Loneliness

I read an article yesterday on loneliness in general and more specifically on the physiological impact of a state that was conventionally thought to be purely psycholgical. The biological and genetic basis of loneliness and its impact on the body.

It was a total eye-opener for me. I thought I should put down my thoughts on some of the subtler aspects of this terrifying state discussed in the article.

The essentially subjective nature of this feeling

Loneliness is a subjective experience. This was totally understandable for me. I am a person who enjoys solitude at times and need a certain amount of time everyday away from everybody and everything. I don’t see being alone as a necessarily bad thing. But, an enriching experience when enjoyed in adequate amounts. Always being with people and engaging in group activity has the effect of normalizing our personality and dulling our individuality. But, sometimes you really do feel alone and scared.

This state is not something that can be diagnosed from the outside. The most interesting thing about loneliness is that you can feel it when you are surrounded by people and friends or not feel it at all when you are in the middle of a dessert all by yourself on your cycle. I have experienced both, so I know.

The essentially subjective nature of this experience does not in any way blur the clear and identifiable consequences to our physiology, brain function and even brain and body anatomy(when the condition is chronic). This insidious effect is explained in terrifying detail with facts, scientific experiments and observations.

Solutions

But what most caught my attention is the last para which seemed to suggest that faith in God, joining a church, religion etc. can all help people who are battling loneliness. This was something that made me think a bit. The foundations of any religion are false. But, the comfort and solace it can offer embattled individuals has a measurable impact on them. Is this the reason some people believe so strongly in the power of faith despite the apparent hollowness of the faith itself?

The promise of a silent and watchful guardian, a protector, an all-pervading and all-powerful consciousness that values you and takes note of everything you do and go through. A lot of people consider this to be a fanciful notion. But, for someone deprived of company and emotional intimacy, it might be just the thing that can save them from the abyss of feelings of emotional isolation.

The testimonies to the healing power of faith can have a scientific explanation though the faith itself is built on shaky foundations. The relief from the constant pain and torture that loneliness inflicts on someone can do wonders for a chronic sufferer.

As a critic of religion what do I say to this?

The human mind is a wonderful thing. But, it has its weaknesses and I might have fallen prey to a certain lack of sensitivity to the ways in which people can be affected by their experiences and behave in ways that may seem inexplicable to someone not acquainted with their background and its impact on them.

There is a true need here that needs to be addressed to ensure the holistic health of our society. Just like food, water, air and shelter, intimacy, both physical and emotional with either imagined or real entities is a real need. Religion has managed to step into a vacuüm generated by the growing isolation and selfishness of our society. It has offered to satisfy a human need… at a cost. The suspension of logic and critical thinking. The acceptance of dogma and hierarchy. And ultimately unquestioning faith.

Whether the price is worth the product is something everyone has to figure out for themselves. But, is there a way in which help can be more directly delivered to those in need of it. Can’t community and connection with others be nurtured through means that don’t involve indulging in common delusions? Should one reach for the quick-fix solution that religion offers or aim for a higher and more total solution to the underlying problem.

Society and by society I mean children should be conditioned from a very young age to be caring and sensitive to other people’s needs so that in the future the net of social safety becomes denser and stronger and fewer people fall through it.

We should in some way be sensitized to the variety of human experience and thought and be conditioned to respond with understanding to every sort of people. Some people have a natural knack for this. Some don’t. But everyone should be aware of this. So that the world can be a less lonely place for everyone in it…

The God DelusionThe God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A brutal and unforgiving analysis of everything related to faith with illuminating discussions on the possibilities of freedom from it. The book starts with what exactly faith is, what it does for us, what it can make possible and then goes on to discuss why the possible benefits of faith are small and easily managed-without while the potential problems are huge and dangerous. It contains a satisfying discussion of atheism and agnosticism and is generally considered to be recommended reading for anyone interested in free-thought and skepticism.
I would have given it 5 stars. But I felt that the book should have more thoroughly dealt with the humanitarian activities of religious bodies, the kind of benefits they have delivered for our society and the price of those gains.
A lot of religious people tend to find solace and justification for mistaken beliefs in the apparent goodness of faith-based charities. The long-term impact of such bodies and the ignoring of secular systems that help the underprivileged that it causes need to be dealt with in a book that seeks to comprehensively disprove the notion that religions are good.

