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Pernicious Reporting

There's a fun little novelty news item that's been doing the rounds recently; here's Newsweek's take on it:

Aug. 20-27, 2007 issue - In one of history's more absurd acts of totalitarianism, China has banned Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission. According to a statement issued by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, the law, which goes into effect next month and strictly stipulates the procedures by which one is to reincarnate, is "an important move to institutionalize management of reincarnation." But beyond the irony lies China's true motive: to cut off the influence of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual and political leader, and to quell the region's Buddhist religious establishment more than 50 years after China invaded the small Himalayan country. By barring any Buddhist monk living outside China from seeking reincarnation, the law effectively gives Chinese authorities the power to choose the next Dalai Lama, whose soul, by tradition, is reborn as a new human to continue the work of relieving suffering.
While at first glance this sounds like an amusing novelty item, and at second glance seems like an amusing novelty item designed to ding the bell of outrage against those nasty Communist occupiers of wonderful, idyllic, pre-invasion Tibet (see also: theocracy, mediaeval), there's a much less palatable subtext running through this article: an unthinking and implicit endorsement of really silly superstitious beliefs and the right of those who hold them to use them to manipulate political opinion. As the author of the piece goes on to add, "According to a 2005 Gallup poll, 20 percent of all U.S. adults believe in reincarnation. Recent surveys by the Barna Group, a Christian research nonprofit, have found that a quarter of U.S. Christians, including 10 percent of all born-again Christians, embrace it as their favored end-of-life view."

Here's the rub: reincarnation is a load of rubbish. There's a slight problem of there being a striking lack of supporting evidence for it. I'm not going to go into the whole false memory syndrome controversy here; but for proponents we've got on the one hand cranks, and and on the other hand, clergy in a system where reincarnation is professed and used in practice as a means of transferring wealth and temporal power. Unlike other pernicious superstitions this one asserts there's a miracle that is supposed to be happening in the here-and-now and is in principle observable; moreover, it's supposed to happen to everyone. What do you recall of your previous lives? Nothing much? Gotcha. It's tosh — but it's a superstition that retains political clout.

Those who pick the poor kid who gets to wear the monk's robes — in this case, the anointed successor to the Dalai Lama. The divinely detected reincarnation (in the body of a young boy) is trained and steered by the elders who identify him, and effectively becomes their mouthpiece. Whereupon, Ignatius of Loyola's aphorism about brainwashing comes into play: "give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man" (paraphrased). And guess what? Those trainers — high ranking priests themselves — were promoted by — surprise — the current Dalai Lama. So, just in case the dynastic implications of the process weren't obvious enough, belief in reincarnation is used to legitimate the propagation of a complex of political beliefs from beyond the grave ...

While one might question the Chinese government's motives, it's hard to call this anything other than a very non-supernatural — and in the context of Tibet a political — activity.

So here's my beef:

Why is this being reported in terms of religion? Is it because for some reason Newsweek and their siblings in the American press have been trained to give a free pass to anyone who declares that the motives for their behaviour is belief in religion?

Pick a religion — any religion — and collect your free pass from criticism!

The knee-jerk instinct to bend the neck before expressions of faith is one of the more distasteful aspects of the modern media circus. It doesn't get remarked on enough, because usually the religions being knelt before are the locally privileged belief systems; but it becomes impossible to ignore when the same privilege is extended to random superstitions that we haven't been conditioned from infancy to respect.

To call this decree by the Chinese government "absurd" is to dismiss the legitimacy of any political or social objection to religious activities, however bizarre or just plain batshit insane they may be. Which leads me to conclude that Newsweek's editors have, quite simply, lost their grip on reality.

It's no bloody wonder we seem to be descending into a dark age of superstition — having beliefs is the next best thing to holding a diplomatic passport.

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129 Comments

1:

Except that the Chinese decree isn't objecting to religious activity; it's seeking to control it. It's not saying "reincarnation is a load of rubbish, and we're not going to recognise any political rights claimed as an alleged consequence of it"; it "stipulates the procedures by which one is to reincarnate", and thus implicitly grants it credence. Newsweek's criticising it as "absurd" seems spot-on.

2:

Tolarating religious crud may be silly-- and is-- but historically it's beaten the alternative of trying to decide what's crap and how to best stamp it out. Unlike the ardently political, the ardently religious tend to get profoundly irked when you attempt to persuade them to drop their beliefs. Blow-self-up style irked. Silly, yes. Realistic to play hands off and try one's best to keep it out of the actual mainstream of politics rather than try for the Thirty Years War, Mark II? Yes.

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3:

Politics and religion. Interesting bit on reincarnation. People's mystical beliefs can be such a good source for material. I imagine that this Universe of ours has birthed us humans just by chance. And by chance there may be a part of the hidden Universe that can allow for the human mind to be utilized again and again and again. Who knows what strange currents flow in the quantum realm? Discounting everything we can't with our eyes would leave us in a very Small Universe indeed. Maybe the eye we need to see certain kinds of proof, like the existance of reincarnation, only takes the kind of eye that opens when you work to do so. If you close your mind to something, you know damn well it's a lot harder to experience.

Jeff

4:

Dude, why are you bothering? What's next, are you going to tell us that Jesus couldn't walk on water, or that Muhammad never rode up to heaven on a winged creature with the body of a horse and the face of a woman? Yes, religions says a lot of silly things. They're not rational. But Newsweek isn't going to go around saying people's religious beliefs are humbug, and I can't honestly believe you would expect them to or get indignant when they don't. Not only is Newsweek a mainstream magazine, but it's a mainstream American magazine, and we're a nation that takes religion very seriously. People in general take their religion very seriously.

5:

Eric... yeas, we Americans as a whole do take religion seriously... and that may be one of the deepest roots of our problems.

Americans take self evident nonsense seriously. Hell, *I* am a religious person... but luckily for me, i don't take my or any other religion seriously.

Most americans hove no grasp of absurdity, so the more liberal of us preach tolerance and respect for other peoples nonsense, and the right wing whackjobs among us want to invade their countries and convert them all the Xtianity.

Screw that... all religions including mione should be afforded the same amount of respect... none. Maybe that will make it easier for people to get this god-monkey off our backs.

6:

Charlie said: "Pick a religion ? any religion ? and collect your free pass from criticism!"

Thank you, Charlie. I, for one, am so tired of people acting like my respect for their right to their beliefs automatically translates to some rule that says I have to respect the beliefs themselves. It's such complete bullsh_t. I no more have to respect someone's beliefs than I have to respect their politics or their taste in clothes. Yet the media have somehow managed to introduce this knee-jerk reaction that you spoke of into entire generations of people. And as an American who's been watching this country's fundamentalist population steadily gain more and more influence, I'm more appalled by this attitude every day.

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7:

It's way more ranty than his other works, but Dawkins's _The God Delusion_ has this as a fairly central riff and has all sorts of interesting points to make on it.

8:

Well, there's also this: as time passes, they will be able to arrest anybody for reincarnation (which I gather is supposed to be an involuntary process) without a license, and the accused will have no way to defend themselves. Depending upon their legal system, it doesn't just allow them to control the Dalai Lama - it makes everybody who believes in reincarnation a criminal by their own admission ("Are you reincarnated? Did you have a license?")

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9:

A religious systems go, reincarnation isn't so bad. It bypasses the whole heaven/hell business by dumping you back in the world that you helped make.

But the strongest evidence against reincarnation is that no politician recalls the grimness of past, ordinary, lives. Not even Egypt endured long enough for there to be enough princesses--not unless reincarnation is sort of like a time-share holiday villa.

10:

Presumably, Newsweek is reporting it in terms of religion because the new Chinese law seeks to `manage' an aspect of religious belief and gives them the power to choose Tibet's next spiritual and religious leader.

I don't think calling it `absurd' dismisses the legitimacy of objections to religious practices. One the one hand it's a deadly serious manipulation of a people's religious beliefs to gain political leverage.
On the other hand, it is absurd. I mean, they say they're going to police reincarnation, for heaven's sake. It's a Monty Python sketch, surely.

11:

Presumably, Newsweek is reporting it in terms of religion because the story refers to the Chinese government aiming to `manage' an aspect of a people's religious beliefs in order to have control over who becomes their next religious and spiritual leader.

I don't think calling it `absurd' dismisses the legitimacy of objections to religious activities. On the one hand, it's a deadly serious attempt to manipulate a population through their religious beliefs in order to gain political leverage.
On the other hand, it is absurd. I mean, they say they're going to police reincarnation, for heaven's sake. It's a Monty Python sketch, surely.

12:

Sorry, I screwed that up. Just ignore one of them. Or both of them. It's been a long day.

13:

My experience of religion and free passes is that being a "science person" gives you a free pass to criticize every religion, without ever actually trying to find out what the religion is about. It's fine that you don't want to do that - maybe it *is* a waste of time. But how is this different from, e.g., a "religious" ignoramus criticizing science? I put "religious" in quotes because actually religious people don't have time to be ideologues - they are too busy putting their religion into practice.

The fact is that in any human endeavor, certainly including science, you get ideologues who use the endeavor to gain power, prestige, or whatever it is that they need in order to compensate for their inadequacy, and then you get abuse and oppression. If you removed religion from the world, this would not stop.

"Science," is the source of many of the ills of the world - racism is an invention of "science." Ever heard of "social darwinism?" Of course, when I put science in quotes like this, I don't mean the scientific method - I mean people who religiously adhere to the idea of rationality, and then turn this new weapon to the purpose of justifying their prejudices.

So my point is, since you obviously know virtually nothing about Buddhism, or about the Buddhist theory of how things like reincarnation work (which have nothing to do with the spiritualist stuff you mention in your article - Buddhists believe that the chances of taking a human rebirth are vanishingly small) perhaps you should restrict yourself to saying things like "they can't prove any of that stuff" rather than trying to assert what our beliefs actually are.

14:

Me thinks Mr. Sross doth protest over much (but then he seems to be hyperventilating lately on all sorts of issues).

What we have here is just another belief system (atheist) in power persecuting a minority belief system (Buddhist).

