Two Ways

In my own attempt at balance, I turned from reading about the world of literary possibilities to a book on the inevitability of the scientific method. Robert Park’s Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud is an enjoyable jaunt through the distressing world of pseudo-science. The reader quickly discovers, however, that Park shares in the same scientific orthodoxy as Richard Dawkins (and many others) that claims since science works it is obviously the only way of demystifying our world. I admit that when I read of our government spending billions of dollars on projects put forward because our elected leaders know less about science than I do as a specialist in religion, I grow quite upset. More money than most of us will ever earn in a lifetime has been poured into projects that defy laws such as First and Second Thermodynamics. I learned those laws in Junior High physics and have never attempted to violate them. Even when scientists explain to elected officials in congressional hearings why these proposals simply can’t work, the pork barrels, once opened, are difficult to close.

Like many scientists, Park envisions a world where religion (same as superstition) is slowly losing its explanatory power and people will eventually have to admit that we are just acting out the role pre-determined by the laws of physics. We are fleshy machines, sometimes pretty flabby, but still machines. Ironically, when Park wants to express the seriousness of scientific review, he resorts to religious language. In explaining how peer review for scientific journals works, he notes that objectivity is a “sacred obligation.” Now, of course, one can argue that this is just a metaphor, language that non-scientists can understand. I wonder if it goes deeper than that. Reality, whether sought by scientists or religious believers, rests on the idea that there is only one truth. This, and not the incidental differences between theologies, is the reason for nearly all religious conflict and the “war on science.” There is, we are told in our Aristotelean world, only one possible Truth. Why?

Scientific theory, no less that superstitious theology, finds a unity of truth sensible and comforting. I wonder if the truth (and I use that word advisedly) is more complicated than that. No strict necessity exists for a single truth. (I am awake of Occam’s razor, but I don’t shave.) In fact, truth is a philosophical, not a scientific, concept. The problem is that societies tend to break down if they don’t share a view of the truth. There can be no doubt that science, done properly, works. The existence of the very internet where these virtual words reside is proof of that. That does not mean, however, that other truth can’t exist side-by-side, simultaneously with it. Scientists are duty-bound to declare a singular, physical universe because of the sacred trust of seeking the Truth. My bi-cameral mind just can’t see the necessity in that. But then again, I prefer a world with some mystery left in it. No thanks, I don’t shave.

Last Call

A believer in equality across media, I decided to balance out my recent viewing of The Last Woman on Earth with its chronological sequel, The Last Man on Earth. I have seen I Am Legend a time or two, but I have not yet read the Richard Matheson novel. Knowing that the first cinematic attempt at the story was the Vincent Price version, I was curious to see what the last man and the last woman had in common. Not surprisingly, it was a church. The story has been around long enough that spoiler alerts are superfluous, so here goes: basically, vampires have taken over the world. Somehow Robert Morgan has survived and spends his days hunting vampires and whiling the nights away with jazz and booze. As the opening sequence rolls, the camera lingers on a church where the marquee reads “The End of the World.” Of course, in a quasi-literalist sense this is true. Robert is the only non-infected person left. He is eventually located by the infected-but-inoculated crowd and chased down to be staked to death at the altar of a church. The culmination is strikingly similar to The Last Woman on Earth where the final scene also involves a death at the altar in a church.

The noticeable difference, however, revolves around gender. There is very little in the way of sexual suggestibility in The Last Man. Even the scenes of Robert with his wife are chaste and emotional distant. The appearance of Ruth does not even tempt him after three years alone. The Last Woman, however, revolved precisely around this axis—one woman, two men. The sexual tension is the fuel that moves this entire movie along. Of course, the 1960s became the decade of the sexual revolution, but even so the female is decidedly an object in Last Woman. Even in The Last Man, the woman leads to Robert’s death. She was sent to betray him, and although she changes her mind and attempts to save him, it is in vain. Robert dies in her arms. This fear of female power has never dissipated. How many women have been elected president since the 1960s?

While maybe not the heart of the matter, religious constructs may be the lungs or stomach of the situation. Although current religious thinking often insists on equality of the sexes, a tremendous cultural freight placing women in an inferior status continues to weigh heavily on our cultural mores. The largest Christian body in the world still denies women access to the priesthood. Even the idea of denying access underscores just how deeply this sentiment runs. The movies of the early 1960s had neither the budget nor the cultural support to suggest that things should change. Indeed, in both Last pictures the message was that the world had ended already—why bother trying to change anything at this late stage? The final shot, the stolid interior of a church, underscored the message: the status quo has the sanction of the divine.

