31 January 2008

Religious Vocab! - "Tenet"

It always irks me when people get this one wrong.

The correct word is:
tenet n. - An opinion, belief, or principle held to be true by someone or especially an organization.
Which is not to be confused with:
tenant n. - One who pays rent in return for the use of land, buildings, or other property owned by others; an occupant.
Or even (hilariously, as I saw today):
tenement n. - a building that is rented to multiple tenants, especially a low-rent, run-down one.
The only people with a license to talk about religious tenants are landlords.

That is all.

22 January 2008

The Religiosity of Soviet Communism

As we all know, one of the commonest arguments against atheism is that it was responsible for the atrocities of the old Red Menace. And of course we've heard the rebuttals: 1) that coincidence doesn't imply cause, and 2) that the dogma of Bolshevism and the personality cult of Lenin and Stalin are sociologically indistinguishable from religion - and that when we argue against "religion," it is in many ways a shorthand for "dogma and cult."

The reason I bring it up is because I was just reading a collection of Soviet jokes linked to by P.Z.Myers, and in the footnote of joke #1.7 I learned an interesting little factoid I thought I'd share. Apparently one of the "commonest statements of the official propaganda" of the soviet union was the phrase:
Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin shall live.
Which immediately triggered my few remaining Catholic brain cells to regurgitate the phrase:
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
So, you ask: what the heck is a messianic promise doing in Stalinist propaganda? Aren't they supposed to be heartless godless atheist materialists with no belief in the supernatural? Did they really believe in the Second Coming of Lenin?

On the one hand, you could say that the phrase "Lenin shall live" was meant to be a metaphorical reference to the restoration of pure Leninist ideals - but you could just as easily turn around, as some liberal theologians do, and say the same about "Christ will come again." But on the other hand, just as the majority of Christians believe the statement literally, you can also bet that the Lenin Prophesy was, at some point and by some people, also taken at face value. With any written, canonical formula there will always be a spectrum of interpretation, from the literal to the figurative and everything in between. And so, ultimately, we see Lenin being treated as a religious figure despite the explicit atheism of his prescribed world order.

Highly dogmatic ideologies cannot help but coalesce around a central, charismatic figure who takes on the trappings of a god. This shouldn't be surprising. The Soviet people were forced to place their trust in Lenin, in the world he described and in the polity he shaped, even long after his death. Because if they didn't believe in Lenin's great vision, their already dubious society would crumble. But what happens when a large group of people put their faith and trust in a non-existent entity? He becomes a god. A god is not a god only because of his ontological status as a supernatural being (one who cannot be seen and who could make all our lives better in the blink of an eye but somehow never does). A god is also the receptacle of the wishes, hopes, faith, and trust that people place in him. And because the god can't speak for himself, he is what people say he is.

EDIT: From a piece of reading I did for a class this afternoon: on the subject of relics (material remains cum magical, religious objects) Stanley Tambiah has suggested that the charisma (in the Weberian sense) of a religious leader is or can be systematically concretized into his relics post mortem.1 Thus, the Embalmed Body of Lenin plays the same functional role as the Shards of the True Cross, Shroud of Turin, the Eucharist etc.: they are all posthumous repositories for the aura of personality that accrued to the 'holy man' both during and after his life.

1. Stanley Tambiah, Buddhist Saints of the Forest (1984), 335. Cited in John Strong "Buddhist Relics in Comparative Perspective," in Embodying the Dharma, ed. Germano and Trainor (SUNY, 2004), 38.

19 January 2008

Dictionary Discovery

Ben alerted me to a fascinating little bit of trivia the other day. Since he's busy with finals, hopefully he won't mind if I blog this for him. :-)

He wrote to me saying:
SO on my list of terms for tomorrow's exam is the phrase "Cherethites and Pelethites", which when translated from Bible-speak means "Cretans and Philistines". Now, obviously it's referring to people from Crete and people from Philistia........but since 'Philistine' is now synonymous with 'boor', I wondered if the Bible's hatred for people from Crete could be the origin of the word "cretin".

But when I looked it up, the answer was *EVEN BETTER THAN I HOPED*
Here, via dicitonary.com, are the definitions for "cretin":
1. a person suffering from cretinism [severe hypothyroidism resulting in physical and mental stunting].
2. a stupid, obtuse, or mentally defective person.
And the etymology:
[French crétin, from French dialectal, deformed and mentally retarded person found in certain Alpine valleys, from Vulgar Latin *christiānus, Christian, human being, poor fellow, from Latin Chrīstiānus, Christian; see Christian.]
HAHA! How about that?

