Posts Tagged ‘Religion’

Ya know… It costs me about $9.00 a week just to get my New York Times on the weekend. Today, I could not even read past the front page. I’m saddened and utterly horrified by the actions taken by our government this week.

If you don’t understand why I find this so upsetting I beg you to look at the specific actions of the German government in 1933. For the first time in history I’m not scared for we Jews. I’m scared FOR people who my government wants me to be scared OF.

Islamic extremism is clearly the most horrific application of religious dogma since something like 1099. It should be feared and it must be stopped. But once you turn a billion people into “the bad guys”, you have tried to solve the problem in a way that contradicts everything I thought this country stood for. The guys who most promote American exceptionalism just removed the primary thing that makes America exceptional.

Build a wall. Lock the doors. Adopt 17th century failed isolationist economic policies. Promote hate. Bundle it up with propaganda about protecting the people. What do you have left of the “shining city on the hill”?




Today I have every reason to be thankful for a wide array of wonderful doctors, technologies, friends, and, of course the blessing of being married to Patt Bilow.

If you are one of the regular readers of my blog then you know that I am among the least intellectually consistent people you will find. Although I don’t take the Bible literally, I am very active in my synagogue. Although I tend to be skeptical about most things spiritual, I spent many years as a disciple of Paramshansa Yogananda and the Self Realization Fellowship. Although I am really bad at it, I tend to be as much of a rationalist as my love for Judaism, my love of Kriya Yoga, and my love of all of the amazingly wonderful religious friends that I have in my life allows.

The whole point of writing this blog is that I do struggle with my rationalism in relationship to my interest in, and openness to accepting, other people’s viewpoints. This blog is all about my struggle and my skepticism. It’s intended to allow me to share my wavering thinking with all of you, in the hope that if even one of my posts helps someone else I will have done a good thing. So, once again, as I struggle with rationalism and religiosity, I wanted to talk about Thanksgiving and the ability to build a life of gratitude whether or not one is religious.

This year, I want to do this by sharing my personal set of gratitudes.

One of the most interesting things I’m grateful for is that someone invented a medical technology called MRI. What kind of guy would even think about hitting a human body with a magnetic pulse to get all your atoms to line up and then to image that body by measuring how long it takes them to go back to the way they were! The guy must be a genius. What completely blew me away though was to realize that the genius who invented this technique has almost diametrically opposite beliefs to mine.

You have seen me write here, several times before, that I typically don’t care much for beliefs in creationism or those who deny evolution. What blew me away was to find that Dr. Raymond Damadian the “father of MRI” converted to Born Again Christianity with Billy Graham in the 1950s. Now, if you think I have conflicting thoughts and feelings and views, this guy makes mine look like nothing.

I really don’t understand how a guy with this level of brilliance could be an advocate for creationism; even having written about it in his book. That said, he is clearly a genius, has done more for the medical profession than almost anyone, and has now done more for me than most other people in the world have done for me because, only through his invention, were they able to find my tumor.

One would expect that I would be a fan of a guy who started his college career as a violinist at Juilliard and ended it as one of the most important inventors of a medical device ever. But you certainly wouldn’t expect me to be that much of a fan of a creationist. So the first thing that I want to say is that I am thankful for this guy, and the second thing I have to say is that my respect for him shows once again that I should not make value judgments about a person because of their religious beliefs. I am thankful that I’ve had another opportunity to come to realize this. Dr. Damadian has given me two new things for my collection of gratitude.

  • One, I am grateful for MRI.
  • Two, I am grateful for yet another lesson in religious tolerance.