Just substitute the following for Buddhist and Atheist China: Wicca and Protestant Christendom (*), Albigensian and Catholic France, Jew and Atheist Germany, Orthodox and Atheist USSR, Bahai and Shiite Iran, Animist and Muslim Sudan, Christian and Shinto Japan, etc.

Sadly all to common in our history. The only things different are the labels.

(* The Catholics burnt heretics, burning witches was a Protestant thing. Ironically, the Inquisition was specifically instructed to ignore accusations of witchcraft as being made by the vindictive against the deluded.)

15:

Hear, hear. Someone mentioned Dawkins before-- please go out and read Hitchens' latest. I was pretty sick of him after his latest war-waffling, but Hitchens sure knows how to rhetorically destroy his targets.

As Dennett writes in BREAKING THE SPELL, the whole "respect for religion" thing is how it operates. If someone said these absurd stories at face value, they'd be laughed at. But with the protective veneer of sanctity and holiness, and all questioning or criticism as heresy, it gains a valuable protective coating for meme distribution.

One would hope that, now that people are no longer being tortured and killed for absurd-meme propagation, the meme would die out, but now it appears that the pendulum is swinging against reason. What's truly sickening is how Time and Newsweek, supposedly the pinnacle of journalism, have endless covers about Jesus, the Christian cult, Billy Graham, etc. etc.

An age of hateful stupidity is upon us.

16:

There's also the problem that the inclination to religious sentiment may well result from genetically-determined structure of the brain itself. Saying "Stop that ridiculous superstitious fervor" might be as likely to work as saying "Stop hearing those voices" to a schizophrenic. A schizophrenic who really, really likes his voices, no less.

17:

The basic tenet of any religion is faith in something impossible that someTHING or someBODY did by virtue of having help from or by actually being some sort of supernatural thing or entity or environment. On that basis, ALL religion is what you call a load of crap, reincarnation -based religion no more so than those based on nailing a fellow to a wooden cross or a belief in being one of a "chosen people", or whatever your favourite dogma is.

I have no objection to anyone believing anything they choose to believe, so long as two things are understood: (a) that belief will not actively harm anybody else and (b) they will not try and stuff that belief down my own throat as the "only true way". Other than that, hey, you want to pick a god? Any god? Be my guest.

I suspect the reason that the CHinese act feels and sounds so weird is that religion has been stuffed into a political paradigm here - and while the fundies in both arenas are a similar kind of animal, the set of criteria are subtly different, and they clash visibly in this instance...

18:

@17 Of course, then you have to wonder why your arbitrary standards of good (i.e, "Don't bother me with your crud") are better than their arbitary standards of good ("Our way is best, covert the unbeliever for the betterment of all.").
You're not free from others' ardent political and economic opinions, why suggest freedom from this one is more important without suggesting religion is indeed some special topic?

19:

But with the protective veneer of sanctity and holiness, and all questioning or criticism as heresy, it gains a valuable protective coating for meme distribution.

As an unprovable, untestable, unfalsifiable, and unscientific (by the Popperian definition) "meme" atheism - especially when it persecutes heresy - would have to be included in the above, now wouldn't it? It never fails to amaze my ow much atheists resemble dogmatic fundies. People like Dawkins are nothing more than fanatical Witch-Finder Generals. They just belong to a different faith.

20:

Etal @19: In general, atheists just prefer that we are not forced to succumb to the doctrinal activities of your unprovable deity. Dogmatic fundamentalists want to interfere in the personal lives of individuals who do not subscribe to their beliefs.

PS Given your conclusions, why do you see (or care) if atheism is, in your terms, "unscientific".

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21:

Well, obviously, a great deal of the bias in the reporting on this subject comes from the fact that the Dalai Lama is a very sympathetic figure -- someone who genuinely does appear to be wise and kind -- and the Chinese government is not, particularly the Chinese government in terms of its engagement with Tibet. One imagines that the reporting might be rather different if the Dalai Lama were a veritable clone of Idi Amin.

But still, most of Mr. Stross's criticisms seem to me to be off-base:

"clergy in a system where reincarnation is professed and used in practice as a means of transferring wealth and temporal power."

...Is there some problem with transferring your wealth and temporal power to your chosen successor? I'm pretty sure that that happens outside of Tibetan buddhism, too.

"Those who pick the poor kid who gets to wear the monk's robes in this case, the anointed successor to the Dalai Lama."

Yes, the "poor kid" who's chosen for a life of fame, relative fortune, and political power. It's like child abuse!

Seriously, I'm sure that in many ways being the Dalai Lama is no picnic, but it almost has to beat what that kid was otherwise destined for, doesn't it?

"Pick a religion any religion and collect your free pass from criticism!"

I presume that the hilarity is unintentional. Or are you seriously telling me that, for example, a Muslim is free from all criticism due to his religion? Plenty of people take plenty of shit because of their religions. When they don't, it's usually only because their religion is in power in their area.

22:

@14: I don't think it is appropriate to conflate the Chinese government with atheism. The former is a political power structure, and the latter is a rejection of theism (and its various corollary power structures).

23:

Sort of silly like [ CENSORED - no ad hominem attacks allowed here ]

24:

Newsweek publishes enough facts to claim they were reporting the "truth", but the "angle" willfully conceals it.

Here's the deal. The Dalai Lama, and other senior monks, claim the ability to precisely control their reincarnation. This may be different from what you think you know about reincarnation, but that is nevertheless what is claimed.

So the Chinese government has essentially called their bluff by taking their obviously false claims at face value.

Very well, they're saying, if you claim to be able to do that, we won't argue. We won't even argue with who you pick and the religious implications of that -- but you're gonna need a permit, and when you fill in the form for the permit, you're gonna have to tell us who you're reincarnating into!

This is actually absolutely brilliant. Reincarnate without a "permit" and the Chinese government will fight the "legitimacy" of your "chosen vessel" (sorry, lots of scare quotes needed). Obtain a "permit" and you limit yourself to one "vessel", unlike the historical process where they would train a whole group of boys, and then claim "this was the one all along!" about the most suitable after the fact.

This isn't religion being persecuted, it's religion being called on its bullshit.

Would that western governments would grow balls like these.

EU President to Pope: Dear sir. Please provide a detailed transcript of the discussions you have had with God on the whole birth control issue.

Pope to EU President: It doesn't work like that. And we haven't discussed it recently.

EU President to Pope: Please provide a detailed description of how it DOES work, and a timetable for bringing up the issue in its modern context with The Almighty. Thanks in advance.

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25:

Dave Hutchinson,

I agree it's both absurd and objectionable. It is an attempt to control politics by limiting the allowable religious actions of individuals. On the other hand, it is like something out of an Eric Frank Russell story; benighted natives tricked by clever invaders.

Charlie,

Saying that what the Chinese government is doing is wrong is not an automatic endorsement of the Tibetan theocracy. They're both attempting to use religious beliefs to manipulate politics, which makes them both wrong in my book. The ethical issues have nothing to do with whether reincarnation is true gospel or total bogosity.

You're right that reporting this action as if it were a religious story is an act of submission to the political power of religion in the US, and that makes it not only wrong, but completely antithetical to the intentions of a large number of the people who originally set up the American political system. On the other hand, there's a lot of precedent; it's not much of a secret that the Pilgrims came to New England to find a place where they could practice their religious persecution with impunity.

26:

Etal @24 & 25 & elsewhere

Your "arguments" against atheism are old, false and have been totally discredited time and time again.

One more time for the dummies:

Atheism doesn't say "there is no god". It says "if you claim there is a god, you are making an extraordinary claim, and you must provide extraordinary evidence." Some atheists do go on to say "Since the total sum of such evidence since the dawn of time has been zero, the probability of a position like 'there is no god' being correct seems very high, high enough, perhaps, to be a inaccurate but pithy summary of my personal beliefs, until of course such evidence should come along". That is a scientific and totally rational argument.

All the summaries you give of the "claims" of prominent atheists are utterly fabricated by you. Dawkins, Weinberg, and Shermer claim no such things and you are willfully misrepresenting their views.

And please, for the sake of your own future embarrassment, please do some reading on the subject before you trot out the old canard about the Nazis being atheists. While you're at it, please cite your sources on how the Cultural Revolution sprang from CCP atheism rather than, as it clearly did, from a religious personality cult.

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27:

Etal @ 25

I don't think it is appropriate to conflate the Chinese government with atheism.

That's like saying it's not appropriate to conflate the Vatican Curia with Catholicism.

No, you would be right if we were talking about equating the Chinese government with Communism. But Communism and atheism are not synonymous, they're not even in the same conceptual category.

And quit trying to blame all the evil in the world on atheism; it's a bad rhetorical device and offensive besides. I'm not myself an atheist, and I'm offended by that.

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28:

The Newsweek writers are just assuming that reincarnation is uncontrollable, and not thinking about the political aspects. When the last emanation of the Panchen Lama (Tibet's Number Two lama; he and the D.L. are repsonsible for each others' reincarnations) died, the Tibetan government chose a Tibetan boy as the new one. He's since been disappeared by the Chinese government* who have chosen their own Panchen, who commands zero respect. This is just more of the same.

I think the current Dalai Lama has been making noises about being reincarnated outside Tibet this time (presumably in China); if the next generation of Tibetan leaders-in-exile end up without starry-eyed memories of the glorious homeland, that would probably be a good thing.

*IIRC, they're claiming he's been in retreat for years. When the 4th Dalai Lama died, his ministers ruled the country for ten years or so by telling everyone that he was in retreat, too.

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29:

I do believe we've been Godwinated. Etal, why is there any reason to believe that because Hitler was an anti-Christian then he must have been an atheist (does not follow logically), and therefore atheism is evil (even more illogical) and that therefore all atheists are evil? That chain has several rather weak links.

You make a number of similar illogical jumps: you equate atheism with nihilism, and you insist that certain atheists' statements about what they consider the likely nature of the universe are intellectually dishonest teleological statements. Look, if you want to argue against atheism, go right ahead, but quit talking like a rabid anti-Communist in full fig. Simply asserting that atheism is evil is not a rational argument at all, and it's rather annoying to those of us who might want to carry on a rational discourse.

