Story of the Upside-Down Xmas Tree

In 1979, I was lying in bed and wondered why people didn’t decorate their ceilings. I began to decorate mine with billowing Indian print bedspreads or tapestries and other things.

In the 1980s, I first had the idea to hang an upside-down Xmas tree from the ceiling, but I didn’t act on it.

In 1998, a co-worker offered me her old artificial tree, and I implemented the idea. I put it up with strings, wire, and push-pins. I strung lights, decorated it, and put presents all around.

In 1999, I put a toy train around it and decorated the whole ceiling as if it were Xmas morning, and some of the gifts had been opened. I had a chess game in progress, a spilled drink,a Twister game, and various other gifts laying around.


I moved to a new place in 2001 and set it up again on the ceiling of my porch less elaborately.

I thought it was a unique idea, but a friend sent me a picture of an upside-down tree in a bar, and I discovered that you could buy variations of the idea online.

Many years later, my aunt took a picture of an upside-down tree for sale….

But I’ve never run across anyone who went to the extent of decorating the whole ceiling as I did.

An Argument for ‘Xmas’ as a Secular Holiday

I’ve always thought these other holidays like HumanLight and Festivus were kind of lame attempts to compete with Christmas. After all, Christmas has a lot of cultural evolution behind it that has caused it to succeed very well.

Everyone should know that Christians have appropriated many older customs to form this holiday to try and make it their own. I don’t see why we can’t appropriate it for ourselves just as they did. It is already well on the way to becoming a “secular” holiday anyway, so maybe we can just push it the rest of the way.

There are many Christians who don’t understand the history of why it is sometimes abbreviated as “Xmas,” and they object to that abbreviation because they think it is “Xing out Christ from Christmas.”

Rather than trying to continually enlighten them about this issue, why not embrace their misunderstanding? We can say, “Yes! that’s exactly what we are trying to do!!! We are going to celebrate Xmas just like you celebrate Christmas, but without the Jesus BS.” We can still have the tree, the lights, and the gifts etc., but without a Jesus in the manger.

If Christians can steal it from pagan traditions, then we can steal it from them.

It could also be considered somewhat edgy, just like the X-Games relate to the Olympics. We could add our own extra flourishes to replace those that we are excluding (possibly crowning the tree with a Flying Spaghetti Monster rather than a star, for example).

I think it may be easier to appropriate it than to compete against it.

The ‘Rigged’ U.S. Election System

How many ways is the election system rigged in the U.S.?

First, there are various voter suppression tactics used by those in power. Wikipedia currently list examples including: impediments to voter registration, photo ID laws, purging of voter rolls, limitations on early voting, felon disenfranchisement, transgender disenfranchisement, disinformation about voting procedures, inequality in Election Day resources, closure of DMV offices, caging lists, gerrymandering, and off-year elections (Voter suppression in the United States). Other tactics can include changing polling locations, changing polling hours, reducing the number of polling places, and under-staffing and limiting the number of voting machines in select areas. There may be others I failed to cover here.

Second, the antiquated Electoral College system which allows the possibility that the winner or the popular vote could still lose the election. It also causes the votes of some to count more than the votes of others, and it causes parties and politicians to pander to and focus more on the concerns of some states over others.

Third, the two-party system has become so embedded that makes it almost impossible for third party candidates to have a realistic chance of winning, and the two major parties that have the power have an incentive to keep it that way. Independent or unaffiliated voters (which are currently 38 percent of the country vs. 32 percent Democrat and 23 percent Republican) may have difficulty finding candidates to represent them, and, depending on the state and party, they may or may not be allowed to vote in the Republican or Democratic primaries.

Fourth, there may be other issues with candidates going against those in the “establishment” within the respective parties. Possibly the most obvious example is the power of so-called “Super-Delegates” in the Democratic Party.

However, possibly the most significant way the election system is rigged is the influence of big money in politics….

Some time back, Larry Lessig presented a great TED Talk about ‘Lester Land’ and how we all live in it. The idea is basically that it’s the people with money who decide what our choices are. It costs quite a bit of money to run for office, and the higher the office the more it costs. Unless someone has money or wins the favor of those who do, they are less likely to get elected. So, our choices come pre-selected and only those candidates who are willing to support the interest of the ‘Lesters’ will come into power.

A 2014 study conducted by Princeton and Northwestern universities concluded that “In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.”

The peer-reviewed study also said, “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence” and “Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organisations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”

The study found that the influence of the average American is at a “non-significant, near-zero level.”

I’ve seen many people reference George Carlin’s comments on the matter to explain why they don’t vote. Carlin argued that “The real owners are the big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions. Forget the politicians, they’re an irrelevancy. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice. You have owners. They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the statehouses, the city halls. They’ve got the judges in their back pockets. And they own all the big media companies, so that they control just about all of the news and information you hear. They’ve got you by the balls. They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying ¬ lobbying to get what they want. Well, we know what they want; they want more for themselves and less for everybody else.”

Carlin argues that we only have the ‘illusion’ of choice. The Princeton and Northwestern study indicate this may be the case, that we really have an oligarchy posing as a democracy.

This is not inspiring, and it may largely explain why a great many Americans don’t bother to vote, why they might vote for a third party, or why they might be so frustrated they are willing to see it all burn down.

Unless we can begin to address the main issue concerning “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests” running the show, we aren’t going to be able to do much to address the other issues. Some Supreme Court cases will need to be overturned, or new laws or amendments need to be passed by Congress (which they will not be inclined to do). Larry Lessig has some suggestions, as do others like Cenk Uygur of the online TYT Network (see: Wolf PAC). Perhaps there are others….

However, until we can get big money out of politics, we aren’t going to have much control of anything.

Major Study Finds The US Is An Oligarchy

The US is not a democracy but an oligarchy, study concludes

Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens

Ghosts & Gods

A ghost is supposedly “the soul or spirit of a dead person or animal that can appear to the living.” So, to believe in ghosts it would seem you would have to believe that living things have “souls” or “spirits.” “Souls” are defined as “the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal,” and “spirit,” in this context, is defined as “the nonphysical part of a person that is the seat of emotions and character; the soul.”

If we are to accept evolution, at what point would there be any evolutionary pressure for a “soul” to evolve in ANY living thing? What would be the evolutionary advantage that would drive it?

Of course, it would seem that you would also have to believe in the supernatural to believe in “souls” (by any literal definition), and there isn’t any empirical evidence for anything supernatural. So, most people who believe in them seem to be theists who believe that everyone has an immortal soul that will somehow exist beyond death for eternity in some kind of afterlife. And many of them believe the “soul” enters the body at the point of conception, which is why many of them are supposedly opposed to abortion.

And it seems to be a point of contention among believers in the supernatural if other lifeforms have “souls” besides humans. It seems dogs (as one example) may be excluded from heaven according to the beliefs of some (because only humans are “special” enough to merit “souls”). And, of course, some argue that any potential human clones would not have “souls.”

The way a lot of theists seem to think about it is that the physical human is just some kind of an avatar for the actual person, who only truly exists as a “soul” (independent of the material world).

