Monday, January 05, 2015

Old Problems Made New

This evening on the way home I was listening to NPR's program "All Things Considered." The mellifluous voice of NPR correspondent Frank Langfitt speaks of China as a place "dominated by competing trends," and proposes to describe for us a confrontation in China between materialism and spirituality as an example.

Already I'm bothered. Not only does "competing trends" describe just about any place in the world, but the word spirituality is such a useless word. It means nothing, because people like Langfitt manage to use it to mean anything at all. But let's let Langfitt set the scene: 

"That last conflict plays out every other Sunday morning in Shanghai when hundreds of Buddhists pack the banks of the city's Huangpu River. Monks in saffron-colored robes lead believers in song in the shadow of some of the world's tallest skyscrapers. Then they pour thousands of fish and mollusks into the muddy waters that empty a dozen miles downstream into the mighty Yangtze River...  just 20 yards downstream, two-dozen men lie in wait with nets for what they see as a free meal."
That, according to Langfitt juxtaposes materialism with spirituality. Instead of focusing on hungry people not getting food from wealthy Buddhists whose idea of doing the right thing consists of buying food animals and throwing them in the river, Langfitt frames his story as one where religious values are thwarted by greedy people.

And, as if that weren't bad enough, Langfitt tells us of a woman, one of the Buddhist worshippers, who goes to one of the fishermen and berates him. He ignores her, and the woman eventually leaves him alone. Langfitt reports on her philosophizing.

"If they catch fish and it makes them happy, then I guess I'm happy for them, But when something bad happens to their families and they wonder why? It's because he did something bad."
What's wrong with that? I guess a lot of people are happy substituting karma for a punishment from the gods. I know liberal religionists love the joke, "My karma ran over your dogma."

But karma refers to a supernatural book keeping system that weighs bad behavior against good behavior and then balances the scales by throwing in bad fortune or good fortune.

What's wrong with that is that it is the ancient trap of scapegoating.

Paul freed Christianity from that trap by coming up with the idea of grace. Christians say God's plan is mysterious, and good or bad things happen to people for no fault of their own. Yes, there are many stupid Christians who don't get that. I invite you to ignore them. And, yes, some Christian religions don't actually believe in grace, as such.

Of the three Abrahamic religions Judaism and Islam fail to free themselves. While Christians read, for example, the story of Job as an example that bad things can happen to good people, the various explications in the Midrash mostly try to figure out just where Job sinned against God. Islam requires a sinful person to repent. If they don't repent, then Allah will punish them in this life. An unfortunate person therefore is an unrepentent sinner. (As with Christians, there probably are sects that are exceptions.)

(All three religions of course threaten believers with punishment in the next existence.)

The point being, it's possible to be a religionist and not fall in that trap, even if many religions fail.

So where does this idea of karma or scapegoating come from? It turns out, as most people probably know, that it's a part of our human nature. Our minds love to find patterns. Sometimes we're right, but often the patterns are spurious. The poisonous idea of karma causes us to associate bad fortune with bad behavior by combining this pattern seeking with confirmation bias. And if bad things happen to people because they've done bad things, then people don't help the unfortunate, for fear that their bad karma might rub off. Instead people with bad fortune are often shunned in their communities.

In short, scapegoating or karma is a poisonous idea. And it is a fundamental idea of Buddhism, a religion that is touted by many as rational (because it is atheistic?). Buddhism itself got it from Hindi religions. So much for enlightenment.

But Langfitt wanted to focus on a manufactured confrontation between materialism (a hungry man) and spirituality (a wealthy Buddhist throwing food into a river), instead of focusing on how it is that a nation that proposes to rival the US and Europe in economic might still harbors ideas that were outdated before the close of the bronze age.

What the hell is happening to NPR?