Neither Black nor White

What hath Rome to do with Lagos? In the portion of the newspaper where religion is freely discussed—the Sunday edition, of course—Jeff Kunerth published a thoughtful piece entitled “Black atheists might feel lonely, but they’re not alone.” Kunerth reveals a double dilemma for the African-American non-believer: strong emic social pressure to be religious and etic deconstruction of race by many atheists. I know African-American humanists, and I have been informed of the lack of attention given to humanism and race. Both, in many circles, are troubling concepts. We like to think we’d evolved to the point of “race” disappearing from the social spectrum, but we also feel pride concerning cultural achievements, some of which are tied to “race.” Where would our culture be without the influence of African-American music, story, and art? Is belief required to truly belong?

I often wonder why it is that skin tone is used to divide people. Inevitably my thought goes back to the Bible. In the ancient view reflected in the book of Genesis, all creatures, humanity included, were created with inviolable boundaries of “kind.” As mules and ligers demonstrate, however, boundaries are often only as strict as we permit them to be. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin?” Jeremiah rhetorically asks in 13.23 of his eponymous book, “or the leopard his spots?” Not only is race fixed, but gender as well. Each according to his own kind. It’s this easy division that’s troubling me. Humans of all “races” may interbreed, something not possible for the liger or mule. We are free to change our outlook. The leopard spots are in our minds.

None of this is meant to belittle the difficulties faced by black atheists, or any others who are excluded by their own “kind.” It is simply a suggestion that we might enlarge the pie, to borrow from Getting to Yes, before dividing it. Belief has to be a matter of conscience, and acceptance should be a matter of principle. Too often religious beliefs divide rather than unite. Atheists and true believers, of one “race” or many, have a common cause to make a better world for all. The prophet anticipates a negative answer to his rhetorical question. Allow me, Jeremiah, respectfully to disagree. Yes, a leopard may change its spots anywhere except in the prejudiced savannah of the human mind.

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Ancient of Days

I’ve never been one to deny my age. I think of myself as a rather young 50 since my brain still reacts like an 18-year old’s much of the time. I try to keep as fit as my job allows, and the only thing I really overindulge in is books. But I am 50, and that means the AARP has had me in their cross-hairs for the last couple of years. The phone rang the other day and I was foolish enough to answer it. The young man on the other end of the line asked me if I could hear him okay. I almost hung up; if someone doesn’t identify him or herself in the first sentence, I know they’re wanting me to contribute to something. Instead, I tried a new tactic: “you’re not coming in very clear,” I fibbed, hoping that he would offer to call back and I wouldn’t answer. Instead, he adjusted the volume. It was the AARP calling with a survey. My hearing is still pretty keen—without it, walking across Manhattan in rush hour everyday would be downright dangerous. Nevertheless, my encounter with AARP made me think of a recent conversation I had about death.

I am not afraid of death. As long as I can remember, I have never really feared it. Not that I want to go anytime soon, but perhaps because of my childhood fears of Hell, I believe I might have contributed enough to the treasury of merit (like the AARP, or Social Security) to get me out of a few scrapes. I attended mass nearly every day for twelve years at Nashotah House—that has to count for something! My conversation partner the other day was incredulous; “how can you not be afraid of death?” I’m not sure what comes after, if anything, but I’ve always tried to keep on the good side of the divine. Those questionable things I’ve intentionally done were all executed with good reason, or so it seemed at the time. If they were truly naughty, I’ve asked for forgiveness. And if there’s nothing after life, well, I feel like I could use the good long sleep of annihilation for a while.

Several books I’ve read recently have been advocating reincarnation. I’m not sure that it makes sense, but sometimes I wonder. The idea is a bit more frightening than death itself, in many ways. So many things I don’t want to go through again—sorry Friedrich, but I guess I’m one of those who says no to exact repetition—so much physical pain and mental anguish. I can see why Buddhists want to break the cycle. Although, if I’m reincarnated as a human being, and a literate one, I might be able to get a few more books read next time around. Perhaps that’s the silver lining. Or perhaps that’s why I should just hang up the phone if the caller doesn’t tell me who it is in the first sentence.

"I'm not quite dead yet..."

