Call The Attorney General Department Right Now

I’m publishing this off of a group on Facebook titled Buddhists Questioning BBS. I think it’s a worthy cause.

Campaign to call the Attorney General’s office and ask: “Why hasn’t the AG’s department still not ordered the Police to arrest the monk Galagodaatte Gnanasara?”
Once you call them, post their response below.
Phone: +94 (11) 2147888
DSG(Administration) Tel : +94 11 242 4894
SSC(Administration) Tel : +94 11 243 3964
Email: administration@attorneygeneral.gov.lk

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As you all know, the rogue “monk” Gnanasara is still at large despite heading the terrorist group “Bodhu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force)” and inciting violence through hate speech. Let’s get the authorities to critically examine the situation at hand and bring him to justice.

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Prayer – Does It Do Any Good?

After yesterday’s horrific events I found it highly ironic that Buddhists have been calling for religious observances, Muslims and Islamists have been urging everyone to pray for the victims, and people in general have been urging you and I to pray pray and pray some more. This got me thinking. What is prayer? what does it do? is it any good?

While almost all of you have an intuitive understanding of what prayer is and have seen people pray or perhaps have prayed to some god or the other at some point in your life I wanted to examine the claims made by various religious groups and examine how these claims hold up to scrutiny.

Let’s start with a rather popular definition of prayer:

  • A solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or another deity
  • A religious service, especially a regular one, at which people gather in order to pray together
  • An earnest hope or wish

Thanking Google for this definition I recalled a bunch of other definitions I got by interacting with many an evangelical or Islamic friend. Prayers are basically (solemn) conversations we have with God. The conversation is a bit one sided of course as God doesn’t really call you back. Urban Dictionary had a few more interesting things to say about prayer:

  • Although not promoted by public schools, it is the most popular study technique of high school students, typically used minutes before a test.
    “Please, please let me pass this test…”
  • A form of birth control, though highly ineffective.
    “Prayer: Please, please God, don’t let me get pregnant. Oh Jesus, please let my period show up on time”

Love the use cases as always. As far as my experience goes a prayer is sort of a pimped out wish. There’s some sincerity, begging and groveling involved but it basically goes along the lines of “please please make x happen/or do not make y happen”

So how effective is a prayer? to answer this question we would need to examine the scientific evidence for the efficacy of prayer. One of the more interesting papers I came across was “Retroactive prayer: lots of history, not much mystery, and no science” by Jeffrey Bishop and Victor J Stenger which was published in the British Medical Journal in 2004. Stenger and Bishop were critically examining claims made by the religious community, notable that of Olshansky and Dossey. Riveting read, predictable conclusion. Prayer doesn’t work.

To quote Bishop and Stenger,

They [Olshansky and Dossey] argue that prayer might be used instrumentally to bring about desired effects in the
world at a distance of space and time…  Firstly,the findings from human studies which Olshansky and Dossey cite are hardly robust; in places, they are clinically insignificant in terms of effect size and not uncommonly steeped in controversy. Secondly, they call on theoretical mechanisms that have, at best, a questionable connection to medicine. Without plausible mechanism, abundant data with strong significance is necessary. That evidence does not exist.

Let’s examine another rather extensive and robust study by Harvard Medical School together with a group of partner research institutes.  The Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) was a massive study to study the effects of prayer that is designed to intercede on events. Unsurprisingly, this is what they found,

Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication free recovery from CABG [cardiac artery bypass graft], but certainty of intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications

Intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications as opposed to lower,which is a fascinating result in itself. If prayer doesn’t really work then why do people continue to pray and surprisingly, urge others to pray as well?

I leave you with some Hitchens

 

Putting The BBS In Its Place

“‘Religion is based . . . mainly upon fear . . . fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand . . . . My own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race.'”

– Bertrand Russell

So here I am, writing something again after a hiatus of a few years. I’ve been busy but all the recent events surrounding the BBS has forced me to start writing again about these issues with a renewed sense of vigour. I’ve written about the problem of Sri Lankan Buddhism before. It’s intimate link to nationalist politics is undeniable. I’ve talked about the inherent problems of the Buddhist philosophy from a purely academic standpoint. I have talked about Islam and it’s inherent problems. However I do think that this is the time that the non religious of our country and secularists turn an academic exercise into political action.

