Archive

Monthly Archives: October 2012

Today I realized that Abdul is one of the main reasons I moved to Indonesia. ”Abdul” is not his real name, but lets call him that. Revealing his real identity would be unethical.

Sure, there was several theoretical reasons to come here. The country is very interesting in many ways. The thing with having six state religions and the thing with having both democracy and a Muslim majority population, just to name two important examples. While the first one is very relevant for my struggle to understand the intersection between worldview and identity, the second one is important for the future of the world.

Mankind needs democracy for all of mankind. It is not enough for a group of people to be free, we all need everybody to be free. In this globalized world, all repression is everyone’s responsibility, and also a threat to everyone. Countries with Islamic cultural background needs to become democratic, and fast. Truly democratic, with a strong civil society. Checks and balances, rule of law, a society where the humans are free and their human rights respected. A few more decades of the current levels of oppression and misery would be horrible in itself, and it would without any doubt also lead to suicide bombers using nuclear bombs.

I fight against categorism, that’s what I do. Right now, categorism against Muslims is spreading like a cancer in the western countries. The rightwing extremists have replaced their antisemitism with antimuslimism, and this make a lot of people who ought to know better think that the bigotry is suddenly okay. It is really the same old hatred, they just switched target a little bit. The switch is as small as it can be – the target is still people who believe in a monotheist religion other than Christianity. These antimuslimists actually have a lot in common with the worst of the Islamists, as I will return to in a later post. But enough about the theoretical and political stuff for now, there’s another reason as well.

I came here to make new circles of friends. Get to know people here. And this I have done. I have a great social life here, and the people I’m getting to know are really great people. Many of them are Muslims or Atheists. In some cases they are both, identifying as a cultural muslim while not having any faith in a higher power.

Today I talked with one of my Jakartan friends, a woman who happens to be a Buddhist. During the conversation, as I told her about Abdul, I realized how much I had needed to get to know some really good individuals who are Muslims.

For many years I have worked with helping convicted criminals reintegrate into society. The office has five departments. One of these is for men convicted of sexual crimes or domestic abuse. Over the years, most of my clients has been from this particular department. These clients has come from many different kinds of backgrounds. Regarding faith, most of them has been either Christian or Atheist/Agnostic/Unaligned. Only two of my clients were Muslims. Lets call them Omar and Abdul.

In my personal life, I had met many Christians. I had also met many Atheists, Agnostics, Unaligned and so on. Thus, a Christian client or Atheist client did not really contribute to my personal experience of Christians or Atheists. However, at that time I had not yet met many Muslims. Not really met, as in talking about life and values and getting to know each other. Thus, for a while these two men became a very large part of my personal experience with Muslims.

The case of Omar came with a counter-example included in the case itself. There was a man who saved the victim from Omar, and later testified against him in court. This heroic man was named Muhammed. He was a practicing Muslim, and he came from the same country as Omar and Abdul. However, I never got to meet this Muhammed, this black Muslim guy who saved a white Swedish girl from a rapist. As a parole officer, I only meet the convicted criminals. Never the people who were not accused of any wrongdoing.

On a general level, I think this problem is huge. I call it the professional bias. I’m sure there is already a lot of research on this subject, and a better word established for it. I haven’t bothered to check yet. I’ll look around a bit while I’m writing my master thesis.

Anyway, the Professional Bias is a combination of two things.

1. When you belong to the majority population, there are a lot of marginalized minorities who you don’t have much contact with in your personal life. You may meet them briefly, but without truly meeting them in any deeper sense of the word. As a secular person or an adherant of whatever religion is mainstream in your country, you are unlikely to meet many from minority religions. As a cis-gender person, you are unlikely to meet many who are trans-gender. As a vanilla heterosexual, you are unlikely to meet many homosexuals or sadomasochists. As a person who don’t buy or sell sexual services, you will not meet many people who you know to be sex-workers. As a white person in Europe or an Asian person in Indonesia, you are unlikely to meet many darkskinned persons of African origin. Or many Asians/Europeans either, for that matter. And so on.