“I’m not quite dead yet…”

Paging Dr. Asimov

Who remembers Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots? Plastic “robots” in the boxing ring trying to knock each other’s block’s off was a form of entertainment for kids of the ‘60s before such things as humanoid robots actually existed. So when Boston University’s alumni magazine had an article about dancing robots, I had to see what was up. As regular readers will know, I’ve been exploring some of the problems with reductionism lately. This idea, that humans and animals are just fleshy machines, breaks down when we try to design robots that can do some of the most basic of human activities. Sometimes we dance and we don’t know why. Apart from Wall-e’s dance with Eve, robots have trouble getting the concept. Graduate student John Baillieul notes that this isn’t about “some high school guy who had trouble getting a date, so you get a robot. The ultimate goal is to understand human reaction to gestures and how machines may react to gestures.” Having actually been a high school guy who never even got to the prom, I’m wondering how depressed our robots get when the fem-bots all look the other way.

Rockem Sockem

The reductionistic outlook suggests that we can eventually program robots to respond as humans would, responding fluidly to situations, allowing them to over-ride their “instinct,” which, the article implies, equals programming. We have no idea what instinct is. It is something all biological creatures have, from the heliotrope following the sun to the human dancing her heart out. Do we want machines to replicate our most intimate emotions? Even our most reliable chip-driven devices sometimes freeze up or rebel. My car has recently got the idea in its mechanistic brain that the right-hand side rearview mirror should be rotated as far to the right as possible. We bicker about this all the time when I get in to drive. Well, machines know best. They, after all, are the shape of the future.

So programming robots so that they can react in real time to non-verbal cues, like all sentient beings do, is a desideratum of our mechanistic Weltanschauung. Notes Rich Barlow, the article’s author, “bats, for example, camouflage their motions so that they can sneak up on insect prey, a fake-out familiar to anyone who’s tried to swat a pesky fly.” My question is who is the pesky fly in this robot-human scenario? Who acts irrationally and unpredictably? Isn’t our instinct to smash the fly a result of our annoyance at it landing, yet again, on our sandwich with its dirty feet? And what is that stupid dance that it does when it’s all over our food? Reductionism must, by definition, reduce instinct to the level of a kind of genetic programming. Even this aging blogger, however, knows what it is to dance without knowing why. He also knows what it feels like when your date goes home with somebody else, something to which he’s not convinced that we want robots calculating an “instinctual” response.

God, Particle, Reduce

Reductionism is beguiling because of the exalted status it gives to the human intellect. It is presumed that rational thought can explain everything. Still, reason sometimes leads to paradoxes—we’ve all heard the (admittedly theistic) one asking if God can create a rock so heavy s/he can’t lift it. Given the premise, two strands of logic conflict. A similar sort of phenomenon, it appears, accompanies quantum physics. In a story from last year on Big Questions Online (a website supported by the Templeton Foundation), Stephen M. Barr submitted a piece entitled “Does Quantum Physics Make it Easier to Believe in God?” The article requires some concentration, but the basic premise is simple enough to explain: quantum physics does not sit well with reductionism. There seems to be will in nature. It may not be God in the machine; it may not even be a machine at all.

I have always been fascinated by science, and I am not one to castigate it. Its string of successes stretches all the way from atoms and their explosive tendencies to the moon and Mars and beyond. At the same time, most of us have experienced something that “should work,” in which no fault can be discovered. Reductionism would declare the fault is indeed there, just undetected. If, however, at the sub-atomic level, particles sometimes act uncannily, don’t those effects climb the ladder into the visible world in some way? Logic would seem to demand it. The problem with putting will into the equation is that will can’t be quantified. There have been many documented cases of an instance of superhuman strength coursing through a person when they have to rescue a loved one. We raise our eyebrows, mumble about adrenaline and pretend that will hasn’t affected nature in this reductionistic, strictly material world.

Denigrating human brain power is not something I undertake lightly. Logic works most of the time. A thinking creature who has evolved to be a thinking creature, however, must realize that its own intellect is limited. Simply because we are limited doesn‘t mean we shouldn’t strive to improve, but it does mean that ex cathedra statements, whether from pontiffs or physicists, should be suspect. One would be hard-pressed to label Einstein a believer. Yet even he made the occasional remark that left the door open for, well, maybe not God, but maybe not reductionism either. I was once told, and I believe it to be true, that you can tell a truly educated person not by how much he or she claims to know, but rather by how much she or he claims not to know. It may not seem logical, but down there among the particles of the quantum world, I suspect those willful quarks agree.

