The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
November 2011 – Vol. 14 Issue 9
On October 7th several Branch members attended a talk by Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol, sponsored by the Acacia Foundation. A diverse audience gathered at Seattle University to consider the question: Is Islam compatible with freedom? Stressing the variety of approaches found in the Muslim world today, Mr. Akyol emphasized that such diversity has existed in Islam from its earliest centuries, with many schools divided over such issues as the relative importance of reason and revelation, literal or contextual interpretation of scripture, whether the basic rule is permission (anything not expressly forbidden in the Quran is permissible) or prohibition (anything not expressly permitted in scripture is prohibited), and the place of compulsion in religion and religious practice.
These issues raise the basic question: who can know the truth? Can ordinary human beings arrive at truth themselves, or is it only imparted through revelation? The answer has practical consequences. For example, if reason allows people to discover truths and moral guidance for themselves, then every culture may have something to offer every other one. But if truth and ethics are by definition exclusively what God reveals in particular scriptures, then nothing in cultures with a different (or no) revelation will be seen as having value. Again, if only God knows the truth in matters of controversy, are human beings in a position to judge each other or impose their own interpretations on others?
To illuminate modern Islamic attitudes, Mr. Akyol drew attention to the fact that during the 19th century most Islamic societies ruled themselves and there was a liberalizing trend in thought that adapted ideas from other cultures, such as plurality and representative government. After World War I, however, most of these societies became colonies of Western powers. With Muslims feeling under siege, rigid reactionary mindsets like Islamism became more dominant. After independence, secular authoritarian dictators took power, whose heirs only now are beginning to fall. But as Muslim societies become self-governing again, he believes there will be an opportunity for more openness and less rigidity. In his view, what Islam needs today is neither religious states nor aggressive secularism, but rather neutral governments that do not support or repress religious or secular factions, something like one finds in the United States. Such governments require open-mindedness combined with loyalty to one’s own faith or worldview. After his remarks there was a long question period, the meeting lasting over two hours. For a thorough discussion of these timely issues, see his new book: Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.
(Women in Black is an international network of women standing in silent vigil, calling for peace, justice, and nonviolent solutions to conflict.)
“It’s a good thing you aren’t a man, or I would punch you out” – this from a man fresh from the Bellevue Arts & Crafts Fair, as he passed one of the Women in Black on a Saturday in June. The irony was lost on him, but not on us: we stand here to witness against that very mindset. If you don’t like what I stand for, what I look like, what I believe, are you justified in taking violent action against me? Would I be justified in punching you out if I disagreed with your views?How about talking instead?
“No, I don’t want a leaflet. My son is in Afghanistan. He loves his country” – this from a passing woman.
“God bless him. And God bless you,” was our reply. We stand here in support of all military personnel, in hopes they come home soon, safely and with all the help the Veterans’ Administration can provide.
We love our country too, which is one reason we have stood on this corner for peace and justice every Saturday from noon to one for nearly ten years. We stand in grief over war’s destruction and in hope that we may find better, wiser ways to solve disputes than violence.
How about talking instead? And listening? – Mary Ann Woodruff
One way to bring about constructive change and a more peaceful world is to explore and practice positive ways to resolve conflicts on all scales. This is the topic of a series of classes on the first three Sundays in November (November 6, 13 and 20) from 9:45 to 10:40 a.m. at Newport Presbyterian Church, 4010 120th Avenue SE, Bellevue, WA. Members of the public are welcome to attend.
The sessions will offer hope that we can do better for future generations – and realistic starting points. Changes in individual attitudes take time, and systemic changes do not happen without them, so we are not talking about quick fixes. The first class will cover the interconnections among all of us as well as the root causes of war and why alternatives to war are essential. Conflict will always be with us, but war need not be. The second class will propose that nothing changes unless individuals change their attitudes along with their actions, discussing alternatives to violence. The last class will discuss the decision to change, the process of change, and the power of dialogue in that process. The emphasis throughout will be on what you can do, and why you should do it.
Humans, many mammals and birds, and perhaps other creatures distinguish objects from agents which have intentions. For example, if it is going to survive, an antelope must scrutinize a lion in a very different way than it does a rock or a tree. People vary widely in what they perceive as agents. Some perceive nature as filled with intelligences and “personhood,” while at the other extreme are those who see even other human beings only as objects for manipulation. Cultures ranging from the animistic to the theistic to the materialistic differ in whether they class lightning bolts, earthquakes, eclipses, or swarms of locusts as reflections of the will and power of unseen agents or as unwilled phenomena explainable solely in naturalistic terms.
In God, Soul, Mind, Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Reflections on the Spiritual World, researcher Michael S. A. Graziano explores why people are so likely to see spirits or gods in the world and to attribute intention and motive to natural events. He proposes that this tendency is a byproduct of the way our brains have evolved to understand living beings, including ourselves: “Special-purpose machinery in the human brain, that evolved over millions of years to make us socially intelligent animals, results in our perceptions of other people’s minds, in our perception of our own consciousness, and in the perceptual illusion that disembodied minds fill up the spaces around us.” (p. 10) He points out that experiences of the spiritual are perceptions, not theories or beliefs, which is why they feel real and why intellectual arguments rarely affect people’s acceptance of them. After all, what is more real to any of us than our own experience, even though we know that our perceptions at times can be inaccurate or misleading?
Dr. Graziano begins by making an analogy with the perception of color. Wavelengths of light exist in nature, but not colors like red or green, which are very useful mental models the brain constructs from sense perceptions to reduce the complexity of light with its constant variations into simplified, more constant color categories. In fact, all perception is “a process of constructing a model in your brain of an object in the real world,” yet this model “is typically not faithful to the actual object. It is simplified. It is altered. Some attributes of the model (such as location of the object or the size of the object) may be loosely related to the real world, and some (such as color) may be largely invented.” (p. 19) Irrespective of their accuracy, these perceived attributes feel to us like real properties bound to particular objects, not interpretations or perceptual illusions constructed by the way our brain functions.
It is the same with social perception, our understanding of the inner states and motives of others: “We automatically, seemingly effortlessly, construct a model of someone else’s mind, and the model includes an elaborate roster of the items within the scope of that person’s awareness. We perceive awareness in other people” (p. 34), but not always accurately because we never experience another’s consciousness directly, only the model of it that we make in our own mind. We create the same types of models for people we have never met, like celebrities or images on a movie screen; and for pets who, in the case of higher mammals and birds, return the favor by creating their own mental representations of our consciousness. Some people model awareness in plants, landscape features, or other natural phenomena.
Among social illusions created by the brain he classes “a single, unified agent in people” as a point source for their being. Turning our attention inward, we perceive this same unified agent as our “self.” Similar to many Buddhists, the majority of scientists now hold that such a permanent self is an illusory construction. Instead of being the signature of a permanent self, the author concludes that consciousness is a process, one that we know only imperfectly since most of what enters our brain or goes on within it never reaches conscious awareness.
And what, he asks, “is God but the perception of intentionality on a global scale? It is the perception of a single, unified mind behind every other otherwise inexplicable event. … Indeed, calling God a belief is a misnomer. It is more than a theory, it is more than imagination, it is a perception. That is precisely why it feels real to people…. To those who have this perception, the pervasive universal consciousness feels like external reality. One experiences the love and the anger and the awareness of God. Is God real? In the view described here, God is as real as the color red, also a perceptual construct of the brain.” (p. 47-8)
This very short, simply written book, informative about recent brain research and thought provoking in its assessment of consciousness, raises many issues that deserve examination, whatever one’s views of spirit – or color – may be.
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