2. However. If you are a professional such as a social worker, a police officer, a parole officer, a psychologist or a priest, you will meet people from all these minorities. truly meet them. Get to know them and their lives. But there’s another ”however”! The individuals you meet will not represent their category as such. Instead, they will represent a very special sub-set of the category. The most broken and damaged sub-set.

These two factors make a very unhealthy and dangerous combination. It teaches prejudice to the professionals.

In my work for an NGO, I have met a woman who happens to have black skin. In my Human Rights Studies, I have met a woman who happens to be a Muslim. They are both great people, and I have talked with them a lot. They are great not because of belonging to the category and not despite belonging to it. They are great regardless of it.

However, for the last decade of my private life, I have not talked a lot to any man who is black or who I know for certain to be a Muslim.

The wast majority of my sex-offender clients have been white and either secular or Christian. Some of them had racist and/or misogynistic beliefs, others did not. The big difference is that I meet a lot of white men all the time. I meet a lot of secular men all the time. I meet a lot of Christian men all the time. When I meet a white guy who is a bigot, my head is already full of counterimages about how a white man can be. Not only counter-images I have read about or seen on television – that I already had about black men and Muslim men as well. No, I’m talking about personal counter-images from my own life. That is so much stronger.

When a minority person reinforces a stereotype in the eyes of an observer, this is really about the observer not having enough counter-images. Muhammed is a great guy, and it’s not anyone’s fault that I never met him.

Some of my clients defend their crimes, using horrible misogynistic arguments about why they feel that women deserves to get raped. A few of them try to use theology to defend their position, arguing that God hates women. Abdul was such a client, Omar was not. When a Christian makes that kind of arguments, everyone will dismiss him as a throwback who should go back to a previous millennium where he belongs. When a Muslim in Europe does the same thing, however, antimuslimists (and in some cases a few extremist Islamists) will hail him as the true spokesperson for how Muslims ”really” think and feel.

Again, intellectually this is easy to understand. I have never believed that Abdul represent all Muslim men. However. Fighting the antimuslimists gets so much harder when my personal experience actually agree with the bullshit they are saying. For my own peace of mind, and for my own emotional strength in the struggle against antimuslimism, I really needed to get to know some good Muslims.

Here in Jakarta I have met many Muslim men who have good values. Men who fight for Human Rights and improved democracy. They are also men who are the mainstream, the socially advantaged position – being men and being Muslims, in a society which is quite patriarchal and in which Islam is the majority religion. Here the struggle is between Muslims who want to tolerate others and Muslims who do not. So different from Europe, where Muslims are marginalized and often the ones trying to be tolerated. This make it much easier to talk with Muslims here, one of the main differences being that the ones in Europe tend to be much more defensive.

As I described the marginalization and prejudice against Muslims in Europe, my Buddhist friend of Chinese origin said that it is the other way around here. Here muslims are the majority (the norm, I might add), while Buddhists and Chinese are met with hostility and prejudice. She is right, of course. Then again, there is really no ”other way around” about it. It’s the same categorism. The same basic prejudice, bigotry and discrimination. The excuses are different, there is a difference in what categories and categorizations are targeted. But this diffrence is really a minor detail.

I have always known this. In theory. But now I also know it from personal experience.

Advertisements

Last week, I got an unpleasent but important reality check. My coworker and I was sitting at the airport, waiting for the flight to Bali. I explained the concept from my blog post ”Belief and reality”, the idea of dividing reality into physical reality on one hand and psychological, social/cultural and spiritual reality on the other. He dismissed this concept as irrelevant, on the basis that people don’t know anything about psychology and sociology.

Sadly, he has a point. Having a complex worldview is much easier if you have a complex knowledge about the world. This particular man happens to be a muslim and a sociologist. When he uses the argument, it is neither against religion nor science. It is merely against presenting too complex arguments to an audience that doesn’t have sufficient background knowledge in the field.

However, I have heard similar arguments from Atheists, who used it against modern non-literalist interpretations of old scriptures. Their critique was that while these sophisticated forms of religion let educated and sane people stay religious without twisting their minds, common people will not listen to such sophistication. They will, instead, turn to the fundamentalists, the literalists. The people who dismiss science, or reality itself, as a satanic conspiracy. The people who would violently drag us all back to the ancient days when the scriptures were written.