Consider the case of Charles Whitman. According to Wikipedia, “Charles Joseph Whitman (June 24, 1941 – August 1, 1966) was an American mass murderer who became infamous as the ‘Texas Tower Sniper’. On August 1, 1966, he murdered his mother and wife in their homes, then went to the University of Texas at Austin where he shot and killed three people inside the university’s tower. He then went to the tower’s 28th-floor observation deck, where he fired at random for some 96 minutes, killing an additional eleven people and wounding thirty-one before being shot and killed by police. Sixteen people were killed in total; a 17th victim died in 2001 from injuries sustained in the attack.”

The day before he committed the mass killing, he wrote:

“I do not quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I do not really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. These thoughts constantly recur, and it requires a tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive tasks.”

According to Wikipedia, “In his note, he went on to request an autopsy be performed on his remains after he was dead to determine if there had been a discernible biological contributory cause for his actions and for his continuing and increasingly intense headaches.”

The autopsy found that he had a “pecan-sized” brain tumor. Texas Governor John Connally commissioned a task force to look into the matter. Psychiatric contributors to the report concluded that the “tumor conceivably could have contributed to his inability to control his emotions and actions.”

Assuming the brain tumor had something to do with Charles Whitman’s actions, was his “soul” sending commands to his human avatar that were being blocked by the tumor? Was his “soul” responsible for his actions, or had his “soul” lost control of his physical mind? If we presume the latter case, it would seem the “soul” only has limited control of its human avatar that can be overpowered by the physical/material world.

This is probably only one of the most dramatic examples of a multitude of recorded instances where people have been known to start acting and behaving differently as a result of damage to the brain (either from physical injury or from other reasons like tumors or dementia). Where would we even begin to consider the “soul” responsible vs. some physical element?

I think this calls into question the whole idea of a supernatural “soul” having any kind of control at all. If we believed that it did, we would either have to accept that it could easily be thwarted by physical/material happenstance, OR that the “emotions and character” of the “soul” happened to change–just by coincidence–at the same time that damage to the brain occurred.

There are many other things that might be unpacked here (like why are there so many reports of ghosts wearing clothes; or what enables them to float and pass through walls, but keeps them attached to the earth; or if all aborted fetuses go to heaven, what’s so bad about that, etc. but I’ll not go into all that here).

The main thing I want to keep focus on here is how a immaterial, supernatural “soul” can have ANY influence or communication with the physical person while the person is living.

The most interesting answer to this question seems to have been resolved when the Higgs Boson was discovered in 2012.

Cosmological physicists such as Sean Carroll and Brian Cox make the argument that the physics we currently know is sufficient to rule out the possibility of such things as ghosts. As Carroll says, “Within QFT [Quantum Field Theory], there can’t be a new collection of ‘spirit particles’ and ‘spirit forces’ that interact with our regular atoms, because we would have detected them in existing experiments.”

Sean Carroll explained it at the 2013 AHA conference.…

Brian Cox agrees…

Ghosts definitely don’t exist because otherwise the Large Hadron Collider would have found them, claims Brian Cox

If this is the case, then it would seem to also rule out any definition of a “spiritual/supernatural” god who could interact with the material world. In other words, this may be empirical evidence that “gods” (by any definition that matters to us) don’t exist.

A Divine Epiphany

God just spoke to me….

He was in the bathroom while I was shaving.

He said that he wouldn’t intervene (except in this one instance) to tell me what he thought, and he asked me to pass it along.

He told me personally that all your problems and moral concerns are not his, and that you have to work them out yourselves, using your own reason.

He said he doesn’t need to punish you or reward you, because you are well equipped to punish or reward yourselves.

He said, “Either you can work this out yourselves or you can’t. If you can’t, it is your own fault and you will suffer the consequences.”

“On the other hand,” he said, “you can reap the rewards of your own efforts, and take responsibility for your own life and meaning.”

He said, “I say this: live the life you have and make it the best you can. Do your best while you can. It is the only life you get.”

He also said, “Any god who needs state support is a false god. Any god who needs you to worship him is a false god. Any god that threatens eternal torment to anyone for anything is a false god.”

He said, “If some god wants to punish you in hell-fire for eternity, then fuck him and the donkey, ass, or horse–winged or otherwise–he rode in on.”

Then there was my epiphany moment….

Just as Abraham had his epiphany moment and concluded there was just one God, I had mine and realized that there were none.

The God I was seeing was my reflection in the mirror. The God I was hearing was me.

“Well, what did you expect?” he asked.

Free Will vs. Determinism

“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.”
-Arthur Schopenhauer, On The Freedom Of The Will (1839)

This is a large subject that has been debated for centuries. I don’t plan to even try and address and/or cover everything that has been said and debated about it here, even superficially. The point of this is merely to present my thoughts on the matter.

I began considering this issue when I was about 13 or 14-years-old because of my fascination with the concept of time. I was probably influenced by some of what I was reading back then (e.g.: “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle, “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions” by Edwin Abbott, “Slaughterhouse Five” and “Sirens of Titan” by Kurt Vonnegut, and my research into other religions, especially Hinduism’s concepts about time).

Based on the thoughts that were introduced from these sources and others, I came to the conclusion that time may be like the film of a movie, that all the frames of the movie already exist, but that we can only perceive one at a time. I considered the idea that on another level—or higher dimension than the one we occupied—there was no time passing, and that every moment was eternal. This, of course meant that the past, present, and future exist simultaneously, and, if that were the case, everything had to be determined.

This was many, many years before I became aware that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity implied something called “Eternalism.”

According to Wikipedia…

“Eternalism is a philosophical approach to the ontological nature of time, which takes the view that all points in time are equally real, as opposed to the presentist idea that only the present is real, and the growing block universe theory of time in which past and present are real while the future is not. Eternalism is the view that each spacetime moment exists in and of itself. Modern advocates often take inspiration from the way time is modeled as a dimension in the theory of relativity, giving time a similar ontology to that of space (although the basic idea dates back at least to McTaggart’s B-Theory of time, first published in The Unreality of Time in 1908, only three years after the first paper on relativity). This would mean that time is just another dimension, that future events are ‘already there’, and that there is no objective flow of time. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘block time’ or ‘block universe’ theory due to its description of space-time as an unchanging four-dimensional ‘block’, as opposed to the view of the world as a three-dimensional space modulated by the passage of time.”
[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eternalism_(philosophy_of_time)]

But for many years before I was aware that my ideas about time had any support from Einstein, I argued over and over again that every moment is eternal, and I was a hard determinist as a result.

In the early 2000s, I began to learn more about quantum mechanics—which has a little different take on things than Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Quantum mechanics has to do with how things work on the smallest scales while the Theory of Relativity deals with larger scales. Both seem to work just fine within their respective domains, but they aren’t fully compatible. One of the big efforts of physics is to find a theory that will bring them together into some grand unified theory.

In 2004, I read a book called “The Fabric of the Cosmos” by the cosmological physicist Brian Greene (the narrator in the video above who works in quantum theories). This was one of many books I was reading on the subject at the time. As he says in the video and book, “perhaps the river of time is more like a frozen river.” He has said that “Everything that ever has happened or will happen, it all exists,” and I was surprised to see him use the exact same words as I had been arguing for years that “Every moment is eternal.”

