Farewell, America

By Neal Gabler, billmoyers.com, November 10, 2016

Excerpt

No matter how the rest of the world looked at us on Nov. 7, they will now look at us differently.

America died on Nov. 8, 2016, not with a bang or a whimper, but at its own hand via electoral suicide. We the people chose a man who has shredded our values, our morals, our compassion, our tolerance, our decency, our sense of common purpose, our very identity — all the things that, however tenuously, made a nation out of a country… It turned out to be the hate election because, and let’s not mince words, of the hatefulness of the electorate. In the years to come, we will brace for the violence, the anger, the racism, the misogyny, the xenophobia, the nativism, the white sense of grievance that will undoubtedly be unleashed now that we have destroyed the values that have bound us. We all knew these hatreds lurked under the thinnest veneer of civility. That civility finally is gone. In its absence, we may realize just how imperative that politesse was. It is the way we managed to coexist… Who knew that after years of seeming progress on race and gender, tens of millions of white Americans lived in seething resentment, waiting for a demagogue to arrive who would legitimize their worst selves and channel them into political power? …This country has survived a civil war, two world wars and a Great Depression. There are many who say we will survive this, too. Maybe we will, but we won’t survive unscathed. We know too much about each other to heal. No more can we pretend that we are exceptional or good or progressive or united. We are none of those things. Nor can we pretend that democracy works and that elections have more-or-less happy endings. Democracy only functions when its participants abide by certain conventions, certain codes of conduct and a respect for the process. No more can we pretend that we are exceptional or good or progressive or united. We are none of those things.

The virus that kills democracy is extremism because extremism disables those codes. Republicans have disrespected the process for decades…they haven’t believed in democracy for a long time, and the media never called them out on it.

Democracy can’t cope with extremism…because ever since the days of Ronald Reagan, rhetoric has obviated action, speechifying has superseded governing…

Just as Trump has shredded our values, our nation and our democracy, he has shredded the mediaJust as the sainted Ronald Reagan created an unbridgeable chasm between rich and poor that the Republicans would later exploit against Democrats, conservatives delegitimized mainstream journalism so they could fill the vacuum.

Like Goebbels before them, conservatives understood they had to create their own facts, their own truths, their own reality. They have done so, and in so doing effectively destroyed the very idea of objectivity. Trump can lie constantly only because white America has accepted an Orwellian sense of truth — the truth pulled inside out.

Among the many now-widening divides in the country, this is a big one, the divide between the media and working-class whites, because it creates a Wild West of information — a media ecology in which nothing can be believed except what you already believe.

With the mainstream media so delegitimized… not having had the courage to take on lies and expose false equivalencies — they have very little role to play going forward in our politics. I suspect most of them will surrender to Trumpism — if they were able to normalize Trump as a candidate, they will no doubt normalize him as presidentFor the press, this is likely to be the new normal in an America in which white supremacists, neo-Nazi militias, racists, sexists, homophobes and anti-Semites have been legitimized by a new president who “says what I’m thinking.” It will be open season… if anyone points the way forward, it may be New York Times columnist David Brooks. Brooks is no paragon. He always had seemed to willfully neglect modern Republicanism’s incipient fascism (now no longer incipient), and he was an apologist for conservative self-enrichment and bigotry. But this campaign season, Brooks pretty much dispensed with politics. He seemed to have arrived at the conclusion that no good could possibly come of any of this and retreated into spirituality. What Brooks promoted were values of mutual respect, a bolder sense of civic engagement, an emphasis on community and neighborhood, and overall a belief in trickle-up decency rather than trickle-down economics. He is not hopeful, but he hasn’t lost all hope.

For those of us now languishing in despair, this may be a prescription for rejuvenation. We have lost the country, but by refocusing, we may have gained our own little patch of the world and, more granularly, our own family. For journalists, Brooks may show how political reporting…might yield to a broader moral context in which one considers the effect that policy, strategy and governance have not only on our physical and economic well-being but also on our spiritual well-being. In a society that is likely to be fractious and odious, we need a national conversation on values. The media could help start it….We are not living for ourselves anymore in this country. Now we are living for history.

Full text

No matter how the rest of the world looked at us on Nov. 7, they will now look at us differently.

America died on Nov. 8, 2016, not with a bang or a whimper, but at its own hand via electoral suicide. We the people chose a man who has shredded our values, our morals, our compassion, our tolerance, our decency, our sense of common purpose, our very identity — all the things that, however tenuously, made a nation out of a country.

Whatever place we now live in is not the same place it was on Nov. 7. No matter how the rest of the world looked at us on Nov. 7, they will now look at us differently. We are likely to be a pariah country. And we are lost for it. As I surveyed the ruin of that country this gray Wednesday morning, I found weary consolation in W.H. Auden’s poem, September 1, 1939, which concludes:

“Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.”
I hunt for that affirming flame.

This generally has been called the “hate election” because everyone professed to hate both candidates. It turned out to be the hate election because, and let’s not mince words, of the hatefulness of the electorate. In the years to come, we will brace for the violence, the anger, the racism, the misogyny, the xenophobia, the nativism, the white sense of grievance that will undoubtedly be unleashed now that we have destroyed the values that have bound us.

We all knew these hatreds lurked under the thinnest veneer of civility. That civility finally is gone. In its absence, we may realize just how imperative that politesse was. It is the way we managed to coexist.

If there is a single sentence that characterizes the election, it is this: “He says the things I’m thinking.” That may be what is so terrifying. Who knew that so many tens of millions of white Americans were thinking unconscionable things about their fellow Americans? Who knew that tens of millions of white men felt so emasculated by women and challenged by minorities? Who knew that after years of seeming progress on race and gender, tens of millions of white Americans lived in seething resentment, waiting for a demagogue to arrive who would legitimize their worst selves and channel them into political power? Perhaps we had been living in a fool’s paradise. Now we aren’t.

This country has survived a civil war, two world wars and a Great Depression. There are many who say we will survive this, too. Maybe we will, but we won’t survive unscathed. We know too much about each other to heal. No more can we pretend that we are exceptional or good or progressive or united. We are none of those things. Nor can we pretend that democracy works and that elections have more-or-less happy endings. Democracy only functions when its participants abide by certain conventions, certain codes of conduct and a respect for the process.