These Atheists do have a point, of course. However. If a religious person is not ready to listen to nuanced theology for our time, will that person really be ready to give up religion altogether in favor of atheism? It seems unlikely.

Knowledge is the key to fight against religious fundamentalism, literalism, radicalism, cults, or whatever you call it. Knowledge about psychology. Including psychological phenomenons such as hypnagogic dreams. Knowledge about sociology. Knowledge about how evolution really works – it is key to understand life on earth, the biosphere we all live in, and the true history of mankind. And last but not least, knowledge about religion and theology. Not just from one religion or from one version each of a few different religions. No. Nuanced knowledge of a lot of religions and variations of religions. The great diversity of faith, within and between religions.

It is sometimes pointed out that many religious terrorists, christian as well as islamic, are highly educated. While this is true, there’s a huge difference between high education and high education. Educationss that simply make you good at something, a good tool for something, does not help you to think for yourself or to understand the world independently. Such education make the student vunerable to religious fundamentalism. He has learned to read books and to blindly accept whatever they say as being literal truth.

Society, all nations, need to raise generations of free thinkers who understand themselves and the world they live in. Not just try to raise generations of docile workers and efficient engineers. This is very important for the future, and not only for the limited set of reasons briefly discussed here.

A few weeks ago, I attended a wedding together with one of my coworkers. At the wedding, we met some of his friends from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and a governmental unit for preventing terrorism. One of them was helping to organize the Interfaith Summit 2012 in Bali. This meeting eventually led to me being invited there as a speaker.

Thus, early Thursday morning my coworker and I left for Bali. The conference was great. People from all over the world coming to connect with each other across the lines of religious boundaries. Muslims, Christians, Hindus and so on. The biggest groups were from Indonesia, Malaysia and Uzbekistan. But we also had people from Russia, Norway, Bangladesh, India, and many other places. People working together for human rights and equal dignity for everyone, under the premise that God created us all and loves us all equally.

One early speaker put emphasis on the importance of secularism. Perhaps to the point that secularism is the only possible basis for human rights, but I didn’t ask for a transcript to analyze.

Another early speaker went very far in the other direction. This man, who I later was told is a Christian, put his emphasis squarely on the idea that God loves us all. His speech was very good at it’s main purpose, to promote understanding and tolerance between different religions. He seemed to have a good understanding of different religions and their potential for finding mutual ground.

On the other hand, he seemed to know nothing about how non-religious people think. He had this project of unifying all religions into one big family. One ”us”, one big in-group. But this project came at the price of excluding everyone who is not religious. Sadly, this is a common phenomenon: While to include everyone based on categories, there will always be people overlooked and left out. In this case, including all religions, but excluding the growing number of people who doesn’t have a religion.

He made it sound as if secular people cannot have morality and cannot understand human rights. He argued against the principle that ”if you don’t hurt anyone, you can do whatever you want”. He seemed to believe, or at least argue, that this is the one and only principle that all secular people follows. Ironically, the principle he objected to is not secular. Instead, it is one of the core faith principles in a religion called Wicca. Real secular moral philosophy is far more complicated and nuanced, as I have mentioned in a previous post.

His prejudice against non-religious people was a small part of his speech, but a part that would have been very damaging if it would have had stood unopposed. Thankfully, it got rebuffed quickly and firmly. As soon as there was time for questions, a young veiled Indonesian Muslim woman stood up and explained that she has many Atheist and Agnostic friends at her university. Friends who are just as good and moral people as any of her fellow Muslims. As she finished speaking, the entire audience cheered for her.

Two hours later it was time for my own speech. I held a summary of my blog posts Universal Morality and Categorism, with a bit of Beliefs and Reality thrown in for good measure.

My message was that three kinds of morality are universal, but for us to use these kinds of morality we must understand that they apply equally to everyone. Empathy, respect and maximization of outcome is not only for oneself or for one’s own group, but for everyone.

I explained a bit about the tree kinds of morality and took some examples from religious and secular sources. How these three principles exist in all major religions and almost all small religious groups, as well as in all cultures and the bulk of secular philosophy.

