Saturday, March 31, 2007

Two years ago today, I noted in this blog that we are not very good caretakers of this Earth. My opinion has not been swayed by the past two years. In the interest of ecology, I present below an updated and revised recycled posting of my thoughts from March 31, 2005.

While I do not subscribe to the notion that there was a former "golden age," when man lived in perfect harmony with nature, I do think that part of the problem is in the current worldview informed by the western philosophical/spiritual traditions. As Greensmile pointed out, Western culture and its relationship to nature is dualistic: it fosters a false sense of separation where humans are seen as outside of nature.

This worldview is not the only way to look at the situation, however. According to Greensmile, the same Garden of Eden stories that get cited mostly as supporting text for human dominance of nature has more recently been used by Jewish environmental activists as signaling that humans are responsible for nature's preservation - still a duality but vastly more benign. These Jews interpret the commandment of "Tikun Olam" (which literally translates as "repair of the world") in a far more literal sense than the traditional interpretations and involves redressing poverty and homelessness etc.

When Buddhism was transplanted from India to China, some thinkers there began to ask - perhaps under the influence of Taoist ideas - whether the Mahayana vow of Buddhahood to all sentient beings went far enough. As Graham Parkes describes in his essay "Voices of Mountains, Trees and Rivers: Kukai, Dogen and a Deeper Ecology," a long-running debate began in China during the eighth century over whether or not the logic of the Mahayana required that the distinction between the sentient and the nonsentient be abandoned, and that Buddha-nature be ascribed not only to plants, trees and earth, but even to particles of dust. These ideas, which consider Buddha-nature to be a primitive like mass, time or space, contrasts with the Christian tradition, which ignored Aristotle's thoughts on the vegetal soul, and in which arguments over the reaches of salvation were restricted to the question of whether animals have souls.

When Buddhist ideas from China began to arrive in Japan, they encountered the indigenous Shinto religion, according to which the natural world and human world are equally offspring of the divine. Shinto, as John Updike describes it, "is based on kami, a ubiquitous word sometimes translated as 'gods' or 'spirits' but meaning, finally, anything felt worthy of reverence. . . Kami exists not only in heavenly and earthly forces but in animals, birds, plants, and stones." Kami spirits are not only of the ancestors but also of any phenomena that occasion awe or reverence: wind, thunder, lightening, rain, the sun, mountains, rivers, trees and rocks. Such a mindset was naturally receptive to the idea that the earth and plants participate in Buddha-nature.

Kukai (774-835) was the first to elaborate on the idea of Buddhahood of all phenomena and make it central to his thought.

"If trees and plants are to attain enlightenment,
Why not those who are endowed with feelings? . . .
If plants and trees were devoid of Buddhahood,
Waves would then be without humidity."

In later works, he argued for somuku, the awakened nature of vegetation. He qualified this argument by adding that the buddha-nature of plants and trees is not apparent to normal vision, but can be seen by opening one's "Buddha eye." Parkes points out the idea that the buddha-nature of the natural elements can only be seen via buddha-nature was similar to Kukai's contemporary John Scotus Erigena, a Western philosopher whose life overlaps with that of Kukai by 25 years. Erigena argued that the natural world is God "as seen by Himself."

The practical aspect of Kukai's teaching involves entering into what he called the "three mysteries," or "intimacies." By adopting certain postures (mudras), by chanting certain syllables (mantras), and by allowing the mind to enter into a state of samadhi, or concentration, the practioner will come to directly experience participation in the dharmakaya, the embodied reality of the Buddha. Obviously, those who successfully practice such a philosophy, realizing their participation in the body of the Buddha simultaneously with the divinity of natural phenomena, will treat the natural world with the utmost reverence.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

"And though it is like this, it is only that flowers, while loved, fall; and weeds while hated, flourish."
- Zen Master Dogen, 1233

There were two more Beltline meetings today, one subcommittee meeting for the Citizens Advisory Board and the Southeast Study Area Kick-Off meeting, and I felt guilty for only going to the former and not the latter.

Pollen season is in full bloom here in Atlanta. The spring's warmth has created a sexual frenzy among the City's many trees, who have blown their loads of yellow pollen into the air, creating a haze that hangs over the city like smog, coats cars, sidewalks and people, and has allergy sufferers in misery.

To give you an idea, pollen counts greater than 120 are considered "extremely high" and over 500 are considered "unhealthy."

Today's count was over 5,000.

Mostly pine, oak, sweetgum, birch, sycamore, mulberry and beech. My black car is now yellow, and I actually was leaving footprints in the pollen walking across my driveway.