Among other things, I do believe this vindicates Shalini's somewhat enthusiastic use of the term to refer to creationists.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

It started with Shelley at Retrospectacle. Evolving Thoughts' John Wilkins followed, and Kevin Z. of The Other 95% and Mike Haubrich of Tangled Up In Blue Guy solidified its memehood. And now I'm joining the fun.

It's quite the simple meme: share a poem that means something to you.

I've long been a fan of Robert Frost. Of all his work, this poem is particularly dear to me, because it is (in my opinion) one of the world's most misunderstood poems. Feel free to disagree with me, of course, but I stand firmly by my interpretation.
The Road Not Taken
by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The last stanza, especially the last three lines, are quoted regularly and have earned a place in our cultural lexicon. When you pay attention only to these lines, the poem becomes a celebration of individuality: you will find fulfillment by straying from the beaten path. As inspiring as that sentiment may be, however, it doesn't reflect the poem when considered in its entirety.

Though he'd prefer the less traveled road if given the option, the narrator states quite plainly that the the two paths before him are "worn... really about the same." The best he can do is pick one at random and hope for the best, because he knows that he won't return to try the other. Once his choice is made, he suddenly takes us "ages" into the future, where he imagines himself saying he made the right choice in choosing the less traveled road after all.

Why does Frost tell us the roads are equal, then say he took the one less traveled? One might think that perhaps the traveler was able to discern a difference between the roads after all, or that he simply got lucky in making the right choice. But both these interpretations, I think, ignore the most crucial piece of evidence: the title of the poem.

If this were simply a poem about individuality, Frost easily could have entitled it "The Road Less Traveled." But he didn't. Instead, the one thought looming literally over the whole poem is The Road Not Taken.

This poem is the tale of a man who wants to be an individual, a man who comes to a crossroads and must make a commitment. Yet once his decision is made, no matter how hard he tries to justify to himself that he made the right decision, there's still always the doubt hanging over his head, the regret that he'll never know what might have been.

And here am I, trying to find a career for myself.

12 January 2008

Ghosts, Ghouls, and God

EDIT: 14 Jan

For a while now, on and off, I've been trying to put together a biographical post about how I became an Atheist. It's turned out to be much, much larger than I had ever anticipated, and now I'm not really sure what I'll be able to do with it once it's finished. But in the meantime, I thought I would share a little piece I just wrote about a different side of the supernatural than the one we usually talk about here. If for no other reason, read it for the copious media links that may send you on a nice nostalgia trip.

The aspect of the supernatural that was the most influential in my early life is not the kind they tell you about in church.

I'm talking, of course, about all the little ghosts and ghouls that are everywhere you turn in our popular culture: vampires, skeletons, the undead...you name it, it freaked me the hell out. Now, growing up, I always thought of myself as being quite sanguine about most dangers in life, even life-threatening ones: car accidents, home invasion, tiger maulings, etc. I like to think I faced these prospects with all the hardy staunchness a boy in grade school could muster. But when it came to the other scary things that most boys my age took in stride, I went running. I even remember explaining it at the time: "if I can kill it, it doesn't bother me. It's just the stuff that's already dead..."

Thus, when my classmates were squealing with laughter over the simple, comical little ditty "The Ghost of John" in music class every October, I was busy covering my ears and shaking with abject terror. Despite being in his target age bracket at the height of his popularity, I never could pick up anything R.L. Stine ever wrote, nor could I ever sit through an entire episode of Nickelodeon's Are You Afraid of the Dark? (I knew the answer to that question already, thank-you-very-much). As though this weren't absurd enough, I was also terrified more than my fair share by the ghost of Jacob Marley every Christmas - and not just in his classic and genuinely creepy incarnation as Frank Finlay, either: Goofy and, later, Statler and Waldorf proved far more than I could handle (Oh, the chains! ::shudder::) Even on a show as benign as Sesame Street, the scene where Bert and Ernie dance with a reanimated Egyptian Mummy has burned itself into my memory as one of the most soul-crushingly ghastly things I've ever seen in my life. The same can be said of the Night on Bald Mountain sketch in Disney's Fantasia. Let's not even talk about the time my sister decided to take me to Spooky World. As icing on the cake, when I was seven my Father claimed to have been visited by the ghost of his then recently-deceased brother...in the room where I had been sleeping; needless to say (and I'm not making this up), after that particular event I didn't sleep quite as soundly again until approximately College.

