobriety and too many of my tribe did not. What I think attracted many of them was much of the background philosophy and supporting New Age woo-woo. The same may have been true of Cohen.

I do not believe in karma, reincarnation or rebirth, Nirvana (other than the band), past life regression, or any other life after death credo. However, wisdom is wisdom and I hang on to what I think fits into my one life reality. I think meditation is probably healthy, greed is bad, humility will always be an elusive benefit, and the application of some eastern idioms could cure the overabundance of assholes and trolls in the neighborhood, if not the world.

Without splitting hairs and taking the we are (or attract) what we think quote at face value, it reminds me of several idioms I like: we are what we do; right here, right now; it is what it is; and if you check, maybe this fourth one, not everything has to have a point. Somethings just are, which I attribute to Judy Blume. But are we what we have thought? I’m not so sure.

This form of consciousness seems to be mixed up with the concept of free will. Are we what we think? Or what we do? Or do we even have any idea who we are? Do we have control over what we think, our thoughts, or our minds? I’ve heard thoughts euphemistically referred to as voices. What of the hours lying in bed worrying or thinking about things we try not to invite into our thoughts—things which are out of our control? Do we channel those thoughts into who we are, or is mind madness in charge of what we think?

The simple question follows, are we what we think? Or, as my Irish-Catholic father would say to me; who in the hell do you think you are? It was a strained relationship.

Indeed, over the years I have thought things to be true and sometime later decided differently. Having an open mind (if that is possible) in the long run, learning and thinking and being willing to say that we were wrong or mistaken has more to do with who we are than the ideas or thoughts themselves.

There is little doubt that our thoughts, convictions, and mind-sets affect how we see the world. Another idiom is: change your mind, change the world.

Much of the turmoil regarding such phrases for followers of Buddha and his teachings involves translation of old scripture. The messiness and confusion with translation from language, time, culture, and overall interpretation can lead to several chapters in a book.

Another problem is the insistence by some people of making shit up and then attributing it to someone famous who may have never said or wrote it. Welcome to the internet age.

I have a framed art piece on my wall. It is an image of Charles Bukowski with the words find what you love and let it kill you. I like Bukowski. I read his poetry, and I even make notes of how he turned a phrase. The problem is that old Hank apparently never said that kill you thingy nor did he write it, even as character dialogue. But still, I like it and I’ll not be tossing the art. The truth is that the association with Bukowski is false, even if I can’t prove he never said it.

Another poetic translation from Buddhist scripture on the mind is a version by Gil Fronsdal, who renders the first two verses as:

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind,
And suffering follows
As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a peaceful mind,
And happiness follows,
Like a never-departing shadow.

From a Buddhist perspective, thoughts constitute part of our actions, but only a part of them. What we are is indeed a combination of actions determined by thoughts and feelings. I think life is all about how we feel, but I hope for intellect before emotion in making wise choices.

Furthermore, we cannot ignore past experiences in figuring out who we are. But the primary determining, limiting, and deciding factor is from genetics: DNA. Perhaps some day we can engineer that in such a way as to control ourselves and our existence better. For now, it is what it is. It may even effect how and what we think or believe.

No. All that I have thought over the years does not determine what I am.

Let’s try one more contemporary quotation from Steven Pinker: Our minds are adapted to a world that no longer exists, prone to misunderstandings correctable only by arduous education, and condemned to perplexity about the deepest questions we can ascertain.

Bill

What are you afraid of?

This essay is based upon the post, The How of Atheism?, from the blog ‘TheCommonAtheist.’

Fear is a normal human emotion. Usually, it’s a beneficial one. But it can be a choke point in human progress.

For example, when I first started riding a motorcycle I progressed to high-speed highway driving. With no seat belt, no metal cage surrounding me with air bags, and no safety devices, other than what I was wearing; traveling upwards of 70 miles per hour surrounded by cars with drivers poorly skilled or foolish, with parts of my body passing unprotected only inches from hard, hot pavement, and all of me exposed to natural and unnatural elements; I was scared riding my motorcycle. It is inherently dangerous. Known danger begets fear, but sometimes the same risk elicits pleasure.

Anytime while riding a motorcycle you need to be alert but relaxed and loose enough to respond at any speed. Instructors will tell you to be relaxed because body tension will hamper both physical response and mental judgment. I agree. Being alert and aware was no problem. However, the amount of body tension caused by fear is overwhelming and no amount of relax, relax, calm down was going to alleviate it. Experience over time helps, but the other side of the confidence curve has probably resulted in more serious accidents than bodily tension.

Fear of extinction (Psychology Today’s term for fear of death or dying) is a big deal. It’s normal, they say. If you add to that religion’s threats of permanent torture (Hell), you have raised someone’s anxiety level regarding death significantly. But not for everyone. There have always been atheists in fox holes and some have died there. In the USA, we remember them on Memorial Day.

To many believers merely doubting the existence of god is your ticket to Hell. It doesn’t matter how wonderfully charitable and loving you’ve lived your life. Religion has its dark and irrational side.

In his post, Jim postulates that atheism mitigates that fear better than a religion, especially Christianity or Islam.

I do not fear extinction. I agree in that I fear the pain and suffering of the dying process more than I fear its completion. Leonard Cohen said the same thing in an interview. Cohen also said, I was dead before I was born, and I recall no problems (I’m paraphrasing).

I recall my mother declining my offer to call a priest for last rights when she was dying. Mom was not atheist, but she said that after years of ignoring her religion she was not about to start then, a remarkable thing for a Catholic to say about the last sacrament in the face of death. She also said, “when you’re dead, you’re dead.” I did not request elaboration.

Leaning on parts from Jim’s post a bit more, Atheism is

trusting your own judgment and weighing evidence,
realizing that humans are easily deceived and manipulated by guilt,
accepting the natural goodness and innocence of humanity,
accepting human rationality, reason, and the inevitability of death.
acceptance of the here and now and responsibility derived from reality;
a fundamental rejection of fear-based belief in gods and religious prescriptions of morality associated with fear of retribution.
And it embraces the uniqueness of the individual and it is a personal claim to integrity.

To paraphrase (Jim and Paul), Oh death, where is my fear of thy sting?

Here are a few more quotes that are linked to the source. But they certainly stand alone and are based more on academic research than this old skeptic’s pondering.

So non-believers are not only distrusted; they also stir up morbid thoughts, and perhaps raise discomforting doubts about what happens after we die.

First, that fear motivates religious belief, and second, that religious belief mitigates fear. And…While the fear of actual death—painfully, slowly—is apparent, the existential crisis encountered at the prospect of nothingness appears to cause the most anxiety.

Bill