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Posts Tagged ‘Islam’

Only if you believe centuries of propaganda. For nearly two thousand years, the belief in only one god—monotheism—has had a monopoly on western civilization. That means that monotheists have been teaching about religion from a monotheist perspective, which is naturally biased in favor of monotheism. Monotheism’s triumph in the west was not due to its inherent superiority, its fundamental reasonable-ness, or its unique appeal to human beings. Monotheism triumphed over polytheism because of economics, war and politics. To modern western people, monotheism seems like the only reasonable option because monotheists have been saying it is for ages. It seems like the only reasonable option because for most people it has been the only practical option. But none of this has anything to do with whether it is actually a better option. If you say “polytheism is ridiculous” over and over again, people will believe it is true because they have heard it, they are used to hearing it, and more importantly, because nobody has been able to present the opposing viewpoint. There have been basically no polytheists around to counter monotheism’s distorted caricature of polytheism, so people have naturally accepted the only point of view that they have heard. Eventually, it has become something we all just assume to be true. But it is not.

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Instead of putting up a bunch of tedious posts about political issues that I feel the need to get off my chest, I’m just going to boil them down to little pearls of wisdom and put them all in one post, so if politics makes you retch, like it does me, you can safely and conveniently ignore all of it.

Religious Gay Marriage Alarmism:

No, legalizing gay marriage will not force churches to stop preaching that homosexuality is a sin or start performing gay marriage, for the same reason that the Civil Rights Act didn’t stop churches from preaching white supremacy or refusing to perform interracial marriage.

Freedom of Religion at Ground Zero:

I can be staunchly against the Ground Zero Mosque but still believe in freedom of religion for the same reason that I can be staunchly against you telling my four-year old son that Santa Claus is not real but still believe in freedom of speech.

X-Treme Presidents:

President Obama is not a communist for the same reason that President Bush was not a fascist.  Stop being fucking ridiculous.  When you wrap up your legitimate criticism in paranoid rhetoric, nobody takes you seriously except the other paranoid whackjobs who already agree with you.

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1. I only like things that are awesome.
2. Beer is awesome.
3. I have no interest in a god that is not awesome.
4. Forbidding things that are awesome is not awesome.
5. Therefore no awesome god would forbid beer.
6. Therefore, a god that forbids beer is a god that is not worth bothering with.

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Think about it.

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I have noticed that the use of special or religious names is pretty common among Neopagans. I am honestly curious as to why someone needs to call themself “Moonferret Starshine” or something Welsh or whatever instead of just using their real name. I’m not talking about internet handles or nicknames–those are a part of a pretty well-established internet tradition of anonymity. I’m talking about new religious or spiritual names that people use in real life in spiritual contexts.

I realize that Neopagans aren’t the only ones to do this: converts to Islam often take an Arabic name, and I think Hare Krishnas take new names, too. I believe Zen priests have a special Zen name, and I know for a fact that Mormons get a secret new name in the temple endowment ceremony that seems to serve no understandable function outside of the endowment ceremony itself. I have also known converts to Christianity from Islam who took a Western “Christian” name.

So maybe I am being unfair to Neopagans, since they’re just doing what everyone else does. But sometimes it just seems silly. Like LARPing. But I am willing to extend the question to other religious traditions who do this, as well. Why new names? What’s wrong with the old one?

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In short, the problem with eclecticism is that it seems just too dang unprincipled to be viable.

I have written before about how I get to feel claustrophobic with boxed religion.  Although I was specifically talking about religions that present the whole package–theology, practice, etcetera–in one neatly-defined package with firm orthodoxy-borders all the way around it so that everything in the box is prescribed and everything outside the box is proscribed, I feel similarly about conceptual boxes on a smaller scale.  This is part of why I can’t go with a reconstructionist religion like Hellenismos or Asátrú.  Even having experienced intense mystical contact with gods from Greek mythology, a single flavor of paganism is just not sufficiently spiritually fulfilling.