Regarding respect, I talked a it about The Golden Rule in sources such as the Bible and also about the Kant’s Categorical Imperative. I claimed that these two principles are the same as long as you just use them for spiritual guidance, but that Kant’s version is far better at sealing the loopholes when you want to use it for logical arguments.

I explained about how racism, sexism, homophobia, antisemitism, antimuslimism and so on are just different forms of Categorism. While prejudice, bigotry, discrimination and so on are different expressions of it. That when it comes to morality and human rights, we must overcome the habit of dividing people into categories. That we must consider all humans equal and part of the same big family, without losing this unity in divisions such as between different religions or between religious and secular.

So, how do we come to truly understand this most basic and most important fact? How does one reach the insight that he is not the center of the universe and that ”the others” are equally human and equally valid? I offered two options, one religious and one secular. The religious option was the one already offered: That God created us all and love us all equally. As the secular option, I claimed that it is enough to accept that reality exists and isn’t a conspiracy. You are not just imagining other people, and they are not just pretending to have thoughts and feelings: They are, in fact, just as real as you are.

On the last day we all took a trip to see a volcano and a beach with black (volcanic) sand. The nature along the way was beautiful, and the view over the volcano quite breathtaking. I had a fever during the entire weekend in Bali, but it was still awesome. In the evening, my coworker and I went to see the monument over the victims of the Bali bombing. Around it, life was going on as usual. We will honor the victims, and never let some fascists – religious or otherwise – run our lives for us.

Back in Jakarta, we visited a seminar held by CDCC, Center for Dialogue and Cooperation among Civilizations. One of the speakers, the Norwegian bishop Gunnar Stalsett, claimed that while interfaith dialogue is very important, we are facing an even greater challenge: Intrafaith dialogue, dialogue within each faith. Because there is so much difference and variation within each religion. Within Christianity, within Islam, and so on. He has a very important point there, and I think the most important thing to remember here is that no religion is ever monolithic. It consists of religious individuals, each of them unique.

He also tried to solve the dilemma of how to include atheists and agnostics, by making a strong distinction between faith and belief. The concept of ”faith” may be reserved for religions, but everybody has beliefs in one way or another. One might argue the opposite, that Atheism is a faith but not a belief since it’s actually a disbelief. In any case, I do agree that talking about faith AND belief is a good starting point when it comes to issues of respecting beliefs. When it comes to respecting people, however, we shouldn’t divide them by faith or belief in the first place. When it comes to beliefs, faiths, worldview-identities or whatever you call it, they are not a valid ground for discrimination or other expressions of categorisms. This goes both ways. In one way, your religion does not give you a right to discriminate. Not against outsiders, and not against insiders – for example women and gay people within your own religious group. In the other way, you may not discriminate other people because you don’t like their religion. Not if you belong to another religion, or another subset within the same religion, and not if you are secular either. That is all. May we all share this planet together in peace.

Last night I went to the cinema with a good friend who needed to be cheered up a bit after having had some stress at work. We saw a comedy. One that turned out to be rather dark. This darkness may or may not have been intentional from the people who wrote the script.

The film was a story of two men who share an intimate friendship. They grew up together, and are still best friends. However, their friendship is quite destructive. They do drugs together, and keep holding each other back from getting anywhere in their lives.

John has a shitty job that he is constantly at the edge of losing. He also has a girlfriend named Lori. She is beautiful, intelligent, loving, and has a good career. She is also quite fed up with how her beloved boyfriend is handling his life.

Ted used to be a television celebrity back when they were kids, but everybody has forgotten about him by now. He doesn’thave a job and doesn’t make any attempts whatsoever to do anything with his life. He has resigned himself to being nothing else than John’s best friend – living at his place, keeping his neurosises in check, and be the fun guy who party all the time. Spoiler warning, by the way. The film is named ”Ted”.

Much of the movie is focused on how John need to distance himself from Ted to get his life together. He never quite seem to understand that this is something he has to do for his own sake, not merely to please his girlfriend.

