Sunday, September 30, 2012

The destiny of the unevangelized, and the incompetently evangelized

One of the strongest objections to any faith system claiming Universality is the destiny of the unevangelized -- simply put, it is troubling to claim that only those who hold a certain belief will reap an afterlife reward -- and those who do not hold such belief will instead be punished with an afterlife of suffering -- where it is demonstrable that some number of people will have lived and died without ever even hearing of the belief. This, indeed, presents one of the major divides within individual religions, with believers fervently arguing for one position on the issue or the other, to the point of schism and bloody internecine religious war.

Perhaps more troubling still, there is the gray area of those who heard some snippet or other of this claimed 'one true' belief, but were presented it incompletely or incompetently, so that they were in no position to form a reasoned judgment about the relative logic of it while they lived. Indeed, where decisions are made based on imperfect information, it must become a very delicate art indeed to assert that one person over another has information perfect enough to make a decision upon.

The idea of admission to the positive afterlife based on "works" at least disposes of the problem of the unevangelised (and the less-discussed corollary of the incompetently evangelised), as one of the major failings of theistic faiths. But, such an idea disposes as well of the notion that one must have the correct belief, and so undermines the notion of one religion especially being the truth. Perhaps more devastatingly, as religious edifices go, it undermines the argument for funding and empowering a lavishly appointed priest-class.

And as to those who hear some piece of evangelism, it is quite possible that more people come to altogether reject the idea of a given "God," or of any especial iteration thereof, due to the offensive showing made by various theistic adherents, than due to any inherent objection which might be made against the idea itself. And just as clearly, there are at least some theists much prefer to experience the smug self-satisfaction of thinking they've won an argument via some fine point of theological wordplay than to experience something like actually helping the needy. So, if there was a God who punished anyone, it ought to first be thought to punish its own errant followers for setting such a shameful and repulsive example that their brutish conceit drives the multitude away from their professed deity.

The problem of the offensive missionary:

Picture this: a young missionary of one of the claimedly universal faiths (and I cite no especial example of a faith -- though I certainly could cite many out of personal experience) steps off the boat and onto a remote South Pacific island, one never before subject to any sort of evangelism. Previous visitors to the isle had only stopped to trade and survey, never to spread any faith, and so the natives are completely unaware that any religion exists other than their own local traditions, most likely some mix of reverence for nature and veneration of ancestors, passed down to them for thousands of generations. The people of this island speak no English; the missionary counts on miraculous intervention to supplement his communications, and so has learned but a few sentences in a language spoken by the next nearest islanders, presumed to have a common root. This missionary immediately takes to berating the natives for their failure to conform to his own moral preferences. Perhaps, based on his own errant religious instruction, he insists that the the natives will be condemned to eternal punishment because they wear nothing above the waist, or because they engage in work on a certain day of the week, or fail to engage in prayer on another. Perhaps this missionary declares that all of the marriages on the island are illegitimate because none, before his arrival, have conformed with his understanding of the appropriate ceremony. But shortly, he has given an absurd impression to the natives, who politely shoo him off their island at the next opportunity, resolved that the belief system peddled by this unprepared interloper is nonsensical, and thusly declining further missionary visitations.

Are these natives now to be deemed well-enough versed in the religion so poorly evangelized to them to be liable for eternal damnation, should they reject it? Are their children so liable, if the previous generation opts not to bother sharing the story? And, would it be at all fair for a deity to punish the nonbelieving native, and yet not punish the missionary whose conduct caused this affirmative state of nonbelief? And this problem is not limited to the isolated islands, for even in the hearts of the populations of crowded continents, there are countless preachers of countless faiths and sects and interpretations establishing a cacophony of assurances and accusations, threats and finger-pointing, enough to propel any sane man to tune out the claims of religion altogether (even those claims which might, on quiet reflection, be reasonable and defensible).

