Sound Against Flame: An Excerpt

20 06 2008

An excerpt from Sound Against Flame: The Process of Yoga and Atheism in America by Derek Beres, out now from Outside the Box Publishing.

The half-cocked-brow gaze over slightly glazed eyes when I tried to explain the premise of my book to friends insured that I’d have some serious explaining to do. A comparative philosophy book on the practices of yoga and atheism, two systems with so (seemingly) little in common? Trying to establish a common ground between a devotional practice with images of blue-skinned, elephant-headed, flute-playing gods, and the complete opposite, the blasphemous idea of no God at all? Beyond a surface grazing-that of a South Asian spiritual practice mostly known in America as an exercise routine and for polytheistic iconography, alongside the outright denial of a Supreme Anything-there is plenty of shared wisdom. The premise of this work, and the underlying foundation of both yoga and atheism, directly pertains to the experience of life, not the abstraction of it.

There is little surprise that these two forms of belief/practice (or unbelief, depending on your definition) are the most rapidly expanding philosophies in our country. This is not to deny the brute strength of megachurches growing like wild weeds across the nation. (And this is not to necessitate the idea that such churches are inherently bad for us, as many atheists, as well as many sitting on the fence in the God question, put forth.) True, we are a Christian nation. There is little doubt about that. Even if we do not claim that as our faith, the forms of thought that arise in our brains have been conditioned by a specific cause-and-effect, rewards/benefits musculature defined and developed through biblical and political training. Indeed, it is impossible not to have been taught in such a manner if you have gone through the public school system. (And if you attended a private school, all the more so, as religion has a strong hold on nearly all of these institutions, as well as the majority of parents who home-school children.) Churches, it must be remembered, constructed the original educational system in America, so it is not surprising that the way we learn is dictated by theology. In many ways, this psychological underpinning is more relevant than outright belief, for when the manners in which we are conditioned stay hidden, we become prime targets for anxiety, depression, social confusion and general dis-ease.

What the basic ideological thinkers of the three major religious traditions of the West — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — have conceived is that your actions on this planet are preparations for a) some sort of kingdom of which people of your faith will lord over, and b) some form of afterlife, where a style of judgment will occur. This judgment comes in many varieties. Some maintain that you can convert to the faith and be “saved,” while other sects are so bullheaded that only those born into families of their specific faith are righteous. Regardless of the degree of severity, anything done for another life beyond this one is rooted in egoistic idealism, something both yoga and atheism (at their best) aim to dissolve. To get to the roots of this comparison, which is just as much a survey of the social and spiritual state of American ideologies as it is these two specific practices, we will have to apply the wisdom of philosopher Daniel Dennett: “If we want to understand the nature of religion today, as a natural phenomenon, we have to look not just at what it is today, but at what it used to be.” And this involves looking into the way all humans used to be, not just examining the doctrines passed down by a few men with specific agendas. The paths we will take may surprise you, and may not always be pleasant, but they will prove worthwhile.

To read the full excerpt on Reality Sandwich, click here

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