Saturday, April 28, 2007

Akinola and Ecstasy

How to wire your brain for religious ecstasy. - By John Horgan - Slate Magazine

Our current mystical technologies are primitive, but one day, neurotheologians may find a technology that gives us permanent, blissful self-transcendence with no side effects...Shulgin, the psychedelic chemist, once wrote that a perfect mystical technology would bring about "the ultimate evolution, and perhaps the end of the human experiment." When I asked Shulgin to elaborate, he said that if we achieve permanent mystical bliss, there would be "no motivation, no urge to change anything, no creativity." Both science and religion aim to eliminate suffering. But if a mystical technology makes us immune to anxiety, grief, and heartache, are we still fully human? Have we gained something or lost something? In short, would a truly effective mystical technology—a God machine that works—save us, or doom us?

Good Lord, what a question! Of course it would save us, and of course we would still be "fully human." This is like asking whether, by taking advantage of some dream technology that made us immune tooth decay, which eliminated drilling and pulling, we would still have "real teeth." The whole purpose of change and creativity is to eliminate anxiety, grief and heartache and, ideally, promote bliss. Plug me in!

Until the technology is developed however the most reliable ways to achieve mystical experience are recreational drugs and religion. According to the article, only about one third of the population has experienced mystical bliss and that seems a damn shame. It's a pity that the drugs that induce these blissful experiences aren't legal and readily available. If people are prepared to assume risk to get these experiences, I don't seen any compelling reason why the state should stop them other than plain puritanism. I would bet though that even if a completely risk-free mechanism for inducing mystical bliss were available the same puritans who are intent on keeping recreational drugs illegal will see to it that it's banned--just as they they strive mightily to see to it that people aren't going to get mystical experiences out of religion either.

I joined the Church to get mystical bliss and sometimes I even managed it. Meditation never did anything for me but the Church had the props to turn me on: good music, good architecture, fine writing and all the sensual, spooky stuff of high church. But for the past 30 years the liberal puritans have done everything in their power to minimize mystical bliss by pulling the props and undermining the kind of belief in transcendence that facilitates mystical experience.

Nowadays, the only alternative to liberal puritanism is conservative puritanism, which is even worse. Here is an article on the unwelcome American visit of the Most Rev. Peter Akinola, Archbishop of Nigeria and Pope Presumptive of conservative Anglicans. Akinola's followers believe in transcendence, and some even conduct services according to the eminently transcendent old Prayer Book, but they are much more interested in sex. They want to see to it that there's less of it around and, in particular, that gay men and lesbians aren't getting any of it, for much the same reason that liberal puritans want to restrict access to mystical experience. I suppose neither bunch wants to eliminate bliss altogether, whether sexual or religious: they just want to minimize and control it, restrict it to 10 minutes of transcendence around Communion or heterosex within marriage, and make sure that no one gets it unless they pay their dues.

I used to be more sympathetic to conservatives because they believed in God and seemed to think that theology was interesting and important. But when the crunch came it was apparent what their real concerns were. There was no schism when Bishop Pike ridiculed the Trinity as "a sort of committee God"--he was honorably retired, presumably with a hefty pension. Bishop Spong didn't even have to retire when he announced that theism was not only false but completely implausible to any educated person. That was fine--it was his views on sexual ethics that raised protests. And now, the schism in the Church at bottom is not about theology but about sexual behavior and more broadly about competing social agendas. For partisans on both sides what is important about the Church is the way of life it promotes and a range of moral and political issues.

None of this is the Church's business and the Church is now collapsing because it stuck its corporate nose into a place where it didn't belong. The Church's business is theology and mystical experience--and it isn't doing its job. Fortunately, I can do theology on my own, with the help of my colleagues and the Society of Christian Philosophers (which I take every opportunity to link and advertise). As for mystical experience it looks like I'll have to wait until neurotheologians develop a stick I can plug into my brain.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

God, Guns and Guts,,2059726,00.html?gusrc=rss&feed=1

President George Bush arrived on the campus for a memorial service attended mainly by staff and students, questioning continued of the slowness of the college authorities and police to react to the first incident and failure to lock down the campus, cancel classes and properly alert students to the danger. But there was almost no debate in the US about a need for gun control laws - even among the staff and students.

"God, Guns and Guts Make America Great" according to the old bumper-sticker you used to see in Red States.

Why do we like guns so much? Because we think we live in Mogodishu. Somalis won't lay down their weapons because they know that if they give up their firearms but others don't they'll be shot by thugs or members of rival clans. If you live in a failed state, or a corrupt, impoverished Third World country, you can't count on the state to maintain public order or protect you so you rely on God, guns and guts and take care of your own.

Quite a number of Americans believe that every state, the US included, is a failed state--that government is the problem not the solution. They're convinced that individual citizens and the private sector can always do things better--in the teeth of empirical evidence to the contrary. They believe that the Market will do better at promoting the general welfare than a welfare state and that individuals and the private sector--citizens with guns and vigilantes--will do a better job in maintaining public safety than any government programs, including restrictions on the availability of lethal weapons. They rely on God, guns and guts.

Cho Seung-Hui, a homocidal maniac and Virginia Tech undergraduate, had "multiple firearms, not just the Walter P22 and Glock handguns he used in the killings" even though guns were banned on campus. Would this mass murder have been averted if Virginia had had more stringent gun control regulations so that murderous lunatics would not be able to build arsenals or would it have been better to have students and faculty were armed so that once Cho started shooting someone could have taken him out?

There's no a priori answer: gun control means fewer guns, fewer murderous lunatics and common or garden variety thugs with guns, so less need for respectable citizens to defend themselves; no gun control means more guns for lunatics and thugs, but more respectable citizens with guns to shoot them before they shoot us. It's an empirical question which way things will break, and the experience of affluent countries comparable to the US suggests that fewer guns for everyone make everyone safer than escalating the domestic arms race. But which way we bet depends on whether or not we believe that state regulations and agencies can keep us safe and that, apart from a few crazies like Cho, people are not out to do violence.

We don't believe that, and it isn't primarily criminally insane Korean undergraduates that we're worried about. We believe that there is an underclass out to do violence which cannot be salvaged or improved but only, at best, controlled and contained. We believe that the only way to keep safe is by isolating and segregating them, imprisoning as many as we're able, and moving away as far as we can from their turf--to remote exurbs and, if we can afford it, gated communities. We don't think the America is like France, Sweden or the UK--we think the US is like Somalia, or like Kenya where anyone who can afford it lives in a gated community or compound patrolled by security guards, or like other Third World countries where an impoverished underclass engages in crime and violence and everyone relies on God, guns and guts to protect themselves. And that is a self-fulfilling prophacy.