No more can we pretend that we are exceptional or good or progressive or united. We are none of those things.

The virus that kills democracy is extremism because extremism disables those codes. Republicans have disrespected the process for decades. They have regarded any Democratic president as illegitimate. They have proudly boasted of preventing popularly elected Democrats from effecting policy and have asserted that only Republicans have the right to determine the nation’s course. They have worked tirelessly to make sure that the government cannot govern and to redefine the purpose of government as prevention rather than effectuation. In short, they haven’t believed in democracy for a long time, and the media never called them out on it.

Democracy can’t cope with extremism. Only violence and time can defeat it. The first is unacceptable, the second takes too long. Though Trump is an extremist, I have a feeling that he will be a very popular president and one likely to be re-elected by a substantial margin, no matter what he does or fails to do. That’s because ever since the days of Ronald Reagan, rhetoric has obviated action, speechifying has superseded governing.

Trump was absolutely correct when he bragged that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and his supporters wouldn’t care. It was a dictator’s ugly vaunt, but one that recognized this election never was about policy or economics or the “right path/wrong path,” or even values. It was about venting. So long as Trump vented their grievances, his all-white supporters didn’t care about anything else. He is smart enough to know that won’t change in the presidency. In fact, it is only likely to intensify. White America, Trump’s America, just wants to hear its anger bellowed. This is one time when the Bully Pulpit will be literal.

The media can’t be let off the hook for enabling an authoritarian to get to the White House. Long before he considered a presidential run, he was a media creation — a regular in the gossip pages, a photo on magazine covers, the bankrupt (morally and otherwise) mogul who hired and fired on The Apprentice. When he ran, the media treated him not as a candidate, but as a celebrity, and so treated him differently from ordinary pols. The media gave him free publicity, trumpeted his shenanigans, blasted out his tweets, allowed him to phone in his interviews, fell into his traps and generally kowtowed until they suddenly discovered that this joke could actually become president.

Just as Trump has shredded our values, our nation and our democracy, he has shredded the media. In this, as in his politics, he is only the latest avatar of a process that began long before his candidacy. Just as the sainted Ronald Reagan created an unbridgeable chasm between rich and poor that the Republicans would later exploit against Democrats, conservatives delegitimized mainstream journalism so they could fill the vacuum.

With Trump’s election, I think that the ideal of an objective, truthful journalism is dead, never to be revived.

Retiring conservative talk show host Charlie Sykes complained that after years of bashing from the right wing, the mainstream media no longer could perform their function as reporters, observers, fact dispensers, and even truth tellers, and he said we needed them. Like Goebbels before them, conservatives understood they had to create their own facts, their own truths, their own reality. They have done so, and in so doing effectively destroyed the very idea of objectivity. Trump can lie constantly only because white America has accepted an Orwellian sense of truth — the truth pulled inside out.

With Trump’s election, I think that the ideal of an objective, truthful journalism is dead, never to be revived. Like Nixon and Sarah Palin before him, Trump ran against the media, boomeranging off the public’s contempt for the press. He ran against what he regarded as media elitism and bias, and he ran on the idea that the press disdained working-class white America. Among the many now-widening divides in the country, this is a big one, the divide between the media and working-class whites, because it creates a Wild West of information — a media ecology in which nothing can be believed except what you already believe.

With the mainstream media so delegitimized — a delegitimization for which they bear a good deal of blame, not having had the courage to take on lies and expose false equivalencies — they have very little role to play going forward in our politics. I suspect most of them will surrender to Trumpism — if they were able to normalize Trump as a candidate, they will no doubt normalize him as president. Cable news may even welcome him as a continuous entertainment and ratings booster. And in any case, like Reagan, he is bulletproof. The media cannot touch him, even if they wanted to. Presumably, there will be some courageous guerillas in the mainstream press, a kind of Resistance, who will try to fact-check him. But there will be few of them, and they will be whistling in the wind. Trump, like all dictators, is his own truth.

What’s more, Trump already has promised to take his war on the press into courtrooms and the halls of Congress. He wants to loosen libel protections, and he has threatened Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos of Amazon with an antitrust suit. Individual journalists have reason to fear him as well. He has already singled out NBC’s Katy Tur, perhaps the best of the television reporters, so that she needed the Secret Service to escort her from one of his rallies. Jewish journalists who have criticized Trump have been subjected to vicious anti-Semitism and intimidation from the white nationalist “alt-right.” For the press, this is likely to be the new normal in an America in which white supremacists, neo-Nazi militias, racists, sexists, homophobes and anti-Semites have been legitimized by a new president who “says what I’m thinking.” It will be open season.

This converts the media from reporters to targets, and they have little recourse. Still, if anyone points the way forward, it may be New York Times columnist David Brooks. Brooks is no paragon. He always had seemed to willfully neglect modern Republicanism’s incipient fascism (now no longer incipient), and he was an apologist for conservative self-enrichment and bigotry. But this campaign season, Brooks pretty much dispensed with politics. He seemed to have arrived at the conclusion that no good could possibly come of any of this and retreated into spirituality. What Brooks promoted were values of mutual respect, a bolder sense of civic engagement, an emphasis on community and neighborhood, and overall a belief in trickle-up decency rather than trickle-down economics. He is not hopeful, but he hasn’t lost all hope.

For those of us now languishing in despair, this may be a prescription for rejuvenation. We have lost the country, but by refocusing, we may have gained our own little patch of the world and, more granularly, our own family. For journalists, Brooks may show how political reporting, which, as I said, is likely to be irrelevant in the Trump age, might yield to a broader moral context in which one considers the effect that policy, strategy and governance have not only on our physical and economic well-being but also on our spiritual well-being. In a society that is likely to be fractious and odious, we need a national conversation on values. The media could help start it.

