Meditating on one’s own beliefs

How often do we critically assess our own beliefs? We usually run a critical eye over the beliefs of others, beliefs we disagree with. But with our own beliefs we are more likely to only consider arguments justifying the belief.

While people can usually provide arguments rationalising their beliefs they hardly ever consider the real reasons for the beliefs – reasons which may be more historical or emotional than rational.

In a recent Point of Inquiry interview John W. Loftus, (author of  Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity) called on Christians to adopt the “outsider” approach to a critique of their own beliefs. He defines the “outsider approach as the critical consideration Christians give to the beliefs of others with different religions or no religion.

Meditation

This is a bit like mindfulness or the meditation technique where one adopts an “observer” stance to look at and consider the thoughts which come randomly into one’s mind. This enables the mediator to become more objective about their thoughts, to recognise them as “only thoughts”. The result is less negative thinking and emotional reactions driven by negative thoughts.

So here’s an idea. What about adopting an “observer” stance towards one’s own beliefs. See them as “only beliefs.” Recognise the emotional or historical reasons for a belief rather than automatically rationalising the belief. Maybe then we would find it easier to give up dangerous beliefs and beliefs driven by emotion rather than reason.

And let’s face it. Most of the beliefs we argue about are not there for rational reasons.

From Point of Inquiry.

John W. Loftus earned M.A. and M.Div. degrees in theology and philosophy from Lincoln Christian Seminary under the guidance of Dr. James D. Strauss. He then attended Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he studied under Dr. William Lane Craig and received a Th.M. degree in philosophy of religion. Before leaving the church, he had ministries in Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana, and taught at several Christian colleges. Today he still teaches as an adjunct instructor in philosophy at Kellogg Community College and has an online blog devoted to “debunking Christianity.” His new book is Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity.

In this interview with D.J. Grothe, John Loftus discusses his background as an Evangelical Christian preacher and apologist and what led to his rejection of the faith, including both emotional loss and “lovelessness in the church,” and also philosophical arguments and historical evidence that caused him to doubt. He critiques the Christian illusion of moral superiority. He challenges religion with what he calls the “outsider test.” He explores whether logic and reason led to his atheism, or followed only after he adopted an atheistic point of view for emotional reasons. And he explains what he does believe in now that he no longer believes in Christianity or God, and the benefits he thinks this new worldview brings him.

Download John Loftus interview MP3

John Loftus has a blog called Debunking Christianity.

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19 responses to “Meditating on one’s own beliefs

  1. Reminds me of my Ph.D. supervisor’s advice, that it’s easy to make an idea, so the best strategy once you have the logic supporting your idea in place, is to spend the rest of the time treating it as if it were written by someone else (say, a rival!) and try take it apart “robustly”. This way most of the work becomes testing your own ideas critically, from an “outside” position. If after all your testing, your idea is still standing, then you have something worth talking to others about.

    Charles Darwin did something like this in his work, first writing the idea, then all the objections he could think of, then examining each objection.

    More on-topic, I agree that one of the more obvious failures of most followers of religions (of any kind) is an unwillingness to critically examine what they ascribe to.

    Pseudo-philosophical arguments don’t do this either: they usually just mask any genuine attempt to examine critically in word games and grandiloquence, and in any event rarely take an outsiders point of view, but take an apologists’ point of view (apologist in the more general meaning of the word).

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  2. Very good comment Heraclides.

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  3. Indeed Ken, very important to evaluate one’s beliefs. Even more important (and much, much harder!) to evaluate one’s worldview – which shape our beliefs.

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  4. Dale,

    But isn’t a “worldview” just the total set of a person’s beliefs? (So that examining your “worldview” amounts to the same thing as examining your beliefs.)

    Having said that, one of the things that I edited out of my earlier post was that I think it’s useful to learn the history of your “area”, your organisations and the line of thinking that led to where you stand (as in what others established before you). It’s another way of examining the “context” of your position. It’s also the reason I occasionally suggest to Bnonn, Stuart, etc., that they learn the history of Creationism (the “movement”, not the “creation story”) and the organisations associated with it.