View all my reviews

I was told one more time by a friend who called me day before yesterday that I spout a lot of gyan and that I keep on changing it from time to time. When I thought about it, I realized that it was true.

When I was ruminating on it I remembered a wonderful book called  Gora by Rabindranath Tagore that  I had read a long time back. The main character Gora is a man of quick action, deep and clear convictions, impressive powers of persuasion and a capacity for tremendous pain in the service of the causes he believes in. When you see that the weird name is a sort of anagram of Tagore you are left wondering whether Tagore is trying to convey something about himself. Like Tolstoy did with War and Peace…

As the story slowly unfolds, Gora has to countenance the purging of the most foundational precepts that guided his life one after the other. But, the changes do not dishearten him nor do they truly break his spirit. One would think that a wo/man is the sum of the opinions s/he holds and that changing them is the sign of a weak mind. But the book tells the story of a man whose character transcends mere opinions.

Any one reading the book can easily see that what is unique about him is not just what he says or does at any particular point in time. But, it is the way he says and does those things that makes him special.

I really liked the character because his confidence was not predicated on his infallibility or the intransigence of his principles. Only a fool would think that any one would achieve anything of any value without making mistakes. His self-assured personality was born out of his readiness to take a risk and walk-his-talk.

I have seen a lot of people who would rather sit around and criticize than go out, make some mistakes and walk back proudly with the results of their experiments. You will never know anything with certainity. But using that as an excuse for inaction is a sure shot recipe for mediocrity. Which of course is a bad thing only if one thinks it is.

Religions and morals

A lot of people harbor a deep suspicion of atheism and atheists. I was recently reminded of this while reading an article on how admitting that one is an atheist would badly effect his/her chances when running for a public office.

This has always struck me as a rather strange phenomenon and I have often wondered why someone would fear/doubt an atheist more than a guy who believes in God. Religious institutions have done a very good job of convincing a lot of people that all the morals required for a person to participate peacefully in the process that society is comes solely from them.

The business of giving advice

It is definitely an easy thing to do. The various institutions which exist in the name of religion and spirituality are more than happy to tell you that everything there is to know and understand about human morality has already been made clear to them through the word of God. Moreover they are willing to interpret these words in the light of the various dogmas they bandy about to tell you what you should do. In return for a sufficient amount of money of course.

But, are they doing a good job of it? I mean, when you pay them to tell you what you should do with your lives you are certainly not acting like an adult. But, at the very least you have the right to expect some value for your money. Right? Maybe a more important and perhaps basic question is whether they really are capable of doing the job they claim belongs to them, well.

Is the business based on a sound product?

I have tried a lot to put aside my very profound disagreement with religion, the kind of philosophy that drives it and the conclusions it arrives at. Most of my problems with it stem from the fact that I have a very strong passion for truth and a belief that it has some intrinsic value which is worth significant sacrifices. Not a lot of people nowadays claim that the religious texts are literally true simply because they look more and more ridiculous with the passage of time. The defense of religion nowadays finds its material in the problem of the source of human morality and the need for psychological comfort and support in times of distress and depression.

If you are going to claim that you already have with you everything required to make an informed decision about such a complex and subtle problem as morals then will you be open to asking deeper questions and critically looking at your own suggestions?

Secondly, given the fact that almost every religious book is full of contradictions, how do you go about choosing which directions to follow, which stories to take in their literal sense, which ones are metaphorical etc. etc.. People in the know say that you have to use your “common sense” or if you feel like you are not up to it leave the questions to the people “qualified” to do it. If it is possible to twist the sometimes incoherent and ambiguous texts into something that YOU THINK sounds right, then what really is the role of the text? Can’t you arrive at the same conclusions by yourself or better still through a wider consultation among people with different perspectives? Going one step further, aren’t these texts of dubious sources and doubtful intentions a force constraining when it comes to reasoning out deep and confusing questions?

