Spritzophrenia

humour, music, life, sociology. friendly agnostic.

Breaking Something

Posted by spritzophrenia on November 27, 2011

Yay, my official school year is over. So I celebrated by making a silly picture. Enjoy 🙂

Twilight Breaking Wind

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Science Has Failed, Spirit Moves Through All Things

Posted by spritzophrenia on November 15, 2011

I have much to say, but nothing to add. Watch. What do you think?

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From Atheist to Buddhist (Part Two)

Posted by spritzophrenia on November 12, 2011

I think we need to talk to each other about our spiritual lives. Even though we may respectfully disagree, I believe that peaceful co-existence of all religions – including atheism – depends on this. Hence every now and then I feature interviews or guest posts on Spritzophrenia. You can find other interviews here.

A while back Jared Cowan of To Hold Nothing shared about his journey from Christian to Deist to Atheist. Here is part two where he talks about his adoption of Buddhist beliefs:

If I tried to label my current beliefs in some specific way, the words that come to mind are secular, Buddhist and spiritual, in that order of priority.

Being secular doesn’t mean I outright reject religion and say it must be eradicated (technically anti religion), but regard it as something not for me, since I find fulfilment in things that we all share as human beings, as part of the whole world, outside of a temple, the “profane” beings we are born as, only becoming sacred by experience. I believe learning about all the good and bad things in life would enrich our lives a great deal. I can understand people’s religious perspectives as a religious studies’ major, but I don’t agree with them as truth or explicit reality, but simply interpretation through perception. You and I may perceive that a person has a “miraculous” recovery from cancer. You might be inclined to see the supernatural in it; I see the paranormal at best in that it is unexpected, but not absolutely unexplainable by scientific principles and methods. In this way, I am secular because I hold science and sophia (wisdom in the philosophical sense that Aristotle noted) in higher respect than the sacred and supernatural (I love alliteration, don’t you?).

anime buddha

Being Buddhist might be too general and easily misunderstood a label, but saying I’m Zen is equally too specific on the flip side. I find more influence in Zen and Ch’an (the Chinese equivalent) thought and philosophy, such as D.T. and Shunryu Suzuki, as well as older monks like Linji (his teaching of non attachment is where I derived my blog name, To Hold Nothing), Dogen Zenji, Takuan Souhou and Ikkyu (notorious for associating with prostitutes as a way to achieve enlightenment). If I had to clarify, I find more truth in Buddhist teachings and beliefs than from Christianity or other religions. Daoism is a close second. I’ve intuited ideas of Buddhism as early as high school, in ideas such as rebirth (not strictly reincarnation), impermanence (a translation of the Sanskrit word “anicca”) and dependent origination. I’ve found I can appreciate things all the more because they are temporary and accept the passing away of people and things in one way or another. I recall both losing a beloved tabby cat to a blood clot and having to wipe my OS a few months ago, though not having to sacrifice my files because of technological advances.

I understand the spiritual, in my atheist perspective, as Andre Comte-Sponville put it,

“The spirit is not a substance. Rather, it is a function, a capacity, an act (the act of thinking, willing imagining… ) —and this act… is irrefutable, since nothing can be refuted without it.”

More particularly, he notes that the term “spiritual” can be equated with the word mental or psychic. I’d daresay it’s almost aligned with psychology in a sense, though not strictly the scientific, but the philosophical aspects, which connect in a sense with existentialism. I approach life as a series of choices that make the biggest difference, not those things out of my control that I must confront with resignation and anxiety. I am spiritual/existential because I recognize the inevitable connection we must admit of the physical we experience to the mental we take for granted. I’m not spiritual in a mystic sense. I’m spiritual in that I can be introspective and extrospective without focusing on one or the other too much.

I don’t think I can synch up the world’s ups and downs the same if I tried to believe there was some consciousness behind things that even remotely cared for humans. My Christian heritage is only partly beneficial to me inasmuch as Jesus’ teachings partly align with Siddhartha Gautama’s and other bodhisattvas. Jesus also said more explicitly concerning corruption that we are not evil because of things outside us; we are evil because of internal dispositions and behaviours we choose (I don’t think of this like sin, though). We may have parts of ourselves that are harder or impossible to alter, but it doesn’t mean we cannot recognize them and seek to better ourselves by personal habits and other actions. In this way, I find Buddhism to be a strong influence on my life and it will probably be until I die. I’ve become more peaceful, calmer and more able to confront people I disagree with on a level that didn’t exist before I seriously considered Buddhism in a larger context of psychology and ethics.