    (I should add, that the process I described should naturally lead to this, if it’s an issue to be explored, which is part of the reason I edited it out.)

    Food for thought: perhaps it’s only harder for those whose current mindsets/belief systems are such that they are unable to ask questions of what they believe it? And that people without that limitation, don’t find it as difficult? (Or not even difficult at all.) Perhaps that religions, etc., that insist that followers not question the “holy texts” of that religion, etc., are the real issue there?

    Damian,

    Thanks, but I should give credit to Ken for starting me off; I’m just following from his lead, after all.

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  5. Heraclides,
    To use a metaphor (often dangerous, sometimes helpful!), if ‘beliefs’ are the trunk/branches of a tree, then ‘worldview(s)’ are the (often) unseen roots of the tree.
    If evaluating one’s ‘beliefs’ involves an assessment of the validity/support/ground for them, then evaluating one’s ‘worldview’ would involve an assessment of how beliefs are found to be valid/invalid, supported/not or grounded/groundless.
    If someone believes that eating meat is unethical, they can evaluate their belief, and assess whether or not it has support – perhaps seeking such support in the notion that causing pain/suffering to a sentient organism is unethical.
    Assessing the worldview, however, would entail assessing the assumption regarding that notion – perhaps questioning why it is assumed that causing pain/suffering to any and all forms (but maybe not all? do they kill the mosquitos that land on their 2 month old boy? I do!) of sentient things is unethical; or perhaps dealing with issues/questions related to assumptions concerning the comparative value/worth/purpose/function between organisms, and the basis for such judgments (whatever they might be).

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  6. To use a metaphor (often dangerous, sometimes helpful!), if ‘beliefs’ are the trunk/branches of a tree, then ‘worldview(s)’ are the (often) unseen roots of the tree.

    I would prefer you use an actually definition, not a metaphor. Why can’t you address the actual thing? Your metaphor intentionally tries to block the natural recursion that follows from beliefs being built on beliefs, by trying to place an artificial “soil” that “hide” some level beliefs, to prevent the recursion, but there is no reason to introduce this. Tellingly, it is something you are adding, that isn’t there to start with. You might want to then consider why you added it.

    My suggestion is that it is a “convenient” definition to “hide” what you don’t what questioned. You’re basically trying to dismiss anyone ever questioning “worldviews” by making some part of the them “unknowable”. Exactly the sort of pseudo-philosophical “apologetics” I referred to earlier, with exactly the same “defensive” self-justification. It’s a cop-out, basically.

    This is exactly the same as inventing some “mystical” “level” to avoid questioning religious beliefs. It’s just setting up a self-justified reason to not question things.

    You should note you’re trying to define things in a way so that you can self-justify not questioning them, rather than just going ahead and questioning them. See my last point to you in my previous post.

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  7. Heraclides,
    In no way whatsoever did I imply anything ‘unknowable’, ‘mystical’, ‘defensive’, or ‘unquestiionable’ level – or try to ‘hide’ anything.
    I simply asserted a distinction between ‘beliefs’ and ‘worldviews’, and a kind of structural relationship between them.
    The metaphor even came with a concrete example; but rather than interact with it, you preferred to read various things into what I said.

    I’m not going to get into a worthless tit-for-tat with you. If you can calmly discuss ideas (even – shock! horror! – one’s that you disagree with) calmly and patiently, then I’m quite happy to take a bit of time and do that difficult work of working toward mutual understanding (even if mutual agreement is never reached), but if not, consider this my last comment in this thread 🙂 (you can do it.)

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  8. In no way whatsoever did I imply anything ‘unknowable’, ‘mystical’, ‘defensive’, or ‘unquestiionable’ level – or try to ‘hide’ anything.
    I simply asserted a distinction between ‘beliefs’ and ‘worldviews’, and a kind of structural relationship between them.

    You can’t be getting what I wrote, try again. You presented “worldviews” as if they were “layers” of beliefs with the lower layers “unknowable” (hidden by soil in your metaphor). I just took your metaphor apart to show what it was doing.

