Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Trying to Live an Authentic Life

Samuel Beckett in Waiting for Godot identified the fear of being forgotten as possibly one of the greatest anxieties which humankind face. Conscious of the fact of death and annihilation; conceivably preceded by protracted and painful suffering and illness, it is not uncommon for individuals to wish they had never been born in the first place. However, as Mark Twain remarked, ‘In religion and politics, people’s beliefs are, in almost every case, acquired second hand and without examination’. Acceptance without questioning leads to ignorance and prejudice, and the failure by individual’s to seek enlightenment concerning other people’s ideas, beliefs and culture.

Any study of anthropology will illustrate, while variable from tribe to tribe, some form of religious belief has persisted; a durability. It must be acknowledged, that similar to other words in daily use, the term ‘religion’ is open to a wide range of interpretations. What does the word ‘God’ mean? It can't represent anything the average individual can comprehend if God is identified as a supernatural being. To the anxiety-riddled individual the belief in, and reverence for a supernatural power (or powers’) regarded as creator and governor of the universe, gives comfort. A supreme being, aware of their existence, and preparing a place in the hereafter, gives console to those who fear death, and have a burning desire to exist after their earthly death. Why do some individual’s need to believe the soul, essence, or personality of a person exist after their death?

For some people religion provides a unitary purpose for living; a community and social group for the lonely; and for the dejected the hope of better things to come. I am reminded of the quote by Friedrich Niezsche, ‘A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything’. The difficulty with the three theistic religions’, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, is the ambiguity and conflicting statements on how humankind should behave on moral issues including marriage, divorce, adultery,
the treatment of women, abortion, alcohol, sex, race, homosexuality, criminality, animal rights and war.

Sacred texts, which some people believe to be the irrevocable word of God, were generally documented following the events from memory, or stories handed down over time. The texts remain caste in stone; fixed and unchangeable; never revised or updated to reflect contemporary human behavior where a change of attitude on the part of the general public may have altered, for example, birth control; abortion; euthanasia; in vitro fertilization; the role of women in society; Sabbath observance; and other ethical and moral decisions we may make, consciously or unconsciously, each day.

The introduction of the Book of Revelations in the New Testament has caused many Christians and non-believers to be traumatised by the depiction of hell awaiting those not deemed one of the ‘Chosen Few’, and the visionary presentation of the end of the world. No one is sure; however, which individual(s) wrote the book, or when it was written. Some find it hard to read, understand, and to contemplate. George Bernard Shaw dismissed it as ‘the curious record of the visions of a drug addict’.

Where did the idea of original sin emanate? Why did a benevolent God create an earth where people are prone to suffering, illness, and internalised guilt. In fact the term ‘original sin’ does not exist in the Bible or Jewish writings. The Fall in the Garden of Eden, according to St Augustine, meant humankind would consequently be flawed, and therefore liable to suffering and evil. He was convinced the consequence of original sin was damnation and applied to people who hadn't committed any sins, including newborn babies if they died before their souls were cleansed
by baptism.

Some Christians advocate that the apparently needless suffering and deaths of small children has a purpose in God's plan. They believe it inspires others to carry out ‘good works’ for God on earth, and that the innocent children will be rewarded in an afterlife. I consider it unjustifiable to punish an innocent child in this world to formulate a point and to awaken the consciousness of others. Such a facile approval of suffering in life seems immoral and contemptuous. 

It beggars belief that members of some churches are staunchly opposed to medical intervention in the case of illness and prefer to depend on prayer to achieve healing. Their blind devotion to what they call ‘God's will’ has, in some instances, resulted in unnecessary death. The parents’ refusal to seek medical treatment, and conceivably the failure to administer simple antibiotics in some cases, has resulted in the death of a child. Devout Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse blood transfusions for themselves, and their children, when this action may save a live.

