Vanity thought #1699. Why even bother

Ideally, the question “why bother?” should have been addressed before delving into details of the four slokas allegedly declaring other forms of the Lord as svayam bhagavān. It would have spared an embarrassment if proper refutation of the evidence couldn’t be found, for one thing. More importantly, though, we should not descend to the level of many of our adversaries regardless of whether we can win an argument or not. I couldn’t resist the temptation because it appeared too easy but it doesn’t mean that “why bother” could be skipped or that, in fact, nothing has been won whatsoever.

There are certain established rules for any debate on the correct interpretation of the scriptures. First of all, such debates should be conducted between pure souls searching for the Absolute Truth, and the word debate itself does not really fit in the Vedic framework. “Discussions” would probably be a better translation and these discussions could be had between guru and disciples, too, which is the most common form anyway.

In our own tradition we rarely agree to “debates” and there are instances when our ācāryas admitted defeat just to get out of the unwanted invitation. On one occasion, for example, Śrīla Rūpa and Sanatana Gosvāmīs asked the challenger what was the point of the debate and when he said that it’s to establish a winner they immediately wrote him a letter acknowledging their defeat. He went to brag about it but ran into Jīva Gosvāmī who put an end to his useless pride.

One could argue that Jīva Gosvāmī accepted the challenge, negating my point, but he did it not to find a winner but to defend the honor and authority of his uncles, and the result of that debate was that the challenger became a devotee, Śrī Rūpa and Sanatana Gosvāmīs gave him a new name, Rūpanārāyaṇa, and he had a long and glorious history that completely overshadows whatever initial pride was there in his youth (Premavilasa 19).

I mean you read all of this and then the matter of the initial argument fades away completely, it’s not something to dwell on at all.

Besides the stated goal of the discussion there are other rules as well. One should declare who he is speaking for, for example. This is meant to weed out bothersome upstarts devoid of necessary qualities right away. The underlying principle that Vedic knowledge is automatically revealed to those with firm faith in guru and śāstra cannot be overwritten and discussions should be had only between two legitimate “revelations”, so to speak. If one brings speculative interpretations that ought to be wrong from the start then there should be no debate at all.

We live in an age when speculations are highly valued because that’s how the entire science works so this prohibition usually falls on deaf ears but we should know better. People naturally assume that if they don’t know something then they can speculate a little, test their hypotheses in debates with fellow speculators, and that’s how they can ascertain what they think is “truth” but that is not the Vedic way. We accept truth from our authorities, not invent it with our own brains, even if it’s result of debating teamwork. The truth cannot be produces by one, two, or more ignorant people coming together, two wrongs do not make a right, as they say.

So, whoever comes to challenge us first have to prove his credentials. His knowledge must come from recognized authorities and be certified by those authorities as well. It would be even better if he comes to us on the orders of his guru, too, not on his own accord. People who follow their own urges automatically prove that they are not in control of their minds and so whatever they say will be faulty. There’s only one source of absolute knowledge in this world – guru, and whatever else is there is born of ignorance.

If we are challenged by atheists then there’s no question of such a debate being authorized according to śāstric rules, we can indulge only for the sake of preaching but preaching attitude automatically disqualifies us according to atheistic rules, too. All we can do is pretend and use the opportunity to speak before our opponents realize there was absolutely no chance of us changing our views and we were preaching all along. Once that realization hits them they’ll lose all their goodwill towards us and reject everything they’ve heard from us as cheating. What good could ever come out of this?

When challenged by followers of advaita we can immediately disqualify them because they follow Śaṅkarācārya and espouse deliberately false philosophy. We should point to passages in several Purāṇas where Lord Śiva described his mission in Kali yuga and it would become immediately clear that we can’t ever consider advaita seriously. They would say that our Purāṇas are made up and offer us to exercise our brains anyway. What would be the point, though? Sometimes it’s fun to find out how a wrong view is actually wrong but there is a limit to possible usefulness of such an exercise. We don’t need actual advaitins for this purpose, too.

We are not here to increase our brain power by offering ourselves ever more complicated tasks, we should never forget that. We can’t compete with neither Lord Śiva nor with material nature in general, if we go down this way we WILL eventually hit the wall. Atheists and advaitins think that arguments bring out truth but that is not the Vedic way. The truth reveals itself not to argumentative but to a submissive hearer.

When challenged by tattvavādīs we should ask if they really speak for their tradition, which would be impossible for them because there’s no injunction there to hunt Gaudiya vaiṣṇavas on the internet. They cannot be on anything but their personal crusade and that should disqualify them right away. That is not to say that tattvavādīs have no legitimate arguments against our philosophy but to say that they do not tell their followers to harass us and set up illegitimate debates for selfish purposes.

Likewise, the arguments I used in these last three posts are meant for our internal consumption, not to go and try to win a superiority fight against people we have no business arguing with in the first place.

Tattvavādīs actual arguments deserve a separation consideration. Not to go and challenge them but for our own elucidation. Maybe next time.


Vanity thought #1523. Money as the root of all…

Usually they say that money is the root of all evil. It’s actually a Biblical quote and, interestingly enough, comes from the same letter to Timothy that has “Don’t let women into any position of spiritual authority” injunction by Paul I mentioned a couple of days ago. We, the Hare Kṛṣṇas, are not particularly fond of this saying about money but we understand the sentiment.

We can refer to Mahārāja Parīkṣit banishing the personification of Kali to reside in gold, ie money. The other four places allowed to Kali were where gambling, drinking, illicit association with women and animal slaughter are performed (SB 1.17.38-39). Śrīla Prabhupāda explained that gold was asked and permitted because during the reign of Mahārāja Parīkṣit there were no places where four illicit activities were practiced but gold would eventually attract all of them. Thus our actual beef is with breaking regulative principles rather than money itself.

Being attached to sinful activities is an offense against the holy name and committing them while hoping that the holy name would clear our sins is another offense on top of the first one. Offensive chanting keeps us from realizing the Name’s full glory and, therefore, there’s no spiritual life for those who keep sinning. It’s simply impossible no matter what they claim. God can forcefully reveal Himself to anybody, of course, but sinful people do not have necessary clarity of vision to perceive Him otherwise.

Hmm, one could say that without Lord’s mercy no one can see Him, sin or no sin, and it is true, but spirituality is a big area, seeing personal form of Godhead is a pinnacle of it and lesser aspects of it are automatically revealed according to our purity. Impersonal Brahman realization, for example, can be achieved by anybody through his own efforts (or so it seems to advaitins themselves), and it’s usually the impersonalists who claim to have spiritual visions while still leading gross and sinful lives. They can’t have them, these claims are fraudulent. Same goes for Christians who think that reading the Bible qualifies them to have a personal vision of Christ – jñāna in this case won’t work for them just as it doesn’t work for sinful advaitins. It’s a separate topic, though.

Anyway, money as the root of all evil, or love of money and greed, to be exact, is a common realization across the whole western world. Stephen Fry brought it up during the debate but, as usual for him, he twisted it to imply that money makes Catholic Church evil, too.