I still have my personal flaws (a temper I inherited in part from both my parents, for example), but with Buddhism, I feel more motivated to actually change myself, even if it’s a slow process. I also feel a sort of melancholy in not truly having yet sought out various connections with Buddhists from Asian areas in order to understand their perspective more. I spoke with a Tibetan monk and it was a great eye opener to how much I’ve come to understand the system in only the two years I’ve studied it in detail since I graduated. As a Westerner in many senses, such as most of my education in philosophy and religion, there is a barrier I have to violate constantly in order to affirm the beliefs I find myself drawn to. These beliefs are very different from not only the culture and background I had in my family, but the general frame of reasoning any Westerner uses, which is more based in rationalism, empiricism and Greek philosophy. I do nonetheless find some inspiration from these sources, such as Socrates’ elenchus method and Heraclitus’ more natural formulation of the Logos idea.

I don’t think that Buddhist values and perspective are so radically different that I cannot coexist and find common ground with theistic Americans. I may approach things with a different perspective or sense of humor, but I can still respect American values of military, patriotism or sports. Or at least respectfully disagree with them. I consider myself a conscientious objector, not just through ethical opposition to violence and war as a tool of the state’s potential abuse to advance itself, but through Buddhist and even Christian philosophy of finding peace with others without the need to resort to violence. I don’t find a terrible amount of inspiration or morale from flying the America flag; any flag, for that matter. I’m actually of the opinion that the occasional destruction of symbols like that is a way for us to relinquish our attachments. Clinging to them can be a justification for unjustified cruelty or negativity towards others. And I’ve never been one to join in team sports, except as a younger child. Now I prefer more individual-centered physical activity, such as the martial arts; Wado Ryu Karate and Tai Chi Chuan are both activities I try to practice often (and fail at being regular at).

Writing this has been a great exercise and this second part is still just the tip of the iceberg, I imagine. I’ll be more than happy to answer more specific questions about my beliefs. Thanks for the opportunity to get myself out there. Until next I post, Namaste and aloha to all.

===

Jonathan’s note: Check out the recent post on Christian Buddhism. Click the Buddhism link on the right to find more posts relating to Buddhism. The image is my choice, Jared is not responsible for my poor taste 😉

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Bruce Cockburn | Silver Wheels

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With Buddha, A Passionate Christian Openness

Posted by spritzophrenia on November 8, 2011

Last night I realised life is finite and I will not get to read all the books I would like to. So one must choose the best, obviously.

I want to read these, the second one in particular. I suspect they will be of interest to a few of you.

Without Buddha I Could Not be a Christian

In this revealing retrospective, Paul Knitter recounts very personally how his encounters with liberation theology and with other religions, especially Buddhism, challenged and transformed his Christian faith. This will be of interest to all who are concerned with religious diversity and social justice.”

Buddhist Christianity: A Passionate Openness

I got this one out of the library earlier this year, but had to return it before reading. A summer project, perhaps.

christian buddhist

From Amazon:

It is possible to be a Christian Buddhist in the context of a universal kind of belief that sits fairly light to both traditions. But Ross Thompson writes, “my own biography has led me to take especially seriously the aspects of each faith that seem incompatible with the other, no God and no soul in Buddhism, for example, and the need for grace and the historical atonement on the cross in Christianity. Hence my Buddhist Christianity can be no bland blend of the tamer aspects of both faiths, but must result from a wrestling of the seeming incompatibles, allowing each faith to shake the other to its very foundations”. The author traces the personal journey through which his need for both faiths became painfully apparent. He explores the Buddha and Jesus through their teachings and the varied communities that flow from them, investigating their different understandings of suffering and wrong, self and liberation, meditation and prayer, cosmology and God or not? He concludes with a bold commitment in which both faiths are combined.

Gotta keep writing my thesis.

If you haven’t listened to System of a Down, you must!