Erwinrossen's image of atoms, the sight eyes can't see

Erwinrossen’s image of atoms, the sight eyes can’t see

Campbell’s Swansong

InnerReachesofOuterSpace Joseph Campbell may not be the best reading for the bus. Despite the many signs and placards gently suggesting to passengers both in the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and on the buses themselves, that keeping quiet is courteous, we are a people in love with noise. We are used to annoying electronic beeps, squawks, and farts. People find it difficult to sit more than 20 minutes without talking. I’m trying to read. At the Hunterdon County Library Book Sale I picked up Joseph Campbell’s last book, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. It requires some concentration. Campbell was a brilliant comparative mythologer. I was reared in the scholarly hermeneutics of doubt, however, especially when it comes to comparing myths from different cultures. Campbell has a great appreciation for Jungian concepts, and soon minor details are blurred and the similarities stand out in stark relief. Still, as I always do with Campbell, I came away with plenty of rich concepts over which to mull.

Campbell, the great inspirer of Star Wars, the original series, was that rare breed of scholar who appreciated without participating. He is recorded as stating he was no mystic, and certainly not any kind of conventional religionist, but he couldn’t get enough of mysticism or mythology. Religion, he implies, is just mythology taken literally. He is, I believe, very close to the truth here. What we know of indigenous peoples today is that they don’t have that sharp and hard line between literal reality and story that marks much of western civilization. We tend to think fact and fiction cannot be of a kind. Looking around, we find no gods, so our choices are not to believe, or to believe too literally. And those who believe literally differently, we tend to want to kill. This is the history of religion in the western world, in a Campbellian nutshell.

Apart from the little gems I located scattered throughout The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, the main theme I found applicable was the driving force of chapter two, Metaphor as Myth and Religion. Metaphor is our way of interacting with a reality we just can’t experience directly. As human beings, we experience the physical world through the mediation of our senses, filtered by our brains. If there is something deeper, more profound than nature, we are even further removed. Our experience of meaning is metaphor. Joseph Campbell may have been a little too swift to spot congruities that are probably best left apart, but he clearly recognized the fact that our religions are not so different from our mythologies, and that both are narrated in the form of metaphor. This is not to devalue them, for metaphor is one of the most potent substances in our chemistry set. Now if only I could find the vial that has the stuff to make people want to keep quiet on the bus, we might all be able to get a bit more reading done.

Dog-gone Belief

A recent book I read, I can’t remember precisely which one, suggested that one reason the average citizen has trouble with science is the fault of evolution. We evolved, at least some of us have, to rely on common sense. We trust appearances to intimate reality, and act accordingly. The problem is that science, almost in principio, informs us that things do not operate according to common sense, but according to laws that are inscrutable to most of us and involving math way beyond our limited ability. Even with a calculator. For example, the earth is spinning really, really fast and hurtling around the sun so quickly that I think I’m going to be sick. Really? Common sense tells me that I’m stationary, and my inner ear only gives me true peace when that is the case. QED, as my high school pre-calc teacher used to say. But it’s not the truth. We are spinning and jetting through space.

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An article in Time magazine recently brought this disconnect home on a very poignant level. “The Mystery of Animal Grief,” by Jeffrey Kluger, explores the animal grieving process. Many species have been observed to react to the death of one of there own very much like humans do. Physical attitudes of bowed heads, actions that signal depression, and even rudimentary burials are all documented among animals. Some scientists disagree: reductionism declares that this is all appearance (like common sense), and if the professor on Gilligan’s Island taught us anything beyond building with coconuts and bamboo, it is that there is a rational explanation for everything. Animals grieving? It takes a human to do that. Well, actually, it takes a human to declare with such certainty that our animal cousins can’t feel like we do. Although our only current pet is a hermit crab—and perhaps many uninvited spiders—I grew up with dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and assorted other creatures. They express real affection. If they didn’t, I can’t think people would keep them.