He was ranting about limbo and introduced purgatory and was about to reveal the real evil purpose behind it – money. Here’s what he said:

“A soul needs to be prayed for in order to go to heaven… And for many hundreds, indeed over a thousand years you’d be amazed what generous terms those prayers came at. Sometimes as little as two thirds of a year’s salary could ensure that a dead loved one would go to heaven. And money could ensure that your baby, your dead child, your dead uncle, your dead mother could go to heaven. And if you were rich enough you could have a chantry built and monks would permanently sing prayers so that that existence in heaven for a child would go up and up and up until they are at the table of the Lord themselves.”

I don’t think I have any illusions about Vatican greed throughout history, I still remember stuff about selling ingulgencies so that one may commit any sin safely. I think this argument resonates deeply with the public but we should look at the bigger picture and consider Church’s own view on the subject, too. I can’t claim to speak for the Church but I see where they might be coming from.

In the modern world money isn’t only the root of evil, it is also the common currency to determine the value of practically everything. There are insurance payments for the death of a child on terms that parents have negotiated and agreed on. It’s not exactly a price of a child but it certainly a monetary expression of child’s value. Insurance companies calculate values of everything, no one loves them for that but our modern life wouldn’t exist without insurance. It’s not just insurance either – we have the price for everything and, at the end of the day, everything is expressed in dollars and cents. Maybe not all the time but people with money know that they can buy practically anything they want, it’s only a question of price.

Why should the Church be ignorant of the value of money? Why wouldn’t it use such a convenient yardstick in its everyday dealings? Note how it was the price of two thirds of one’s yearly salary, not an absolute amount, demanded for the prayers. This distinction is significant, let me explain why.

What earns people points with God is sacrifices. Unless one has pure devotion, acts completely selflessly, and sees everything as God’s property, he must make sacrifices. Sacrifice is, at its heart, a relinquishment of one’s claims over Lord’s property. We, the spiritually condemned thieves, see at least parts of the world as ours to enjoy and control. This vision is born of ignorance, of course, and there’s no other way we can cure ourselves from our thieving propensity – we must give whatever we can back to the Lord.

People were asked to sacrifice two thirds of their work, not money. I don’t know where the specific number mentioned by Fry came from but I don’t think it was actually “salary”. Most likely it was two thirds of whatever one produced, probably in the form of grain or chickens. Until very recently no one paid salary big enough to donate two thirds of it and survive anyway.

Fry made it sound like fraud, implying that no way anyone in the Church could have prayed any dead soul into heaven and it was a simply money grab but he didn’t consider the personal sacrifice aspect of it. As long as the priest comes from line of disciplic succession, which is still the case with Catholics, his personal qualifications do not play a big role in the success of a sacrifice and how the Church spent the money should not be a consideration either. Once the work/money is offered to the Lord the sacrifice is over, in fact one should offer it without reservations and conditions and without trying to keep an eye on it as if it’s still his.

And the Church asked for money so that their priests could pray, which is another form of sacrifice – saṅkīrtana! It was especially clear in the case of building chantries. Somehow even Catholics recognized that the most spiritually efficient way of passing someone’s sacrifice on to the Lord is chanting.

It wasn’t about money, it was a pure karma yoga elevated by the Church to pure saṅkīrtana. Well, not pure but close enough, and Fry didn’t understand any of it, making it into a caricature and missing all the important points. We should know the principles of it and spot such attacks a mile away if anyone tries it with ISKCON.

Oh, and money in this case becomes the source of one’s liberation, just as it’s taught in Bhagavad Gīta.

Vanity thought #1522. Moral relativism

With only a minute before the end of the short animated summary of the debate about Catholic Church I might finish the whole thing today. There are two big topics packed in there, however, so let’s see how it goes first.

There’s a rant from Stephen Fry about moral relativity and, for a change, this time the accusation is leveled against the Catholic Church rather than the atheists. He said the Church is loose on moral evils and he said that although they try to accuse people like him, who believe in empiricism and enlightenment, of moral relativism, as if it’s some appalling sin, what moral relativism actually means, according to Fry, is “thought”. Audience applauded.

I don’t know how he came up with this definition, I can only speculate, and I guess that “thought” here means intelligent weighing of pros and cons on every moral issue. That might be the case and thinking might be involved but it’s a very weak argument, bordering on dishonest. First come the wants, then justifications, it has always been this way in every human endeavor. Thinking here is always compromised by biases so while “thought” is there, it is not the driving nor the primary factor in decision making.

Take the attitudes to sex, for example. People want it, they want lots of it, they want it in various increasingly sophisticated or titillating forms. Then they think with their dicks, pardon my French, and that’s how they rationalize everything from contraception to threesomes to homosexuality. If they wants it they must get it, and they are going to dismiss any arguments about sin and consequences. They also think about it all the time, so, in a way, Fry is right – it’s “thought”, just not the kind that deserves consideration in a debate.

Fry then turned to examples of moral relativism in the Church itself. He started with slavery, that it was acceptable for a long time and then it wasn’t. This is an interesting point – is slavery absolutely wrong? It’s not in the ten commandments and it has been practiced in many societies both before and after they became Christian. Catholics themselves were not shy from owning slaves even though the debate about slavery has been going for a very long time.

I think the term itself is confusing and not everybody understands it in the same way. These days slavery is a big no no, it’s so loaded that trying to defend it will result in an immediate social sanction. What is wrong with it, though? What exactly is wrong there?

Cruelty was always a very big part of it but cruelty does not equal slavery per se. Many slave owners throughout history would deny being cruel and many slaves would admit that they have been generally treated well. Cruelty is an absolute moral sin but if it’s absent in a particular slave’s situation, is slavery absolutely immoral, too?

Exploitation is another ugly feature of slavery but exploitation can be found everywhere, it’s not unique to slavery. Chinese workers assembling Samsung and Apple products are definitely exploited while butlers and personal servants had rather cushy lives by comparison. There were exploited slaves on plantations, true, but there are also “free” but illegal workers picking tomatoes all day long for below sustenance wages. Should slavery free from cruelty and exploitation be acceptable?

Freedom is probably the main thing cited against slavery today but freedom is never absolute, too. Wives, for example, have never had freedom to travel just as their family slaves. Husbands, who were as free as possible, were constrained by their finances and by the necessity to provide for their dependents, including those same slaves and wives and children and servants and pets and cows and what not.

From the Vedic perspective slaves should never be given freedom anyway, for their own good, because they would surely misuse their independence. Afaik, there was never slavery in India but there were always servants and śūdras. Ideally, the relationship should be symbiotic, with both masters and servants depending on each other and each “outsourcing” service of his particular needs to somebody else. Masters did the thinking, servants did the cleaning, and the entire household worked like a single organism, with no member being mistreated or disrespected.

Śūdras were provided with comfort and safety, and so should have been the slaves in the western world, and brāhmaṇas and kṣatriyas took full responsibility for their well-being. There’s nothing morally wrong with this arrangement, unless one would suddenly value career choice over career safety. They, the atheists, can say that choosing your own path in life is very important but this is exactly the kind of moral relativism that religions condemn and decry. You don’t let legs to walk wherever they want, outside of brain’s control, and śūdras are society’s legs. Their intelligence is certifiably weaker, their self control is weaker, and left to themselves they are bound to be mislead by their mind and senses.