I’m also indebted to the guys who invented Stereotactic Radiosurgery. Swedish neurosurgeon Lars Leksell first described it in a seminal paper in 1951. His work led to the Gamma Knife. But Dr. Barcia-Salorio in Madrid is the first guy to use something similar to what I just had done. He used a fixed cobalt device rotating around the patient’s head, not for tumors but for blood system malformations. Then Osvaldo Betti in Buenos Aires developed a machine, where you sit in a rotating chair and a linear accelerator (linac) moves in non-coplanar coronal arcs around the isocenter, which is the math wiz way of saying “the thingy ya wanna hit“. I layed on a flat bed which I think came from Federico Colombo in Vincenza who described a multiple non-coplanar arc concept that moved the linac around a couch in 1984. So, gratitude comes again. This time for:

  • Three, I’m grateful for the noble, honorable, ethical, life-affirming uses of radiation that stand in opposition to all the negative results of nuclear science.

But these folks are all people of the past. The present is full of blessings as well. My Neurosurgeon Dr. Burchiel, my Radiation Oncologist Dr. Kubicky, and their entire staffs are medical blessings of the present. The dosimitrist and medical physicist are mathematical blessings of the present. Even my overly expensive American medical insurance system is a blessing in its own way. These are gratitudes 4, 5, and 6

  • Four: I’m grateful that I live in a city where I can drive for 20 minutes to OHSU, a world-class teaching hospital with great doctors and a budget that allows them to own world-class instruments.
  • Five: I’m grateful that mathematics, medical science, and physics have merged in ways that can save, rather than destroy, lives.
  • Six: I’m grateful that I get to work for a company that gives me acceptable medical coverage, despite the costs.

But, clearly, the present has many more blessings than the doctors and scientists. More important than anything else is the people who I call friends and colleagues who have been so supportive:

  • Seven: I’m grateful for the myriad friends of the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Mormon, Unitarian Universalist,  and other traditions, who offered their prayers for me.
  • Eight: I’m grateful for my Objectivist, athiest, and other non-religious friends who offered such encouragement over the past few months.
  • Nine: I’m grateful to live in a community, here in Portland, that offers me the extraordinary friendships of people like Traci, Cindy and Tom, LeeAnn, Jon and Mair, Julie, Ann and Robin, Peter and Yukiko, Michele and David, Mike, and many, many more.
  • Ten: I’m grateful for WordPress, Facebook, and Twitter which have given me connections to my family, friends, and colleagues near and far; and which have allowed me to reconnect with my past in a profound way.
  • Eleven: I’m grateful for my own psychological makeup which gave me a sense of humor, the strength to be powerfully brave in the face of fear, the willingness to work through my feelings publicly, the ability to remain lighthearted amidst darkness, and the ability to turn everything into humor.
  • Twelve: More than anything, I’m grateful to have Patt Bilow by my side, no matter what.

These twelve gratitudes certainly have a spiritual component. Arguably, they may have a religious one. But, I think it’s fair to say that it is not necessary to have a specific view of God in order to maintain these 12 senses of gratitude. Certainly it does not require one to be Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, or Hindu, or atheist, or anything else. It doesn’t require one to meditate. It doesn’t require one to pray. It doesn’t require one to forsake anything. It doesn’t require one to embrace anything. At least, in all of those cases, it doesn’t require any particular religion or belief system.

All it really requires is to look around, to seek blessings in everything around you, to embrace yourself for who you are, to refuse to give into negativity  (which I am too oft prone to do), and to appreciate your life for what it is, what you can accomplish, and who is surrounding you to support you along the journey.

So this Thanksgiving I want to once again remind us that it is not necessary to have a specific Godhead in order to feel thanks. If you are religious, that is great.  But please don’t think that your religion, or any religion, or any individual believe system is the only path to grace. You don’t need anything supernatural or mystical to feel a sense of gratefulness and thanksgiving, you need only look around and appreciate.

Happy Thanksgiving!

This rather reminds me of the old days when the Taliban was destroying the priceless, irreplaceable artifacts of Buddhist culture. This time, for about the same reason, ISIS is hard at work destroying the precious history of Assyrian culture. Once again, religious extremism is working hard to destroy everything that doesn’t happen to be part of their particular ideology. Violent dogma at work. So…. let’s have a look:

Needless to say, you don’t go out and buy some new ancient Iraqi artifacts. So, like the Taliban before it, ISIS is killing not just humans but history.

