Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Emeritus Professor Paul Kurtz and Dr Ian Ellis-Jones

This, my 200th post on this blog site, is dedicated to the memory of a giant of a human being, a man I had the great pleasure and honour of knowing, the philosopher Dr Paul Kurtz (pictured above [with yours truly], as well as below).

During the time I was president of both the Humanist Society of New South Wales and the Council of Australian Humanist Societies (CAHS), I met and came to know Paul Kurtz. (He was the leading keynote speaker at the Australis2000 IHEU/CAHS humanist congress we organized in Sydney which took place in November 2000, and there were other subsequent occasions in which we interacted and shared ideas.) I have never forgotten the good advice I received from Paul, namely, to always resist what Kurtz described as 'the transcendental temptation,' as well as to avoid engaging in 'magical thinking.'

Paul Kurtz---please see this online obituary---was Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he had taught philosophy for some 26 years, and one of the world's greatest apologists for secular humanism and freethought. He was the author of many seminal books on philosophy, religion, humanism and freethought, including, not so coincidentally, one entitled The Transcendental Temptation: A Critique of Religion and the Paranormal.

I remember when I became a humanist, after coming to the conclusion that not only were there no good reasons for believing in the God of traditional theism, there were also very good reasons for not believing in such a God, I happened to mention the fact of my embracing humanism---something I still embrace, but not dogmatically or exclusively---to a rather illiberal Baptist friend of mine, who was not known for his critical thinking even though he taught psychology at a university in Sydney and had also been very successful in the business world. The friend said, ‘How can you possibly be a humanist, after the Holocaust and such like events?’ I said to him, ‘I am entitled to ask of you---How can you possibly believe in an all-loving, omnibenevolent, all-powerful personal God in the light of all that gratuitous suffering!’

As I see it, human beings are not totally depraved. They are certainly not evil beyond measure. However, they are also not good beyond credibility. My erstwhile friend seemed to think that humanists believe that human beings are inherently good or perfect. Not so. Humanists are certainly not blind to all the evil that human beings have caused over many centuries. What they do believe---or rather affirm---is that human and other problems can only be solved by human beings, working collaboratively and using reason. Secular humanism rejects supernaturalism and traditional theism, affirming instead the need for skepticism, reasonfree inquiry and critical thinking.

Now, back to Paul Kurtz. He was a very tolerant and open-minded man, except as regards such things as religious fundamentalism, New Age nonsense, and various bogus, non-evidence based forms of alternative medicine. He was not opposed to all religious thought and associated practices, and he often expressed the view that Buddhism, at least in the Theravāda tradition, was very humanistic in its ontology and ethical teachings.

Kurtz was no 'dry' rationalist, nor was he an ‘angry atheist.’ Indeed, he explicitly rejected the one-dimensional militant ‘new atheist’ stance so common today. In more recent years he spoke and wrote of a more universalistic and all-inclusive neo-humanism, emphasizing the positive and 'exuberant' dimensions of unbelief and highlighting the need to work together with religious people to solve common sociopolitical problems. Neo-humanists are not religious---‘surely not in the literal acceptance of the creed’---but neither are they avowedly antireligious,’ although they may be critical of religious claims, ‘especially those that are dogmatic or fundamentalist or impinge upon the freedom of others.’

Religion is not all bad. Far from it. Here are some of the things that make religion---any religion---bad: the belief that one particular religion is the only true religion, or the only way to  God, heaven or whatever; the belief in supernaturalism, and the assertion that there is more than one way of being, that is, that there are different (eg higher and lower) levels of reality; the belief that one’s God has spoken his or her final word in some one person (eg Jesus or Muhammad); the belief that one’s holy book and/or one’s leader are infallible and/or inerrant; the belief that ethical behaviour and morality require a religious underpinning; the belief that human beings are totally depraved; the belief that reason cannot be trusted, and that there are revelations and supposed truths that cannot be questioned and that must simple be accepted on faith and on the basis of religious authority.

Those who believe any of the foregoing are deluded---dangerously so, at times. I make no apology for saying that. None whatsoever. You may wish to accuse me of being dogmatic on that matter. If I am guilty of dogmatism as respects that matter, it is a dogmatism brought about by the exercise of reason, free rational inquiry and critical thinking, and I do not resile from it.

Paul Kurtz embraced and promulgated a humanism that was joyous, positive and life-affirming. He made it clear that humanists are---or at least ought to be---best defined by what they are for, not what they are against.

I am still a humanist. People like Paul Kurtz make you proud to be one. I fully and unashamedly embrace the sentiment in these words from Humanist Manifesto II: 'While there is much that we do not know, humans are responsible for what we are or will become. No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.' However, because---and not notwithstanding---I am a humanist, I will continue to affirm and expound all that is good and noble in the world’s religions and in spirituality. I will also continue to rail against the silly and the irrational, of which there is plenty in all organized religions (especially the monotheistic ones).

