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against the world
Tuesday, 3 August 2010
Glenn Beck vs Reality, Redux
Mood:  mischievious
Now Playing: Portishead
Beck's been having a go at the Weather Underground lately. They seem an easy target, a bunch of students so radical they had to break off, essentially, from first SDS and then from RYM and even had to break off of their own organization, Weatherman (or the Weathermen) when things started to get violent. But, as per usual with Beck, his version of reality is a little different from actual reality.

First, a simple factual thing—and this one bugs me because in response to Beck's claim that no one in the Minutemen ever killed anyone, I cited online the murder of Raul Flores and his 9-year old daughter by Minutemen members Jason Bush, Shawna Forde, and Albert Gaxiola. The best anyone could counter was that these men were members not of THE Minutemen but a smaller group also called Minutemen. So, when Beck claims the Weather Underground "robbed a Brinks armored car, killing two cops [and a security guard] in the process," it's necessary to point out a couple flaws:

1) The Brinks robbery was committed by the Black Liberation Front, which included former members of the Weather Underground, notably David Gilbert and Kathy Boudin, who went to prison over it.
2) The Weather Underground no longer existed when this crime took place. Jeremy Varon, in his book, Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies, suggest Weatherman (known by then as the Weather Underground or WUO) "disbanded voluntarily in 1976" while a 1977 bombing of Immigration and Naturalization Services in San Francisco has been attributed, as its last, to the organization. The armored car robbery took place in 1981.

Beck's need to attribute the robbery to the Weather Underground is an important detail; Weatherman never killed anyone except for 3 of its own members in an accidental explosion. Sure, the organization dealt in violence, sure, as Beck likes to cite from the preface to Sing a Battle Song: The Revolutionary Poetry, Statements, and Communiques of the Weather Underground" [they] "rejoice at the militant resistance to war, racism and imperialism," but what's a little property damage when you can pretend they killed people?

It's worth mentioning, here, that in that preface, they also say that they "cringe at the overheated rhetoric and the bombast" in their Weatherman-era writings. They know how over-the-top they were, how radical.

But, back to Beck, and his attack on the Weather Underground [sic]. In the "manifesto" of Weatherman, the document entitled "You'd Don't Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows," the word "dictator" can be found once, the word "dictatorship" twice. Beck would have his audience believe the goal of the manifesto and of the organization was to "their words 'institute communism and a dictator'" (Beck's tv program, 2 August 2010). Now, my quoting of his quote has a minor problem in where to place the quotation marks (red state news only quotes it just like I chose to). Beck calls them "their words" but uses a phrase that is NOT in their manifesto. For the record, "instituted" appears once and "institutes" appears once, neither one connected to communism. Some context: they refer to "the possibility of wage-price controls being instituted" and they refer to "pig institutes" needing to be "out." But, more importantly is the use of "dictator." The manifesto refers to "empire[s] and petty dictator[s]… in the long run [being] dependent on US imperialism," the obvious inference without further context being that, since Imperialism is bad in the eyes of Weatherman, these "dictator"s are bad as well. This clearly isn't the dictator to which Glenn Beck is referring, so let's move on.

In referencing the historical struggle for self determination in Vietnam and China, the manifesto suggests the first stage is "a united front against imperialism and for New Democracy (which is a joint dictatorship of anti-colonial classes led by the proletariat, the content of which is a compromise between the interests of the proletariat and nationalist peasants, petit bourgeoisie and national bourgeoisie)." This "dictatorship" is the decision-making being handed over to the proletariat masses, not an individual dictator—this distinction is important, as you will see below. The manifesto also says, "some people suggest two stages for the US too—one to stop imperialism, the anti-imperialist stage, and another to achieve the dictatorship of the proletariat, the socialist stage" Now, that "some people suggest" phrase distances the organization from the pronouncement, but that wouldn't stop Beck from arguing that the manifesto is calling directly for the "dictatorship of the proletariat." Let's give him the benefit of the doubt; let's say the organization used distancing phrasing but still wanted such dictatorship—it's a safe assumption. But, still, the key here is that they refer to not A dictator but dictatorship, decision-making… i.e. government by the proletariat. For the layperson in my readership, let's define that one (not to get into defining things just yet): in Marxist use—and Weatherman was a self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist organization, so this would be fair use—the proletariat are those who do not own the means of production. This would mean that most of Beck's audience—not that he would acknowledge this or, God forbid, ever use the term—IS in the proletariat. The Tea Party, grass roots movement set on ousting Obama so "we the people" can be in charge—that's right in line with proletariat dictatorship. Simply put, Weatherman wanted what the Tea Party wants, for the PEOPLE to make the decisions.

But, why simplify?

On to definitions; and here is where Beck makes his play for an Emmy (in my opinion). Given the three uses of "dictator" or its variants in the Weatherman manifesto, let's take a look at what Beck had to say in his TV show, 29 July:

"The goal of the Weather Underground—this is their manifesto written in 1969—the goal was a dictatorship of a new democracy that developed into socialism… end capitalism and imperialism in the United States and replace it with a new democracy with a dictator and global socialism." Aside from his switch from "dictatorship" to "a dictator" he's getting it fairly correct.

"Now, let's—let's focus for a minute on what dictatorship really is. A dictatorship—according to the dictionary that I have but that could be rewritten now—is an autocratic form of government in which the government is ruled by an individual, the dictator. Pretty simple."

Pretty simple, except for the clear phrasing the Weatherman manifesto, the "dictatorship of the proletariat." That phrase is a Marxist one, suggesting not an autocratic ruler in the style of a Roman dictator (nevermind the temporary nature of that title, historically), but something closer to direct democracy, the populace, the masses, the proletariat dictating the goings on. So, no it isn't "pretty simple" because Beck has taken one word out of one phrase out of a document of more than 2 dozen pages, and defined it… well, like a dictator would, I suppose, giving it one simple, specific, definition, instead of bothering with any of the nuance of 1) the English language, or 2) Marxist terminology. In Marxist terms, the "dictatorship of the proletariat" is a response to the "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie." For the layperson, the bourgeoisie, in Marxist terms, is the class that owns the means of production, i.e. the money that owns and lobbies the government nowadays, "a kind of congressional-financial-bureaucratic complex in which the needs and concerns of the unconnected were secondary to those who were on the inside" (Jon Meacham, "American Lion"). Even Beck's most devout followers would agree that, in the words of Andrew Jackson, "the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes." Beck's people like to argue about class conflict plenty. They just don't want to use Marxist terms.

"Never in America," Beck goes on to say. "It could never happen in America. That's why these people failed in 1969." Minor factual nitpick: they didn't fail in 1969; in fact in 1969, Weatherman hadn't even really gotten started. And, given the fact that the Vietnam War DID end, given the fact that the two big names in the Weather Underground, Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, went free because the FBI liked to do illegal things, where's the failure? Sure, they didn't get their "dictatorship of the proletariat." But, 1) Beck would have us believe they are still working toward that, so if the process is still ongoing, it can't have already failed, and 2) even the Tea Party wants "dictatorship of the proletariat" so, wouldn't that be success, when those who stand antithetical to you want what you want?

Beck asks: "are we headed in the direction of more power going to you or the government?" Missing the point, deliberately, that Weatherman and its smaller successor, the Weather Underground, wanted more power to go to YOU.

"See, dictator is a really bad word," he says. He got that right. "But if we replace "dictator" with 'all powerful,' 'all powerful government,' well, which is it going to?" Now, he's onto his usual angle—the government is seizing all power and we the people will suffer. There's no longer any connection here to the Weather Underground, except he's done his usual segue, connecting things by juxtaposition and association. He suggests, but in question form, that we are headed toward "a government controlled by the few," except, Weatherman didn't want a government controlled by the few. Or, would Beck have us believe that the proletariat, the working people, are few in number?