The thing is, although I see the value in picking one direction and sticking with it, I genuinely feel spiritually moved by the Celtic and the Norse as well as the Greco-Roman.  Maybe it’s a heritage thing; my ancestors were Celts, Teutons, and Vikings, and my cultural ancestors are the Greeks and Romans.  I am a fusion of multiple strands of paganism, so it is only natural that I should feel some attachment to each of them.  And again, while I can see that there could be personal benefit in picking just one, I don’t think I am capable of doing that.  My connection to these three (at least) mythical-cultural traditions is not one that allows for picking and choosing.  It is sufficiently strong so that I would feel that I was denying a part of myself if I left one of them behind.

(Interesting: three traditions.  Possible Druidic significance?)

In short, while I acknowledge the probable spiritual benefits gained by embracing one tradition exclusively, it is vastly outweighed by the sense of deep personal spiritual connection that I feel to each of these three: they touch my heart, mind, and soul in a deep and primal way.  It’s basic economics of the soul, really: what I stand to gain by specializing  is worth less to me than what I stand to lose by specializing, so I choose not to specialize.

On the other hand, I look down on eclecticism.  I think of it as unprincipled, ridiculous.  If you can have three different mythic traditions, why not four?  Why not ten?  Why not all?  Why not just take whatever you want from whatever tradition you want?

The questions actually aren’t completely rhetorical.  I think it’s worth asking whether picking and choosing is a big deal, especially given that we’re going to pick and choose to a certain extent no matter what.  In the end, though their reasons may be subtle and complicated, everyone is going to choose the religious expression that most suits them.  I’m not Muslim after all, because on some level and for whatever reason, Islam does not suit me.  If not for some permutation of personal preference then we would have a much harder time picking a religion.  What metric would we use to decide what we believe, even if we stayed in the religious tradition we were born into?

But at the same time, I think that the idea of submission is incredibly important to religion.  One of the most religious utterances ever made is “not my will but thine be done.”  The ultimate spiritual experience is mystical union with the divine, where the self is swallowed up into somehting greater.  Self-denial, putting aside your own special narcisissm in favor of something greater and higher, is at the heart of religion and real spirituality.

If you’re just ordering whatever you want from the menu and cobbling together a religious gumbo from whatever concepts, practices, and gods suit your fancy, then you are really not worshipping a Deity at all, but in a twisted way you are actually worshipping yourself.  Real gods demand that we grow and change in order to worship and experience them.  Real religion has to be fundamentally transformative; otherwise it’s just a sociocultural phenomenon that serves no individual spiritual purpose.  And in order to be transformative, religion has to be demanding.  On a certain level, God is undamentally alien to humans, and in order to experience God, humans have to be willing to bend and be shaped to be able to meet God partway.  If you’re assembling some kind of a FrankenGod from a pile of divine characteristics, then all you have is an imaginary god born of individual fancy.  Your own fancy.  That’s what you are worshipping.

So how to reconcile this with the undeniable fact that people pick and choose when it comes to religion, and with my personal spiritual connection to multiple strands of paganism?  I don’t really know, but I feel like there’s a line between the extremes that can be walked.  If we recognize and embrace the tension between these competing religious metavalues or realities or whatever, then maybe there’s a way to navigate them and even benefit from them without being torn apart or thrown one way or the other.

Incidentally, Tony Lamb has a good post on the topic at the Association of Polytheist Traditions.

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Mary Lefkowitz wrote an excellent article for the LA Times a little more than a year ago about the Greek gods that’s well worth reading.

Bring back the Greek gods

Mere mortals had a better life when more than one ruler presided from on high.

By Mary Lefkowitz
October 23, 2007 in print edition A-27

Prominent secular and atheist commentators have argued lately that religion “poisons” human life and causes endless violence and suffering. But the poison isn’t religion; it’s monotheism. The polytheistic Greeks didn’t advocate killing those who worshiped different gods, and they did not pretend that their religion provided the right answers. Their religion made the ancient Greeks aware of their ignorance and weakness, letting them recognize multiple points of view.