Thank you, Paul Kurtz. You taught us how to live joyously, fully and sensibly---without illusions.


Monday, November 26, 2012


When I was an undergraduate Arts/Law student at the University of Sydney in the 1970s---a wonderful time to be alive---I spent probably more time in the now gone Adyar Bookshop, in Sydney, run by the Theosophical Society, than I did in the university library.

It was during those years that I ‘discovered’ the great debunker and iconoclast
J. Krishnamurti (pictured right), and I have been in love with his teachings, and the man himself, ever since.

I still have in my possession a bookmark which I was given when I purchased a book from the Adyar Bookshop sometime in the early 1970s. I don’t remember the book I bought at the time---it may or may not have been a book written by Krishnamurti---although I am sure I would still have the book somewhere on my bookshelves here at home. (I never throw anything away---something I have to work on!) Now, on the bookmark there was a quotation from the writings of J. Krishnamurti---‘In the acknowledgement of what is, there is the cessation of all conflict.’

For years and years thereafter I couldn’t comprehend the meaning of those few words of Krishnamurti. It took several traumatic life experiences, and some more reading of Krishnamurti, for the truth of those words to manifest in my consciousness. You see, it is not what happens to us that makes or breaks us, it is how we react---or rather respond---to what happens to us that determines who and what we are and will become. There’s more to it, still. If we can ‘acknowledge’---that is, observe, note, notice, but not judge, analyze, criticize or condemn---what happens in and as our life experience from one moment to the next, that is, if we can accept what is as what is, there will be no resistance, conflict or inner turmoil. Then, and only then, can we know peace and have serenity.

Another spiritual principle which says more-or-less the same thing, but comes at the truth from the other ‘end,’ so to speak is this one---‘What we resist, persists.’

We don’t have to ‘like’ what happens to us in order for there to be an ‘acknowledgement.’ That will often not be possible or appropriate. More importantly, forming a ‘liking,’ or a ‘disliking’ for that matter, is an act of judgment, and once we judge something, we are attached to it. The result? Conflict. Resistance. Positive or negative. Just look, observe, note, and notice. But don’t judge or analyze. That is so important.

The Apostle Paul understood the truth of this most important spiritual principle. It is written that he said. ‘I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances’ (Phil 4: 11 [NIV]). He said ‘content,’ not happy. Contentment implies acknowledgment and a calm acceptance of whatever is---for whatever is, is best. Whatever the circumstances!


Sunday, November 18, 2012


In the Tao Te Ching Lao Tzu is reported as having said:

Without going out of door
One can know the whole world;
Without peeping out of the window
One can see the Tao [Way] of heaven.
The further one travels
The less one knows.
Therefore the Sage knows everything without travelling;
He names everything without seeing it;
He accomplishes everything without doing it.

In the Mass the priest holds up the Sacred Host for all to see. Now, I do not accept a Catholic creed---nor any creed for that matter---and I certainly do not believe in transubstantiation, but I can understand this much. In that little piece of bread we have all of life---symbolically represented by, and fully but microcosmically concentrated in, the Sacred Host. It is a wonderful, mysterious self-revelation and experience of life itself---a veritable microcosm of the macrocosm which is life itself. It is a living symbol of the all-ness of life, in the very real sense that all of life can be said to be present within the confines of this otherwise very little wafer of bread, itself a miniature of the eternal now. In the consecrated wafer is all of life---past, present and future---and that includes the man who, it is written, once walked this earth known as Jesus of Nazareth as well as the indwelling presence and substance of all persons and things.

Life is full of living symbols. What, you may ask, is a living symbol? How can a symbol be ‘living’? We are referring to something which H P Blavatsky referred to as ‘concretized truth,’ namely some thing that not only symbolizes, represents and stands for something else (the so-called ‘inner reality’), it actually is instrumental in helping to bring about that reality (in particular, an inner transformation in us) and, in very truth, is that reality. Through living symbols we are able to feel an intuitive connectedness---intellectually, emotionally and spiritually---with the all-ness of life.

I say again. Life is full of living symbols. Through them we can know the whole world---without going out the door. Life is all ‘about’ us, and in us—and is us. Why seek the sacred or the holy elsewhere? There is only one way of being, and one order or level of reality---and that is more than sufficient.

