contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Atheism

POEM: NOTIONS

I like this poem for its depiction of a young person’s best efforts, leading to the experience of ‘discourse by dismissal’ and a counter-affirmation of the ‘vigour of heresy’.

Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate

Plurality should not be posited without necessity

                William of Ockam

In my first serious essay

For Religious Studies

I apply Occam’s razor

(Choice of budding scientist)

To God’s reputation:

All power to do all things,

All essence in all things,

All guidance for all things,

Past, present, future.

Keeping it simple, I favour

The universe as it is, in its cycles

Of boom and dust, orbits

And double-helix feats, all

Loosed by laws of urge

And reaction, lure and strife,

First seed, last song,

Billiard balls colliding

Ad infinitum, no recourse

To maker or judge.

I await appreciation

Of insight and logic, but

None comes, others praised

In a covenant of dogma,

My first taste of discourse

By dismissal, my first vow

For the vigour of heresy.

Earl Livings Libation Port Adelaide, AUS: Ginninderra Press, 2018 www.ginninderapress.com.au

NOTE: Earl Livings lives in Melbourne, Australia and edited Divan, Australia’s first all-Australian online poetry journal from 1999 to 2013. His first poetry collection Further than Night, was published in 2000, and in 2005 he won the Melbourne Poets Union International Poetry Competition. His poetry and fiction have been published in journals and anthologies in Australia, Britain, Canada, the USA and Germany. He is currently working on a Dark Ages novel and his next poetry collection.

My thanks to Nimue Brown for drawing attention to the Libation collection at http://druidlife.wordpress.com/2020/03/29/

REBLOG: ATHEOPAGANISM FOR SOLITARIES

We’re a subgroup of a subculture. Of a couple of them, actually: atheism and Paganism. So it’s not a surprise that though there are many of us collectively, we are spread thinly and may live far away from anyone else who identifies as practicing the path of Atheopaganism. Thus, this post, about practicing as a […]

Atheopaganism for Solitaries — Atheopaganism

DEFINING ‘SECULAR’

Stephen Batchelor’s Secular Buddhism (1) explores what a “nonreligious, this-worldly, secularised Buddhism” might look like. This post is part of my own inquiry into what it means to feel ‘secular’ whilst  engaged in ‘spiritual’ practices and connected with modern Paganism. Batchelor uses ‘secular’ in three overlapping senses:

  1. A general contemporary usage where ‘secular’ stands in contrast to whatever is ‘religious’ – the two terms being clearly polarised whilst not very clearly defined.
  2. A Latin derived sense of ‘this age’ (saeculum) – referring to “those concerns we have about this world, that is, everything that has to do with the quality of our personal, social and environmental experience of living on this planet”.
  3. A Western, historical-political sense, acknowledging a 2-300-year period of ‘secularisation’ that has transformed the whole culture to the point where most people can live “almost their entire lives without giving religion a thought”.

Stephen Batchelor talks about an “uncompromisingly secular reading” of the Buddha’s teaching, in which “one returns to the mystery and tragedy of the everyday sublime. Instead of nirvana being located in a transcendent realm beyond the human condition, it would be restored to its rightful place at the heart of what it means each moment to be fully human”. He is an admirer of Ludwig Feuerbach, a student of Hegel who came to reject his teacher’s emphasis on the primacy of Spirit in the unfolding of history and advocated instead a liberal, materialist and atheist view of the world. “Feuerbach’s basic idea is simple. ‘Religion’, he wrote in the preface to his most famous book, The Essence of Christianity (1841) ‘is the dream of the human mind. But even while dreaming we are not in heaven or the realm of Nothingness. We are right here on earth’”.

In this way, Batchelor acknowledges all three senses of ‘secular’: a distancing from traditional religious belief, an affirmation of the world and time, and the rise of modern secular belief systems – Feuerbach was an early influence on Karl Marx. I like the way Batchelor teases out these meanings, especially his acknowledgement of ‘movement in time’ aspects as well as ‘not religious’ ones. I am more open and agnostic about the language of ‘heaven or the realm of Nothingness’ alongside that of being ‘right here on earth’. If we treat these as states rather than places, then I can see them intertwined dimensions of being. But I do not hold this as an ideology.  I stand, rather, in openness and unknowing: the direct experience of At-Homeness in a flowing now is my ground and source, with or without a cosmic warranty.