Folks online love to wish for violence or death (or sometimes threaten it directly) on Obama, on Muslims planning a mosque a couple blocks from ground zero, on politicians who use Marxist rhetoric, on me, simply for saying in my Facebook profile that I have Marxist tendencies. We Americans love our violence. Weatherman, or rather the Weather Underground, went forward with its violence. The WUO stood up to the man. It's the kind of thing we should idolize in this country… if only its goal wasn't socialist.

Just gotta remember. Violence is great, when it's OUR violence. When it's their's, well then, it's an abomination.

Posted by ca4/muaddib at 9:32 AM PDT
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Sunday, 13 June 2010
Neither a Bokononist Nor a Mercerite Be [1]
The Pirahã, a people who live in a handful of villages along the Maici river in northwest Brazil, have no religion as we know the concept. They believe in energy within living things that translate generally as “spirits” but their daily lives are built around an idea called xibipíio, what author and Pirahã expert Daniel Everett [2] describes as experiential liminilality, that is, limiting their interaction with the world to direct experience. They have no origin story for themselves or the world, and have no real concept of the universe, because such things would lie outside personal experience or the experience of, say, a grandparent or parent who could tell such tale [3]. They have no real connection with the past, but don’t need one. They simply don’t experience the world the same way we might. So, they do not need to “meditate on positive imagery” to get the neurological benefits of religion, as described by “neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, therapist Mark Robert Waldman, and their research team, [who] have concluded that active and positive spiritual belief changes the human brain for the better” [4]. The Pirahã can simply laze about in the shade or play tag with river dolphins—yes, they actually do this—to escape the rigors of daily life. We need religion. Religion serves many purposes for us: it provides escape and comfort and meaning, it helps us have a sense of continuity with the past and the future, it helps form our identity and expand it into community solidarity and a cultural identity, it provides a ready ethical guide for behavioral control, and it justifies consumption and negative actions taken against those outside our religious community.


Religion provides escape and comfort and, most importantly, meaning, by providing a cosmology to explain the structure of reality, giving us a way to transcend the quotidian and find purpose in the everyday. The walls of religion are “familiar / comforting” [5]. Even when our religion has “been remodeled time / and again… the basic structure / remains the same” [6]. We know it; we find it comforting, our sense of understanding of how everything works. Religion serves as explanation, as bastion of order. Geneticist Dean Hamer has suggested that “humans inherit a predisposition to be spiritual—to reach out and look for a higher being” [7] and it is in this predisposition—which, even outside of genetics, makes logical sense, as every society throughout human history has included some sort of religion, even if only in the form of civil religion—that we can see a piece of the fundamental nature of mankind. We want to know how the universe works, and when the explanation does not present itself, we invent one to fit. And, we invent religion to separate us from the day to day, to help us transcend the mundane. The New Horizon Sanctuary addition to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia was specifically designed (with African cultural history in mind, tying into a point to come below) as a place of beauty separate from the city around it, an escape from the outside world. Similarly, the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California stands out from its surroundings, a beacon of something (supposedly) higher and brighter and better than the surrounding cityscape [8]. This separation from the everyday is vital. As Sita Wiener describes it, “as I sat there and meditated, I had the experience of transcending my body and mind, realizing myself as Omnipresent. I forgot my individuality” [9]. Finding explanation that brings us up away from the chaos of the quotidian can bring us out of ourselves, and can help us find our personal identity, and can lead to the continuity and community to be described below, all these purposes crisscrossing, fueling one another.

It is also important to realize that religion can reduce stress and anxiety. As Andrew Newberg and his colleagues found, “just twelve minutes of meditation per day may slow down the aging process” and “contemplating a loving God… reduces anxiety, depression, and stress and increases feelings of security, compassion, and love” [10]. In fact, prayer and meditation have been found to “permanently change numerous structures and functions in the brain—altering your values and the way you perceive reality” [11]. Meditating on the cosmology in which one believes, even only inasmuch as one might meditate on it in a weekly (or less often) church meeting, can permanently alter our brains so that not only does the cosmology we’ve accepted make even more sense to us, but we can become better people… in theory.

It is worth noting (even in getting ahead of the current point) that, even as we believe we can be better people, we often “believe ourselves to be members of a race that is fundamentally flawed and inherently doomed to suffering and misery…

[We] expect wisdom to be a rare commodity, difficult to acquire… [we]’re not surprised to be living in the midst of poverty, injustice, and crime, not surprised that [our] rules are self-serving and corrupt, not surprised to be rendering the world uninhabitable for [our]selves. [12]

It helps that, through religion we have a certain arrogance of knowledge, the oft referenced “holier-than-thou” attitude, arising from the comfort and order we find in cosmology. This arrogance of knowledge adds to the altering of the physical brain; in believing that the foundations of our religion is given by a God or comes from some superior (but not necessarily supernatural) intelligence, we fuel a psychological sense that our beliefs are good and reasonable and worth keeping. And, the longer such beliefs remain, the more ingrained they can become, physically and psychologically, and the more worth keeping they seem—after all, if they lasted as long as they have, they must be working.


Religion it helps us have a sense of continuity with the past and the future. Seeking the holy, aside from the obvious comfort described above, is about finding continuity in addition to order. We want a connection to the past [13]. We want to know that the church we are attending—the physical structure, like the Old Ship Meetinghouse [14] in Hingham, Massachusetts, the oldest meetinghouse in continuous ecclesiastical use, having been originally built in the 1600s; or the idea structure, like Hinduism, often recognized as the oldest living religion in the world—has survived generations before us. We want to know that it will survive after us.

It is because of this need for continuity that the selection of the next Dalai Lama is such an important one for Tibetan Buddhists, “more than a matter of life and death” [15]. The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is the 14th. His position has existed longer than some other religions have. His reincarnation keeps the religion going, keeps the order and comfort going. For Tibetan Buddhists, the selection of the next Dalai Lama, which Communist China threatens to influence, is “about who controls their future” [16].

Of similar importance (but not so contemporary) is the promise in Jeremiah, the promise that God “will restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob… the city shall be rebuilt upon its mound, and the palace shall stand where it used to be” [17]. The passage refers to a specific people, a specific time and place, but later Christians have applied it to themselves. They reinterpret it to fit with their own cosmology, their own eschatology. It furthers their religious comfort (reiterating the first purpose of religion described above) with the notion that if they believe in God, they will be saved and receive an eternal reward. “I have loved you with an everlasting love,” says the Lord. “Again I will build you, and you shall be built” [18]. The key here is that it goes beyond the comfort of the religious belief. This promise deals with putting something back that once was, connecting the future with the past through the present belief structure. It creates a bright-line through history and forward, relying on and refueling our beliefs. It is worth noting that any religion that has an eschatology—that is, a specific belief about the end—there may even be a sense that, since we are near the endtimes, certain progress is, even if potentially positive, unnecessary. Science, modernity, and progress—these are living, evolving ideas whereas religion and tradition—these are dead notions whose very stillness is what makes them so comforting and so timeless.

Another way to understand the importance of continuity in belief systems is to look at where continuity has deliberately been broken. The Tana Toraja of Sulawesi had their tao-tao effigy building practice altered by Christian missionaries to change them from seeming idols (containing the souls of the dead) to being more specifically representative statuary, more like photographs than vessels for the dead themselves [19]. Similarly, in the residential schools, a Native American boy, before even being taught one lesson in how to be a good (Christian) American, had his hair chopped off, and his name replaced with a good Christian name. Before he could be taught a new tradition, his connection to the old one had to be torn away.