What a pity.

Consider these questions:

  • Should the United States be a Christian Nation?
  • Should all Arab Americans have extra screening in US airports?
  • Should LGBT Americans be prohibited from marrying?
  • Should the top 100th of one percent of the wealthiest Americans be taxes at a much higher percentage that the general population?
  • Should pornographic websites be prohibited by law?

In the United States is is quite likely that a large part of the electorate would answer “yes” to one or more of these. As I see it, here is the problem:

  • Atheists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Shinto, Self-Realizationists, New Age Spiritualists, Native American Spiritualists, Objectivists, Agnostics, and every other type of believer or non-believer is afforded equal rights in our nation.
  • Most Arab-Americans are great people who have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism.
  • Lesbians and Gays are just as human and just as loving – often more so – as straight people and nearly all homophobia is founded on religion.
  • Pornography, whether or not we like it, is nothing more than a particular genre of entertainment.

In situations like this, where a minority must be afforded equality, a simple majority can destroy lives. That is why democracy can not work without checks and balances. Our polity was designed specifically to prohibit this “tyranny of the majority”. It is “liberty” NOT “democracy” upon which America is built. It is LIBERTY that permits EQUALITY to exist – NOT democracy.

Without liberty, we are no better than the nutcase African nations with their anti-Gay laws, the European nations with their state religions, the Muslim nations who stone their gay population to death and where a rape is the victims problem not the perpetrators. Some would like us to be like those nations: A Christian country with religion-driven “moral” codes and sealed borders. Not I.

I prefer living in a land distinguished by it acceptance of people regardless of race, creed, color, religion, or sexual orientation. I prefer liberty to democracy, I prefer universal dignity to dogma. For those reasons and more, when the religious right comes along to again shove its way into the 2016 presidential campaign, I will be there waiting; waiting to fight the onslaught of populist tyranny at every single turn.

Hey, it’s time again for the “Value Voters” summit. It’s the time, in Washington DC, where politicians quote Corinthians, and Libertarians show pictures of fetuses. It’s the time when the fundamentalists among us stand up for the right to be closed-minded and to make it clear that Christian values are the ONLY values.

In this close minded land of isolation we Jews, our Muslim friends, our Buddhist friends, our Hindu friends, and, God forbid, our Atheist and agnostic friends are insulted, degraded, and generally treated like crap. Oh, and by the way, let’s not forget about how much we hate the LGBT community.

Welcome value voters!

I have to tell you, candidly, that I hold some relatively conservative opinions. But, I also have to say that, when it comes to conservatism, It is mostly about economics where I sit on that side of the line. I, personally, have never seen a great society founded on socialist principles. While there are some really terrible capitalists around, I have to say that a capitalist society is the type of society in which I choose to live. I am not as hard line as most of my Libertarian friends. I think that government, and even government regulation, have a place in our society. But, to me, that is not what the value voters summit is about.

The reason that I could never be a Republican is because of your social views. This is where I adamantly side with my Libertarian friends. Using government to force people to live according to fundamentalist Christian values is exactly the opposite of that upon which my country was founded.

You folks have every right to be fundamentalist Christians. I respect that. I even admire you for your dedication to your beliefs. But, I have a value system that is formed on Jewish ethics which has at least as much validity in its foundation in biblical history as yours.

One major difference between me and you fundamentalist Christians is that I am not caught up in dogma. Furthermore, I use my study of the Bible as but one of many data points in my construction of my own value system and ethics. Along with that I consider reason and rationality to be a tremendous virtue.

I also try to live my life on the premise of liberty. You stay out of my bedroom and I will happily stay out of yours. You leave my gay and lesbian friends alone to enjoy their love and I will happily leave your straight friends the same way. In fact, I will happily leave MY straight friends the same way as well. You try not to make value judgments about my atheist friends and I will try my best not to make value judgments about your Baptist ones. And, for what it’s worth, I admit this is difficult for me.