By referring to religious belief as an illusion, Sigmund Freud tried to show how our wanting something to be true often has the effect of making us believe it is true. In the case of religion we want to believe there is some God, heaven, or reward which compensates for earthly frustrations and death. He believed religion avoids dealing with the harsh reality of life by promoting a self-deluding and infantile belief in a father figure who will save us from feelings of helplessness and fear.

Does God answer prayers and physically intervene to grant certain individual’s a favourable conclusion to recovery from suffering and serious illness? Some Christians perceive illness as a battle between God and the Devil; the result of the patient’s treatment dependent on the strength of prayer and their relationship with God. Where prognosis is ominous the patient may be held responsible for prayers not answered. It should be borne in mind, however, that virtue does not correlate with happiness or vice with misery. 

Suffering, shortened life span, bereavement, torture, murder, physical and mental abuse are not the sole preserve of those deemed wicked and immoral. The injustices of this world, and the seemingly random distribution of good and evil, are beyond human prayer to a supernatural being. The conviction that God will make evildoers pay for their transgressions in an afterlife may give solace to believers, but not to others.

What about the mysterious near-death experience? This phenomenon has been presented by many people as testimony the human mind is capable of continued function after death. The idea consciousness could exist and work independently from the human body invites fantasy; ghosts and immortal souls, transmigration and reincarnation. Gravely ill individuals have, on occasion, reported out-of-body experiences where they seem to be souls travelling outside their bodies. Many people do it in their dreams; some experience it when they take drugs. Some scientific experiments suggest out-of-body experiences are illusory, and may be the result of chemical reactions in the brain, even when triggered in the brains of dying people. Scientific research has indicated the disturbance may be due to malfunctioning of certain brain areas because of interrupted oxygen supply or disconnection, and can be provoked by stimulation with electrodes administered by doctors.

Consider the mindset of a spiritualist medium. Their claim to contact the dead and channel messages to a relative(s) is extravagant, highly unscrupulous, and immoral. Some people may feel no harm is being perpetrated, and that an individual recently bereaved may benefit from engaging in superstitious nonsense. Many visit a spiritualist medium in a time of acute grief; a vulnerable time for any one. The comfort of receiving a message from a deceased loved one may be analogous to a fix of morphine. However, while content to receive a message from the other side (sic), the effect will not necessarily last long for the bereaved individual.

Martin Heidegger believed we must live with the insight that while death is the most important fact in the life of every single human being, no one will experience their own death. Others will share this experience; not the deceased. The sorrows of death are of the living, not of the dead.

Each individual has their own interpretation of life and death. I consider we come into this life by chance and leave by the same route. The opinions and views of others, of which we are inundated daily, for example, the news media, television,
newspapers, the internet, researchers, politicians, TV evangelists, church leaders, advertisements, and sales people should not be accepted without critical thinking incorporating the broader concepts of rationality and objectivity.

Our society is full of phony scientific claims used to market everything from breakfast cereal to cancer treatment by bogus practitioners who make false claims and give patients’ erroneous hopes for their future. We should stimulate and encourage our children to be critical and sceptical of claims, arguments, and pronouncements made by others regarding social, ethical, moral, political, secular, and religious issues, and to continue to question their authenticity in the absence of categorical scientific verification, objectivity, and honest analysis.

We should appreciate and value the gifts that those loved ones now deceased shared with us. The core values they engendered including love; sincerity; generosity of time and energy; broad mindedness; compassion; abhorrence of intolerance, bigotry, hypocrisy; and the purported wisdom of know it alls’. The deceased will remain in our consciousness and in that of our children. Beyond that it is of no necessity. Life is for the living in this world.

By living an authentic life as defined in the statement ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ (which predates the Bible, and conceivably primary interactions between Homo sapiens), there is hope humankind can survive into the foreseeable future. Individuals should, however, restrain their desire to believe things as a consequence of social pressures to conform. One must be willing to ask if conformity is motivating one’s belief or opinion, and, if so, have the strength and courage to abandon a position until they can attain a more objective and thorough evaluation.

Bertrand Russell said, ‘The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.’ There are no crisp, clear answers. Why should there be?