09/1/13

What’s it all about, Alfie?


Facebook image“What’s it all about, Alfie?” sings Cilla Black in the title song for the eponymous 1966 movie. But it could be the anthem for the human race, or at least those with a philosophical bent. “What’s it all about?” is certainly a question that springs to my mind daily as I listen to the news, read a paper or surf the internet.*

What “it” is all about was raised this week when the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal granted that atheism is a “creed” that deserves the same protections in law and public policy as any faith, equal under the Human Rights Code.

David A. Wright, associate chairman of the tribunal, made the statement that,“Protection against discrimination because of religion, in my view, must include protection of the applicants’ belief that there is no deity.”

A delightful victory for secular humanists and freethinkers. Atheists of all stripes should have the same right to spread their beliefs or proselytize like any other person who does it in the name of faith. Rights of expression should not be constrained by having no faith. By the same token, they have to obey he same rules as to where and when it is appropriate to do so.

Fair enough. But don’t expect to see atheists showing up at your front door wanting to give you a copy of Skeptic magazine, hoping to be invited into your living room for a chat about your salvation.

The decision also sparked a lot of lively debate about just what atheism is. What is “it” that deserves protection and is there anything definite, some commonality that clearly defines just what an atheist is? Spoiler: the answer is no.

It has also brought to the surface many misunderstandings about atheism – as well as general misunderstanding about what the words “religion” and “creed” mean. As reporter in the St. Catherine Standard, “Commission lawyer Cathy Pike argued in part the tribunal didn’t need to determine if atheism or secular humanism is a creed.” Quite right. But they did anyway.

The decision was a topic on the recent CBC radio show, Day Six, which asked “Is atheism a religion?” – a question not unlike asking “is a fish a bicycle?” Or as one poster on the CBC site wryly commented, “It has been variously said that atheism is a religion as: bald is a hair colour; “Off” is a TV channel, and; abstinence is a sex position.”

Many writers commenting on this decision share similar confusions over the idea of atheism, and mistake atheism for religion (a bit like mistaking a bicycle for a bus because they both have wheels). Perhaps most comments I’ve read come from writers who have a religion they want to defend and have a difficult time understanding a life without faith, so they need to put non-belief into a context they can comprehend.

For example, Licia Corbella, columnist in the Calgary Herald, wrote:

This may be a leap of faith, but here’s hoping that maybe now, atheists — many of whom have proven themselves to be a highly motivated evangelistic group accustomed to ramming their minority religion down the throats of the majority — will face the same scrutiny of their beliefs as traditional faiths have been undergoing for decades in Canada at their behest.

Corbella’s desire to punish atheists for their presumption notwithstanding, that atheism isn’t a religion can be proven by the semantics. While there are many variant definitions of what a religion is, Wikipedia’s is fairly good (emphasis added):

Religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to the supernatural, and to spirituality. Many religions have narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that are intended to explain the meaning of life and/or to explain the origin of life or the Universe. From their beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, they tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle. According to some estimates, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world.

Dictionary.com adds this (emphasis added):

  1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
  2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
  3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices: a world council of religions.
  4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.: to enter religion.
  5. the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.

Austin Cline quotes an “Encyclopedia of Philosophy” (undefined as to which publisher, since there are numerous such works) for this rather exhaustive definition:

  • Belief in supernatural beings (gods).
  • A distinction between sacred and profane objects.
  • Ritual acts focused on sacred objects.
  • A moral code believed to be sanctioned by the gods.
  • Characteristically religious feelings (awe, sense of mystery, sense of guilt, adoration), which tend to be aroused in the presence of sacred objects and during the practice of ritual, and which are connected in idea with the gods.
  • Prayer and other forms of communication with gods.
  • A world view, or a general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein. This picture contains some specification of an over-all purpose or point of the world and an indication of how the individual fits into it.
  • A more or less total organization of one’s life based on the world view.
  • A social group bound together by the above.

Almost all definitions state that a religion is a collection of formal beliefs that include a supernatural or superhuman agency. But what agency or organization determines or collates this collection for atheists? None.

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08/23/13

Christmas Creep in August


Xmas XcessOn August 22, we got the Sears “Christmas Wish” catalogue delivered to our home. It was a sunny, hot day that almost reached 30C. The sprinkler was watering the garden while we enjoyed a cold beer on the porch, sitting in shorts and T-shirts.

The last thing I wanted on my mind was winter. But there it was, two pounds of wildly-inappropriate seasonal shopping choices, refusing to be ignored. As welcome as a fart in a crowded elevator.

It seems every year “Christmas Creep” advances down the calendar, earlier and earlier. Last year I heard Xmas music in stores on November 1, right after Hallowe’en. I was told that canned Xmas crap played on November 11 – while we stood in silence during the Remembrance Day memorial service – in stores where no one takes a mere two minutes of silence to remember our veterans.