    The metaphor even came with a concrete example; but rather than interact with it, you preferred to read various things into what I said.

    Because it suffers the same problem: I don’t want to say things twice.

    By the way, an example is not the same as an actual definition of “worldview”, something you didn’t give. Perhaps you’re confusing what I was saying at that point?

    If you can calmly discuss ideas

    I did. What about my post is “angry” or anything else?

    Broadly speaking, I have two possibilities here: either you are upset when you shouldn’t be and inflicting it on me (!), or you are trying to “re-work” my post after the event to “dismiss” it. I’ll give you the courtesy of the former for now, but please allow me to elaborate because I see too many people resorting to lines like this (and please don’t get angry about it).

    Christians seem to say this so often (and not just to me: I’ve seen it all over blogs everywhere). Why is it that Christians do that? Really, why? Here are a few possible reasons (not saying any are better than others, or particularly kind, or comprehensive). Is it because comments that simply address the points without “sweet” language sprinkled around must be treated as an attack and not just simply writing plainly? Is it because when Christians find that they can’t address the point raised they commonly resort to trying to framing the person’s words with a “tone” that can then be used to self-justify “dismissing” the questions raised? (This can be viewed as a symptom of denial, note.) Is it because if someone apposes something you personally belief in, Christians tend to take it as a personal attack, instead of recognising that the writer was not attacking them, but the ideas they expressed?

    Like I said I’ll give you something along the lines of the last for now, as it seems kindest, but also I’ll be honest and say I suspect the truth is actually a mixture of these.

    Remember something I wrote in my first post: spend the rest of the time treating it as if it were written by someone else (say, a rival!) and try take it apart “robustly”. If you’re not going to do it robustly, you’re not really doing it justice. I didn’t “attack” you, but the issue at hand.

    Let me remind you something: scientists very, very rarely attack a person who hold some idea/theory/whatever. But they will prod the idea/theory/whatever pretty forcefully. It’s for the good.

    (If you’re not up to that, maybe you’ll never find the real truth? I can’t see how you are going to get at the truth if you are going to be “prickly” about exploring your beliefs/ideas/whatever.)

    If you are going to enter a debate/discussion, as you did, you should expect your ideas (etc.) to be criticised. You can’t cry foul over someone criticising the ideas, logic, etc.

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  9. Heraclides,
    First – in my analogy, I described the tree ‘roots’ (worldviews) as ‘(often) unseen’
    1. ‘often unseen’ does not mean ‘unknowable’ or ‘hidden’.
    2. it’s a metaphor

    Second – I’m not mad.

    Third – I don’t think you need to be so ‘robust’/’forceful’ to engage. Theists and atheists rarely have dialogue that is fruitful, and I’m tired of reading comments or contributing to unfruitful conversations. And (this is key) with text-only communication, I think politeness goes a long way in the interest of keeping things civil.

    Fourth – Whilst I think it’s obvious enough how I would define ‘worldview’, I’ll humour you. Worldviews are a set of assumptions or presuppositions about ‘things’ or ‘the world’ that colour our thinking and/or believing about it. We ‘view’ the ‘world’ by (as it were) looking ‘through’ worldview ‘glasses’. Like eye glasses, we don’t look at them, but through them. This is what is meant by them being ‘mostly unseen’. This doesn’t mean that worldviews cannot be seen and examined, etc.
    Like glasses, we can take them off and look at them, but the world may seem fuzzy as we do so.
    Like a foundation to a house or roots to a tree, we can ‘dig down’ and examine them, but the house or rest of the tree may be disturbed as we do so.

    ((BTW, the notion of worldviews is quite a basic philosophical/epistemological one – well recognised by people of all kinds of persuasions/beliefs/areas of expertise. So I don’t think I can be accused of trying to sneak them in to stack the conversational deck, so to speak…))

    I suggest that my initial concrete example (vegetarian) provides a helpful, everyday and relevant demonstration of how a belief (eating meat is unethical) is held (knowingly or unknowingly) by someone because of the ‘shade’ of their worldview glasses. I also find it a helpful example to demonstrate how worldviews can be examined.