I could go on, but I think I've made my point: getting abducted, squashed, thrown off a cliff, shot, stabbed - these were all things I could entertain in the abstract without so much as breaking a sweat. But just the thought of ghosts and skeletons could make me seriously lose my shit in a most uncomfortable way.

"So what?" you ask, "plenty of kids are afraid of the bogeyman. So you were a little weenie. Big deal." To which I respond with an emphatic YES! - I really was a giant weenie. But that's not the point. The point is how I dealt with it.

You see, my parents naturally found my crippling fear of the supernatural distressing, and did their best to help me conquer it. They told me over and over, with great patience and understanding, that the things that frightened me weren't real. If Pete Seeger's Abiyoyo the Giant existed anywhere on earth, surely modern man would have found him by now. There were no ghosts (Dad's brother notwithstanding), and skeletons never got up to walk around; there were no witches, no banshees, no devils, no monsters of any sort. They were simply all in my head.

And you know what? I accepted this explanation completely, and believed them implicitly. Their appeals to my rationality, my skepticism, my tiny little critical apparatus really worked, insofar as they helped me to understand that the things I was afraid of didn't have any objective reality.

But - and here's the crucial part - it didn't help one goddamned bit. I really, honestly knew with the same conviction that I know that objects fall and the earth is round, that there was absolutely no way that (for example) a skeletal hand could ever, ever reach up from underneath my bed to grab me while I was sleeping. But all the rational certainty in the world didn't mean squat to me, because once the mental image had taken hold, no amount of reason could ever eradicate it from my imagination. Eventually I managed to get over these crippling and totally irrational fears, but only through maturity and sheer force of will, because intellectually I had known all along that there was never anything to be afraid of. Even now (although by leaps and bounds less than when I was a child), if I let myself entertain creepy thoughts for long enough they will seize me in the same way, and despite having the keen mind of a seasoned materialist skeptic I'll be unable to think my way out of the jibbly-jibblies. I'm sure most of you can relate.

The reason I mention all of this is to explain how, very early on, I discovered that there there was a deep division between objective reality and the processes of my little mind, which conjured a world of horrible phantoms that were no less terrifying for their non-existence. (Sometimes I wonder if FDR wasn't talking about people like me back in his first inaugural address.) When I was scared I existed, simultaneously, in two different mentally-constructed worlds: one which was grounded in objective, observable reality, and the other that was dominated by the power of my imagination. After thinking on this for a while, I came to the understanding that human mental processes have the power to create fictions so powerful and so compelling that even a thoroughly rational person will have no choice but to act and react as though these fantasies were objectively real. His interactions with and emotional responses to the world, despite the grounding effect of reason, seem inevitably to give greater urgency to the more threatening world of the imagination.

Now I hope you all see how my rambling relates to religion. My own personal familiarity with the way this experience worked in my own mind is now a paradigm I use to try to understand how some intelligent and well-educated people can persist in their belief in god. Perhaps, for them, a religious world-view has the same effect and takes up the same mental real estate that ghosts did for me. Perhaps God, for them, lives so vividly in the imagination that, despite all rational evidence or belief to the contrary, they cannot help but act and react as though their fantasy were objectively real.

04 January 2008

Love You, Grandpop

It's funny, the things that stick with us. If I've ever addressed you as "mate," you have my grandfather (on my father's side) to thank for it. It's a mannerism he picked up in the Navy, one that is apparently easily passed from father to son. I imagine it'll only get more prevalent as I get older.

Grandpop passed away this morning. It's not really something I feel like talking at length about right now, but I'd feel remiss if I didn't at least mention it.

His health had been deteriorating for some time. Ultimately, when the last spell meant either being put on a respirator or simply being given drugs to ease the pain, he chose the latter, and I don't blame him. His wife and children were with him at the end, and he had the comfort of having seen his grandchildren just weeks prior at Christmas and Thanksgiving. All in all, there are worse ways to go.

Take care.

Bring tea for the Tillerman,
Steak for the son,
Wine for the woman who made the rain come.

Seagulls, sing your hearts away
'Cause while the sinners sin,
The children play.

Oh, Lord, how they play and play
For that happy day.
For that happy day.

(Cat Stevens tends to help when I'm feeling somber...)