Fundamental Fear

Something truly scary landed on my desk. Working for an organization that has many different departments, there’s no way to know everyone. So when something bible-ish arrives in the mail, it gets directed to me. Now, I don’t follow the afterlife of creepy religious people through prison, so it took a few minutes to remember who Warren Jeffs is. I knew I’d read about him but I couldn’t remember where. Then I remembered the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Jeffs was once the head of this church before being put into prison for child sexual assault crimes. So why had he sent a copy of Jesus Christ Message to All Nations to my publishing house? It is already published, and it is rather modeled on the Bible, at least at a surface level. No letter, no instructions. Just a book that I felt I needed to wash my hands after touching.

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I’d not heard of this book before. The author is boldly listed as Jesus Christ. “President Warren S. Jeffs, Mouthpiece of God” it says, given credit for, I suppose, putting pen to paper. What’s to prevent me, I wondered, from claiming God wrote what I framed into words? It is far too easy a claim to make and the credulous follow where the bold lead. That’s the way human authority, unfortunately, often works. Someone with a surfeit of testosterone declares that he speaks with absolute authority—I think of angry atheists as well as televangelists here. Such sense of irrational conviction must feel god-like. I can only guess from the sidelines. And I wonder about those who wrote what are recognized as scriptures in other religions.

Did those who wrote the books of the Bible, for instance, ever feel that they were writing unquestioned truth? Might they not have been a bit more circumspect? Maybe they were writing in the heat of inspiration, but not with the confidence of claiming divinity. Somehow I doubt even that. Writing is a human activity. The creator of an entire universe shouldn’t need to use it. Still, religions are often built around written texts. Parts of the New Testament claim to come from Jesus of Nazareth, although he’s not the actual writer. I guess he must have been working on later works of which I’ve never heard. And I do wonder how the doctrine of the faulty vessel applies in cases like this. I know better than to ask a Fundamentalist of any stripe, because I already know the answer they would give.

The Bald Truth

The book of Judges is one of the most fascinating in the Bible. The “judges” are colorful characters, often rule-breakers, who ultimately seem to deliver the early Israelites from their enemies. Many of their names are familiar: Samson, Gideon, and Jephthah. Well, Jephthah may be a stretch for those who haven’t read the book lately. Anyway, among the most interesting facets of the book is the fact that there are female judges. The most prominent is Deborah. Although she doesn’t seem actually to fight in battle, she leads Barak and he is able to defeat the Canaanites, through the agency of God, of course. The story is told in great detail of how the Canaanite general Sisera gets his chariot bogged down in the mud, flees the field, and finds the tent of Jael, who invites him in. After she lulls him to sleep she drives a tent peg through his skull, killing him. Jael is celebrated for her part in the deliverance.

Gory images aside, I’ve been thinking of Sisera. I wonder what he looked like. I realize that he may not have been an historical person, but still. The Bible is generally shy about describing the outward appearance of people. We get a few people with details revealed, but Sisera is not one of them. The reason I’m wondering is that I’ve got an image lodged in my head. A childhood story that we were read about Deborah showed Sisera as a bald man with a beard. Totally bald. I know that complete baldness can and does occur, but the little iconography of Canaanites we have doesn’t show them as being particularly bald as a fashion statement. As I was reading about Sisera the other day I tried to picture him as a man with a headful of hair, and I just couldn’t do it. The image was too mentally jarring. Sisera was bald.

The images that we’re shown as children, especially for powerful stories, have a way of becoming canonical. It’s like learning to tie your shoes. The first way that leads to success is the right way. We never need to learn another. How many images of Sisera does one person need to have in his or her head anyway? So my Sisera is bald. Religions often provide us with images that impact us for the remainder of our lives. The impressions laid on young gray matter are not easily erased. Now that I know many of the stories in the Bible have no historical veracity, I still can’t help but think of the early images I learned. These are the canonical images and anything else is too difficult to contemplate. My Sisera will always be bald.

Palma got it wrong.

Palma got it wrong.

True Natives

StarPeopleI have long been fascinated by American Indian folklore. In fact, the first book I read this year was a set of Indian tales. Just this week I finished a most unusual book by Ardy Sixkiller Clarke entitled Encounters with Star People: Untold Stories of American Indians. Clarke, who is herself Indian, taught at Montana State University and collected stories from various tribes concerning Star People. Mainstream western science has already made up its mind that Homo sapiens are the most advanced species ever to grace this universe, and so any discussion of visiting non-terrestrials is off the table. What Clarke shows us, however, is that just because there’s no such thing doesn’t mean that all worldviews agree on that point. In many interviews with indigenous peoples of the Americas, belief in Star People emerges as perfectly normal. As does not talking about it because white people will ridicule and belittle anything that doesn’t fit into their limited cosmos of technology and money.

