29 April 2007

that's delicious ethno-centrism

Oh, the Portuguese. This is a lovely, typical White Man's account of a primitive people. Case in point: "the people of Europe have the advantage of them in colour but not in other things" (57) -- obviously the statement of a man (and product of a culture) who considers himself fundamentally superior to anyone who looks different.

There's more, too. Everything about what he says makes the Ethiopians seem unbearably primitive. For example, he describes in great detail the clothing of the poorest people, and the ridiculous attention "they" lavish on their hair. I especially enjoyed his long tirade about circumcision, and how (he explains) they just sort of, you know, do it because they didn't see a reason to stop, and not because they actually think it's valuable.

Overall, the whole tone of the piece imparts a real sense of disdain -- and I laughed out loud when he actually said it on p. 84!! Not outright, of course (he dodges it a bit), but it's obvious without being quotable.

In a very general sense, I feel like this is a totally natural human reaction, though it's far from commendable. We mentioned in the beginning of the term that religion can be used to impart a sense of group identity -- in this case, many of the "primitives" are actually of the same religion, so it can't be used to divide. Then other factors have to be used, and color is the obvious one. But even beyond that, it seems to me like the author really goes out of his way to emphasize (particularly through the dry narrative style) that though these people are technically Christian, they're still really just despicable heathens to his superior European eyes.

"I can make you feel ... special...."

Ok, so, Kebra Negast? Yeah. It's obvious that it's intended to make the Ethiopian Christians feel special in the overall context of Christianity, but is that so rare? Everybody wants to feel special. Look at American Idol, or any other reality show. Look at the huge market for customizable merchandise. Even in religion, it's not uncommon. Lutherans have Martin Luther, who was special, so they're special by association. The Book of Mormon, The Church of England, etc. Even little kids sing "Jesus loves me, this I know." There's a huge emphasis in Christianity that every follower is special and loved.

I'm surprised more people haven't gone this direction with Christianity.

Originally this was longer and better but windoze died, so this is all you get today.

26 April 2007

First Church of Darwin Environmentalist

This post is going to be a little bit off of normal, but I went to the talk last Tuesday by Professor Thomas Dunlap on environmentalism as a secular religion.

Dr. Dunlap described environmentalism as something that requires a faith in nature -- belief that the natural way of things is superior to a technology-centered world. In this way of seeing things, the reason that environmentalism still has such strong opponents is that the other side firmly believes that technology can and will fix the problems we face -- and who's to say which side is right? The fuzzy, predictive nature of this definitely reminds me of religious debate, even though there's no "god" or something.

Additionally, the current environmentalist reform movement has many of the characteristics of a religion that we pay attention to in class. It uses moral language to guide the daily life of its followers, it seeks to explain humans' relation to the world they live in and answer ultimate questions, and it has been around far longer than most other reform movements -- so long that it has been able to morph into this "secular religion" that dominates some people's sense of ethics.

To take it even farther, he mentioned that some environmentalists are even using established religions (especially Christianity) to further their cause, with stickers and brochures along the lines of "Jesus wants us to save the butterflies."

Really a good talk, touched on a lot of things we discuss in class. Mostly I wanted to provide an example of how religion may be more and more prevalent than we think, if we hold with our definition.

24 April 2007


Ted's recent post is, I think, what I would have said after I finished ranting about Sam Harris. Violence is an intrinsic and un-ignorable part of human nature. It's why we love football, James Bond, and Halo. It's why it's a big deal that Appleton's violent crime rate is so low. Even people who are normally peaceful and pacifistic sometimes get the urge to punch people in the face. I know I do.

I think it's important not to deny this facet of human nature, especially when looking at the more violent passages of the Koran. I fully agree with Ted that acknowledging this side of human nature is not necessarily condoning it, and it's totally unfair to ignore all the millions of peaceful Muslims. And then there's the allegorical view of everything -- I know I didn't have trouble looking at those "awful violent quotes" and taking them metaphorically. In fact, it was really easy.

I suppose, ultimately, it comes down to what you consider good and bad. Is it good to believe that ignoring something bad will make it go away? Or is it good to face up to your inherent deficiencies? I believe the latter.

18 April 2007

"You can use facts to prove anything that's even remotely true!"

Sam Harris is a very skilled writer.

Now that I've gotten the obligatory "something nice" out of the way, geez-o-pete! [Beware of links in this post -- I'm expressing my anger with silly websites.] Second page: ignoring context much?? Broad generalizations! Unfair hyperbole! And the poetry of it is beautiful, which makes it so much worse. This is possibly the worst thing I've ever read. It makes the Enlightenment cry. And it's not even a physical thing.