Kermit’s Secret

When I was a post-graduate student in that Gothic city of Edinburgh, I decided to spend some time reading Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. It was intended as harmless entertainment, but as anyone who has read it knows, the story soon unravels into an unbelievable world of dark religions that haunt a naive protagonist. While I was reading it, a packet, hand-addressed to me, with no return address, came to my student mailbox. The contents consisted of several tracts, in German, warming of the dangers of Satanism. No letter, no explanation. Foucault’ s Pendulum had me paranoid already, and this strange package completely unnerved me. Well, I’m still here to tell the tale. While reading Victoria Nelson’s brilliant The Secret Life of Puppets, I learned that she had a strange episode while reading the same novel. It was an apt synchronicity.

Nelson is a scholar who should be more widely known. I found her because her recent Gothicka was prominently displayed in the Brown University bookstore in May. I saw it after taking a personal walking tour of H. P. Lovecraft sites. Synchronicity. I had read, in a completely unrelated selection just a couple of months ago, Jeffrey Kripal’s Authors of the Impossible. Synchronicity. For many years I have honed my Aristotelean sensibilities, following devotedly in the footsteps of science. Problem is, I have an open mind. It seems to me that to discount that which defies conventional explanation is dirty pool in the lounge of reality seekers. I have always been haunted by reality.

I’m not ready to give up on science. Not by a long shot. Like Nelson, however, I believe that there may be more than material in this vast universe we inhabit. Indeed, if the universe is infinite it is the ultimate unquantifiable. The Secret Life of Puppets is alive with possibility and anyone who has ever wondered how we’ve come to be such monolithic thinkers should indulge a little. For me it was a journey of discovery as aspects of my academic and personal interest, strictly compartmentalized, were brought together by an adept, literary mind. Religion and its development play key roles in the uncanny world of puppets. Those who wish to traverse the realms they inhabit would do well to take along a guide like Nelson who has spent some time getting into the puppets’ heads.

Battle Bots

Our local high school robotics meetings start up again this week. Actually, they’ve been going on all summer since robots do not require the rest and mental downtime that we mere creatures of flesh do. Glancing through the headlines of the Chronicle of Higher Education I saw a leading article on a topic I’ve been reading about: the military use of robots. On a college campus visit last semester I came across a robotics display and, since I’ve picked up some of the lingo, I engaged an engineering student sitting nearby. He told me that most of the funding for robotics at the collegiate level (there, anyway) came from the Department of Defense. Earlier this year I had read Wired for War, a book as stunning as it is frightening. In fact, P. W. Singer is cited in the article. What makes this interesting, however, was the role of Ronald Arkin, a Georgia Tech professor of robotics and ethics. Dr. Arkin believes robots to be morally superior to humans at making battlefield decisions. He’s not alone in that assessment.

The more I pondered this the more troubled I became. Morality is not a scientific purview. Ethics that have been quantified always fail to satisfy because life is just a little too messy for that. Who is more morally culpable: the policeman who shot a thief dead when the man was only stealing bread because his family was starving? Hands down the most challenging undergraduate class I took was bio-medical ethics. It was thornier than falling into a greenhouse full of roses. Sick minds and reality cooperated to draw scenario after scenario of morally ambiguous situations. I left class with two more things than I’d taken in: a headache and a conviction that there are no easy answers. Having a robot vacuum your floor or assemble your car is one thing, having one decide who to kill is entirely another.

The article cites the rules of war. The main rule seems to be that no matter what, some people will always kill others. We try to sanitize it by making the inevitable death-dealing follow ethical conventions. While religion often takes a bad rap these days, one of the things that it is capable of doing pretty well is providing an ethical foundation. People may not always live up to the standards, but religions only in very rare situations give people an excuse to hurt others. Nearly all religions discourage it. The rules of a science-based morality would likely fall along a logical algorithm. Unfortunately, there’s more gray than black or white in this equation. Algorithms, in my experience, are not so forgiving. So as I get ready for my first robotics meeting of the year I need to remind myself that the robots are capable of great good as well as great evil. Like with humans, it all depends on who does the programming.