There is much we still can learn from these ancient notions of divinity, even if we can agree that the practices of animal sacrifice, deification of leaders and divining the future through animal entrails and bird flights are well lost.

My Hindu students could always see something many scholars miss: The Greek gods weren’t mere representations of forces in nature but independent beings with transcendent powers who controlled the world and everything in it. Some of the gods were strictly local, such as the deities of rivers and forests. Others were universal, such as Zeus, his siblings and his children.

Zeus did not communicate directly with humankind. But his children — Athena, Apollo and Dionysus — played active roles in human life. Athena was the closest to Zeus of all the gods; without her aid, none of the great heroes could accomplish anything extraordinary. Apollo could tell mortals what the future had in store for them. Dionysus could alter human perception to make people see what’s not really there. He was worshiped in antiquity as the god of the theater and of wine. Today, he would be the god of psychology.

Zeus, the ruler of the gods, retained his power by using his intelligence along with superior force. Unlike his father (whom he deposed), he did not keep all the power for himself but granted rights and privileges to other gods. He was not an autocratic ruler but listened to, and was often persuaded by, the other gods.

Openness to discussion and inquiry is a distinguishing feature of Greek theology. It suggests that collective decisions often lead to a better outcome. Respect for a diversity of viewpoints informs the cooperative system of government the Athenians called democracy.

Unlike the monotheistic traditions, Greco-Roman polytheism was multicultural. The Greeks and Romans did not share the narrow view of the ancient Hebrews that a divinity could only be masculine. Like many other ancient peoples in the eastern Mediterranean, the Greeks recognized female divinities, and they attributed to goddesses almost all of the powers held by the male gods.

The world, as the Greek philosopher Thales wrote, is full of gods, and all deserve respect and honor. Such a generous understanding of the nature of divinity allowed the ancient Greeks and Romans to accept and respect other people’s gods and to admire (rather than despise) other nations for their own notions of piety. If the Greeks were in close contact with a particular nation, they gave the foreign gods names of their own gods: the Egyptian goddess Isis was Demeter, Horus was Apollo, and so on. Thus they incorporated other people’s gods into their pantheon.

What they did not approve of was atheism, by which they meant refusal to believe in the existence of any gods at all. One reason many Athenians resented Socrates was that he claimed a divinity spoke with him privately, but he could not name it. Similarly, when Christians denied the existence of any gods other than their own, the Romans suspected political or seditious motives and persecuted them as enemies of the state.

The existence of many different gods also offers a more plausible account than monotheism of the presence of evil and confusion in the world. A mortal may have had the support of one god but incur the enmity of another, who could attack when the patron god was away. The goddess Hera hated the hero Heracles and sent the goddess Madness to make him kill his wife and children. Heracles’ father, Zeus, did nothing to stop her, although he did in the end make Heracles immortal.

But in the monotheistic traditions, in which God is omnipresent and always good, mortals must take the blame for whatever goes wrong, even though God permits evil to exist in the world he created. In the Old Testament, God takes away Job’s family and his wealth but restores him to prosperity after Job acknowledges God’s power.

The god of the Hebrews created the Earth for the benefit of humankind. But as the Greeks saw it, the gods made life hard for humans, didn’t seek to improve the human condition and allowed people to suffer and die. As a palliative, the gods could offer only to see that great achievement was memorialized. There was no hope of redemption, no promise of a happy life or rewards after death. If things did go wrong, as they inevitably did, humans had to seek comfort not from the gods but from other humans.

The separation between humankind and the gods made it possible for humans to complain to the gods without the guilt or fear of reprisal the deity of the Old Testament inspired. Mortals were free to speculate about the character and intentions of the gods. By allowing mortals to ask hard questions, Greek theology encouraged them to learn, to seek all the possible causes of events. Philosophy — that characteristically Greek invention — had its roots in such theological inquiry. As did science.