Thirdly and this where hints of my problem with religion based philosophy not regarding truth with the value it deserves starts becoming apparent. If you are going to go around saying that somehow you know better than everyone else how everyone should act, then you either be ready to battle the world with your wits or if you are too lazy for that claim the backing of some authority that everyone respects and fears.

You know what everyone fears, respects and bows to!? Yep, you guessed it right! It is the UNKNOWN! Something you are told you cannot understand, control or communicate with yet possesses total and absolute power over you. A lot of people have traced the origins of supernatural thinking to holes in man’s understanding of the world. Though it is an ever shrinking one, it will always be there and it will always have some power over our lives. But, some people have succeeded in assigning an anthropomorphic personality to it and claiming its backing for their actions and words.

The authority

Whatever you say or do has value only as long as people continue to believe in that authority. It is only then you escape from the need to provide clear reasons or results in support of your prescriptions for life decisions. So, it becomes of paramount importance that you first and foremost drive into everyone’s psyche the importance of never doubting that authority. To value faith above all else. To not question you. This is important because this is where it all starts. Built on this foundation of lies the tottering edifice of religious morality rises up in search of answers to the bigger problems. It is only when you start moving away from the stink of the foundation that you get anywhere even close to solving the problems you are interested in.

Where this gets us

Well, what is the end result of it all. More often than not it results in a kind of moral inversion. Instead of starting from the question of what one should do to leave peacefully with others you started with ensuring that whatever you say carries the weight of the truth without any need for experimentation or the difficult test of passing the critical scrutiny of society.

What does this inversion mean? Things that are really important, like honesty, integrity, civic sense, non-violence etc. become somehow less important than making the required contributions to your priests, chastity, credulity, not pissing off your God and ensuring that everyone hears about him or better still believes in him.

It is really when we get to this point that the defense of religion on the grounds that it somehow makes people more moral starts to fall apart. Good people generally speaking find justification for and enough motivation to be good to others. No matter what their religion. The reason for this is that man evolved to be a social animal. That is why the overwhelming majority of people in the world are good. But the bad ones will simply twist things to suit them. Moreover some good people, people of action and strong convictions can simply and easily be prodded into taking their religion too seriously and through that made to do grievous harm to others. The really sad thing is that the firm conviction and absolute trust that unquestioning faith creates in people can act to undermine their own consciences and abate their natural guilt.

An example

There is this funny story I know about a friend of mine. I always used to think that it illustrates the problem of misplaced priorities of faith-based morality pretty well. This friend used to regularly download porn(rather copious quantities of it) on his neighbor’s unsecured Wi-Fi connection. He used to tell us that watching porn was anyway a pretty bad sin that would need some serious confessing to wash away. But, it can’t be helped. He was relieved that at least he didn’t have to pay for his weakness.  This reasoning always used to make me laugh. Watching porn is something people do privately and I can’t think of anything bad that could come out of it. In fact, it might even be helping the mighty American Porn Industry. Not to mention lots of talented young guys and gals who make money from something they are passionate about and enjoy doing!(Hahaha). Plus, in our deeply repressed society it might help douse some fires and improve the collective mood a bit. But, using the neighbor’s Wi-Fi without permission is a pretty bad thing in my book. You are exploiting a guy’s ignorance for your own benefit. It seems even worse, in light of the fact that if the friend ever ran into some trouble that guy wouldn’t mind helping him out.

When things that don’t really matter are blown up into huge crimes it blinds us to the things that actually hurt other people.

I have no problem with people even the ones who are in my life and closely associated with me being religious. But their faith should be a personal matter and it cannot be allowed to influence decisions that affect everyone. On a larger scale, I think, our society needs to consider questions of ethics, law and state powers as completely separate from questions of faith and not allows faith-based bodies to interfere with decision-making in these areas.

What do atheists do in a crisis?

I was watching this video posted on a popular blog. It is about what atheists do when faced with a crisis warning? David Silverman brought up a point during the discussion(well, sort of!!) which is one that I use often but haven’t up until now witnessed being used in a debate.

