Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for April, 2013|Monthly archive page

Ghost in the Machine

In Nostalgia for God, Religion and Society on April 14, 2013 at 12:24 pm

There are ghosts in my dish washing machine.

I was reading earlier this evening an essay about the evolution of religious thought. An evolutionary approach to religion posits that our systems of belief have changed over time as our brains and societies have developed. It is closely tied to the psychological approach, which holds that religious beliefs stem from psychological needs – such as the need to understand how our world works or what happens to us after death. Both theories see religion as a construct of the human mind.

A somewhat simplified version of the theory goes like this – the least developed religious ideas are basically different versions of belief in magic, fetishism, dream interpretation, and the like. Next comes animism, where the belief in souls or spirits prevail – appeasement of the spirits of departed ancestors or those who have some influence over nature. Spirits that are venerated for more than a few generations may become so powerful in the minds of believers that they morph into deities and demigods, and the next phase – polytheism – is  achieved. After this comes monism – the belief that there are several gods but you choose to worship only the one you think is best – and finally the short step from there is taken to monotheism. Some would insist that this evolution is still continuing today, and would ‘complete’ the process by appending deism, agnosticism, and atheism to this list.

Religious evolution doesn’t take place neatly even within a single culture, as some accept new ideas and others prefer to stick to the old ways. Even when a religion is considered to have evolved to a certain level, it often retains elements of the ‘lower’ form of belief – monotheists may venerate a relic in much the same way a primitive person believes in a fetish, polytheists might still pay soothsayers to perform magical incantations.

And agnostics may cling to ghosts, even when they know better.

My most prized possessions are a set of coffee mugs my mother gave me on our last Christmas together. In general, I have a lot of rules about drinking. There are certain drinks for certain times of the day or year, and they must be served in the proper glass or cup to be fully enjoyed – heavy cut crystal for scotch, chilled Imperial pints for ales, small snifters for cognac, etc. For coffee, the right mug is critical. Too big and not only does the coffee cool before you can finish, you look like you’re at clown school while drinking it. Too small and you can’t stir in your cream without sloshing some over the edge. The mug must have sufficient heft, thick enough to keep from scalding your hands.


In years of visits to my parents’ house, my mother had observed me drinking my coffee out of exactly the same set of mugs every time, going so far as to pull one out of the dishwasher and wash it by hand if none were clean. She commented more than once that the coffee would be just as good out of one of her other cups; I let her know that she was mistaken. Her last Christmas, I think knowing deep down inside that the cancer would not let her see another, she gave as gifts to friends and family many of her personal possessions – jewelry, photographs, figurines. She gave me the coffee mugs.

Every morning since her passing, I wake up, start the coffee, pull one of those mugs from the cupboard, and sit for a moment or two with my mom.  I don’t actually talk with her – or talk at all really. I’m just aware of her presence, somehow the cup in my hand bringing her closer for a moment or two. I think about what she might have to say about what’s happening in my life, or if the weather outside would suit her.

I know this is absurd. I know that we are material only, and that what we call the soul is a manifestation of the physical brain, nothing more. There is no spirit that continues to live – not on any alternative plane of existence, heaven, Elysium, nirvana – nor in our own. We know that when part of the brain is damaged, that part of the person we once knew can disappear; why do we think that when the entire brain shuts down, that person would continue to exist elsewhere? Dishes can last forever – the people who fill them by their labor and love do not.

But there are ghosts in the machine, old patterns of thinking wired into the hardware of our brain in more ancient times, ideas we know to be false but are still attractive. And so we preach against prejudice but are careful to move to neighborhoods with ‘good’ schools. We eschew organized religion but fall prey to gurus. We knock on wood, cross our fingers, pray.

Sometimes, the more ‘primitive’ religion has better ideas than the modern one. For example, most animistic cultures do not venerate an ancestor spirit for more than a predetermined number of generations; once everyone with any direct memory of the ancestor has died, the spirit of that ancestor is considered to be permanently gone. This means you can’t make up untrue accounts of what your object of worship supposedly said or did – because someone else would remember and call you out. You might recite words of wisdom that had been handed down from generation to generation – but you don’t worship the person who said them. Imagine what a better place the world would be, how much nonsense we could avoid if we didn’t have such misplaced veneration for people who supposedly said and did certain things hundreds of years ago.

But ghosts are strong, and the struggle to rid ourselves of their influence continues. We hear the forgotten hymn and are moved by it. We miss the form, the ritual.

We whisper to a coffee cup in those dark and quiet moments before the dawn.


Follow American Secularist on Facebook or subscribe below.

Buddha for President

In American Enlightenment, American Society, Religion and Government on April 8, 2013 at 12:00 am

Wat Po 2009

I am unequivocally opposed to an established religion in a democracy. Furthermore, I do not believe that democracy is a product of religious belief; more specifically I do not believe that the American Constitution is based on Biblical precepts. Anyone who reads the document and has any understanding of history knows that it is a product of the Enlightenment. If the God of the Bible had been the true inspiration behind it, it would have a lot more to say about eating pork, cleansing oneself from blood contamination, and not spilling one’s seed on the ground.