But the disempowered media may have one more role to fill: They must bear witness. Many years from now, future generations will need to know what happened to us and how it happened. They will need to know how disgruntled white Americans, full of self-righteous indignation, found a way to take back a country they felt they were entitled to and which they believed had been lost. They will need to know about the ugliness and evil that destroyed us as a nation after great men like Lincoln and Roosevelt guided us through previous crises and kept our values intact. They will need to know, and they will need a vigorous, engaged, moral media to tell them. They will also need us.

We are not living for ourselves anymore in this country. Now we are living for history.

Neal Gabler Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two LA Times Book Prizes, Time magazine’s non-fiction book of the year, USA Today‘s biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.

http://billmoyers.com/story/farewell-america/#.WLWQK_Sbyos.facebook

Good Without God: Why “Non-Religious” Is the Fastest-Growing Preference in America

AlterNet [1] / By Terrence McNally [2] May 10, 2011 

Currently more than one billion people around the world define themselves as agnostic, atheist or nonreligious — including 15 percent of Americans. Perhaps more striking, “nonreligious” is not only the fastest growing religious preference in theU.S., but also the only one to increase its percentage in every state over the past generation.

Phil Goldberg and Greg Epstein have provocative perspectives on who these people are, what they believe, and how they arrived at their worldviews and their moral codes.

In February, 1968, the Beatles went toIndiafor an extended stay with their new guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It may have been the most momentous spiritual retreat since Jesus spent those 40 days in the wilderness.

With these words, interfaith minister Goldberg begins American Veda [3], his look atIndia’s impact on Western culture. From Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, succeeding generations absorbedIndia’s “science of consciousness,” and millions have come to accept and live by the central teaching of Vedic wisdom: “Truth is One, the wise call it by many names.”

Acccording to Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at HarvardUniversity, recent bestsellers from Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris stress the irrationality of belief and what’s wrong with religion, while offering few positive alternatives. In Good without God [4], Epstein explains how humanists strive to live well, build community, uphold ethical values, and lift the human spirit…all without a god. “It’s not enough to just ‘discover’ the meaning of life. Humanism is concerned with one of the most important ethical questions—what we do once we’ve found purpose in life.”

Terrence McNally: In terms of the influence of Indian spiritualist teachings on American culture, let’s start with one individual American – you. What was your path?

Phil Goldberg: In the 1960s, I was a college student majoring in psychology and a political activist on the front lines, a Marxist and an atheist who thought religion was the opium of the people. But I got pretty disillusioned with those ways of looking at the world. They were not providing answers to big questions or a means to get my life together. That twin preoccupation led to reading about Eastern philosophy and mysticism, yoga, Hinduism and Buddhism. There was something in the zeitgeist that brought the East to the forefront. It was Ravi Shankar’s music, it was the Beatles, it was drugs. And the passion to get answers.

I read the Bagavad Gita and a number of books by western interpreters — Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, and Houston Smith – who presented ancient teachings in a very rational and sensible way that made sense. I remember saying to myself, “Why do they call this mysticism? There’s nothing mysterious about it.” It makes sense and offers an empirical approach to human development and our place in the cosmos. That got me hooked, and I wanted more and more. Eventually I picked up meditative practices, and they were transforming, changing my life for the better.

McNally: Reading your book, I remembered some of my own experiences. Freshman year in college I visited my best friend from high school at Yale. One of his roommates was Michael Medved, later a film critic and even later, a right wing pundit. His other roommate read me a couple of quotes from Nature Man and Woman by Alan Watts. I bought it, and that was the start for me.

I started meditating in the ‘80s. I can remember taking to the beach a paperback that had been sitting around the house — The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson — a very Western perspective on meditation…

Goldberg: derived directly from the scientific research on TM back in 1970. I was one of subjects in Benson’s first study — just because I was hanging out at the Cambridge TM Center.

McNally: Why did you write American Veda?

Goldberg: I actually wanted to write this book 25 years ago. I could see that principles coming here fromIndia — the philosophy of Vedanta and the practices of yoga and meditation — were transforming people’s lives. I saw it seeping into other areas of the culture in subtle ways – psychology, healthcare, the study of consciousness, even physics and the arts. I saw people affected by these teachings without even knowing it.

McNally: Like fish in water, we talk about “karma” and don’t think about where it comes from….

Goldberg: I suspect this is a much more important phenomenon than people realize. First, more people are affected by what we’ve imported and absorbed fromIndia than is generally recognized. Second, it is affecting how people see the world in a way that I think is potentially transformative to the culture.

The spirituality that we’ve absorbed and adapted fromIndiais a needed antidote to the foolish polarization of atheists on the one side and biblical literalists on the other. It offers a way of being spiritual that is rational, reasonable, and sensible — and matches the kind of pluralistic globalized world we live in today.

McNally: One quote that really struck me in the book: In 1952 Arnold Toynbee says –

Goldberg: — “The catholic-minded Indian religious spirit is the way of salvation for all religions in an age in which we have to learn to live as a single family if we are not to destroy ourselves.”

McNally: We’ve just come out of World War II, we’re living in the age of the bomb, and at that moment — years before any significant wave of Vedanta appears — he sees its more open and pluralistic approach fits challenges we face now in the 21st century.

Goldberg: Religious extremism running amuck. People needing to believe – for whatever pathological reasons — that their way is the only way, and they’re going to impose it on others. And here’s this ancient teaching that there are many valid ways of being spiritual in the world, including secular, including scientific.

McNally: Early in the 1990’s in his book, Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be, Walter Truett Anderson said the real clash is not between two religions or between two truths. It’s between those who can see more than one truth and those who cannot. In the past, it used to be my truth against yours. Today, whatever your one truth may be, your confrontation is with modernity — which says there are many.

What are some other principles of Indian spirituality that have come to infuse American society?

Goldberg: The first we’ve been speaking of is “one Truth, many names.” Along those same lines is an individuated approach to enlightenment, in which the individual spiritual seeker — or the secular seeker of self-development — should and must carve out his or her own way.

You don’t just “choose your religion.” You also choose the nuances of your personal spiritual life — the practices, the approaches that serve your individual perspective, your personality, your inclinations. This is fundamental vedantic, yogic teaching.