Religion helps take our individual identity and expand it into community solidarity and a cultural identity. “Being part of a community with its own history, convictions, customs, and values can add richness and meaning to life,” says Judith Plaskow [20]. Finding likeminded individuals, people who believe what we believe—this extends the comfort and continuity further. It acts as evidence, as well, of our rightness, adding to our arrogance of knowledge and our sense of order.

Modern religion often makes the continuity link and the community link concurrently and deliberately; for example, the main front page [21] of website for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, includes family history links, making personal history and church history interconnected. The website [22] for the Episcopal Church emphasizes one’s public role with links for advocacy, community, and networking. By linking the personal with the communal, religion dictates all of our interactions with the world. Practitioners of a particular religion find that their beliefs color everything, altering the way they see the world, a la Andrew Newberg above; they see everything through the eyes of the community. “God is present—immanent—in community and is experienced in community” [23], says Mary Farrell Bednarowski in The Religious Imagination of American Women. Tying back again to an earlier point, the togetherness of community provides comfort even without the unified beliefs, simply by providing a sense of belonging, as described in the following passage from Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs in America:

We know what we’ve got to do… to pay respect to the Buddha and his teachings, to respect the adults and their wishes… [to] take care of the temple as if it were our home, and to take care of the younger generations in hopes that they too will see what we teenagers of Wat Dhammaram realize now. And what do we realize now? What we realize is that the temple is not [just] a place of worship, but a place where we have made lifetime friends.... We will always come back to it because at one time or another, it was our second home. [24]

Houses of Worship, specifically, maintain connections between practitioners of a given religion. They can also connect religious immigrants to one another, upon arrival in a new country, and also to practitioners back home. They come to a new country, “wishing to transfer their native heritage to their offspring to educate them about the history, culture, language, values, and religion of their homeland” [25]. They want to bring the community they had with them, to be maintained even as it is merged with a new community. What they do not want is to be isolated from either.

Connecting back to the point on continuity, to the promise of the future in a belief system’s eschatology, The Ghost Dance movement of 1890 “prophesied the imminent coming of an age when the dead would return, the whites would be eliminated in a cataclysm of selective destructiveness, and the lives of all Indians would be returned to a state of bounty and pristine purity” [26]. In the face of cultural genocide and assimilation, this Ghost Dance movement drew together previously disparate indigenous tribes into one community, giving them solidarity in hope for a better tomorrow.


Religion provides a ready ethical guide for behavioral control and consensus within the community. Emma Goldman suggested that “most theists see in god and devils, heaven and hell, reward and punishment, a whip to lash the people into obedience, meekness and contentment” [27]. And Napoleon is said to have called religion “excellent stuff to keep common people quiet” [28]. Even Civil Religion, absent the usual institutions of religion, has as one of its primary dogmas the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice [29]. Religion not only defines the boundary between the known and unknown, the knowable and the unknowable, but also the acceptable and unacceptable. It sets down specific moral guidelines and rules to live by, dictating how practitioners (and often, non-practitioners, making for much conflict) should act from day to day and moment to moment. Classical theism, according to Bednarowski, consists of an omnipotent, omniscient, unchanging monarch who rules his creation from a distance” [30], a God who sees what we do and demands that we do it a certain way.

In the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber argued that Protestantism fueled the rapid development of modern capitalism in the West by “legitimating individualistic profit seeking [and] justifying capitalist exploitation” [31]. Because of a resulting sense of duty toward profit seeking, the potlatch gifting ceremonies among Native Americans were seen as a cultural affront to Americanism, a “denial of the thrift and progress of an expanding economy, of the virtues necessary to build a nation” [32]. Thus, the potlatch necessitated governmental response, laws passed against such wasting of personal property. Religion (like Protestantism), even Civil Religion (like Americanism), demands adherence to the community’s rules. “By setting down an underlying theoretical matrix centered on biopower, a perversely modern style and strategy of ‘disciplining the body and of regulating populations,’ I can more from the realm of the singular body and subjectivity to that of the body politic and nation imagined” [33]. On the note of biopower, in modern biomedicine, there is “religio-magical management of the body,” in which “the doctor takes the place of priest” [34].

Rules to live by certainly make daily life easier for many, putting boundaries on action that provide as much comfort at times as cosmology does in putting order upon the universe. But, inevitably, one finds himself in conflict with the rules, or finds the rules changing over time. And, in the face of the community’s rules, an individual cannot often exercise much power. “Civilization is aggressive, as well as progressive—a positive state of society, attacking every obstacle, overwhelming every lesser agency, and searching out and filling up every crevice, both in the moral and physical world; while Indian life” and, really, all individual life “is an unarmed condition, a negative state, without inherent vitality, and without powers of resistance” [35].


Finally, religion justifies consumption and any negative actions taken against those outside our religious community [36]. As noted above, Protestantism promoted capitalist development in the West. While many, obviously, subscribe to capitalist ideals, at least in part, even some of those who adhere to capitalist notions understand that modern global capitalism does damage in one part of the world often to balance out progress in another, keeping some nations on the periphery of the World-System so that other nations can remain in the powerful core. In addition to this, and noting the aforementioned problem with religious eschatology and progress, certain religions would have no reason to try to fix any problems in the world, to curb consumption for example for the sake of the environment, because the end of time is near and all will be well long before we destroy the planet.

But, beyond consumption, religion also justifies conflict in discrimination, violence and war, relying on the “castigation of anyone who does not accept or fit within the monolithic moral order [and] justification for stigmatizing and suppressing religious heresies… brutal oppression found in colonial movements of conquest” [37]. Given the order of cosmology, the arrogance of knowledge, the justification from continuity and community, one cannot help but, in the face of differing beliefs, act to alter them or, worse, destroy them. Tolerance is “an attitude impossible for those whose personal religion is strong… no really religious man can pass the unbeliever by and do nothing” [38]. And so, we change the religious beliefs and practices of others as much as we can. It can be as simple as the aforementioned altering of the tao-tao effigies of the Tana Toraja, or the cutting of the hair of the Native American in the residential school. It can come down to laws passed, like those against the potlatch, or the Ghost Dance, all because a people are different from us and inherently, pose a threat; as Claire Boothe Luce pointed out:

Having too many Asians Orientals in her words posed a particular threat, because their ways differed substantially from those of the majority culture in the United States: We are utterly justified in controlling and keeping low Oriental immigration in terms of numbers, because of the fact that they in too great numbers may undermine our way of life, our living standards, our form of religion. [39]

We fear the alien and want to extinguish it, by either “extinction or assimilation into [in this example] American society. The powers of Progress and Improvement were seen to be such that no primitive race could survive intact” [40]. These primitive races are ones, like the Hopi, who have sacred places they do not even bother to mark, like those at Woodruff Butte (Tsimontukwi), making the bulldozing of them that much easier [41]. If their sacred places cannot be easily identified, if they don’t build stone churches on them, if they don’t worship how we worship, then such places are not worth preserving.

And, of course, it has always been this way. As St. Augustine said, “God’s providence constantly uses war to correct and chasten the corrupt morals of mankind” [42]. And, even in the Bible, we have example—many, actually—of one people warring against another in the name of God and religion:

They warred against the Midianites, as the Lord commanded Moses; and they slew all the males… burnt all their cities… and… took all the spoil, and… Moses said unto them… now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. [43]

How different is this from, say, the massacre at Wounded Knee? Men and women and children, prepared to surrender, were under the watchful eye of four Hotchkiss machine guns. When one of them, allegedly, took out a rifle and fired it at the American soldiers, the Hotchkiss guns “opened fire and sent a storm of shells and bullets among the women and children…. The guns poured in 2-pound explosive shells at the rate of nearly fifty per minute, mowing down everything alive” [44]. Men, women and children mowed gathered together and gunned down because they were different, because they retained their indigenous ways instead of subscribing readily to Americanism and Christianity. “You slaughter living beings and call it religion / hey brother, what would irreligion be?” [45]

It was not all active slaughter, of course. White Americans [46] put natives into schools where they could be indoctrinated. They sought to “improve” these primitive peoples’ lives. But, “those actively trying to improve Indian lives [were] without an explanation for the self-destruction of native communities through addiction, violence, and suicide” [47]. In the face of cultural genocide, Native Americans could choose annihilation or assimilation, destruction or self-destruction. Niezen argues that European monotheism was “willing to struggle violently in both the Old World and the New against local versions of the faith in which orthodoxy was compromised by specific idols or witchcraft or creative interpretations of the origins and nature of good and evil” [48]. Native traditions were an affront to Christianity simply by existing [49].


