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against the world
Monday, 24 May 2010
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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an old bit about gay marriage

Contention one:

Marriage, from the perspective of government, is a contract between adults, providing for stability within a home. marriage did not begin as a union based on love or even mutual individual benefit; it began as parents selling off their children for the mutual benefit of 2 families, 2 villages, 2 empires, etc. there is no difference here, outside an invented morality which came later, as to who those entering said marriage are, man and woman, man and man, woman and woman. in fact, the chief advance, arguably, we have made in regards to marriage is not in pretending it has some larger (be it moral, spiritual or what have you) meaning, but in taking children out of the picture; that is, we don't arrange (for the most part, anyway) for those too young to make such choices for themselves to be stuck in binding relationships that will last them the rest of their lives. Taking morality out of the picture, we have marriage as a simple contract, but this one affecting the domestic sphere instead of the commercial (or the earlier, pre-capitalist incarnation thereof) or political

 Contention two:

It makes no difference to the government, objectively speaking, who is married to whom, as long as the union provides underlying stability for the greater society or, more specifically a foundation for the raising of children capable of participating in our society. Individuals, taken without gender or sexuality, are mere numbers to the government, data without inherent value or meaning. Equality in marriage (or outside marriage, in all interactions or contracts) serves to enable more stability, which is what the government wants. a more stable society has more opportunity for progress elsewhere. Less adherence to antiquated notions of morality that themselves only replaced even more antiquated notions detracts from a sense of modernity in American society.

 Contention three:

Polygamy, then, must even be allowed, just as business contracts are allowed between more than two individuals, so long as the resulting marriage creates a stable home. Unfortunately, most of the multiple marriages that do happen in this country—because it is illegal and irregular—arise out of a religiously styled, paternalistic subset of our culture. allowing for actual multiple marriages—which would certainly not suddenly result in everyone having one--would put more potential stability in the raising of children and would help rid us of the current version you get with polygamist wives gaming the system for welfare while the men hoard over them and their children like lords over property.

 Contention four:

Our 2-person marriage ideal is similar, in this country anyway, to our 2-party political system. Two parents of 2 genders may lead to a potential stability in stagnation, just as constant back and forth between Liberals and Conservatives leads to a relatively stable society stuck in old ways of thinking. What we don't get is variety. What we don't get is new ideas, new ways to raise children, or practice politics, ways that take us outside the box. So, this relatively young, upstart of a country is already old and set in its ways, especially when it can act (or allow action) in direct opposition to the rights of its citizens.

 Contention five:

We are stuck on gay marriage when a greater thing to turn against, if we value stability and marriage so much, is bad marriages. An abusive husband is a greater affront to marriage than any homosexual ever has been. The divorce rate is a greater affront than the separate-but-equal treatment regarding gay marriage and civil unions. As decided in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, separate-but-equal is "inherently unequal."

What we can hope is that such blatant bigotry in multiple states (31 now, if I recall correctly), even in the supposedly progressive California, will be the spark to ignite a larger debate on the subject, and prop 8 and the repeal in Maine and all the others will be struck down finally by the Supreme Court as the backward, and all too subjective yearnings of a populace that should know better. a mandate for bigotry does not cause it to cease being bigotry. It simply provides if not an official stamp of approval, then evidence of a horribly blind eye.

The problem is the presumption that the religious people own "marriage." marriage predates them and exists outside of them (particularly in its use as metaphor for the combination of various things). Politically speaking, it would seem easier to bring one smaller group forward than move one larger group backward. That is, it is a less drastic step to allow homosexuals to participate in marriage than to ask the religious people to have to move (arguably) backward to have civil unions only. If they want to invent some new religious term for their union, they are welcome to it, but marriage was not created for religious reasons and does not belong to them.

Outside of the terminology, though, the notion is a sound one. If marriage is to be a legally recognized contract, which it is, then it should be the same sort of contract for everyone entering into such a contract.