Unbelievable Voyage

In Sunday’s paper a story from the Los Angeles Times reported that Voyager 1, now 35 years old (and a technological grandfather, considering how quickly technology develops), is poised to leave the solar system. It is the first mechanical device, at least designed and launched from earth, that will do so. The spacecraft, billions of miles away, sends signals that take 17 hours to reach earth. It is boldly going where no man [sic] has gone before. The vastness of open space was one of the initial challenges to the traditional theology that had developed in an unbroken sequence from the time of the Bible down to the days of Copernicus and Galileo. Nobody was sure what was out there, but certainly Heaven had to be somewhere and God was clearly above us, so, in a marriage of convenience, God reigned in the unexplored sky. Voyager 1 bears a gold-plated plaque that attempts to describe who and where we are. Sent into the neighborhood where God used to live, Voyager was announcing that we were ready for celestial guests.

Many scientists don’t take seriously the idea that we’ve already been visited. The internet, however, has become a great clearinghouse for those intrigued by extraterrestrial life. I found a website this weekend that had located at least three different life-forms in just one of the Mars rover Curiosity’s pictures. We are lonely without heavily denizens. Stephen Hawking famously warned, a couple years back, that if they’re there, they’re probably not friendly. His paradigm, however, was based on earth psychology. Most of us know how far to trust that!

The fact is, we’ve been beaming our existence into space since the invention of the radio. Our electronic signals are, according to physics, pretty close to eternal. Electromagnetic waves just keep going and going, putting all manner of Energizer bunnies to shame. Long before Voyager 1 reaches the cusp of the solar system, our light and sound show has been announcing that this is where the godless party is and has been for over a century. Voyager 1 is far less than a needle in the cosmic haystack. It is more akin to a molecule or an atom. Will it find God out there? I highly doubt it. Nevertheless, when I went out to get the newspaper before dawn this morning, I spent an extra few moments looking at the stars and wondering.

Believing is Seeing

A story has long circulated that as Christopher Columbus approached the coast of the “New World,” Native Americans staring out at the water—straight at his ships—could not see them. This instance of perceptual blindness has been adequately explained, of all places, in the Fortean Times. The best explanation: the natives could see the ships but did not have the referential framework to know what they observed at first. The story still circulates, however, that to them the ships were invisible. An interesting analogue arose when I was reading about Thomas Edison recently. The phonograph was first developed for speaking voices, not music. It was not an immediate success. One of the observations that Edison made also applied to the telephone: when people first heard it, not knowing what it was, they could hear voices but couldn’t make out what they were saying. Once it was explained to them what was going on—a voice had been recorded and was being played back, or a person’s voice was being carried over a distance through a wire—they immediately comprehended what they heard. Not exactly perceptual blindness, but very human indeed.

When people encounter something completely unexpected, surprising, they don’t quite know what to make of it. So we see anthropological pictures showing natives replicating airplanes from grass and twigs, ascribing to these strange birds some kind of divinity. Imagine an iPad in the hands of Moses. Neuroscientists are rather new to the coterie of specialists trying to explain the origins of religion, but a gap remains between perception and science. Active areas of the brain can be traced, but what the experiencer feels remains utterly subjective. It is a realm into which science cannot go. Perception, it is supposed, is simply an evolutionary tool to find food while avoiding being eaten, oh, and also to reproduce. The experience of the perceiver is much more profound. Consciousness, a sense of selfhood, why some are poor while few grow rich, these are facets of life that add dimension to perception and make me wonder just how far down the rabbit hole it goes.

Religion is all about perception. The problem is not that no one tells us how to interpret our experiences, but rather too many interpreters are only too eager to step forward. Perception, it is said, is reality. When encountering the unknown our best road-guide is our senses. In the case of religious phenomena, that guide is supplemented by tradition. What do you see when you look out on that horizon? The answer will indicate what you believe.

I saw three ships?

Magic Bibles

With autumn not far down the road, my mind turns to scary things. Actually, it is that way quite a bit of the time. Nevertheless, movies about farms are often the setting for the creepy—the sense of isolation, the sharp implements farmers use, the rustling of the drying crops in the wind. A couple years back I watched The Messengers. As a horror film it had a number of good scares, but the menace always seemed somewhat restrained. Nothing profound happens, and it is a film fairly easily forgotten. It was a rainy Saturday afternoon and The Messengers 2: the Scarecrow suggested itself to me. I began watching in an ambivalent mood, but when the first scene began with the protagonist (whose name I’ve forgotten) dropping his Bible on the porch chair as he loosens his tie to work on a derelict water pump, I was curious. When his wife arrives home and asks why he left church before it was over, my interest grew. This direct-to-video prequel turned out to be a cut-budget horror flick based squarely on a religious parable.