But my azaleas are still blooming.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Kind of Letter That Gets Posted

Hi Shokai!

just a quick note to let you know how much i enjoy your blog. i have been reading it for a couple of years now, and find it enjoyable and rewarding. yours is one of the best-looking blogs on the web, very clean and with eye-popping graphics. where the heck do you find them all? i would recommend your site to anyone just for the artwork alone, although your zen thoughts and instruction are also very good. i enjoy your thoughts so much more than -------- ---, for example, which is much more popular. (sometimes, i just don't know about ----, methinks he needs a lot more time on the cushion, although as you know that is pure projection on my part.)

anyway, just thought i would write you again and tell you how much i enjoy your site.

by the way...2 questions: what is your favorite electronica cd (i recommend ltj bukem's "journey inwards") and what is your favoriite john coltrane (i love the latest monk and coltrane live cd)

take care


Steve B.

Thank you for your kind and encouraging words, Steve. Gassho.

I read "-------- ---" quite regularly, and actually have no problem with that blog. That's why I keep a link to it over here on my sidebar. ---- has a unique voice, and the dharma may sound strange when expressed in that unique voice but like everything else in the universe, it's still the dharma.

And since you asked, for the past year or so I've been listening to a lot of Pete Namlook electronica, although my favorites are probably the far less prolific Fila Brazilia and Zoviet France.

And I can always listen to Coltrane's "My Favorite Things."

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Even Newer Peachtree

The city of Atlanta has now announced an even bigger, more ambitious proposal for transit and streetscapes in the future. Combining the $2B budget for the Beltline with the $1B budget for the Peachtree Corridor, they have come up with a truly visionary $3B plan for the future. An artist's rendering of what my section of Peachtree will look like in the year 2010 is presented above.

Just kidding, but it's almost plausible.

What's worse that a Beltline meeting every night? Two Beltline meetings in one night! Tonight, I went to another Citizens' Advisory Board Meeting (4-6 pm), having already attended one last week, and later I went to the Southwest Beltline Study Area kick-off meeting (7-9 pm), having already attended the Northside and Northeast kick-off meetings.

So excuse (or enjoy) the brevity of tonight's post - I'm burned out!

Monday, March 26, 2007

The New Peachtree

The city has released its recommendations for improvements to the Peachtree Corridor today. Mayor Franklin announced a $1B plan to upgrade Peachtree Road (to be known henceforth simply as "Peachtree") into a "world-class" boulevard with streetscape improvements, a streetcar, bicycle lanes, underground utilities and wider sidewalks.

The picture above is a fairly accurate if unflattering artist's rendition of what my section of the Corridor looks like. My road is a left-hand turn just before that big, ugly blue-windowed building on the bend in the road and just past the Texaco station. Here's the artist's interpretation of what things will look like when the make-over is complete:

Neighbors and I met with the Mayor's Peachtree Corridor Task Force at least a half-dozen times to articulate our vision for this segment, and to limit density to less than 10-story buildings (I see they snuck in one high-rise off near the horizon on the right). And wouldn't you know it? The one recognizable building that remains is the ugliest building on the block.

The Task Force's report is available on-line. I've downloaded most of it already (there are some pretty big files in the report) but have not yet had a chance to review it in detail to see how much of what we asked for got included. However, I still feel good to have gotten the opportunity to participate. It's not every town that lets its citizens sit at the planner's table and get to play with the clay a little bit.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Kyosaku

At the Zen Center this morning, we talked about one of the most misunderstood aspects of Zen practice - the use of the kyosaku, or "the blow of compassion."

The kyosaku is an oak stave, usually about three to four feet long, used by Soto Zen teachers to strike students, upon request, on the shoulders. It is often mistaken for a "beating," or misinterpreted as either masochism on the part of the receiver or sadism on the part of the one dealing the blow.

During sitting meditation, a student may decide to request the stick by putting his or her hands together and raising them above the head. The zendo attendant will then get up and take the kyosaku from its position on the alter, holding it up and bowing ceremoniously before approaching the requester. The attendant then bows to the requester before tapping him or her on the shoulder with the stick so that the requester knows that the attendant is there, followed by two swift strikes to the fleshy muscle between the neck and shoulder. The strikes are usually characterized by a loud smacking sound.

Does it hurt? I've requested it several times, and will admit that there is an initial sting to the strikes, followed by a sensation of warmth that travels through the body from the point of impact. I would not call it pain, but I would not call it pleasure either.