In a Vedic society everyone has dharma to follow, freedom is not advocated for anyone, not just for śūdras, we should always remember that.

Next Fry mentioned limbo again, which, as I said yesterday, was presented in a form unrecognizable by Catholics themselves. In any case, I don’t see how the nature of limbo is a moral issue. Yes, it probably caused distress, but distress alone is not enough to call it a moral transgression.

And then Fry subtly changed the subject to discussing the “truth”. Nature of limbo was the case of Catholic Church not knowing the truth. What is the point of Catholic Church, he raved, if they couldn’t know better because no one did. “Then what are you for?”, he emphatically ended his rant and the animation itself.

Once again, reason and logic were sacrificed for the sake of flourish – in the subtle substitute of morality with “truth”. Even so, the Church does claim to know all the answers but not in the absolute degree. They, just like science, just like us, cannot know the absolute truth in full. They keep discovering it all the time, just as we constantly increase our realizations of Kṛṣṇa.

It’s the atheists’ job to reconcile their caricature of religious dogma with progress of religious thought. It’s not an issue for us, it’s not an issue for Catholics, it arises only for atheists because they made their own, wrong models of religion.

A lot of criticism of religions can be traced to this kind of straw arguments. First they misrepresent the actual situation and then find faults, but these are faults in their own models, not in religions themselves.

Coming back to the subject of moral relativism. The fundamental morals of any religion are more or less immutable. Practical application, however, depends on situation and on historical and cultural context. Slavery is a cultural and historical phenomenon, it could have been practiced without breaking any moral codes and it could have been practiced with breaking every Christian precept, too. It does not make religion itself morally relativist.

There’s also the fact that religions are made of people and people are found to commit all sorts of immoral acts, even people in position of religious authority. Does it reflect badly on their religions? Absolutely. Does it make their religions morally relative? No.

Okay, I’ve reached the end, there are two things I still want to discuss – moral relativism in our own society and the role of money in religions. Obviously, not today.

Vanity thought #1521. Female diksha guru, bending lower, and various odds and ends

There was one poignant question in that debate about merits of the Catholic Church that echoes our own, ISKCON discourse – female priesthood. There’s a short answer here and a longer, uncut version continues here. Since there was a little confusion about the question itself, here it is in the original form.

When the moderator relayed it to Anne Widdecombe she asked “Why not women priests in the Catholic Church?”. Widdecombe objected and reminded that the original question was, shortened for brevity: “Why is it wrong for a woman to become a priest but perfectly okay for her to become an MP?” Quite an important distinction even if the subject is still the same. Moderator stripped it of the comparison to an MP, a comparison which, in Widdecombe’s answer betrayed “vast ignorance”. There was an undecipherable reaction from the audience to the “vast ignorance” phrase but in a second it turned to laughter and even applause, they really wanted to hear Widdecombe explanation.

“A member of parliament, a male of female, does not stand in persona Christi at the point of consecration,” she said. In Vedic language in persona Christi means as God Himself, a bona fide guru, and consecration is dīkṣā, initiation. In Catholic doctrine God does not manifest Himself as a female for the purpose of consecration. Or, in our speak, Kṛṣṇa does not manifest Himself as a female for the purpose of dīkṣā.

Catholics have their own ways to explain it but, in general, that’s how the church conducted their consecrations throughout history. They have this straightforward instruction from Paul, for example: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” 1 Tim 2.12. One of the recent Popes said “I do not have the authority to consecrate women,” which was a clever way to nip the subject of women’s rights in the bud. Whatever the reasoning, the verdict is clear – women can’t stand in place of Christ for the purpose of consecration. As Widdecombe clarified it’s different from ministry, which is preaching or discussing Lord’s pastimes, I guess, she said that this rule is specific to the priesthood and people should know the theology of the priesthood to understand it. She finally said that it is no more possible for a woman to represent Christ at the point of consecration than for a man to be a Virgin Mary. Clear enough.

Why can’t we have the same clarity? I guess because guru is a principle for us and guru manifests himself in a variety of forms, including female. The question then becomes about peculiarity of dīkṣā. Catholics have a simple “can’t be a woman” rule that seems to be lacking in our tradition. We need to deduce it from statements on different subjects, like in the case with Dhruva and his mother. We also have historical precedents and the basic fact that our material genders have nothing to do with our spiritual identities at all.

Well, until very recently the question of female dīkṣā gurus didn’t exist and everyone was very clear on this, too. Catholics still stay clear but maybe one day somebody will challenge them just as people challenge GBC in ISKCON.

Next up was Fry’s rant about Church being likely to kick out Christ himself if he showed up at its door today. It was a good rant but it means nothing. If he is suggesting that the Church lacks any introspection and no one there ever thinks of how his actions would be perceived by JC then Fry is clearly wrong. Yes, it would have made for an appalling picture of the Church but it’s not the real life, it’s a caricature, and a rather pointless one for the purpose of the debate. It scored him easy points with the public, though, and was followed by a long applause. This rant was one of many misrepresentations of the Catholic Church and its doctrine, just see what follows.

The short continues with Fry’s rant about limbo and how it was legislated out of existence in the year 2000. This prompted Widdecombe to respond directly. She said she was raised a Catholic, went to Church, read the books, etc etc and she didn’t recognize the limbo he was talking about. Now, the actual Catholic version expressed in her own words isn’t much better but the main point is that a civilized debater, if he wants to explain the position of the other side, would always check that his representation is correct.

That’s what Prabhupāda always did when discussing other people’s philosophy. He didn’t just hammer his own visions of it, he asked people to explain it themselves first and if he volunteered his own version he’d always check that it was acceptable and not a wild distortion of it. Fry is simply no gentleman here, and Hitchens was guilty of the same behavior, too, even though it escapes me on what aspect of Christianity exactly. In this rant Fry declared that concept of “purgatory” is not in the Bible and Catholics simply invented it. He assumed the position of authority on Catholic doctrine and thought it was perfectly okay for him to teach Catholics proper Christianity, which is going lower and lower (limbo, get the reference?)

Atheists do this all the time, which is fine in their own circles but they should know better in public. We do this all the time, too, but anyone who thinks we can easily convince advaitins of the error of their ways because advaita looks so illogical and easy to refute in our own classes simply hasn’t tried. The fact is that for each and every argument they have long and convincing responses. Advaita was taught by Lord Śiva himself, after all, our intelligence in minuscule compared to his, we should remember that. I believe this is one of the reasons Lord Caitanya explicitly forbade us to hear advaita explanations of the scriptures – it’s too big for our little brains and we can’t defeat it by intellect alone, we should know our limits, just like with association with women – won’t work, lust will surely develop.

This is basically it, the short version of the debate is practically over. There are only a couple more points I wanted to discuss and I don’t want them to be short ones because they apply to us, too, and so we need to understand them thoroughly.

