I'm really excited to be participating in this year's Left Forum, a big annual event in New York City. I'll be doing a panel called "Inner Truth to Power: Meditation as a Revolutionary Act" with Sander Hicks, Robert Rafiq Lewis and Gregg Hill. As our description indicates, we will be exploring controversial topics with reference to spiritual traditions such as "Buddhism, Sufism, radical Christianity, and Kabbalah".
I'm really proud that our panel is going to be something different. Left Forum is a very culturally inclusive conference, and yet I have a feeling that our panel's holistic focus will be considered "edgy" even by Left Forum standards ... which is to say that many of my fellow liberals and progressives who come to this event may be devoutly principled atheists, or may believe that religion and spirituality have no place in a conference whose affiliation — the Left — hearkens back to the French Revolution and Karl Marx. I disagree with this objection, and I'm happy to explain why.
I believe that the goal of a "leftist" or liberal or progressive political thinker should be construed in the widest possible sense. We are on the side of social change; we like to mix things up and are not afraid to experiment with social structures; we believe strongly in individual freedom, privacy and liberty; we want economic and ethnic justice; we care urgently about the environment; we want an end to war. This is my definition of what the Left Forum should be about.
Nowhere in the definition of a modern Leftist or liberal or progressive is there any belief or program that conflicts with any kind of religion. In this sense, it is really regrettable that many people I talk to, including several of my own allegedly smart liberal friends, are tremendously bigoted towards Muslims, or towards fundamentalist Christians, or towards pro-Israel Jews. They proudly declare their hatred for the whole fabric of religion, which they blame for the clusterfuck of modern geopolitical war.
Many people fixate on the religious recitations of ISIS or Al Qaeda or recall those of Osama bin Laden (who, in my opinion, was just another power-hungry revolting fascist like Donald Trump, and there was little evidence that Osama bin Laden was sincerely religious at all). It sometimes helps to remind folks that the most murderous monsters of the 20th Century were three atheists: Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. Meanwhile, Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King used three separate religions — Hinduism, Catholicism and Protestantism — as the foundations of their epic achievements as peacebuilders. Not too shabby for religion, I think.
People who see religion as a negative influence on world culture must not be thinking very hard. Dear friends: please take a moment to consider the fact that religion itself has never been the cause of any war or genocide in history — except in the abstract sense that religion is used as a surrogate for ethnic or national identity. A sober and extensive top-down study of modern history proves that no geopolitical conflict has ever been fought over concern with metaphysical issues such as the transmigration of the soul, or the nature of being. This is for the same obvious reason that nobody fights wars over the Free Will Problem, or over Zeno's Paradox. Our political leaders don't care about that stuff. They are busy fighting over three things: land, money and oil.
I recently shared my observation that our still unresolved national trauma over September 11 is a direct cause of our vulnerability to the revolting fascist Donald Trump. I also think that our unresolved trauma over September 11 helps to explain our society's growing hatred for religion, which shocks me whenever I encounter it in my daily conversations. I encounter it a lot, and from people of all ages, all backgrounds, all levels of education.
My own doctor recently ranted to me about "those Muslims", and when I queried him I discovered that he actually believes the Islamic religious tradition itself to be the primary cause for Arab terrorism, as if history and politics had nothing to do with it. There was a hysteria and rage in my doctor's voice that gave me a clue as to what was behind his lapse of common sense. It's clear to me that many Americans are still badly traumatized from the shock of September 11 2001. We as a society need to come to terms with the way this trauma has warped our thinking.
The fact that so many people have developed a hatred for religion itself is really frightening, because religion is a part of human identity, of the human soul. Religion is not just a system of metaphysical and quasi-scientific beliefs — in fact, that is the aspect of religion that we may need least today. More importantly, religion is a still-growing and still-evolving ethical belief system that has formed over centuries and millennia. Like art and music and literature, this deep foundation of human thought grounds us in our roots. It reminds us that we are mysterious souls, that we may have eternal purpose, that there may be realms of existence beyond those we can easily touch and see. And it reminds us that we are a community, that we exist together, that we must treat each other with respect and consideration, that we exist as separate beings and we also all exist together as one. Whether we like it or not, we need religion to feel alive. We need religion to breathe. And our world certainly needs religion if our world will ever find peace.
"Inner Truth to Power: Meditation as Revolutionary Experience" is happening this Saturday, June 21 2016, at 10 am at the Left Forum at John Jay College in midtown Manhattan.
Other amazing participants in this year's Left Forum include Amy Goodman, Tariq Ali, Slavoj Zizek and Medea Benjamin. I wrote a bit more about the upcoming event on Literary Kicks. I plan to take in as much cool stuff as I can during this three day event, so if you spot me walking around, please say hi!