He has also said that “Free will is the sensation of making a choice. The sensation is real, but the choice seems illusory. Laws of physics determine the future.”

While he admits that the Free Will vs. Determinism debate has not been definitively resolved one way or another by physics, he indicates that quantum mechanics doesn’t rule out determinism (as some would like to argue), and that—depending on future discoveries— quantum mechanics may end up being “every bit as deterministic as classical physics.”

Even more recently, when I was learning more about the neurosciences, I found additional support for my thoughts about the subject. For example, neuroscience has shown that the brain makes decisions before we are aware of them consciously (by about 300 milliseconds). In his book “Free Will,” neuroscientist Sam Harris writes, “Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.”

So, it seems there is some empirical support for determinism from both cosmological physics and neuroscience.

Nevertheless, upon further reflection of this issue, I considered the possibility that the “Free Will vs. Determinism” debate presents a false dichotomy. I think the problem lies in the phase “Free Will.” I think some of the problem can be resolved by using the phrase “personal will” or “your will” instead.

I think that based on your nature and nurture, and the circumstances you happen to be in at the time, whatever choice you make (or action you take) is inevitable. There is no other choice or action you would have made other than the one you did.

However, you are always expressing “your will” to whatever extent possible.

In other words, just because your choice or action could not have been something else, it doesn’t make it any less “your will.”

In fact, I would suggest that if it could have been something else, it wouldn’t be identifiable as your will (and it might as well be someone else’s). The fact that you did act a certain way in a given circumstance is what makes it your action.

This is a “compatibilistic” approach to the question (though, I may not agree with some aspects of others’ views on compatibilism entirely). [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compatibilism]

I think that based on who you are at any given time and place (your nature and nurture that proceeded the point of decision or action), and the environment and circumstances you happen to be in at the time, your decision or action is inevitable. In theory, if all these variables could be known, an accurate prediction could be made about what you end up doing. Of course, there are too many variables for anyone to know all of them, so it seems like the same difference as what some people think of when they say they had “free will.” Nevertheless, what people tend to think of when they think they could have done something different is an illusion. This view is fully compatible with determinism.

However, I think you are always fully expressing “your will” to the extent of your ability to do so. Obviously, you can’t will yourself to fly and take off unaided into the sky, and if someone else ties you up and throws you in a closet, your options are more limited, but you are always expressing “your will” to the extent you can, given the circumstances. This is compatible with your ability to express your will in the way it really matters.

I’ve sometimes used the following analogy. It isn’t perfect, but no analogy is….

Imagine a mountain. Imagine the mountain from top to bottom represents time. Where you are located around the mountain represents your environment, or place in the world.

You are born on the mountain at a certain place and time. You are a certain shape based on your nature. As you start rolling down the mountain, you will only roll down one path based on your shape and the terrain that you are passing over. The terrain will reshape you as you go (in a way, this is your nurture). There are others rolling down the mountain around you. They may help reshape you just like the environment you travel over does (just as you might reshape them as well as the terrain). Some people may be more malleable than others to be reshaped based on their initial nature and/or what nurture they experience.

On any given part of the path you travel, you will only roll one way, but that is entirely based on WHO YOU ARE at that moment (i.e.: the shape you happen to be at the time). You are fully expressing yourself by the path you take. It is YOU who is taking that path because that’s who YOU happen to be (that’s the shape you are). Obviously, you won’t necessarily take the same path as you did before if you encounter the same circumstances as previously, because you may not be the same shape as you were the first time.

While some like to throw in quantum mechanics effects, chaos theory, and the butterfly effect, as if this somehow changes things. These would be variables in the environment or in your circumstance to be taken into account just like any other.

Obviously, this doesn’t resolve all the issues and questions, but it does represent my thoughts on the subject at the moment.

Buddhism

Introduction

According to Wikipedia, “Buddhism is an Indian religion and dharma that encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs and spiritual practices largely based on teachings attributed to the Buddha. Buddhism originated in Ancient India sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, from where it spread through much of Asia, whereafter it declined in India during the middle ages. Two major extant branches of Buddhism are generally recognized by scholars: Theravada (Pali: “The School of the Elders”) and Mahayana (Sanskrit: “The Great Vehicle”). Buddhism is the world’s fourth-largest religion, with over 500 million followers or 7% of the global population, known as Buddhists.

“Buddhist schools vary on the exact nature of the path to liberation, the importance and canonicity of various teachings and scriptures, and especially their respective practices.”[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism]

In what follows, I’ll be citing Wikipedia quite a bit (though, not exclusively). The main reason is that it’s convenient. I could easily cite other encyclopedias and reference books that cover the same information, but that would require readers to make trips to the library or bookstore to review them. Some may ask why I don’t cite this or that particular Buddhist website instead. I do in one case below, but mainly the reason is that many of them may only present one interpretation or tradition of Buddhism while Wikipedia at least attempts to cover it as objectively as possible as a result of a collaboration of perspectives rather than one in particular. There are clearly a number of different interpretations or traditions of what I’m about to cover. I’m sure people from different traditions may take issue with some of the things I say below, even when I’m covering the most general and basic bits of information. That only goes to show how many different traditions and interpretations there are.

Justifiable or not, Buddhism seems to get more of a pass from the secular community than most other religions. Of course, some say it is an atheistic religion, and you can find people who will argue that it is a philosophy and not a religion at all.

The problem is that it may depend on how you define “religion,” along with the fact it seems different people all over the world have different ideas in mind about what “Buddhism” actually is, with each of them claiming their version is more accurate or more “original” [Just like various sects of Islam and Christianity who argue their tradition is the only “True” one.]

The difficulty with this is that the traditions were passed down orally for hundreds of years (~400 to 500 years) before anything was written down. Anyone who has played the game “telephone” should be familiar with the problems associated with oral communications handed down through successive generations. Just as with Jesus and Muhammad, there are no writings attributed to Buddha, and we are forced to try and puzzle together an origin story well after the fact with conflicting information from these much later texts and traditions. Because of this, not only is it difficult to know what Buddha actually taught, advocated, or believed in his lifetime vs. aspects of Buddhism which were added on later by others, it is difficult to know details about his life that are accurate vs. what was later made up or became legend. In fact, as with Jesus, it is even possible that Buddha didn’t exist at all and the whole story is a legend. However, most assume the story was at least based on an actual person even if his story was altered and embellished over time.

As Wikipedia says: “The details of Buddha’s life are mentioned in many early Buddhist texts but are inconsistent, his social background and life details are difficult to prove, the precise dates uncertain.” Various traditions place Buddha anywhere between the 19th Century BCE to the 4th Century BCE. Wikipedia places him somewhere between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism] That’s a pretty wide guesstimation for someone people claim to know even greater details about. In other words, people are assuming details of his life, sayings, and teachings without even knowing for sure what century he was born in.

According to Wikipedia, “The classification and nature of various doctrinal, philosophical or cultural facets or schools of Buddhism is vague and has been interpreted in many different ways, often due to the sheer number (perhaps thousands) of different sects, subsects, movements, etc. that have made up or currently make up the whole of Buddhist traditions.” Because Buddhism emerged from Hinduism, it is likely some ideas and concepts from that tradition influenced—and were adopted by–Buddhism from the beginning, and it was later mixed with other traditions and beliefs as it spread, which is why there are thousands of sects and traditions in Buddhism today.