Obviously, religion is not all bad. Nor is it all good. When comfort from cosmology and continuity leads to a community that operates in control and conflict, the math of it is so simple that one can easily blame religion itself.

Whenever we fail to take a full look at the worst, whenever we deny the imperfections of our belief system, whenever we deny the evils our theologies have created and perpetuated, whenever we deny the abuse we ourselves have caused and suffered in the name of our Christian beliefs, we risk, at the least, perpetuating the present violence and at the worst, causing more harm even inadvertently. [50]

But, it is necessary to understand that war is the product of mass action, the “cultural genocide, like the social injustice of racism, is a cumulatively created product of the many” [51]. Edward Lazarus, in Black Hills, White Justice: The Sioux Nation versus the United States, 1775 to the Present, suggests a different angle to the problem: “what the country lacked, what perhaps any democratic country subject to the pressures of popular opinion would have lacked, was the will and self-discipline to curb its own people” [52]. The Community—the group mind—makes its moves in the name of good or bad, of charity and intolerance equally. And, the people cannot necessarily keep the community from acting. Often, as part and parcel of the community, they will cheer it on, even when its actions are destructive, because what other choice do they have? To stand up to the community, to the religion, is to find one’s self alone, separated from the community and the continuity and the comfort.

Coming back to the Pirahã, they not only have no religion, but they have virtually no violence and no war. But, there are only about 300 of them left. Such a small group would not have the control urge a larger group would. It would not feel the need to make others live as it does [53]. In the eighteenth chapter of the Zhuangzi, the Marquis of Lu provided wine to a seabird, fed it meat from a slaughtered bullock and had music played for it. But, the bird was dazed and too timid to eat or drink and died in three days. The Marquis’ error was in treating the bird as he (the Marquis) would have wanted to be treated, not as a seabird would. You cannot put (by force) upon others what you think is beneficial or deleterious, as their views of such will differ from yours; there is no universal value system (yet). Until there is, we have religion to keep things going by giving us comfort and meaning, a sense of continuity, solidarity with our community, rules to live by, and justification for our consumption and any actions we take against those who are not a part of our community. It gives life structure, order. It makes life worth living, even on the worst days.


  1. Bokononism is a fictional religion, from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, a religion deliberately built on foma, harmless lies that can make one a better person. Mercerism is another fictional religion, notably featured in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and also in his short story, “The Little Black Box.” I invoke fictitious religions here to draw a parallel between all sets of beliefs, however real, in connecting people and providing some semblance of connection and control and understanding.
  2. Though I am not making specific citations, all this information can be found in Everett’s book about his experience with the Pirahã, entitled Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes.
  3. Their grammar and way of life is limited to experience “seen or recounted as seen by a person alive at the time of telling,” as Everett describes it in “Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã,” Current Anthropology, August-October 2005.
  5. Pam Wynn, “Religion,” 8-9.
  6. Ibid, 12-4.
  7. Laura Sheahen, “The Brain Chemistry of the Buddha,” beliefnet, It is also notable that, as Paul Henri Thiry said in Good Sense in 1772, “the brain of man, especially in infancy, is like soft wax, fit to receive every impression that is made upon it.” When we are taught religion, generally, we are not in a position, psychologically speaking, of really knowing what it is we are receiving, regardless of how predisposed our brains may or may not be to accepting it.
  8. These two church examples taken from the documentary America’s Houses of Worship.
  9. Sita Wiener, Swami Satchidananda, New York: Bantam, 1970, 88.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Daniel Quinn, My Ishmael, New York: Bantam, 1997, 40.
  13. I have a teddy bear manufactured the month I was born and gifted to my mother just before my birth, not because I require the physical comfort of a stuffed animal, or even because I necessarily have specific memories of the bear from when I was very young, but simply because I have always had the bear, and it serves as a simple constant in my life even when so much else may change, sometimes drastically, over time. For some, going to church, something they may have done every week since they can remember, is just as easily a constant regardless of any specific fondness or direct comfort a church service has ever given.
  14. America’s Houses of Worship.
  15. Richard Spencer, “Dalai Lama and reincarnation by referendum,” Telegraph 1 Dec 2007.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Jeremiah 30:18.
  18. Ibid, 31:3-4.
  19. As described in the documentary Around the World in 80 Faiths.
  20. Quoted in Mary Farrell Bednarowski, The Religious Imagination of American Women, Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999, 19.
  23. Bednarowski, 66.
  24. Gurinder Singh Mann, Paul David Numrich, and Raymond B. Williams, Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs in America: A Short History, New York: Oxford UP, 2001, 35. (note: page numbers for this book come from the eBook edition on a Nook reader, so will differ somewhat from those in the paperback)
  25. Mann, Numrich and Williams, 12.
  26. Ronald Niezen, Spirit Wars: Native North American Religions in the Age of Nation Building, Berkeley: U of CP, 2000, 131.
  27. Emma Goldman, “The Philosophy of Atheism,” Mother Earth Journal. 1916.
  28. This line has been quoted by so many sources that finding the original source, be it in writing or in some speech of his, is seemingly impossible.
  29. As outlined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract.
  30. Bednarowski, 50.
  31. Quoted in Timothy C. Lim, Doing Comparative Politics: An Introduction to Approaches and Issues, Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2006, 107.
  32. Niezen, 140.
  33. Alexandra Minna Stern, “Buildings, Boundaries, and Blood: Medicalization and Nation-Building on the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1910-1930,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 79 (Feb 1999), 52, citing Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality volume 1 and his concept of biopower, governmental control over not only our actions but our bodies, justifying laws dictating how we live on a very focused level, leading to legislation on abortion and many month long debates on governmental control over healthcare. Additionally, and relating to the fifth and final point to come, biopower justifies any action the government may take in destroying or protecting our bodies; that is, biopower, inasmuch as we as a community allow for it to dictate policy, justifies everything from jail sentences and the death penalty to wars abroad fought in our name.
  34. First quote, Bryan Turner quoted by Niezen, second quote Niezen himself, in Niezen, 95.
  35. Lewis Henry Morgan, quoted in Niezen, 51-2, and obviously interrupted by me.
  36. The latter, on our behalf, justified by the notion of biopower specifically, and religion generally.
  37. Arthur Kleinman, Writing at the Margin: Discourse Between Anthropology and Medicine, quoted in Niezen, 92.
  38. Steven Runciman, The Medieval Manichee, quoted in Niezen, 1.
  39. Quoted in Mann, Numrich and Williams, 31.
  40. Niezen, 162.
  41. As described in the documentary In the Light of Reverence.
  42. Quoted in Niezen, 13.
  43. Numbers 31.
  44. James Mooney’s reconstruction, quoted in Niezen, 135.
  45. Kabir, “Song of the Saints of India,” 8-9.
  46. Not just in the United States, but also in Canada, as described extensively in Niezen.
  47. Niezen, 3.
  48. Ibid, 221.
  49. A similar problem can be found in the lumping together today of all of Islam whenever fundamentalists commit acts of violence. But, if the whole cloth of a religion can be blamed for the acts of extremists under its aegis, then what of Christianity in the face of the Crusades, the Inquisition?
  50. Sheila Redmond, quoted in Bednarowski, 41.
  51. Niezen, 227.
  52. Quoted ibid, 153.
  53. Of course, the Pirahã do not make any effort to learn English and effectively insist that any researcher coming to them learns their language to get by, so even in such a small group, there is at least some semblance of control over outsiders.