Paradoxically, the main advantage of ancient Greek religion lies in this ability to recognize and accept human fallibility. Mortals cannot suppose that they have all the answers. The people most likely to know what to do are prophets directly inspired by a god. Yet prophets inevitably meet resistance, because people hear only what they wish to hear, whether or not it is true. Mortals are particularly prone to error at the moments when they think they know what they are doing. The gods are fully aware of this human weakness. If they choose to communicate with mortals, they tend to do so only indirectly, by signs and portents, which mortals often misinterpret.

Ancient Greek religion gives an account of the world that in many respects is more plausible than that offered by the monotheistic traditions. Greek theology openly discourages blind confidence based on unrealistic hopes that everything will work out in the end. Such healthy skepticism about human intelligence and achievements has never been needed more than it is today.

I’m not going to claim that the article is flawless: a quick Google search for “Hindu nationalist violence” will demonstrate pretty easily that polytheists are just as capable of violence in the name of their gods as monotheists are. However, I think you can make the case that Hindu religious violence is a primarily cultural rather than specifically religious affair–they’re not lashing out because people refuse to accept the truth of Vishnu, but because they perceive their culture as one that is under siege by a long history of encroachment by Muslims and Christians into India.

At the same time, I think editorials like Lefkowitz’s are important, if for nothing else than to make us think about the plausibility and, well, the utility of polytheism. In modern civilization, polytheism gets a bad rap, honestly. Most people would discard it as completely implausible, even ridiculous, but the only reason they think that is because monotheistic religions–religions that have had a privileged place in western culture and society for over a thousand years–ridicule them.

Even atheists who discard polytheism out of hand do so not because they have dealt with polytheism on its own terms. Instead they’re rejecting a monotheist caricature of polytheism. Polytheism is frankly not treated fairly.

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The simple answer is that I just don’t.  While I don’t have a conceptual problem with God’s theoretical existence–I’m not actually convinced by the formal logical arguments of atheists because I’m not actually usually convinced by formal logic at all–I simply have a hard time believeing that a being matching the description of most theists exists.

I will grant that it doesn’t look to me like God is necessary.  We don’t need God to explain the phenomena of the natural world.  no, scientists haven’t figured everything out yet, but they have figured out a surprising amount and there’s no particular reason to assume that there’s any area where they won’t be able to make any headway at all.  At least, to our knowledge there’s not a big off-limits gap in scientific understanding that seems to be marked off by God as his and his alone.  So there’s no need for a “God of the gaps.”

I also don’t think that the existence of God is necessary to make sense of human existence.  Perhaps we need to believe in a God to make sense of our lives, but that doesn’t mean that such a deity in fact exists.  I’m not sos sure that the nonexistence of God necessarily implies a cold and unjust universe, but if it does, then so be it.  If the universe is cold and unjust then it is cold and unjust–the fact that it makes me uncomfortable does not imply the existence of an all-powerful supernatural being who can and will fix everything.

Certainly I do not believe in a personal God.  If something exists in the universe (or as the universe) that we could stretch the term “god” to fit around, and it certainly might, I’m skeptical that it would be a personal entity capable of (or likely to) interact with us on our level.  While I find the idea of a personal god appealing, I’m not going to believe it just because I want to, and it doesn;t resonate with me well enough for me to plunge into the idea without a better reason.  I think that at least some of the burden of proof is on God to reveal himself, especially if he is a personal God and especially if we make an effort to connect with him from our side.  I have never had an experience that would lead me to believe (or even really to infer) that God is personal.  God has never spoken to me, and “spoken to me through his Holy Book/Holy Prophet(s)/Only Begotten Son” absolutely doesn’t cut it.  That is a woefully insufficient copout.  If there’s a personal God, he should be able to talk to me personally.  He hasn’t and he doesn’t, so I have no reason to believe in him except for the testimony of others.