PS. I wish I had a simple, conclusive, and also comprehensive answer to female dīkṣā controversy. I don’t, there isn’t a way to easily put the matter to rest. Personally, I think it’s nonsense but there’s always a chance that there’s a qualified vaiṣṇavī out there who deserves the honor and I don’t want to get in the way of her service.

Vanity thought #1520. Judging History

Next in the animated short summary of the debate on the merits of the Catholic Church was Anne Widdecombe’s attack on the atheist historical perspective. I won’t go through all the accusations hurled the Catholics way, there was Inquisition, there were Crusades, there was destruction of Constantinople etc etc. Hitchens read the long list of these past crimes and it was a blood boiling stuff that the Church can’t deny, in fact it publicly apologized for it, as Hitchens noted. That is not the end of the story, though.

As I said a couple of days ago, bringing up past transgressions for which the guilty party has apologized is too vindictive to my taste. Hitchens could have said that the apology was not accepted so he is free to raise this subject again and again but these crimes weren’t committed against him, the apology wasn’t directed at him. Afaik, no one blames the current Church for the sins of their predecessors, most of the world realized that it’s time to move on.

Hitchens then would say that if we want to judge the overall merits of the Church then we have to consider history as well, it’s not like the Church has always been good until recent child abuse scandals came out. Fine, let’s look at history then, and that’s what Widdecombe’s argument was all about:

“If you are going to judge the Catholic Church at any given stage in history then you have to judge it against the standards that were prevailing at the time, and condemning the Inquisition, which was a horrible thing [condemning or Inquisition was horrible?]… Condemning the Inquisition in isolation from condemning just about the whole, in fact the whole of European society, which at that time rejoiced in punishment and torture as a means of dealing with criminality, and with treason, and with wrongdoing, to try and divorce the Catholic Church from that and say that it was uniquely guilty, under the inquisition, is simply trying to look back at centuries gone past and apply a standard that nobody applied at the time.”

Nice, even though somewhat imperfect. There was a little ambiguity in the middle and the end wasn’t as powerful as the build up suggested but it’s still a solid argument. I don’t know how to improve it, perhaps just add that we don’t apply laws retroactively, it something wasn’t a crime at the time it happened it can’t be judged as crime now. If we now think that torture was wrong but at the time of the Inquisition it wasn’t, then the Catholic contribution to the society wasn’t evil by that society’s standards. At the time it could have been seen as a force for good while still torturing the heretics, no one minded.

Or, put it another way, if contemporary society didn’t think that Inquisition was bad and rather thought that the Church was undeniably good, then that’s what we have to accept as evidence from history. Hitchens could have found some testimonies condemning the church but he didn’t and so we can assume everyone went along with the Inquisition just fine.

As an argument it was solid but as a means to win the debate it wasn’t, because by that time it was all about rhetoric and emotional appeals. Hitchens’ cries for justice were more appealing even if there were groundless so they counted while Widdecombe’s argument didn’t.

Fry also jumped in, and the animation editors made it sound as if he was directly addressing Widdecombe but he went precisely nowhere. No matter, he did in style, with audience drooling at every turn of his thought, so he “won”.

“Now all this is in the past and it’s irrelevant and I acceede to Anne Widdecombe how irrelevant it is, except in one thing. This Church is founded on the principle of intercession. Only through the apostolic succession, only through the laying on of hands, from this Galilean carpenter, who we can all admire, only from the laying on of hands from his apostles, to Saint Peter, to the other bishops, all the way down to everyone consecrated in this room [consecrated in THIS room?], anyone ordained here [here?] will know they are… they have this extraordinary power to change the molecules of wine into blood, literally, to change the molecules of paste bread into flesh, literally, and to forgive the sins of the peasants and the poor whom they routinely exploited around the planet. Only this Church has this extraordinary principle that it is through these male priests, and only male priests, that this is given. It is a doctrinal fact, it is more than a doctrinal fact, it is a dogma, “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus”, outside the Church there’s no salvation.”

What has it got to do with history and Widdecombe’s argument against judging it my modern standards? Nothing whatsoever, the conclusion is an entirely different subject. I can’t be bothered to mark every word Fry stressed there with capitals, and despite a little ambiguity in the middle as well, the overall effect was in Fry’s favor because he is simply a better speaker with a better voice, and a better command of his voice.

Next time you hear atheists claim that they win with logic and reason remember that it’s not true, they are as reliant on flourish and rhetoric as any politician out there and logic and reason are often completely missing from their presentations, no matter how convincing they sound.

The animation moved on but there’s one more thing I think needs to be said about history. In the full version of the debate Widdecombe continued with the defense of child abuse, too – if judged from the perspective of that era, which wasn’t a long time ago but is still in the past. She was referring to the activities of Pedophile Information Exchange, a group that was disbanded only in 1984 and which was affiliated with UK’s Council for Civil Liberties and printed booklets on pedophilia sponsored by public funds. It wasn’t a big deal then, Widdecombe argued, we made it into a big deal much later. Respectable people who no one would ever accuse of child abuse supported that group and everyone was simply acting out the ignorance of that time.

She then also added that when they, the Church, learned of the abusive behavior they weren’t taught, because no one knew it at the time, that there’s no way that someone who abused would simply stop. I suppose she implied that punishing the priests was enough and there was no need to remove them from their positions. Punishment in those days was also light, it appears from her speech. The realization that sex offenders need to be registered and watched permanently didn’t occur to anyone until mid-nineties. In retrospect, she said, the Church should have acted differently, but so should have the magistrates, the courts, the Council for Civil Liberties etc etc.

This is the argument I heard from one ISKCON leader as well. At the time no one knew what to do and what the real dangers were, ISKCON acted as it would have been expected at the time, and it was only until much later that the world has realized it wasn’t enough. Neither we, nor the Catholic Church, had any unique insights into sex-offenders psychology at the time.

Could we have turned to Śrīla Prabhupāda or to śāstra on this? Nope, child abuse is such a low grade behavior that it goes beneath śāstra’s radar, and it didn’t even occur to Śrīla Prabhupāda.

Personally, I think the same argument can be made in defense of rape in our books. I don’t think Prabhupāda ever meant forcing oneself on a woman while she is screaming and fighting back with all her might. I don’t think “rape” in our books ever means sex without consent but a testament to the power of man’s persuasion. Some men are hard to refuse, like Rāvaṇa. He could have “raped” Sīta in the modern sense of the word but sex without consent didn’t occur to even demons like him, it’s such a low grade behavior and Rāvaṇa was an exemplary king in many respects, he wouldn’t have stooped so low.

This needs further investigation, though.

Edit:  Rāvana did rape a woman, though, and was cursed that he’d die if he ever tried it again. My bad. “Even Rāvana” part of the argument doesn’t hold.

Vanity thought #1519. Animated sex parts

No, I’m not talking about animated sex, I’m continuing with a shot animated summary of the debate about merits of the Catholic Church, the point where Stephen Fry turned to homosexuality. The speakers for the Church did not address this in the short and I don’t remember them saying anything particular in the rest of the debate either, so let’s try to make sense of it as presented. It’s not like Catholic Church has a definitive answer to homosexuality anyway .