That’s seriously ugly and not a little demented. Are we so shallow, our values so twisted that we can’t stop marketing, can’t stop advertising and promoting for a mere two minutes of respect? This egregious commercialism is eroding our values, like the inexorable ocean waves erode the shoreline.

The Urban Dictionary defines Christmas Creep as:

Universally hated, market driven phenomenon that if left unchecked will eventually culminate in an uninterrupted decade of concatenated carol medleys, closely followed by a glorious moment of frantic arson destroying every Christmatastasized mall in America.

Add Canada into that definition, please. I’d call for boycotts, but it seems too tame after that.

Shoppers heard Xmas carols blaring through stores on Oct 27, in the American city of Frederick, in 2010, spurring customer complaints. Didn’t stop everyone from maxing out their credit cards, it seems.

That’s not the earliest, by the way. But shoppers may be getting immune to the hypocrisy, to the calendrical backstep that brings Xmas shopping earlier every year.

One day soon, I expect, we’ll hear Xmas music in stores right after Labour Day. Think I’m crazy? Groupon had “beat the holiday rush” coupons out in July, and Costco had Xmas decorations on display this August!

Despite what the calendar says to the contrary, summer is over for many retailers and Christmas Creep is in full swing.

In Australia, though, Charles Areni, a professor of marketing thinks getting out the Xmas decorations and playing the music the sooner the better is good for sales:

“Christmas carols are a very specific genre. They’re in a major key, they have nostalgic value, they have a reasonably fast tempo – generally they’re pretty happy. With Christmas carols it’s very much about getting people to think about buying Christmas gifts, so they have a very specific purpose.”

In addition, music is specially chosen to appeal to a shop’s target market. If people like the music, they are more likely to stay longer in the shop – the longer they stay, the more likely they are to make a purchase or spend more money.

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08/2/13

Hell 2.3


IncubusBefore I carry on with my exploration of Miriam Van Scott’s Encyclopedia of Hell, I wanted to note that I just got my copy of her other book – the Encyclopedia of Heaven, from Abebooks. It’s dated 1999, so it’s a year later than her book on Hell. Yet it has many related topics – like Goethe’s second Faust. And it has lots of pop culture – like movie references – but nothing post 1999.

Miriam, why not consider a revised, updated “Encyclopedia of the Afterlife” to combine everything in one book? Lots has happened since the last editions. I’d be happy to help… okay, moving along.

Oh, and try not to make this out to be some sort of allegory for local politics. Sure, last term was Hell at times, but that’s not what this is all about. We left off in the letter I…

Incubus (plural incubi), we’re told, is the male version of the succubus. Both are seductive demons meant to lure humans to give in to temptation and have sex with them. Apparently if you succumb to temptation you open the door to damnation. It’s too late for me: flee, save yourselves… should have said that back in the 60s.

Scott doesn’t tell us that incubi are actually holdovers from ancient Mesopotamian religion (Mesopotamia is Greek, by the way, and it means between the rivers, because the civilizations rose between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers). Thank the river gods for Wikipedia and some “Small Latine and Lesse Greeke” in my education.*

Nor does she mention that incubi can father children (called cambion) and that Merlin, the legendary British wizard, was supposed to have been the child of an incubus and a human woman (in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account, a nun) named Aldan. But not all legends tell the same tale, and some are rather more prosaic about his birth. But Geoffrey’s book, the History of the Kings of England, is a delight to read anyway, despite the rather fanciful and fantastic bits.

Some succubi can be impregnated, others merely collect the sperm which the incubi use to impregnate females. Seems artificial insemination was thought of a long time ago. But as Wikipedia tells us, it might not be a fun act for the guys:

It is said that the act of sexually penetrating a succubus is akin to entering a cavern of ice.

That should lead me to a joke about my ex-wife, but I’ll avoid that temptation.
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07/29/13

Hell 2.2


Stream of ConsciousnessMight be time to recap my reasons for writing this series. New readers could get confused about the content in the Hell posts, of which this is the fourth.

They’re all the result of a convergence of several recent themes and activities in my life; a lot of which have to do with recent reading and research.

I started reading several books, more or less simultaneously this summer, some of which I’ve blogged about. One of them is Dante’s Inferno (I’m currently reading Mark Musa’s translation in the Penguin edition, but also have Pinsky’s and a few others). Another is AJ Jacobs’s book about reading the Encyclopedia Britannica, The Know-It-All.

That latter book (which I’m still reading, by the way), intrigued me, as has Jacobs’s goal to become smarter by reading.

Wisdom comes from knowledge, and is the result of making connections between all the information, the data, the accumulated and seemingly unrelated content. It doesn’t make you smarter (which is a measure of your ability to reason and conjecture, not simply accumulated data), but it can make you wiser to know more (if you use your intelligence to make those quantum leaps across nonlinear data).