McNally: And that’s why there are four major paths of yoga? And each will be most appropriate for a certain kind of person?

Goldberg: As outlined long ago in the Baghavad Gita: Bhakti yoga is devotional; Karma yoga is the yoga of selfless action; Jnana yoga is yoga of the intellect, of understanding and study; Raja yoga is a sort of psycho-spiritual approach that emphasizes practice, meditation and so forth. But they overlap significantly and lean in different directions at different times.

McNally: But the key lesson is…

Goldberg: It’s individual.

There is also an emphasis on individual inner experience of the sacred or the divine — as opposed to belief systems. What you believe is less important than what you experience within yourself. That is the fulcrum of Vedic spiritual teachings. Beliefs are good and important, faith is good and important, but what matters is individual spiritual development.

In seeing forms of yoga as a developmental process, Indian philosophy and yogic and Buddhist teachings have expanded psychologists’ view of human development.

McNally: Maslow with the hierarchy of needs and so on?

Goldberg: — who was affected very strongly by the Indian mystical texts.

McNally: Your book is not about Hinduism per se, is it?

Goldberg: I use the term sparingly in the book because there’s a lot of confusion about what Hinduism is, and because many associate it with the everyday normative practice of religion inIndia.

The kernel of Vedic teachings that made it to theUSwas formulated by people who understood the West, spoke English, had been educated, and were compatible with science. They extracted the essence of Vedic teachings without necessarily retaining the nuances of Indian culture that we associate with Hinduism.

McNally: These things that you’ve pointed out: pluralism, many paths; individuated, different for different people; and inner experience being crucial. These are helpful in our current time, and they seem to be in distinction to the broad sweep of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. What was it aboutIndia that allowed this to emerge?

Goldberg: Whatever allowed it to emerge in the consciousness of ancient sages got preserved as an oral and a written tradition. There were people smart enough to preserve it in the midst of colonization and all the rest of the craziness and tragedies that befellIndia. In the 19th century, people associated with the Hindu renaissance or theBengal renaissance formulated ancient teachings into modern form, so they could be compatible with science and with a Western perspective on social progress.

McNally: But we don’t know what it was that allowed this open consciousness to emerge as an organized religion.

Goldberg: In the West, ancient mystical teachings somehow got lost and buried in monasteries. We got to the point where the great Christian mystics and Jewish mysticism or Kabalah were seen as esoteric experiences that lay people and even ordinary clergy did not pay any attention to.

McNally: As I was encountering similar teachings and experiences in my own life, I never made a distinction between Buddhist and Vedic teachings. I thought of them together as an Eastern perspective. Reading your book, I was troubled a bit. You seemed to be saying they could be separated or even that one was more important than the other.

Goldberg: I point out in the introduction that the Buddhist thread that came toAmerica is just as important as what I focused on in the book. But it would have made the book twice as long and twice as complicated. Histories of Buddhism inAmerica have been written and written very well. This had not.

I focused on teachings that came via Hindu texts, but you’re absolutely right, they overlap. People like you and me, and I would venture to say most of the “spiritual but not religious” have drawn from both traditions — and from Sufism, and others. We’re a pragmatic people who do what works.

McNally: So it’s not enough simply to believe in pluralism, best to actually practice pluralism.

Goldberg: And in a sense Buddhism is also a Vedic tradition because it arises fromIndia. Buddha was a reformer in the way Jesus was a reformer of the Hebraic tradition. The Zen teachers who came here made people more open toIndia, and the Indian teachers that came here made people more open to Buddhism.

McNally: You make the point that the Vedic tradition and Indian spirituality is in some sense scientific, empirical. Speak a bit about religion and science.

Goldberg: If you look at all the major gurus who came here, they made a very big point of saying, “I am not asking you to convert to Hinduism. I’m giving you a science of consciousness.” Here are precepts or hypotheses. This is the Vedantic, yogic view of the world.

If you practice these techniques such as meditation, you can verify it for yourself. It is compatible with a scientific rational perspective, and I think that’s one of the main reasons it appeals to people. There is nothing in Vedantic teachings that contradicts evolution or any of the major thrusts of scientific progress in the world.

McNally: Your story kicks off with Vivikananda visitingAmerica in 1893, so for most of the time you cover, science has been moving toward relativity and quantum physics — a view of reality very congruent with vedanta.

Goldberg: Vivikananda was well educated in science, as was Yogananda. Vedas affected Emerson and Thoreau and others, who were well versed in Darwin and found it perfectly compatible. In the 20th century, people uncovered relativity and quantum mechanics and those seemed compatible as well — to the point where physicists like Schrödinger and Oppenheimer were essentially drawing metaphysically from Vedantic texts. Later people popularized it — Fritz Capra’s Tao of Physics and Carl Sagan talking about Shiva on Cosmos.

McNally: Capra followed Tao of Physics with The Turning Point on systems thinking, which I think is also congruent with science and spirituality.

Goldberg: The awareness of interconnection comes with an expansion of consciousness — an awareness of something vast beyond ourselves. A flexible mind is able to comprehend the best of science and the best of spirituality, and see that they’re not incompatible. I think people who realize that there’s more than just religion and atheism, end up with this kind of pluralistic perspective.

McNally: I’m going to bring Greg Epstein into the conversation now. Greg, can you pick on what Phil was just saying?

Greg Epstein: His line, “There’s more than just religion and just atheism” is a good transition to my book and the work that I do. I grew up with this conversation. Age-wise, I’m the next generation. My father was experiencing some of the same transitions that you’ve been talking about. The bookshelves of theNew York City apartment that I grew up in were full of mysticism — the Baghavad Gita, and East Asian, African, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, as well as the psychological and historical studies of all of that stuff.

I grew up wondering: with all of these diverse paths, what’s really true? Is there something I can hang my hat on?

McNally: Your title — humanist chaplain ofHarvardUniversity — what does that mean and how long has such a position existed?