Fry then quoted the then current Pope, Benedict XVI, who they, incidentally, always addressed by his civilian name, Joseph Ratzinger. Fry said the Pope called homosexuals disordered and morally evil while all he was trying to do was to fulfill his sexual destiny. He said that to achieve and receive love is a struggle and one certainly doesn’t need Pope to tell you how to do it and one certainly doesn’t need Pope to tell you that you are evil. With 6% of teenage suicides being gay teenage suicides we certainly don’t need stigmatization and victimization that leads to playground bullying when people tell you you are a disordered, morally evil individual. It isn’t nice.

Okay, sexual destiny is a powerful argument. Gays do feel natural attraction to people of their own gender, this has to be acknowledged, they are wired this way by their previous karma and they have to live it out. That does not describe the whole picture, though. First of all, only a small percentage of gays are truly hardwired, for most of them sexuality is fluid, most of them had times when they lived in heterosexual relationships, and then there are bisexuals, too. These people might object that their sexuality is a choice but the fact is that they can choose how to express it on each particular occasion. Most of the time people choose NOT to express it at all – on the streets or in the office, for example, and wait to the opportune moment instead. Eventually their sexuality would force them to act but they can always put up a struggle. To fight or not to fight is the choice, and they choose not to fight but embrace their sexuality instead.

This choice is morally evil – the choice to give up control over one’s sexual urges. Fry might say that he controls himself just fine and doesn’t masturbate in public but that is not enough, civilized human beings must impose tighter control over their sex lives, be they Catholics or Muslims or Hare Kṛṣṇas. Even procreation must have limits, as Śrīla Prabhupāda often mentioned “once a month”.

Sex orientation might be wired but sex indulgence is a habit, and it’s a bad and evil one. Fry might disagree but he is judging it by his experience, not by the Bible, and not by the standards of previous ages. He can, of course, find some examples of profligate kings and sexually uninhibited commoners in history but are they they examples we should aspire to? Why should the church look up to them instead of the lives of their saints? Fry himself, being a self-professed thinker, should probably choose better standards to aim for.

The point is that “morally evil” label is not spurious, people like Fry have to reflect on it and see whether it has any truth in it. Of course we know that in modern society homosexuality is not evil anymore, Popes, however, do not speak about modern norms but eternal spiritual obligations of every human being. There ARE standards by which homosexuality is evil and it’s not Fry’s place to impose his own instead.

The bit about receiving love is lost on me. Mundane love between two people probably doesn’t need Pope’s intervention but love as is understood in Christianity certainly needs a mediator – the Pope, your local priest – Catholics are big on proper succession, as Fry himself acknowledged. He can reject Pope’s authority, of course, but then he should also kiss good-bye to love of God and and not worry what Pope has said about people like him at all. Fry is an atheist so rejection of God is given but then what’s the point of him participating in this debate? If he rejects any spiritual dimension to Catholic contribution to the world then his view is incomplete. It’s like judging bank assets value by coins in bank teller’s drawer. Christians would also say that love of Christ enriches their love of their husbands and wives, as it should be.

The bit about teenage suicides is misguided. In modern society homosexuals comprise more than 6% of the population, that’s what they love to tell us, so it appears that proportionally speaking gays are less prone to suicides then straights. Probably a good point for homosexuality but that’s not how Fry presented it an no one called him on that, or simply didn’t have the time.

Schoolyard bullying is a problem and it is possible to blame it on the Pope but how many bullies cite Papal encyclicals in their taunts? Repulsion to homosexual behavior exists(ed) in every culture in the world regardless of their religion and it’s this repulsion that gives rise to bullying, ascribing it to the Catholic Church is simply intellectually dishonest on Fry’s part.

There was a part in the debate, not included in the short, where Fry defended his appeal to emotion, ie rhetoric, because the Church is all about saving souls and love, so emotional appeals are fair. Not true. When the Church debates atheists in public it does not preach love of God and does not try to open people’s hearts. It plays by the atheist rules – reason and logic. It’s a shame for atheists like Fry to abandon them then and battle for the hearts and minds instead. He just wants to be a better preacher, not a better thinker. He might have succeeded on this one occasion but that’s how he will be remembered and treated forever – as a shameless propagandist. Atheists would love to hear his propaganda, of course, but serious thinkers would never take him seriously, he is a bit of a clown. Of course serious thinking will not lead one to God realization but it’s the only thing going for atheism, really, Without commitment to logic and reason it has nothing, just a temporary sense indulgence, when things go bad it would be of no help whatsoever. It won’t be able to explain suffering and help people to get through, as true knowledge is expected to.

There were more arguments about sex in that debate, but use of condoms, for example, is better left for another day. I would just quote Catholic Anne Widdecombe on this:

“He [Fry] says that the Church is obsessed with sex. No, its critics are obsessed with sex. There’s no sex in the creed, there’s no sex in Lord’s prayer, there’s no sex in the liturgy, but when the critics start on the Catholic Church all they can talk about it sex.”

This is how atheists approached this debate in general – take a small part, blow it our of proportion, and declare the church evil. Intellectually dishonest? Yes, but what do they care as long as they win?

Hmm, there’s no honor among thieves, as they say, and all atheists are thieves by their very nature – īśāvāsyam idam sarvaṁ – everything in this universe belongs to the Lord (Iso 1), and there are more verses in Bhagavad Gīta describing the demoniac nature – pride, arrogance, conceit, etc. All we need to do is look beyond their veil of civility and realize that atheists can’t be trusted. People should know this, too, and exposing their devious thinking is our duty. Śrīla Prabhupāda never missed the opportunity and neither should we.

Vanity thought #1518. Debate Animated

As I said, I’m not going to go through the debate about Catholic Church word by word but the organizers kindly provided a short animation summarizing the best arguments from Anne Widdecombe for Catholics and Stephen Fry for atheists, so let’s cover that.

The two other speakers, an African bishop and Christopher Hitchens, were excluded but it’s not a big loss. Perhaps I could say a few words about the priest but Hitchens’ facts I covered yesterday, I don’t want to watch the whole two hour affair again to check if he said anything else of note.

If you watch this short it might appear disjointed, jumping from topic to topic, and it should be expected from this video because it’s made of selected clips, but the rest of the debate was the same, everybody was making himself heard all the time and no one was obliged to follow up on questions. Even when the speakers were answering questions from the audience they were free to pick and choose what to answer and what to ignore.

This was the fault of the organizers, it put too much unnecessary pressure on the speakers, giving them too many questions to juggle and too little time to respond. Half the questions from the audience were not even questions but personal comments and gripes. There was one guy who said he just returned from a UN conference and there he submitted a list of five transgressions by the Catholic Church and the Church admitted it hasn’t done anything about them. It was a one sided piece of information, no one knew what he was talking about and whether it was factually correct.

The debate was organized more like a court proceedings, with time allocated to the prosecution and the defense to make their statements and the audience acting as a jury, but a lot of what was heard would not have been permissible in court, like that guy’s “testimony”. If he was allowed to speak as a witness the defense would have been given time to cross examine him and bring their own witnesses and experts. Otherwise he just made an emotional appeal that manipulated the hearts and that’s all.