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30:

Dawkins, among others, has many hilarious things to say about the motivations of the rabid massed who appear to have invaded your blog. Myself, I wonder whether they've got some sort of forum or mailing list where they can report people who they think should be ranted irrationally at.

31:

Etal: thank you for calling me a witch-burner and a fundy. (I'm even more chuffed about being called a Nazi or a Communist, but that's another matter.)

Now fuck right off.

Any further comments from you on this topic will be deleted. This is my bully pulpit, and if you want to abuse me you can bloody well get your own blog.

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32:

Actually Charlie I believe he called you a godless science apologist as well, or was that one of the other sock-puppets :)

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33:

"Chang and Halliday put it at 38,000,000, and given their sources, I will accept that."

Given Chang and Halliday's actual sources, and what they did to them. I'd take it with a boxcar of salt, myself. But enough with the numbers game already.

What about the Czechs, eh? When are they going to get down to some serious genocide?

34:

Oh come on, everybody knows that Hitler was an adherent of Cthulhu, attempting to bring about the resurgence of the Old Ones.

The Dalai Lama actually denies that he is a reincarnation when asked. Which may just be a bit of rhetorical judo, but I think it bears some attention - it's a bit unfair to criticize a person for making an assertion they have repeatedly denied.

If you read Alexandra David-Neel's books on Tibet, you can get a feel both for the political situation in Tibet around the turn of the previous century, and about Tibetans' attitudes about mysticism.

What Dawkins says about the universe pretty much summarizes the Buddhist view of the universe as well; Buddhas are held to be a product of evolution, not something that has existed forever. It's entirely fair to question whether or not they exist at all, but that's what religious practitioners seek to do: confirm the truth of the path they follow through practice. Just because some Christians would have you take what they say on blind faith doesn't mean that that is an inherent quality of religion - it's actually antithetical to what the Buddha is said to have taught, and it does the words of Jesus, whoever wrote or spoke them, a disservice as well.

The thing that characterizes Dawkins' critique of religion is just how incredibly ignorant it is. He really doesn't know much at all about what actual religions actually assert; what he criticizes is the behavior of religious demagogues. And he does it in the voice of a demagogue himself - as an emotional appeal, rather than a reasoned argument.

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35:

The Czechs, Etal, the Czechs are coming! Flee to the hills!

36:

I am an atheist. Atheism is not a belief system, it doesn't say anything about how I should act, and any self-professed atheist who says otherwise is probably a lapsed theist desperately looking for a substitute.

Anyone trying to lump all self-professed atheists together is creating a group defined by the absence of a particular trait. Go look up some taxonomy or philosophy textbooks on why that's a spectacularly unworkable approach.

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37:

@40AN Wilson is correct, the horrors of the 20th century stem from atheism and were carried out by atheists.

I missed the bit where you (or he) demonstrated that they stemmed from atheism - any chance of backtracking a bit? I mean, we *could* conclude that had the sea of faith not ebbed away down the melancholy shingles of the world the twentieth century would have been remembered as a mellow and affable time - I like a counterfactual myself now and then, but it's important to admit when you're pulling stuff out of your bum. The Mongols, frex, killed quite a few people, but blaming it on shamanism would seem to be a stretch. Sometimes history just sets things up for death on a large scale, and looking too hard for agency may be a case of that pattern-seeking someone mentioned.

I do appreciate that expecting most people to reach for Occam's Razor when faced with basic existential questions is asking a lot, mind.

38:

Wasn't Hitler a vegetarian too?

39:

@ Charlie, Original Post

Thanks for the link about Tibet. That was very interesting, and changed my mind about a couple of things.

"While one might question the Chinese government's motives, it's hard to call this anything other than a very non-supernatural — and in the context of Tibet a political — activity."

Yes, of course it's political in this context. So instead of the Chinese government persecuting religion, what they're doing is crushing any sign of political dissent. Which means the monks and nuns in jail in Tibet are political instead of religious prisoners. Does that make it okay?

@ Etal, too many posts

I'll point out that not only were Hitler and Stalin both atheists, they both also had facial hair, thus conclusively proving that beards are EVIL!

@ Ted, 44

"Oh come on, everybody knows that Hitler was an adherent of Cthulhu, attempting to bring about the resurgence of the Old Ones."

That was what the soul capacitors at Peenemunde were for, I believe . . . :-)

40:

Etal has (a) had a large body of comments junked, and (b) been banned. First time ever on this blog, in fact.

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41:

It's no bloody wonder we seem to be descending into a dark age of superstition having beliefs is the next best thing to holding a diplomatic passport.

I think this is key observation. What you have here is a situation where 'enlightended' people have said that discriminating on the basis of race or sex is wrong, that tolerance rather than intolerance should be the default position, that other people's beliefs should be respected etc. Sounds good to me (though I don't claim to be particularly enlightened.) So what has happened is that the reactionary types have turned the meme on it's head, and said, essentially, that not tolerating bigotry is not 'respecting their beliefs'. Don't believe the Earth is 6,000 years old, or that God caused the Sun to halt it's passage across the sky so that a major battle could be won, or that literally every bit of land in the world was submerged in the flood? Then "That's not respectin' mah beliefs."

The subtext is of course, that if you don't "respect their beliefs" (and they damn well know that you can't, not when put in those terms), then they are perfectly free to not respect your 'beliefs', you know, like the belief that racism should not be tolerated. And if you object, that makes _you_ the hypocrite.

And that, in my firm opinion is all that there is to that particular bit of noisome claptrap.

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42:

Dave Hutchinson writes: "On the other hand, it is absurd. I mean, they say they're going to police reincarnation, for heaven's sake. It's a Monty Python sketch, surely."

Not at all. They'll just adopt a state position that the only true reincarnations are the ones determined by the Communist Party, and those people will be party hacks.

This is just a generalization of the principle applied when the Panchen Lama was named - the Chinese government disappeared a small boy and named their own choice as the 'true' successor.

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43:

Reincarnation is a misnomer in the case of Buddhism. It's not generally treated as Shirley Maclaine-style past lives.

Oh, also, note that China also insists on having a parallel Chinese Catholic church which the Party meddles with (picking Bishops, etc).

Shan wrote: "Here's the deal. The Dalai Lama, and other senior monks, claim the ability to precisely control their reincarnation."

That's not true at all. If that were the case, there'd be no need to search for the replacement. The Powers That Be could be waiting out side the child's home like the Publisher's Clearing House prize van, with a camera crew, waiting until they got word that the old Dalai lama had kicked off.

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44:

A.J. Saunders wrote: "I think the current Dalai Lama has been making noises about being reincarnated outside Tibet this time (presumably in China)"

I don't think he means in China.

It actually wouldn't make that much sense for a Dalai Lama to only appear in Tibet now - unlike when the current DL was born, there are lots of Tibetan Buddhists outside of Tibet. There's the whole exile community at Dharamsala in India, the DL's home base, for example. And there are lots of Tibetans who have moved to the West. And then there are the practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism who aren't Asian.

I would assume the next DL would come from the population of practioners of Tibetan-style Buddhism, which if true there's nothing technically preventing the next Dalai Lama from being the child of famous Buddhists like Richard Gere and Carey Lowell, or Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys.

That would just be too precious, however, so I think they'll stick with someone of Asian descent, but possibly someone in America.

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45:

Charlie: #31

Applause.

46:

I wonder were all those offended Catholics are, who found out, that the guy who is supposed to be the representant of god on earth is in fact chosen in a process of very political horse trading, that has been openly discussed. (After Johannes Paul II died there were talks of chosing an African or Latinamerican pope to better represent the majority of catholizism. The "official rumor" was - afaik - that "our" (I'm German) current pope was chosen because he was already 78years old and would not last long in his office.)

I see a bit of an irony in posting that on a webpage that has "antipope" in its url - but I hope you take it to be as nothing more than a comment.

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47:

You know, it wouldn't be hard to modify the Dalai Lama scenario into the core of a Galactic Empire plot. You have a niominal reincarnation process which involves selecting a pool of possible candidates (because you can't be sure), and training them, until it becomes obvious which is the best, and thus the reincarnation of the previous Emperor.

Actualy, it's all quantum: the collapse of a wave-function or something.

Of course, the problem is the timing. You have an unavoidable regency, with all the potential problems that can lead to. On the other hand, the Imperial Regent can do all the necessary unpleasant stuff, until the new Emperor is shocked to discover them and dismisses the Regent (Just about at the age at which he would retire anyway).


48:

@43

Two things:

1. The Chinese have religious freedom, with one strong exception, and that is that they can't be members of any organization (religious or otherwise) that has a foreign leader.

This explains the common mischaracterizations of the "persecutions" of the Chinese Catholic Church. You are free to believe as Catholics believe, says the Party, but you can't be a member of a club that has a foreign head (ie. any bishop sent by Rome).

I find it amusing that the Catholic Church, which presumably is more concerned about what its members _believe_ than the politics of picking the bishops, makes such a fuss about, well, picking the bishops. Church, or political institution? By their own actions, clearly the latter.

The Party claims monopoly on political activity in China, and rightly calls the selection of bishops for what it is, 100% politics, 0% spiritual.

2. My sentence about "precisely controlling reincarnation" was perhaps not clear. The "search" for the new Lama involves "clues" left by the previous Lama, and "trances", "visions" and the like by the current top monks. That is, they precisely control who it is that gets picked. Eg. Ah! This totally suitable boy is the new Lama, hooray, and not Oh! This Down Syndrome lad has surprised us all by the bones telling us he is the reincarnated Lama! Since only "top souls" are (again, this is Tibetan "belief", not something I'm making up) supposedly recognizable post-incarnation, the Chinese government demands notification when this process is going to happen.

Again, the Lama-search is clearly (for anyone who doesn't "believe") a political and not a spiritual exercise. And, again, the Party claims monopoly on that activity.

Now, you can disagree with the idea of a monopoly on politics -- I know I do -- but I don't think you can fault the Chinese government for calling a spade a spade and not a spiritual earth-caressing deeps-finder.