The problem of the isolated planet:

And beyond this, it stands to reason that if it's expectable for a deity to create some people (isolated tribes, etc) who never hear the true word, then it could create an entire planet of people who never hear the true word. And yet, it has been our experience in finally encountering those long-isolated tribes that they tended to have independently developed a theological model all their own, perhaps an animistic or polytheistic one, perhaps one with pantheistic or pandeistic or purely deistic overtones. And, naturally, just maybe, though extremely rarely in practice, it may be one with all the trimmings of monotheism. And so there might be another planet out there where some intelligent life has come to the fore and set forth a civilization with a level of knowledge and technology and sophistication of social institutions to rival our own. And, indeed, such a civilization, though not privy to any of the thousands of 'true' faiths professed on Earth could easily have as many 'true' faiths, as many doctrines and debates and deicides. And adherents to any faith on this alien world might be every bit as assured, every bit as fervent in their beliefs, as any Earthbound believer.

But here's the catch.

If it is possible that a 'true' deity may have revealed itself once, to one group, without bothering to provide for isolated groups to learn the truth encapsulated in its revelation, then perhaps we are as a planet such an isolated group. For one cannot reasonably postulate a deity capable of allowing an entire planet to wallow in ignorance and false faith without confessing that ours might be that planet. And in the same stroke, one ought to admit that, if there is a "one true faith" that all people are intended to discover, then all theistic faiths claiming universality are proved false by those who have lived and died without hearing of such faiths. Instead, what can be called true must be what can be discerned from a logical examination of our world, even by those who have never heard a word of any scripture.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Pandeism and Taoism

Having ventured forth a series of examinations of the possibilities of Pandeism with respect to various fictional Universes, I turn now to a new endeavor, the comparison of the elements of Pandeism to the religions of the world. My first effort in this new series is directed towards Taoism, in part because of its intriguing areas of correlation with Pandeism. But, mostly, because of a girl. Bless you, Alice, for this inspiration.
Taoism (or, to some, Daoism) is a beautiful and ancient philosophy originating in China around the 4th Century BC, and thereafter contributing ideas carried into virtually all later-developing religious paradigms. The essence of Taoism is the recognition that our world is naturally composed of opposing forces -- symbolized by the Yin and Yang -- which must be peacefully balanced against one another for a fruitful life to be realized. And, further, that a single truth, an ultimate creative principle, underlies all of these forces, and knowledge of this truth illuminates the path of proper conduct to achieve this desirable balance. The Tao is this truth, this path.

As we shall see, Pandeism and Taoism are not at all in conflict -- indeed, they may be taken as complementary, with Pandeism as a sort of "why are we here" which provides possible frameworks for morality, but doesn't necessarily tell us how we ought to act, while Taoism focuses more directly on the conduct of life without setting forth a "why," a basis for our having been created (or otherwise existing). One may be a Pandeist Taoist, just as readily as one may be a Pantheist Taoist or even an Atheist Taoist who denies deity but accepts the essential ideas of Taoism with respect to the balance of opposing forces.

Pandeistic and Taoist precepts and practices:

The formative texts of Taoism, traditionally credited to Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi, are by turns poetic and anecdotal, given to parablepoetry, and whimsy. But despite the wisdom acknowledged to be encompassed in these works, they are not claimed to have been written by a deity or upon a deity's command. Their writers are not lofted as prophets or demigods. Indeed, Taoism presents no orthodoxy, no dictator of metaphysical absolutes telling practitioners that their individual view of it is right or wrong based on his own interpretation of this or that selection of the ancient writings. Historical circumstances -- ebbs and tides of governmental purging and restoration, and attempts to meld in similar traditions, have resulted in there being many different views encompassed within the greater tradition, and it is understood that it dis-serves all of these to declare any one to be the one, correct path.

