Improving Buddhism

Is it Possible?

Means and Ends in Religious Education

What good is a religion which does not have any supernatural assertions in it? If a religion, improved or not, teaches or assumes that there is no reincarnation or any substitute for it, what is left for it to do? One feature remaining is religious education, which may serve as a supplement to any formal or informal education. It does not cover academic topics but instead what might be called life questions. If a person cannot be induced to follow some behavioral rules by the promise of intangible and unverifiable supernatural rewards, what might take its place, so that behavior does not degenerate into chaotic or vengeful actions, and society can continue to maintain and improve the status quo, specifically the standard of living, or the probability of preservation of the species or some faction of it, or whatever other social goal is absorbed into the religion?


Religious teaching relating to behavior can be divided into the teaching of means and the teaching of ends. Means are simply procedural rules. ‘Do not lie’ is an example of a procedural rule of the prohibitory type. ‘Exercise frequently’ is an example of the mandatory type. There are different collections of these generalities. When a person who has received this education and attempts to follow it, there is sometimes a clear definition of what should be done in a particular situation, and sometimes the prescription is somewhat vague and requires interpretation. Thus the religious education needs to have both a listing of the prohibitory and mandatory rules and an exhortation or motivation to follow them, but also a method for interpreting exactly what they prohibit or mandate in some more complex situations. If the interpretation is to be done by the person who has received the religious education, there must be some assurance that the ability to do it is also present in the person. This implies some thinking ability.


When a person with this religious education is faced with a situation in which one or more of the rules apply, the first question he might ask is whether he should follow the rules and what are the consequences and costs of doing so versus the consequences and costs of violating the rules. The answer to this depends on the age or more specifically the rationality of the person when the rules were taught. Religious teaching of pre-rational children or non-rational adults can result in memorization, which might be questioned and ignored later in life by a rational person, or it might result in the teaching being embedded in the feeling system in the brain, so that the person feels good when following the rules. The type of teaching to achieve these two very different results is quite distinct.


The latter type of education can be termed character-building. What it is is the programming of the internal reward system of the brain to follow some rules because they inspire some good feelings, meaning a neurochemical response happens. This inspiration of good feelings happens because the history of the person is such that they grew a network of associations from instinctual feelings through multiple layers up to the following of these religious rules. The very earliest association layers happens when a child is very young and subject to instinctual rewards, and then these are built on by whoever is nurturing the child. Then the religious training must be connected to these early layers.


It is also quite possible to connect religious rule-following to fears and anxieties. Again, a child must have layers of associations built between elementary fears, such as deprivation or punishment, and other early behaviors, which must then be connected by religious teaching with these sets of rules to be followed. It could be possible in some child that both a reward and a fear connection is built up between neurochemical responses and religious rules.


For a person who absorbs these connections when pre-rational, and then becomes rational with age, the rationality typically does not go toward questioning these rules, but instead interpreting them or justifying them. Hearing examples of these rules produces some mild feelings of positive, or possibly negative, correlation, which can be misinterpreted as assurance of correctness or knowledge that they are right or just or some other rationally conceived meritous attribute. The assurance does not arise from a rational checking of a lifetime of experience, but instead comes from the neurochemical response which produces positive feelings. A person who has these embedded layers connecting religious teaching with the neurochemical reinforcement system in their brain does not have much capability of questioning the basics, except as an exercise to find the flaws in the questioning.


A person who has had this experience, and lives within a virtual world of rule correctness, can be said to have absorbed internally the means of making choices. Rationality is not invoked in situations where a decision or behavioral choice needs to be made, but instead a feeling exudes which overwhelms the logical questions and simply provides some generic rules which are applied. The accuracy or logical details of the application of the generic rules is not important, as the good feelings which arise do not arise because of logical correctness or exactness with which the rules are created. Instead, the feelings arise because of some associations in the brain which become exercised by the situation.


The alternative situation involves a person whose pre-rational experience does not result in him having developed associations which match those of a religion that he comes into contact with. If he is learning about it voluntarily, and seeks to make a decision as to whether to use the behavioral rules it promulgates, and is highly rational, he would question the ends of the rules, rather than checking to see if following them makes him feel good or if they seem intrinsically correct, which is how a mind can disguise the good feelings under a cloak of pretended rationality. In detail, the question is what are the consequences of one person, himself, following the rules or alternatively, what are the consequences of the large majority of people in a social community following these rules? The first phrasing of the question appeals to someone who has learned to think about how to increase some benefits or metrics relating to himself, and the second phrasing appeals to someone who does not think about his own benefits particularly, but about the social benefits to some other group with which he associates or somehow values.


Without the supernatural kicker, consequences of following rules have to have some earthly benefits, and so the first part of answering this question comes from the person’s choices of what constitutes a benefit. The two phrasings of the ‘ends’ question do not interact necessarily with the metric question. A person who was raised to be acquisitive, without thinking about the utility of excessive acquisitions, would likely have as a metric the standard of living. This would be applied to himself, if his goals were self-oriented, or to some faction, if his goals were externally directed toward some group of others. This type of person might be thought of as being concerned about the present or the near future.


Another end which might have been chosen by a particular person involves the past, and is generally described as asking how well the set of rules will preserve something in the past which is highly valued by this person. Some heritage or some existing state of nature or some monuments or some cultural features might be the items which serve as the keystones to his internal goal system, the one which is being compared to the consequences of following his targeted religion’s set of behavioral rules. It could even be the idea of preserving the set of rules that was used in previous generations, and so the date of origin of the set of rules might be an important variable. In this situation, the set of rules has jumped from being a means to accomplish some external goals or provide some benefits to being an end in itself.


The obvious third category of goals that a person might have grown up with involves future projections. This person would ask how does the set of rules lead to a future in which some faction of people either simply live or live well, such as with a higher standard of living that the same faction does now. This is a good test of rationality, as the prediction of the future involves a deep understanding of the mechanisms by which events unfold, some understanding of the nature of probabilities, and a solid understanding of potential disruptions that might affect some simple linear projection forward.


These considerations imply that an improved Buddhism would have to have several explanations, one suited for heritage based individuals, another suited for standard of living types thinking about the present, and another suited for those who live in their mind’s view of the future and extract their metrics from that future projection. The older period in which children, in their pre-rational period, could be programmed to follow a religion might be passing by, and something new would have to be installed in its place. It might be that rationality is going to decay, and then the struggle will be decided by deciding what form of non-rational thinking will dominate society or factions of it. In that case, an improved Buddhism might take the preservation of thinking abilities as one of its goals, rather than an increase in acquisitions by its members.

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