You see, I disagree with your religious and your political views but I would die defending your right to hold them. On the other hand, not only would you not die in defense of my right to hold my views, but a few of you would shoot an abortion doctor, let Latin American children die in the desert, defend someone who shoots a black teenager just for being black, choose non-interventionism over human rights, prohibit a loving the lesbian couple from having the same relationship that you could have with your partner, and will gather for the express purpose of the degrading everyone who does not believe what you believe.

Welcome Value Voters!

Now, I want to be perfectly clear. You all have every right to have a Value Voters summit. What you do not have is the right to do is to contend that everyone who has values which differ from your own is VALUELESS.

That is what bothers me about you calling this event a Value Voters summit. I disagree with you on many, many things. Simply by naming your event as you do, you are making the direct statement that people like me not only disagree with your values but have no values. I take issue with that. In fact, I would say that my values are equally valid as yours. I admit that I have quite a bit of difficulty accepting you, but at least I will try. Conversely, you will never accept my belief system as being valid. That, my friends, is why I called you closed-minded.

Now here’s an especially funny one…

Many of you consider yourselves to be in the intellectual line of Ayn Rand. Have you ever actually read Ayn Rand? Have you ever heard her speak? Have you ever gone to YouTube and listened to her interviews? She is the intellectual opposite of you. I have to admit, she is equally dogmatic. But Ms. Rand would have absolutely nothing to do with any of your religiosity; in fact, when she was alive, she often very vocally spoke out against religion: your religion, my religion, any religion; because religion is not rational. So, for God’s sake (sic), don’t think that Ayn Rand would support The Tea Party, or any of your “value voters” agenda. You think she’s one of your role models, yet the word that she would use to describe you, and me, and every other person who participates in any religious practice, is “EVIL”. So, please don’t pretend that your belief system is even consistent, let alone accepting of anyone besides yourselves.

If you are thinking about telling me that I am no better than you, then I will not even dispute that. But, I do have to say that this blog is specifically about my contradictions and my struggle with them. So, at least, instead of having a political summit with everyone with whom I agree, I am trying to deal openly, and publicly, with my own intellectual struggles. In my humble opinion, this to be a better use of my time.

My bottom line is this: enjoy your summit but please don’t think that your values are the only values that can be held as the foundation of an ethical, vital life. My value system diverges from yours but it is a solid foundation for a life. Ms. Rand’s value system is diametrically (except when it comes to the sign of the dollar) opposed to yours: yet it too can be the foundation of a valid, vibrant, and highly fulfilling life. So, meet, speak, and speechify to your heart’s content. But, if you think that fundamentalist Christian values are the only valid values, then I, Jews around the world, atheists, and every religionist who is not Christian will be there to fight the battle for our own liberty, our own right to believe what we believe, our own sexual ethics, and our own paths to a world of love, benevolence, and respect for all human souls.

I am a strong advocate of “States Rights” and a limited federal government that operates according to enumerated constitutional rights. But there is one “States Rights” argument that I believe is being misused for the specific purpose of undermining the separation between church and state. I’d like to tell you why.

The ability for the states to make decisions appropriate to their populations, which may not be universally appropriate to the nation is a foundational concept. The vibrancy of America comes from our many levels of diversity. That diversity is expressed regionally, state-wise, and even locally. It is critical that the electorates at all of those levels have the ability to democratically construct the societies most appropriate to their demographics and cultural desires.