Epstein: I’m a chaplain atHarvardUniversity for humanists, atheists, agnostics and the non-religious. I’m working with people based on something that I and many others call humanism, which is, in short, the title of my book: Good Without God. It is the idea that this natural world is the only world we can ever know, and we have both the ability and the responsibility to make our relationships with other people count, to make our time in this world count — and to leave it better than we found it.

The position has existed for about 35 years now, but in my understanding of history, humanism was an almost silent partner in a lot of the discussion that you’ve been describing over the past generation or two. It’s now becoming much more prominent.

It’s much better understood today that when talking about the spectrum of religious pluralism in theUnited Statesand the world, you’ve got to refer also to the non-religious — to the people who don’t accept that the truth comes from any particular religious tradition, but that it comes from human wisdom. President Obama has been very aware in his life and in his speeches that you can find the golden rule, you can find truth and ethics in all religions — or you can find them in humanism.

McNally: Well he’s the son of an atheist and a humanist, which may or may not be a first, but it’s certainly interesting.

If you could, a little bit of your path? You chose to pursue religion as an undergraduate, and then two Masters degrees — one in Theological Studies and another in Judaic Studies. Doesn’t sound like the resume of a guy that calls himself non-religious.

Epstein: I like to quote a novel – “I have a very religious personality without a scintilla of religious belief.”

I grew up in an extremely diverse neighborhood. Just being white made me a minority. I had secular Jewish parents, and mixed with people from every religion – Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims – and there was no majority. I saw friends go to different religious holiday celebrations and wear different costumes and eat different foods. There was a sense that we were all good enough people and nobody had special access to The Truth.

But I felt that there had to be something beyond relativism: what your family and their texts say is true, and what mine say is true, etc. That sort of distorts the notion of the word “true.”

I went to synagogues and I had a bar mitzvah, but I wasn’t particularly interested in the Judaism that I’d grown up with. People didn’t seem truly devoted to the words that they were praying. I visited other churches, and had the same experience.

I picked up from my father and his generation the idea that in the East, you’ll find something special and inspirational and unique. I studied hundreds of hours of Chinese in order to read Buddhist meditation texts in the original. Then I traveled toChinaandTaiwanand found people just as lukewarm about Taoism as the reformed Jews I grew up around inNew York.

Humanism is the idea that people created religion, not vice versa. No one religious tradition has access to the truth. We invented it all, and, spiritually speaking, we came up with some very good inventions and some really lousy ones.

McNally: Unlike our inventions in communications or transportation, where we have progressed and adapted, we hold to the same religious inventions thousands of years later.

Epstein: The nature of religion is naturally conservative. Once people have attached the names of their ancestors and their deities to a spiritual insight like “Do unto others as you’d have done to you,” they don’t like to admit, “Oh by the way, 75% of what we wrote in that book we got completely wrong.”

Goldberg: I think it’s perfectly wonderful that there’s a Humanist Chaplain at Harvard because secular humanism is an important perspective to add to this mix. The notion that there are many paths to higher consciousness or ethical behavior or the experience of the sacred, would necessarily include a scientific or humanistic approach. I would bet that your views would be compatible with Swami Tyagananda, the Hindu Chaplain at Harvard, vis a vis the modern world and science

Epstein: Swami Tyagananda and I are friends. Some people trace humanism back to ancientGreece andRome, but it also goes back directly to ancientIndia. Philosopher economist, Amartya Sen, who is also a professor here at Harvard, points out there is more atheist and agnostic literature in Sanskrit than in any other ancient language.

We just had a speaker here at Harvard named Lavanam, whose father is named Gora. They both have one name because they removed their second, which in Indian tradition is caste-based. They are leaders of the Indian atheist and humanist community, which is very prominent and very positive. Gandhi had great respect for the community, who often did social work with the untouchables and with widows.

McNally: I can imagine that rejecting a religious tradition — even a pluralistic one – makes it easier to reject a caste tradition.

Goldberg: Or any of the shadow side of religion that has evolved in all the great traditions. It’s very difficult to separate the historical and cultural elements from the religious, especially in a small village-based culture where they all intertwine.

I understand Greg’s perspective. I was raised by atheists had had a lot less religion in my life than he did. My mother was the most ethical and moral person I’ve ever known and she was a straight-on atheist. Religion does not have a monopoly on these things.

McNally: Why did you write your book?

Epstein: By the way, the book doesn’t declare that you can be good without god. If one still questions that in this day and age when there are a billion non-religious people — that’s not a question, that’s a prejudice.

So it’s first of all, to dispel that prejudice. Second of all, to explore what it means to be good in a world where a billion of us have given up a belief in God?

What does it mean to be a humanist — to be part of a positive tradition that says, “We’re going to make our lives and our relationships better. We’re going to make this world better.” Not because God or a religious text tells us to, but because we human beings recognize that’s good for everyone and makes our lives more meaningful.

McNally: The term “humanist” sounds a bit species chauvinistic to me. One of the key understandings of a certain spiritual-and-not-religious worldview is the realization that we are not separate from the rest of nature. Appropriate morals and ethics can arise from the realization that humans exist in a system of dynamic interdependent systems.

Epstein: “Is humanism species-ist?” I say “No,” but it’s fair to wonder.

First, if somebody identifies with these ideas and considers himself good without god, but prefers a different term — atheist or agnostic, free-thinker or secular -– I say, go in peace. It’s not a big deal.

Terminology is secular. Is it the GLBT movement or the LGBT movement or the gay or the queer? Let’s forget about the acronym and worry about the message.

I like the word humanist, not because it says human beings are the kings and queens, but because it emphasizes the sense that we’re only human. There is no such thing as perfection that we can hope for or that we have to feel pressured to attain. We’re only human. We’re all flawed, we all make mistakes, and we’re trying to help one another.

Second, I like the word humanist because it emphasizes that we’re trying to do good on behalf of all human beings — and on behalf of the entire natural world that surrounds us and sustains us. That includes all sentient life that we have discovered and that we may yet discover.

Finally, I like the word humanist because I don’t want to just define myself as an atheist or an agnostic. I don’t want to define myself according to a god that somebody else might happen to believe in. That’s not my belief, that’s their belief. I want to define myself not just within somebody else’s terms, but positively according to what I actually believe and stand for. Humanist is a positive term not just a negative non-religious term.