The BBS has all the dimensions and attributes of a religious nationalist force capable of militant action against the Muslims/followers of Islam. As such we need to ensure that they are put in their rightful place. If there are any sensible people left in this country I urge you to consider the following steps:

1. The hate speech of the BBS and their leadership must be swiftly dealt with. I fear that much damage has already been done. Explore legal provisions to prosecute the BBS to the full extent of the law. The government must take action in this regard. It is also unclear if the government supports the BBS tacitly, although from the vitriol the BBS is spewing these days I highly doubt it:

2. The so called silent majority of religious moderates on both sides must condemn the actions of the BBS vehemently and take practical steps within their respective congregations to curb the activities of the BBS. This is no easy task as a mjority of Sri Lankan temples have been hijacked by the BBS.

3. Secular groups of the country must step up and engage the BBS at every turn, destroying every vitriolic argument with a renewed sense of vigour using the power of logic and reason.

4. Members of civil society must turn to their brothers and sisters, examine the beliefs of their neighbours and stem the hatred and vitriol at the point of origin. Engage, engage, engage at every turn and do not give up.

5. Protest the public display of religious symbolism. The Buddhisification of the country is in full swing. Every Poya day is used as an excuse to demonstrate the militant power of the BBS. Secularists and non believers, however small a community they be, should voice their disapproval. Symbolism is a powerful thing. The Buddhist flag has turned into a rallying call for militant nationalists. Take their precious symbols away from them.

6. The BBS is not a religious organization. They are a nationalist political group that uses notions of  religious and racial identity for their political gain. Do not respect a monk who supports the BBS. Do not offer alms to monks from the BBS. Do not invite them to events.

7. Do not use violence to attack the BBS. Use logic and reason. I know that this is tough, but fight them effectively, not on their terms but on yours and endure you shall.

8. Put aside whatever differences you may have, your personal opinions on the Halal issue, Qazi courts, Sharia law, whatever. Address the issue at hand, namely the militant force hell bent on pushing their nationalist agenda. Defeat this first and then we can discuss the broader issues related to secularization. Unite against the common enemy.

That sums up my first proper post for this year. What have you done personally to put the BBS in their place? scroll down and let me know, tweet at me when you can and together let’s make sure that the BBS is put in it’s rightful place – six feet under the ground.

The Roman Atheist

“Do not pass by my epitaph, traveler.
But having stopped, listen and learn, then go your way.
There is no boat in Hades, no ferryman Charon,
No caretaker Aiakos, no dog Cerberus.
All we who are dead below
Have become bones and ashes, but nothing else.
I have spoken to you honestly, go on, traveler,
Lest even while dead I seem talkative to you.”

– Ancient Roman Tombstone (roughly 2000 years old)

The Roman Gods are no more, we’ve replaced them with other religions. Makes you wonder what kind of religious relics will remain, how modern day atheists will be perceived and the kind of religions that would be around 2000 years from now.

Most religious people fail to see that religion, the God(s) they worship are but man made constructs and are at the whim and mercy of what is considered fashionable or sensible (if only!) during a particular period in human history. What is clear though is that there have been those enlightened enough to reject superstition, pointless ritual and mysticism during every period of the evolution of human civilization, often having to bear the difficult task of swimming against an overwhelming tide. We salute them.

 

Found this in a rather enlightening book on the (historical not biblical) Paul and the early history of the Christian church. It’s on page 109 if anyone is interested. http://www.amazon.com/Corinthian-Body-Professor-Dale-Martin/dp/0300081723

Politics Power and Buddhism On The Eve Of The Buddha Jayanthi 2011

Sri Lankan hypocrisy at it’s best – A “gossip” site celebrates the Buddha Jayanthi (in style)

Buddha Jayanthi, Sambuddhathwa Jayanthi call it whatever you want according to the establishment it has been 2600 years since Buddha achieved his ultimate goal. We are the kind of people that gives its politicians and leaders a lot of latitude. Thus we should not be surprised and shocked to witness much silliness – and this is the only way to describe what has transpired- leading up to the Buddha Jayanthi.

Mr Champika Ranawaka and Co. shaved their heads and started meditating. “Observing” the Buddha Jayanthi was what the media called it. I see it as a farcical display of arrogance and inanity on their part. There are no half measures when it comes to “observing” Buddhist principles and teaching, you go all the way or you don’t. Buddhism demands that you sever all attachments and lead a life of ascetic contemplation and meditation. This display of pious “observance” is thus nothing but a farce.

This is nothing but a PR move to lend a veil of respectability to a dangerous and flawed ideology and the sheep-like masses of this country will give these people the respect they so desperately yearn. It really is a pathetic state of affairs. Spewing hatred and acting like cavemen 6 days a week and then observing sil on the last day does not make you a Buddhist.