It seems unlikely we will ever be able to know what “original” Buddhism looked like beyond reasonable disputes, and claims about what may be “essential” to Buddhism are problematic. People who talk about what Buddhism is or isn’t without qualification have probably never studied it, have only studied one tradition, or are assuming things about it from what they’ve heard or seen without examining it much further. I will only be able to cover some of it superficially here, but hopefully enough to make some of the points I’d like to make about it.

I will attempt to show that there are supernatural traditions in Buddhism (including deities), that the westernized form is only one tradition (which may be just as problematic as any other), and that there are some concepts and practices that are also problematic (some of which have similarities to Christianity and other religions).

Supernatural Traditions

While it seems to be the case that Buddhism rejects the idea of a creator deity, many of the traditions and sects have various kinds of demi-gods, spirit deities, wrathful deities, and other supernatural characters (e.g.: hungry ghosts). Some even worship the Buddha as a deity.

Here are just a few examples:

“The term Brahmā in Buddhism refers to the leading god, but in some Suttas the term broadly refers to all beings (deities) who live in heavenly realms. Ancient and medieval Buddhist texts define seventeen, or more, heavenly Brahmā realms (along with demi-gods, hungry ghost and hellish realms), in a stratified manner, which are reached in afterlife based on monastic achievement and karma accumulation. A brahma in these texts refers to any deva in the heavenly realms. The Buddhist god Brahmā himself resides in the highest of the seventeen realms, called the Akanistha.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahm%C4%81_(Buddhism)]

“A deva in Buddhism is one of many different types of non-human beings who share the godlike characteristics of being more powerful, longer-lived, and, in general, much happier than humans, although the same level of veneration is not paid to them as to buddhas.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deva_(Buddhism)]

Other supernatural traditions apart from supernatural beings include—but are not limited to–the idea of heavenly and hellish realms (as noted above); the idea of an afterlife—or multiple lives through reincarnation or rebirth–which also implies the concept of a supernatural something that is being reborn (Buddhists reject the idea of a “self” or “soul,” but they disagree on what it is that is being reborn); and the concept of some kind of supernatural “karma.”

While some of these supernatural elements in various traditions of Buddhism may have been later additions or “corruptions” of whatever was “original”–and I’m sure that some can successfully argue that some most certainly were—it doesn’t appear possible that anyone can honestly say with any certainty that there were no supernatural elements in its original form, or to know for sure what the original form might have been. In fact, it seems almost certain there were at least some supernatural elements even in its earliest formations.

Just as in other religions, the various sects may dispute with each other over different interpretations, as well as what aspects of Buddhism are best, essential, or original. And just as in other religions, there may be disputes regarding what parts should be viewed as metaphorical or allegorical vs. what should be taken literally.

“Western” Buddhism

It seems that the more recent “western” forms of Buddhism have attempted to strip out as many of the supernatural elements as possible from the various eastern traditions. It seems these western forms are attempting to build a more “rational” or “intellectual” form of Buddhism, which they like to suggest is closer to the “original” or “essential” Buddhism, but which may never have existed in reality. They do this by selecting (cherry-picking) only the Buddhist texts and practices which might be more appealing to modern “Western Culture,” and by disregarding as much of the rest as possible to try to make it into a respectable philosophy of life. In many respects it reminds me of those Christians who argue that Christianity is a philosophy and not a religion. And just as in other religions, the difficult or problematic elements are either ignored or they become metaphors, just like some Christians who argue that some problematic parts of the Bible shouldn’t be taken literally (e.g.: the 6 day creation story, Adam & Eve, etc.).

They have been successful enough with these efforts that it has drawn in many in the secular community… even to the point that some vague western form of Buddhism is all many seem to know about, and others make assertions about Buddhism (e.g.: “Buddhism is atheistic,” “Buddhism doesn’t have gods,” “Buddhism is a philosophy,” etc., etc.) without any qualification about what type, form, or sect of Buddhism they are talking about.

How successful different versions or sects might be in stripping out various supernatural elements and/or making it more “rational” or appealing may vary depending on which version one picks. The concept of some sort of supernatural karma seems like it may be the most difficult to dispense with, but I’m sure some may have. Additionally, some may cherry-pick their own personal version of Buddhism that they think best suits them and then they may become a kind of superficial or weekend pseudo-Buddhist. They may just be a fan of some of the “philosophy” and/or enjoy the meditation, for example. But even this may be problematic as I’ll try to cover below.

Considering that “Scholars are hesitant to make unqualified claims about the historical facts of the Buddha’s life” and “No written records about Gautama were found from his lifetime or some centuries thereafter” and “The sources for the life of Siddhārtha Gautama are a variety of different, and sometimes conflicting, traditional biographies.” And also considering such things considered “essential to Buddhism” such as “The Four Noble Truths” and “The Noble Eightfold Path” are considered “later developments,” saying that this or that aspect of Buddhism is or isn’t “essential” or “original” when no one knows exactly what he was teaching hundreds of years before it was written down, sounds like a bit of a stretch to me. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gautama_Buddha]

Some Problematic Concepts & Practices

One of the concepts that can be found in Christianity is the idea that everyone is a “born sinner,” that we are born with a flaw or defect, that there is something inherently wrong with us, and that the Christian religion provides the only “cure” through Jesus and his supposed teachings.

The concept of karma in many traditions of Buddhism suggests that if we are miserable or suffering in this life, it may be some kind of justifiable consequence for something either done by us in this life or in some previous life, and Buddhism is the “cure” through Buddha’s supposed teachings.

I imagine it may be just as psychologically harmful for some people to have the idea that whatever suffering they might be going through is always justified because it’s their own flaw or fault (i.e.: karma) as it might be for others to be told they are “born sinners” or born flawed, and that any suffering is a test from God or the result of turning away from God (as some Christians have it).

There is also a similar idea in both Christianity and Buddhism that the things of this material and sensual world can pose a danger and should be avoided to attain a better state in heaven or nirvana.

According to Wikipedia, “The Four Noble Truths refer to and express the basic orientation of Buddhism in a short expression: we crave and cling to impermanent states and things, which are dukkha, ‘incapable of satisfying’ and painful. This craving keeps us caught in samsara, the endless cycle of repeated rebirth and dying again, and the dukkha that comes with it. There is, however, a way to end this cycle, namely by attaining nirvana, cessation of craving, whereafter rebirth and associated dukkha will no longer arise again. This can be accomplished by following the eightfold path, restraining oneself, cultivating discipline, and practicing mindfulness and meditation.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Noble_Truths]

And, “The Eightfold Path consists of eight practices: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right “samadhi” (meditative absorption or union).”

Elaborating further on the “Noble Eightfold Path,” we find ideas like:

“Right View: our actions have consequences; death is not the end, and our actions and beliefs have also consequences after death; the Buddha followed and taught a successful path out of this world and the other world (heaven and underworld/hell)….

“Right Resolve: the giving up home and adopting the life of a religious mendicant in order to follow the path….

“Right Conduct: no killing or injuring, no taking what is not given, no sexual acts….