McNally: How old is the term?

Epstein: It’s had different meanings. Just like the word Hinduism. I like to say that the word Hinduism and the word humanism are similar in the sense that they refer to about a billion people, but in each of those cases not all those billion people identify themselves with that word. And the word wasn’t given to those people by themselves. In Hinduism, it was imposed by the British, and in humanism, it’s a word that some people have chosen.

The word goes back to the Renaissance, where some Christians said not all truth is theological truth, there is truth for human’s sake as well. Those people called themselves humanists. It was adopted in about the last hundred or so to refer to a positive way of living life and of looking at life for non-religious people.

McNally: I inferred in your writing a sense of humility. What’s the best we can do with this human life we’ve been given?

Epstein: It’s not easy to live a good life with or without a belief in God. We struggle, and I’m looking for something that admits that; something that doesn’t try to say, “If you just follow my teaching or his teaching or her teaching, you’ll live the perfect enlightened life…” Those things tend to be illusions. It admits that we struggle and we want to struggle together, and it assumes that we can make a lot of progress if we’re willing to help one another.

McNally: I mentioned the notion of good without god to my 16 year-old stepson, and he pointed out that a lot of what draws people to organized religion is the need for community. He said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if opportunities for community existed on a regular basis — a Sabbath kind of thing — for those who don’t have religion?” Greg?

Epstein: He needs to come to college in theBoston area. Not only am I working on this at Harvard, but there are others working on this exact idea of creating a positive community for non-religious people. This idea is emerging around the country and around the world. I just visited the Humanist Society of Scotland, and learned that this year the largest number of marriages in Scotland will be performed by the Church of Scotland; second most by the state registries like the justices of the peace; third most by the Humanist Society of Scotland; and fourth most by the Catholic Church.

Scotlandis just one country among many where a positive non-religious community is becoming extremely influential. We’re doing weddings and funerals and baby-naming ceremonies. We’re celebrating holidays and practicing meditation and making music. You can do all these things without a belief in a god, without a belief in the supernatural or the magical or even the mystical.

Goldberg: I welcome this. One of my interests has been the spiritual-but-not-religious cohort that has been supported by teachings of the East. But we’ve been missing community.

I would caution that one element that we associate with religion is not necessarily available in secular teachings — though it’s creeping into transpersonal psychology –the element of transcendence. Access to practices that expand consciousness beyond the limitations of the individual self to an experience of connectedness to a larger whole — whether you label it religious or scientific — is a critically important aspect of human growth and development.

Epstein: We don’t rely on a dogmatic teaching of how things should work. If there’s reasonable scientific evidence that something like mindfulness helps us to cultivate compassion, humanists basically say let’s do it. We’ve got a group in my community that does meditative and contemplative practices from all the world’s religions in a way that’s compatible with scientific research. More and more humanist groups around the country are adopting such ideas.

McNally: I’m going to read from an interview I did with Richard Dawkins [5], one of the world’s great atheists as well as one of the world’s great evolutionary biologists:

Unweaving the Rainbow, which I wrote in the late 90s, was my answer to those people who say that science, and, in particular, my world view in The Selfish Gene was cold and bleak and loveless. Let me read a few words from the opening of Unweaving the Rainbow which I’ve set aside and asked to be read at my funeral.

We are going to die and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they’re never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. In the face of this stupefying odds it is you and I in our ordinariness that are here.

Here’s another respect in which we are lucky: the universe is older than a hundred million centuries. Within a comparable time, the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century of hundreds of millions has been in its time, or will be when its time comes, the present century. The present moves from the past to the future like a tiny spotlight inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century being the one in the spotlight, are the same as the odds that a penny tossed down at random will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere on the road from New York to San Francisco.

You are lucky to be alive and so am I. We are lucky to be alive and therefore we should value life. Life is precious, we’re never going to get another one, this is it, don’t waste it, open your eyes, open your ears, treasure the experiences that you have and don’t waste your time fussing about a non existent future life after you’re dead. Try to do as much good as you can now to others; try to live life as richly as possible during the time that you have left available to you.”

I suspect most people do not know that’s the way Richard Dawkins sees things.

Epstein: I think that’s the beautiful side of Richard Dawkins. I’ve had some disagreements with Richard in terms of what non-religious people should do in terms of critiquing religious people. He’s a little bit more inclined to go out and — his words – “make fun of” religion. I think we’ve got to acknowledge when you make fun of religion, you’re also making fun of a cultural inheritance goes along with it –- people’s stories and memories and families. But I really agree with the message that you just read, that the more we understand about science and understand about ourselves, the more inspired we truly are.

Goldberg: He’s evoking a sense of wonder and awe that is the core of the religious impulse, one that Einstein also addressed. It is possible to approach the sacred and the divine through secular scientific ways.

McNally: Finally let me share a quote from Stuart Kaufman in Reinventing the Sacred [6]:

“What we think of as natural law may not suffice to explain nature. Partially beyond law, we are in a co-constructing, ceaselessly creative universe whose detailed unfolding cannot be predicted. Therefore we truly cannot know all that will happen.

In that case, reason, the highest virtue of our beloved enlightenment, is an insufficient guide to living our lives. We must reunite reason with our entire humanity, and, in the face of what can only be called mystery, we need a means to orient our lives. How much vaster are our lives understood as part of the unfolding of the entire universe? We are invited to awe, gratitude and stewardship. This planet and this life are God’s work not ours.

If God is the creativity in the universe, we are not made in God’s image, we too are God. We can now choose to assume responsibility for ourselves and our world to the best of our limited wisdom — together with our most powerful symbol, God — as the creativity in the natural universe.”

He’s basically saying we are part of the ceaseless creativity that is God.

Goldberg: A very Vedantic point of view.

Epstein: I’m all for the idea that we need to look for sources of inspiration beyond reason. Human life is about so much more than reason. We are profoundly emotional beings, and we need to connect with one another perhaps more than we need anything else.