Former monk and ex-speaker of the house Mr Lokubandara declared today that…ah well see for yourself.  Boggles the mind doesn’t it?  the news has rendered me speechless.

Ah the UNP. Considered by many a “liberal” in this country to be a ration… ah screw it. You see what we have to work with here?

Vesak has morphed into quite a strange event during recent times (more so this year than the recent past). While the monks and the politicians claim that the theme for this year is “the observance of the principles of Buddhism”. They claim that we should create an atmosphere of reverence however the atmosphere on the streets is anything but. The commercialization of Vesak is in full swing. Street vendors will sell you a picture of the Buddha and a Buddhist flag (and throw in a tacky mask from the scream movie series) for a few bucks. Where oh where is the pious mob that protested against the Buddha bikinis and Akon? So commercialization, capitalist consumption and greed is fine while free expression (and that by ignorant foreigners) is a tantamount to “blasphemy”?  They seem to be busy banning the consumption of meat and alcohol in a country containing people of many faiths who differ in opinion regarding how best to spend a long holiday weekend. If you are a Buddhist and want to observe the teachings please go ahead. Don’t eat any meat and stay the hell away from bars and liquor stores but don’t force your bullshit down my throat. In some sense it is a pathetic development that the government has to step in every Vesak to ban the consumption of meat and alcohol in this so called pious land of the Buddha. They seem to have little or no confidence in the Buddhist population when it comes to observing the teachings of the Buddha during the holiest period of their religion.

I claim that this silliness is a direct result of our tolerance of the actions of our politicians and the powers that be. Perhaps you have tolerated these actions out of apathy and indifference or perhaps out of fear but it is high time that we raised our voices against this injustice and cruelty.

I claim that the powers that be are in bed with an asinine evil and diabolical theocracy. Evil not in a biblical sense but a kind of evil that forces its doctrine on the rest of the populace who may not want anything to do with it and belong to a silent minority. It is the stifling of our liberties (what little we have) that annoys me the most while the politicians and monks descend into farcical silliness more and more. Who says we have to do what the majority decrees us to do? Just ask Henry David Thoreau. If you like me feel that this has gone far too far and things are really getting quite silly in Sri Lanka, PLEASE for God’s sake SPEAK UP and SAY SO.

On an unrelated note: Made a comment here. Quite an interesting discussion. 

Denial – A reply to a creationist

I had an interesting discussion with a creationist a few weeks back and I thought I should write up a post. This is more or less what I said to my friend on twitter a few weeks back. Quite a back and forth it was !

Evolution is a fact. Not a theory. Most people think that evolution (“gradual change in phenotype”) is synonymous with the theory of Darwinian Natural Selection. Evolution has been demonstrated by humans for centuries. This is known as “artificial selection”. We bred dogs from wolves, we create new types of roses and orchids everyday and we created crops like rice wheat and maize from certain species of grass.

Gregor Mendel was able to demonstrate this phenotypic change by choosing pea plants that have short lifespans (so that he may observe many generations over a relatively short period of time) and thus established evolution as an observable fact. He hinted that there could be some kind of driving mechanism behind this phenotypic change (which we now call the geneotype) but came short since DNA was yet to be discovered and its structure unlocked by Crick and Watson. Darwin was quite aware of these developments and hypothesized that nature could play the same role that man played in breeding wolves and pea plants (a “natural” selection as opposed to an “artificial selection”). If anything this theory should support the claims of the intelligent design camp (nature ensures that species evolve, and nature = the creator, could be their central thesis – but no they are too asinine for this kind of simple logic).

One could argue that Darwin was essentially motivated by human tinkering of species and wanted to know if nature could do it and whether it has been doing it all along. The ID camp is woefully uninformed with regard to how evolution (the fact) connects with natural selection (the theory). At first glance the ID camp seems to fall into several categories (deniers of evolution deniers of natural selection and all flavors in between) but when you confront them with the facts they push themselves into a corner and go so far as to claim that evolution (the fact) is a lie!

Current research indicates that evolution (changes in phenotype), natural selection, DNA and the field of genetics are intimately linked. This is why we are able to come up with things like genetically modified food and new types of crops by tinkering at the genetic level and lets not forget cloning – quite routine these days. We seem to understand the mechanics of genetic manipulation and its phenotypic effects (to some degree). Push the ID camp and they will tell you that the fact of evolution is a myth and is a blatant lie. What they don’t realize is that by making this claim they ipso facto deny the existence of dogs, pets, livestock, new types of crops, new types of drugs based on genetic research, rice, maize, wheat, corn… the list goes on and on.