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System of a Down | Chop Suey

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Shermer on Belief: I Want To Believe

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 30, 2011

Perhaps, dear reader, you can tell me whether Michael Shermer applies the concepts in his new book to his own ideas. Essentially, The Believing Brain (2011) says that we create beliefs and then find evidence to reinforce those beliefs. On those terms, Shermer’s statement is also a belief, and Shermer is merely finding evidence that supports his idea and ignoring other possibilities. I want to know if Michael Shermer raises this problem and answers it.

Shermer‘s book seems to be a good read. His essential point is “Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. I call this process belief-dependent realism.” He uses neuroscience, psychology, history and some sociology to explain what people actually do. So far, so good. There are various chapters with stories of people who believe in things like ghosts, ufos and God. He uses Leonard Mlodinow for beliefs on cosmology, and Mlodinow scratches his back in return, providing one of the publisher’s reviews on the cover of Shermer’s book. If you find this blog interesting, you might also like my review of Mlodinow and Hawking’s book.

However, I’d like your help, because I simply don’t have time to read The Believing Brain in its entirety yet and I have to return it to the library in two weeks. In that two weeks I have to finish writing about 10,000 words so reading Shermer in depth just ain’t going to happen yet. The problem: If our brains create beliefs, and then we find the evidence to support these beliefs how does Shermer know his idea is true? He may simply “want to believe” that his ideas are correct and conveniently only look at evidence that supports him. Even the idea of “looking for evidence” is a belief itself, a belief about how one best discovers “knowledge”. I don’t think– from my brief look so far– that Shermer addresses this. I may be wrong. Can you tell me if Shermer talks about this?

believe

If he doesn’t, I think it might undercut much of what he says, because deciding how we find truth and know truth is not a simple question. And some people don’t even think there is a “truth” to be found. The epilogue is where Shermer talks about what he thinks is the best method to find the truth, which he says is science. He writes, “What makes science so potent is that there is a well-defined method for getting at the answers to questions about the world – a world that is real and knowable.” Notice the assumption that the world is both real and knowable – this is philosophy, not science. He continues, “Where philosophy and theology depend on logic and reason and thought experiments, science employs empiricism, evidence and observational experiments. It is the only hope we have of avoiding the trap of belief-dependent realism.”

I may be reading too much into it, but it seems Shermer doesn’t like philosophy much. This is sad, because as I pointed out above, he doesn’t seem to realise how much of his own point of view actually depends on philosophy, not science. I was surprised to find no mention of Thomas Kuhn’s ideas, let alone Bruno Latour’s or even Karl Popper’s “falsifiability” even though I suspect the model of science Shermer is using is based on the latter. This is a constant surprise to me: Scientists who seem to have absolutely no awareness of the philosophy or sociology of science which their discipline is based on.

Let me say at this point, that I love science. I trained in it in my undergrad degree, and I’m so grateful to live in a world where we have things like cars, medicine, and the computer on which I’m typing this. What I don’t love is scientism, the view that almost turns science into a religion. Scientism says that science can solve anything, including things which science just isn’t built to solve. Shermer concludes his book with the statement that the truth is out there and that “science is the best tool we have for uncovering it.” I will conclude by quoting him with a small modification: “In the end, I want to believe. I also want to know. The truth is out there, and although it may be difficult to find, science is one of the best tools we have for uncovering it.”

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King’s X | Believe (Great song! Lyrics.).

Posted in agnostic, epistemology, Philosophy, Science, Sociology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

A Plea to the USA about the Death Penalty

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 22, 2011

By the time I write this it may be too late. Troy Davis, who may very well be an innocent man, will be killed by the state. Which is, if we truly believe in representative democracy, the same as being killed by us.

I’m sure you’ve heard various arguments, and you may have me pegged as a “bleeding heart liberal”. My life has been affected twice by murder. Firstly, a high school friend’s 21 year-old brother, who I’ll call Calvin, was killed at a party. I remember going to the trial. I remember seeing a good friend of Calvin’s give monosyllabic answers under questioning in the dock. This seemed strange until we learned later that the Mongrel Mob gang had beaten him up the night before to ensure he wasn’t too “helpful” to the prosecution. The young man who knifed Calvin and left him bleeding to death in his car was a gang prospect. Allegedly he was heard to mutter afterwards, “I’ve earned my [gang] patch now.”