So why is this done? At what point during sitting meditation does one think that getting hit on the shoulders with a stick is a good idea? As I said, I've requested it many times, and have found that it has at least three benefits to my sitting practice:

  1. If one is drowsy, the jolt of adrenalin resulting from the strike wakes one up better than a shot of espresso.
  2. I often carry stress in my shoulders (some people carry stress in the jaw). During long sitting periods, my shoulders will start to tighten and rise up, and something about the kyosaku relaxes the muscles, sort of like a good shiatsu massage.
  3. It brings you into a high state of awareness of the present moment. I can guarantee you that in the seconds between the first blow to the right shoulder and the second blow to the left, you're not thinking about anything else or anywhere else, and your full attention is on the here and the now.

A momentary sting is a small price to pay for these benefits. However, I have heard people assume that the stick is used to "punish" students for poor practice, or fidgeting during sitting, or bad posture. Not true.

I have heard people speculate that students request the stick as a form of absolution for their imperfect effort or lack of enlightenment. Not true.

I have even heard racist theories that the kyosaku is an example of "Asian cruelty," proof that Zen is some barbaric or sadistic practice, and that teachers select students for "beatings" in order to assert dominance. These theories do not even warrant a response.

The founder of my lineage, the Rev. Soyu Matsuoka, explained the use of the stick as "blowing thoughts out of the mind." However, due to the many misunderstandings, it has largely fallen out of use in America, although it was an essential part of Matsuoka's tradition (the first book of his collected teachings is titled "The Kyosaku" - buy it). My teacher, Rev. Taiun Michael Elliston, is committed to carrying on the tradition of the kyosaku, as am I. It may turn out to be the distinguishing feature of the Matsuoka tradition.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Atlanta's Mayor Shirley Franklin was on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher last night.

It's been rare in my life that I've felt proud of one of my representatives at any level of government, but Mayor Franklin has earned my respect and admiration. I did not know of her before she was elected, and was thinking "Shirley Who?" during her campaign, but when she took office and almost immediately addressed Atlanta's aging infrastructure and antiquated combined sewer problems, issues her predecessors made worse by ignoring for years, she earned my initial respect.

Before she took office, Atlanta's city government was a bloated mess with an $82m deficit; now it is running a surplus. Before she took office, the city was seen as hopelessly corrupt (the prior mayor is now in a Federal penitentiary); now it has an ethics plan which, to the surprise of many local sceptics, has yet to embarrass the city. Before she took office, growth was confined to the suburbs; between 2000 and 2004 the city added 13,600 housing units, more than three times what it added in the 1990s.

On Bill Maher, Ms. Franklin, wearing one of her trademark flower pins, seemed strangely subdued. She may not have appreciated some of Maher's blue humor, or else she was repulsed by having to sit next to Neocon David Frum, former Bush speech-writer and inventor of the phrase "axis of evil."

Ms. Franklin was quiet for most of the Iraq conversation, mostly a debate between Frum and Maher, with occasional jabs thrown in by John Legend, on the panel for no apparent reason. Perhaps she was waiting for the conversation to address domestic issues, like urban sprawl. But when she did jump in, asking Frum "What is your solution?" as he was complaining about the House troop withdrawal bill, she managed to make him squirm and stutter without raising her voice or getting confrontational, but simply showing that the Neocons offer no solution other than "stay the course," which obviously is not working.

Well done, Shirley.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Calling Doctor Upaya

Jerome Groopman, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and staff writer for The New Yorker, has recently produced a book called “How Doctors Think,” a series of essays that explore the rational and irrational factors that influence medical decision-making. Although the book explains how doctors can draw the wrong conclusion, and why that same doctor might also come up with a brilliant diagnosis that has eluded his peers, it also illuminates how the mind works in general.

Like much of life, uncertainty hovers over the practice of medicine. Most medical mistakes are not due to technical screw-ups, like reading an X-ray backward or inadequate medical knowledge. The majority of problems are rooted in flawed thinking that can set off what Dr. Groopman calls “a cascade of cognitive errors.” Emotions complicate the process even further, feelings that, Dr. Groopman writes, “we do not readily admit to and often don’t even recognize.”

In medical school, doctors are taught to recognize symptoms and then propose hypotheses as to their cause, ruling them out one by one until the correct answer, and of course treatment, emerges. In the real world, under the pressure of life-and-death emergencies, this model goes out the window, and something called pattern recognition takes over.

