Have Some Woo-Woo With Your Whoop-Ass

Question from Ras:
Message: Hello, I as an atheist want to ask a question concerning martial arts.

My question (or should I say ‘problem’) is that I have a huge interest in Chinese, Korean and Japanese traditional martial arts (Shaolin, Takkyeon, Koryū, Tai chi etc.) but I don’t know if I should do them because of the Buddhism and Taoism involved, and I too am interested in learning Zen and Shingon.

Now don’t think I am contradicting myself, I seek evidence and knowledge first but because atheism doesn’t involve woo and all that I feel restricted from doing what I want, namely what I have mentioned before.

As an atheist what is your take? Sorry if my question isn’t making sense, I am being as coherent as possible.

Answer by SmartLX:
Many martial arts as set down by their creators have strong spiritual components, and I honestly don’t see the harm in learning about this aspect as you train physically. Indeed it can be beneficial, as the spiritual perspective of what you’re doing often informs the way you do it in a very practical way. The most common example is that visualising “chi” moving through your body is a great way to shift your momentum and force to the right places at the right times. My personal favourite is a Qi Gong exercise where you’re moving around an imaginary “dragon ball”, which of course is the basis for a long-running manga and anime.

Speaking more generally, since the creators had these images in mind when they designed the movements, if you use different imagery you might end up with subtle differences which make it look somehow wrong, and even cause it to be less effective in combat. So go ahead and learn the whole kit and caboodle, and then you can decide what is real and what is simply a mental aid to performance.

Yoga…inQUIRE! Yoga…inQUIRE!

Question from Jennifer:

I am doing a research paper on Peace Through Yoga and one of my reasons for suggesting yoga as path for achieving peace is that it can be practiced by anyone, of any faith. However, yoga is very much a spiritual practice and before recommending it to everyone I wanted to get an atheist perspective on the practice. I have read a few articles but none have fully answered my questions.

My main question, which may not be easily answered, is whether or not the benefits of yoga can truly be achieved by disregarding all spiritual aspects. I don’t know too very much about atheism so if you could also provide me some insight as to if you believe in any higher power than the individual self whatsoever, be it a collective conscientiousness or mind that would also be very helpful for me.

Thanks so much for your help!

Answer by SmartLX:
Likewise, I don’t know very much about yoga, but to answer your questions I don’t think I need to.

If you completely disregard the spiritual aspects of yoga, you are unlikely to benefit spiritually from it. If on the other hand you consider the spiritual aspects of it as you do it, without actually believing in the supernatural parts, you may very well benefit mentally as you do physically, in a way that could be called spiritual.

The chinese concept of chi (or ki or qi) is applied in quite practical ways to the martial arts of kung fu, tai chi and qi gong. Practitioners may visualise chi energy in and around their bodies, moving as they do, flowing and striking on command. There’s no evidence for the existence or any tangible physical effects of chi (which is a big problem for acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine), but to think this way while performing the movements makes them more satisfying, helps to maintain the precise forms of the techniques and creates a conducive, positive mental state.

There have got to be parallels between this and the Hindu-based spiritual aspects of yoga. Whatever spiritual effects are supposed to result from the physical practice of yoga, simply meditating on these for the duration will probably have measurable results on a person’s mental state, and eventually affect emotional wellbeing. Think of it as a mental aid to relaxation and stress release.

Moving on to the more general question, atheists usually don’t believe in any collective consciousness, because the existence of one would require a level of connection between individual minds that hasn’t yet been achieved. (A colony of ants or bees may behave as if it has a collective consciousness, hence the term “hive mind”, but this is just the outward impression given by thousands of insects following very simple instincts and communicating by scent or movement.)

There are however many entities which can be more powerful than a single human being, for example two human beings working as a plain old team. The more we co-operate, the more amazing things we can build and do. There’s also natural displays of power like earthquakes, tidal waves, evolution and continental drift, which can eclipse or destroy almost anything we build with the scale of their effects. Just because something is more powerful than you doesn’t mean it’s worth worshipping, or even cares if you do, so none of these serve as a substitute god.

P.S. The title is a Street Fighter II joke. I kept hearing Dhalsim in my head as I wrote this.

Telekinesis and the Laws of Science

“Many people believe in spiritual energies which are too nebulous to fit common definitions of gods, and yet have the ability to affect physical things in the ways you describe.”

Question from Joel:
I spent 5 years outside of the United States within the last decade, and I had the opportunity to travel all over the world. I used the time to define myself and what I believe in. I have close friends and colleagues that claim Atheism, but there are bridges that I just cannot cross. Although I have questioned my beliefs time and time again. In some third world nations I have come across people who can move things. Some seem to only have the power to move things on flat surfaces, where others could literally suspend things in air. They say their talents come from spiritual worship. My question to you would be, can there be a spiritual world and no God?

No need for the capital A, as I often say. If it’s theism instead of Theism, it’s atheism instead of Atheism.

To answer your question directly, just about anything’s possible. Many people believe in spiritual energies which are too nebulous to fit common definitions of gods, and yet have the ability to affect physical things in the ways you describe.
– Take for instance the Chinese concept of qi (pronounced chee, sometimes written as chi or ki). Some believers in qi think it comes from gods or godlike beings, but not all the believers do.
– Another instance is karma.
– The most famous such concept in contemporary fiction is probably the Force.

So according to many belief systems, the people you met could be mistaken about the source of their powers, if in fact they’re real. The reality of their abilities is where I would focus my attention: how could we prove or debunk these apparent acts of telekinesis? There might be a reason why they’re done in remote parts of the world, away from scrutiny.