In a faustian moment of abandon, and at the advice of a jocular neighbor named Jude (Iscariot, anyone?), our hero erects a scarecrow to try to improve his lot (literally). To give credit where it is due, the scarecrow is distinctly disturbing. The scene of John (okay, I looked it up) nailing the scarecrow to the cross is clearly a crucifixion scene, and the blood that will later appear at the foot of the cross bears this out. Before he realizes that the scarecrow is evil, John hears ghostly children singing in his cornfield. The song is “Jesus Loves Me.” There is a strong fertility goddess theme running through the film and when Jude reveals that his wife has a magic book that explains all the benefits of the scarecrow, John decides to cut it down. The scarecrow, predictably, resurrects.

Meanwhile, John’s Christian family thinks he has gone insane. Or worse, backslidden. As he tries to explain to his wife what has happened, John shows her the magic book and she insists “It’s just your old Bible,” and it is. Heathenish occult instruction transubstantiates into Christian scripture. It is tough to tell one sacred writing from another. For cut-rate horror fodder, this is wonderful commentary on religious sensibilities. Although straight-to-video movies are not high art, and will never receive academy award nominations, they do reflect popular religious beliefs. Scholars are now in search of such beliefs in ancient societies since “official religion” almost never reflects what actual hoi polloi think. Lived religion seldom conforms to the intricacies envisioned by religious founders, and yet it is out there on the Internet for all to see. Maybe the messengers in this film are not the crows after all. The point of the parable? Stay true to your Christian upbringing or else the scarecrow will get you.

Five Century Hypothesis

More than likely it is simply an oddity of history, but roughly every five hundred years a new major religion appears.  The newcomers sometimes grow into a serious concern for conservatives in the older traditions, but at other times they are simply ignored until the two (or more) come into inevitable contact.  Peering far back into history, the roots of the earliest religions of lasting durability are sometimes lost.  For a very rough starting point, we can consider Hinduism.  With roots going back to about 1500 BCE in the “Pre-Classical” era of the religion, Hinduism developed independently of the monotheistic traditions that would appear in the western half of Asia.  Although some would credit Judaism with equal (or even greater) antiquity, we get an idea that some of the basic thought that would coalesce into Judaism seems to have, very roughly, begun around 1000 BCE.  About five centuries later, Buddhism appeared.  At the turn of the era, Christianity had emerged from Judaism.  About five centuries later, Islam appeared.  Countless other religions, of course, existed concurrently with these early exemplars, but each of these has grown into a major world religion. 

Around about 1000 of the Common Era, Christianity began to fragment.  The first major, official split was between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Christianity’s penchant for fragmentation would eventually lead to Protestantism—a religious form quite distinct in many ways from traditional Christianity—and that happened roughly five centuries later.  The most obvious split took place around 1500 with the Reformation, but it was also around that time that Sikhism appeared.  The new religions of the common era often involve irreconcilable differences within an established religion. In the western world we tend to overlook Sikhism, but in sheer numbers it is one of the largest religious traditions. And of course, there are many, many others.

As with any over-simplified scheme that tries to make sense of history, I am certain that no historian will be convinced. To me it seems obvious. Once every five centuries or so, some new religion will be born and will flourish. Perhaps it is already among us. We are about due. Like the evolution of new species, some new religions are poorly adapted to survival: one thinks of Branch Davidians or Heaven’s Gate, or Jonestown. Others, however, quietly thrive until someone looks around and says, “Where did Mormonism come from anyway?” Some will argue that it is just another sect of Christianity. Those who study its theology will realize that its conceptual world is vastly different. But anyone with a long enough calendar can see that it began about five centuries after Sikhism and the Protestant Reformation occurred. And anyone with two cents can sense its enormous bankroll—no surer sign of a religion’s viability can be offered.

Queens and Playmates

Once upon a time, theology was queen. I’m no theologian, but then, I didn’t make up the phrase. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education discusses how some scientists say there is no longer a need for philosophy. In passing the piece mentions that theology had, long ago, been considered the queen of the sciences. According to medieval thinkers, philosophy was her handmaid. Antiquated archaisms apart, I sometimes think back on this whole venture of education. Few today acknowledge, and most probably don’t know, that education began as a religious exercise. Writing, and reading, were overseen by the gods. Even in the modern world the earliest universities were founded to teach theology and law. Many of the ivy league schools, including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, began as training grounds for the clergy. How quickly our forebears are forgotten.