Another sense, that of interconnectedness in the web of life, grows out of my At-Homeness – and this is firmly situated in place, time, and history. That place and time, right now, is one of distress, division and confusion, facing runaway climate change as a collective existential threat. My inquiry asks to to be alive to this collective wounding, and to contribute to a healing. In previous inquiry phases, I worked with modern Druidry and Paganism, focusing largely on the ‘nature’ aspect, but also on the powers of imagination and deep cultural stories. I then turned to other paths with a stronger emphasis on contemplative practice and its benefits. There is a treasure trove of resources in all of these these explorations, and I shall continue to draw upon them in my new inquiry cycle.

(1) Stephen Batchelor Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2017

BUDDHA AND MARA

Stephen Batchelor is my favourite Buddhist writer. He is also a model of spiritually grounded atheism. The passage below is from his Confession of a Buddhist atheist (1). I’m not Buddhist, yet I resonate with what he is saying and feel encouraged on my own path.

“For traditional Buddhists, the Buddha has come to be seen as the perfect person. He is an example of what a human being can ultimately become through treading the eightfold path. The Buddha is said to have eliminated from his mind every trace of greed, hatred and confusion, so that they are ‘cut off at the root, made like a palm stump, so that they will never arise again’. At the same time, the Buddha is believed to have acquired faultless wisdom and boundless compassion. He is omniscient and unerringly loving. He has become God.

“Yet the many passages in the Pali canon that depict the Buddha’s relations with Mara paint a very different picture. On attaining awakening in Uruvela, Siddatha Gotama* did not ‘conquer’ Mara in the sense of literally destroying him. For Mara is a figure that continues to present himself to Gotama even after the awakening. He keeps reappearing under different guises until shortly after the Buddha’s death in Kusinara. This implies that craving and the other ‘armies of Mara’ have not been literally deleted from Buddha’s being. Rather, he has found a way of living with Mara that deprives the devil of his power. To be no longer manipulated by Mara is the equivalent of being free from him. The Buddha’s freedom is found not in destroying greed and hatred, but in comprehending them as transient, impersonal emotions that will pass away of their own accord as long as you do not cling to and identify with them.

“In Pali, Mara means ‘the killer’. The devil is a mythic way of talking about whatever imposes limits on realizing one’s potential as a human being. As well as physical death, Mara refers to anything that wears you down or causes your life to be reduced, blighted or frustrated. Craving is a kind of inner death because it clings to what is safe and familiar, blocking one’s capacity to enter the stream of the path. Yet other kinds of ‘death’ can be imposed by social pressures, political persecution, religious intolerance, war, famine, earthquakes, and so on. Mara permeates the fabric of the world in which we struggle to realize our goals and reach fulfillment. Siddhattha Gotama was no more exempt from these constraints than anyone else.

“If Mara is a metaphor for death, then Buddha, as his twin, is a metaphor for life. The two are inseparable. You cannot have Buddha without Mara any more than you can have life without death. This was the insight I gained from Living with the Devil (2). Instead of perfection and transcendence, the goal of Gotama’s Dhamma* was to embrace this suffering world without being overwhelmed by the attendant fear or attachment, craving or hatred, confusion or conceit, that come in its wake.

“A clue to how this might be done is found in the parable of the raft. Gotama compares the Dhamma to a raft that one assembles from pieces of driftwood, fallen branches and other bits of rubbish. Once it has taken you across the river that lies in your way, you leave it behind on the bank for someone else and proceed on your way. The Dhamma is a temporary expedient. To treat it as an object of reverence is as absurd as carrying the raft on your back even though you no longer need it. To practice the Dhamma is like making a collage. You collect ideas, images, insights, philosophical styles, meditation methods, and ethical values that you find here and there in Buddhism, bind them securely together, then launch your raft into the river of your life. As long as it does not sink or disintegrate and can get you to the other shore, then it works. That is all that matters. It need not correspond to anyone else’s idea of what ‘Buddhism’ is or should be.”

  • Stephen Batchelor Confession of a Buddhist atheist. Spiegel & Grau: New York, USA, 2011
  • Stephen Batchelor Living with the devil: a meditation on good and evil Riverhead Books: New York, USA, 2004

 

  • Batchelor uses Pali forms rather than the more widely known Sanskrit ones – hence Siddhattha Gotama rather than Gautama Siddhartha and Dhamma rather than Dharma.