As to Kaufman’s idea that God is mystery and creativity, I already have a belief about God. God is to me the most influential literary character that human beings have ever created.

Listen to the podcast of this interview here [7].

__

Phil Goldberg is an Interfaith Minister, director of outreach for SpiritualCitizens.net and blogs regularly on Huffington Post. He is the author or coauthor of 19 books, including Roadsigns On the Spiritual Path and The Intuitive Edge. You can learn more at philipgoldberg.com [8]. Greg Epstein holds a B.A. in religion and Chinese, as well as an M.A. in Judaic studies from the University of Michigan and an M.A. in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School. He is a regular contributor to the online forum “On Faith.” Good without God [4] is his first book. You can learn more at harvardhumanist.org [9]

See more stories tagged with:

india [10],

beatles [11],

1968 [12],

american veda [13],

vedic [14]


Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/story/150900/good_without_god%3A_why_%22non-religious%22_is_the_fastest-growing_preference_in_america

Links:
[1] http://www.alternet.org
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/terrence-mcnally
[3] http://www.powells.com/partner/32513/biblio/95-9780307719614-0
[4] http://www.powells.com/partner/32513/biblio/1-9780061670121-0
[5] http://temcnally.podOmatic.com/player/web/2007-09-13T13_25_17-07_00 http://www.alternet.org/story/46566/atheist_richard_dawkins_on_%27the_god_delusion%27/
[6] http://temcnally.podomatic.com/player/web/2008-07-03T11_53_25-07_00 &
[7] http://temcnally.podomatic.com/player/web/2010-11-18T06_50_48-08_00
[8] http://philipgoldberg.com
[9] http://harvardhumanist.org
[10] http://www.alternet.org/tags/india-0
[11] http://www.alternet.org/tags/beatles
[12] http://www.alternet.org/tags/1968
[13] http://www.alternet.org/tags/american-veda
[14] http://www.alternet.org/tags/vedic
[15] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

 

Idealism, Conscience And The Spiritual Left by William Horden

Huffington Post, March 1, 2010

 Excerpt

…Spiritual Left did not, of course, originate with the 60s….it dates back at least to 1838, when Emerson and other Transcendentalists began their quest for a path “away from the old ‘religions of authority’ into a new ‘religion of the spirit.’”…sought a first-hand experience of the divine grounded in nature and community rather than institutionalized dogma. Rooted deep in the grain of American culture, the Spirtual Left has long acted as the progressive conscience of the nation, championing as it did from its very beginning unpopular causes like abolition and women’s rights…
While many in the Spiritual Left are politically active, many others eschew direct participation in the Political Left because it remains locked in a destructive cycle of conflict with the Political Right…
Amorphous and anti-authoritarian, the Spiritual Left is perhaps best defined as a borderless association of leaders. Free thinkers and independent seekers of spirituality beyond dogma, its members engage in–and disengage from–political activism as a matter of personal conviction, not ordained groupthink…The Political Left will need to return to the moral high ground of progressive American thought and give voice to the American conscience of compassion if it is to recapture the imagination and heart of its spiritual counterpart. It has to want to change the world for the better, not just get elected… 

Full Text

 

I stroll back to 1973 occasionally and loiter in the rain-soaked parking lot to play out that conversation with the professor again. But things have changed. He quit drinking. I quit smoking. The pub is now a sushi bar. The war on terror gnaws at our freedom.
The moon, though, still glimmers in a puddle as it always has, reflecting the timeless ideals of people of every culture seeking the way of an enlightened government.

 

“Read not the Times, read the Eternities.” Henry David Thoreau

“Damn it, you had them,” the professor slurred drunkenly, grabbing my shirt sleeve to steady himself. “You had them on the ropes and you let them go,” he accused, his voice dripping bitter betrayal.
I met his gaze like a receptive student. It was hardly my first inebriated prof, after all.
“Damn you,” he muttered with finality, pushing me away and turning back toward the pub, shaking his head resignedly.
It was 1973 and I knew what he meant. Whatever the 60s were, they were over. And whatever promise they may have held for deep and lasting political change had evaporated like a forgotten dream.
I knew what he meant but he had mistaken me for someone else. I was the right age and looked the part, I suppose. But his stereotype of a generation was distorted by a glaring blind spot: many of us had already exchanged the social activism of the Political Left for the inner activism of the Spiritual Left.
The asphalt smelled of rain. The moon glimmered in a puddle. I lingered there in the parking lot a few minutes more, shrugged, flicked my cigarette into the moon, and strolled off toward 2010.
If I had known they were going to do this, I would have become a shoemaker–Albert Einstein, after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima
The Spiritual Left did not, of course, originate with the 60s. According to Dr. Leigh Schmidt, it dates back at least to 1838, when Emerson and other Transcendentalists began their quest for a path “away from the old ‘religions of authority’ into a new ‘religion of the spirit.’”
From Transcendentalism through Reform Jew and Progressive Quakers, New Thought leaders, and proponents of Eastern philosophies, people like Emerson, Thoreau, Walt Whitman, William James, and Sarah Farmer sought a first-hand experience of the divine grounded in nature and community rather than institutionalized dogma.
Rooted deep in the grain of American culture, the Spirtual Left has long acted as the progressive conscience of the nation, championing as it did from its very beginning unpopular causes like abolition and women’s rights.
The rise of the fundamentalist Religious Right in recent decades, and its support of the Political Right, argues Rabbi Michael Lerner, has created a right-wing mind-set that worships its own power, ignoring the groans of the poor, the oppressed and the disenfranchised, conducting business as usual as if no one were hurting and there were no groans. The Political Left, too, earns Lerner’s criticism for its lack of moral courage and political savvy to stand by its ideals and resist a culture of authoritarianism in both church and state.
Because it lacks dogma and an authoritarian structure, the values–and even the membership–of the Spiritual Left is more difficult to chart than those of the Religious Right. With apologies ahead of time for excluding anyone, I will add here to those mentioned elsewhere: liberal Christian denominations not adhering to fundamentalism, such as Quakers, United Church of Christ, and Unitarian Universalists; liberal practitioners among Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and other religious communities; traditional Eastern philosophies such as Taoism; metaphysical and New Age schools of thought; and, indigenous spiritualities based on the sacredness of nature, such as those found among native peoples in the Americas.
Among the values that these diverse traditions appear to agree on, we can probably safely name these: progressive social change; egalitarian social justice; manifest tolerance of differences between individuals and cultures; an end to poverty, hunger, and violence; and, preventing further degradation of the environment and further loss of plant and animal habitat.