It’s not that I think religion deserves a privileged place in the academy, but I do believe it deserves a place. Science has a long track record of spectacular successes. Not only that, but the advances in science often capture the imagination—and here we are back in the realm of the humanities, that place where feeling and possibility are unlimited. Many of those of us in religious studies—apart from creationists and their kin—gladly award science its deserved paean to successfully unpacking the intricacies of the material universe(s). As the Chronicle article demonstrates, some on the science side of the circle want to claim all the marbles and go home. Some of us want to keep the game going well after dark.

Maybe that’s a very wide metaphorical shift—from queen to playmate—it may be presumptuous. After all, what has religion, or philosophy for that matter, got to claim? What shiny Nobel Prizes to display gracefully, or great advances of which to boast? The benefits religion can claim are somewhat less tangible, but important nevertheless. While some people declare that meaning is a chimera, deep down, as a species, we know that it is important. Even more than that, the fact that you’re reading this right now owes its ultimate origin to religious thinking. Writing was the brainchild of the gods, an activity we learned in imitation of the divine. I will always find science fascinating, but I will always do so with a book held in my hands. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place,” in the words of another famous queen.

Life After Mirth

Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? In this era of fast-paced technological change, I’m probably displaying my terrible penchant for the passé when I confess to having watched Spongebob Squarepants with my daughter. I even went to the theater, back in Wisconsin, to watch the much hyped Spongebob Squarepants Movie. We eagerly awaited its release on DVD. Well, maybe not eagerly. In any case, after repeatedly watching it for several months, it was shelved and forgotten. Until recently. Playing archaeologist in our apartment, I sometimes unearth artifacts that have been hidden since our hurried and harried move from Wisconsin to New Jersey. We have never really fully unpacked since leaving Nashotah House, and opening a dusty box in a corner can feel like Christmas sometimes. Or, maybe you just discover the Spongebob Squarepants Movie.

It was a rare three-day weekend. School was about to start, and the commute to work would begin to take longer now that the leisured class had to admit to summer’s end. A little silliness seemed just the prescription I needed to face the work week. A little softness before hard reality.

I have noticed for several years now that American movies (and this may be true of movies from elsewhere, but I can’t say for sure) frequently make use of the death and resurrection theme. I suspect that a country that identifies itself so closely with Christian ideals finds this reiteration reassuring. Sure, the scenario is cathartic on a very basic level, and yet, it lies at the very heart of a central Christian belief—death is not the final word. So as Spongebob and Patrick are laid out on the drying table in Shell City and the water vapor rises from them like their departing souls, the viewer is left with a desiccated porifera and echinoderm and a profound sense of loss.

Of course, resurrection is right around the corner. The fire alarm goes off, showering down life-giving water from above, and our stars pop back to life. Resurrection in nature is limited, by appearances, to plants. With the annual cycles of death and rebirth, an individual plant may attain that for which animals only hope. This is a most robust religious symbol and movie viewers would be bereft without it. Even if the next time you see a sponge is when using it to clean the toilet, remember that resurrection crops up in the unlikeliest of places.

Puppet Master

Usually I resist mentioning books I’m reading on this blog until I have finished them. It is probably because of some misplaced Protestant guilt at taking a small measure of undeserved satisfaction at claiming an achievement that I haven’t legitimately earned. Or maybe it is my innate fear that the author will say, on page 200, “by the way, everything before this is wrong.” In any case, sometimes I forget the important initial stages of a grand argument by the time I reach the final chapters, neglecting any ideas that may have arisen along the way. I just started Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets. I read her Gothicka earlier this summer, and couldn’t wait to get started on Puppets. Besides, when was the last time I saw an academic book with a back-cover sound-byte by Neil Gaiman?

The idea that is so compelling in The Secret Life of Puppets is that in the modern era religion and art have reversed roles. That is to say, people tend to turn to literature (and movies or other media) to discover a sense of transcendence—previously the bailiwick of religion. Religion has transformed into the receptacle of literary imagination instead of remaining the inspiration for it. New Religious Movements grow out of fictional sources—consider Scientology or Jediism or the religions growing from Avatar. But the connection runs to even more profound depths. Quoting a screenwriter she met, Nelson points out that horror movies are often the only genre of film in which God comes naturally into the conversation. Elsewhere God-talk feels high-handed.