Posted by ca4/muaddib at 9:32 PM PDT
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Friday, 28 May 2010
religion vs religion

In addition to its various Christian roots, America, quite early on, took on its own religious importance, became its own civil religion, a belief system built around rugged individualism, Protestant-fueled commerce, and stability through consensus. In the face of America, expanding into occupied territory, the natives, with their indigenous religions, “were destined either for extinction or assimilation into American society. The powers of Progress and Improvement were seen to be such that no primitive race could survive intact” [1]. How a native could survive was  to “kill the Indian in him, and save the man” [2]. But, what resulted from these attempts to make the Indian conform, to “actively… improve Indian lives” was the “self-destruction of native communities though addiction, violence, and suicide” [3]. This wholesale destruction of what it was to be an Indian [4], this cultural genocide broke the spirits of those subjected to it. So, even when they made the effort to assimilate, to fit in at the residential schools, to go along to get along, psychologically, it could be more damaging than rewarding.

The residential schools, specifically, though they were “more effective than attempting to educate [children] while they remained under the influence of their parents and communities” [5], led to a lot of psychological damage because, in these institutions, separated as they were, isolated as they were, they involved “absolute, unchecked institutional control over the powerless” which Niezen, in Spirit Wars, calls “a recipe for social disaster” [6]. Niezen suggests that Indian children were “in serious danger of severe physical and emotional abuse,” and this separate from the overt mental destruction of their native beliefs, language, and culture. Upon arriving in the residential school, the Indian child had his hair chopped off, had his name taken away, replaced with a good Christian name. Before he’d even been taught one lesson in how to be a good American, his individual identity was already being stripped away. In 1998, the Government of Canada, which put Indians through a similar process as that America used, “acknowledged the connection between its programs of Indian residential education and an immense toll of suffering still being felt in the native population resulting from cultural loss, separation from families, and victimization through physical and sexual abuse” [7]. An ongoing, institutionalized process of social and spiritual destruction led, naturally, to an ongoing process of social and spiritual self-destruction. What choice did these children have, taken from their homes and their parents and their way of life and constantly told how uncivilized and even evil those things were?

America represented the common good, regardless of what form of Christianity one followed—though, of course, one had to conform in following one form thereof, as “civilization and Christianity must go together” [8]—and Americans, as a whole and often individually, believed it their duty first to educate and indoctrinate the Indian before they turned to outright destruction like the slaughter at Wounded Knee. They believed that “even the most savage people could be improved by association with more rational beings” [9]. And, of course, they were “more rational beings;” they were the better people come from far away to inhabit, to improve, and, eventually, to embody America. By the late 1700s, they saw the “native North Americans as representative of an earlier form of life from which Europeans had emerged as the pinnacle of human achievement” [10]. This Whiggish take on history made it virtually inevitable that any primitive society would be inculcated or trampled.

Native healing and ceremonialism was seen by missionaries a “satanic,” by medical reformers as “superstitious,” and by government agents as “seditious” [11]. Any Christian notions about Indian inferiority simply fueled further American notions about which culture was dominant, and these both led government officials to find new ways to stop Indian practices, outlawing everyday practices as well as ceremonial practices, when not taking children to put in the residential schools. The Indians had to “take part in civilized life by leaving behind their attachments to ‘thraldom’ and ‘superstition’ and learning a new and better language, religion, and means of livelihood” [12].

This entire notion of the better language, the better religion, the better means of livelihood—this is inherent in any organized society, so inherent that Rousseau coined the term “civil religion” to explain the often religious way citizens adhere to and become prideful of the core ideology of their society, even when their individual religious (or not) beliefs may differ. America is the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” with no room for the primitive Indian. Canada, similarly, had God to “keep our land glorious and free” in the “True North,” its “home and native land” also having no room for the native, as long as he insists on acting in his native manner. Coming to the New World, settlers and colonists brought a very simple notion of how people should live. And, though they may have peacefully coexisted with some natives for a time, eventually, the glaring differences between how the Indian lived and how the European lived, meant one would have to change to fit the other or be destroyed… the distinction between these two options not necessarily a very big one.

[1] Ronald Niezen. Spirit Wars. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000, 162.

[2] Richard H. Pratt, Official Report of the Nineteenth Annual Conference of Charities and Correction, 1892. Quoted ibid, 46.

[3] Ibid, 3.

[4] Despite the racist lumping together here under the term “Indian,” I will continue to use it through this essay, as it is important to realize tribal distinctions did not matter to white America and, ultimately, were meaningless in the face of cultural genocide. In fact, reactionary religious notions, like the Ghost Dance movement, crossed tribal lines and formed, perhaps, a more cohesive indigenous whole, at least in appearance, that matched what white America already saw.

[5] Niezen, 223.

[6] Ibid, 76.

[7] Cited ibid, 86.

[8] Ibid, 47.

[9] Bruce Trigger. Natives and Newcomers: Canada’s “Heroic Age” Reconsidered. Quoted ibid, 49.

[10] Ibid, 50.

[11] Ibid, 224.

[12] Ibid, 223. And, while I only barely touch on it here, it is certainly worth noting that one thing government did was “teach the Indian to divide up land and farm it, to live the agricultural lifestyle that Americans did, taking away even the core of how Indians subsisted from day to day.




Posted by ca4/muaddib at 6:45 PM PDT
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Tuesday, 25 May 2010
Hybridization as a Survival Tactic

In the face of changes in society and culture, advances in science and technology, many a religion has to alter itself to survive. When dominant religions were pushed, through expansionism and colonialism, into the same space as lesser [1] religions, these lesser religions also had to change to survive, often taking on aspects of the dominant religion and mixing those aspects with many of its own to create something new, a syncretic hybrid of two traditions. Withouth this hybridization, many a lesser religion would have gone extinct quite quickly. Some notable examples of such hybrids, with many followers, are Vajrahana (Tibetan Buddhism), Thai Buddhism, and the Macumba traditions of Brazil, and on a much smaller scale (i.e. with fewer followers), there are the examples from the first episode of Around the World in 80 Faiths: the Bugis and Tana Toraja of Sulawesi, and, even more specific examples in festivals like the Carabao festival in Pulilan and the Fertility festival in Obando, these latter two in the Philippines.

 Vajrahana brought together the magico-religion of the Bön, which could be described “in distinctly unfavourable terms as a perversion of Buddhism, a kind of marginal countercurrent in which elements of Buddhist doctrine and practice [have] either been shamelessly copied, or else inverted and distorted” [2], though practitioners of a Bön still insist their religion is the same as it was before Buddhism came to Tibet. Regardless of claims made, Vajrahana retains animist and shamanist elements not found in Buddhism elsewhere. Similarly, Thai Buddhism demonstrates “how ‘traditional’ magical, supernatural, Buddhist and other components are blended in the practices of Thai religious syncretism” [3].

 Macumba, which came, along with slaves, “directly from the sophisticated structure of the [Yoruban] mother-religion in Africa,” a religion involving “the divine interaction between humans and Living Gods” through music and dance [4]. When African practitioners of the Yoruban religion mixed with Roman Catholics in the New World, Macumba was born. The gods of the Yoruban and the saints of Roman Catholicism mixed. The Yoruban gods “have been reborn and continue to be reborn, the same, yet different” [5].

