Friday, January 30, 2015

First and Third Person Religion. Or: Compassion and Hate

Hello S.,
        You supposed that many people here probably were not religious. In my opinion, once human beings start to think there is no way not to be religious. Religion deals with questions of existence, which can be asked as thinking develops.  Let us assume, for a moment, I define myself as not religious. Let us also assume, in opposition to religion I define myself as scientific empiricist. As such, I cut experienced phenomena in parts and assign names to them. Then I combine, cut and combine again. As long as my combinations follow the rules of logic, I add to them. If they do no longer fit, I tear them down and reassemble them in a different way. Empirically, I can only handle observed phenomena. Observations do not answer questions of existence. So as an empiricist, I follow Popperian falsification as a method to satisfy my thirst for truth. What has been falsified is false; everything else has a vague chance to remain true. This definition is an explanatory principle. It simply means that scientifically I will not be able to come any closer to existence than observing, modelling and falsifying. As I know I cannot do any better, I may leave it at that. My tormented mind is appeased as I know that's how far I will ever be able to reach out. It is obvious that the boundary drawn around things, which this ontology builds upon, takes up infinitely small space the more I magnify. At the same time, existence itself takes up the infinitely large space in between. So in terms of existence, this method ultimately explains nothing, but only defines how to handle nothingness.
       Science appears to go well with book religions or thoughts of creation. Science is third person perspective. Approaching the question of existence, one simply remains in third person, externalizing the cosmic principle and producing a third person God as supreme principle of existence that creates. Or one calls them natural laws that produce a big bang. Then, one can argue about whether God is or caused the Big Bang, until that question becomes irrelevant and peace of mind is back or both parties are dead.
        Now let us assume I'm a Yogi. So I don't apply external but internal empiricism. I observe on the inside, name phenomena, like sensation, form, thought, mind, and integrate. I observe again, and integrate. In the end, I will end up with some perceptional model. With this attempt, one also cannot reach beyond observation. With the awareness that everything is observation and existence appears to manifest as observation (consciousness), nothing is left to achieve. There is no further insight available. Again, an explanatory principle remedies the situation. One can assume this most integrated first person perspective and leave it at that, with the mind appeased. Or one may call it God-perception, or Buddha-mind, self-as-context, or whatever. In the process, a first person supreme principle is created that cannot take any further step of integration.
        Both need to leave the existential question unanswered. Upon noticing this fact, the first illogical argument one can possibly start is asking which of the journeys will lead to peace of mind more quickly. Both have been used as a justification for violent behavior, because this question of appropriateness has been argued. However, violence is a matter of ethics, not existence. Not separating questions of existence from questions of ethics, people become violent about violence.
        Becoming trigger-happy in psychology and applying self-discrepancy theory, one could argue that the internal way is one of ideals and the external is one of norms (Higgins, 1997). Therefore, comparing own behavior with external norms, third person religions operate in concepts of guilt, fear and anxiety. Approaching a third person god happens as a relief of norm discrepancy, preventing failure to comply. They are full of ritual, because norms define behavior. There is equanimity, in the best case, if compliance is attained. If nothing changes, things appear to be in order. Change means a need to adjust, which causes discrepancies for the followers. Therefore, religions with third person Gods may attempt to delay change as long as possible, and define themselves in terms of status (quo). This view also promotes conservatism. First person religions, on the other hand, compare own behavior with one’s ideals. They operate between equanimity and joy. Their vocabulary is one of compassion, as fear in this ontology is something that has to be left behind to approach the eternal principle. Relieving the discrepancies of this path leads away from anxiety. Change is the only constant in these ontologies, so everything is defined in doing, not being. Status means being trapped, hardening out where the natural flow of things must go on. Not to be caught in this trap, change has to be embraced no matter in what form it reveals itself.
        There is one hypothesis that I dare to formulate. Third person religions, in their anxious attempt at compliance, tend to declare everything that is noncompliant as their foe. Similarly, science declares anything that does not follow empiricism and logic invalid. Compliance, taken to the extreme, will try eradicate everything that is outside of its system in a logic fallacy of including external people as noncompliant members. Outside phenomena are really irrelevant for religious systems, and their attitude toward them should be indifferent. This fallacy has a higher chance for violence than its first person counterpart. Pursuing first person Gods comes along with the insight that the inside is easier to change than the outside. Thus, Yogis or Buddhists usually develop compassion to people who do not follow their system, suggesting that they are chasing third person ghosts. However, there is no reason to annihilate them. On the contrary, outsiders, strangers, foreigners, differents are the best practice on the path one can get. In any practice, no matter what perspective is taken. 


Higgins, E. T. (1997). Beyond pleasure and pain. American Psychologist 52(12), 1280-1300.