The second time I was affected by murder was far worse. My sister’s best friend, at age 25 was brutally abducted, raped and murdered, and her body left to rot for 10 days before it was found. My sister still hasn’t recovered. It took 10 years before her killer was found. I have to admit, I wanted to hurt him. I do know what it feels like to feel the raging desire of revenge, and want to call it justice.

Troy Davis

Troy Davis.

But in the end, I know it’s not just. Here in New Zealand, the last man we executed was in 1957. Our society hasn’t gone downhill since then. In fact, we have a very low murder rate compared with yours in the USA. Since that time at least one man would have been executed here in the 1970s. Arthur Allan Thomas was convicted twice of murder and spent 8 years in jail before being proven innocent and pardoned. Only two years ago here in New Zealand, David Bain, who spent many years in prison for allegedly slaughtering his whole family, was released as innocent.

Giorgio Agamben has predicted the return of homo sacer, the sacred man “who may be killed and yet not sacrificed”. He sees the concentration camp as the paradigm of modern politics, as we increasingly strip our citizens of all humanity and leave them as “naked life”. Maybe he’s right. We are outraged when (say) Saudi Arabia cuts people’s hands off or executes them by stoning. But really, what is the difference? Making someone wait for 10 years of appeals with the threat of death hanging over them is akin to torture. And the actual execution process is not a lot better either – see the death by lethal injection scene in “Dead Man Walking”.

There are hideous crimes, and people who should probably be never released from prison. But I know from various angry attempts at revenge in my own life that killing them, in the end, makes me just as brutalising. And if it’s our state that’s doing it, then we are complicit. Isn’t it time for us to grow up?

Edit:
Consider supporting the Amnesty International USA Abolish the Death Penalty campaign.

Ten reasons why Troy Davis should not have been killed.

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Rage Against The Machine | Killing In The Name Of

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From Christian to Deist to Atheist (Part One)

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 17, 2011

I think we need to talk to each other about our spiritual lives. Even though we may respectfully disagree, I believe that peaceful co-existence of all religions – including atheism – depends on this. Hence every now and then I feature interviews or guest posts on Spritzophrenia. You can find other interviews here.

Today is part one of a guest post by Jared Cowan of To Hold Nothing. Enjoy…

While I’m probably much younger than other guest posters on this blog, I’ve had an interesting journey of beliefs through my almost quarter of a century of life. I was raised mainline Protestant, ranging from Baptist to Methodist to Presbyterian, my parents weren’t picky (except that you had to be mainstream, so no 7th Day Adventists, Mormons or Jehovah’s Witness churches). I was enrolled in a Catholic school for 1st and 2nd grade, going to mass once or twice a week from what I remember, even though I imagine my parents found the complexity of Catholic beliefs objectionable. Like lapsed Catholics and cultural, but not religious Jews, I imagine they regarded the good education itself as more important than minor religious disagreements that could be smoothed over. I crossed myself once after a prayer in my hometown church and the congregation was a bit stunned, though not so much that they couldn’t chalk it up to me imitating what I had been exposed to for about two years.

I grew up usually following along with church as a weekly thing until I was about 12 or 13 years old, the common rebellious and curious phase of any child’s life who isn’t smothered with religion. I went to services, even attending youth group and going on the occasional trip for a weekend retreat in West Tennessee. I think those trips might’ve actually sped up my progress to apostasy, since it exposed me to a greater diversity of approaches to Protestant Christianity. My minimal association with Catholic services as a child didn’t stick with me, so I can’t say that I saw any of the sophistication that exists in the Roman Catholic/Eastern Orthodox/Episcopalian areas of Christianity more than any Protestant denomination you could show me.

anime

Click to see larger image.

I started on the path to become a more secular and philosophically minded person when I stumbled across Deism through a French class report on Voltaire. After discovering the nature of it, I endeavored to learn more, considering myself a Deist for a few years before looking into other religions, such as Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism in my junior year of high school through a teacher in a sociology class. She inspired me to think as an individual more than I had ever done in my years of feeling like an outsider even as I was accepted (partly) by the church community my father was raised in. We moved to that church for reasons I’m not quite sure of besides my mother wanting a more down- to-earth spiritual community.