I wondered, as I read Kluger’s article, when religion was going to come into the discussion. It wasn’t a long wait. Religion, he notes, is a human mechanism for coping with the finality of death. Dead is dead, after all. Animals can’t be religious, so they can’t experience the emotions we do. Or so science would mostly declare. I struggle with reality on a daily basis. My experience has taught me that things are not often what they seem, but sometimes my path lies in a direction diametrically opposed to that of Dr. Heisenberg. We are animals. Animals are part of our family. I’ve experienced people who show no emotion when their close associates are suffering. I’ve also experienced a dog that would cuddle up next to me and lick my face when I was sad, an encouraging look in his canine eyes. Animals are smart and empathetic. They have some understanding of death—it’s just common sense. I write this as I’m hurtling through space at 660,000 m.p.h. while spinning at a thousand miles an hour. If my reasoning seems suspect to you, consider the circumstances.

Fear of Religion

Two online articles have, in my limited reading, linked the bombing of the Boston Marathon by Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to religion. Although the boys are/were not part of any radical sect, it was their belief that their Muslim faith, apparently, motivated the bombings. While such revelations will no doubt prompt Islamophobia in some, the true terror belongs to all exclusive religions. People want to be part of exclusive groups. Whether it is the ritziest country club or the most erudite book circle, we all want to be part of that group that is superior. I recall very clearly in my New Testament classes at Boston University how our professor explained that Christianity never grows as fast as when it excludes people. He claimed the writers of the Christian Scriptures knew that. Conversion is fine and good—it gives you a gold star when you save souls—but not too many. If everyone’s invited to the party, it loses its appeal. Here is the dilemma of proselytizing religions. We want to grow, but not too much.

Throughout history people have rejoiced at the troubles of the exclusive few. It does not explain fully or in any way excuse antisemitism, but the fact that Judaism doesn’t seek converts may raise the jealousy factor of those outside. Those religions most anxious to convert others are also the ones with the longest track records of violence. Nothing promotes hateful behavior like insecurity. Insecurity is frequently masked with evangelistic bravado. The fact is, even if one religion won out—especially if one religion won out—the violence would increase dramatically. This sounds rather crass, I know, but it reflects the state of world religions pretty well. Religions, after all, are made up of people.

Plenty of Muslims participate in sporting events like the Boston Marathon. Islam has contributed tremendously to western culture, laying the groundwork for much of our science and philosophy. It corners no market on religious terror. Religions are often outgrowths of human frustrations with our limited possibilities. We know we have to die, and we dream of gods but we can’t emulate their strength or majesty or immortality. We want the best for those we love. The world, however, doesn’t conform to the deep desires of humankind and religion, whatever its origin, helps us cope. Evolutionary psychologists are increasingly of the opinion that religion has utilitarian purposes in human development. Religions, however, also take their premises rather too seriously at times.

In the name of love

In the name of love

Almost Heaven

OneidaUtopia. Sounds like a good idea—what’s not to like? There have been a number of attempts to form utopias in this sad, violent, and secular world, and although none have succeeded, it is difficult not to admire their spirit. The Oneida Community has long been a source of personal fascination. In that region of New York where spirituality was so urgent that many people crowded to the purveyors of new salvation, the Perfectionist sect of John Humphrey Noyes eventually settled down. Oneida: Utopian Community to Modern Corporation, by Maren Lockwood Carden, was written in the late 1960s as a sociological study of the followers of Noyes. Although the data are dated, it is a respectful, careful study of an unconventional group of utopians who managed to keep a dream of sorts alive for three decades in the latter half of the nineteenth century. If we known anything of the Victorian Era, it is that sexuality was handled with extreme delicacy and reticence. Most people would not have survived half an hour of Fox’s standard evening programming. Beneath social convention, however, they were as hot blooded as people have always been.

John Humphrey Noyes was a troubled soul. Like many institutors of religions, he was a seeker who knew what felt right but never believed he could find it. He studied theology at Yale Divinity School, and he had been profoundly moved by the Perfectionist movement. Perfectionism traces its roots to John Wesley and his perpetual need for assurance of salvation. Indeed, Noyes appears to have picked up the ideals of Perfectionism from Wesleyan theologians of the day. Noyes, however, believed that perfection on earth meant sharing everything. Well, nearly everything. Having been chased from a location or two for his radical ideas, Noyes and his followers eventually settled in Oneida, where they could practice “complex marriage” in peace. While few people remember the other doctrines of the Oneida Community, complex marriage is one from which even sociologists can’t keep their eyes. All adult members of the community were expected to love each other fully. While avoiding incestuous unions, all adults were married to all others. By practicing male continence, they kept the birth rate down, and, to the surprise of many visitors, seemed the most civil and sophisticated people around.