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49:

Jon Hendry at 44: No, I didn't. I meant to say India (home of the Tibetan government in exile, as you note.) Thanks for catching that.

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50:

Ethical issues aside, consider this:

You have a person. This person gathers a bunch of subordinates who (among other things) are tasked with finding his replacement after death... and training the boy to be exactly like the original person.

The Dalai Lama is a living meme!

51:

Mario Di Giacomo @50: yup, it's like the Pope. Who appoints the new Pope? Why, the College of Cardinals! And who appoints the College of Cardinals? The previous Pope!

52:

Strange how one post by someone can change your opinion of them, that not i believe my opinion is of particular interest to you Charlie, but here goes. I guess the problem started when you said only cranks and a self serving theocracsies believe in reincarnation. Yes historically Tibet's theocracy was not so pleasant (under statement), but Tibetan buddhism represents a minirotiy of the buddhist community. There is also litle in Tibetan buddhism to support a theocracy and nothing in buddhsim is general. Reincarnation is probably one of the most commonly held religous beliefs in the world, are the general Tibetan population all cranks, is the population of Thailand or Sri Lanka cranks? am I (possibly) - definetlely none of these grops are self serving theocracies. Or course we all know what happens when religions hold temporal power we have are own sorry European history for that lesson. I agree there is no scientific evidence for reincarnation (the Buddha taught that only those who had reached a rather advanced levle of sprirtual cultivation were able to remeber past lives; handy huh) but is there any scientific eveidence say for your freind Ken's socialist ideas? or for much of what you write? or Marxism (yes i know they actually are dangerous cranks). Of course it would be pointless to debate the merits in a belief in reincarnation here, that is not my main problem with your post its that bit that goes "To call this decree by the Chinese government "absurd" is to dismiss the legitimacy of any political or social objection to religious activities" Seems to suggest you believe in the states right to decide what religious beliefs are ok and which aint - personally i find it hard to understand Islam and its teachings (have no problem excepting other peoples right to believe/practice it) so if i was the prime minister would you stand by my right to try to legislate agianst it. There is also here the fundametal issue of who gets to decide what is absurd, rational and ok to believe. Do you really believe the PRC goverment has a good record on this kind of topic, do you also support their right to imprison and torture people for holding political beleifs, campaining about the enviroment, being christians or holding any number of harmless and innocous religous beliefs. Can't say I follow the USA press, but of course we all know that generally world wide there is much press and political attacks on any number of religous groups and that many hundreds of thousands of people are arrested, tortured and killed for there religous beliefs every year (rember the holocaust). Of course I would always support the right of individuals to debate, critiscise etc anyone elses religous beliefs and practices, i might even except a societies right to protect its self from harmful activities of reigous or political groups - and you could argue that the activities of the historical Tibetan Theocracy were very harmful, but surely a belief in reincarnation was just the cultural tool availbale not the actual problem. Any Cultural belief can be used in this way, the whole medieval catholic practice of paying people to pray for you so you wouldnt go to hell pops to mind. I am curious what your real problem with reincanation is? is it because you see it as irrational? I am surether are many Sci - fi stories out there that deal with the dangers of societies that only allow belief in what can be scientifically demostrated (if not maybe you could write one). Next thing you know it will be a belief in love that will be under attack, because after all it is not hard to argue that this is the most irrational (but niciest) of all beliefs. Finally i think one of the worst things about your post is you take a one off circumstance ie Tibetan theocracy and use it attack all belief in reincarnation, this is the tactic of the un-informed, iggnorant and oppressors of this worl which i find it very hard to believe you are.
ps idyllic pre invasion tibet has not existed for along time. The Chinese goverment is nasty. I was indocrtinated from the age of 5 in a CE of primary school then a state comp - did me no harm - can still think for myself. In Tibet it was not politcal believes that the theocracy propageted but social/moral. So Charlie are you saying you have no beliefs, I suspect most muslims would argue about their belief giving them any sort of diplomatic passport, especially if they are tring to enter the USA! or demostrate here in the UK!

53:

Mark: my beef is with organized religion. You're welcome to believe whatever you want, however irrational it may be, as long as you don't try to ram it down my throat. The trouble is, most religions tend to spawn hierarchical power structures and those organizations are prone to the usual dynamics of human organizations -- including empire-building. Even worse: temporal authorities are usually prone to the odd reality check, imposed by boundary conditions such as their frontiers and the constraints of economics and realpolitik, but religious organizations acknowledge no limits.

This makes them prone to rather unpleasant failure modes, to say the least, and having the press hand them a free pass simply because they're supposed to respect their beliefs is mind-bogglingly dangerous.

The western press didn't hand Lenin or Stalin free passes on the belief ticket, even though they clearly profoundly believed in the quasi-religious ideology they were bent on implementing. Why extend the courtesy to other organizations that are, long-term, just as likely to be in the piles-of-skulls construction business?

Incidentally, if you want to question my personal beliefs: I was raised Jewish, but I basically agree with Richard Dawkins right down the line. I will confess to harbouring a very deep suspicion of Christianity -- my family were driven out of Poland by pogroms, and the Shoah would not have been possible without the poisonous legacy of centuries of institutionalized anti-semitism -- and Islam (ditto, plus added homophobic bigotry and sexism on a breathtaking scale) -- and this probably colours my attitude to superstition in general; but I try not to preach because, let's face it, preaching is annoying.

54:

Except popes tend to have much more varied personalities (and different names, of course).

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55:

I tend to think that we are hard-wired for religion. I think you can replace it with any number of things, such as science, but the "need" for faith is still there. Religion may also be a way to psychologically buffer one's reality. Statistics show that people with a deep religious faith suffer less from depression. It's a mixed bag, take the best and leave the rest. Who doesn't like Halloween? Great Celtic holiday. And role models are good too. Jesus and his pals aren't such a bad group. Humans could do worse than find room for the devine in their lives. Sometimes it's the only thing worth living for. And thinking we are "IT" is hubris, the kind I don't want to be guilty of. Humans think they know so much, but they don't. 99.9999999....% of the Univese is unknown to us.

Jeff

56:

Jeff: Here's a useful study that basically demonstrates the exact opposite to your gut feeling, and cites sources:

Based on a careful assessment of the most recent survey data available, we find that somewhere between 500,000,000 and 750,000,000 humans currently do not believe in God. Such figures render any suggestion that theism is innate or neurologically based untenable. The nations with the highest degrees of organic atheism (atheism which is not state-enforced through totalitarian regimes but emerges naturally among free societies) include most of the nations of Europe, as well as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Israel. There also exist high degrees of atheism in Japan, Vietnam, North Korea, and Taiwan. Many former Soviet nations, such as Estonia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus also contain significant levels of atheism. Atheism is virtually non-existent in much of the world, however, especially among the most populated nations of Africa, South America, the Middle East, and much of Asia. High levels of organic atheism are strongly correlated with high levels of societal health, such as low homicide rates, low poverty rates, low infant mortality rates, and low illiteracy rates, as well as high levels of educational attainment, per capita income, and gender equality. Most nations characterized by high degrees of individual and societal security have the highest rates of organic atheism, and conversely, nations characterized by low degrees of individual and societal security have the lowest rates of organic atheism. In some societies, particularly Europe, atheism is growing. However, throughout much of the world – particularly nations with high birth rates – atheism is barely discernable.

If you think of the "divine" that "sometimes it's the only thing worth living for", then I'm afraid to say you sound to me as if you have a fairly serious problem.

57:

@56 Come on now-- there are plenty of genetic traits that require the proper environment to become expressed. Uncertainty may do to religous genes what sunlight does for melanin production. If nothing else, the fact that out of a population of seven billion humans, a lousy 10% or so aren't religious might indicate there's an underlying prediliction for it.

As for considering the divine a weak excuse for living, I've met more than a few people who considered divine law to be the only valid reason why murder was wrong. I am _not_ going to try and talk these people out of their religious beliefs, just in case I succeed.

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58:
Unlike the ardently political, the ardently religious tend to get profoundly irked when you attempt to persuade them to drop their beliefs. Blow-self-up style irked.

C, I think there's plenty of evidence to suggest that the ardently political do get irked when attempt to persuade them to drop their beliefs, and sometimes, they do go for blow self-up style expressions of their annoyance. (The Tamil Tigers come to mind here.)

It's a bit more common, though, for them to try to blow the person irking them. (Which is also true of the ardently religious, although some of the ardently religious don't go for that nowadays. I've been reading Christopher Hitchens' account of his book tour in Vanity Fair, and he giggles over the fact that the worst thing thrown at him by one of his critics was...a pronouncement that Hitch would never be invited back to speak again.)

59:

@58 There is that, but there's a certain expectation in civilized countries that there'll be political disagreement and argument, and that your opponent is going to try and convince you to his beliefs and that you might not need to shoot him, just disagree with him even if he's telling you that everything you consider valid about government is wrong. Religion seems to be a bit more personal, and criticism of it comes across like telling someone their kid is dumb and ugly.

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60:

Charlie: "To call this decree by the Chinese government "absurd" is to dismiss the legitimacy of any political or social objection to religious activities"

-- the Chinese aren't denying reincarnation, they're trying to control the belief system.

Points to be considered:

A) governments should leave churches/temples/religious organizations alone, unless they blow things up.

This is an important moral principle. HANDS OFF. Governments have entirely too much power anyway without conscripting God as an auxilliary.

B) The Chinese government, in particular, has been a merciless persecutor of Tibetans. It has been trying to wipe out their sense of nationality and take away their territory.

Virtually all Tibetans (except outright collabos) hate the Chinese government, hate the Han, and want them all gone/dead. And the overwhelming majority of Tibetans support the Dali Lama. That's their privilege; outsiders barely even have a right to an opinion about it.

There is simply no justification for the Chinese occupation of Tibet except Han chauvinism. The Tibetans never threatened China, nor did they voluntarily align themselves with any other nation hostile to China. They just wanted to be left alone.

Tibet doesn't even really have anything worth the cost of stealing it, so the Chinese can't even claim 'salus populi, suprema lex'. It's pure _sacro egoismo_, like the Serbs and their goddamned monasteries in Kosovo.