Posted by ca4/muaddib at 3:32 PM PDT
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Friday, 14 May 2010
Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs, Oh My!

There is always transformation over time in the way practitioners of a religion experience and continue practicing that religion. Some of this change comes simply through gradual processes, adjustments in the day-to-day goings on in the church (the congregation and the physical structure in which the religious gather). Some of this change comes from more deliberate alterations, those made by refugees or immigrants coming to a new country and finding themselves quite significantly a minority where once they were the majority in their homeland, those made by new generations supplanting the old and finding new ways to practice that fit more conveniently (or more comfortably) with new lifestyles. Still, they hold onto religion, hold onto its cultural aspects, the identity that they bring along with them from their old homes.


Immigrant parents, “wishing to transfer their native heritage to their offspring, educate them about the history, culture, language, values, and religion of their homeland” but “the later generations are frequently more American than their parents usually want” [1] and may fight such education. Similarly, finding themselves in smaller, local groups of followers-as opposed to their homeland where their religion might have been quite popular, even the first generation immigrants may find their practice waning… but not their belief, their faith. By building, once they have the numbers to necessitate it, new temples (or with Sikhs, gurdwaras), they can strengthen their religion locally by gathering again with like-minded individuals, be it other immigrants or even local converts. The key is continuity even in the transformation. Even in a new country, even isolated from others who share their beliefs, they hold to what they can, keep as much of the old practices permanent, ongoing.


These immigrants won’t have the physical permanence of a church like the Old Ship Meetinghouse in Hingham, Massachusetts, with more than 300 years of ecclesiastical use, but they will bring permanence of belief into a new House of Worship and work with what they have. For Hindus, in particular, before they are able to build local temples here in America, their “homes are more than the primary sites of religious teaching, rituals, and ceremonies” They are “the gathering places for religious groups” [2]. Contrary to the integral nature of temples in, say, the Buddhist immigrant’s experience, there seems, in reality, an obvious importance not on physical structures or even traditional rituals but on the people themselves, a vital import on the cultural identity those people share. Religion becomes part of who they are, like the Hispanic women in Bednarowski’s The Religious Imagination of American Women who could not detach from their Catholicism no matter how strained their relationship with the religion became; it was part and parcel of their culture, of who and what they were [3]. Even with deliberate change—take, for example, the design of Beth Sholom Synagogue, specifically designed to not resemble other synagogues, to set a new standard for American synagogues in the post-Holocaust world—the people remain, inasmuch as they are able, the same [4].


Taking the structure out of it, even taking some of the ritual away—for example, the Sikh community kitchen shifting to American food [5] and only keeping part of what had been previously the ritual of it—one might find these immigrants gravitating toward something like the Unitarian Church. As more and more of the unique qualities of a given religion get left behind—at least, temporarily—upon immigration, it would seem a simple enough step—looking at it from outside the process—to turn toward universalism [6], the aspects that many religions share, but that would involve foregoing the cultural identity aspect of the religion. And, that would fall right in line with the “immigrant generation fears that its offspring will forget their past.”  [7] If the parents let it go, there will be no hope at all that the next generation will have it. And, then you would not get the situation like at Wat Dhammaram where the teenagers come to see the temple as “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.”  [8] What is it, is the home of a fundamental part of what they have left of the place from whence they came, a piece of their culture and their identity, their home in any country.

[1] Mann, Gurinder Singh, Paul David Numrich, and Raymond B. Williams, Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs in America: A Short History, 12… note: page numbers are from the eBook version on my nook, so will differ somewhat from the paperback.

[2] Mann, 64.

[3] Bednarowski, Mary Farrell, The Religious Imagination of American Women, 34.

[4]Contrary to this are congregations like that of Robert Schuller at the Crystal Cathedral. Here, instead of a distinct continuity, even in people, everything is shiny and new to attract newer and newer audiences in a multimedia-saturated world.

[5] Mann, 105.