What is the new mythology to be, the mythology of this unified earth as of one harmonious being?–Joseph Campbell

While many in the Spiritual Left are politically active, many others eschew direct participation in the Political Left because it remains locked in a destructive cycle of conflict with the Political Right. Destructive in the sense that conflict has become institutionalized in a way that seems complicit in the greater divide-and-conquer culture war tearing the nation apart. But not just destructive–unproductive, too, in the sense that real-world problems and solutions are no longer identified and addressed. Combatants in this conflict have come to react to one another instead of the common dilemmas we face together.
One of the perennial truths, common to many ancient wisdom traditions, held as axiomatic by the Spiritual Left from its inception is the interdependent unity of nature, humanity and spirit. For this reason, feelings and actions that contribute to division and fail to alleviate suffering are considered not just detrimental to others but to one’s own inner being, as well.

TheGreat Wayis not difficult for those who have no preferences–Third Zen Patriarch

Although it is expressed in various ways, another principle informing many spiritual traditions is the axiom that we cannot proceed through the changing circumstances of life by holding to precedents and preconceptions–rather, we must respond to circumstances as we would administer medicine to a specific individual’s illness. We would not, for instance, prescribe the same remedy or dose for an 80-year old and an eight-month old, even if they had the same illness. We cannot, in other words, rely on pat formulas for curing our ailments–we must start over each moment, willing to think in completely new ways and try completely new solutions. This model of enlightened response to circumstances, based on treating the present without being unduly influenced by past experience, requires that we both practice forgiveness for the wrongs done to us even as we seek to right the wrongs we have done to others. Such a practice of clearing our hearts of anger, resentment, and revenge even as we clear our conscience of guilt, shame, and remorse allows us to honor the past by fulfilling the dream of our ancestors that we live in a world of uninterrupted peace and prospering.
This ancient metaphor of administering medicine to the illness carries with it the admonition to act proactively to prevent illness in the first place and ensure the uninterrupted well-being of the community at large. It’s not enough to govern by crisis management–we have to see problems coming and head them off to the benefit of all.

God has no religion–Mahatma Gandhi

One last example of the mind-set of the Spiritual Left: We are a world of nearly seven billion peers. None is intrinsically more deserving than another. Profound harm and resentment is born from the disrespect and dishonor heaped upon the weak and poor by the strong and rich.
Those who are more fortunate and do not share with those less fortunate cannot imagine the two-fold suffering to which they contribute, for not only do the less fortunate first suffer from their circumstances but they subsequently suffer from the sense that they are unworthy of aid from the more fortunate.
Idealistic as it may sound, to those in the Spiritual Left there is no longer any excuse for perpetuating a way of life that ignores the suffering of our peers worldwide. Not profit nor stockholders’ interests nor national security nor democratization nor global competition nor outsourcing nor manifest destiny nor history.

If God lived on earth, people would break out all his windows–Hasidic Saying

Amorphous and anti-authoritarian, the Spiritual Left is perhaps best defined as a borderless association of leaders. Free thinkers and independent seekers of spirituality beyond dogma, its members engage in–and disengage from–political activism as a matter of personal conviction, not ordained groupthink. What this means to the Political Left is that it cannot take for granted the Spiritual Left’s whole-hearted support of its candidates and policies. And it especially means that the Political Left cannot hope to tap the vast potential of the Spiritual Left unless it embraces ideals and values beyond power-sharing with the Political Right.
The meaning of life is not politics. The Political Left will need to return to the moral high ground of progressive American thought and give voice to the American conscience of compassion if it is to recapture the imagination and heart of its spiritual counterpart. It has to want to change the world for the better, not just get elected.
Which of course means that it may be inevitable that the Spiritual Left goes its own way as it long has. So long as the political right and left remain embroiled in the politics of mutually assured destruction, it may well be impossible for people of good conscience to commit their energies and resources to an ever-escalating culture war of polarization. Looking back over the course of civilization, there are many instances of Taoist and Zen sages, for example, who refused participation in political affairs. The Buddha, too, set the example by abandoning the privileges of the palace to become a wandering monk.
In this light, it is worth considering that the Spiritual Left is not solely an American phenomenon. It is much more an international worldview than is the fundamentalist Christian Religious Right. Idealism has become the new pragmatism: Only unreflective ideologues believe things can go on the way they are–practical people worldwide know that we must solve the problems related to health, hunger, potable water, and the environment if we are ever to fulfill our potential. So, it may be that the Spiritual Left is part of a global movement transcending borders and politics, a groundswell of nearly seven billion peers whose inner divinity illuminates a path carrying us all into the Golden Age of Humanity.

A nation never fails but by suicide–Ralph Waldo Emerson

I stroll back to 1973 occasionally and loiter in the rain-soaked parking lot to play out that conversation with the professor again. But things have changed. He quit drinking. I quit smoking. The pub is now a sushi bar. The war on terror gnaws at our freedom.
The moon, though, still glimmers in a puddle as it always has, reflecting the timeless ideals of people of every culture seeking the way of an enlightened government.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/william-horden/idealism-conscience-and-t_b_473783.html

 

William Douglas Horden has researched spiritual traditions of East and West, North and South, for the past 40 years. He has traveled extensively and lived in various shamanic communities, steeping himself in the timeless world view of the ancient cultures.

Websites:
The Toltec I Ching
13th Sky Fine Art Photography
The Inner Compass radio show
Larson Publications

Along with his collaborator, Martha Ramirez-Oropeza, he is the author of “The Toltec I Ching: 64 Keys To Inspired Action In The New World,” which recasts the ancient Oracle of China in the symbology of the Native Americans of Mesoamerica.