Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Atheism in the martial arts

I have been studying the martial arts since I was eleven. I have studied numerous styles; I have belts and sashes and cords from many styles, the highest of which is my second degree black belt in karate. Suffice it to say I am an experienced martial artist. What's interesting to me about that is, after my turn to atheism, the amount of my martial arts heritage I've had to leave behind.

Chi, ki, xi, prana, axé... All of these are "energy" of a mystical type I've run into via the martial arts. In some cases these are viewed as merely the energy that you get when you gather together with a group of people; in others, it is a literal energy flow that can be harnessed for various skills and techniques.

In karate, I was taught that by flowing my chi I could punch harder, use my attacks to damage internal organs without bruising the skin, even make getting punched hurt less. In kung fu I was taught many of the same things, as well as that specific sounds made with the mouth had specific effects on fighting. In taichi I was taught that it was chi, internal power, that made taichi boxers strong rather than muscles. In each of these cases, what I was taught was either exaggerated or just plain false. However, few question these unscientific ideas and accept the anecdotes they are given as fact.

The only energy that I can't argue with is axé, the energy said to gather when groups of capoeiristas get together to play together. I've heard it said that this is some kind of mystical energy, though in my experience it's just seemed to be used by "the group has a lot of axé today". Feeling more energy in a group is some kind of a real thing, I think.

Capoeira, however, isn't free of religious trappings. A lot of the songs we sing are just fun songs that don't say much, like "Si si si, nao nao nao", which is, literally, singing "yes yes yes, no no no" over and over again. However many songs call upon saints, ancient gods, Mary, and indeed the christian God. These are all part of the history of Capoeira, so I'm ok with letting them slide I guess. No one has made religion an issue with me yet, so letting it be seems like the best choice.

Knowing what I do know makes me curious about other martial arts that I haven't tried, but there isn't enough time in my life to learn all the martial arts that I'm curious about.

Do I look down on the religious?

Hrm, this is a hard one to answer without sounding like an asshole. Some religious people I look down on for certain; scientologists, diehard creationists, theists who openly and proudly use their religion for the purpose of bigotry, and the like fall in that category. However, some religious people I look up to, despite completely disagreeing with many of their beliefs: Martin Luther King Jr., Pope John Paul II, Mahatma Ghandi, the Dalai Lama, and other such people who, despite their flaws (sometimes extremely glaring flaws), definitely did something good with their lives far beyond anything I could hope to achieve. That, of course, leaves the vast majority of the religious people who are neither saints nor psychopaths. What about them?

I disagree with them, obviously. Their proof for god is usually limited to "because" or "God is love" or some other groan inducing bit of "proof". But these people can range from profoundly stupid to wildly intelligent in every possible iteration of lifestyles, experience levels, jobs, etc. Do I look down on them all? Certainly not. A lot of people were raised with religion and don't know any better. And, as I'm finding out, a lot of those who people know atheists are ok with them. They aren't necessarily saying I should marry their daughters, but when I ask them if they think I'm going to hell for disagreeing with them, they don't hesitate when they tell me of course not.

The next group of theists are the "you're going to hell for being an atheist" types. This group consists of another dichotomy: the people who feel bad that I'm going to hell and want to help and the people who are looking forward to watching me burn in hell from heaven. The people who genuinely believe I'm going to hell, but just as genuinely want to help me find Jesus to save me, really, I'm ok with. I will rip right into them if they start a religious argument, don't get me wrong, but I appreciate that compassion is what leads them. It's entirely possible that they, as rational human beings, have looked at the same evidence that I did and came to a different conclusion. That happens all the time. I don't think they're right, but that's not a reason to look down on them.

That leaves "holier than thou" theists who don't care about compassion. I have no problems telling you that I look down on these people. However, there's an an entertaining parallel here: these theists who say "I know better than you and therefore I am better than you" have mirrors in the atheist world. I have experience with atheists who say they look down on all religious people. I don't really like the "I'm smarter than you" atheists any more than I like "holier than thou" theists. As far as I'm concerned, they're all assholes.

So do I look down on the religious? Sometimes, but usually no.