Anyway, the animation, it starts with Widdecombe asking us to imagine the world without Catholic Church giving billions to charity. Very easy. In my world I do not see Catholic Church charities at all, they are not collecting them where I can see, and they are not distributing them where I can see. They are also not in the news, my world is already is as if Catholic charities didn’t exist. No big loss.

There’s also the mercantile dimension to this argument that doesn’t do anything good to Catholic Church’s image. I get it that they were trying to speak the language atheists can understand and measure – money, but when you treat people like that, if you appeal to their lower nature, don’t expect them to respond any differently and appreciate unspoken spiritual arguments in your favor. If you talk to them as if they don’t understand anything but money they’ll repay in kind.

Anyway, Catholic Church apparently contributes more than any nation. Sounds nice, but it’s a somewhat dishonest argument. Catholic Church is bigger than any other nation, save for China, and all these other nations have to invest in defense and what not so the comparison is inappropriate. Makes for a good soundbite, though.

Thankfully, Widdecombe quickly switched to the message of the Catholic Church, and that is of hope and salvation it gives to more than a billion of people. She used their lives as testimony that the Church is the force for good, but, as I said a few days ago, atheists usually discount cumulative affect of individual lives and go for doctrine instead, and not for Church’s actual doctrine but their interpretation of it. If they manage to twist something and make it sound bad it outweighs experiences of those billions of people. Reasonable? No, but it wins debates such as this.

Next came Stephen Fry, and he started (the animation started) by saying that he is going to take great pleasure in castigating the church, though he put it a lot more eloquently, earning himself applause from the audience. Where did the virtue of being dispassionate and logical go to? Why do the atheists applaud departure from rationality and diving into pleasure seeking rhetoric? What sort of debate is this where one side abandons its proclaimed strength and goes for emotional feel instead? It’s not a debate, it’s a propaganda exercise.

Fry then reminded everyone that Catholic Church IS a nation state, contrary to what Widdecombe stated earlier. Well, of course the Pope is the head of Vatican but Widdecombe and her fellow Catholics are not Vatican’s citizens, why did he not acknowledge that? He moved on to some UN conference where the then current Pope (it was 2009) issued a statement together with Muslim nations led by Saudi Arabia on behalf of the revealed religions of the world… Pure rhetoric – all the emotional triggers are there – head of state, joined with backward, repressive Muslims like Saudis, speaking for religions of the world. And what did he say? Unclear, something about blocking women’s sexual freedom. Doesn’t matter, the outrage was already planted in the audience.

What kind of sexual freedom did the Vatican block? Unclear. How many people would argue against sexual freedom for their own wives? Seven and a half billion, I guess, but it’s the Church who is the culprit. And what can Vatican ever block in the UN? It’s not even a member! Fry doesn’t have a coherent argument here at all, but with emotional triggers he got the audience by its heart strings.

“The Islamic world AND the Catholic church have never been anything other than implacably opposed to women’s choice in their own bodies and their destinies,” concluded Fry, and applause followed. As I said, most husbands would also oppose to their wives exercising absolute freedom with their bodies and destinies, too. Even in the modern world all such decisions are taken together, that’s what marriage is. It’s just Fry’s flowery words with no substance, but people loved it.

Once again, it was debate organizer’s duty to prevent such blatant abuse of the audience. You can’t stop people from reacting to emotional appeals but you can stop speakers from making them. Not by taking away their mike, of course, but by setting the appropriate atmosphere and elevating the level of discussion. Once again, the woman in charge thought that if it sounded good and felt good then it was okay. It wasn’t.., will continue tomorrow.

Vanity thought #1517. It was a trap

That debate about merits of the Catholic Church was a setup from the get go, unfortunately no one realized that at the time. Yesterday I mentioned a couple of reasons why it couldn’t have worked and today I intend to continue exploring various ways why it really couldn’t have any other outcome but a sound defeat for the Church.

First of all, as I said yesterday, they framed it as a good vs bad issue, with atheists citing all the negative stuff. Psychologically, to counteract one negative impression one has to have seven good ones and the church had obviously no chance of providing that.

Secondly, they put a woman in charge of moderating. She was smart, intelligent, had good control of the proceedings, but it wasn’t enough because the fundamentals were all wrong. It looked like a debate but she didn’t realize it wasn’t one. She was doing something superficial and even if she was good at it but there was no substance there. At one point she did realize that comments from the audience were one sided and tried to correct it but it was too late. She should have thought of this first – the audience should have been more or less evenly divided so that both sides presented more or less the same number of arguments, never mind that negative ones need a bigger counterbalance anyway. By negative I mean emotionally charged stuff like child abuse, not the logical arguments against something.

Another way it was bound to fail was the cultural norms of the modern age. They might have called it a debate but it was actually more like public shaming. The only culturally acceptable reaction to accusations of bigotry, sexism, or racism is to admit one’s mistake and beg forgiveness. Trying to defend oneself will not work and arguing would only make it worse. The moment atheist speakers brought up child abuse the only course the church could have taken was unreserved public apology and begging for mercy. Then they should have joined the civilized society, wholeheartedly accepted their values, and never brought up the old stuff again – pretty much like Germany after WWII.

It didn’t happen, and I think it was actually a victory for the church rather than a defeat as the voting numbers would suggest. They stuck to their guns, they defended their values, they refused to admit guilt where they felt there was none, and they left with their heads held high.

What would have been the alternative? Cowering before the atheists and begging for their mercy would have been like being raped in prison – after the first time one would be doomed forever, his dignity completely gone and his reputation completely ruined. There’s no coming back from this, the relationships would be cast in stone and one would always be that rapist’s bitch, pardon my language.

If the Christians surrendered themselves to the atheists’ demands in hope of comfort and relief it would have made it even worse. They would have enjoyed the experience, they wouldn’t be considered victims but bitches in their own right, pardon me again. It would have been the biggest betrayal of their faith I could imagine and I don’t think there’s an easy comeback from this, their hearts would have been damaged forever.

I said I don’t want to go through this debate step by step but, in general, Hitchens and Fry, speaking for the atheists, brought up an uncountable number of charges. Hitchens was very detailed about it, and he specifically brought the number of apologies officially issued by the church for various wrongdoings on the eve of the millennium. He also cited other apologies issued at various times and always introduced them with “it was only in 1964 that the church admitted..” I’m sure he felt good about it and congratulated himself on being thorough but I don’t see this approach as acceptable.

The point of apology is that after it is accepted you can’t accuse the person of the stuff you have already forgiven. Even the most insufferable wives do not stoop so low and if they do bring up past transgressions they do not feel comfortable about it. Hitchens was worse than a vindictive woman in this case, but it’s a par for an atheist, I suppose, their civility is usually only skin deep.

In Hitchens defense, he cited all those old transgression as evidence of previous wrongdoing, not as evidence by which to judge the church now, but, if it was a real courtroom, most of it would have been objected by the opposing side and stricken out of the records. I suppose lawyers still go for this just to plant an impression in jury’s minds, the court clerk can’t strike it out from there, and Hitchens took full advantage of this opportunity. Debate rules were not broken, however, and it’s the fault of the organizers for not being prepared for this turn of the events.