HYPATIA

March 15 is a day of remembrance for Hypatia, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer from Alexandria in Roman Egypt. Hypatia is claimed both as a Pagan and an Atheist martyr, for in 415 or 416 a mob of Christian zealots dragged her into a church, stripped her and beat her to death with roofing tiles. Then they tore her body apart and burnt it. Her crime was a combination of her gender, education, non-Christian views and role as a publicly respected teacher.

In an article for Smithsonian.com (1), Sarah Zielinski says, “though she is remembered more for her violent death, her dramatic life is a fascinating lens through which we may view the plight of science in an era of religious and sectarian conflict”. Hypatia’s life (350/70? – 415/16?) was devoted to the Alexandrian Academy, where she was the pupil and subsequently colleague of her father Theon. She became the head of the Academy on his death and as a teacher is best remembered for her contribution to mathematics.

Hypatia has been described as “the first recognizably Neoplatonic teacher in Alexandria” (2), which links her into a belief system in which everything emanates from the One, but where the One is not the personal God of popular religion. Her pupils included Synesius of Cyrene, who later became a Christian Bishop of Ptolemais. Her public lectures were popular and drew crowds. “Donning the robe of a scholar, the lady made appearances around the centre of the city, expounding in public to those willing to listen on Plato and Aristotle”, wrote the philosopher Damascius after her death.

She was also admired by Orestes, the Roman Governor of Alexandria. But this was less of a protection than it might seem. For many years, the city had been beset by fighting among Christians, Jews and Pagans, as the pressure for religious uniformity grew. Notable casualties included the city’s once famous Library and Museum. The last remnants “likely disappeared … in 391, when the Archbishop Theophilus tore down the temple of Serapis, which may have housed the remaining scrolls, and built a church on the site” (1). Hypatia’s father, Theon, was the last known member of the Museum. The Academy continued, with Theon and Hypatia working together, and then with Hypatia by herself taking pupils at home. Lessons included instruction on how to design an astrolabe, a kind of portable astronomic calculator that continued in use until the nineteenth century. Hypatia also wrote commentaries on important texts of the day.

In 412 Alexandria got a new Archbishop – Cyril, nephew to Theophilus. The hostile pressure on other faiths, now including Christian heresies, continued. One of Cyril’s first actions was to close and plunder the Churches of the Novatian sect. It became a fight over who controlled Alexandria. The Governor Orestes was a Christian, but not in this bigoted form, and in any case did not want to cede power to the Church. In 415 a three-sided feud broke out over the regulation of Jewish dancing exhibitions in Alexandria (3), with the Jewish community, Cyril’s Christian faction and the civil power all taking different positions. It seems that Orestes consulted Hypatia for neutral advice. The situation escalated. Orestes tortured one of Cyril’s followers on suspicion of instigating an anti-Jewish riot; Cyril then threatened “utmost severities” against the whole Jewish population; a group of Jewish extremists responded by killing several of his followers. At this point Cyril “rounded up all the Jews of Alexandria, then ordered them to be stripped of all possessions, banished them from Alexandria, and allowed their goods to be pillaged by the remaining citizens of Alexandria”.

Orestes was incensed and wrote to the Emperor, “excessively aggrieved that a city of such magnitude should have been suddenly bereft of so large a portion of its population”. Cyril, too, wrote to the Emperor. Then he changed tack and tried to restore relations with Orestes, but Orestes refused. Cyril changed tack again and brought down 500 monks of “a very fiery disposition” from the mountains of Nitria into the city. They attacked Orestes’ chariot in the street and tried to stone him to death, but they were driven off. One of the monks, who had struck the Governor on the head with a rock, was arrested and executed. Cyril’s people had come off worst and needed a counter blow.

Hypatia was an easier target than Orestes. A rumour was spread that she was preventing Orestes and Cyril from settling their differences. A contemporary, Socrates Scholasticus of Constantinople, tells of “the fierce and bigoted zeal” with which she was waylaid, and the great public revulsion against the Alexandrian Christian community that followed her brutal murder. He laments, “surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort” (3). But 200 years later, in a world of deepened Orthodoxy, John of Nikiu celebrates the final defeat of Pagan idolatry “And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a Pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes, and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through Satanic wiles … a multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the Magistrate … and they proceeded to seek for the Pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the Prefect through her enchantments”. John seems entirely at ease as he goes on to recount the story of Hypatia’s death.