But democracy is dangerous. America is a republic not a democracy for a reason. Pure democracy puts all minorities at a disadvantage. The glory of America is exactly the fact that it oversees local democracy with a (limited) federal structure that insures the fundamental rights to property ownership, contracts and agreements, privacy, and other “nationwide” values are protected and enforced. Left on its own  local, state, and regional “democracy” would insure the loss of human and civil rights. Consider these examples:

1. If you ask the “majority” of Americans whether the US should be a “Christian nation”, MOST would likely say “yes”. This would build discrimination against, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Shinto, Native Americans,  Agnostics, “New Age” believers, Atheists, and many others right into the fabric of our society. American government is built to explicitly prohibit this.

2. If you ask the “majority” of Americans whether the US should be able to take private property, compensate the owner, and use that property for a “higher purpose” that benefits a local economy, they may well agree. That would build very dangerous problems into private property rights.

3. The “majority” of Americans believe that the wealthiest Americans should pay higher taxes because they can “afford” it. Do you know why? Because the majority of Americans are not it that category. Conversely, those with all the money wield enormous power that far offsets the “democracy” of the “little people”. We have to be able to balance democracy and corporate domination and that requires some amount of national oversight.

4. The antebellum south speaks for itself in demonstrating the disastrous consequences of indiscriminate democracy. Slave owners viewed slaves as “assets” and, where they were owned, they could VOTE to keep others captive. Only a national system of civil rights could finally overcome this.

This brings me to the reason that I believe “State’s Rights” is a fallacious political position with respect to California’s proposition 8.

In MOST states with fundamentalist Christian religious majorities, if you ask the “majority” of residents whether their state should allow “Gay Marriage”, they would answer “no”. This would build discrimination against the entire LGBT community right into the fabric of state laws and, as a whole, OUR society.  (This is NOT just a Christian issue; it would be equally true were their US states dominated by Orthodox Jews, conservative Muslims, or other “conservative” religions; only because those groups are minorities does it appear that this is a Christian problem; so, I’m not pointing at Christians, I am pointing and any dogmatic, closed-minded believer).The FEDERALISM that so many of those conservative states claim to so cherish is built to (again) explicitly prohibit this. In other words, where states have to ability to EXCLUDE citizens, the federal government is compelled to oversee the law in such a way as to disallow it. Therefore, the states CAN’T be allowed to VOTE on gay marriage. It is NOT a “states rights” issue. It is PURELY a “human rights” issue and that is not for the states to decide.

That takes care of California. But what about the bigger issue of DOMA?

The “defense of marriage act” (DOMA) is an even more straightforward issue. You can’t construct laws based on religious doctrine. That is why we try to hard to separate church and state. EVERY church – EVERY religious institution – MUST be free to practice their religions without interference from the government. So long as those institutions don’t do anything that is unconstitutional, they can do whatever they want. For better or worse, doing anything else is a very slippery slope. That’s why we are stuck with appalling groups like the Westboro Baptist Church, Neo-Nazi groups, and preachers who want to burn Korans. We can’t stop them from practicing their belief systems. We CANNOT force any religious group to accept gay marriage. But….

…We can also not enact laws whose ONLY foundation is in religious doctrine. There are NO other viable arguments that support DOMA. Therefore it MUST be overturned on constitutional grounds.

Today, as we Jews celebrate the first day of Passover, and we remember the blessings of freedom, I am reminded of the person who taught me to advocate for unequivocally equal human rights. I’m reminded of the Passover Seder I once spent with the Gottfried family. With that image in my mind, in memory of Emily Gottfried, I urge the US Supreme Court to overturn both DOMA and California Prop 8. Love is love and sometimes it seems so rare that we humans need to respect, cherish, and praise it wherever we see it.

Hag Pesach Someach.