 The Bissu spirit mediums among the Bugis of Sulawesi are devout Sunni Muslims (even though Islam establishes that access to prophecy has been cut off since Mohammed and contact with spirits in this way does not happen). As one female follower pointed out [6], they can separate the two with a simple distinction: “one is religion, the other is tradition.” Except, this distinction, viewed from outside, seems, at best, a contradiction. Religion is tradition is religion. But, the Bugis don’t see it that way, just as the followers of Bön see themselves not as Buddhist while others see an obvious hybridization going on, just as practitioners of Macumba can continue their dances, with the faces of Catholic saints representing their gods. They take what they take, reject what they reject, and the result makes perfect sense, because even these new hybrid religions have now become tradition.

 The Tana Toraja used to make small effigies of the dead, vague representations of loved ones no longer around. These “tao-taos” seemed like idolatry to Christian missionaries, but they found that they could not keep the Tana Toraja from making effigies. So, instead, they got them to change the effigies. No longer vague representations, the tao-taos were now lifesize, carved and painted to resemble specifically the dead, more statuary than idol [7].

 A similar mix of traditions occurs in the Carabao festival hybridized with the Feast of San Isidro in Pulilan, Philippines. What once was a pagan harvest festival has connected to Catholic celebration, animist roots going accepted but unacknowledged, as the Carabao bull is paraded through the streets along with Catholic imagery. Similarly, in Obando, Philippines, a fertility dance ends at a Catholic church, where the crowd “dances” its “prayer.”

 In all these examples, local, lesser religions find ways to maintain at least some of themselves in the face of dominant, missionary religions. This is a matter of survival, culturo-religious desperation. But, there is, of course, a separate advantage, other than simple survival, in hybridizing a religion. Elliott West, in The Last Indian War, suggests that the Nez Perce, for example, “might draw more fully on two traditional sources of strength, commerce and spirit,” in mixing their religion with American Christianity, “and with that they could hope for greater command of their immediate world, seen and unseen” [8]. And, for what greater purpose is religion than to command—or, at least, to understand—the immediate world, seen and unseen? It is this same reason that those outside of religion, poets and filmmakers alike, still find inspiration in religion. The grand ideas, however incorrect they may be on a fundamental level, will always have appeal to the artist; they transcend the everyday, put the quotidian into a much larger, often more beautiful stage. Religious ideas make the everyday seem a piece of something fantastic, something transcendent, whether one believes in a particular religion or not. And, old traditions, among those who believe in them, have an even greater transcendence. So, of course, when faced with extinction, these ideas are held tightly, desperately, and inasmuch as they can be maintained, even as greater religions (or science) weigh down upon them, they mix and match and give birth to something new, something that can thrive between traditions, something that can, over time, become the new tradition so that, for example, Bugis attended a spirit medium’s ceremony don’t even question their only Muslimhood. They are not one thing or the other [9] but both, simultaneously.

 [1] Here, “lesser” refers not to some value judgment about any particular religion, but a simple measure of the number of practitioners a particular religion has.

 [2] Per Kværne. The Bon Religion of Tibet. London: Serindia, 1995. 10.

 [3] Pattan Kitiarsa. “Beyond Syncretism: Hybridization of Popular Religion in Contemporary Thailand.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 36 (Oct 2005): 463.

 [4] Serge Bramly. Macumba: The teachings of Maria-José, mother of the gods. San Francisco: City Lights, 1994. Ii.

 [5] Ibid, iii.

 [6] In Around the World in 80 Faiths. Dir. Rob Cowling. BBC Manchester, 2009.

 [7] In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud suggests that the more cartoonish a face (i.e. the less detail to it), the “more people it could be said to describe” (31). He writes of a “universality” of cartoon imagery, much like the smaller tao-taos, that can embody not only anyone but also ourselves as readers. When the missionaries got the Tana Toraja to add detail to the effigies, they took away some of the universality of these people’s  experiencing of death. Still, of course, the Tana Toraja  maintain what they can of their older practices; they do still make effigies (even if altered from the old way), they do still have their wild marches to the burial, they do still keep the dead around until a proper funeral can be afforded, and yet they are considered Christian.

 [8] Elliott West. The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. 38.

 [9] Except, of course, when it is convenient to specify, as followers of Bon might, where, depending on the time and place, it would make more sense to be a part of  state-sponsored Buddhism or to stand out from that crowd, amidst “sociocultural turbulence… in contemporary Thailand” (Kitiarsa, 464).

Posted by ca4/muaddib at 6:11 PM PDT
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live together, die... together (last lost thoughts part four)
currently, i choose to see it this way, so as not to be annoyed by the limbo church ending: christian, there in the church, was still the man in black, making an effort in an alternate dimension to trick all of these individuals who have remembered their lives on the island--and conceivably could be taken there by, say, desmond (or the two desmonds) to help protect us all (and all those in their dimension) from the pandora's island hellmouth being left uncorked for too long--into thinking they are actually in their afterlives, about to move on to heaven or what have you. but, then christian walks out the door into the big bright light (i.e. dimensional portal back to the island so he can have the final fight with jack that, because of some unfortunate editing, we have already seen end with the man in black dead) and the door closes and they all just sit there smiling and enjoying each other's company for a while, giving each other high fives on how they defeated evil and saved the day and whatnot, until someone has to pee and they find there's no bathroom, and then the old folks (rose and bernard) need some air, but the door to outside is locked, and the windows are unbreakable and not even magical desmond can get them out of this strangely unitarian church, where they will all live out a new series called "lost in church" in which they will only last for as long as it takes them to start resorting to cannibalism... maybe one season on a network, two if it's on cable

meanwhile, the man in black goes back to the island thinking he's won, only to get his ass strangled by jack and shot by kate, and he channels some captain hammer with a little "this must be what pain feels like" as he gets kicked over that cliff. of course, even then, the island is still shaking, so he figured the church limbo gambit has paid off

Posted by ca4/muaddib at 5:10 PM PDT
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Monday, 24 May 2010
last lost, a little more
why was aaron a baby in the church? he lived at least to age 3 or so in the real world; does he not get to choose his own image for the afterlife? and, if that wasn't aaron but, say, claire's and kate's imagined version of him, why was he still there in the church when they were ready to move on?

for that matter why was it 2004 in the flashforward?
additionally, why did david exist?
and, why was the island underwater?

the only reason for those last 3 is the same reason jin was heading to the hospital in "ji yeon"--to screw with the viewer. david served no purpose. he added nothing to jack's character or plot, so his presence tells us that the sideways universe, this afterlife they all are stuck going through until they can move on has been going on for years, long enough for jack and juliet to have had a relationship in the past and to have moved on from it... that kinda sucks for an afterlife, if you still get married and divorced and nearly od (like charlie did) and have to kill people and nearly get killed yourself (like sayid). now, if they wanted to have some sort of combination of say hindu reincarnation and alternate universes, these people could have actualy ben living their lives over again, and then again and again, and desmond could gather them together every time to go back to save the island again... but now, i'm drifting into fan fiction. back to the complaint at hand:

it is 2004 in the sideways because that tricks the viewer into thinking that blowing up jughead worked. and it convinces the viewer that the sideways universe, by some magical means, is real, and will matter to the plot

the island is underwater because it is a nice visual that, again, makes the viewer believe jughead seriously changed things. the "incident" was no longer some event people on the island survived (and that probably made it so women could no longer have children on the island) but something singularly catastrophic... except, it turns out, it wasn't

and, the show is on again now... kids watching it as they couldn't stay up for it on sunday, and i just noticed something else annoying. if the sideways stuff is the afterlife, and christian is "alive" there, then his damn cardboard box should not be having a scene at the damn airport. is that box meaningful to some airport worker we don't even know about?