The Oneida Community, however, outlasted John Humphrey Noyes only by becoming a corporation. As most couples registering for their weddings even now know, Oneida tableware is considered of very high quality. The company, at least until the 1960s when Carden’s book was published, was under the leadership of one of Noyes’ descendants. Carden’s book delves into the running of the corporation as much as into complex marriage, and points out the very real impact the Oneida Community has had on America. I also think of it as a paradigm. It began as a Perfectionist utopia, a religion of (free) love and concern for all others, and ended up as a business corporation. Any number of other churches might fit into that same pattern—they begin as idealistic enterprises and end up as businesses. Perhaps this is the truly fallen state of humanity. We start out spiritual, but end up sadly entrepreneurial.

Book Friends

Along highway 12 in Hunterdon County, New Jersey stands an armory with an obtrusive tank stolidly facing the road. Over the weekend the tank was draped with a banner proclaiming the Hunterdon County Library book sale. I wished I’d had a camera. It had been a few years since I’d been free on the book sale weekend (it often classes with robotics competitions), so I decided to visit on Saturday. No, they usually do not have much in the way of academic books, or even the books on my extensive wishlist. The books are not in pristine shape, not alphabetized, and sometimes miscategorized. But still I love to go and browse around. It is always crowded. I feel like a babe in its mother’s arms around so many people who want to be near books. Although the vast minority of the American population, book buyers are of a kind. We get along.

The event is so large that parking is off-site and a shuttle bus is hired to ferry people the extra mile down the highway to the armory. I emerged with a small bagful of guilty pleasures and waited for the shuttle behind three elderly gentlemen. On the bus they lovingly pulled out their special finds to share with one another, smiling and quietly praising the virtues of each one. When I was checking out a few minutes earlier the elderly lady counting the books asked me if I recycled them back into the system when I was finished. I had to confess that I keep most of them. There are books in every room of our apartment except the bathroom. You can read in bed, in the kitchen, or in front of the television. I couldn’t live any other way. “It’s a good problem to have,” she affirmed.

A few weeks back our refrigerator died. For the third time since Hurricane Sandy we had to throw out all our refrigerated goods. Our landlord magnanimously agreed to replace the derelict cooler. I worked from home that day to let the delivery guys in. Their faces fell. “We’ll never get it in past all those bookshelves,” they lamented. The doors on this older building are offset, and we do have bookshelves covering much of the wallspace. So I began pulling down books. The piles grew and eventually I freed a shelf enough to move it from the wall and to get the oversized appliance in place. On the way out, one of the movers stopped by an unraped bookshelf and stared for a moment. “You read interesting books,” he said. Perhaps he just pronounced my epitaph. He read interesting books. I can’t think of a better compliment in this world where reading for pleasure is an endangered species.

"Interesting reading"

“Interesting reading”

Chick Trick

Yesterday was our local town’s Earth Day clean-up day. I have always thought we lived in a clean town, and generally it’s true. When you look closer, however, the litter becomes all too obvious. Now, I know the purpose of this exercise is to get rid of pollution—my family filled five trash bags in the morning’s jaunt. As I reached for a bit of paper, I instantly recognized that I had found a half-torn page of a Jack T. Chick tract. Jack Chick is an old school Fundamentalist who draws some of the scariest cartoon evangelistic tracts imaginable. He is personally responsible for many of my childhood nightmares and phobias. Even as an adult, I still find myself believing, at some level, the tripe he serves up at the food of salvation. Children, you see, are extremely vulnerable to suggestion. Chick unremittingly claims we all deserve to burn in Hell, literally, and that only those who buy his version of Christianity can avoid it. He scares me. Instead of putting the torn comic strip in the trash, it went into my pocket. I needed to exegete it.