Along the way, subtle influences can skew the decision. Dr. Groopman, using case studies, illustrates common logical fallacies like “availability” and "confirmation bias." Availability is the tendency to reach for the plausible explanation nearest to hand and ignore competing theories. Confirmation bias occurs when doctors selectively highlight evidence that supports what they expect to find. Then there’s commission bias, the urge to act rather than do nothing, even when nothing is preferable.

These are similar to the Buddha's teachings of the mechanics of the mind. I have previously spoken here about sanjna, the knowledge that comes from combination, often translated as "perception." The Buddha taught that our perception combines our sensations, what we see, hear, think, and so on, with sanskara, a term variously translated as "mental formations," "impulse," or "predisposition." Red Pine translated sanskara as "memory," not memory in the typical sense such as nostalgia, but a specific form of memory which is the source of a never-ending supply of conceptual formations. "What this term basically refers to is our karmic genome," Red Pine writes, "the repository of all that we have previously intended, whether expressed in the form of words, deeds, or thoughts. Thus, samskara embraces all the ways we have dealt with what we have experienced in the past and that are available to us as ways to deal with what we find in the present."

“The mind acts like a magnet, pulling in the cues from all directions,” Dr. Groopman writes. In the emergency room, a doctor encounters a scruffy patient in insulin shock. The doctor instantly and semiconsciously assimilates the relevant data (semi-comatose male, unshaven and poorly dressed), compares it with past cases (the hospital takes in a large number of alcoholics) and misidentifies the patient as a drunk. Sensation (vedana) is filtered through samskara to form the doctor's perception (sanjna).

The early Buddhists (who were nothing if not list makers), identified 52 kinds of habitual behavior patterns, such as intelligence, belief, shame, confidence, indolence, pride, anger, envy, sloth, repentance and doubt, anything that might provide us with a template from the past with which to perceive and deal with the world as we experience it in the present.

“How a doctor thinks can first be discerned by how he speaks and how he listens,” Dr. Groopman writes, noting that studies have shown that physicians, on average, interrupt patients less than 18 seconds after they have begun telling their story.

A woman in her 30s, who had seen 30 doctors over a period of 15 years for a condition that the experts had decided was anorexia and bulimia, pays a last-chance visit to a new doctor, who pushes aside the thick dossier on his desk and listens closely as she retells her story from the beginning. A small detail here, a nuance there, leads the doctor to suspect that there is something other than anorexia causing this patient to reject food, and he is right. It turns out she suffers from celiac disease, an allergy to gluten.

I have seen this same dynamic at work with spiritual teachers. A student expresses his or her concerns, fear or desire, but the teacher catches a certain "buzz word" early on and starts lecturing the student about, say, spiritual materialism, when the student was actually plagued by insidious doubt. Or the teacher, having discussed spiritual materialism earlier, simply picks up the last conversation where it left off with a different individual, whether it's relevant of not. And then the student encounters a wise teacher, who listens, and although various samskaras present themselves, does not instinctively leap to the first one available.

Upaya is the employment of skillful means to help bring others to enlightenment. A Zen adept is considered a Master when he is able to reliably employ upaya. I argue that upaya is the ability to listen, and to resist the desire for sanjna perception to utilize a samskara template inappropriate for the situation at hand.

I'm sure if we all look closely at our behaviors in a score of different situations, we would see the same dynamics at work as Dr. Groopman discusses so eloquently.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Something is wrong with my azaleas. In my neighborhood, the azaleas start blooming in mid-March and the blossoms hang on until about the end of April. But mine only last about a week. The good part, though, is this is that week. I woke this morning and took my time over breakfast (I didn't need to be anywhere until 10 am), sipping my coffee and admiring the bloom on the bushes.

Every day's a great day, but today, the weather was near perfect - 72 degrees and dry. And the best part, aside from the azaleas, was that I got out of the office all day.

I met with a surveyor at 10:00 am at a project site northeast of Atlanta, and helped him find some monitoring wells we had installed there, and then I got to be the rod man as we did the actual field surveying. You know those guys you sometimes see on the side of the road holding a rod and looking bored as traffic whizzes by? That was me this morning, but I wasn't bored (I was too happy to be outside).

Then I drove back to Atlanta all the way downtown to the state environmental agency's offices to review their files of other sites near a new client's property in Savannah to see if there were any records of water wells in the vicinity. While I was there, I visited a long-time friend who works in the Brownfields office.

Then it was back to the house to work from the home office for a while, answering email and such. And then an impromptu telephone conference call.