Posted by ca4/muaddib at 7:23 PM PDT
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last lost, another thought
...for that matter, why the urgency on desmond's part in the sideways universe to awaken everyone else? if all they are doing is realizing they are dead, remembering the island and each other and letting go, then what's the rush? and what does desmond get out of helping them?

charlie helping desmond, that makes sense. charlie's vision of the island life was incomplete--he didn't fully awaken until aaron was born--so he just knew something was up and wanted to share

desmond's actions, the plot of waking people to their previous lives--that fits better with the sideways tying into the plotline on the island, not with the sideways being some afterthought we got to see early

Posted by ca4/muaddib at 12:09 PM PDT
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last lost
there is certainly some emotional payoff to the church scene in the end, and the island plotline had a satisfactory ending (even while deliberately not explaining outright (excluding jacob's simplistic description a few episodes back) what the island is). there is, relating to the island, also some interesting foreshadowing of events we will not see in hurley telling ben he was a great number two, and ben in turn telling hurley he was a great number one. but, in, effectively making it so that the flashes sideways did not actually (this operative word depending, of course, on one's religious ideology a lot) happen, there is a certain dramatic failure in the screentime arguably wasted (not unlike the flashback/flashforward pairing i complained about a geat deal in "ji yeon" two season ago, which was more the show toying with the audience than a satisfying character or plot moment)

think about it this way: sayid died twice and did not get to be with either shannon or nadia. hurley and libby did not get to be together (instead he spent, presumably, a good chunk of his life with ben). sawyer did not get to spend any more time with juliet (though, i suppose he could have gotten the runner-up prize of spending time with kate, or could have been reunited with cassidy (though, they didn't really have much of a foundation for a meaningful relationship) and his daughter). sun and jin being dead, ji yeon was raised by, well, maybe her grandfather or a series of nannies. locke died misled, a pawn in someone else's game

the good: rose and bernard and vincent seemed to have a nice, happy island life going, and maybe cindy and the kids from 815 joined them or got to go home finally. claire did get to be with her son again. richard did get to leave the island and live out, presumably, a  mortal life. walt didn't get dragged back into the island drama (as far as we know--he was not in the church, so that means the island time was not the most significant part of his life) and might have had a relatively normal life. desmond may have found a way off the island again (i doubt hurley would have restricted travel to and from, as jacob had) to be with penny and charlie

and, as i already said, the on-island conclusion was great, even sans complete explanation. taken as true: the island is the cork on a bottle of evil. t hen, protecting it, in the universe of the show, is important, and the fight between locke and jack was great. and hurley being the new guardian was a satisfying, and appropriate, character and plot ending

the problem, ultimately, comes down the the sideways. in the beginning of the series, the flashbacks gave us character beats, and occasional plotpoints (notably in desmond's episodes). the flashforwards gave us plotpoints (and showed us how much or how little the oceanic 6 had changed). the flashes sideways, though, as it turned out, were not giving us plotpoints--after remembering the island, the various characters did not go back and help out in stopping locke from destroying it--and were only giving us character beats in retrospect... maybe

nitpick: sure the numbers turned out to be the last of the candidates, except those six numbers had been important (separately from the rest of the 354 available) long before there were only those six candidates left. outside the show, they were linked to the valenzetti equation, being variables dealing with controlling the end of the world... but the show, in the end, had no place for science any longer, so the dharma initiative research was gone, the hanso foundation went unmentioned. even widmore, in the end, came back not for dharma-related stuff but because jacob wanted him to bring desmond back

personal (i.e. i might be the only one bothered by this one) nitpick: the outrigger shooting could have been covered about 4 or 5 different times during this season, with ilana's people, with locke and sayid, with miles and richard last night, but we never got it

was lost a great show still, despite the sideways conclusion, despite the "ji yeon" trickery, despite the tattoo episode, despite kate's toy plane, despite the man in black (nor his "mother") never having a name? yes. on a tv forum i frequent, someone quoted alan moore:"not without it problems, i'll confess; but then, without them, could perfection be?" 

Posted by ca4/muaddib at 10:24 AM PDT
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Wednesday, 19 May 2010
The Aztecs Just Didn’t Know Enough, but We Do

The Aztecs didn’t have science like we do. They didn’t have radio telescopes (or regular telescopes for that matter), or spectrometers to help them identify what those bright dots in the sky were. They couldn’t see that the universe was expanding, that they were on a planet hurtling through space, orbiting the sun. They didn’t know that E-mc2. They didn’t know Newton’s Laws of Motion or Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion. Somehow, still, they had to explain the world in which they lived, and they had to find their place in it.


What they—specifically the Mexica ethnic group of Aztec in Tenochtitlan—came up with involved gods who sacrificed themselves to fuel the birth of a new sun when the old, fourth one, was gone. This fifth sun required further, regular sacrifice, and the people had to repay the debt they had incurred when the gods cut out their own hearts for the sake of this fifth age. And so, while the common imagery is of human sacrifice atop the temple [1], there was a lot of blood offered to the gods, the most common [2] method auto-bloodletting, i.e. piercing one’s own body to offer up blood. They did, of course, practice the sacrificing of other humans, in order to repay the gods and ensure the coming of each new day.


The question we must ask, is, if there were tortures and executions in, say, the Inquisition, and witches burned at the stake, and Crusades in the name of Jesus Christ (and defense against such Crusades in the name of Allah), and to this day, people still die in the name of religion, are killed in the name of religion, then what is the difference between the Aztecs (and the other Mesoamericans who practiced human sacrifice, of enemies and their own) and any religion today? Is it simply a matter of tact or new secular laws protecting people from being sacrificed, or is it science stepping in to explain how the universe really works?


The key here, is, if a culture knows enough, will they give up the bloodier elements of their rituals? Do we not already have, in so many cultures around the world today, evidence that, indeed, a culture WILL give up its more “barbaric” rituals as civilization advances? I would contend that, in fact, the Aztecs just didn’t know enough, but we do. And, that is the difference.


Ancient cultures, the Aztecs, the Greeks, the Sumerians, the Egyptians—their gods make a certain psychological sense if you look at their lives. For example, the Greeks had little useful land, the Sumerians farming could be ruined by flooding, so the chief deity of these two peoples is a storm god, a force behind the weather, who they hoped they could placate into running things smoothly, so food would grow and life would go well. The Egyptians had an easier time of farming, with the regular flooding (with topsoil replacement) of the Nile, so their chief deity was the sun god. The Aztecs’ chief deity (arguably) was Huitzilopochtli, personification of war and the sun, but the Temple Mayor in Tenochtitlan honored not only him but also Tlaloc, an older [3], rain god. They were farmers, dependent on the weather to have successful crops in the chinampa islands they created out of the swampy land into which they settled. They were also warriors, competing in battle with other ethnic groups nearby, so it makes sense that two of their primary deities are a sun (and war) god and a rain god.


They also offered a great deal of their blood sacrifices to the god of death, Mictlantecuhtli. Of course, death is one of the great irremediable negativities of life for all people, one of the great uncontrollables. While we understand the weather better these days, and, do not really worship the sun (or a personified representation of such), we could understand—even those of us who are not religious—wanting to believe in a god of death to whom we can sacrifice to keep death away. If we had as many gods as some of the great ancient pantheons, perhaps we would have a god of missed calls and a god of cars (to whom we would offer sacrifice to protect us from accidents [4]) and many more. But, instead, many of us have but one god, whom we propitiate for good health, for a happy life, even for our sports teams to win. It isn’t hard to understand the need for someone to as for such things. And, if we truly think about the horrors committed even today in the name of religion, it isn’t so hard to understand human sacrifice.