[6] It would even seem beneficial, no matter where these immigrants turn, if one considers the research of Andrew Newberg (, the notion that “active and positive spiritual belief changes the human brain for the better” but it doesn’t really matter what faith one has, or if one even subscribes to a religion at all. Afterall, his site goes on to say that “atheists who meditate on positive imagery can obtain similar neurological benefits.” But, then again, if one trusts in the research—or at least the conclusions gained there from—of Dean Hamer ( and his “god gene” then perhaps we do all “inherit a set of predispositions that make [our] brains ready and eager to embrace a higher power” and maybe we are stuck. Of course, in this context of immigrants trying to maintain their religious beliefs in a new country, the effort is conscious, so “stuck” may be a bit problematic (or at least biased).


[7] Mann, 12.               


[8] Ibid, 35.

Posted by ca4/muaddib at 11:56 AM PDT
Updated: Thursday, 17 June 2010 3:59 PM PDT
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whose culture is it?

On the subject of the Elgin Marbles, it becomes obvious that Culture, whether related to deeply held religious values or not, is open for debate. The British Museum’s perspective is that it “exists to tell the story of cultural achievement throughout the world, from the dawn of  human history over two million years ago until the  present day,” [1] that the culture of the British encapsulates and includes the culture of those who have come before. There is a sort of Whiggish history going on here, that fits quite naturally with the British Empire as it was when it acquired the Elgin Marbles if not the modern-day version of the same. When the British Empire bought the sculptures from the Earl of Elgin, when Elgin got permission [2] to examine and remove parts of the Parthenon in the first place, the British Empire was massive, a global power. Though not on any global scale, the Greek Empire was once as important, at least as far as Western history is concerned.


But, herein lies one problem with the Greek side in this. The Parthenon may still be important to them culturally, may have once held significant religious importance, when the Greeks were pantheist. But, the British Museum has a point when it says that “the sculptures are part of everyone’s shared heritage and transcend cultural boundaries.” Ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy, fits quite neatly into a history that leads to the British Empire and beyond to modern-day America, in which we discuss this topic in religion class. At this point in history—going with the Whiggish flow of things—we are the hegemon that the British Empire was for a time, that the Ottoman Empire was in its geographic realm as well, that the Greek Empire under Alexander was. Outside of the modern Greek state, there is value put upon the structures, both physical and philosophical, of Ancient Greece. We value the history of the whole world, the “share heritage” of our cultural inheritance.


Still, Greece makes a plea for the return of its sculptures, but recognizes that shared heritage. “The return of the Parthenon Marbles is a fair request of all the Greeks,” says the Prime Minister, Konstantinos Karamanli. “It is a request of all the people, regardless of nationality, who visualise the reunification of a mutilated monument belonging to the world cultural heritage.” [3] It would be nice to have the history of the Parthenon as a structure intact, sure, but what then of the history of the British Empire. Is not the acquisition of the Elgin Marbles itself a historically significant event now, worthy of coverage in a Museum? [4] There is a dangerous precedent to be set for history if everything acquired by various empires has to be returned. The history of Empire will be damaged as well. The acquisition, the act itself, of the Elgin Marbles is perhaps now so significant that to reverse it would be to undermine history.


Taking that further, the Greek position, it would seem, would forsake all museums, as any piece on display has been taken out of its original context. Not everyone can travel just anywhere; that is why museums exist today, to teach us what we otherwise, in our localities, could not learn, by giving us as much of a hands on, direct visual experience as we can get without travelling, in this case, to the Acropolis. If everyone must travel to Greece only to see these things, perhaps there would not be as much interest in this architecture. When the British Museum put the Marbles in place initially, England was effectively the cultural center of the world, so their having these marbles could do nothing but increase interest in their origins, in Ancient Greece. [5]


The question comes down this: whose culture is it? If the British Museum’s notion is correct, that the Parthenon is part of our “shared heritage,” and the museum “exists to tell the story of cultural achievement throughout the world” and “allows the world public to re-examine cultural identities and explore the complex network of interconnected world cultures,” then how do they not have some claim to the artifacts in question? [6] If the Elgin Marbles have been in London for two centuries and Ancient Greece has remained just as important to history, then why risk damaging the pieces by moving them? The return of the sculptures may be a “fair request” but is it a useful one? Will putting them in a different museum—the New Acropolis Museum in Athens—add to or subtract from the value of Ancient Greece in our world’s culture? Or will it have no effect but for the tourism levels in London and Athens? Is this debate really about deeply felt cultural and religious traditions or is it perhaps about money?