It goes without saying that, in my opinion, the ills of this country are not due to the fact that we have strayed from God. Getting ‘more God’ into our government would make things worse, not better. If you are not convinced, let me remind you of some examples of pious societies – Oliver Cromwell’s England, Puritan New England, Spain of the Inquisition, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, present-day Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, David Koresh‘s Waco, Texas, and Jim Jones’s Jonestown, Guyana. If it’s God-and-guns you want, immigrate to the dozen or so countries across the globe that consistently make the ‘don’t travel here for any reason’ list, and leave this country alone. I’m sure you think that running things according to your religion would be kinder and gentler than my examples – so did the Kool-Aid sipping acolytes at Jonestown.

Are there countries that have no interest whatsoever in making their societies ‘more godly’? Yes, there are. They consist of the 20-odd countries that usually outrank the US in ‘happiest places’ and ‘best places to live’ polls that haunt the Internet. These countries, with much lower crime and poverty rates than our own, decided long, long ago that religion had no role to play in government, and their peoples are happier and healthier because of it.

Seriously, no one in the religious mainstream – measured at it’s broadest swath, from Fred Phelps to any lesbian Episcopalian pastor – is truly interested in having the government involved in our personal religious beliefs – no matter what they say to the contrary. Freedom of religion is what allows you to be as loony as you like; once you start trying to legislate morality, you get a religious practice that looks a lot more like the Church of England, and no American is interested in that, not now, not two centuries ago.

So tell your Congressman to give it up already. We all know that the vote to close down the one and only abortion clinic in the state of Mississippi sprung not from any moral conviction, but from the desire to squeeze every last vote out of the uneducated crowd, from Honey Boo-Boos’s inbred cousins to the cast of Swamp People.

However, if I were forced to choose a religion that I think would work well with our American system, I’d have to go with the teachings of the Buddha. Now, I know what you’re thinking – Westerners who get involved in Eastern mysticism are about the flakiest individuals you will ever meet. It’s hard not to think of the words ‘Buddhist’ and ‘Hippie Narcissist’ together. And the Dalai Lama is charming enough in a ten-minute interview, but I don’t think his outlook would be particularly reassuring to Wall Street. But hear me out.

First of all, Buddhism isn’t technically a religion, as it eschews the belief in a deity.This is probably why it never displaced Hinduism in India, its birthplace. In the land of thirty-five thousand gods, they would have accepted the addition of another one, but never the subtraction of them all. In fact, the Buddha considered a belief in god one of the ‘attachments’ or illusions that bring us so much misery. If your life is going to hell and your god never steps in to help you out, you add an additional heartbreak added to the one you are already experiencing. It’s devastating to have your crops destroyed by a storm; to think that your god could have stepped in but didn’t, that you’ve angered him or her in some way, that some deficiency in your worship may have indeed caused it – this is even worse.

In America, whenever a tragedy occurs, a Hurricane Katrina or a stock market crash, we get the added pleasure of a Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, high and dry and insulated by hedge funds, telling us that we ourselves are to blame for disappointing God in some way. Or that God is trying to teach you something through your cancer. Or that the richest 1% in America own 40% of the wealth because God has decided they are good stewards – and you are not.

Getting rid of the deity would remove so many roadblocks to becoming a more rational society in America. These problems that seem impossible to solve – global climate change, gun ownership, gay marriage, etc., would all become so much easier to solve when one side couldn’t claim to have the ‘mind of God’ on their side.

Secondly, Buddhism addresses directly the most negative aspect of capitalism – suffering. Market societies, efficient as they are, produce winner and losers. In past generations, almost everyone got to win a little bit, and the losers were few. Today, the winners win big, and everyone else gets the crumbs. A lot more people are left out in the cold. Buddhism doesn’t lay a guilt trip on you for being one of the losers – it makes you realize that even the so-called winners enjoy a temporary advantage at best. Since winning and losing is all about chance, there is always hope that the wheel will turn in your favor – but in the end, we will all suffer loss, all get sick, grow old, eventually die.

Finally, the life of the Buddha fits into that American motif of privileged Americans spending their lives helping move our society in a positive directions. Siddharta Gautama began life as a prince, but decided to live an ascetic life in hope of improving humanity. Everyone knows that the rags-to-riches stories are a relic from the American past, and, unless you become a basketball player or a reality TV star, such a thing will not happen to you. We’re not interested in what the little guy has to say – let me hear about how the world works from guys like Donald Trump and Warren Buffet.  The guy with nowhere to lay his head isn’t relevant to today’s America.  From Thomas Jefferson to Mitt Romney, American politics have always been a place for the privileged to give something back to those less fortunate.

And by the way, that last paragraph was meant to be sarcastic – in case the Mitt Romney reference didn’t tip you off.