Aztecs lived in a stratified, diverse society, built around tribute to those with power. They owned slaves. They had a notable agriculturo-capitalist system of trade. They made war, sacrificed enemies and themselves. They could only understand the world as best they could, and they had to live it the way that worked for them. The flaw is not in choosing to believe in gods, choosing to sacrifice to them, but in not being advanced enough to know better. Writing about an Inca girl who had been sacrificed, Richard Dawkins wonders if perhaps she “really believed she was going straight to everlasting paradise, warmed by the radiant company of the sun god” [5]. Like the Aztec children, going to serve Tlaloc, did she go willingly, or did she scream? Dawkins continues:


Regardless of whether she was a willing victim or not, there is strong reason to suppose that she would not have been willing if she had been in full possession of the facts. For example, suppose she had known that the sun is really a ball of hydrogen, hotter than a million degrees Kelvin, converting itself into helium by nuclear fusion… Presumably, then, she would not have worshipped it as a god, and this would have altered her perspective on being sacrificed to propitiate it. [6]


[1] It is worth noting here that in the imagery of these sacrifices in the Ancient Voices segment we watched, the faces of even the bodies falling down the steps, their hearts already extracted, had contented looks.

[2] This claim, as to which form was most common, comes from the Ancient Voices video.

[3] Tlaloc predates the Aztec moniker. A discovery near Mexico, dating centuries earlier than the Aztecs, included the bones of children sacrifices to Tlaloc.

[4] Of course, given the litany of Catholic Saints, there are modern equivalents for some people, but most of us—probably even most Catholics—don’t think these “gods” are acting on our behalf so directly that we need offer them blood.

[5] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. New York: Mariner, 2006. 368.

[6] Ibid, 369.

Posted by ca4/muaddib at 9:50 AM PDT
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Tuesday, 18 May 2010
It should but, alas, it hasn’t yet.

Religion is a comfort, obviously, as it explains the universe in a way that makes it not so chaotic, not so out of our control. Religion comes along with culture, raising us up within its bounds so that, again, we find comfort inside its walls, instead of outside, where it’s scary. Religion becomes, almost immediately upon subscribing to it, and moreso over time, a fundamental part of who and what we are. But, then along comes science, challenging the very nature of many a religion, telling us that the world wasn’t created in six days, isn’t flat, isn’t sitting on the back of a giant turtle; in fact, it’s hurtling through space at truly outrageous speed—about 66,000 mph in orbit around the sun (plus a rotation speed of about 1000 mph at equator), plus the solar system moving within the Milky Way galaxy at about 560,000 mph, plus our galaxy moving around 1.3 trillion mph; that is not sitting on any turtle going that speed, and is certainly not sitting motionless at the center of a geocentric universe with a celestial sphere of stars in a shell around it. When it comes to something as simple as the position of the Earth, science has swooped in and erased just about everything mankind has ever known. As Steven Pinker put it [1], “no honest and informed person can maintain that the universe came into being a few thousand years ago,” not anymore. Even Christoph Cardina Schonborn, a Dominican friar, says that the “‘scientific mentality’ that often accompanies [science], along with the power, control, comfort, and convenience by modern technology, has helped to push the concept of God into the hazy twilight of agnosticism” [2]. But, still, there’s that comfort thing.


Bertrand Russell once wrote of a teapot, orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars. If nobody could disprove his assertion that this teapot was there, then it would be, “an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it.” If  “the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity” [3]. Aside from the obvious God metaphor there, there’s a simple description of the religious service “every Sunday” and religious texts—be it the Bible, the Koran, Vedas, or what have you—being “affirmed in ancient books.”  It isn’t that something is or isn’t the truth as to the way of things, but that it is what has been taught and written down and taught again and written down again and again and again. It’s the repetition and the slipping into the culture and the society that makes it so permanent, so comforting that we can, like William D. Phillips, Nobel Laureate, can argue that “belief is not a scientific matter” [4], so, of course, science does not make belief in God obsolete.” But, it should.


Still, Robert Sapolsky argues that “belief remains relevant because of the comfort it can provide” [5], and because it is part of our society and our culture (or various cultures). But, then again, Sapolsky continues: “Solace is not benign when reality proves the solace to have been misplaced.” When we can see the teapot isn’t there, how much comfort can there be in still pretending… at least as long as we acknowledge the pretense. There is the rub. By continuing to practice our religions, by still attending our religious services, by still turning to religious texts for guidance, we keep up the pretense, and it is oh so easy to pretend, when it makes life easier, to comprehend and survive. Religion may be “our first, and our worst attempt at explanation,” as Christopher Hitchens says [6]. It may be “how we came up with answers before we had any evidence,” but our impulse, our gut feeling, or simply the comforting thought of knowing how the universe works, keeps it with us. Hitchens goes on to argue that religion “belongs to the terrified childhood of our species.”  In his book, God Is Not Great, he boils down the trouble with religion like this:


There still remain four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking. [7]


Given these problems, one must wonder—if one has already stepped away from religion, at least—how this misplaced solace can withstand such objections. If one wanted to simplify, the argument could be that religious people don’t understand the science, but then, a religious person might argue that a sciencist person doesn’t understand the religion. At least they don’t all try circular argumentation like Keith Ward, who argues that if God is a “non-physical conscious intelligence” then his “causal influence is most unlikely to be law-governed, measureable, predictable, or publicly observable” [8]. Essentially, this tack is that God exists in such a way that we couldn’t measure him, even if he was there. You can’t prove a negative, as they say. But, shouldn’t you also have the responsibility to prove something that has so much of an effect on the everyday lives of so many people. The existence of God has affect on not only those who believe in it but in everyone they know, everyone they meet, everyone with which make business deals, have relationships or even go to war. But, they use the lack of evidence for such a being as some sort of positive.


What we should do is “distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason” [9]. Instead, “We are supposed to think that a supreme being exists who follows the path of every particle, while listening to every human though and guiding his favorite football teams to victory” [10]. Hitchens has a point when he asks “How much vanity must be concealed—not too effectively at that—in order to pretend that one is the personal object of a divine plan” [11] I will end with this, from Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s “How (and Why) I Became an Infidel:”


The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more. [12]


One more thing before I go. Kenneth Miller suggests that the sciencist’s view is that “God is an explanation for the weak, a way out for those who cannot face the terrible realities revealed by science.” He, clearly not liking the group who calls themselves this, suggests the “‘Brights’ are those who face that reality and accept it without the comforting crutch of faith by declaring God to be obsolete” [13]. He goes on to attempt to argue that science requires faith as well, which kind of misses the whole point of science. Really, while presenting this line about the “comforting crutch” as a negative view of the religious, what he presents is a fairly accurate view.


[1] “Yes, if by…” Does science make belief in God obsolete? <>, 2

[2] “No, and yes.” Does science make belief in God obsolete?4. [3] Russell, Bertrand. “Is There a God?” Unpublished. 1952.

[4] “Absolutely not!” Does science make belief in God obsolete? 7

[5] “No.” Does science make belief in God obsolete? 13

[6] “No, but it should.” Does science make belief in God obsolete? 15 [7] “No.” Does science make belief in God obsolete? 17

[7] Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great. New York: Twelve, 2007, 12.

[8] “No.” Does science make belief in God obsolete? 17

[9] Hitchens. God Is Not Great. 12.

[10] Stenger, Victor J. “Yes.” Does science make belief in God obsolete? 19

[11] Hitchens, God Is Not Great, 15.

[12] Ali, Ayaan Hirsi. “How (and Why) I Became an Infidel.” The Portable Atheist. Ed. Christopher Hitchens. Philadelphia: De Capo, 2007.

[13] “Of course not.” Does science make belief in God obsolete? 25

Posted by ca4/muaddib at 3:57 PM PDT
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