A lot of people argue for religion saying that the prayers and rituals are a great source of comfort for a great many people. A last hope, an ultimate consolation it seems. This is one argument that I have never been able to stomach and for all its superficial appearance of being one that a kind and understanding person would espouse, I feel that at a deeper level it is sad, pathetic and cruel. The strength of the argument lies merely in its wording and it’s use of the words comfort, solace etc. along with the condescending tone of the voice that makes the argument. It could be restated this way.

“Hey, people are really stupid and some people don’t know how to deal with their problems and even if they do, they needlessly worry about whether the measures they have taken are adequate. In such situations a little lying to oneself is helpful. There is a tsunami coming? Tell him that the God who didn’t care about stopping it is going to protect him from it. There, now he is relaxed and peaceful! See? Religion is so beautiful.” If a person is indeed helpless, then how is it kind to him/her to ask him to turn for help to non-existent things? What if there are still things that you need to/can do? Why is it that most people have such a low opinion of other’s coping capacity? If the uncertainty is unbearable, is irrational hope the only answer? What would you think of a grown up guy believing in Santa Claus? Sad or beautiful? Why think differently of someone who believes that someone up there is waiting for the right moment to jump in and help him?

Of course you could say that there is no harm in a little solace. Yes, no harm! But, then, what is the problem with heroin, marijuana or alcohol? All of them give some level of comfort and make one forget his/her troubles for a while. Some of them are cheaper than religion. They don’t degrade your intellect, cause you to become judgmental or lead to you making decisions not based on fact when you are not under their influence.  At least, not to the extent that religion does. So, you should encourage their use by people for comfort, right? Well, no! We have an innate sense of what is right and wrong and somehow artificial reduction of anxiety and pain which is usually the sign of some deeper malaise doesn’t sit well with our conscience. One would feel that same way about prayer only if we can firmly remind ourselves that it doesn’t work. Once that concept is completely grasped, we will feel that same revulsion for prayer and religion that one would feel for drugs and drinking.

Secular Charity

Last week was the anniversary celebrations of the TI India Foundation. On that day several stalls were put up on the company premises by organizations working for various causes. They used the opportunity to spread awareness of their work and to solicit support for their causes. There was also a blood donation camp that was run in which a lot of the employees participated. I thought it was a great piece of work that was being done and was proud of my company for taking the time and effort(the 2 most precious things in my opinion) to put together something like this.

As I was standing there watching people sign huge checks for supporting causes like children’s education, support for haemophilia patients etc. I started thinking about what charity actually means and why people do it. When I was younger I thought that charity was something that was connected to the church and something that you did because God asks you to do it. 10 percent of your money belongs to the poor dictates the Bible and some other religious texts too. Plus, money that you give to charity is not really money given away. God keeps tabs on what you do for the poor and you can use your excess money to gain bonus points that you can cash-in on reaching heaven.

There are other denominations which teach that money given away in the name of charity will come back magnified 10 fold by God’s grace and it actually can be used as a means to get yourself out of poverty.

Still others teach that real charity does not mean giving bread, water or food to those in need but giving them God. After all, if you have God, then all the other problems will automatically go away. It sounds logical(kind of… you could always ask them why God can’t give himself to everyone and has to depend on these weird guys in shiny suits). This is responsible for the furious virulence of Christian Evangelism as it devotes all the money to spreading itself and doesn’t “waste” any of it on petty stuff like food or clothes.

Then there are God’s like Sai Baba who whisper common sense stuff that most people wouldn’t disagree with adulterated with generous amounts of bullshit. People can’t believe that someone can be partly wrong and someone who teaches that you shouldn’t kill others can also be deluded and plain wrong when it comes to other things. These Gods don’t mind the generous donations and fawning devotion of the masses. The people give it thinking that they are really blessed to be able to directly give to God and to have their contributions counted and noted.

Then there is charity that is done/offered along with prayers to solve personal problems like disease or financial troubles. Or sometimes, in exchange for perceived miracles or some more subtle form of divine intervention.