And what's a day in my life without a Beltline meeting? The citizen's advisory board met in the late afternoon, and we approved our bylaws (finally), elected officers (not me), and formed subcommittees (I'm on three).

And while I was driving from the house to the survey site, and from the survey site to the state offices, and from there back to the house, and then to the Beltline meeting and home again, I had the windows open and I was grooving on the sunshine.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Zen Parks

Happy Equinox (I think): another day, yes, another Beltline meeting. This one is the Northeast Study Area.

I went primarily because I have been involved in the Northeast a little bit, although I live in the Northwest side of Atlanta, and because I wanted to hear again what the Meeting Coordinator was supposed to do, since I was selected as the Northside M.C. (that sounds like a good rap name for me - M.C. Northside).

Anyway, the high point of the meeting occurred for me during the stakeholder values identification, when people were supposed to call out those ideas or values they most want to see in the Beltline, and someone from the back of the room called out, in a heavy accent, "Zen parks."

"Zen parks?," the facilitator asked.

"Yes, Zen parks," the person repeated. I turned around to see what Zen Master had come to this meeting, but did not recognize him. He went on talking, but with his thick accent it was hard to understand him - the meeting facilitator was having problems, too. But as he was going on explaining himself, I heard "like in Las Vegas."

I didn't know they had public Zen parks in Las Vegas. I've heard the city's been through a lot of changes, but I didn't know they included public Zen parks. But it slowly dawned on the facilitator and I that he was saying "theme parks," and not "Zen parks," and no one was sure if he was serious or not (theme parks are a far cry from any vision of the Beltline articulated by anyone so far).

But what a great idea - Zen parks! That's exactly what the Beltline needs, and I'm not being ironic here. A 22-mile loop of transit, parks and trails connecting high-density commercial, retail and residential development, interspersed with quiet and reflective Zen spots where the busy commuters, shoppers and residents can come, pause, and take a moment to find themselves before diving back into the fray.

There has been to date no spiritual dimension to the Beltline plans - no proposed chapels, no historic cathedrals to be preserved, and Praise Be His Name, no mega-churches. It's ripe for proposing Zen parks!

I knew there was a reason that I got involved in this.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Where do you stand? If the election were held today, who would you vote for in the Presidential Primary?

Democracy for America is running a poll now. So far, the results are:
  1. Barack Obama
  2. John Edwards
  3. Hillary Clinton
  4. Dennis Kucinich
  5. Bill Richardson
  6. Other
  7. Undecided
  8. Joseph Biden
  9. Christopher Dodd
  10. Mike Gravel
It's nice to see Bill Richardson polling ahgead of "Other" and "Undecided." If you care to add your vote, go on over to

Democracy for America is a political action committee dedicated to supporting fiscally responsible, socially progressive candidates at all levels of government—from school board to the presidency. DFA fights against the influence of the far right-wing and their radical, divisive policies and the selfish special interests that for too long have dominated our politics. DFA has a long-term goal to rebuild the Democratic Party from the bottom up. The chair of DFA, Jim Dean, is committed to carrying on what his brother, Governor Howard Dean, started - strengthening grassroots participation, and the recruitment and election of fiscally responsible and socially progressive candidates to all levels of government.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Another day on the Beltline: Park Pride, an Atlanta greenspace advocacy group, held its annual Beltline tour today. I had gone last year and got to see many parts of the city I hadn't been to before, so I went again this year to see what's changed. Our tour guide was the Georgia representative for the Trust for Public Land.

The Beltline, as I've said here numerous times, is a 22-mile loop of mostly unused railroad tracks circling downtown Atlanta that is going to be built into a system of transit, trails and parks. Our hosts, given their organization's missions, were more interested in the trails and the parks aspect, but it's hard to overlook the transit when you're walking old railroad tracks.

Our buses covered just about the entire Beltline loop by surface streets in a little over four hours. That didn't leave us too much time to linger in any particular area, so my pictures are a little random - it seemed that whenever I saw something of interest, we were passed it by the time I got my camera out, turned on and focused (one of the disadvantages of digital photography. The advantage, of course, is that I can post them on my blog the same day as the tour).

It takes a certain amount of imagination to picture the Beltline. The property below has been bought by TPL to sell back to the city when they're ready to start building a park. It's actually a part of a larger parcel, and when it's all assembled it will become the new North Avenue Park.

The whole project is hoped to revitalize a lot of underutilized parts of the city like this area and others. The old railroad depot below was once a major freight station, but is now just victim to graffiti and fencing. Plans are to incorporate the historic design of old buildings like these to preserve the individual character of the various neighborhoods the Beltline will pass through.