[2] The extent of the permission he may have gotten or not gotten debated many a time before, still, he spent 11 years taking things from the Acropolis; someone had to notice and, on some level, not object, though of course that someone may have been the local Ottoman Sultan, which is part of the Greek side in this whole Elgin Marbles debate, that the Ottoman Empire, however much it may have controlled Greece at the time, had no right to give away pieces of the Parthenon.


[3] From an interview excerpt posted at


[4] I had intended to allude to the conflict between, say, the Makah Nation cultural tradition of whaling versus the younger, American (or World) culture which has come to believe, for the most part—Japanese whaling and the like excepted—that killing whales is a bad thing, but the connection here with the acquisition of the Elgin Marbles only works if the Treaty of Neah Bay is taken as representative of all the United States’ treaties with native tribes, or if the whaling tradition is taken along with so many other native traditions lost as their respective cultures were subsumed by American Manifest Destiny… and the connection could certainly be made, but would take many more pages than available here. Similarly, the matter of the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and China’s views versus the Dalai Lama’s could be brought in, but the debate between the British Museum and the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism quite handedly covers the subject quite well, with multiple sides making claims to a cultural relic, and each side having a good case.


[5] Taking this argument to a slightly more ridiculous end, if the Elgin Marbles remain only in the British Museum, if their place in this one museum becomes as permanent a thing as the original location, then their value to the rest of the world is devalued—after all, just as we cannot all travel to Greece, we cannot all travel to London. Either the Parthenon should be intact (inasmuch as it is possible) in its original location, or the pieces that can be moved should be travelling the world on a regular basis, not sitting in one (or, more accurately, a few) museum(s)  in one location. Either we have original context or we have opportunity to see firsthand these, or any, pieces. We cannot have both. Keep in mind, even in Athens, given the New Acropolis Museum or the attempts to replace sculptures with replicas on the Acropolis itself, the Greeks are not keeping the Parthenon as it is, and it is already so very far from how it was.


[6] Similarly, if the Makah get permits for their whale hunts now, and their treaty specifically authorizes them to hunt whales, AND they actually make concessions for the modern world—i.e. using guns instead of harpoons to speed the whale’s death—then how can they not be allowed to continue with this tradition that is important to them? Of course, if they managed 70 years without it, while the gray whale was endangered, then whose to say they couldn’t manage a few more, or indefinitely, while still keeping their culture as intact as it had been for those 70 years?

Posted by ca4/muaddib at 11:18 AM PDT
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no religion is static

In her The Religious Imagination of American Women, Mary Farrell Bednarowski focuses on five main themes that all connect to the ability of women (and men, as we will see) to adjust religion to better fit their lives, and for religion to adjust to better fit the lives of these women and also men. The five themes are ambivalence toward religion, an emphasis on immanence of the sacred, the ordinary as revelatory, reality as relational, and healing as a primary function of religion. Each of these, in turn, shows adjustment on the part of both the participants of a religion (not just women, though that is Bednarowski’s focus) and the religious institution, proving that no religion is static or it would not hold onto its practitioners.

Firstly, Bednarowski writes about ambivalence toward religion, a sense that strict adherence to a strict reading of the religion’s original doctrine is not only unnecessary, but actually an impediment to keeping some followers, especially women who traditionally were left to the sidelines, defined explicitly or reading implicitly that they are the “other.” She calls this ambivalence “creative and increasingly cultivated” meaning that there is a creative process to this lack of strong feeling toward the religion; specifically, this would lead to new ideas and perspectives about the religion. These new ideas can, over time, lead to new traditions, new rituals and even new beliefs, transforming the religion into something more befitting these ambivalent followers’ lives. The key here is that religion, however set in stone—literally, in some cases, obviously—the rules may be, is not static. It is not unchangeable.