Meanwhile, the film pays precious little attention to Ted’s own need to grow out of his role. In spite of being the title character, the scrpitwriters never really let him be anything more than a sidekick for John. Ted eventually gets a shitty job, but only because he need to pay rent for having an apartment of his own. An apartment that he got only because John kicked him out. Which he did only because Lori demanded it. Nobody ever asks Ted what Ted want to do with his life. Nobody ever asks Ted to ask himself what he wants to do with his life, or when he will stop being just a former celebrity and move on to be a future something else instead. Not even Lori, who is supposed to be the mature one.

While the former child celebrity Ted doesn’t have any regular fans anymore, he do have one psycho stalker who has been obsessed with him all these years. This stalker harasses him, with sexual overtones. Eventually escalating to kidnapping, torture, mutilation, implied attempted rape, and eventually homicide. Lori manages to recussitate Ted, however, and thus all hard feelings between them are gone. Yay, happy ending: John and Ted can go back to holding each other back from personal development and keeping each other addicted to drugs, Lori will accept that now.

Maybe there is some hope, after all. As John and Lori was getting married, I was actually afraid that Ted would be there with them in the ”just married” car. But he was cheering at them from the church steps instead. So one may hope that the guys will give each other some much needed space in the future.

The movie is full of lokes. Some of them funny, some not. One extremely creepy joke came as the credits were rolling. They explained that the stalker is still out there, and they didn’t say anything about him suddenly having lost his decades-long obsession with Ted. The stalker did get arrested for his crimes, but the court refused to prosecute the case because they thought the whole thing sounded silly. Fun, eh? Good joke? The narrator had a tone of voice that implied that we all ought to regard this as hillarious.

Why is this joke even a joke at all? Teds is a person with the full range of human emotion and intellect. He is a citizen of the United States of America. Why is it ”funny” that the guy who terrorized him got away and is free to do the same thing again in the future? Well, because Ted belongs to a category of people who isn’t considered to deserve any protection. And no, this is not about Ted being male. It is about him being a teddy bear.

Wait, what? A teddy bear? Not a human? Well, yeah. Ted is a magical teddy bear. When John was eight years old, he wished that his teddy bear would become a real person. Some higher power granted his wish. This is all a comedy movie, remember?

Sexual violence against adult men is sometimes considered ”funny” because of the myth that it never happens in the real world. Or ecause of the prejudice that any man ”had it coming” anyway, and deserved to get raped if he couldn’t defend himself. A woman rapes a man and gets away with it: ”Hahaha”.

Sexualized violence against Ted is in this case supposed to be ”funny” because teddy bears are not supposed to be real persons. However, Ted is a real person. Human rights are about everyone having thoughts and feelings, not about everyone being made of flesh and blood.

Denying a person his human rights, accepting violence against him by simply laughing it off. Sorry for ”not having a sense of humor” here, but I was not amused.

All in all, the film was okay. No more, no less. The premise was very interesting, and the film could have been truly great if the writers had bothered to explore their premise a bit further. Comedies do get better when you add a it of depth in a good way. Just look at Shrek.

Last night I had an online chat with one of my friends, a person who I am very fond of. Among other things, we talked about philosophy and the movie ”The Matrix”. As I woke up this morning, I had a message waiting from last night. She said that she believes in nothing. The statement was followed by a friendly wink-smiley, and it was obvious from the context that she is happy with having no beliefs.

Until only a few years ago, I didn’t believe in anything either. In my youth, I adopted a radical agnosticism and radical subjectivism. I knew that science works, but only within the framework of reality. And who am I to say that reality even exists, anyway? For all I know, the whole thing could be a dream, or a simulation like in The Matrix. As for religion, I had no opinion about the friendlier kinds. But I despised when people sought to ruin or limit other people’s lives based on their own beliefs. My opinion was, and still is, that people may believe whatever they want as long as they don’t try to push it on other people in any way. The mindset of ”Your existence or lifestyle is against my religious or personal spiritual beliefs, thus you should not have equal rights.” is not okay.