That community has recently changed for the worse as myself and other children grew up and either moved to new churches as they started their own families, or in my case, leaving the whole religion for lack of belief. Political squabbling and bickering within the congregation about choosing a new pastor among other superficial things has kept my mother from participating for the most part. My father still attends weekly, possibly in order to maintain the status quo, but also because he genuinely believes it and feels he should contribute to the group.

After a while, I began to go beyond Deism and affirm some form of atheism, though at the time I didn’t realize that I leaned more towards apatheism in that while I genuinely believed that the likelihood of there being a God of any sort was very low, I didn’t concern myself with it. My disbelief in God was not for lack of evidence, since I didn’t really seek it out, but practical considerations. God was not relevant or meaningful to my life, since I found more purpose and fulfillment through interactions with humans; especially with people I now consider some of my best friends. Just sharing time at an anime convention for 3 and a half days was an experience in and of itself that compares to a spiritual retreat in some sense. Or at least to the human companionship I’m usually exposed to sporadically, being more private and socially reserved.

I don’t doubt my parents’ sincerity in their beliefs, as they’ve had enough combined education and experience with varying belief systems to be relatively secure (though not necessarily sophisticated, but stable). I also have no intent of trying to “convert” them, since I think if they really wanted to investigate other religions, all they’d have to do is ask me, since I’m not in the closet about being a nonbeliever to them when it is pertinent and I have a background in, and significant library of, religious studies. We maintain peace on religious issues now. I used to be very inquisitive and argumentative, which stayed with me until at least my sophomore year in college, which might’ve had to do with getting a more openly atheist roommate who I still respect. I keep my head up during prayers, but I am by no means intrusive about such things, usually staying away from most funerals and weddings unless I’m especially close to the person.

My paternal grandmother was recently married (4 years after she was widowed) and my cousin, an especially religious and devout preacher, led the service, reminding me of a particularly bitter flavor of Christianity that was a partial factor in my leaving, since that sort of hyper-evangelical community is not remotely what I’d like to be part of. That same cousin said hurtful things at my paternal grandfather’s funeral, saying atheists have a sad life in not believing there’s anything after death (paraphrasing, of course). My family in West Tennessee is more religious than much of the family in Middle Tennessee; family reunions are almost dreaded by me, since I’m resigned to staying in the back of the chapel. I’m contemplating just slipping out as the service starts this year, since I’m unobtrusive enough that people wouldn’t even notice me leaving; I’d like to appreciate nature in that time, since the area we have our family reunions at recently is sylvan in nature.

I also don’t have any real issue with my younger brother reaffirming his Christian faith, having been baptized like me, not to mention exposed to Episcopalian Christianity through his education at a private school. He is still nominally Christian from what I understand, but my parents are happy he has found a spiritual community. I hate to think that they are only proud of his reaffirming Christianity in the context of Cru (Campus Crusade for Christ) because their elder son (me) has apostatized from the faith, but it may be me over-thinking.

That lingering thought that my parents think they have failed their child rarely crosses my mind though, since I get the feeling that they believe that Christian adage paraphrased from the Bible that they should “train up a child in the way they should go (Christianity) and when he is old he will not depart from it”. If they took that seriously though, I can only conclude they’d plead to God for intervention, since they failed to truly instruct me in the ways of Jesus.

Next time, I’ll discuss some of my beliefs, particularly Buddhist ones, in more detail.

Click for more interviews with different faiths here.

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Meditation Means You Don’t Like Your Self?

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 9, 2011

Do you like your self? Does being a person in the world, living, loving, laughing make you happy? Why would you want to lose this self, then?

At present I’m working on a paper which is a Foucauldian reading of Buddhist meditation. As part of it I’m trying to understand the Buddhist doctrine of anatman, translated “no-self”. Here are some quotes:

Consider the way meditation is recommended by some doctors: their view is usually that meditation is simply a therapy for reducing stress. It is true that the ability to manage stress is a likely fringe benefit of meditation. From a Buddhist perspective, though, the point of meditation is to stimulate a process of change and development towards the ultimate goal of Enlightenment.” (Kamalashila, 1992: 4)