By tradition a Jew begins every day with the two words “modeh ani“. Basically  this means “I acknowledge and thank God for giving me the gift of life once again today”. Fundamentally, the Jewish notion of gratitude; even in the midst of obstacles, problems, and difficulties; is intended to make life more bearable in the face of so much we don’t understand. Gratitude breeds optimism. Optimism (which I am well known to often lack myself – but not for lack of trying) makes life easier. The question is to whom we should be grateful and the most obvious answer may well be “God”. This would lead to the conclusion that, without God, there can be no gratitude. But wait

Does Judaism really teach that you can only be grateful to God? If we consider the possibility that everything is part of God, sure. But, that’s a recursive argument because if God is everything, then being grateful to God is just being grateful to everything. Where’s the incremental value to God in that proposition? So let’s set that argument aside and look at another Jewish idea. The great Mussar Rabbi, Eliyahu Lopian (1872 – 1970), is said to have once been chatting with a student after prayers. Simultaneously, he was folding his tallit. The tallit was one of those big Orthodox ones so R. Elyah had to set it on a table to fold it. After he had folded up his tallit. the Rabbi noticed that the table was dirty so he went out to get a towel to clean it off. The student noticed what Reb Elyah was doing and started to go get him the towel. Reb Elyah stopped him. “No! No! No! Wait, please!, he said, I must clean it myself. I must show my gratitude to the table for being here for me.” In other words, we can be grateful just because; we should show gratitude to everything from which we benefit. Not gratitude to God; just gratitude… period.

So what would happen if we just set God aside for a moment? Well, let’s see what some well known atheists have to say. First, I LOVE this quote from Richard Dawkins:

“After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked — as I am surprisingly often — why I bother to get up in the mornings.”

That is an interesting take on living, but only partially on gratitude. In a quote that I’m not as enamored with, but which makes my point, Dawkins speaks directly to the issue. He says this:

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die, because they are never going to be born. The number of people who could be here in my place outnumbers the sand grains of Sahara. If you think about all the different ways our genes could be permuted, you and I are quite grotesquely lucky to be here: the number of events that had to happen in order for you to exist, in order for me to exist. We are privileged to be alive and we should make the most of our time on this world.”

Essentially, Dawkins is saying that even in a Godless, atheistic, worldview there is room for gratitude. Why? Because in a universe of randomness there is much more of a chance that any one of us as an individual would never have existed at all. Why should we be grateful? Because we EXIST! And to whom? Well…. I don’t know…. maybe Brownian motion, maybe 1/f randomness, maybe white noise. But that random nothingness is not necessarily depressing or nihilistic  It can be wonderful… because out of random variation came ME! What kind of wonderful chance was there of THAT!

I’m not saying that I side with Dawkins. What I am saying is that you don’t need a Christ, or a Muhammad, or a Buddha, or a Shiva, or an Adonai, or any particular Godhead to feel grateful. Gratitude is a wonderful thing for everyone. Gratitude breeds optimism, which breeds happiness, no matter what religion you have or don’t have.

In my particular case, there are lots of things for which I’m thankful today. Number one is my unconditionally loving and supportive wife, Patt. This is a great example of how gratitude can come from any worldview. If I am with Patt because God brought us together, cool! I’m a happy guy. But… If it just happened by randomness, I’m cool with that too because, in that case, out of random variation came US! What kind of wonderful chance was there of THAT!

Another cause for gratitude this Thanksgiving is that I’ve been given the chance to go back to work for Grass Valley, a company I really love. God? Maybe. Seems like Brownian motion to me. But, I’ll chose to just think it was a perfect fit and those guys are lucky as hell to have me back 🙂 I could go on, and there are many more things I could think of from this past year. But since this is my year of reading Proust, and since those other things generally involve the people in my life, I’ll take a moment to share what Proust has to say about gratitude:

“Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” 

That is a beautiful way to express gratitude for friends. But, I’ll end with something I’ve said before because this is an àpropos way to close. Whether or not you believe in God, take to heart what one of my guru’s, Bob Nozick, has said – because this is a perfect expression of why one’s heart may feel gratitude, with or without a religious receiver. Take this into your heart and soul:

“It is a privilege to be part of the ongoing realm of existing things and processes… we identify with the totality and, in the calmness this brings, feel solidarity with all of our comrades in existing” — Robert Nozick (1989) 

Happy Thanksgiving!