Since then, my worldview has become more complex. There are three levels of literal reality. These literal realities are physical reality, social reality and psychological reality. The social level includes, but is not limited to, culture. We also have a kind of spiritual ”bonus level”, that many experience – but each person who experiences it experiences it in his or her own way.

This spiritual reality may be interpreted either as a transcendent existence beyond the confines of time and space, or as simply as a sub-set of psychological and social/cultural reality. For all practical purposes, this distinction is irrelevant. People experience spiritual reality, and these experiences are very different from each other. This is a fact. We have many different religions, with huge variations within each religion, and we have a lot of people who have spiritual experiences without belonging to any specific religion.

In recent years, I have developed two beliefs. These two are things that I believe with all my heart, in spite of the fact that I will never be able to prove them.

My first belief is that physical reality exists.
My second belief is that physical reality is not a conspiracy.

These beliefs may not seem like much, but their implications are actually huge.

I took them for granted all my life, but as long as I didn’t believe in them they did not give me a solid ground to stand on. The choice to truly believe in them is liberating.

Through scientific methodology, we gain actual knowledge about the actual truths about the actual world that we actually live in. The truth is out there. We have solid ground to stand on. This is reality.

There are moral implications as well. Knowing that reality is real, you know that other people exist. Solipsism is not true. Knowing that reality is not a conspiracy, you know that these other people are just as real as you are. Not automatons pretending to be human. Their feelings are just as real as yours, their thoughts are just as real as yours, and their needs are just as real as yours. Thus, all human beings have inherent equal value.

Subjectivism and relativism has a lot of truth and wisdom to offer, for understanding the three other levels of reality: Psychological reality, social or cultural reality, and spiritual or non-literal reality.

For these three realities, we need subjectivism or relativism. However. The subjectivism and relativism must not infringe on physical reality. Most importantly, it must not infringe on the fact that every individual human being is a person in his or her own right, with equal rights and equal dignity. The psychology, social structure, culture or spiritual/religious beliefs of any person or group must never be allowed to justify oppressing, harming or killing people. Religion and culture can inspire the best in us, and should be encouraged to do so. Meanwhile, we must fight against the dark sides.

When people use culture or faith to justify oppression or hatred against individuals or minority groups, we must stand up against them. To be able to do so, we must embrace pluralism without losing the solid ground in reality and the respect for every individual human being.

Is the moon made of stone or cheese? Does the moon even exist? These questions are about facts, not about opinions. Applying relativism to physical reality is silly at best, fascism at worst. The holocaust did happen. Jews are really human. This is not a matter of opinion. Believing some random history revisionist is not equal to believing the massive evidence that science has to offer on these issues. Likewise, the universe is billions of years old. This is a fact, supported by massive evidence. For example, telescopes picks up starlight from galaxies billions of light-years away. This means that this starlight has traveled at light-speed for billions of years. And no, the speed of light itself was not manipulated to test our faith: Reality is not a conspiracy.

Should is be legal to argue that physical reality does not really exist, or that physical reality is a conspiracy? Of course it should. However, such arguments must be countered and exposed for what they are. The vast majority of mankind takes for granted that reality exists and is not a conspiracy. They do so for the very good reason that this is in fact the reality we live in. A relativism or subjectivism that reduces physical reality to being a matter of opinion is a threat to democracy and human rights. It is an invitation to the mindset that disputes are not settled by finding out who has the best arguments, but instead by finding out who is best at murdering or otherwise silencing anyone who disagree. It is an invitation to genocide against ”heretics”, ”unbelievers” and ”blasphemers”.

The scriptures of various religions hold psychological truths, cultural truths and spiritual truths. Since minds and their spiritual experiences are subjective, these scriptures can all be true. They can coexist peacefully and even reinforce each other in a good way. But they must not be taken as literal truth about the physical world and it’s history. It is destructive to accept as literal truth for example the Genesis story of the Bible, the Norse Pantheon story of how Odin created the world, or the stories of Vedic tradition. First of all, they can’t all be the one truth. If one of them is “The Truth” rather than “a truth”, then the other ones are lies. Second, none of them can be literally true without physical reality itself being a conspiracy to conceal this truth. This all invites paranoia, fear, and intolerance against those who hold different beliefs.