Epstein (2007: 42) speaks of “Misappropriation of Freudian terminology by scholars and practitioners of these Eastern traditions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the confused concepts “ego” and “egolessness” … “This goal [of egolessness] is understood from a Western psychological perspective, rather than with the more subtle, originally intended Eastern meaning”. He quotes the current Dalai Lama who says, “this seemingly solid, concrete, independent, self-instituting I under its own power that appears actually does not exist at all” (Epstein, 2007: 52)

mind

From a look at the canonical and commentarial works of Theravada, “[Cessation] is, in brief, a condition in which no mental events of any kind occur, a condition distinguishable from death only by a certain residual warmth and vitality in the unconscious practitioner’s body.” (Griffiths, 1986: 13)

Khema has a chapter titled “Removing the illusion of self” (Khema, 1997: 129). Buddha says to Poṭṭhapāda that there are three kinds of “acquired” (or assumed) self. The body, the “mind-made”, and the “formless acquired self”. “The Buddha continues: ‘What is the formless acquired self? It is without form, and made up of perception.’ … [Khema interprets this as] There is neither physical nor mental form. In the infinities of space and consciousness there is nothing that has any kind of boundary, but there is perception. If that were not so, we would not know we had experienced infinite space and consciousness.” Perception can also be considered consciousness. But perception is not “my” self, it just is. (Khema, 1997: 134) But even this is ultimately not the true self, but it’s the best we can do for now at this level of teaching. Although it’s hard, we have to realize we are “thinking in the wrong way” (Khema, 1997: 147,148, 153).

I include one quote from an academic that seems to imply something else. Dr V.V.S. Saibaba (2005: 187) writes, “the condition of the enlightened one is incomprehensible”, but “it is nowhere stated that the Buddha after his parinibbana has been annihilated”. He says this is why it can be considered orthodox even in Theravada to pray to or worship the Buddha- because the Buddha is still in existence.

In contrast, consider these words of Aristotle, from the 8th and 9th books of the Nicomachean Ethics.
“Seeing that we are alive is in and of itself sweet, for life is by nature good, and it is sweet to sense that such a good belongs to us. … All people find the fact of their own existence desirable … Existence is desirable because one senses that it is a good thing” Agamben (2009: 32)

As we can see, these viewpoints are very different. According to Aristotle, existence is self-evidently good and desirable. According to the First Noble Truth, existence is dukkha (suffering) and should not be desired. Although it’s subtle, the goal of Buddhist meditation seems to be to lose one’s own existence. So is meditation ultimately an anti-human activity? I’ve grown up with Western points of view, and I like having the experience of my “self”. I think experiencing a life, and valuing people as individual selves is a good thing.

What about you?

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References:
Agamben, Giorgio. (2009). What Is An Apparatus? Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Epstein, Mark. (2007). Psychotherapy Without the Self. A Buddhist Perspective. New Haven:Yale University Press.
Griffiths, Paul. J. (1986). On Being Mindless: Buddhist Meditation and the Mind-Body Problem. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court.
Kamalashila. (1992). Meditation. The Buddhist Way of Tranquility and Insight. Birmingham: Windhorse publications.
Khema, Ayya. (1997). Who Is My Self? A Guide to Buddhist Meditation. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
Saibaba, V.V.S. (2005). Faith and Devotion in Theravāda Buddhism. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

Disclaimer: I’m well aware that a non-adherent of a religion usually makes mistakes in emphasis, nuance and understanding when writing about it. My apologies for any factual errors. I feel uncomfortable criticising a spiritual path from the outside so I’m relying on those writing from the inside. I also acknowledge the large number of good, moral buddhists.

Check out one trippy Western response. “Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream It is not dying It is not dying…”
The Beatles | Tomorrow Never Knows

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Would You Report Someone For Welfare Fraud?

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 8, 2011

Lots of people are interested in my post a while back about welfare fraud in the USA. So I thought I’d do a follow up. First, I’ve got some current figures from reliable sources. Here’s part of a 2011 paper. If figures bore you, skip to the interesting stuff below:

Overseas findings
The UK Department for Work and Pensions estimated that in 2008-09, approximately 2.2 percent of all benefit expenditures, or 3b [pounds sterling], was overpaid as a result of fraud and error (DWP 2009). Half of this, about 1.1b [pounds sterling], was attributed to fraud, although this was based on a sampling procedure rather than convictions. The figure represented an increase, from a low of 0.6b [pounds sterling] in 2005-06, despite concerted efforts by the department to stop fraud (NAO 2008).