Harris points out -- but seems not to notice the parallel, exactly -- that the progression of Islam (at least as he sees it) is right on track with Christianity, offset by 600 years because, well, it's that much younger. It's like the "terrible twos" of religion or something -- a bunch of devout followers decide they need to go on a crusade while the levelheaded moderates hide and keep their mouths shut. Though he is against all religions, he says, he is inordinately unfair to Islam, probably because it's happening now and not in the middle ages.

He also "supports" his argument with all sorts of misguided "facts" that really made me angry. As an avid atheist, I'd think he would be better acquainted with proper epistemological and rational reasoning skills. I've outlined some of my favorite claims below:

  • Saying that "lesser" jihad is a "central feature of the [Muslim] faith" (111) is like saying that burning heretics is a "central feature" of Catholicism. It's simply the most visible part.
  • He insists that Muslims are out to conquer the world as an ultimate goal of jihad, a point which is entirely unsupported by any evidence whatever, and to me seems just plain foolish. This would be a blatant attack, which is not defense of Islam.
  • His quotes from the hadith are, actually, not specifically about attack, if read with more than cursory attention. They could be construed this way, of course, but there is nothing in their context to suggest that this is the proper reading -- he is interpreting "fighting" in a far too restricted matter, as only physical battle, and then assuming that it also means against any non-Muslim. This is simply ridiculous.
  • "But this injunction [in the Koran, to not be the aggressor] restrains no one." That's just false.
  • And then on p. 113 he has the audacity to mention that someone else's argument "might be misleading."
  • P. 123, on his five pages of quotes: "This is all desperately tedious, of course." Then why did you put it there? Out-of-context quotes are all but meaningless, Sam. You can make them mean anything you want. And then he personally attacks anyone who dissents. Now that's bad sportsmanship.
  • P. 124-5: Math cries. 75% of possible responses to the question were grouped into one column in the table, 25% into another, and a response not offered was in the third. He doesn't explain how he did this, either, or even try to explain the addition problem. I find that sufficiently disturbing. Imagine if this man took care of important numbers. NO, NO, NO, NO, NO!! EVERYTHING HERE IS INTENTIONALLY MISLEADING.
If I don't stop now, this will just become an angry ramble, and the Interwub has too many of those. This book is the work of a man with an agenda, and he's going to get it across whether it's legitimate or not, and rationality be damned! Or... some atheistic equivalent. Ahem.

The world is in an unstable state. Some people fight to keep it from being worse, others incite the anger of the moderates and extremists alike. It breaks my heart when obviously intelligent people use their gifts to mislead others to accepting disgusting propositions like this, when they could be helping to provide the voice of reason our planet so desperately needs.

Oh well. Give it a hundred years, and we won't recognize this place anyways.

17 April 2007

chicken of the sea

I think the thing I like best about The Zohar is that it insists that it is not a replacement of or alternative to the Torah, but, in its words, a "garment," something that Torah wears and that enhances its inherent qualities. I think this is a wonderful analogy -- even gorgeous people wear clothing! It (at least more recently) is designed to enhance the body, not cover or distract from it. This seems to be the ideal way to present interpretation.

Additionally, the introduction to Zohar presents it as the mere words and story of Torah (p.43), which is the important part. It's like Zohar is the Cliff's Notes version of Torah, to put it ungracefully. But unlike Cliff's Notes, the author of this text emphasizes that "Whoever thinks the garment is the real Torah / and not something else --/ may his spirit deflate!" (43) -- that is, this can never be as good as the real thing, and is just supplementary.

But while Zohar emphasizes the truth of Torah, it's not like the "Bible-thumping literalists" who insist that you have to take every word as literally fact. Zohar takes Torah and adapts it to the circumstances of "modern" readers, whenever "modern" may be. It takes the writings of Torah and sees them (realistically) as allegory, which, the intro also says, is vital to Torah itself! So there's symbiosis between the text and its garment -- Zohar is flat and meaningless without Torah, and Torah needs the garment of Zohar to be useful in the world.

Furthermore, I think it may be useful to extend this relationship back and see it between Torah and YHVH (or Bible and God, if you swing that way) as well. For me and my beliefs, I think this is a good and perhaps important way to think about God. We (they?) say the Bible was divinely inspired -- as the Zohar was Torah-inspired. With this parallel, I can think of God as being the Ultimate Truth (capitalization makes it epic!), and the Bible as that seen through the lens of reality and presented in a way that is (more) accessible to us. The difference is that we have no way to directly study God as we could the Torah. Nevertheless, I still feel like as the Zohar is a "dumbing-down" (to be ungraceful again) of Torah, so Torah and the Bible are a "dumbing-down" of YHVH/God (they're essentially the same thing, toss in Jehovah, Allah, etc.etc. for good measure). There is good give-and-take, but they are not equal.