“Right Livelihood: beg to feed, only possessing what is essential to sustain life….”

…and so on. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noble_Eightfold_Path]

Of course there are various traditions and interpretations depending on which tradition or interpretation of Buddhism you want to look at or discuss (for example, the Chinese and Pali canons have a tenfold path instead of an eightfold one). But the basic idea seems to be a suggestion to turn away from (or renunciate ) the “impermanent states and things” in this world because they cause “craving and clinging,” which results in pain and suffering.

You can find the same kinds of ideas in other religions. There are dozens–if not hundreds—of examples from the Bible….

“Do not accumulate for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.” – Matthew 6:19

“Keep your mind on things above, not on worldly things.” — Colossians 3:2

“…abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.” –1 Peter 2:11

“For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.” –1 John 2:16

“Don’t love this evil world or the things in it. If you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. This is all there is in the world: wanting to please our sinful selves, wanting the sinful things we see, and being too proud of what we have. But none of these comes from the Father. They come from the world.” –1 John 2:15-16

Other examples can be found in James 1:13-15, 2 Peter 1:4, 2 Timothy 2:4, Colossians 3:5, Galatians 5:16-21, Titus 2:12, and so on and on.

As Jesus supposedly said (according to John 18:36), “my kingdom is not of this world.”

In Buddhist cosmology, there are the six “Realms of existence.” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sa%E1%B9%83s%C4%81ra_(Buddhism)#Realms_of_existence]  While Humans are supposedly in one of the higher realms, the whole point of Buddhism is to advance beyond that, beyond the pain and suffering of the endless cycle of “samsara” or “the beginningless and endless cycle of rebirths throughout the six realms; the confused state of suffering from which Buddhists seek liberation” or “the worldly realm of suffering; conditioned existence” (that’s two definitions among many).

“Nekkhamma is a Pali word generally translated as ‘renunciation’ or ‘the pleasure of renunciation’ while also conveying more specifically ‘giving up the world and leading a holy life’ or ‘freedom from lust, craving and desires.’  In Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path, nekkhamma is the first practice associated with ‘Right Intention.’ In the Theravada list of ten perfections, nekkhamma is the third practice of ‘perfection.’ It involves non-attachment (detachment).

–snip—

“The entire course of practice from start to finish can in fact be seen as an evolving process of renunciation culminating in Nibbana [Pali; Skt: Nirvana] as the ultimate stage of relinquishment, ‘the relinquishing of all foundations of existence’ (sabb’upadhipatinissagga).” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nekkhamma]

“Dukkha (Sanskrit duhkha) or dissatisfaction (or ‘dis-ease’; also often translated ‘suffering’, though this is somewhat misleading). Nothing found in the physical world or even the psychological realm can bring lasting deep satisfaction.” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_marks_of_existence]

Also, in the Mahayana tradition, for example, they have the “Five paths.” The “path of accumulation” includes “Renunciation of the worldly life.” The path of seeing includes “Realization of the emptiness of reality.”

“The goal of all Buddhists is to reach Nirvana. Death, for a Buddhist, is not the end.  Buddhists believe in re-birth. To attain Nirvana, we must break the cycle of birth and rebirth, which is only possible when a person is free from ignorance, hatred and greed. Buddhists believe that everyone can reach enlightenment. However, many young boys and girls train to be monks and nuns from an early age.

“They willingly give up all material possessions except the following eight objects:

robes
a bowl to receive alms
a belt
a razor
a needle and a ball of thread
a water filter
a walking stick
a tooth pick” [http://library.thinkquest.org/07aug/00117/buddhism.html]

Some of the most serious Buddhists become “monks or nuns,” giving up material possessions to focus on attaining nirvana.

There is this idea in many religions—if not most or all—that we are somehow inherently flawed and this world is flawed, and that we should try to avoid the material or the sensual to focus on the spiritual in hopes of being liberated from this life into some better one, that life in this world is something to be escaped or liberated from. This concept gives some people the idea that suffering in this world is inevitable, so it’s something to be accepted rather than addressed.

One thing I’ve somewhat glossed over is the Buddhist concept of the self or soul which Buddhism rejects. This may be surprising considering the concept of an afterlife or rebirth into this realm or some other one in Buddhism would seem to imply a belief in one. It would seem to be problematic. What exactly is being reborn? Of course, as you might expect, there are different explanations in different traditions. Rather than try to parse through what different traditions believe gets reborn into different realms, I’d like to just touch on what the nirvana objective is supposed to be….

According to Wikipedia, “The state of nirvana is also described in Buddhism as cessation of all afflictions, cessation of all actions, cessation of rebirths and suffering that are a consequence of afflictions and actions. Liberation is described as identical to anatta (anatman, non-self, lack of any self). In Buddhism, liberation is achieved when all things and beings are understood to be with no Self. Nirvana is also described as identical to achieving sunyata (emptiness), where there is no essence or fundamental nature in anything, and everything is empty.”[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nirvana]

So, in addition to the idea of being liberated from the material world, there is supposed to be a liberation from the self as well. Focusing on the selflessness of the world is supposed to be helpful in causing Buddhists to act more selflessly and easing the fears of death….

Here are the results of two surveys on the subject:

“In short, the no-self doctrine, rather than equipping the Tibetan lamas with serenity regarding end of life, seems to provoke a deep-rooted anxiety of self-annihilation, and does nothing to reduce overall fear of death.

“In another survey, we gave participants a tradeoff task to measure generosity in end-of-life decisions. Imagine, we said, that you have a terminal disease that will kill you in six months unless you take a medication. There is only one dose of the medication available. If you take it, it will prolong your life by six months. If you don’t take the medication, it will go to someone else who has the same condition and, like you, will die in six months. If the medicine would prolong his life by twelve months instead of six, would you still take the medicine? What about two years? How much more life would the stranger have to receive before you would give up your medicine?

“What we found surprised us. While Abrahamic and Hindu populations chose to give their medicine away when the stranger would live an additional couple of years, Buddhists were exceedingly reluctant to give their medicine away under any circumstances. If there is a ceiling on how much Buddhists value their lives over others, we never found it. Our scale only went up to ‘more than five years’—more than 70 percent of Buddhists selected this option.

“Much of Buddhist philosophy and religious practice is aimed at cultivating selflessness, rechanneling concerns to the larger moral universe around us. But we did not find this effect in our studies. Ironically, it seems that these teachings, instead of mitigating fear of death and nurturing generosity, engender some of the behaviors and thought patterns they seek to destroy. These effects are especially strong among monastics who have the deepest understanding of these doctrines. They are the most fearful of self-annihilation, and the least generous with their lives.” [http://www.slate.com/bigideas/is-there-life-after-death/essays-and-opinions/buddhism-and-the-loss-of-self]

Even the Buddhist seemingly beneficial or innocuous practice of meditation seems to be problematic for some people….