C) the Chinese government is a tyranny, and a very nasty one; brutally contemptuous of democracy, utterly corrupt, and an unprovoked menace to its neighbors. It is therefore totally illegitimate.

The government of China has no rights; it has no right to exist or defend itself. It is therefore appropriate to mock or denounce pretty well anything they do, beyond collecting garbage.

D) Showing respect for the locally predominant religion should be the default mode.

In the case of atheists, the appropriate approach is polite indifference, in public. "I don't find that hypothesis convincing. Opinions may differ; I basically don't give a damn."

It's polite and conducive to social peace. Most people are religious, they're always going to be religious, and poking them with sticks is dumb as well as bad-mannered. Atheists should act like what they are, an unpopular minority existing on suffrance.

I'm an atheist myself, but had no objection to compulsory chapel at school, for example.

Why should I? If I'm addressing hymns to a nonexistent deity, all that's lost is a little time -- and I wasn't going to be doing anything much with the time anyway. Besides, it was aesthetically pleasing, and traditional.

One should keep up traditions unless there's a very strong positive reason to do otherwise, out of respect for the ancestors and their collective wisdom, and in acknowledgment that a tradition is a solution to a forgotten problem... but the fact that it's forgotten doesn't mean it has gone away.

If some aggrieved believer puts the boot into Dawkins and breaks his bones, he'll have nobody but himself to blame and I will withhold all sympathy.

When people are deliberately provocative, they're effectively putting out their faces and shouting PUNCH ME. That's their decision, but they forfeit the right to be indignant when someone takes them up on it.

The bone-breaker should suffer the legal consequences, of course, but Dawkins will still be in hospital and serve him right.

Note to Dawkins: I'm strongly reminded of mainstream writers who dabble in SF and think they're being original when they recirculate some tired trope that Doc Smith invented 80 years ago. Did you think you were the first to ask these questions? Read some philosophy and theology before you try to step into arguments millenia old.

Dawkins is to atheists what some screaming fundie snake-handler is to believers - an embarassment and a provider of ammunition to opponents.

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61:

Charlie #56:

You realize that you've just pointed out that atheism is self-liquidating?

When people stop believing in religion, they stop having children. They therefore write themselves out of history.(*)

Here in the US, people who attend church every week have about 3 children, on average.

Those who never attend have an average of 1.

Do the math.

(*) unless you think atheists should keep some believers around as a breeding farm?

The Shakers tried this, more or less, and it didn't work well.

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62:

Charlie: the CPSU and the NSDAP had one thing in common -- actually they had a lot in common, but the thing relevant here is that they were both utterly hostile to Christianity and run by people who profoundly hated it.(*)

Blaming Christian anti-semitism for the Holocaust makes exactly as much sense as blaming Christian egalitarianism for the Gulag.

That is, in both cases it's deeply silly.

(*) the NSDAP was more dependent on public support, so it sometimes muted or disguised this hostility. It was neveretheless there, and Hitler planned a final showdown with the Churches as soon as he'd won WWII.

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63:

Shan 48:1. "The Chinese have religious freedom, with one strong exception, and that is that they can't be members of any organization (religious or otherwise) that has a foreign leader."

-- and I am Queen Marie of Rumania. Try organizing a "house church" in China sometime.

64:

SMS:

1. Atheists do keep theists around as a breeding farm. (Hint: fundies are much likelier to switch to atheism/agnosticism than vice versa. So there's a replenishing pool.)

2. I don't think the inverse correlation between religiosity and population size has been confirmed -- there are too many other variables. (Atheism correlates with urbanization, development, other things.) Meanwhile, there are Catholic countries where atheism is low but the demographic replacement rate is down around 1.30 -- such as Italy. A recent issue of The Economist reported a definite correlation with public childcare provisions, maternity leave, and social support for mothers in industrialized countries with costly housing; give (educated, urban) women support so that they can work while looking after children, and they're much more inclined to reproduce. (Why, fancy that!)

3. The Shakers weren't atheists -- quite the opposite. (Are you trying to undermine your own case? Want me to go digging for other theists who were into non-reproduction? :)

4. Since when is reproduction the central defining purpose of individual human life, anyway? I find your obsession ... odd.

5. I'm off to Japan in about 60 hours time, so I don't have a lot of energy for continuing this.

65:

SCNR

B) The US government, in particular, has been a merciless persecutor of power politics. It has been successfully trying to wipe out several countries rightfully elected governments and sovereignty.

Virtually all mid eastern inhabitants (except outright collabos) hate the US government, hate the Americans, and want them all gone/dead. And the overwhelming majority of mid eastern inhabitants support anyone to accomplish get that done. That's their sovereignty; outsiders barely even have a right to an opinion about it.

There is simply no justification for the US occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan and numberous other countries in the past, except US chauvinism. Many of these countries have never been a threat to the US nor had they threatend it if it hadn't been for US interference with their affairs. They just wanted to be left alone.

The mid east in particular has some of the largest deposits of essential resources, it's pure national egoism (comparison intentionally left out).

C) the US government is an imperialist regime, and a very nasty one; brutally contemptuous of democracy, utterly corrupt, and an unprovoked menace to its neighbors. It is therefore totally illegitimate.

The government of the US has no rights; it has no right to exist or defend itself. It is therefore appropriate to mock or denounce pretty well anything they do, unlike the Chinese goverment, it doesn't even commit in collecting garbage.

--
Mere words.

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66:

In philosophical terms, the scientific world-view is essentially Thomistic Catholicism with God taken out. A universe obedient to invariant Law, and a Law which can be deduced by a combination of observation and logic.

Latin Christendom was the seed-bed of the West, the intellectual framework around which it grew. It's the modern world's mother.

Even when you've moved out of Mom's house, you should be kind to the old girl and remember her fondly, and drop her an occasional call to talk over old times.

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67:

TP 65: Hostility to the US is generally evidence that the person in question is a moral imbecile and an enemy of the human race; they're usually anti-semites, too.

It is, after all, the US that kept the world from being ruled by Nazis and Stalinists. The implication is obvious.

I don't talk with this sort of person; online I ignore them (as I will you from now on) and in person I beat the crap out of them as opportunity offers.

68:

@63 SMS said: "...and I am Queen Marie of Rumania. Try organizing a "house church" in China sometime"

Uh, I went to one last weekend here in Beijing because a friend of mine was getting married.

Core group of about 60 people. Up to 300 on the big holy-days. They meet in a restaurant. They advertise in the local press. They've met every weekend since at least 1996 (when my friend started going). The parking attendants asked us "are you here for the church?" when we pulled up.

There are dozens of others of various size. I went to Carols at a sort of "pan-Baptist" one back in 2002. Around 3,000 there that night.

Sorry, what was your point again your Majesty?

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69:

Charlie 64:

"The Shakers weren't atheists"

-- no, but they were dependent on converting the children of others to their beliefs since they didn't have any kids themselves.

That makes them precisely relevant to the point in question.

This turned out to be a _bad_ choice, memetic-evolution wise.

It generally is. That's why "sterile" and "barren" are generally metaphors used in a favorable sense.

"Since when is reproduction the central defining purpose of individual human life, anyway?"

-- no children, no future.

I love my family, my people, my country and my civilization. I love their past, the might and power, the glory and majesty and beauty of what they've been and done, I love their present and I want them to continue down into the future, forever, long after my inevitable individual death. Ever onward and upward.(*)

That's more important than my individual life; and it's a sad sort of human being who doesn't feel that way.

My wife and I are medically incapable, but we have plenty of nieces and nephews and grand-nieces and grand-nephews.

Besides providing a pleasant living for myself, my work is in a small way a contribution to their future.

(*) since we've gone from about 5 million on 70,000 square miles 400 years ago to about 430 million on 11,000,000 square miles today... well, let's say that despite momentary ups and downs, the overall long-term trend is favorable... 8-).

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70:

Shan 68: Sorry, what was your point again your Majesty?

-- that house churches are subject to unpredictable bouts of persecution. Sometimes they're left alone if they keep inconspicuous, sometimes they're hammered by the police.

This is not "freedom of religion". It's the whim of arbitrary power, which the authorities can exercise as they please.

Freedom is something you can exercise no matter how much the authorities dislike it.

It means you can hold up big signs saying: "God Hates the Government And the Premier Will Roast In Hell!"

The Chinese government is a Bad Thing.

71:

Steve, sorry but I'm with tp1024 @65 right down the line.

Don't get me wrong; I've got a lot of friends who happen to be Americans, and I think those Federalist papers and the founding ideals of the Republic are worthy of respect ... but the post-1901 thrust of US foreign policy has been morally reprehensible for any democracy, much less one whose founding myths encompass such lofty ideals.

@66: your understanding of the scientific world view -- of that's how you understand it -- is badly flawed.

As for @70 -- Freedom is something you can exercise no matter how much the authorities dislike it. It means you can hold up big signs saying: "God Hates the Government And the Premier Will Roast In Hell!" -- when was the last time you tried to say "Death to the Great Satan!" in public? Or even said anything in a foreign language while sporting a swarthy skin colouration? There are a lot of things you can't say in America right now, without peril of arrest or assault. And sometimes it's official: see also "free speech zones" near (cough) Presidental appearances.

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72:

Charles @ 56. I've worked in the mental health field. I've seen many who have relied on God to get them through the tuff times. Sometimes all people have is their personal relationship with God. I would hardly define that as, what did you say..."you would have a fairly serious problem." And many people in the world do have problems. You know that. And I said that religion can be replaced with something like philosophy, like scieice. But the component of faith is usually still there. You get to have faith in science, and maybe someone else gets to have faith in God. If nothing else, God is hope for many, and I would be the last one to try and take aways someone's hope. Hope can keep you alive. Besides, sciece is cold comfort for your soul. You do have a soul, don't you? Ha ha ha.

Jeff

73:

Jeff: I do not have a soul. There's a serious lack of evidence for the existence of souls, as traditionally conceived -- especially the idea that it's something connected to you that survives your organic demise.