I'll invoke my title to get to a conclusion here. We use allegory every day -- Chicken of the Sea isn't poultry, my Windoze desktop is not literally the top of a desk, the Bible is not God. Allegory can help us understand things that may be far too complicated otherwise, but it's not the actual , 100% truth. Still, though. It's good. Just keep things in perspective :)


Just to show that any religion can have wacky marketing associated: The Eye of Zohar Board Game (like a Ouija board -- scroll to almost the bottom - picture of a glow-in the-dark green thing with an eye on top). It's also featured in a song (on the album of the same name) by the Kabalas, a klezmer/pop group.

16 April 2007


The following is a response to Sam Harris and Muslim Fundamentalism, Noelle's recent post.

Noelle's points about oversimplification caught my eye as I was reading today. This is one of the biggest problems that I personally have with a lot of the discussion that occurs around religion, and in fact any debate that involves "othering". There is a lot of danger in making generalizations about a group, since in most cases membership in a specific group is not the individual's only trait descriptor.

I think what I'm basically saying is that we, in class and as human beings, need to think more about other people as individuals who have desires and needs similar to our own, and not as some mass of bodies who are out to get us, etc. This is a vital part of context that we often forget about, and as we talked about in class today, context is what guides our search for meaning in things that are as full of symbolism and allegory as religion.

When we ignore or forget that other people are, in fact, also people, we run into things like Sam Harris (see Noelle's) -- I, too, can hardly believe he's taken seriously, if he says things like that. But I suppose it happens because his readers get sucked into the ease of generalizing and begin to not want to question if it's actually accurate.

Finally, I want to say that we need to remember that traditional belief is not, by itself, a valid reason to take something as truth! For gajillions of years, people thought the Earth was flat, and the sun, stars, and everything moved around in a hemisphere of sky. Obviously false, we know now, thanks in part to Galileo, and no thanks to the Church of his time -- their fear of going away from the safety of tradition caused enormous problems for the Enlightenment. So my point is think for yourself, everyone, and remember that other people are people, too.


Another interesting religion-related blog entry I came across today can be found here. Not strictly related, but I enjoyed reading it.

10 April 2007


(Oi!! Damn WINDOZE to the fiery depths of Heck. Yucksy late postings.)

I really feel like the only way I can connect Grizzly Man to anything even remotely religious (in the usual modern sense) is to see his desire to "become one" with the bears as akin to the way that followers of a religion want to become one with God, in some way. In other ways, I think it may be more similar to the Buddhist desire to achieve Nirvana, to become deeply tied to the natural world.

But in any case, something drove this man to do things that common sense says are impossible or stupid. In future generations, this may even become the foundation of some sort of organized religion -- to me, it parallels martyrdom. It's as if some sort of religious drive, or directive from God, told him that it was his duty in life to be as bear-like as humanly possible and then share the teachings with the people, blah blah blah.


One of the things that really stuck out to me about Origen's commentary on Lamentations was the constant reference to Jerusalem as a woman. This is apparent right away in the text of the commentary, first when it is referred to as "she" and later when he takes the metaphor and runs with it, equating "her" to a "widow" and several other things.

While I understand that referring to cities (and other things) in the feminine is sort of a common practice, and I agree that extending metaphors beyond what some consider reasonable is fun, I wonder if this is perhaps too much of a stretch. Origen seems to be committing the same deed as anyone who interprets literature, in that he somehow manages to pull a page of meaning out of a sentence, when I don't really think the author himself put in much symbolism beyond alef bet.

But I do think that this tendency for people to read in "too much" stems from the same impulse that drives us to want and need religion, our need for there to be something beyond our everyday experience, for there to be underlying reason and causality, even for randomness. It seems appropriate, then, that this detailed examination is of a religious text.

05 April 2007

mounds and mounds

First of all, I'm glad we're finally on to something recognizable as a religion in the modern sense. We know enough about the Midwestern Native Americans of the past couple millennia to be able to make reasonable assumptions about what their artifacts mean, and they were biologically modern so we know they had the capacity for symbolic thought, etc. Also oral tradition of the tribes involved (the Ho-Chunk were mentioned) seems to me to be a very valuable source of interpretation.

In most Wisconsin public schools, children in later elementary school do a unit in Social Studies about state history, covering (generally) the ice age, Native Americans including the mound builders, the arrival of the French fur traders, STATEHOOD, and modern goings-on. I was no exception, and my class actually took a field trip to a park in the Milwaukee-esque area that had some mounds preserved. [As a side note, the effigy mounds (and Indian culture in general) are so prevalent in the history of the Milwaukee area that one of the major roads near my house (in Wauwatosa, which is derived from a Potawatomi word) is named for them - Blue Mound Road.] Effigy mounds are very unusual things -- they are quite large in the horizontal dimensions, and tall enough and with steep enough sides that you know something's going on, even if it's an area that was visited by The Glacier [on another side note, I sometimes wonder if glacial features like moraines are ever mistaken for mounds ... though probably not, since the sediment would be very different]. I didn't comprehend it fully at the time, but this is an artifact of a people whose religion was very much a central part of their lives (though perhaps not to the extent of the ancient Egyptians), and they had a very well-developed and complex mythology that motivated this construction.