Even in later times Hypatia remained controversial. The Deist/Pantheist scholar John Toland defended her in the early eighteenth century. but got a spirited reply from Thomas Lewis, in a 1721 tract The History of Hypatia, a most Impudent School-Mistress of Alexandria, Murder’d and torn to Pieces by the Populace, in Defence of Saint Cyril and the Alexandrian Clergy, from the Aspersions of Mr. Toland. In 1853 Charles Kingsley needed to adjust history. Hypatia; or New Foes with an Old Face initially portrays the scholar as a “helpless, pretentious and erotic heroine”, though later she is redeemed her through her conversion by a Jewish Christian character, Raphael Aben-Ezra, having supposedly become disillusioned with Orestes.

More recently, Hypatia has attracted more favourable attention from people as diverse as Carl Sagan and Judy Chicago. Iain Pears features a Hypatia-like figure in his novel A Dream of Scipio. Maria Dzielska published Hypatia of Alexandria, a scholarly study of her life, in 1995 and Michael Deakin wrote a book of the same name in 2007. The Indiana University Press publishes Hypatia: a Journal of Feminist Philosophy. The Spanish film Agora tells a fictional story of Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) struggling to save the library from Christian zealots, which is nonetheless faithful to the issues raised by her life and death. For me Hypatia’s is a living story, with lessons still to offer. It is well worth a day of remembrance.

 

  • Pauliina Remes Neoplatonism Stocksfield: Acumen Press, 2008

 

 

 

EPICURUS AND THE BUTTER

“Epicurus had a garden just near Athens. He was also one of the rarest of men, just like Chuang Tzu. He didn’t believe in God, he didn’t believe in anything, because belief is nonsense. Only foolish people believe. A man of understanding has faith, not belief. Faith is different. Faith means trusting life, trusting it so absolutely that one is ready to go with it, anywhere.

“He had a small garden, and he lived there with his disciples. People thought that he was an atheist, immoral. He did not believe in God, he did not believe in the scriptures, he did not believe in any temple. He was an atheist. But he lived in such a great way. His life was superb, magnificent, even though he had nothing, even though they were very poor. The king heard about them and wanted to see how they lived, and how they could be happy without belief. If you could not be happy even with a belief in God, how could these people be happy without God?

“So he came one evening to visit Epicurus’ garden. He was really surprised, amazed – it was a miracle. They had nothing, almost nothing, but they lived like emperors. Like gods they lived. Their whole life was a celebration.

“When they went to the stream to take their bath, it was not simply a bath; it was a dance with the river. They sang and they danced and they swam and they jumped and they dived. Their eating was a celebration, a feast, and they had nothing, just bread and salt, not even butter. But they were so thankful that just to be was enough; nothing more was needed.

“The emperor was very much impressed, and he asked Epicurus: ‘next time I come, I would like some gifts for you. What would you like?’

“Epicurus said, ‘Give us time to think. We never thought that anybody would give us gifts, and we have so many gifts from nature. But if you insist, then bring us a little butter, nothing else. Just that will do.’”

  • Osho When the shoe fits: commentaries on the stories of the Taoist mystic Chuang Tzu London: Watkins Publishing, 2004

 

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: STEPHEN BATCHELOR

Stephen Batchelor offers some thoughts on immediate experience and concepts of mind, soul and reincarnation.

 

“I had noticed that when listening to the song of a bird, it was impossible to differentiate the cooing of the wood pigeon, on the one hand, and the hearing of it, on the other.  Conceptually the two were different, but, in immediate experience, I could not have one without the other, I could not draw a line between them, I could not say where the bird song stopped and my hearing of it began.  There was just a single, primary, undifferentiated me-hearing-the-birdsong.

“Being-in-the-world means that I am inextricably linked into the fabric of this fluid, indivisible, and contingent reality I share with others.  There is no room for a disembodied mind or soul, however subtle, to float free of this condition, to contemplate it from a hypothetical Archimedean point outside.  Without such a mind or soul, it is hard to conceive of anything that will go into another life once this one comes to an end”.

Stephen Batchelor, 2011, Confession of a Buddhist atheist New York: Spiegel & Grau

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