Monday, November 12, 2012


The ‘great’ monotheistic religions---Judaism, Christianity, and Islam---are indeed strange. Very strange. Each one of them postulates the existence of, and the need for, a so-called ‘first cause,’ God being that ‘first cause.’ Yes, God---who supposedly ‘is because He is’ (cf Ex 3:14)---is said to be the ultimate ‘necessary’ Being on whom or on which everything else depends for its existence. After all, is it not the case that whatever cannot account for its own existence must depend on something which can. That ‘something’ is God.

One of the many problems with the assertion that God was the first cause is the problem of infinite regress. If God made everything, who ‘made’ God? (There is a problem as well with that word ‘made,’ which presupposes a ‘maker.’) The theist will reply, ‘No, I am not saying that everything which exists must have been made by someone. I am saying that there must be something which is not made.’ Why must there be? There are no ‘musts.’ I repeat---there are no 'musts.' In any event, with a word like ‘made,’ how in the world is it possible to conceive of something ‘unmade.’ It is unintelligible. It is unspeakable. Yes, it is the case that everything in the world is limited and dependent. However, it does not necessarily follow---indeed, it does not logically follow at all---from the fact that everything in the world is limited and dependent that everything is ‘made,’ nor that there must be someone or something who is ‘not made,’ whatever that means.

Now, there are certainly states of interdependence throughout the universe. That much is clear simply from observation or perception alone. The Vietnamese monk and Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh (pictured left) uses the expression ‘InterBeing’ to refer to this state and process of interdependence, that is, the interdependent relational nature of things. Hanh, in his book Zen Keys, gives the example of a table. We recognise its existence ‘only when the interdependent conditions, upon which its presence is grounded, converge.’  Certain interdependent conditions or factors---for example, the wood, the saw, the nails, the carpenter, and so forth---come together, that is, converge, to produce the table. Some of those factors are more directly connected with the existence of the table than others, the latter being more indirectly connected. Nevertheless, all are ‘necessary’ to bring the table into ‘concrete’ existence. In a sense, the table existed ‘before being there’---at least in potentiality. Of course, we are unable to recognise its existence before all the above mentioned conditions are brought together,

However, let’s get one thing perfectly clear. Everything is not present to everything else in ‘one vast instantaneous co-implicated completeness’ (to use words penned by William James [pictured right]). Yes, there are interrelationships throughout nature, but there are also innumerable cross-currents and conflicting forces. What we find are partial unities but there is no one, vast, overarching total unity of all things. Not at all. There is no one system, completely unified, that unites all the subsystems.

However, this much is true---a single ‘logic’ applies to all things, for all things exist in the same ‘level’ or plane of existence and observability. In addition, everything has some relations with some other things; that is to say, there is no entity which is independent of all other entities. Each 'thing' is a cause of at least one other 'thing' as well as being the effect of some other 'thing,' so every thing is explainable by reference to one or more other things.

Thus, all theological talk of the supposed need for some 'first cause' is, well, nonsense. Empty words. As Professor John Anderson pointed out, 'there can be no contrivance of a "universe" or totality of things, because the contriver would have to be included in the totality of things.'

There was no first cause---and absolutely no need for one. This is just one of the many areas where Buddhism has the edge over the monotheistic religions.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012


The Scottish-born Australian philosopher and controversialist John Anderson (pictured left, with a couple of superadded images [gasp!]) was Challis Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney from 1927 to 1958 (and thereafter Emeritus Professor of Philosophy until his death in 1962).

Anderson, regarded by many as the ‘patron saint’ of the Sydney Push, founded the school or branch of empirical philosophy known as ‘Sydney realism’ (and also known as ‘Andersonian realism’ as well as 'situational realism'). I embrace the central thrust and main ideas of Anderson's philosophical system, which I have set out and described elsewhere as well as in a number of my posts (see below).

Today I delivered an address to the Sydney Realist Group ['Sydney Realists'] on the topic ‘Andersonian Realism and Buddhist Empiricism.’ 

Now, it may come as a shock---not to mention downright heresy---to some (especially those who know that Anderson had no time for religion), but the two schools of thought have a number of important ideas in common. However, as I say in the paper, it would be wrong to conclude that the Buddha’s philosophical approach to life was ‘Andersonian’ in all or even most respects.

As I have said several times before in my posts, the empiricism in Buddhism---which, at least in its earliest, more uncluttered forms, was arguably not a religion at all---is to be found, not as some highly organized, systematic philosophical exposition, but as a praxis, a way of seeing the world, and a method of problem-solving. The Buddha taught people that the way to find out about life and themselves was by direct perceptive experience, and by trial and error. Anderson said much the same thing---but in different words.

Note. Since this post was uploaded I have presented a follow-on paper to the Sydney Realist Group entitled 'Self as Illusion and Mind as Feeling' [link here], in which I explore some of the similarities---as well as differences---between John Anderson's views on the mind and those expounded in Buddhist psychological teachings. IEJ.