Religion has become a kind of fiction while fiction writers preserve the prerogatives of the divine. We suffer from repressing our intuitive way of knowing. Perhaps it is only logical that I select an example from science fiction here. Since the late ’60’s the figure of Mr. Spock has stood sentinel over the neurosis of the flawlessly logical. Just one glimpse and we know this is not homo sapiens sapiens’ behavior. We think with both halves of our divided brains. Scientists sometimes commit the oh so human fallacy of supposing evolution is robbing us of passion. Falling in love would be a lot less enjoyable if it made sense. No, we have not outlived our need for the gods. I think Neil Gaiman would back me up on that.

Nine Lives

A warm and wet holiday weekend is a good time to watch movies. Since my daily work schedule leave scant time to view anything from most Monday-to-Fridays (and it would claim even more if I’d let it), relaxing often involves watching. I first saw Cats as an ambitious stage production for a local outdoor theater some years ago. Andrew Lloyd Webber has acute talent when it comes to mixing show tunes and popular music; so much so that even a vague storyline will do to carry a show. Cats, of course, is based on a set of children’s poems by T. S. Eliot—Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. There is no narrative, and they show’s emotionally charged hit “Memory” had to be culled from among Eliot’s other poems. Nevertheless, the musical, now long off-Broadway, exists in a film version that is heavily endowed with religious themes. This weekend I watched it for the n-th time, and each viewing brings out new nuances.

The “story,” such as it is, has two very basic events: Jellicle Cats choose who can be reborn on the night of the Jellicle Ball, and Old Deuteronomy, the patriarch of Jellicles, is kidnapped (cat-napped?) and must be recovered before the choice can be made. The vignettes feature cats dealing with loss, love, and crime. The character who resonates with many viewers is Grizabella, the glamour cat. She is the has-been who sings “Memory,” the cat who was somebody before her fame and fortune faded to a tawdry existence among questionable society. The musical is about transformation, however. Transformation is a religious theme, the desire we have to be something more than we are, to transcend the hand life has dealt us. Now, I’m no theater or film critic, but I have to wonder whether the obvious fades and duets of “Memory” point to Grizabella as the older but sadder version of the young and lively Jemima.

Certainly as the finale builds, Grizabella is chosen to be reborn and is sent to the Heaviside Layer, but the camera keeps coming back to Jemima. She is often framed in the center and the suggestion is made that the new life has already begun. Religion thrives on transformation. I suppose that is the reason I find it so ironic that in politics religion, Christianity in particular, is championed as the pillar of the status quo. Whether they are new or old, religions serve no purpose if they do not challenge the “business as usual” model of the secular world. Perhaps that’s why successful artists such as Andrew Lloyd Webber thrive—they can pack theaters of seekers weekend after weekend, even for decades sometimes. Even those of us watching on the television at home click the eject button with a sense of hope that seems possible only on a holiday weekend.

A stray Jellicle cat?

Believer’s Market

It seems that the world has lost another messiah. Sun Myung Moon, founder and leader of the Unification Church, died yesterday in South Korea. When I was younger “the Moonies” were known as a cult, but scholars of religion have abandoned both terms (Moonies and cult) as pejorative ways of referring to alternative religious beliefs. Monotheistic religions tend to be, by their nature, supersessionistic. They claim that they are the final revelation, but then as the world ages new religions appear and those of more time-honored traditions wonder how to define the new-comers. Accompanying the speed of technological development, religious developments keep apace. Now we are so accustomed to a world full of religions and most people are ill-equipped to tell the difference. Other than the highly public mass marriages, what can the average non-Unificationist tell you about the religion?

This dynamic illustrates a basic fact of human beings—we are meaning-seeking creatures. Founders of New Religious Movements, often convinced that they have something valuable to offer, seldom have difficulty locating followers. We are not trained to think for ourselves in religious matters; in fact, most religions would prefer to have unquestioning followers. Not based on the same logic as physics or mathematics, religions are easily backed into the “it’s a mystery” corner when logic breaks down. That is not to suggest that logic is the only way to know the world, but it does mean that the choice of correct religion often comes down to a feeling, an emotional satisfaction. Problems frequently arise when practitioners of a religion mistake it for science (or when a religion itself makes that mistake).