The first speaker was also happen to be the Catholic, a priest from Africa. His English was okay but I don’t remember anything he said, except that he declared that the Church is a force for good because it is so, no doubt about it. I don’t remember the exact words but that was the gist of his presentation.

Next came Hitchens with all his facts about wrongdoings and apologies, then the woman MP, a well known Catholic Ann Widdecombe, who had her own speech prepared, meaning she had no chance to address Hitchens accusations in full, and then Stephen Fry ended the first round with even more anti-Church rhetoric. Then came questions and comments from the audience, they were mostly hostile, and Widdecombe got a chance to address them but the time given to her was clearly disproportionate to the amount of accusations she had to deal with. The African priest was basically a non-entity because no one in the audience asked him anything interesting.

This format was clearly not conducive to an illuminating debate. Was it fair? Yes, sort of, if it was a shouting match where time at the microphone was awarded proportionally to the number of representatives from each side. The speakers couldn’t address each other, too, so if Hitchens made some accusations Widdcombe wasn’t given a specific opportunity to answer them, she had to use her general time at the microphone. In the end she alone was debating Hitchens, Fry, and the audience.

It was all very civil and nice but the setup was just not conducive to a proper discussion, everybody was speaking to make himself heard, not to engage in a discourse, and the results reflected that. The more I think about it, it was the only possible outcome.

We should not fall into similar traps ourselves. I don’t see Catholics falling for this again either.

Vanity thought #1516. Debatable value

A few days ago I said, regarding Chopra-Dawkins debate, that these debates don’t change anybody’s opinion but only confirm one’s previously held biases. Actually, it was Chopra who said it, but I concurred. Checking with atheists, however, they quickly gave an example of the debate that worked – on the value of the Catholic Church.

The motion was that Catholic Church is a force for good and two sides argued for and against it. The audience was polled before the debate started and votes were collected at the end again. Here’s the link to the results. Roughly the third of the audience changed their minds, and if you look at the numbers closely, more “Catholics” changed their minds and voted against their church then undecideds. It was a clear victory for the atheism.

It is possible that some undecideds or those originally against switched to the Catholic side, too, but that would need even more Catholics to change their minds and vote against to balance them out. Some might have become newly undecided but the number of remaining undecideds was very insignificant, less that 1.5%, so it doesn’t change the overall result in any way.

So, what happened? Does it mean that mine and Chopra’s assertion that debates don’t work is wrong? Well, of course it’s not absolutely correct, the better wording would be “debates don’t show results instantly”. Some people fortify their positions, for some they start to erode and this process might take a very long time but some effect must be there, every action must bring some reaction. Even when we, as devotees, expose ourselves to atheistic arguments we must face some sort of contamination. We might feel like our Kṛṣṇa conscious arguments became validated but simple exposure to alternative views opens the possibility that they might be valid, too. Association matters, it affects us no matter what, so we should always be aware of the risk, and we can take it only in service to the mission of Lord Caitanya, not for any other reason.

Still, even in modified form the assertion doesn’t hold in this particular case. Is it an exception? Was it a particularly bad performance by the losing side? Or should my rule be modified? Well, obviously it needs modification to account for exceptions such as this. And it was an exception – it’s from six years ago, the only case that atheists could muster from hundreds if not thousands of debates widely available on youtube. In fact, when this discussion started, both atheists and believers agreed that we should not expect an instant change of mind, and no one could explain this case (or rather they didn’t even try).

Okay, it was an exception, exceptions are said to prove the rules, but the exact meaning of this saying can be contested. Originally, it was “to test the rule”, not prove it, and another meaning could that “proves that rule exists”, not that the rule is true. In any case, an exception is not a cause to freak out but rather an opportunity for deeper examination of the nature. So, what made this debate particularly bad for the Catholic Church?

One thing that needs to be mentioned that it’s possible the count was rigged. Not by the organizers but by the devious atheists (all atheists are devious by our definition). They could have known that “before and after” vote was going to take place and they could have initially stated their position as pro-Catholics only to change it to anti-Catholic later. It could have been as easy to organize as a flash mob. I don’t think these people were responsible for all the 700+ switched votes, though. Something else mush have gone very wrong for Catholics there.

Next question – how catholic were those Catholics to begin with? It is unthinkable that a person who dedicated his whole life to the church would, in just two hours, change his opinion on such a fundamental matter – is his church good or bad? And if they did change their minds so suddenly, was it a lasting change or only an instantaneous reflex to the mountain of accusations heaped on them during this debate? Would they change their minds back if they watched it again or thought deeply about it? Possibly.

Neither I nor Chopra nor numerous atheists and believers alike have any solid studies and numbers to support our view that debates don’t matter much in the short term but it doesn’t mean that we must accept any kind of quantified proof as an overriding evidence. It is evidence, we add it to the wealth of our experience, but don’t expect it to outweigh everything else that was stored there in the course of our lives. We can just dismiss it as a freaky accident and nether speak of it again – which would only confirm our rule – biases are extremely hard to overturn.

Speaking of numbers – there are studies showing that to overturn one bad impression one must counterbalance it with seven good ones. Applied to this particular debate every unpleasant fact about Catholic Church must have been given seven positive ones to balance it out, perhaps seven times more time must have been given to pro-Church speakers, but that was not the format, of course.

There’s another psychological fact that people tend to trust those saying negative things more, they assume that those criticizing are smarter than those praising. Psychologists might have explanations for this, too, but the fact stands, and it should have been accounted for by debate organizers.

The way the motion was put, “Is Catholic Church a force for good in the world?”, immediately made it into good vs bad argument, meaning making it emotionally charged and thus governed by rules other than reason and logic. It’s not what the organizers intended, of course, but something they clearly overlooked. Well, the moderator was a woman and no matter how smart they appear, they are not generally very intelligent. In this case the moderator was brilliant, witty, and had a very good control over the speakers and the audience, but this one slip on framing the discussion probably ruined it for all, and it seems for all eternity, too – since people still keep quoting it.

Would have a male moderator spotted it? Not guaranteed, of course, but in this case it was a female. Were there any males on the organizing committee – very likely, but since they gave the moderating job to a woman they were also very likely to have been captivated by her charms and considerable wit, and thus they lost their intelligence, too.

Here’s what I think we all miss about this “women have less intelligence” adage – men mixing with women are equally stupid, there’s no difference anymore. That’s why Lord Caitanya told us to avoid BOTH equally. In the contemporary society there are no independent men left, they are all willfully beholden to women, and so when feminists say that men’s superior intelligence is a myth they are absolutely right – as far as they can see.

The organizers of this debate should have stayed clear of inappropriate association with women but they probably didn’t and fell for the charms of their chosen moderator.

There was something else that I thought was odd about this debate but it escapes me now. I’m not going to dissect it statement by statement like I did with Chopra-Dawkins, it was two hours long, but I still want to cover important points, not necessarily in the content but implicitly assumed ones, like the unfortunate framing of the question or giving the moderating job to a woman. They all affected the outcome and if we continue to miss them they will affect the outcomes in the future, too. We should be able to spot and avoid such setups ourselves.