“Research on meditation suggests how variable its effects can be. Meditation reportedly reduces stress, anxiety and depression, but it has been linked to increased negative emotions, too. Some studies indicate that meditation makes you hyper-sensitive to external stimuli; others reveal the opposite effect. Brain scans do not yield consistent results, either. For every report of heightened neural activity in the frontal cortex and decreased activity in the left parietal lobe, there exists a contrary result.” [https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/why-i-dont-dig-buddhism/]

Conclusion

As an atheist (i.e.: without a belief in a God or gods), I find whatever supernatural claims there are in Buddhism just as absent of any empirical evidence to support them as in any other religion. It has contradicting origin stories, sects, texts, and traditions just like many other religions. It has some differences, but it also has many similarities with both eastern and western religions. I find the attempt to westernize it by making it more palatable or “rational” for a western audience–with claims about what is or isn’t “essential” or “original”—to be misinformed (or arrogant) and problematic. They are not much different than competing sects of Christianity who claim their version is closer to the truth, or how some want to sell or repackage Christianity as a philosophy rather than a religion. While Buddhism may promote some positive things, other religions can make the same claim. And while it may be better than the Abrahamic religions in some respects, I’d suggest a Humanist philosophy of life is even better without the woo, bullshit, and religious baggage (IMO).

Finally, I find problems with some of its concepts and practices (or “philosophy”). While those may vary from sect to sect and person to person, there seems to be some basic or general implications that are contrary to—or seem to be in competition with–human flourishing, enjoyment, and appreciation for our life in this world (which is the only life we know we have). It seems some of its practices—like meditation–may have varying and opposite results depending on the individual (and are therefore problematic), that some of its ideas may be psychologically harmful, that some may be a disincentive to focus on making this world a better place, and that some may create a “deep-rooted anxiety of self-annihilation” and selfishness in at least some of those who seriously practice it.

There may be some sects of Buddhism somewhere that are entirely free of all the problems I cite here (though, I’m not aware of them), and, just like in other religions, some may say it works for them. That may be great for them, but it’s not for me.

I want to live in the here and now, and I enjoy trying to have a close, personal relationship with reality… to whatever extent it can be determined by empirical evidence. I have human goals and desires for making THIS world a better place, not escaping or being “liberated” from it. I accept—and maybe even need—the pain and suffering insomuch as it gives me motivation to combat it and make things better, or to whatever extent it helps me to appreciate the joys in life to an even greater degree.

As an atheist, I accept my own “self-annihilation” when I die. Death is what makes every moment in life more precious and valuable. I’d rather embrace life, and enjoy as much of it as I can in the sort time I’m here, living in–and focusing all my attention on–this world to make the best I can of it.

Confessions of a Nasty Smoker

My father smoked in the house while I was growing up, but that was common back then. In fact, for generations people smoked almost everywhere: at work, at home, in theaters, in bars, in restaurants, in stores, in airplanes, and even in the hospital. Smoking was fairly ubiquitous for decades. In the 1960s when I was growing up, almost every other person was a smoker (today it’s down to about 15% of the U.S. population). Rarely did anyone complain about it.

Cigarette ads were everywhere: on radio, on television, in magazines, in stores, on billboards, and in movie theaters. Cigarette vending machines were commonplace. Cigarette companies even targeted children. They appeared in cartoons like The Flintstones and Tom and Jerry, and you could buy candy cigarettes at the candy store across the street from the elementary school.

Anyone can watch old movies and films to see how prevalent it was. About the only place I remember you weren’t supposed to smoke was in the elevator because of the confined space.

I have an old picture that someone took of my father on his knees proposing to my mother. One hand is holding hers, and the other is holding a cigarette.

Despite his own habit, Dad did try to discourage my brothers and I from smoking a couple of times while I was growing up. When I was very young, he satisfied my curiosity about it by letting me take a drag off his cigarette. He knew I wouldn’t like it, and he was right. I spent a long time in the bathroom afterwards brushing my teeth.

Later, he gave us all a demonstration that he hoped would keep us from ever smoking. He asked us to watch him as he took a puff and then he blew the smoke out through his handkerchief. It left a brown spot. He said, “That’s just what I blew out. Most of it stayed inside me, and that was just one puff. Imagine how that might build up over time in my lungs… so many puffs for each cigarette, a pack of 20 cigarettes a day, 7 packs a week, week after week, and year after year.”

It did make some impact on me, but I wasn’t planning to smoke anyway back then, so I didn’t think it was something I would ever need to worry about.

Things did start changing slowly after the 1964 United States Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health suggested there might be a relationship between smoking and cancer, but the changes after that were very slow and gradual—and almost imperceptible for years–and there didn’t seem to be any concern for nonsmokers. Things pretty much continued as they were, except later some tobacco companies began to introduce lower tar or “lighter” cigarettes and new kinds of filters.

By 1971 there was the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, which banned cigarette ads on television and radio. I probably didn’t notice.

I started smoking in 11th grade. It was January or February of 1975. I’ve been a smoker on and off—but mostly on—ever since.

My best friend smoked, some of my other friends smoked, and I had dated a couple girls in high school who smoked when I was in 10th grade and earlier that year. I didn’t see what the attraction was, but it didn’t bother me that they smoked. After all, I had grown up with my dad smoking, and it was so common that I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.

If it hadn’t been for one especially cold and windy night, I might never have started. I asked my best friend to let me have one of his cigarettes to distract me from how cold it was while we were walking outside. Despite wearing my heaviest coat, it felt like the wind was blowing through my bones, and we couldn’t talk without our teeth chattering. I was looking for anything to take my mind off the cold. The cigarette didn’t seem so bad,  so I started thinking about trying it again… and one lead to another over the next few days….

I kind of liked the buzz I got off them before class when I first started. Of course, that didn’t last, but all the cool kids hung out in the designated smoking area in high school, and I was making new friends there.

Cigarettes were fairly cheap back then, about 35 cents a pack in NC. That was probably less expensive than anywhere else on the planet because North Carolina was the tobacco capital of the world.

I went to Myrtle Beach with some friends after graduating 11th grade and partied hard for a week, smoking and drinking. I may have gone through 15 packs while I was there. I had made myself sick of them by the end of the week, and I quit when I got back home. I didn’t feel any withdrawal symptoms at all, so I didn’t think it would be so hard to quit any time I wanted to. That was part of the reason I didn’t see any problem when I started back up about a week later.

Maybe it was in the late 1970s–or sometime in the 1980s–that there started to be separate sections in some (not all) restaurants for smokers and nonsmokers, but there wasn’t anything to stop the smoke from travelling from the smoking section to the nonsmoking section. It just kept it from being quite as direct or in-your-face as it might have been previously.

I bounced around a bit after college in the early 1980s, and tried to find work in the Clearwater Beach area in Florida. I wasn’t having much luck trying to find a job without a car before my money was going to run out, so I thought it might be productive to try and quit again before I was going to have to move back home. A few days spent floating around in a pool and trying to relax as much as possible worked. By the end of a week, I had gotten over the physical addiction. It had been a little harder than when I quit before, but it wasn’t too bad.

It was about 8 months before I started back. I started to realize that there was the physical addiction that I had already dealt with, but there was also the psychological addiction that might be more insidious.

The cost of cigarettes went over a dollar a pack in the 1980s.

I remember when it happened in Nashville. It may have been 1982 when I moved to Nashville with one of my younger brothers, and I got a third shift job at a corner convenience store called Hot Spot. It was just something to pay the bills until I could find better job.