(I'm not big on the existence of consciousness either, but that's one for the cognitive scientists to squabble over by the water cooler.)

You live, then you die (usually alone and in pain), and then you rot. This is unpleasant, but if one dwells on it to the point where it depresses one unless there's a psychological liferaft to hang on to, then I submit that this is maladaptive behaviour. It's probably simply a side-effect of our having developed time-binding relatively recently in evolutionary terms -- too recently for the less stable forms of compensatory behaviour to have been weeded out of our extended phenotype.

74:

What the fuck? Has SM Stirling just declared war on an overgeneralised group of people, that the loose way he has defined it, would include myself and a large number of people I know here in Scotland? Should we all start forming a queue for him to beat us up?

Do you have any idea how much this demonstrates we cannot take you seriously?

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75:

People, can you please stop confusing atheism with materialism?
Atheism is believing there is no God. Buddhism is atheism.
Materialism is believing there is nothing supernatural.

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76:

#73

Lack of evidence can`t be a proof of non-existance. So non-believing in soul is as unscientific as believing in it.

Besides, scientific method have nothing to do with belief. You are not supposed to believe in Newton theory of gravitation, neither it is the Truth. It`s just a tool to deal with the world.
And so is the concept of soul, only this one is a tool to deal with things you can`t predict.

77:

SpeakerToManagers@26 - I'm still confused about the idea that Newsweek reporting this as a religious story is a bad thing. From a journalistic standpoint, it's either a religious story or a political story and I guess someone at the magazine made a judgement call about which it should be. Seeing as it involves religious beliefs, I would probably have made the same call. I understand the direction of your argument, and Charlie's, but I don't see how it's a submission to the political power of religion in the US to report it this way; it's a story about how religion has political power in Tibet. Set me straight on this, for heaven's sake.

Jon Hendry@42 - That's my understanding of why they're doing it, and the probable way they'll do it. I just find it rather surreal. Presumably the Chinese will have some kind of Reincarnation Bureau to oversee this. With documentation. It appealed to my sense of the bizarre.

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78:

#65

But don`t you enjoy to see a regime like Taliban\Saddam being bombed, whatever the reason behind?

I do.

79:

#76- I would say rather that Newtons tehory of gravitation is more a description of something than a tool.
As for the soul, what use is a tool if you can't tell if you need a hammer, a screwdriver or a drill?

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80:

#79

Any Scientific theory is a tool, used to predict events.

As for concept of soul and other beliefs - they are subjective tools, that you are supposed to choose for yourself. If it makes you feel better to believe that there is nothing after death, I have no problem with it. Just don`t pretend it makes you "scientific".

Besides, there is some interesting things about materialism. For example, your brain is a bunch of particles. None of this particles actually knows it`s a part of a brain - the atoms don`t care if they are in your brain or anywhere else, they behave the same. And yet it is your brain, and not the atoms around it, that is somehow associated with different "particle" - your consciousness. And you can`t deny you consciousness exists, sorry, you just can`t. 8-)

So, how your consciousness knows which atoms are in your brain and store your memories? Or how the atoms in your brain know about your consciousness?

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81:

WAIT A MINUTE!

Aside from Buddha having been seriously agnostic, "Communist" China is officially "Dialectical Materialist". In China, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS REINCARNATION. It's excluded by their fundamental metaphysic.

(And while I have grave reservations about the "medieval theocracy", it did produce the current Dalai Lama, who may be the most genuinely holy man I have ever met. Though a series of his predecessors each suddenly died on the threshold of adulthood, where they would have been able to speak for themselves, rather then being chattel to their caretakers.)

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82:

#81

Looks like chinese are more pragmatic than communist.

83:

Anatoly @75: materialism is, however, strongly correlated with agnosticism or atheism. OK?

I can't prove to you that a soul doesn't exist, any more than I can prove to you that God doesn't exist, or that invisible pink space monkeys didn't create the universe as we see it (complete with all our prior memories) thirty seconds ago.

But in the absence of supporting evidence for those hypotheses, I'd have to pigeon-hole this immaterial recording soul with the deities and invisible pink space monkeys, as being of equal probability to any of them.

84:

@76: you're confusing "belief in ~X" with "no belief in X". English has a sematic/grammatical problem with this distinction that isn't reflected in formal logic. So in a nutshell, you're wrong.

@78: if you get vicarious thrills out of watching people being bombed, then I'd have to say you're either deficient in the empathy department, or sick. (Here is a hint: "regimes like Taliban/Saddam" do not get bombed: what gets bombed are ordinary people, most of whom are not, in point of fact, officers in their nation's political/military structure. And however reprehensible the social structure may be, the vast majority of these people do not deserve to be killed or maimed. Period.)

85:

Anatoly Meller@78 - no.

86:

Charlie@83 - I never believed in God, and I never believed in the Afterlife, but I'm cracking on 50, and trust me, it starts to get scary around now. I'm starting to see how people can grasp at something Beyond.

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87:

@84

1. I don`t see a difference here. Person who doesn`t believe in God is either believes in an absence of God, or does not thinks about it at all. You can`t say "I don`t know if God exist", because this equals to saying "there is a probability that God exists". And probability is a scientific term, that you can`t apply to supernatural. By definition of "supernatural".

2. I`ll take the "you are sick". It probably goes with living in Israel. 8-)

Look, "vast majority of these people" do not deserve to live under their goverments either. Or being brainwashed by them into mindless killing machines. Yet they do. So what is the difference of who bomb (poison/starve) them, we or their own leaders? At least we actually try not to kill the innocent.

I remember in "Gulag Archipelago" there is a passage about how zeks were anticipating a global nuclear war, because for them it meant a possibility of getting out of camps.

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Charlie @83

Science have nothing to do with belief in things that you can`t apply scientific method to them. When you mix those two - it`s bad (and called religion). But if something by it`s definition can`t be proven (by science) to exist, you can`t say it doesn`t exist. It`s a purely subjective realm.

89:

@88: You can say "there is no evidence for X" which, is not the same as "X does not exist". (Basically, what Charlie covered @84)

@67: "Hostility to the US is generally evidence that the person in question is a moral imbecile and an enemy of the human race". Are you letting the US off the hook morally and imbecility-wise for hostility to another nationals? You should try standing in line at US immigration as a non-citizen and listen to what US Government Officials say to your face as a visitor or even green-card holder.

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90:


Anatoly@87: Think about it this way. The question is, "Is God real?" This question has the conventional answers "Yes" (for Theists) and "No" for Atheists. No arguments so far. But it is also quite reasonable to answer "I don't know." And there are lots of things I don't know. I don't know whether the first of this year was a Monday; seems plausible enough, but I'm not sure. Similarly, it seems plausible that someone would, after considering the question of the existence of God, simply not be able to come to a definitive conclusion, and declare ignorance on this matter.

Generally speaking, atheists are keen to include this I-don't-know group in the set of Atheists. And there is a good rhetorical reason for doing so. If you can get away with defining "atheist" in this way, you can say you are an atheist without having to mount a positive defence of any particular claim. By this definition, only the theists are making a real truth claim; the atheists can get away with claiming to be merely sceptics.

But in a larger sense, I think this strategy is stillborn, since it makes a big deal about a set that is either empty or negligible. I mean, who the heck actually belongs in the I-don't-know group? Who, having considered the issue, came away completely baffled, without even a working hypothesis? I think it is safe to say that essentially every professed atheist has some grounds for considering the matter settled, with God non-existent.

If by chance some atheist is convinced I am mistaken, and insists that he really does belong in the I-don't-know group, I suggest he consider the following question before posting something intemperate. If you became convinced tomorrow the God does not exist, by whatever standard of proof you consider appropriate, would you live any differently?

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Charlie @84: "Here is a hint: "regimes like Taliban/Saddam" do not get bombed: what gets bombed are ordinary people, most of whom are not, in point of fact, officers in their nation's political/military structure. "

True, but sometimes it actually is justifiable and necessary. (And preferably followed up responsibly so it wasn't all a waste of life.)

Though I'd point out that the Taliban weren't so much the nation's political/military structure - actually, they were tyrannical, thuggish squatters who richly deserved to be blown up, especially at Tora Bora and similar situations where they gathered in remote locations.

Note: I think Iraq was a bloody stupid thing to do and a massive waste of human life from the start and the Bush administration should be in chains that make Jacob Marley look like a sprinter.

92:

SMS: most of the people in the U.S. who were alive when the U.S. rescued the Jews are dead now, so while it's kind of you to give us credit for that at this late remove, I think the credit is undeserved. Unfortunately, I think the term "rogue nation" applies quite nicely to us at the moment. I hope we can resolve that problem in the next election, but I'm not confident that we can. We really are in the shit.

It's kind of funny that people call Tibet a "theocracy," in the same pathetically funny way that people refer to the Dalai Lama as a "god-king." Theocracy implies god, as does god-king. There are a lot more than 500,000,000 or 750,000,000 Buddhists in the world, and we are all atheists.

I won't apologize for Tibet's incredibly xenophobic attitudes prior to the Chinese invasion, although I will point out that the prophecy that motivated them did in fact come to pass, in the most horrific way possible. And it's certainly true that the Buddhist mechanism for making merit is gasoline to the match of a despot's greed, and you can see evidence of that in David-Neel's writing, and in the propaganda of the Chinese government that was used as a pretext for invading Tibet.

And Charlie, no offense, but in fact the only reason Stalin didn't get a pass on his behavior towards his citizens was that we were, in fact, if not in name, at war with him. We being the west in general and the U.S. specifically. When our allies engaged in similar behavior, we covered it up as much as possible. Ever see a Costa-Gavras film called "Missing?" Heard the contras referred to as patriots? Watched how we fertilized and watered the cancer of the Taliban? Looked at what the phrase "human rights" means in Saudi Arabia? Looked at the irony of the U.S.' friendship to China?

Impunity is evil no matter what face it's wearing, whether it's the face of a Christian, or the face of a Communist, or the face of an Muslim. What we need are more Christians, Communists, and Muslims who behave as if there are consequences to their actions, and fewer who behave as if there are none. This "movement" to get rid of the religions of the world is simply creating more religious demagogues. Where do you think Creationism comes from? It's a reaction, not a starting position.