In the United States in 2008-09, the Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General (2009) received 129,495 allegations of fraud and closed 8,065 cases, with 1,486 criminal prosecutions. These activities involved over US$2.9b in ‘questioned costs’; with US$23.3m in recoveries, US$2.8m in fines and a further US$25.5m in settlements, judgement and restitution orders.

welfare

Australian data
The following section presents data supplied by Centrelink on its compliance and fraud-related activities and outcomes. Unlike the UK Department for Work and Pensions, Centrelink does not provide estimates of fraud but reports on detected errors and fraud prosecution actions and outcomes.
Formal fraud investigations are usually initiated through compliance and eligibility reviews. Reviews occur in large numbers each year. There is a crossover of triggers and methods, including routine data-matching, random sampling, identity checks and public tip offs.

Table 1 reports on the outcomes of reviews for the three year period 2006-07 to 2008-09. Of note is the fact that typically, only 15.7 percent of reviews led to cancellations or reductions in payments. Of these, as few as 0.8 percent were referred to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP); with 0.5 percent being prosecuted. Prosecutions resulted in a 98.8 percent conviction rate. Overall, in the three years, 0.04 percent of customers were convicted of fraud. For the same period, fraud investigations were estimated to have produced $380.6m in gross savings and amounts targeted for recovery. This compares with $1.4b in overpayments identified and debts generated from the review process. Fraud therefore accounted for approximately 26.2 percent of invalid payments. Furthermore, on average, only 15.1 percent of investigations resulted in a prosecution referral. In 2008-09, Centrelink referrals accounted for 69 percent of defendants prosecuted by the CDPP (2009: 115-116).

Table 2 provides a snapshot of fraud across the top 15 benefit types. Within this group, the Single Parenting Payment and Newstart Allowance (unemployment benefit) together accounted for 72 percent of convictions and $33.5m of debt. The Disability Support Pension and Partnered Parenting Payment together accounted for a further 14.7 percent and $7.6m of debt.
Figure 1 shows longer term trends for compliance reviews and adjustments for the 12 year period from 1997-2008 (when Centrelink was established) to 2008-09.
They show that, in terms of the number of Centrelink customers, compliance reviews increased by 54.5 percent from an average of 41.1 percent of customers up to 2001-02, to an average 63.4 percent subsequently, while cancellations or adjustments more than doubled from 4.3 percent to 10.1 percent.
Figure 2 shows that referrals to the CDPP have increased less dramatically, with prosecutions and convictions at a fairly stable rate.

Exerpt from Prenzler, Tim. “Welfare fraud in Australia: Dimensions and issues.” Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice (2011)

Be careful in how you read the figures above, as it isn’t always clear what they mean. Also, these figures don’t tell the whole story. I haven’t fully absorbed the paper, but in essence, it supports my previous claim that less than 2% of people on welfare commit fraud.

In my last post, a few people queried the definition of fraud in the comments. So here’s the definition I’m using: Fraud is knowingly accepting welfare payments that you are not legally eligible for.

Note that it’s knowingly. Mistakes by the recipient, or the welfare agency are not fraud.

“Abuse of the system” is not fraud. If Bob is lazy and doesn’t want to work, but the welfare system has evaluated him fairly and allocated him funds, this is not fraud. You may wish to reform the system so that people like Bob can’t get money, but it’s not fraud. In New Zealand, where I live, it is not at all easy to get welfare, and it is not at all easy to live on welfare. It’s not a “cushy life”. Another paper I read suggests we feel more strongly about welfare fraud than we do about tax fraud or white collar fraud, arguably more serious crimes. I wonder why this is?

A few commenters assert that fraud is much more widespread than my figures show. Again, I reply: Show me the evidence.

Some commenters give anecdotal evidence, eg, “My sister has a baby and she hasn’t told them who the father is so she can get welfare, even though they are living together.” My question is, if you are so concerned about welfare fraud, why don’t you report them to the authorities? I know someone who has probably been collecting more welfare than she is entitled to for many years. Yet, if I report her, her son might suffer financially. Maybe we get the welfare system we deserve?

Would you report someone close to you for welfare fraud? If not, why not?

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Work songs in a Texas prison

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Escape from New York, or What Happens When The Good People Leave the USA?