I had been working there a few weeks when the cost of a pack went over a dollar. Near the end of my shift an old man came in to buy a pack, and I quoted him the price. He was outraged. I tried to tell him about the price increase, but that didn’t help. He was so mad that he took out all the coins he had in his pocket and threw them into my face as hard as he could. “THERE’S YOUR MONEY!!!” he screamed at me and walked out the door.

I wasn’t in Nashville long. I moved back to North Carolina in 1983 and it wasn’t much later that the cost went over a dollar there as well.

In 1984 the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act forced cigarette companies to place Surgeon’s General warnings on all cigarette packs and advertisements, but that didn’t stop anyone I knew from smoking.

I made another attempt to quit smoking in the late 1980s because a woman I was in a relationship asked me to. It was even harder this time. It took 2-3 weeks now to get over the physical addiction. This time my abstinence only lasted about 6 months before I started back. Once again the psychological addiction came into play when I was going through some stressful times.

In 1988 smoking was prohibited on all domestic flights less than two hours. In 1989 it was expanded to include all domestic flights. I didn’t do much flying, so that didn’t impact me. The only flight I made during that time was not domestic, and I was able to smoke in first class on my trip to Cancun, Mexico.

Things really started changing at a faster pace in the 1990s….

In 1993 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that secondhand smoke caused lung cancer. It designated secondhand smoke a Class A carcinogen, a proven cause of cancer. This put it in the same category as asbestos and radon.

As a result of the EPA report, by the mid-1990s smoking bans in some public places began to be enacted in hundreds of local governments and in 40 states, but I don’t believe North Carolina was one of them.

My younger brother in Nashville got married around then, and that was the first time I ended up in a smoke-free hotel when I went to his wedding. It seemed fairly noteworthy at the time because it was somewhat uncommon.

My parents stayed in the same hotel, and my father later told a story about an experience he had while he was there. He said he was heading outside to have a cigarette, and he was holding one unlit, cupped in his hand, when he got on the elevator going down. A woman got on at the next floor and saw the cigarette filter sticking out from his hand. Dad said she gave him a dirty look when the door closed. She assumed the cigarette was lit. He said she was waving her hand back-and-forth in front of her face to keep from inhaling the imaginary smoke. She was also “tisk, tisking” and making noises of exasperation as she continually looked from his face to his hand to the elevator door and back again.

When the door opened in the parking garage, he stepped out. He said he made sure that she saw him light the cigarette as the door closed.

It wasn’t long after this that a friend who was a few years older died. She always smoked like a chimney and everyone always bugged her about her smoking, telling her it would be the death of her. She died after being in a coma for 3 days after falling off the back of a golf cart and breaking her neck. No one ever warned her about falling off golf carts, and all that time spent worrying her about smoking was for nothing.

Probably every smoker has friends who bug the crap out of them about their smoking. I once told one of my friends like this that “One day you’ll be looking at my dead body, someone will ask you why I died, and you’ll have to tell them that you worried me to death about smoking.”

But probably every smoker has an army of friends and family who are always bugging them to death about smoking, as if we haven’t heard it thousands of times before. It is frankly annoying as hell, and not very likely to motivate me to quit. In fact, it tends to have the exact opposite effect. I might sigh and say, “Yes, I know” when they bug me, but I feel like saying, “Would you just shut the fuck up about it already? Don’t you think I KNOW all this by now?”

Nevertheless, I did make another attempt to quit smoking in the 1990s, and, once again, it was harder than the previous occasion to get over the physical addiction. It took about a month this time, but I did go about 1 ½ years without smoking before I got caught by the psychological addiction again. It happened after I broke up with someone I was in a relationship with. I was feeling down after the break-up, and I was out drinking with friends at a bar. Someone lit up a cigarette, I said “Give me one of those,” and BOOM! I was smoking again.

In 1998, it came out that perhaps the EPA had “cherry-picked” their information to come up with a desired conclusion regarding secondhand smoke risks back in 1993. In a case the tobacco industry brought against the EPA, a federal district judge ruled that the EPA had “committed to a conclusion before research had begun” and the “EPA disregarded information and made findings on selective information.” The judge also ruled that “using standard methodology, EPA could not produce statistically significant results,” and that the “EPA cannot show a statistically significant association between ETS [Environmental Tobacco Smoke] and lung cancer.” Based on this, the judge vacated the study.

Afterwards, the EPA appealed the ruling against them and had it overturned by the fourth circuit court of appeals on a jurisdiction technicality, not the merits of the ruling. But the media didn’t pay much attention to the controversy at the time. Things proceeded as if there was never an issue with the EPA’s conclusions, the EPA stuck by its guns, and the EPA report continued to be cited without any qualification about its legitimacy.

Nevertheless, for the most part, most things hadn’t changed very significantly for smokers. They might be a little inconvenienced here-and-there, but they could do much of the same things they were doing before. You could still smoke in a lot of places, and you could easily avoid most places where you couldn’t smoke. You could still smoke in bars and many restaurants and in many (but maybe not all) workplace environments (if not on the sales floor, in your office, for example). While many hotels now offered smoke-free rooms, you could still easily get a hotel room you could smoke in.

It wasn’t until sometime after the turn of the century that things began to change more dramatically.

By the early 2000s, an ever growing number of jurisdictions across the country began enacting smoking bans in bars and restaurants, reaching some areas sooner than others. By then, some restaurants had begun seating customers in a separate room rather than a separate section in the same room. As the decade progressed, many restaurants began to seat them at tables outside. By then, you could no longer smoke in most theaters, in most stores and malls, in hospitals, at work, in buses or subways, in planes and trains, or inside almost anywhere. Even the very small, designated smoking areas at airports began to disappear.

Another decade and another attempt to quit smoking. Again, it was harder and took longer to overcome the physical aspect. It took a couple months or more this time, but I did it. But once again I fell back to smoking a year later because of the psychological aspect.

Giving up cigarettes is supposedly harder than giving up heroin, as far as the physical addiction goes. I had proven I could make it through that, but I evidently may never be able to overcome the psychological addiction. It was at this point in my life I began to think I’d not bother to try to quit again. I mean why go through all that suffering when I just keep going back to it later??? I’ve heard that Einstein said that “the definition of insanity is trying to do the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result.” I don’t know if he actually said it or not, but it seems to make sense.

By the 2010s, it seemed restaurants, bars, and some hotels were the last to have smoking banned, but they went pretty quickly as state governments began to ban smoking in all public and commercial buildings.

I happened to be in Washington, DC when that kind of ban was enacted there. As I approached a bar near where I was staying, it seemed to be packed with people overflowing outside. I thought the bar must be very popular. When I went inside, no one was there except the staff. Everyone was outside smoking because of the ban. North Carolina passed the same kinds of restrictions soon afterwards.

Even many restaurants have stopped offering a table outside for smokers, and most places not only stopped allowing smoking inside their establishment, they insist you must be beyond a certain point outside of it.