Of course, the old traditions focus quite a bit on men and dictate quite specifically how to live, in public or in private. But, where the official form of the religion might have a strict tone, might have its omniscient, omnipotent monarch of a God ruling with a firm hand from his far off throne, the folk form of the religion, that is that form of religion that the average person—or, specifically women—practice in their normal lives has to make some leeway for reality. This is actually easier to do if the divine is taken as being more immanent than transcendent, hence the emphasis on immanence being Bednarowski’s second theme. If God is seen as being more down-to-earth, more practical, if the sacred is here with us instead of far off in a distant heaven, then it can change with us, can be as fluid as the seasons and the years will demand and/or allow. By the official, traditional Theist standard, with God transcendent, existing above and beyond his creation, it is far too easy for manmade restrictions and prejudices to be placed upon him, for—since we’re using Bednarowski here, we will again use women—sexist standards and gender-oriented spheres of life to be taken not as some human construct but to be attributed to this far off deity, to be taken as rigid as the ten commandments set in stone. So, it comes to women—and anyone else left on the margins—to look to God with ambivalence and see him as immanent, closer to earth, more accessible.

Additionally, these women will see the ordinary as revelatory, see the sacred in everyday existence. Of course, with traditional gender roles, what other option do religious women have? If a woman is kept to the home, kept subservient to her father or her husband, then her entire experience in the everyday will be with the ordinary. If she does not see revelation therein, then she will not hold to her religion. But, as there is comfort in keeping the religion, such a woman can take her ambivalence and her immanent God and see the light of her beliefs in any ordinary chore, in any order sight, in each and every ordinary day.

After all of this, and because of all this, there will be a sense, outside the strict confines of rigid religious doctrine of a reality that is more flexible, one in which men are not the center of everything… or perhaps, that the center of everything is not where the men are, or think they are. Religious women, according to Bednarowski, see reality as relational, consisting of relationships, putting emphasis not on individual autonomy but on group effort, on common bonds among the community. Bednarowski quotes Plaskow saying that “being part of a community with its own history, convictions, customs, and values can add richness and meaning to life”  (Bednarowski 19), and this richness and meaning is even more important to these women who value the community more than the individual. Additionally, Bednarowski suggests that “God is present—immanent—in community and is experienced in community” (66). And community is built on relationships, not on individuals acting for individual aims.

Finally—and this one, at least with the major religions, would fit better with Bednarowski’s women than just any religious follower—Bednarowski argues that the primary function of religion is, or at least should be, healing. While the major religions do recognize human suffering, they treat it as punishment or testing by God, or see suffering as a problem with the point of view of the sufferer. Bednarowski suggests that religious women see it differently, that they see religion as being instrumental—or at least inherently capable of being so—in helping people heal, spiritually, psychologically, even physically. Religion exists to explain the universe to followers, to put order onto a chaotic existence. If religion cannot help to lessen or thwart suffering, then religion fails in maintaining such order. While religious men might agree with suffering being a just, karmic punishment, or a test from God, or a problem with perspective, religious women, with their ambivalence, their emphasis on the immanent, earthbound God, and their relational reality, will see it differently, will see suffering as unnecessary. And, for these women, religion is a tool for healing.