    So – far, far from wanting to hide or conceal worldviews, I’m interested in examining them. So will you interact with my vegitarian example?

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  10. Nutshell take: this seems to be a waste of time. I asked (not stated) if “worldviews” were the set of beliefs people have about things, and you have now said they are, just with different words. I have to admit I feel it would have been simpler, to have just said “yes” to my question.

    As I pointed out earlier, if that’s the case, then what Ken is referring to covers “worldviews” too.

    Replying to your points:

    1. ‘often unseen’ does not mean ‘unknowable’ or ‘hidden’. This doesn’t change the point I was making. (Suggestion: look at the points being made. I don’t really like word definition “games” as too often they are used to sidestep the point or wriggle out of things.)

    2. it’s a metaphor Yes, that’s why I wrote I would prefer you use an actually definition, not a metaphor. in my original reply to you.

    I think politeness goes a long way in the interest of keeping things civil. Writing this sort of thing can easily be read as implying that the other person is being uncivil; could I point out that sort of implication doesn’t help either? For example, your earlier remark in the same paragraph re “to engage” and several other comments you have made in your post could be read in this manner.

    I don’t think you need to be so ‘robust’/’forceful’ to engage. I didn’t write about being “‘robust’/’forceful’ to engage.” I wrote regards testing/examining/etc the idea, not the other person writing. Could I point out that you could read your comment as to say “I don’t want people to look at my ideas too closely”?

    Whilst I think it’s obvious enough how I would define ‘worldview’, I’ll humour you. And why on earth should it be “obvious” to me? I’m not a mind-reader.

    Worldviews are a set of assumptions or presuppositions about ‘things’ or ‘the world’ In other words a set of beliefs. So your answer to my question should be “yes”.

    I suggest that my initial concrete example … Given your definition is the same as what I asked, just in different words, my points in my first reply to you should stand and there is no need to take it any further with examples, etc. It’s part of the reason I thought a definition would help.

    So – far, far from wanting to hide or conceal worldviews, I’m interested in examining them. I never said you were. Could you please refer what I actually write? I wrote that your metaphor “hides” the lower layers of beliefs, and thence making out that “worldviews” weren’t able to be seen completely (i.e. understood). Could you note that your “reworking” (or misreading or whatever you are happy with) moves what I wrote from “I just took your metaphor apart to show what it was doing”, as I tried to tell you in my previous post, to having me say you are hiding things.

    As a practical matter I will have little time to address this, as I am still working and have a lot to do. In any event, unless you want to redefine “worldviews”, it seems that you should be agreeing.

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  11. Heraclides – re your first comment:

    My Ph.D. supervisor was very much an “idea person”. Her would say it is important to have many ideas – 99 out of 100 might be wrong but the 1 good one was worth it.

    The problem was that he used to descend on the lab last thing in the day (just before I could leave to catch my train) and present me with the latest idea. I was usually not capable of arguing him out of it (and anyway learned I would miss my train if I tried). However, what I usually did was to test the idea with an experiment and then present him with the results which usually showed him to be wrong. He always accepted the results although he might have originally argued against my logic.

    This underlined to me the real importance of testing ideas against reality. And that debate was often not the most effective way of testing an idea.

    Unfortunately, when it comes to political/ideological/world view issues we don’t usually encounter the same scientific ethos. People are quite ready to dismiss the evidence that doesn’t fit in with their preconceived beliefs.

    I sometimes think this is quite normal. We may be an intelligent species but we are not a rational species. Rather a rationalising one. We go for patterns, and defend patterns, for good evolutionary reasons.

    However it is surely in the interests of society, and the individual, to develop the ability to consider ones ideas/beliefs/ideology/worldview more objectively. I sometimes wonder if the reason we don’t comes down to personality, ego and hormonal or chemical factors.

    My own experience is that I have become less “dogmatic” with age and wonder if that corresponds to hormonal changes. Although, I am also aware that some “oldies” do appear to be more dogmatic.