Man has been tinkering with nature for thousands of years and will continue to do so with its newfound knowledge of how the genotype functions. Denying one fact (evolution) or the validity of a theory (natural selection) means that you deny the existence of DNA and how information is propagated from one generation to another thus effectively denying “artificial selection” and what humans have been doing routinely for thousands of years. The whole thing is one big tapestry linked together. It is not a haphazard collection of rags sitting on the floor. Sure we patch the quilt every now and then and sew in new pieces of fabric but thats science for you!

Heres a fantastic article on New Scientist. A primer if you will.

Himal K has an excellent post on Buddhists and how some of them deny evolution over here.

The Problem With Buddhism – Reincarnation

Before I move onto rebirth I would like to point out another peculiar feature of Buddhism. The ultimate goal, according to Buddha is the elimination of the samsaric cycle of suffering by attaining Nirvana – a state of “enlightenment”. Nirvana has been defined in a very peculiar manner. The Buddha does not go into detail regarding the qualities that the state of Nirvana possess. Nirvana is essentially defined as “the absence of suffering”. This “negative definition” sheds no light about this supposed state of enlightenment. I find this peculiar as well as interesting. Peculiar because all the other major religions have some sort of end goal that has been laid out in great detail while in Buddhism it is sketchy and vague. In the case of Catholicism it is the escape from certain torment in hell and purgatory into the everlasting life offered in heaven. Evangelicals and Christians also hold this ultimate goal to be true and their actions on earth are motivated and shaped by this goal. The same goes for all the other monotheistic religions like Islam and Judaism. Having an elaborately defined and clear end goal is a great way to retain followers and bring in new converts to the religion. The goal is tangible and it sure feels real when the preacher or priest reads a passage from the holy texts regarding the wonders of paradise, sitting next to Jesus, milk and honey etc.

Buddhism does not place a lot of emphasis on this end goal by way of descriptions and such but rather hammers into the mind of the adherent that her life is nothing but suffering and that desire is the root of this suffering. To be born again is to desire and desire leads to suffering. I hope to rigorously criticize this word view in the upcoming posts, but for now let us turn our attention to the three metaphysical and supernatural elements in Buddhism, namely rebirth, karma and the idea of samsara.

As I pointed out, if we are to take Buddhism seriously we must also take rebirth and karma seriously. You cannot deny these elements and then claim to be a Buddhist. It would make no sense to emancipate oneself (nirvana) from a process (samsara and rebirth) that one does not believe in or take seriously. If an individual claims that she does not take rebirth seriously but believes in the teachings of Buddha then she is ipso facto a non believer and a non-Buddhist (?). Faith – and it is faith since there exists no proof – in rebirth, karma and samsara is the necessary and sufficient condition for the acceptance of Buddhist teachings. The ideas cannot exist independently of each other. You cannot prescribe to the parts and neglect the whole.

The underlying driving force of reincarnation is karma. In simple terms bad karma will ensure that you are born as a “lower life form” and good karma can elevate your status. There are many arguments against reincarnation and scientists have conducted a number experiments examined claims and written extensively on this matter. My problem with reincarnation and thus with Buddhism has to do with the tacit assumption that there exists a duality between what Buddhists call “the mind” and the “brain” (body). If we are to take reincarnation seriously we must also accept that there exists an entity called the “mind” (consciousness, soul etc) which can exist independently of the physical mechanisms of the brain and the body. Some essence of this soul or “mind” is what gets transfered into the next body during rebirth. This assumption that mind body duality exists is extremely troubling. Current experiments in neuroscience and various interdisciplinary fields suggest that the mind is some kind of emergent phenomenon. The current evidence is strongly in favor of a materialist interpretation. The consciousness we perceive is a result of the physical changes taking place in our bodies (the nervous system is an extended network) and in our brains. For example neurological disorders and mental illness such as depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety attacks can traced back to problems in brain chemistry (low Seratonin levels etc), the chemicals can be substituted by synthetic medication with remarkably effective results.

The behavior of the mind is subject to physical constraints. This should not be a surprising conclusion. Why cannot the mind be constrained by and be subjected to the same laws of physics, biology and chemistry that the rest of the physical “stuff” is subjected to? If the mind is subjected to the physical constraints of the body and the brain how can it have an independent existence? If it cannot exist independently of the body how is reincarnation possible?

The answer is that it is not.

On an unrelated note the Huffpost has an article on how the concept of karma can be damaging  to the post conflict situation in Sri Lanka. Yet to read the article. Will post my thoughts on it next time.