Vanity thought #1515. Is religion good or bad?

It’s a fairly popular question and it naturally follows the debates like the one between Chopra and Dawkins I have been writing about this whole week. Frustrated with the inability to find any common ground between two sides people try a different approach and instead of asking whether religion is right or wrong they want to know whether it’s good or bad. The assumption here is that it could be wrong but as long as it’s good then it doesn’t really matter.

Atheists and believers have their own answers, of course, but it’s the common folk who is the target here – can they be converted or not, can they be persuaded by the promised good or will they be warned off religion by its “inherent evil”? This leads to axillary questions about the place for religion in modern society, to its authority, to its relation with the secular state and so on. These are practical questions meant to extract the most good while filtering out all the bad. And then people negotiate the exact terms with each other, and the assumption here is that there’s no one right answer.

What is our position here? Is it practical? What should be our public position? But let’s start with Chopra-Dawkins.

The debate went into overtime but this question was one of the preconditions for participation and the moderator was obliged to ask it. Chopra went first and chopred up a little more of his word salad. He is more into consciousness based science of self-awareness than in worshiping any particular God so in his view as long as religion allows for this kind of self-realization it’s okay, and various excesses committed in the name of God is just collateral damage, can’t have an omelet without breaking eggs, sorry for disgusting metaphor. Chopra only prefers and recommends vegetarian diet, btw, he hasn’t publicly declared that he is a vegetarian himself.

We can’t really expect anything more from Chopra and “spiritualists” of the same persuasion. Absolute Truth for them is their topmost realization – universe, consciousness, self etc. They won’t take Kṛṣṇa as God unless they know Him personally, and whatever is said in the Vedic literature is not authoritative enough for them. They do not disapprove of our worship as long as it brings results they can appreciate – sense of unity with the universe, sense of epistemological humility, mysterious non-symbolic awareness etc. Devotion itself is not on the list but they’ll take it if it leads to those “higher” forms of realization. If we were to choose between these spiritualists and atheists we know which side to support but, if possible, we should avoid association with both because they are non-devotees and, therefore, asuric by nature. There’s a nice śloka to support this point but I don’t want to bring it today, it deserves a post on its own.

Dawkins, for his part, used a few of typical atheist tricks and I think we should be aware of them because they are being rehashed over and over again. I don’t know what would be the good answers to them but at least they shouldn’t confuse us by their simplicity.

Paraphrasing: “The question is not whether individual people who happen to be religious or not religious are good or bad, the question is whether religion itself is”. Posing it in this form immediately disassociates totality of individual behavior from religion and I don’t think there’s justification for this. It is certainly possible to discuss it under this condition but there will be too much loss in this approach and therefore I don’t think it should be acceptable. Let’s look at it closely.

The assumption here is that on their own and on average people are equally moral regardless of their stance on the religion. Their individual good or bad behavior, therefore, should not be attributed to religion or atheism, and neither should be the totality of the individuals who make up the society. I happen to strongly disagree here. What makes religion good or bad is the sum total of all the individuals practicing it. Every time their religion urged them to do the right thing should be counted as a point for religion. Equally, every time people’s atheism encourages them to act morally should be counted towards atheism. I’m talking about situations where people actually contemplate their course of action and are tempted to do a less moral thing, and I’m also talking about habits and reflexes.

It is impossible to calculate the value of religion this way, simply because there are billions of people of all kinds of faiths out there, but this is the only valid measurement. We can try to approximate it but we can’t substitute it with measuring anything else, as Dawkins proposed here.

For religious people the answer is self-obvious, they are usually aware of their sinful selfish nature and they attribute all their conscious moral decisions to influence of God and no one else. Atheists say they also act morally and give their own reasons, and they sometimes say that if religious people don’t rape women just because God forbids them to then there’s something seriously wrong with them. I don’t think there’s a simple answer here but let’s propose this one – religious people are in the clear and overwhelming majority in the world and they say religion makes them good. The argument that if they were all atheists instead they would just as much good is hypothetical. In their own experience relying on arguments other than religious prescriptions often leads them to committing sins. So, if they say that if not for religion holding them back they’d commit sins more often we should probably trust their judgment.

Dawkins’ approach, OTOH, discounts religion’s practical effects on individual behavior and offers to talk about blind faith and using religion to justify people doing bad things. Why is it even an issue? How big of an issue it really is? How important is it if put next to countless good deeds performed by every religious person and attributed to their religion?

“Many many good and righteous people … have done terrible things precisely because they believed that they are doing it for their god.” How many? How many of roughly six billion religious people currently living on this planet are doing terrible things because their religion tells them so? How many of them are doing bad things PRECISELY because their religion tells them so and not for multiple other reasons? I’m confident Dawkins can give a few examples but how should they stack against the six billion doing good things all the time? I mean his argument might be valid but not that important in the overall scheme of things.

Dawkins then added another reason – religion teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding, satisfied with pseudo explanations which are not really explanations at all. I suppose that happens, but I, personally, don’t know any devotee who is satisfied with not understanding. I don’t know any Christian who is satisfied with not understanding either. It’s a rather bad caricature of the religion. In fact, I’d argue that there are far more people who are perfectly satisfied with not understanding science, even grade school math. No one chases them for the rest of their lives berating them for not doing better at school and calling them stupid. Why is Dawkins singling out religion here? Shouldn’t he try and fix far bigger problems with understanding in his own camp?

As for pseudo explanations – sometimes it happens. Actually quite a lot, if you read students exam papers. It probably happens in religious communities, too, but, overall, I’d say that the standard of knowledge as measured in their own community is higher among Christians then among atheists. Christians all know the Bible and can offer all kinds of quotes on a variety of subjects. How many formulas an average atheist can recall on the spot?

The pseudo part that Dawkins had in mind is different, of course, but how much of that can be put down to ideological disagreements that can’t be reconciled simply by reasoning? Natural selection looks like a pseudo theory to creationists and creationism looks like a pseudo theory to Darwinists. Dawkins shouldn’t use the label “pseudo” for the cases where it is still disputed and where he can’t prove it to the other side. I suppose he can use it in cases where simple trickery is being passed as miracle making but how many of those are out there? How many religious people abandon all skepticism when they hear about miracles? How strict is the Catholic church in examining those claims? Are they really satisfied with what could be easily determined as pseudo explanations? I don’t think so.

Dawkins also talked about explanations that appeal to one’s emotions but I don’t see religion as being the main culprit there. Everyone is abusing people’s emotions these days for all sorts of reasons. In many cases, like in politics, the perpetrators are aware of what they are doing but they argue that they manipulate people’s emotions for the greater good. How’s that different from religions controlling their flock by hook or by crook?

The last bit was a veiled personal attack on Chopra and I don’t want to comment on that, as well as on Chopra’s partying statement that these two are very unlikely to talk to each other ever again. It’s the common arguments against religion that I want to remember today – excluding individual behavior of religious people from the debate on the value of religions, seriously overestimating terrible things done in the name of the religion, the false statement that religious people are satisfied with not understanding things, and labeling religious beliefs as pseudo knowledge in cases where atheists can’t prove it to anyone but themselves.