One of the things I found particularly intriguing about the things revealed by the effigy mounds and their patterns was the related categorization of groups based (primarily, it seems) on geography, and the hierarchy implied by this, since the spirits from which they derived their names had specific temperaments and powers. To me, this implies also a stratification between groups and their "classes," and it seems like an almost unintuitive system. Of course the Warrior group will be happy with their lot, they're the best and most powerful. But what about the lower classes? I mean, if you were a Worm, but you could've been born a Thunderbird, would you be happy/proud? I'm sure there was some conflict between tribes of different status -- the chapter specifically mentions signs of violent death in some exhumed bones. But at the same time, this divisionism persisted. It seems to me that (given my somewhat cynical view of human nature) this indicates an appropriately full understanding of the importance of balance, something that was mentioned frequently in the chapter (particularly regarding the use of non-site-type effigies) and that seems to be somewhat lacking recently (cynicism again).

In general, the unity over large areas is a very impressive characteristic of this religion, though it's not strictly "community" in this sense since they probably rarely met. And in those cases there was killing.

03 April 2007

happy something...

by BellZ@DeviantArt
happy Easter/April/whatever :)

computers vs. religion?

This entry is motivated by Dan's recent post, Technology and Religion.

Dan's main point in his post seems to be that the advent and development of technology has been detrimental to the human experience of religion, and its importance in daily life. It's impossible to contend that technology has not drastically changed the human experience, but I disagree that religion has been affected in a "negative" way by the connectedness provided by technology.

Of course, however, the first thing I thought of was Futurama and Bender's adventure in Robotology, led by the little guy to the left there. Matt Groening's point there appears to be something like "technology-based religions are just as whack as regular ones," but it's hard to say. A religion that worships technology is a bit strange, but that's not my point right now.

Anyways, I think that technological interconnectedness has benefited religion in many of the same ways it has benefited other forms of community, to first look at religion in that sense. In the modern world of billions of people and all sorts of exciting places to go, religious wobsites, chatrooms, bulletin boards, and everything else can help unite people who might otherwise be too sundered to ever meet in person. This also lets people feel connected to one another in general, in a world so large that it's easy to feel insignificant and unnoticed.

Dan also mentioned that because we are in contact with so many different types of people, we also encounter things that challenge our religion, which creates conflict. I think his point was that this sort of thing either didn't happen much at all or happened only rarely among early peoples. However, I think we can't make such direct comparisons to our distant ancestors -- we have obviously evolved a lot in many different areas since then. They may have been unable to handle differences in opinion, but many modern people pride themselves on tolerance, which often shows up in religion itself, particularly Christianity.* I think that, even though we're not there yet, our society is inevitably moving toward a truly unified global community. It will probably take a while, but the alternative is total annihilation.

*To quote Douglas Adams, Jesus was "nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change".

01 April 2007

"sex and violence down the mines"

Never mind the title, OK. And APRIL FOOLS on the massively long reading, right? ...right? ickys.

I don't know about the rest of you, but I had immense trouble wading through "The Nature of Paleolithic Art" after about the first 20 pages and it began rambling about reindeer. What? I think I picked out a couple of things before my brain switched off, though, so here it is. (No offense to anyone who really liked it, I just couldn't focus.)

Mostly, I felt really validated when the article mentioned the prevalence of sexual images when humans were involved in cave art, since the man in the Lascaux cave has a pretty obvious (to me) erection. I doubted myself a little when the site didn't mention it (evidently they like bison entrails better), but in the context of a lot of other prehistoric and even modern "pagan" artwork, it makes a lot of sense. I'm sure the first thing that comes to most people's minds when you mention paganism is fertility rites and other various rituals involving the harvest, the hunt, etc, which are portrayed in the cave paintings.

To connect a bit to previous readings, the incidence of cave painting tells me conclusively that these people were capable of abstract thought, at least to some degree. Art itself is a form of abstract representation, and the simple act of creating an image is a form of expression. My favorite example of this is Marcel Duchamp's The Fountain (1912), where the artist's intention is the entire point of the piece, and it's not physically what it's intended to be, kind of. Anyhow, this is Dada, and the point of Dada is that all art is just representation, and it can never actually
be what it's portraying.. Since these paleolithic artists were capable of seeing beyond a horse to a 2-D smear that looks like a horse, it stands to reason that they had the capabilities for a religion of sorts, which likely revolved around the large mammals they lived with and fertility. At this point in human evolution, religion became possible.