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Dave Hutchinson @ 86

I still don't see that the existence or lack thereof of God or an afterlife has any real bearing on the way I face the end of my life, and I'm 61 now. It's not really any scarier than it was before, just closer. You see, no matter what I believe, there's no way I can ever know if I'm right or not until I get there, and the odds of my being right are just really low. Too many variables for any decent chance of getting it right. So it's just not worth worrying about.

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Dave Hutchinson @ 77

My problem with the Newsweek coverage is that it's not a religious story, it's a political one, and because of the way religious stories are treated in the US, the story is given a slant that distorts it seriously. That may not be a problem for you if you don't live in the US and so don't have to deal with people whose sole sources of information are all distorted in this fashion, but I have to live here, and it's not really pleasant at the moment.

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95:
Blaming Christian anti-semitism for the Holocaust makes exactly as much sense as blaming Christian egalitarianism for the Gulag.

Oh, the Nazis has a lot of non-atheistic, dogmatically Christian help. The Germans had a standard "divide et impera" policy in Eastern Europe. They would pick a religious/ethnic group and help them against their traditional enemies. Catholic agsinst Orthodox in Ukraine, Croat against Serb in Yugoslavia, etc. Ideological purity was unimportant until after victory, at which point all the excess helpers could get sent to the camps themselves.

96:

Stross @83: Yeah, in general atheism and materialism correlate, but not so in the case of Buddhism.

The Buddha made an explicit point of not answering metaphysical questions beyond those with a direct practical influence on life. Thus, there is no dogma on the existence of a finite or an infinite universe in Buddhism, because, here and now, it doesn't matter. The existence of a supreme being falls under the `here-and-now, who cares?' banner, as far as I remember. So, there are Buddhists who are atheist/agnostic yet believe in reincarnation. (Not needfully the `I was Cleopatra' version, as well.)

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97:

I don't talk with this sort of person; online I ignore them (as I will you from now on) and in person I beat the crap out of them as opportunity offers.

For guys in their fifties who look like this to swagger about making implied physical threats to random people on the internet who make fun of them is unseemly even if they do have military readerships who might conceivably respect such an attitude, HTH. Surrender gracefully the things of youth etc. Though frankly I hope that waiter you stabbed in Culo Viejo back in the seventies was over something more substantial than this.

98:

Just a couple of random thoughts expressed in fragmentary sentences.

Charlie, you say that part of the reason you dislike religion is that your forebears were persecuted as jews, but surely much of the reason the Jewish diaspora retained any identity was their religion? I get the feeling that if the jews were culturally the same but religously christian they would probably have been wholly assimilated. The fact that you can call yourself, or your family jewish, is mostly down to religion.

Secondly, although pre-Chinese Tibet does not seem pleasant, neither is the current Chinese government. I am far more interested in the crimes being commited now by our allies than crimes in the past by the people they now oppress. Quite honestly I find western reverence for the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism deeply silly. Ideally, Tibet would rule itself, not as a theocracy, but as a democracy with the Dalai Lama having as much influence as the curent Archbishop of Canterbury. I get the feeling that you are far more forgiving of attacks on religion than you are of attacks on ethnic groups or political ones. Ultimately any decree of the chinese government is liable to be backed up by imprisonemtn and torture.

Finally, regarding christianity in China, I would imagine that a house church in Beijing is protected by being under western eyes, setting up one in one of those towns in the sticks which no-one has ever heard of but still has apopulation the size of Birmingham would be problematc.

99:

S M Stirling @ 60

Replying to your talking points in order:

A) Please show examples of when this particular moral principle has been adhered to strictly, in any culture, at any time period. I can't think of any current examples at all.

B) The same thing could be said about the attitude of Indigenous Australians to European Australians, of the Irish to the British, and about the attitude of the Palestinians to the Israelis. It's a perfectly normal expression of dislike at being conquered, happens all the time and has happened all the time down through history. The point at which it gets worrying is when enough people have enough ego invested in their national pride to want to hurt others as a result of having said national pride insulted. As an example: post-Weimar Germany; the United States of America post Vietnam.

C) The notion that an undemocratic government is illegitimate is one which is both profoundly historically ignorant, and also profoundly biased culturally. The current government of China fits in very nicely with a centuries-old pattern of government as practiced by the Chinese - it's just that the labels on the Emperor and his court have been altered, and the patterns of succession have changed a bit. Same-same for post-1918 Russia, by the way - there was still someone filling the role of the Tsar, it's just that the names and labels were altered.

Democracy is also no defence against tyranny and corruption - one just has to look at the current government of the United States of America to realise that. I've yet to see any practical difference between the attitudes of the current US president and those of the average tyrannical dictator.

D) While showing respect for the locally predominant religion should indeed be a default mode of behaviour, this *does* tend to leave one in an awkward position when faced with those sects who insist that theirs is the only "true" religious faith, and who insist on not showing any respect for anyone else's religion. In most of the English-speaking world, what this translates to is a *demand* (rather than a request) that one show abject, grovelling respect to the beliefs of Calvinist Protestant Christians rather than anyone else.

As a pantheist pagan, I tend toward a more egalitarian response: I shall be just as polite to someone else on the matter of religion as they are to me.

@66

You're not giving much credit to things like the theology and philosophy of Hellene Greece, the various Semitic religions (of which Judaism was only one), the Egyptian mythoses, the gods of the Assyrians, the Babylonian pantheons, Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, and oh, early Islam to name just a few. All of those had as much impact on Western thought as Latinised Christianity. You're also forgetting the wonderful influence of such persons as Alexander the Great, the various pagan Roman emperors (Caesar Julius, Caesar Claudius, Caesar Vespasian, etc), the various warlords of the Dark Ages, Muhammad, Abu-Bakr, the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad, Ghengis Khan, the Umayyad caliphs of Cordoba, and let's not forget Pope Urban II. Without the stirring influence of so much warfare, it's not likely a lot of these different cultures would have encountered one another, much less exchanged information.

My point being: Western history, thinking and philosophy is influenced by a far wider range of thought than just those beliefs which came down through the Catholic church.

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100:

Stoss said, "Jeff: I do not have a soul. There's a serious lack of evidence for the existence of souls, as traditionally conceived -- especially the idea that it's something connected to you that survives your organic demise."

Then I was wrong, you are not soulful. But Your mind does a good job of pretending to have a soul, even if it's just through other characters.

I don't "know" if I have a soul or not (I suspect I might). What if the soul is like dark matter? I wouldn't "know" dark matter any more than you would "know" an x-ray if it passed through me. But, if you don't require a soul, then you don't have to fear for its existence in an after life. Sounds too easy to me. I think people do better when they think they'll have to answer for their shit. Call it Karma, or God, or whatever works. As for the rest of your bit on evolution, I'm not sure your definition of maladaptive is the same as mine. I'm quite sure communion with something greater than ourselves has inspired many an artist and scientist. But maybe soul or God or alien abductions are like many things in life, if you haven't experienced it for yourself, then you can't really be expected to talk about it with any athority. I think there are lots of people out there that can write about souls and gods and angles and demons because they've experienced these things. For some people these things are real. For others, these "things" are just material for books.


Jeff

101:

Folks, this thread seems to be somewhat contentious (and I've already banned one commenter who'd gotten somewhat over-enthusiastic -- or abusive -- depending on your perspective).

I'm about to go on a long journey, so rather than leave an open mike on the bully pulpit, I'm going to close comments on this thread in about 24 hours time.

(Blogging will subsequently be resumed when I arrive in Japan.)

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102:

Did we establish whether you were going to be hitting Osaka in a public capacity at any point? Fair enough if you just want to snooze and look at temples by then, mind.

103:

Adrian: I'll be in Yokohama, Tokyo, and Kyoto for sure. Osaka -- looking unlikely.

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104:

Ooo, Kyoto's not out of the question. Is there an itinerary up?

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105:

I've got nothing really to add, other than to note that there's nothing like religion and politics to get people riled up. :)

Oh, and Discordianism is the correct religion, in case anyone was unsure.

106:

Adiran @97: there is no point in smearing anyone here.

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107:

Who's smearing? I'm trying to persuade him to stop being a blowhard, it's embarrassing. He's bragged about admitted killing someone in the past - I don't have the details, but I'm always up for speculation.

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108:

Eh, that tag doesn't work. Preview first!

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109:

Giles @98
Finally, regarding christianity in China, I would imagine that a house church in Beijing is protected by being under western eyes, setting up one in one of those towns in the sticks which no-one has ever heard of but still has apopulation the size of Birmingham would be problematc.

Have you heard of Yingkou? I was there last year -- one of 3 foreigners in the city. I met Christians there, as well as Muslims (my school was near the mosque) and Buddhists. As far as I could tell there were no Christian churches -- certainly the Christians I met worshipped in their house.

Being a Christian doesn't seem to be a problem, at least in the bits of China I've visited. (Only ten provinces and just over two dozen cities, so a decent sample, although certainly not conclusive.)

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110:

"Being a Christian doesn't seem to be a problem, at least in the bits of China I've visited."

As long as the Christianity practiced doesn't conflict with the state...

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111:

Giles wrote: "Secondly, although pre-Chinese Tibet does not seem pleasant, neither is the current Chinese government."

And the 1959 Chinese government was even worse.

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112:

Keir wrote: " So, there are Buddhists who are atheist/agnostic yet believe in reincarnation. (Not needfully the `I was Cleopatra' version, as well.)"

But it's important to note that rebirth/reincarnation in Buddhism is *not a good thing*, even if you are reborn in a 'heaven realm' (because it'll eventually end) and the whole idea is to *stop that crap* and not be reborn again at all.

Because of that, I take the 'rebirth' thing to be an extrapolation of a person's tendency to continue making the same mistakes. The idea being, if you're not mindful, etc, you're more likely to fall back into past behavioral patterns, leading to repeated mistakes or the persistence of unpleasant situations. (If you're continually selfish and nasty at work, you will continue having unpleasant work environments, if you can hold jobs at all.)