What of the testimony of others?  I realize that plenty of people claim to have had mystical experiences with a personal God.  I know some atheists would just label them crazy, but I’m not comfortable with that.  I’m inclined to think that there is something to these mystical experiences that people have been claiming to have since the dawn of time when the first shaman went on a vision quest, but I am also not inclined to believe that they are reliable evidence for a personal God.  There are too many alternate plausible explanations, even validating the mystical experiences.  Such experiences could be, for example, communication with or journey into the human psyche, clad in metaphor and symbol.  They could even be some kind of state of oneness with the external universe but one that has to me re-interpreted by human consciousness to make sense of it.  In other words, the mystics have touched something too big to be comprehended so their minds put a face and a personality on it so their heads don’t explode.  At the very least the diversity of recorded mystical experience would seem to undermine the likelihood of us being able to take them at face value (as contact with a personal God), especially since as I understand it, people tend to have mystical experiences that are more or less consistent with or at least complimentary to their native religious tradition.  If Jesus is talking to Christian mystics, Allah is talking to the Sufis, and Apollo is talking to the Neopagans, then we have a bit of a problem.  at least, none of their experiences tells us much about objective reality.

If I had a personal experience with a personal God, I might be willing to change my tune.  I realize that such a mystical experience would be intensely subjective and wouldn’t actually tell me any more about the objective universe than the mystical experiences of Joseph Smith or Joan of Arc, but at least I’d be willing to subjectively believe in a personal God.  Of course I would have to retain the reservation that it was extremely likely that the God I was experiencing was merely an aspect of my own psyche, or a face my own brain had imposed on an immense and unknowable transcendant reality.  But in any case, such a mystical experience of a personal God has never happened to me.  Even in twenty-eight years as an active, believing Mormon, the best I got as answers to my prayers were vague feelings and impressions, things that were far more likely to have come from inside my head than from outside it.

I’ve spent a good portion of this last year yearning for contact with God, but it hasn’t happened.  At least, not in a way that satisfies me.  It has come to the point where I don’t think God’s going to give me a call, so I’m not really waiting for it or expecting it anymore.  So while I’m not denying the existence of God, I can’t say that I actively believe in one.  You can only let the telephone ring for so long before you’ve got to eventually conclude that nobody’s going to pick it up.

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I’m a little bit angry with a particular aspect of Mormonism today. Mostly, I find myself just caring less about the Mormon Church all the time, but when something directly affects me or my relationships, it’s hard to just grin and bear it.  even if it means coming out of blogging semi-retirement.

Mormonism teaches that if you pray to ask with a sincere heart, that God will tell you that the Church is True. It’s a guarantee- you do x and God will do y. That seems innocuous enough, until you apply it to the real world, to real people, and discover that actually plenty of people have prayed about the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and Mormonism in general, and have not gotten a satisfactory answer. This is difficult to reconcile. God has supposedly made a promise, right? So either God breaks his promises, or the people who aren’t getting an answer are the problem. And Mormonism teaches that God is a God of truth and cannot lie. Therefore, people like me must be lying. It’s the only logical conclusion- or something like it. Either we’re being dishonest with ourselves, we’re blinded by our pride, we’re too far in sin or too caught up in the world to recognize the Spirit, or something like that. But any way you want to fold it, the result is offensive and insulting. This line of logic means that everyone who doesn’t join (or stay in) the Church is either lying or has allowed themselves to be in the bondage of Satan.

There are two ways out of this for Mormons. One is the fairly common idea that God answers prayers in his own time, and you’ve just got to have faith. That is total crap. Why should I have faith that God is eventually going to give me a satisfactory answer? How long do I wait? Forever? Why? Why would I do that? There’s a point where it just becomes more likely that the reason why God’s not telling you Mormonism is true is because it isn’t. If I don;t know the Church is true, what possible reason would I have to keep asking and persevering for my entire life until I find out that it is? If I want it that bad, I’ll wind up manufacturing it myself.

Plus, by that same logic, I should be just as persevering with any other Church or religion, if my only assurance is the testimony of others. What makes the people testifying the truth of Mormonism any more trustworthy or reliable than the people testifying the truth of Catholicism, Islam, Quakerism, or Atheism?