Lacking access to the Britannica, I decide to experiment in a similar fashion, albeit with something smaller, something related directly to my current reading regimen and to my own library (and my access to Wikipedia). And something I had easily available: Miriam Van Scott’s Encyclopedia of Hell.

It’s really a stream-of-consciousness writing experiment, albeit not at the Joycean level. As I read through this book (one related to some research I’m doing for a novel I’ve been working on the past year), I use the entries as a springboard to other areas of interest, to personal memories, to other content I’m reading or exploring.

And what I comment on in the posts is hit-and-miss rather than entry-after-entry commentary. This isn’t the Talmud, after all; I am neither as educated nor as analytical as that. I appreciate the layered commentary in the Talmud, the intellectual forum for debate and discussion it represents. But it was complied in more civil times, it seems.

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07/27/13

Hell 2.1, a small update


Get out of Hell free cardI left you in my exploration of the Encyclopedia of Hell pondering which version of the Faustus story was better: with or without his final redemption. Personally, I prefer without, because it offers greater dramatic opportunities. I also don’t like the notion of redemption: it seems like a “get out of Hell free” card.

Christianity is the only religion I know of that offers this particular way out of your bad deeds: accept Jesus as your personal saviour and you’ll get diverted from Hell. So basically you can be evil until your deathbed, not take responsibility for your actions, then repent and avoid the punishment of the afterlife. Somehow to me, that’s cowardly. Take responsibility for your actions, like the Buddhists do.

Christianity’s redemption is tied into the notion of salvation (Christian belief in a deified saviour is, as far as I understand, also unique), the personal relationship with its deity, and is a lot more complex than I can get into here. But some Christian faiths believe in redemption or salvation after death, too, which lessens the whole hell thing (saying a mass for the dead, for example).

After all, if you can be pulled from the pits into heaven by living people praying for you, it makes Hell look more like a bad parking ticket than eternal damnation.

As an allegorical tale, Faust lacks the punch if he avoids damnation through some theological prestidigitation. I prefer it when he gets his just desserts. Might not be redemption, but it does bring closure.

Buddhists have a different type of Hell and redemption: you need to balance bad deeds with good: your accumulated karma determines your afterlife (and reincarnation, for those who believe in it). You redeem yourself by being good. You gotta work at it; nothing is free.

There’s another version of redemption in Judaism, but it’s not a personal one (except for the pidyon haben, which is ritualistic rather than theological), but rather a collective one to do with the diaspora.

On to the rest of the F chapter. It’s fairly short, even if I am verbose as I meander through it.

But first, for your reading pleasure, two more books: The Origin of Satan, by Elaine Pagels. Pagels is one of my favourite theological writers and her books on the Gnostic scriptures, Beyond Belief and The Gnostic Gospels, are a great introduction. The former is also available in audio book format at the local library. The other title is Hell: An Illustrated History of the Netherworld, by Richard Craze. It’s a fun little intro into various visions of hell in world mythology.

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07/22/13

Hell 2.0


Diablo or someone like himI left you last time after finishing the letter D, in Miriam Van Scott’s Encyclopedia of Hell. I’m back in book form to take you through a few more entries in her exploration of the afterlife. But first a couple of additions to your reading material.

First on the list is Alice Turner’s 275-page The History of Hell. It’s an illustrated guide to how Westerners have come to think of Hell, It starts with the ancient influences – Egypt, Greece, Rome and Judaism – but its main focus is on the evolving Christian imagination. She has a lot to say about the popular imagination and culture, too.

A more comprehensive, and significantly longer work is Alan Segal’s 866-page tome, Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion. Very theologically-oriented and dry, Segal’s work isn’t as much fun to read as Turner’s, but delves considerably deeper into scriptures (Jewish, Christian, and less comprehensively, Islamic).

Neither Turner nor Segal given any attention to non-Western thought. There is nothing on Buddhist, Shinto, Confucian, Hindu or other non-Western faiths. Nor do they go far from mainstream religious thought: nothing on any cult or fringe group like Scientology, Wicca, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon or Seventh Day Adventist afterlife.

And today’s last choice is the fun little book by Augusta Moore and Elizabeth Ripley, The Pocket Guide to the Afterlife. A great intro to the world’s thinking about what happens after death. Just about every faith you can name, from Astaru to Zoroastrianism is covered in short, fun, illustrated descriptions. It’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek in parts, it is actually quite good in describing what are often complex and arcane beliefs.

Anyway, when I left you, I had plowed through Drithelm, Drugaskan and Duat. If you have been following along in your copy, you will remember these are a 7th-century Briton whose visions of Hell made him become a monk; the lowest level of Hell in Zoroastrianism, and the landing zone in Egyptian mythology where the dead arrive to find eternal retribution or rest, respectively.

Ever wonder why we call everyone else’s idea of the afterlife and their gods “mythology” while we claim ours is the only truth, capitalizing everything, like our God but their god? Just our parochial, narrow-minded perspective I suppose. But let’s go on (and save parochialism for another post)

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