Pandeism and Taoism coincide in this lack of dogmatism, and the absence of an involved 'Creation myth' or an attempt to explain physical realities such as he strips of the zebra or the leglessness of the snake through just-so-stories. But Taoism and Pandeism are both indubitably easily confused with conventional religions, though each is essentially simply a path. Taoism begins with the Tao Te Ching, and the Tao Te Ching begins with the admonition:
The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name....
Tao Te Ching, I
This is key, because it reminds us that we can only abstractly contemplate the Tao -- a notion reflected in the observation of Pandeism that logically extrapolating necessary qualities of our Universe's Creator is not the same as understanding it. Actually understanding such a thing is inherently beyond the constrained capacity of the human mind, and any claim to an understanding of it properly immediately raises a skeptical eyebrow. On Occasion, evangelists of other faiths have sought to reconcile their beliefs with Taoism by identifying the individual central figure of their faith -- perhaps Buddha or Jesus -- as a personification of the Tao. Such efforts misunderstand the Tao and the meaning of Lao Zi's explanation of it; one might reply that the Tao that can be reduced to a person is not the Tao. Pandeism notes as well the oddity of supposing that any individual person can be thought more divine or less divine in a Universe which is itself rationally thought to be holistically divine.

Meditation is a practice widely regarded as well-received within Taoism. Although Pandeism does not offer doctrinal guidance advocating meditation, it ought to be no surprise that many Pandeists engage in meditation, or simply a comparable deep contemplation of our Universe, for Pandeism is a discipline which demands thoughtful examination of all the things we know to attain logical and rational conclusions about the nature of our Universe. Indeed, it ought to be no surprise at all that many who explicitly or implicitly hew to Pandeism delve as well into Taoism, and other similarly contemplative traditions such as Zen Buddhism.

Pandeism and Taoism similarly provide a basis to practive reverence for nature and kindness to all living things, including a leaning towards vegetarianism (distinctly a practice of Taoism, and one followed by many Pandeists). For the Taoist, such practices are inherent to the desire to lead a balanced life, and avoid the imbalance inherent in violence. In Pandeism, this reverence and these practices come from the belief that all things are part of our Creator, and that by inflicting suffering upon other living things, we inflict the same upon our Creator -- and quite possibly, ultimately, upon ourselves.

Pantheistic elements of Taoism:

Taoism has additionally often been observed to incorporate a sense of the pantheistic -- the closest thing Taoism has to a Creation account is Lao Tzu's contention that "The world has a beginning," Tao Te Ching, LII, and his decidedly emanationist account:
Tao produces one
One produces two
Two produce three
Three produce myriad things
Myriad things, backed by yin and embracing yang
Achieve harmony by integrating their energy
Tao Te Ching, XLII
The Tao has given rise to things, but:
Virtue raises them
Grows them, educates them
Perfects them, matures them
Nurtures them, protects them
Tao Te Ching, LI.
Zhuang Zi similarly relayed that "Heaven and I were created together, and all things and I are one," and, when asked where the Tao could be found, replied that "There is nowhere where it is not.... There is not a single thing without Tao."

Parallels between Pandeism and Taoism in these account include the idea of there being a 'source' and of such source being a constant sustainer of every thing in our Universe as we experience it. Pandeism differs from Taoism in Pandeism's supposition of an intelligent entity motivated by some need to set forth a Universe in the original instance. But this difference is not a contradiction; it is simply an element by which Pandeism seeks to explain the characteristics of our Universe as they are uncovered by modern science. As Taoism does not claim to provide an explanation for the science underlying our existence, it can raise no great rift between the theological perspectives if Pandeism does attempt such a thing.

Deistic elements of Taoism:

Taoism, like Pandeism, does not propose that there is an intervening deity which desires worship, and will punish those who fail to so behave. And like Pandeism, Taoism does not require adherents to believe in miracles from on high. It does not require that we surrender our skepticism with respect to supernatural claims. The Tao instead raises up reason as a value, as does Pandeism, in deducing that any Creator who would set forth a Universe wherein reason would serve as so powerful a tool must intend it to be used. Taoism does not espouse teachings demanding one sort of conduct while providing stories of a deity or a deity's servants acting the opposite.

As with Deism generally, and Pandeism as a branch thereof, Taoism offers no justification whatsoever for human or animal sacrifice, nor for infanticidebigotry, or genocide. It provides no excuse upon which to work injustice, or to inflict pain and suffering upon others. Taoism, instead, prizes patience. It stresses reasontolerancerespect, and self-control, and so any Pandeist studying the Tao would be struck by how similarly the paths of contemplation run between the traditions. 