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 7, 2011

Is the US Republican Party “becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe“?

These are the words of Mike Lofgren who retired on June 17 after 28 years as a Republican congressional staffer. It’s not often I come across an article on politics that I really want to share. This is one of them.

Here are a few more gems:

Both parties are rotten… But both parties are not rotten in quite the same way. The Democrats have their share of machine politicians, careerists, corporate bagmen, egomaniacs and kooks. Nothing, however, quite matches the modern GOP. To those millions of Americans who have finally begun paying attention to politics and watched with exasperation the tragicomedy of the debt ceiling extension, it may have come as a shock that the Republican Party is so full of lunatics. …

“…the “respectable” media have been terrified of any criticism for perceived bias. Hence, they hew to the practice of false evenhandedness. Paul Krugman has skewered this tactic as being the “centrist cop-out.” “I joked long ago,” he says, “that if one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read ‘Views Differ on Shape of Planet.’

escape from new york

[The] tactic of inducing public distrust of government is not only cynical, it is schizophrenic. For people who profess to revere the Constitution, it is strange that they so caustically denigrate the very federal government that is the material expression of the principles embodied in that document. This is not to say that there is not some theoretical limit to the size or intrusiveness of government; I would be the first to say there are such limits, both fiscal and Constitutional. But most Republican officeholders seem strangely uninterested in the effective repeal of Fourth Amendment protections by the Patriot Act, the weakening of habeas corpus and self-incrimination protections in the public hysteria following 9/11 or the unpalatable fact that the United States has the largest incarcerated population of any country on earth. If anything, they would probably opt for more incarcerated persons, as imprisonment is a profit center for the prison privatization industry, which is itself a growth center for political contributions to these same politicians. Instead, they prefer to rail against those government programs that actually help people. And when a program is too popular to attack directly, like Medicare or Social Security, they prefer to undermine it by feigning an agonized concern about the deficit. That concern, as we shall see, is largely fictitious. ”

As for what they really believe, the Republican Party of 2011 believes in three principal tenets I have laid out below. The rest of their platform one may safely dismiss as window dressing:
1. The GOP cares solely and exclusively about its rich contributors. The party has built a whole catechism on the protection and further enrichment of America’s plutocracy. Their caterwauling about deficit and debt is so much eyewash to con the public…”

2. They worship at the altar of Mars. While the me-too Democrats have set a horrible example of keeping up with the Joneses with respect to waging wars, they can never match GOP stalwarts such as John McCain or Lindsey Graham in their sheer, libidinous enthusiasm for invading other countries. … To borrow Chris Hedges’ formulation, war is the force that gives meaning to their lives…”

3. Give me that old time religion. Pandering to fundamentalism is a full-time vocation in the GOP. Beginning in the 1970s, religious cranks ceased simply to be a minor public nuisance in this country and grew into the major element of the Republican rank and file… around us is a prevailing anti-intellectualism and hostility to science; it is this group that defines “low-information voter” – or, perhaps, “misinformation voter.”

The GOP cult of Ayn Rand is both revealing and mystifying. On the one hand, Rand’s tough guy, every-man-for-himself posturing is a natural fit because it puts a philosophical gloss on the latent sociopathy so prevalent among the hard right. On the other, Rand exclaimed at every opportunity that she was a militant atheist who felt nothing but contempt for Christianity. Apparently, the ignorance of most fundamentalist “values voters” means that GOP candidates who enthuse over Rand at the same time they thump their Bibles never have to explain this stark contradiction. And I imagine a Democratic officeholder would have a harder time explaining why he named his offspring “Marx” than a GOP incumbent would in rationalizing naming his kid “Rand.”

For the rest, you’ll have to read the article .

Among other things, it got me thinking about the number of US people who have emigrated to places like New Zealand because “they were tired/scared/disgusted about the direction the USA was going in.” I can count at least eight that I know personally. These are nice, liberal people who couldn’t wait to leave George Dubya’s paradise. But even with Obama in power, they are still coming. I met another couple who arrived recently for the same reasons just last week.

What I’m wondering is, what will happen if all the nice highly educated and skilled people leave the USA. Who will be left? And what will happen?

My title is from a 1981 apocalyptic film. When do you think this might become reality?

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REM | It’s The End of the World

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