I've always had a hard time with the idea of rebirth, in that there's supposed to be nothing of the self that is permanent, yet there would have to be some transfer of karma. So, I just go with the no-rebirth model above, which works just as well during this life.

113:

@100:
"What if the soul is like dark matter?" What's the point of this analogy?

"I think people do better when they think they'll have to answer for their shit". Religion offers nothing useful here. Depending on your particular doctrinal perversion, you either think your "shit" is divinely-backed, or you have a get-out-of-hell-free card with a deathbed apology.

There are lots of people out there who write books on angels/demons/UFOs because they're confused or know how to make a fast buck.

@98: I don't get the Dalai Lama thing either. On issues of abortion, homosexuality and other matters, the DL is much more intolerant than the public face of Catholicism. He's the Steve Jobs of religion: charismatic, but ultimately impossible to deal with.

114:

I'd like to add, on the subject of souls: I can't prove that they don't exist, any more than I can prove Santa Claus doesn't exist, but I see no more reason for serious grown-ups to believe in immortal souls than for them to believe in Santa Claus. If Santa's real, there's a remarkable shortage of footprints around the fireplace on December 25th; and as for souls, there's a similarly remarkable lack of evidence from fMRI scans and other diagnostic procedures, invasive or otherwise.

Remember the idea that the soul is some kind of animating force or essence? We know how neural membrane surface potential depolarization propagates and how synaptic transmission occurs: a huge chunk of our pharmacopoeia depends on this knowledge (and wouldn't work if some hypothetical busy-body ghost was pulling the levers instead). So the niche left for the "soul" to occupy is some sort of recording function, like a celestial flight recorder. (Which sort of begs the question of what the point is of punishing or rewarding the flight recorder after the plane crash, but as I give heaven and hell as much credence as I give souls and Santa, I'll leave that question alone for now.)

In the real world, flight data recorders tend to plug into instruments and controls on the aircraft so they can acquire data and record it. Contemplating the celestial-flight-recorder model of a soul, you've got to ask where the interfaces are. What happens if you're under deep general anaesthesia? What happens if you suffer brain damage that leaves you in a persistent vegetative state? What happens if you succumb to senile dementia and lose everything? Does the zombie in the nursing home overwrite everything the celestial-flight-recorder recorder earlier with random noise? (This is a variant on "are you the same person you were when you were three years old", but it's still a good 'un.)

Better still: suppose a mad scientist comes along and performs some radical brain surgery -- like a corpus callosotomy (separating the hemispheres of your cerebral cortex). Do you suddenly have two souls, for the two separate halves? What if (being a mad scientist) they remove one hemisphere but keep it perfused with blood and oxygenated so that it's still alive and functioning? Two souls or one?

About the only reasonable (and potentially scientifically testable) definition of a soul I've been able to come up with is "the state vector (sum of state transitions over entire lifetime) of the neural network of the organism that supports consciousness". And while that does sidestep these definitional issues, you'll note that there's nothing in there about it being immortal or immaterial. That, I suspect, is my real beef: the universe around us is notably short on immortal and immaterial entities; by Occam's razor, where simpler explanations present themselves they are to be preferred, and the simpler explanation in this case is that immortal souls don't exist (in the absence of supporting evidence).

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@114

Charlie, what is consciousness and where it appears?
Check my post 80.

Points is, your own existance (subjective) is immaterial. If your brain is a system ruled by universal laws, there is no explanation why your brain percept itself as an entity, while a lump of rock does not.

I mean, everything about what is around you, you only know with a certain probability (for example, you can`t rule out that you are in a virtual reality). Only thing you know for certain is that your consciousness exists.

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116:

Charlie @ 114: I like your definition of a soul, it's what I've been thinking for a while, but stated better than I could. :)

As to it being immortal, I'm not sure that's something we can know for sure until we know a lot more about the universe. What happens to the past, for instance? Is it still there, or is there only the present? If you could travel to the past, then all of our souls are still around, at the moments of our deaths. That's an immortality of sorts....

An a universe that allows things like ancestor simulations or multiple universes, then it's pretty much certain that at some point you'll exist again. Whether or not there's a soul in the religious sense. In some cases you'll run your life over and over. In others every possible variant on your life will happen. In others you'll wake up remembering everything that happened in your life/lives.

In which case, religion is pretty meaningless.

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117:

A Martian might observe:

Buddhists pick their leaders via random selection using reincarnation of the soul to legitimize the decision.

Monarchists use the maximal genetic match plus a y-chromosome to legitimize the next leader. A little divinity may be added to the equation too.

Democracies believe in "the wisdom of the crowds" to select their leader[s].

;-)


118:

Alex@117: Democracies use results of elections to legitimize self selected leaders.

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119:

Democracies believe in "the wisdom of the crowds" to select their leader[s].

Some of them may think they do. Democracy for me is like when my eldest son (3) doesn't want to put his pants on in the morning. So I give him a choice - do you want the red pants, or the blue pants? He chooses, feels consulted, everything is fine. I don't much care about which one he chooses - but then, he's going to grow up one day.

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120:

tp1024@118: so what is the basis of using the election system? Why is it, as Churchill said, "The worst system...except for all the others"? What is the underlying basis of using a maximal choice system to select a leader[s] rather than another system? ;-)

To belabor my point of using the proverbial martian, whilst Charlie was bemoaning the irrationality of a belief in reincarnation (no argument from me there), I also think that irrational beliefs are also used in other systems, even when they work quite well on a purely operational level. I think Adrian@119 sees this in his comment.

Had the Dalai Lama been picked on some other criterion, e.g. random, or the first child born after the last Dalai Lama's death, this would have been a purely operational decision, with no mysticism required and would probably achieve much the same result.

I recall an old SF short story about US presidents being picked by the most "average" man in the population - a very successful scheme until humans died out and were replaced by dogs.

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121:

John Hendry @110:

"As long as the Christianity practiced doesn't conflict with the state..."

That holds everywhere, though -- being in conflict with the state is generally unpleasant. How unpleasant depends both on the state in question and what you're disagreeing about.

Simply being Christian, and doing what most Christians in North America do, isn't a problem. Starting to get involved in political activism could be a problem, but that's true whether or not you're a Christian -- and not limited to China.

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122:

...Speaking of Big Media pandering to Religion. Sam Harris, an outspoken American Atheist, has called out Nature on their pandering. Nice blurb about giving too much respect for something that is the antithesis to science. If anyone is interested...

"Scientists should unite against threat from religion"
Nature. 23 August 2007
doi:10.1038/448864a

123:

Alex, I'm going to answer in reversed order.

"What is the underlying basis of using a maximal choice system to select a leader[s] rather than another system?"

(With an ever so slight chuckle:) What are the chances of the next US President being neither Republican nor a Democrat? Now, lets talk about maximum choice. ;) Btw. having 5 political parties to choose from doesn't help. I can attest to that as a German. (Here it comes down to CDU or SPD, both, in fact, became indistinguishable.)

"So what is the basis of using the election system?"

To put the general population at ease, by giving them a choice and the warm feeling that comes with it. What they choose doesn't matter, as long as it doesn't upset the established system.

(The chances of that happing have of course been minimized in the first place, of course without even so much as asking the general population. Here, in Germany, our "Grundgesetz" - the de facto constitution that wasn't called constitution because it was meant to be transitory - was agreed upon in the Neuschwansee conference in 1949 or so. After the reunion in 1990 (the great takeover to be more precise) the established western part of Germany decided that the Grundgesetz was all right as it was and simply changed the parts that called for its replacement, once Germany was reunified. All political activities of the East Germans themselves, which included setting up an own parliament and an own political system, were basically rendered superfluous with that. Leading politicians in East Germany were exclusively Western third line politicians with salaries surpassing those of their western counterparts for the next decade and not much has changed since then. Sorry for the rant, but it had to get out. ;) )

"Why is it, as Churchill said, "The worst system...except for all the others"?"

Churchhill said something along the lines of "... except for those we tried so far". It's time to try something new. Democracy has - predictably - become corrupt. The same will happen to every other form of government. (Also the one that will eventually replace our interpretation of democracy.) The point is that people must improve upon the experiences of the past. And these improvements are rarely embraced by whatever the current government is - as it is corrupt and will be abanndonned by it.

124:

@123: "It's time to try something new." Time for spice-guilds and mentats.

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125:

C.S., If you don't like this sort of subject matter, where people might have the nerve to disagree, then don't write about these sorts of potentially contentious subjects. But you do it on purpose just to cause these little Human disagreements. I greatly suspect you enjoy being a little trouble maker. We've both been around the news group cultures long enough to know what subjects will get people going: religion and politics. And maybe Jarjar Binks.

And, again, there are many GREAT scientists and artist and just average folks out there who have a deep spiritual faith. For some, the only proof they need for God/s or the divine, is everything they see around them. You don't seem to want to admit for many, their lives are better because of their spiritual devotion, not worse. But its all about subjective reality, right? Many people have no need for God. This might all be a fantasy, but then, fanstasy is good enough for you as entertainment and for you to make a living with, so it must be important enough. The appeal of fantasy may result from our inner knowledge that this is in fact a magical universe. Many Worlds?


Jeff

126:

SpeakerToManagers@93 - Sorry; it was late and I had become maudlin. That sort of thing's been weighing on my mind a bit lately, that's all. Apologies.
And@94 - Ah, now it makes sense. Yes, I see now. Many thanks for that.

127:

#125- I don't recall that the many worlds hypothesis is related to a magical universe.

#80, Anatoly-
I know that scientific thingies are tools useful for prediction etc etc. But why do you think people are supposed to choose their own concept of soul?

What science says about it has already been covered, namelty that no credible evidence has been presented for it and it's existence.

The funny thing about your apparent take on materialis however, is that you are forgetting the structure. A bunch of atoms in a plasma has a different structure from a protein. Therein lies the answer to your conundrum.


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128:

Posting things like that is just bad manners.

129:

Adrian: "Joe" can post anything he wants; it'll be deleted unread.

(It only stayed up that long because I was on a long-haul; I'm currently visiting Yokohama.)