However, a story such as Genesis can still be true on a spiritual or psychological level. On these levels, the story has truths that physical reality could never have. Genesis is not a history lesson; it is a story about the basics of defining the world. Sun and moon. Sky, sea and land. Different species of animals, with mankind on top. This is a story of categories.

Categories do not exist in the physical world. They exist in the psychological, social/cultural and spiritual worlds. One of the greatest turning points of my life was when I read the book The Greatest Show On Earth, and it explained that specieses of animals do not exist. Only actual animals exist. Sorting thee animals into specieses is merely our way of categorizing them. This system of categorization makes it harder for us to understand evolution. Just like the fact that the universe exists, this is something that I already knew, but didn’t believe in yet. I merely took it for granted. I had already been working on my concept of categorism for many years, but this simple statement made me realize just how much on the right track I am with this intellectual project.

A few days ago, I saw a very interesting youtube clip with that book’s author, Richard Dawkins. In this interview, he explains that there was never such a thing as a first human being. Mankind evolved gradually, it did not suddenly come into existence.

In fact, religion as we know it may very well be older than mankind itself, considering how deeply embedded in our nature it is. Perhaps the pre-human primates dreamed of heaven. We will never know for sure. Maybe today, some dolphins are dreaming about heaven. Maybe we’ll find out about this, one day.

The physical world does not give us a starting point for who we are. For those of use who want to have a starting point, they need to find it in the cultural or spiritual realm. Doing so can be a very good thing, as long as one doesn’t lose one’s connection to understanding the physical world. Belief in Genesis or in any other creation myth can be combined with accepting evolution, thanks to separating the spiritual from the physical. These days, the global Catholic Church accepts evolution. So does a steadily increasing percentage of Protestant priests and Islamic scholars. As for the followers of the Norse Pantheon, I don’t think any of them are literalists. I have met many of them, since belief in the Norse Pantheon is having a revival in Sweden. Some of these people are my friends. They are honest and deeply spiritual in their belief in Odin, Thor and the others, but of course they don’t mistake the myths for being literal historical truth.

There are different kinds of beliefs. There is an enormous difference between spiritual beliefs and beliefs about the physical world.

For the physical world, most people take for granted that the world exists and that it is not a conspiracy. I recommend them all to solidify this assumption into a belief. To stand up for the fact that yes, this is actually the way it is. Those who believe otherwise are, in fact, wrong. If they want to convince us otherwise, they will have to overthrow the entire reality, not merely make exceptions from it whenever it suits them.

For psychology and spirituality, I recommend total subjectivity and relativism. Each person has her own experiences, and this should be respected. If you want to join a religion, or several religions at the same time, do so. Find your personal truths wherever you can. But don’t lose your connection to the reality of the physical world, the one that we all share and live in. If your religion threatens to engulf your life or shroud reality, leave it.

Religion can hold people back. If your religion holds you back from doing bad things to others or to yourself, please stay in your religion. If your religion holds you back from despair and emptiness, please stay in your religion. But you should also find yourself some solid ground elsewhere. Don’t let religion be your only comfort, your only safety. Build a decent life, find stability in many places. If your religion is only holding back your intellectual, emotional, social or spiritual development, then it is time to leave. If you still want to have a religion, choose another one. If you don’t want to have one, that’s okay too. In either case, beware of destructive cults. A sure sign of a destructive cult is that it strongly discourages having a life outside of the group, and that it shuns anyone who wants to think freely or leave the group. Please remember that this is true not only for religious groups, but for secular ones as well. Many destructive cults are based squarely on political ideologies such as Communism and Nazism, on (empty) promises of economical gain, or on social identity.

As for culture and social structure, we need a balance.
Cultures should be cherished and respected. However, people exploiting or otherwise oppressing other people is not something that we should cherish or respect. Not even when the oppressors and the victims share a mutual culture, and this culture is used as an excuse to justify the oppression.

Culture is relative, but a culture consists of human beings.
Besides, the same individual human can belong to more than one culture, or no culture at all. Different members of the same culture can define their membership differently. In any case, they are human beings.

Human beings, and their human rights, are not relative.