Furthermore, what good is a promise that will for all intents and purposes never be fulfilled, or fulfilled in a way that is completely unlike what you expect or is completely unlike what the plain meaning of the promise is, the reasonable interpretation of the promise. If God does that, then he’s wiggling out of his promises on technicalities, and that isn’t really being a God of Truth. Promising something that reasonably sounds like x when you really mean y isn’t honest, even if y is technically one possible interpretation of the promise. That’s not honesty and Truth, that’s deception, which is the opposite.

There’s one other way Mormons can escape the insulting reconciliation that forces them to brand everyone else a liar, and that is the ability to live with paradox. This is the best way, the most productive way- reconciling God’s promises with people who don’t get answers to their prayers by not reconciling it at all. By chalking it up to something they just don’t understand. This allows the Mormon to be a believer without assigning dishonest or evil motives to everyone else. It allows the believer to take people like me at face value, to not have to assume that I have a hidden motive or agenda when I say I just don’t believe the Church is true and I just don’t believe that the Holy Ghost has told me it is.

Unfortunately, not everyone can do this. Living with paradox means maintaining a kind of cognitive dissonance, and cognitive dissonance makes people uncomfortable.

So instead of just accepting the paradox, most Mormons reconcile a (God’s promises) and b (people who don’t get answers) by assigning ulterior motives, by questioning peoples’ integrity, and by assuming that there’s some hidden but grievous sin. In short, reconciling Mormon doctrine with reality requires Mormons to pass exactly the kind judgment that Christ commanded us not to pass.

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For a few days I’ve been thinking about the possibility that there is no God.  For my whole life, I have assumed there was one, but I’ve never experienced him or had any kind of spiritual relationship with him.  So I have no personal basis for claiming that I know or even suspect that there is a deity.  I mean, I’d like there to be one, but that’s not really enough for me.  I’m too skeptical to be satisfied with believing based solely on the desire to believe (sorry, Alma- it’s just not going to happen).

What if there is no God?  What then?  Is there morality without God?  Of course there is.  Morality, to me, is instinctive and universal.  True morality at least.  Every religion teaches respect and kindness towards fellow humans- we don’t need a god to tell us that.  The things that aren’t universal, like whether God forbids the eating of pork or beef, are in my opinion clearly manmade morality.  Arbitrary garbage that has to do with human institutions, not with what’s really right or wrong.

What’s “morally wrong” with coffee?  Nothing; the very idea is preposteroous to everyone but Mormons.  But to them, it’s a moral issue because they believe God commanded it.  This is the kind of thing that I gleefully abandon.  We need God to tell us to not drink coffee, to not eat pork, and to adhere to specific religious observances.  We don’t need God to tell us to not be jerks.  We know to not be jerks on our own, and we manage to do it regardless, even when we’re told to not do it by “God.”

Anyway, I digress.  I don’t feel like  I need God to have morality, and anyway, that’s beside the point.  If there’s no God there’s no God regardless of whether we “need” him for something or not.

So if there is no God, what is there?  I don’t believe that the science we have describes everything, and I don’t believe that the material is all that is.  Maybe that’s ignorant and superstitious of me, but it’s who I am.  Does that mean I believe in spirit, or in mind that is separate from body?  I’m not sure.  Does it mean I believe in magic? Unfortunately, no.  As cool as magic would be, I don’t think it exists (unless you define it so broadly that it can’t help but exist, and then you’re not saying anything useful).  Likewise, in believing that there is something more than the material, I suppose I could formulate what I do believe in and call it “God,” but that would actually only confuse and mislead, since I would be talking about something that is a far cry from what most people mean when they use the term.

I’m not so sure I believe in a distinct divine being  with consciousness and personalty.  I certainly don’t believe in a God with a physical form (of flesh and bone or otherwise).  The thing is, the more I think about it, the more I think I may be comfortable with the idea of no God.  Not because it gives me license to do whatever I want or anything, because like I said, I still believe in morality.

I certainly do not have all the answers, and it doesn’t seem like anyone else does, either, no matter how adamantly they claim to have them.  I believe in mystery.  I believe in the unexplained, and perhaps in the unexplainable.  I believe that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies.  But I don’t know if I believe in God.

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