There are probably a lot more of these types of charity. Money given to temples, churches and mosques and to various religious charities some of which are used as fronts for terrorist organisations. Here is an example list.  I am not saying than no good has come out of it. But, I was just wondering whether this constitutes real charity.

Real Charity

Charity is something that is supposed to be unselfish and not seeking anything in return. When you give something away for a good cause, share a little bit of what you have with someone who needs it badly, you feel good. It is something that is fundamental to human nature. We sometimes feel something tugging at our hearts when we see a child crying or a person in extreme pain. We feel that pain. It is called empathy. Helping out that person becomes a matter of helping ourselves out.

While it is possible to condition someone to become insensitive and uncaring, most people by nature become vulnerable and soft when they witness real suffering in first person. It might be possible to not think of how other people are doing but you cannot ignore what you see before your own eyes.

Helping someone, giving away things, putting up with a little bit of discomfort for someone else’ sake are things that should be done for their own sake. There is no God keeping tab. You won’t be getting any points for it. That money is not going to come back to you. Someone you meet later in life might not treat you with the same kindness that you are demonstrating now. That is the truth. If you are still willing to give things away, then you truly have a noble and generous heart. You did not do it grudgingly. You did it simply because you felt good and to give something to justify atleast in a meager manner what chance has bestowed on you.

I was reading an interview in The Hindu of Amartya Sen and he happened to mention that around 50 per cent of India’s children under the age of 5 are malnourished. I was suddenly struck by the fact that there was a 50- 50 chance of me being one of them. I don’ t think I deserve my blessings nor do they deserve their predicament. There is no cosmic agent balancing rights and wrongs and pain and joy. It is up to everyone of us to ensure justice and to do what it takes to guarantee every member of our society, a fair shot at enjoying life. It is like a responsibility belonging to the same category as the “right” to vote. You don’t do it if you don’t want to, but you really ought to.

Secular Charity

People atleast in some parts of India and in other “spiritually advanced” societies have trouble with donating to secular organizations like CARE, CRY, UNICEF or similar secular organizations despite the fact that they follow international audit guidelines and come under the most intense scrutiny compared to the operations of a lot of religious organizations, a number of which have been accused of a range of things from child abuse to funding terrorism to spreading lies and proselytizing. There are lesser crimes like stunting kids’ intellectual and moral growth and making them prisoners of a medieval world view committed by institutions like Madrassas and to a lesser extent by orphanages run by other religious organizations. Again funded by charitable donations.

Somehow, the social workers who don’t claim God’s support have a tough time attracting the attention of the people or the government. When a Sai Baba sits on a throne with wheels and uses part of the billions of dollars of donation money to build super specialty hospitals and grand projects as monuments to “his” kindness,  people are struck with admiration.The Govt. heaps praises on him for being broad-minded, kind and enlightened. The people are all praises for his “generosity” and his “teachings”.

What about people like Binayak Sen? Our soldiers and officers? What about those working with NGOs for various causes? Why is that no one cares for their efforts? Why is that there is no visit by state dignitaries and words of appreciation for them? But they still exist… That is because they do it out of genuine love. They will keep doing it till their death, because they are passionate about it. We all know how many people the God men, the Babas, The swamis, The priests are going to serve if they were separated from their money and dogmas and fan boys….

People don’t fear or respect or value other humans when there is a God hungry for their ass-kissing. Why is that human suffering fails to evoke a response unless there is a religious sentiment goading us on here in India. Why don’t we value the work that honest people do with no motive other than to help others and occupy themselves with something they consider rewarding. Because they don’t do “magic”?

Isn’t this kind of callousness and obsession with the immaterial and the other-worldly a sign of sickness and moral and intellectual degradation?

A parable from the Bible

Jesus once went to a temple and saw a rich man making generous sacrifices to God. After that he saw a poor, old woman throwing in a few pieces that she had accumulated with great hardship. He then commented that the old woman’s offering was more valuable in the eyes of God. I wonder what Jesus would have had to say to an old, poor, atheist woman giving money away to even poorer people OUTSIDE the temple? Wouldn’t that be the real act of kindness?