Posted by ca4/muaddib at 10:58 AM PDT
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Monday, 12 April 2010
The Comfort of Old Ideas

There are two very simple reasons why religious people stick with the religions they are given (more often than they turn away from them or break off to form their own versions, that is). First, in believing that the foundations of their religion are given by a God or come from some superior (but not necessarily supernatural) intelligence that these beliefs are good and reasonable and worth keeping. Additional to that, the longer such beliefs remain, the more ingrained they can become, even as they stagnate, and the more worth keeping they seem—after all, if they lasted this long, they must be working. The second reason people stick with the religions they have is something I got at in last week’s essay, the comfort of it. Like in Pam Wynn’s poem Religion, the rooms of the house (of religion) may be “heavy and dark” and the “ground on which it stands” may be “beginning to cave in,” but “once the walls were familiar, comforting.” Where there was comfort before, there is still comfort enough to want to hold to old things, be it religious beliefs or anything.[1]

This holding to old beliefs can of course put people in positions that might seem strange to us on the outside. An example of this can be found in that Economist article about the Arab women protesting in Sana’a[2]. These women, subjugated to a secondary, if not tertiary, role in life, come in their religion-demanded garb, covered from head to toe, protesting a part of the very process that has put them in such a low position. They don’t do this because of potential reprisal if they were to take the opposite side, though that certainly could be an issue on some level. They do this because child marriage, whatever we outsiders might argue the negative aspects are, is a part of the system in which these women have become who they have become. This is a system that, as far as they know or at least believe, has come from God. To think otherwise, or to even question the rightness of this or any other part of the system, would put them in opposition to a system of belief that touches at the heart of their very being. Wynn’s house may be old and cramped, but it is still her house, the place where she lives, the place where she has lived every day since she was taught or sought religion.

Stepping away from a religion that subjugated you to a lesser role, that demands you cover yourself from head to toe, that you not speak to a man who is not your father or your husband—this would seem somewhat easy. If a system puts you down, the natural response, logically, is to get away from such a system. But, then the comfort aspect comes back into play, for, if you step away from the belief system that has been with you all your life, that was with your father and your mother and your grandparents and their parents and back for many a generation, where do you go? Life requires a certain sense of control, of order, or the day-to-day existence would be far too overwhelming. Sometimes you need the water in the pail, the moon in the water, right where you want and expect them to be. Sudden realization, like that of the nun Chiyono,[3] cannot work for everyone. Sometimes the sudden is simply scary for being so sudden, not a welcome break from a harsh reality, but a distraction from a comforting one.

Ludwig Wittgenstein used a “family resemblance” group of traits to define religion[4], the idea being that the more of these traits are present, the more comfortable we are defining a given system as a religion. The list is composed almost entirely of traits that would be comforting to a follower of a given religion. A moral code puts everything in order, makes life easier to live without the chaos. Similarly, prayer and ritual put a person in direct practical (meaning here, related to active practice, not necessarily useful) connection with their beliefs, making the ephemeral seem very real. A supernatural or superior intelligent being that drives a religious foundation puts all the rules, the order in the hands of someone better than us, someone who must have known more than we know and who knew how to make things work, how to keep life livable. Revealed truth and a deep intense concern—these put a certain import on belief, make it seem, even if its foundation may be proven false, an objective good. There are those—myself, occasionally among them—who may not believe in the godliness of Jesus Christ (or perhaps that he was ever even a single, living individual) but who still find in his words reasonably guidance for living. The Ten Commandments may not have come from God but they still encompass the basic rules that virtually every civilization has ever put down for its basics. And, any complex worldview that establishes which historical events are important or unimportant, which ones led us to this point in history and which ones did not, any worldview that leads to the notion, spelled out or not, that this is how we are supposed to live, how we have always lived and how we should always live, is a comforting worldview… at least as long as one remains within its bounds. Stepping out of those bounds—in that there is not comfort but frightening actions leading to the unknown. Stepping out of those bounds would be like not praying “for a rainbow” as Wynn does in her poem, but leaving the house altogether to stand in the rain and get wet and not knowing if the cold and the rain will make you sick or make you free.


[1] 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.

[2] Arab women’s rights: Some say they don’t want them. The Economist 27 March 2010. 53.