As a child I purchased every single Chick tract available from our local Christian bookstore. I was terrified of Hell and absolutely wanted to make sure I had double-covered every single base. A Chick tract can be read in a matter of minutes, but they can stay with you for decades. The one I found yesterday was one I’d never read. It consists of part of pages 5 and 6 of a black-on-black violence story involving a seriously looking tough guy called Ice Man. As the story opens, in media res, a photograph of “the preacher’s boy” is on a cell phone. Ice Man is seriously pissed off, and on page 6, in a drive-by shooting with an assault rifle, blows the young man away. His death, as in most Chick tracts, is violent, but bloodless. Chick spares most of the blood for the cross, where, sometimes it trickles eerily down over the repentant sinner.

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If I might be forgiven for some textual criticism, in which I might be guilty of a modicum of eisegesis, let me guess that the preacher’s boy had been suggesting that Ice Man change his sinful ways in the previous lacuna. In a fit of Icy rage, the PK becomes a sacrificial victim. Most likely, by the end of the pamphlet, Ice Man will have come to realize the evil of his ways and will end up on his knees. Depending on Chick’s mood that day, he may even end up dead. One thing is certain, the story will attempt to scare a youngster to a life of righteousness. The area where we were gathering trash is on the relative “wrong side of the tracks” for my little town. Some real violence does occur here, but it is mostly out of sight. Having grown up with Chick tracts guiding my every thought, I wonder if somebody got the message before it was too late. I see this torn page as a small sign of hope.

Just Books

It’s very difficult to make your voice heard in this world. I’ve been talking for nearly half a century, and most of the time it’s like nobody’s listening. For those who follow the Chronicle of Higher Education, the fact that Herbert Richardson, the founder of Edwin Mellen Press, is threatening to sue some librarians for comments made on various blogs, is not really news. When the Chronicle ran a story this week on Herbert Richardson’s career, I gained a renewed appreciation for what he’s doing. I say “renewed” because I remember the days when I was very poor. My first year of teaching, with my wife in a university program and my own student loans due, I was paid a measly ten grand for a salary (this was in 1992). Despite these privations, my wife and I attended the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting on a very tight budget. For those of you who’ve not been, SBL offers a book orgy for scholars. Publishers of all descriptions offer books at a discount, but even so, many titles are out of reach. My wife was researching Methodist hymnody for her thesis, and Edwin Mellen Press had a resource that she needed. We simply couldn’t afford it. Herbert Richardson saw our earnest discussion at his book stall, walked over, picked up the book, handed to my wife and said, “Take it.”

Although Herbert Richardson would not recognize me, he has on other occasions, shown me unsolicited kindness. Reading the Chronicle account, I learned that he is a Presbyterian minister and that he had taught at Harvard Divinity School. He is unconventional in some respects, but he also enjoys bucking the trends. Edwin Mellen Press publishes good research that mainstream publishers pass up because their eyes are always on the prize. The bottom line. I never published with Mellen, but I have had snooty presses turn down very careful scholarship of my own. My sympathies are with the underdog, and with the guy who tries to help the underdog. Academia is a cruel world. Some of us have received nothing but backhanded salutes from “established institutions” for all of our adult lives. It’s hard to feel sorry for them. What are the needs of one man in a machine so vast? Not much, apparently.

I’m not the litigious sort. Lawyers have generally caused mostly grief, in my experience. But I don’t castigate the important work Herbert Richardson is trying to do. It might be easy for those lucky enough to be welcomed by academia to forget just how lucky they are and noses are easily looked down towards those of us who never received a chance to shine. No, I wouldn’t sue those who bad-mouth me, and I’m sure there are plenty, but I think Herbert Richardson’s heart is in the right place. As a guy who would happily work for books if food, shelter, and healthcare could somehow be had, I know what it is to covet a book and not be able to afford it. I know what it is like to feel want. Herbert Richardson, based on my encounters with the man—we continue to cross paths from time to time—understands those who love books. That is a principle I can live by.

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Paranormal Academy

ParanormalA recurrent theme on this blog (as my faithful few will doubtless know) is that religion draws from the same stream of cultural energies as do other phenomena such as horror movies and the paranormal. Religion and fear and curiosity seem to share some common parameters, and every now and again serious academics tackle these connections as well. Erich Goode, a sociologist, has taken on unconventional beliefs in his The Paranormal: Who Believes, Why They Believe, and Why it Matters. Unlike many academic writers on the topic, Goode does not attempt to debunk, but it is also clear that he does not ascribe to the unconventional viewpoints he examines either. In what must be an important realization among sociologists, Goode, like some of his colleagues who also consider the paranormal, finds that belief is widespread. Large segments of the US population allow for some validity toward ghosts, psychics, aliens, and yes, even creationism.