    By the way, Dale. I have experienced a change (or evolution) in personal world view over the years. Although this was not a religious conversion/deconversion it was probably just as deep involving political changes and realisation of the psychological/personal reasons why I might have held the beliefs that I did. This was not easy – and at one level it involved losing something – but only at a relatively superficial level. More basically I felt that I was gaining something.

    The parallel with the observing self in meditation seems to describe the process to me.

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  12. Heraclides in a recent comment, says

    [quoting me]So – far, far from wanting to hide or conceal worldviews, I’m interested in examining them.[end quote] I never said you were. [read quote below] Could you please refer what I actually write? [yes – read below] I wrote that your metaphor “hides” the lower layers of beliefs, and thence making out that “worldviews” weren’t able to be seen completely (i.e. understood). [no, you said what I’ll quote below] Could you note that your “reworking” (or misreading or whatever you are happy with) moves what I wrote from “I just took your metaphor apart to show what it was doing”, as I tried to tell you in my previous post, to having me say you are hiding things.

    Heraclides says in earlier comment

    Your metaphor intentionally tries to block the natural recursion that follows from beliefs being built on beliefs, by trying to place an artificial “soil” that “hide” some level beliefs, to prevent the recursion

    My suggestion is that it is a “convenient” definition to “hide” what you don’t what questioned.

    No ‘reworking’, no ‘misunderstanding’. That’s just what you said.

    [Dale]Worldviews are a set of assumptions or presuppositions about ‘things’ or ‘the world’ [Heraclides] In other words a set of beliefs. So your answer to my question should be “yes”.

    The distinction that I’m proposing (and again, I’m far from the first to do so) between ‘beliefs’ and ‘assumptions/presuppositions’ is not like comparing branches to soil, but more like branches to roots. Beliefs/assumptions (branches/roots) are similar in that they are both part of the ideological ‘tree’, but a) serve a different function and b) are at a different level.

    A quick note on words:
    You say you prefer definitions to analogies, but then you say you don’t like word definition games, etc.
    I don’t think either of us denies that misunderstandings and definitional issues are common, but words obviously matter enough for both of us to use them. Words matter and are helpful. Analogies are the same. They are often helpful. Never perfect, but often helpful. Concrete examples are often immensely helpful for grounding what can otherwise be a more abstract discussion.
    I’m not trying to force mutual agreement. What I’m interested in is mutual understanding. This will take not only words and sometimes metaphors, but work and patience.
    I’ll give you one more chance to interact with the concrete example I’ve given. I’m not trying to trick anyone with definitions. My metaphor and example are helpful, I think, not mystical. You should be more than able to interact with them.
    I could just as easily accuse you of continually avoiding interaction with my example, etc. for whatever reasons. But I won’t because such accusations don’t help us get toward mutual understanding.

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  13. You are travelling around in a circle Dale! If anything your latest post shows that you still don’t understand what I wrote when I wrote Your metaphor intentionally tries to block the natural recursion that follows from beliefs being built on beliefs, by trying to place an artificial “soil” that “hide” some level beliefs, to prevent the recursion. I did try explain later, but seem to now think that later explanation contradicts this. It doesn’t. Try understanding, like you claim you want to. (I do write expecting you to have some basic ability to put the bits together without my painfully explaining them step by little step. I haven’t time for that.)

    You also travel around in circles with the original argument in The distinction that I’m proposing … I’ve already replied to that. If anything, you are re-enforcing my point about you adding a “convenient” “can’t go past this point” level to suit your own argument by doing it again here.

    You say you prefer definitions to analogies, but then you say you don’t like word definition games, etc. Why the “but then”: these are two quite different things. You seem to again not be understanding what I am referring to (Alternatively you know perfectly well what I am referring to by word games, but prefer to go and play word games in reply. Your call.)

    Analogies are the same. They are often helpful. Never perfect, but often helpful. Concrete examples are often immensely helpful for grounding what can otherwise be a more abstract discussion. So? I never said otherwise. I just noted a lack of a definition, which literally left your position undefined and so left your whole argument dangling as it were.