When my father had undergone (not smoking-related) surgery several years earlier, he was in a room recovering for 17 days. I had to sit with him most of that time so that he would have someone to take him outside in a wheelchair every couple hours to have a cigarette. He had been smoking since he was 14 and wasn’t about to stop this late in his life. No one else was there to do that for him, so I had to sit in an uncomfortable chair–while he had the bed–to be at hand for him for the full 17 days. Each time he wanted one, I had to get him into his wheelchair, push him to an elevator, take him downstairs, and push him outside so many feet away from the entrance so he could have a smoke. Then take him back when he was finished.

Now hospitals don’t even allow you to smoke on their property at all. You can’t even smoke in the parking garage in your car with the windows rolled up. I really can’t believe that could possibly be worse than the carbon monoxide pouring out of the back of a car.

I had to have surgery myself a few years ago, and I thought I’d check out the smoking situation before my admission. The closest area was across the street from the hospital, under a bridge that ran over a creek. A security guard told me that hospital patients were frequently injured falling down the steep decline to the creek trying to find a place to have a smoke. He said that someone had stumbled, fallen into the creek, and drowned the week before. Imagine that! People actually dying to have a cigarette at the hospital!

It would seem that hospitals would try to make some kind of better accommodations for smokers that don’t plan to quit rather than insisting they have to be entirely off their property.

Hotels are now smoke-free. The last time I stayed in a hotel, they offered three benches in the open air across the street as their designated smoking area. Beach hotel rooms with balconies don’t even allow smoking on those balconies in the middle of winter, even when it’s unlikely anyone else would be on a neighboring balcony because of the cold.

So, now smokers are forced outside, away from everyone else in all kinds of weather, in the blazing heat or the freezing cold or in the driving rain.

A couple years ago smoking was banned in parks in my city, and I know at least some beaches in some states that ban it. So, it’s increasingly banned in outside public places. Some rental apartments prohibit it. And it wasn’t long ago that the condo complex where I live sent out a newsletter telling us we shouldn’t smoke inside our own condo.

It’s increasingly banned inside and outside public places and commercial areas, and now there seems to be an effort to ban it in your own personal space.

I told someone then that it was beginning to seem like we were being driven off the planet, step-by-step.

Not only is it becoming harder and harder to find a place to smoke, it is also becoming more expensive….

The cost of cigarettes has continued to rise with additional federal and state “sin taxes” added onto the cost to theoretically lower consumption and cover the supposed health cost on society. Today the federal government adds on $1.01 per pack in taxes, and state taxes vary from 17 cents per pack in Missouri to $4.35 per pack in New York. In North Carolina, the state tax is 45 cents, so smokers pay an additional $1.46 per pack, and now cigarettes cost about $4-$6 per pack (the cost is roughly $200 per month for a typical non-casual smoker in NC, but probably higher in other parts of the country).

Health insurance rates are also higher for smokers, so they are paying more there as well.

There are also the social costs. Not many people today are interested in dating or entering into a relationship with a smoker (except possibly another smoker), and it seems like they are treated almost like lepers by society.

Aside from friends and family always bugging smokers about smoking, It’s not at all unusual for total strangers to give smokers some shit about it as well. Many will wag their finger and tell you how bad it is, how it will kill you, how you ought to quit, and so on.

It’s funny how no one would presume to tell some overweight person eating something unhealthy the same kind of thing, for example. But, if you’re a smoker, it seems like you’re fair game to be chastised by anyone who sees you smoking.

And people always point out the people who die of lung cancer to you: “SEE! Just think. He would still be alive, if he hadn’t smoked!”

Well, not necessarily. If he had been more health conscious, he might have been hit and killed by a car while he was out jogging by the side of the road years earlier. How can anyone know? Being a smoker might have prolonged his life.

Even when some smokers try to transition to electronic cigarettes or vaping to rejoin society, which shouldn’t be an issue for others, it’s treated just the same way as cigarette smoking in most places. Many nonsmokers are evidently freaked out by the very IDEA of smoking, even when it’s water vapor coming out.

In my mind, it has gone over-the-top, to a point beyond reason. I’ve always tried to be as considerate as possible towards nonsmokers, but why, for example, can’t we have some designated smoking bars and restaurants? A smoking car on the back of the train? Or a courtyard in the back of the hospital? I know it may be an issue for the staff in some of these places, but no one would be forced to work there. I’m a bit of a libertarian in cases like these. Why can’t we let the market decide?

I know it may be a health risk for me to smoke, but it’s bad for me to do a lot of things like eating too much saturated fat, or driving on the highway in 5 o’clock traffic. In the end, it should be my decision, and I should be free to take my own risks in life without people pestering me about it.

I know many people don’t want to believe it, but there are some good things about smoking. Aside from being a relaxant and calming, it can act as both a depressant and a simulant. It speeds up your digressive processes, and it makes you more alert by making the neurons in your brain fire faster. I sometimes joke that it also takes the monotony out of breathing.

I know that might not be much, but the point is it isn’t absolutely evil. It does seem to aversely effect some people more than others, possibly due to genetics. For example, my father smoked all his life, never had a problem with it, and it wasn’t the cause of his death. And a cigar-smoking George Burns lived to be over 100, for example. But I do know some families where it seems to be a greater risk factor. Of course, those kinds of things should be factored in to whatever decision someone might make about it.

I understand that my rights might end when it affects other people adversely, but there should be a way to make accommodations where the odds of that are minimized. In my life I’ve had neighbors who have had a lot of wild parties and played loud music late into the night. I never complained because I hoped they would show the same consideration for me when I wanted to party. I’ve had neighbors with dogs that barked for hours, day and night sometimes. I never complained because I might want to practice my guitar on occasion. The point is that we all might do things that bother other people sometimes, but the more slack we can give each other, the more freedom we have for ourselves to do the things we might enjoy.

I understand that we might be taking it to another level where other people’s health is concerned regarding secondhand smoke, but we can always try to work something out if that’s the case.

But I do wonder if that’s really so much the case with secondhand smoking as it’s made out to be.

I already pointed out how the 1993 EPA study about secondhand smoking was flawed, which may have set many of these cultural and societal changes in motion. Now it seems that everyone takes it as a well-established fact that secondhand smoking is dangerous. It is hard to find anyone—or almost anything on the internet—to challenge it. People seem to be able to find later studies to support the EPA study even if that one was flawed.

But how reliable were these later studies? Is the mindset of most of society so committed to the idea that secondhand smoking is a fact beyond question that people are unwilling to believe anything that might contradict that perception?

I’ve personally never been fully convinced that secondhand smoking is as bad as they’ve been saying for all these years. I’m not talking about how it might affect someone living in the same home as a smoker, someone constantly exposed to it like I was as a child. I’m just talking about people who might be occasionally exposed to it.

There have been several studies that have come out over the last several years that seem to put all these assumptions most people seem to have about secondhand smoke into question.

Is it something people are even willing to consider or are most people’s minds closed on the subject?

I know people aren’t going to go back to how it was—and that might be for the best after all–but maybe we can become a little more reasonable and less over reactionary about it.

Here’s an article from January 2017 which fills in the part of the story I left out of what I covered above. As the article’s subtitle asks, “Will we look at the new evidence for long enough to at least consider whether we’ve gone too far?”

We Used Terrible Science to Justify Smoking Bans
http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2017/02/secondhand_smoke_isn_t_as_bad_as_we_thought.html