[3] As we read in the excerpt from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

[4] I got this form of the list from a previous college course and cannot, for the life of me, find the original source (i.e. the one in which Wittgenstein delineated it) of this list as it appears here, but it is safe to say, that wherever it came from originally, the list makes sense for defining religions as religions. The 13 traits are as follows: 1. Belief in supernatural intelligent being(s), 2. Belief in superior intelligent being(s), 3. Complex worldview (defining significant events in history and positioning said “religion” as arising from such events, 4. Belief in experience after death, 5. A moral code, 6. A place for evil, 7. Theodicy, 8. Prayer and ritual, 9. Sacred objects and places, 10. Revealed truth, 11. Intense religious experience, 12. Deep, intense concern, and 13. Commitment to Sharing.

Posted by ca4/muaddib at 10:44 AM PDT
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progress vs tradition
Now Playing: boondock saints II

Admitting a certain atheist bias up front, I must say that it seems that progress and tradition do not go hand in hand. And, thus, religion, dependent as it is on tradition, does not fit well with progress. Outside of what we have covered in class, of course, there seems a certain irony in that early temples—where religion began—it has been suggested, came into existence because of supposed “progress” i.e. the agricultural revolution. But, separate from that—an argument certainly to be made, but not in this essay—religious cosmology and religious adherence to the immaterial quite readily holds people back from advancing thought and understanding about the universe, and sometimes quite actively obstructs such advancement (the excommunication of Galileo comes to mind). In Nakae Chōmin’s “A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government,” the character of the Champion makes a clear political distinction between what he calls the “lovers of nostalgia” and the “lovers of novelty.” That same distinction fits quite handily upon the dialectic of religion vs. modernity or tradition vs. progress.

Not to bring in too many outside sources in the first week[1], but Max Weber argued that of the various religions—some being more conducive to progress than others—Protestantism, in particular, promoted Capitalism in the West (which many would, of course, see as progress) by legitimizing individualistic profit seeking, making it a duty willed by God; by justifying capitalist exploitation and work discipline by making conscientious labor a sacred duty; and by creating a climate in which poverty was seen as a result of individual failing. In America today, it’s almost too easy to see how this Protestant work ethic has remained, so that we have long debates over healthcare or any sort of welfare for the poor. Christianity (or either of the other two Abrahamic religions). Hinduism, Buddhism—these religions love the idea of charity, but in practice do not necessarily live up to it because of ideas like those Weber described. Religious tradition, even relatively new ones like Protestantism, get in the way of “progress.”

As said in class, seeking the holy, especially in the modern era, is about finding continuity, finding order. The religious person—even, the atheist, but after a different fashion—seeks a way to give meaning to everyday existence, to put a purpose to all we must experience. And, the empirics of science discount this meaning. Having grown up in a religious environment, I understand how comforting such a thing can be (the meaning, not the discounting of it), and in an increasingly chaotic world, an increasingly populous world, the individual almost has to seek something outside empirics to make living worth it. Religious cosmology, whatever one a person may choose, provides a (relatively) straightforward explanation for how the universe is constructed and how it is supposed to work. Any unknown portion is attributed to the supernatural and even for that there are rules and guidelines for how the supernatural is to act. Outside of say ancient pantheist religions like the Olympian, just about any religion also provides a moral code, and this puts further order on life, and order is generally more comforting than chaos.

It is worth noting, as well, that any religion with an eschatology—that is, a specific belief about the end—like the Abrahamic religions, like Christianity, there may even be a sense that, since we are near the endtimes, certain progress is, even if potentially positive, unnecessary. Chomin’s Champion compares the lovers of novelty to “living flesh” and the lovers of nostalgia to “a cancer.” While this may be a bit hyperbolic, it is fitting. Science, modernity, progress—these are living, evolving ideas whereas religion, tradition—these are dead notions whose very stillness is what makes them so comforting at times.

[1] I will admit, along with my atheist bias, a tendency to do extra research and to an appreciation for outside references and footnotes. So, be warned.

Posted by ca4/muaddib at 9:29 AM PDT
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