That last one stopped me for a second. Several seconds, actually. Creationism paranormal? When Goode’s delineations are considered, this is not completely inappropriate, but creationism is pure-blood religion. Not that it is necessary for religion, but its birth and considerable growth has been among the conventicle of true Bible believers. It is clear that in Goode’s line of reasoning there is only a fuzzy line between religion and the paranormal. I’ve asserted that same fuzzy line, but I’d never considered biblical literalism as paranormal. Maybe because I was raised in that environment it seemed normal and natural to me. Maybe because it is in the Bible it feels weird to hear it classed as paranormal. Maybe because believers in ghosts, aliens, and undiscovered forces have at least some viable evidence to indicate their beliefs are valid; the creationist distortion appears not to belong in the same camp.

Creationism is a complex psychological phenomenon, to be sure. How people who know the obvious practicalities of science (such as television and the internet, where creationism can be expounded) have demonstrated that its overall methodology is sound, how such people can accept a fairy tale beginning to a Grimm tales world is difficult to fathom. And creationists, in general, would reject belief in what most of society considers paranormal. Can these coexist in the same category? While Goode constructs his paradigm as those who accept and reject empirical reductionism, I’m not convinced that religious belief is the same as paranormal belief. The parsing is a bit too coarse here. Creationism, which began life as a religious belief, has become a political agenda all about domination. It is not so much naiveté as it is need to rule. Somehow I doubt the ghost hunter with her or his night vision camera and digital voice recorder has any real designs on textbook distortion or having women keep silent on Sunday morning.

Rorschach Test

Rutgers University, College Avenue Campus. I recall coming out on a sweltering night once in a while during a summer term, only to find a street evangelist inveighing against undergraduate evils. He, and it was invariably a he, may have delved into the darker sins of graduate students, but I didn’t stay around to find out. Colleges attempt to educate while street preachers try to halt the process. Shall we go forward or retreat? I occasionally run into off-campus preachers on my university visits. I still look like a professor, I suppose, so I am treated to their version of salvation along with the people less than half my age, facing all the temptations of adulthood. The last evangelists I saw were handing out tracts about the evils of tattoos. I know tattoos are very popular, although I’ve personally never seen the draw. With one eye cast warily ahead, I think of what happens when that firm bit of skin starts to sag and the bold decoration begins to shrivel to make us look less like rebels and more like crepe paper left too long in the rain. Besides, I could never think of a picture that I’d want attached to me for the rest of my life. Too many changes come along, best leaving tattoos for those who appreciate a strong dose of irony.

Tattoo

Our evangelist friends, of course, object because tattoos are expressly forbidden in the Hebrew Bible. “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you. I am the Lord,” so the Lord declares in Leviticus 19. I resisted the urge to ask my ersatz savior if his clothing contained any blends of materials, forbidden earlier in the same chapter. Or if he trimmed the hair on the sides of his head. Or rotated his crops. The problem, according to the tract, is that tattooing was considered a heathen or pagan activity as Christianity spread to new lands. Presumably the very popular cross or crucifix tattoo design had not yet evolved. The tattoo is a tribal mark, indicating loyalty to a (presumably unChristian) group. My tract sets itself out on a history of tattooing, and suggests that it became popular as a form of entertainment, suggestively knocking on the door of that devil, idleness. They even cite Rick Warren as making church too entertaining. This isn’t supposed to be fun, people!

The real problem is that tattooing is getting society prepared to receive the mark of the beast. With echoes of Hal Lindsey’s Late, Great Planet Earth (now severely dated), the tract tells us that the mark is a tattoo and that among the most popular designs is the dragon. China, which venerates the dragon, is hostile to Christians—coincidence?! And, it should be noted, “Studies have shown that WOMEN who get DRAGON tattoos become more SELF CONFIDENT and ASSERTIVE” (emphasis in the original). And that, they want us to believe, is a bad thing. At least with Fundamentalists, agendas are rarely hidden. Too many assertive women and scheming foreigners are trying to lead us to the very tattoo parlor of the beast. Who knew that so much could be unpacked from half a verse in Leviticus? The name Levi, by the way, some suggest, comes from the same root as leviathan, the dragon.