For many Pandeists, the need for each person to discern their own meaning -- in the absence of supernatural guidance -- is a logical outgrowth of the philosophy as well. And just as Pandeism reconciles broadly the principles of Deism and Pantheism, so are the elements of Deism and Pantehism reflected in Taoism reconciled therein as well.

On governance:

Taoism and Pandeism are notable as well for their political and sexual perspectives.

Politically, Taoism originated with the expression of some anti-government precepts, both by Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi, which were unusual for religious insitutions of their day. It the Tao Te Ching, Lao Zi writes:
When there are many restrictions in the world
The people become more impoverished
The more laws are posted
The more robbers and thieves there are.
Tao Te Ching, LVII
And further on it is written:
When governing is lackluster
The people are simple and honest
When governing is scrutinizing
The people are shrewd and crafty.
Tao Te Ching, LVIII
As has been similarly pointed out, Pandeism provided theological support for limiting the potentially deleterious interference of government -- which, due to the evolutionarily competitive nature of its human participants, often ends up picking 'winners and losers' and being corrupted to pick the already-winners to continue winning. Contrary to this interference in the lives of individuals, Pandeism notes that we are each best suited to determine our own choices, and our quest for the diverse experiences we share with our Creator requires that we must be permitted to choose them deal with the consequences of them.

On sexuality:

Sexually, Lao Zi wrote:
Those who hold an abundance of virtue....
do not know of sexual union but can manifest arousal
Due to the optimum of essence.
Tao Te Ching, LV
But later writings originating in alchemy and incorporated into Taoism offered a great deal of positivity, advocating frequent sexual intercourse with multiple partners as a means of extendinglongevity, and possibly even immortalityPandeism, naturally, is equally promotional towards sexual pleasures, as these are some of the most profound and pleasurable experiences through which our Creator shares in our existence. But the ideas circulated in Taoism, derived from notions of yin and yang, had some oddities, including the proposition that if one partner produced sexual fluids while the other did not, the partner who restrained themself from that culmination would be able to absorb the vital energy of the one who was unable to work such restraint.

And so, it was advocated that a man could extend his life by bedding young women, especially virgins, and most especially several virgins in the same night, and bringing them to orgasm while not himself ejaculating (although methods were developed for men to experience orgasm without ejaculating). Similarly, it was advocated that a woman could extend her life by bedding many young men and receiving their life-giving sperm into her body's sexually penetrable orifices. With these ends in mind, many books were written espousing sexual positions and activities and techniques by which one partner could bring about the most profound orgasms in the other -- a seemingly selfless desire, but one steeped in a more selfish goal of partaking of the life-essence of the other partner.

But these notions, derived as they were from alchemist theorists, run counter to the more enlightened Taoist quest for balance, for respect for nature (of which sexuality is an expression), for moderation of competing desires. Modernly, sexuality has largely fallen away as a focus of Taoism; its sexual dimensions were wiped away due to historical purges of sexuality by regimes more given to sexual shame and suppression. But some of the ancient Taoist practices were preserved in the more sexually open cultures to which they were passed, and have been adapted to aid in the treatment of sexual dysfunctions such as premature ejaculation. So far as it does exist, the emphasis in modern Taoist practices no longer espouses prolonging life by avoiding ejaculation, but has instead shifted to simply realizing the health benefits generally associated with an active and balanced sexuality. This coincides with the view of Pandeism, that consensual sexual enjoyment ought to be experienced with great liberality and in great variety, to maximize the introduction of happiness into the world; and that each person ought to give great attention to the pleasuring of their partner, whose pleasurable experiences will be experienced by the giver when all things return to one. 


It befits the contemplative rationality of Taoism that it would comport with these same principles in Pandeism. That two theological traditions, with such different origins in time and place, share so many reasoned determinations about the nature of the human condition, simply underscores the delightful notion that no matter how far apart we may be in time and space, reason may bring us together. 


Some additional reading:
The Tao Te Ching, translated
Naturalistic Pantheism and Philosophical Taoism -- an essay with some excellent related overtures.