    This will take not only words and sometimes metaphors, but work and patience. and pretending that it hasn’t already been resolved it seems. (I have to say that is a common tactic amongst some Christians and strikes me as dishonest, or possibly a reflection of deep denial.)

    I could just as easily accuse you of continually avoiding interaction with my example, etc. for whatever reasons. But I won’t because such accusations don’t help us get toward mutual understanding. There you go again, slyly “implying” things of me. I did explain why I didn’t reply to the example. It wasn’t a complicated or difficult explanation. So why resort to this stupid sort of “I’m going to plant this shit on you stuff” but say I’m not thing?

    You have completely avoid my simple point that your definition is actually the same as what I asked, just in different words, so you might want to play you words “I could just as easily accuse you of continually avoiding interaction” at yourself, please.

    I will be away for a while.

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  14. Dale,

    I consider this “discussion” with you closed. Either you are too obtuse to get anything without a baby language explanation or are so in denial that there is no point in trying.

    Ken,

    I will try reply next week.

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  15. ((Dale would appreciate patient and honest comments from persons other than Heraclides as to if he is being as silly as Heraclides things he is…))

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  16. I can see what you were saying Dale. I think of a worldview as something a little more ingrained than a belief. Although of course we’re dealing with the English language here which means there is plenty of room for overlap and misunderstanding.

    I would consider the fact that I was raised in a fairly fundamentalist Christian home helped to form my worldviews and that, based on these ingrained views, I formed a few beliefs of my own.

    I was able to examine some of those beliefs on an individual basis – like, did God really make everything 6000 years ago – and adjust them one by one depending on arguments for or against.

    But it was only when I sat down to really examine the worldview that I’d inherited that whole subsets of beliefs were likely to wildly change depending on whether my worldview underwent revision.

    Yes, ‘worldview’ overlaps with ‘belief’ but I find it useful to use ‘worldview’ to describe some of those (as Dale said) ‘hidden’ or assumed beliefs that I never really have examined properly or take for granted.

    I think that if anyone has a set of beliefs but that there are some core ones that you don’t dare to question then I would encourage you to go ahead and do so. If we are misled in any way it is more likely to be by these core assumptions than side issues like whether humans evolved or whether the state should subsidise the poor or whether the universe had a beginning, etc.

    If you love the truth then be prepared to question everything. That’s what I like about the scientific method; scientists might not always be honest but the method is by far the most honest one I’ve found to date.

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  17. I’d argue that our world view is the total of our beliefs, the whole perhaps being greater than the sum of the parts.
    We each go through life building a model of reality in our heads, but a result of evolution is that we instinctively place the importance of our own welfare and our decendents above building a truly objective model. Being “right” in some objective sense, eg believing witchs don’t exist, isn’t of much use if it reduces the chances of your offspring surviving compared to your neighbour who covets your land and convinces himself, and his friends, that you’re a witch.
    So evolution has given us a powerful instinct to demonise those we see as a threat and also those that don’t conform, and to idolise those who are an asset to the survival of our genes.

    For me, building an accurate model of the universe around me means taking the scientific approach of testing assumptions from every angle. To be complete such an approach obviously can’t include a reliance on “faith”, so obviously I’m not a theist.

    I see the development of theism as simply an extension of those evolutionary pressures out lined above. Humans are social animals that thoughout history have survived in mutually hostile groups, fighting each other over limited resources, theism gave these groups beliefs that both strengthened the organisation and cooperation within each group and gave each a continuity and stability out living any individual chief, and increased the differentiation with other groups .

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  18. I think you are right Andrew W. We are an intelligent species but not a rational one – more a rationalising one. That’s why science insists on a methodology involving evidence and validation against reality.

    We can extend that to world views and insist on a more objective approach when developing (and defending) our world view or ideology.

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  19. Pingback: Meditation zeitgeist, Mar 4, 2008 | Wildmind Buddhist Meditation

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