Bridge over Troubled

ReligionThe fundamental question of what counts as religion remains elusive. I read Robert Crawford’s What is Religion? hoping to find out. Crawford begins with the admirable assertion that in a pluralistic world all religions must learn to get along. Unfortunately, learning hasn’t always been one of religion’s strong suits. And we still don’t even know what religion is. As becomes clear within minutes of starting the book, consensus will be a stranger in this room. Nevertheless Crawford plows on, hoping against hope that comparison will reveal conformity. Religions aren’t really team players in that way.

Crawford keeps his focus on the “big six”: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. Although these faiths contain the lion’s share of numbers, they in no way corner the market on religion. I wonder if Crawford’s net is really large enough. When trying to define religion, cutting corners gets you into trouble every time. No matter how we count it, religion is more than a matter of belief and broader than prescribed rituals. It must take seriously the attempts of even small knots of seekers in its preternatural accounting. Crawford sometimes gets bogged down in the details. Science plays a key role in his discussion but then the scope shifts to Christianity, a religion with more than its share of scientific troubles. Islam, for a while anyway, led the world in scientific thinking. What of Sikhs and science?

The more I read of What is Religion?, the more I got the feeling that all of these pieces don’t go to the same puzzle. Religions develop out of historical circumstances and needs. They, with a few exceptions, are not consciously devised by a bunch of eggheads shut up in ivory towers. Religions develop from people in difficult situations, whether physical or psychological. Think about it. If the Bible is to be believed Judaism grew out of slavery in Egypt (either that or Abraham’s childlessness). Christianity out of Roman oppression. Islam from Muhammad’s conviction that polytheism didn’t add up. Hinduism’s old enough to have lost its origins in deep antiquity, but Buddhism is clearly a reaction to pervasive suffering. Sikhism tried to steer between the clashes of Hinduism and Islam. We could go on, but I don’t wish to try your patience. I’m not suggesting I’ve finally done the impossible and defined religion. In fact, I may be suggesting the opposite. Religion encompasses many ways of being in the world. Crawford maybe got a start on the discussion, but it will go on as long as people have troubles.

Loneliness of Long-Distance Runners

1988. I was standing along Boylston Street, in Copley Square, watching the Boston Marathon. As the weary first place runner trudged by, I somehow neglected to take a photograph. I did snap one of the number two winner. I always have had an affinity for those who don’t win. Those who try, only to be beaten by others. His name didn’t stay with me, but I still have that photo, a moment in time, when everyone was excited about the culmination of a long tradition. When I heard that there was a bombing at the marathon yesterday, I experienced a different kind of culmination. I wondered what kind of people we had become. The Boston Marathon, a long-time symbol of endurance and pushing oneself to the limit, came to a crashing end. Along with another chapter in the innocence of a world gone mad. Just last October, I posted a photo on this blog that I had snapped near where one of the bombs went off. As I write this nobody has a clue as to who was responsible or what they were trying to prove.

BostonMarathon

The NRA gun barons were not on hand to stop the terrorists, I note. Funny how they always show up too late. Perhaps we should all start carrying hand-grenades. We all have a choice whether to do more good or evil in the world. To leave behind a better place or a worse one. The Boston Marathon is an international event, with long-distance runners from around the world competing. More against themselves than against anyone else. Just to finish the grueling course. Who would want to hurt just anyone, including several children—those who love to race and dream and hope for a better tomorrow?

The news saddens me, for we like to think we live in an enlightened nation. Maybe a little soft around the middle, but generally a congenial place. We hold events like the Boston Marathon to celebrate human achievement—those who push themselves to the limit but then keep going. Standing in the crowd in 1988, I remember how we clapped for those who seemed too exhausted to trudge those last few yards to the finish line. We wanted them to succeed. I couldn’t tell you one of their names, but we were all wishing the best for them. That is the human spirit. It takes a coward’s coward to plant bombs amid crowds and then not even claim your own evil victory. Terrorism, already heinous, without even trying to make a point. And yet the runners run on. Like the marathon itself, we must keep believing that we can reach that ribbon and that the vast majority are hoping for our success.