To the south of town, where the Beltline crosses Boulevard (that's the name of the road, not "Something Boulevard" or "Boulevard Something," just "Boulevard"), another new park is planned called, appropriately Boulevard Crossing. Here the Beltline is a stretch of track that is used by only one train a day to deliver sand to a ready mix plant.

Like a lot of other marginalized parts of a lot of other towns, much of the Beltline is currently home to artists and other marginalized sorts. You may need to click on the picture below to read, it, but the graffiti below reads " Make Life, Not Art," "Food" and "Feeding Frenzy," sure signs that struggling artists habituate the Boulevard Crossing area.

Here's an old train station that's already been pressed into commercial use in Atlanta's West End:

Finally, the tour got over to the northwest side of the Beltline, where the City has already purchased an active quarry operated by Vulcan Materials of Birmingham, Alabama, and plans to transform it into a reservoir (it can hold a 20-day supply of water) and a major new park. There's even talk of constructing an artificial kayak course.

As I said, the project takes a lot of imagination, and there's a lot of work still left to be done. I've been doing a lot of volunteer work recently trying to get the resident's voices heard in the planning and execution process, and also to stay involved myself in what is arguably one of the furthest-reaching civic revitalization projects in the country.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Happy St. Patricks Day!

Bygmester Finnegan, of the Stuttering Hand, freemen's maurer, lived in the broadest way immarginable in his rushlit toofarback for messuages before joshuan judges had given us numbers or Helviticus committed deuteronomy (one yeastyday he sternely struxk his tete in a tub for to watsch the future of his fates but ere he swiftly stook it out again, by the might of moses, the very water was eviparated and all the guenneses had met their exodus so that ought to show you what a pentschanjeuchy chap he was!) and during mighty odd years this man of hod, cement and edifices in Toper's Thorp piled buildung supra buildung pon the banks for the livers by the Soangso. He addle liddle phifie Annie ugged the little craythur. Wither hayre in honds tuck up your part inher. Oftwhile balbulous, mithre ahead, with goodly trowel in grasp and ivoroiled overalls which he habitacularly fondseed, like Haroun Childeric Eggeberth he would caligulate by multiplicables the alltitude and malltitude until he seesaw by neatlight of the liquor wheretwin 'twas born, his roundhead staple of other days to rise in undress maisonry upstanded (joygrantit!), a waalworth of a skyerscape of most eyeful hoyth entowerly, erigenating from next to nothing and celescalating the himals and all, hierarchitectitiptitoploftical, with a burning bush abob off its baubletop and with larrons o'toolers clittering up and tombles a'buckets clottering down.
- from Finnegans Wake, James Joyce

Thursday, March 15, 2007

“The President of the United States has claimed, on more than one occasion, to be in a dialogue with God. If he said that he was talking to God through his hairdryer, this would precipitate a national emergency. I fail to see how the addition of a hairdryer makes the claim any more ludicrous or offensive.”
- Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation

The September 11th attacks were essentially religious acts. Whatever the hijackers' political or social motivations, they believed they were doing God's work and would be justly rewarded in the afterlife. It was religious faith that ultimately turned them into killing machines.

Worshipping deities seems an irrational and wasteful habit, yet it is found in all cultures. Why is religion so widespread? Wouldn't natural selection have got rid of religious tendencies if religion were clearly bad for humans after all?

Any positive aspects of religion can be replaced by equally beneficial non-religious substitutes. For some people, consolation and inspiration are genuine benefits of religion, but these functions can be fulfilled by other means. Contemplation of the natural world does the job - consider the perspective-altering discoveries of modern physics. But only a minority find as much consolation in quantum physics as in the prospect of reuniting with their dearly departed in heaven.

Religion can be thought of as a by-product of mental abilities that evolved for other purposes. Children are “programmed” to believe anything their parents tell them, which is quite sensible in light of all the useful information parents can share. But this system is vulnerable to becoming a conduit for worthless information that is passed on for no other reason than tradition.

In practice, religion is not a legitimate source of morality. If it were, Jews would still be executing those who work on the Sabbath. Where morality actually does come from is less clear. The source is probably a combination of genetic instincts, which evolved because morals allowed humans to benefit more efficiently from co-operation, and a cultural Zeitgeist.

Today, atheists are in the same situation as homosexuals were 50 years ago: stigmatised and unelectable to public office (in America, at least). We can dream of a day when atheists are as well organised and influential as Christian conservatives have become.