Over time the New Religious Movements that survive become benign elements of the religious landscape. Although many Americans are still scratching their heads about what exactly Mormons are, they are certainly nothing new or unusual. As a religion the Latter Day Saints are less than two centuries old, but since many people have trouble distinguishing a Baptist from a Presbyterian (on a theological level—the political spectrum is fully represented in both traditions) and could tell you very little about when either tradition began, what do they know of Joseph Smith’s followers? We are far too busy to spend time researching religion. Most people stay with the one they’re born into, and every few years a new one makes it onto the radar of public awareness. The Unification Church, which has at least five million members, may or may not survive the death of its messiah. Either way, there will be plenty of new options for anyone shopping around for a new faith.

Ring

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. So goes a trite little statement meant to calm the fears of new students of biblical studies who worry that the historical record for biblical events is so sparse. The professor can head off many confrontations by declaring that such-and-such an event could have happened, but if it did it left no mark on the historical record. As I was watching the Japanese movie Ringu last night, I wondered about the apparent absence of religious imagery or themes. I am fully aware that not all horror movies have religious components, but the juxtaposition of religion and fear is so common in the western world that it often shows up in scary movies. I wondered if this translated to other cultures or not. Ringu is a decidedly creepy ghost story that creates considerable tension with little gore and not much in the way of special effects. The social commentary is evident even without the benefit of first-hand knowledge of the culture. The paranormal pervades the film.

Christianity is the matrix of many scary movies made in a North American, or even European, context. Although I have read about Buddhism and Shinto, and even occasionally taught courses on “World Religions,” my knowledge of eastern religious traditions is admittedly still quite basic. I can usually spot a biblical allusion a country mile away, but subtleties of foreign religions are harder to discern. Although many religions coexist in the United States the overall context is still Christian—there can be no doubt for anyone who follows politics. Japan is, like America, largely secular. The religious base, however, tends to involve both Shinto and Buddhism and I’m not sure which, if either, forms the recognizable “religious” basis of the collective consciousness. In many ways “religion” only applies to the Judeo-Christo-Islamic model. Much could have been transpiring in Ringu that I simply missed.

After the first mysterious death in the film a short sequence of a family in mourning is shown. Clearly this is what we in the western world would consider a religious context. The decision to try to calm the avenging ghost by uncovering her murdered corpse also conforms to what we might term religion. The fact is, these are very human concerns. Religions throughout the world treat death with a religious reverence since it is the great mystery of the living. Religion frustrates many scientists just for the fact of its mysteriousness. So, does Ringu revolve around religious fear? I don’t know. With the karmic implications of the story-line I would suggest that maybe it does. I’ll remain agnostic on the point, however. The same goes for the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Is it or isn’t it?

Goats and Sheep

Having missed the movie, when I found a cheap copy of Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, my curiosity was piqued. With such a title I had assumed it to be fiction, but, proverbially it turned into the truth stranger than. The book explores the weird world of the X-Files chestnut, the super-soldier. There is no doubt that despite science’s discomfort with the paranormal, government agencies have utilized psychics for some years now, hoping to gain some advantage over the other guy. Not everyone agrees on how effective such tactics are, but they exist nevertheless. The Men Who Stare at Goats (TMWSAG) provides a rare glimpse into that world where no one knows who is telling the truth (otherwise called “government”); we live in an era when truth has become negotiable.

One of the accidental recurring themes in my recent reading has been the horrendous abuse of power at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Far from placid eyes, the land of the free advocates torture to get prisoners to talk. After years of government bungling, it is no surprise that misguided efforts at torture on the part of a democracy would invariably be discovered. It would be easier to doubt that governments kept lethal secrets if they didn’t keep getting caught in flagrante delicto. Who can you trust when governments, ruled by gods of their own making—in their own image—preach the gospel of torture? TMWSAG weaves this sordid story in with 9-11, Uri Geller, Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate and Deuteronomy 18—what’s not to like?

I’ve been alive long enough to know that some supremely odd stuff goes down. TMWSAG provides a service in demonstrating that the government takes some of this mysterious reality seriously. It also shows the twin surfaces of resistance: religion and science. Science has a difficult time admitting what can’t be seen; with few exceptions psychic phenomena are considered not even worth the bother of a lab test. Religion, at least in its biblical, American incarnation, lumps all spooky stuff together with the devil, something Jon Ronson declares that even high-ranking generals in the military believe. So when I put this little book down I was left scratching my head. It may just be me, but where have all the sheep gone?