Reading these stories felt like absorbing wisdom from those who observe nature more carefully than those of us of European stock are inclined to do. With eyes pressed to microscopes and telescopes, it is sometimes possible to miss the big picture. We crowd into cities and have no idea how to live under the stars. We can’t even see the stars most of the time. Have we lost our ability to wonder?

Purely from an academic point of view, I wonder why aliens can’t be taken seriously. I try to think of other topics that are simply laughed out of discussion before examining the evidence. To me it seems that human pride is at stake in this case. We are a very proud species, enamored of our own accomplishments. If we can’t reach the stars, nobody else can. This to me is troubling. Aliens, after all, don’t fall into the category of “supernatural” unless we mythologize them into yesteryear’s angels. If they are real, they are as natural as we are. They would have a technology that we haven’t replicated yet, and anyone who doubts interstellar flight should consider the impossibility of carrying a computer around in your pocket or on your wrist only thirty years ago. No, if there are Star People, they are natural. Whether or not they might exist is simply a matter of belief.

Latter-Day Battlestars

Science fiction, when I was a child, constituted my fantasy life. I read such science fiction books as were available to a kid in a small town with no actual bookstore, and I watched what I could on a television with three or four channels. Star Trek and Twilight Zone were staples. As I got to high school there were more offerings, and one that I remember particularly liking was Battlestar Galactica. I was disappointed when the show ran only a few months. Something about looking for a home, being a scrappy, rag-tag fleet fighting against the odds appealed to me. Although I grew away from sci-fi as I went to college and studied more “serious” subjects, I never completely abandoned it. So the other day when I had reason to use the word “cylon” in something I was writing, I decided to do a little reading about the original series. I never did watch the reboot, as I was far too busy for television by then.

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I was surprised to learn that the original 1978 series was an exploration of Mormon theology. The show’s creator, Glen A. Larson, was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and, not surprisingly, used his fiction to promote his religious ideals. After all, Orson Scott Card, of Ender’s Game fame, is also a Mormon and elements of its theology come through in his work. As a child I didn’t watch television for religion, but rather as form of escape. I wouldn’t have guessed, however, that I was escaping to Mormon theology. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is a bit more shy about telling outsiders its theology than many Christian bodies are. Mainstream Christianity, after all, is one of the main ingredients in our cultural soup. Any Methodist will be happy to tell you Wesley’s theology, if they happen to know it.

I haven’t watched television for over two decades. Very select shows we’ll watch on DVD, being the old-fashioned sort, but I missed the reincarnation of Battlestar Galactica in 2004. I’ve always had a soft spot for the originals when it comes to sci fi. The original Star Trek, the original Star Wars, and even that sleepy and terribly dated Space 1999. I suppose as a working-class child looking for an escape these shows had a kind of religious message. Although my religion taught a conventional Heaven and Hell, I wondered what was out there beyond even that, since the tri-partite universe was basically earth-bound. And science fiction offered to lead me to other worlds where things might be better. On the Enterprise we might whizz past the Galactica and wave, even if it was piloted by Mormons in space. And L. Ron Hubbard was known to me only as a writer of science fiction rather than the creator of a new religion.

Nature of Religion

HerHiddenChAutumn is a moody time of year. Dolorous gray skies hang low one day, and the next a sky of such incredible blue stretches unbroken out into space itself. Nights are definitely longer now; I climb onto the bus in the dark in the morning and get off in the dark in the evening. And thinking about nature’s cycles leads me to thinking about nature religions. Wicca has often been presented as a nature religion, but it is somewhat more complex than that. Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America, by Chas S. Clifton provides a rare academic look at various pagan religions from the inside. Analysts of New Religious Movements have long classified religious witchcraft as a modern religion. Although Gerald Gardener made claims of being initiated into an ancient British coven when he began what was to become Wicca, it is recognized that this claim was unsubstantiated and that Gardener, in true prophetic form, was inventing a new religion.

I’ve read quite a bit about witches over the years, but I’ve always found contemporary paganism somewhat confusing. As Clifton points out, there are many branches of this relatively small religion, and there is no single leader or head of the movement. In fact, various groups, just like Christian groups, seem to splinter fairly easily. Many revival religions exist, also claiming the name pagan. You can join those who worship Egyptian gods or Norse deities. Or those who find nature itself divine. Pantheism, panetheism, or just plain paganism. Religions come in endless varieties. In a world committed to allowing individuals to follow their own religious conscience, there are bound to be varieties of religious experiences.

Clifton offers a brief history of these fairly recent groups. Paganism began to reassert itself only last century. There had been a social stigma with lying outside the territory claimed by church, synagogue or mosque. Many Americans only learned that religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism existed at the very end of the nineteenth century. What most people don’t realize even today is that a large, and increasingly expanding, variety of religious options exist for the seeker. Not all Wiccans see themselves as believers in a nature religion. Not all pagans call themselves Wiccans. Although Clifton makes no claims to an exhaustive tome, which would have to be far larger, he is a helpful guide through many of the groups that have existed over the past decades and some of which continue to this day. By learning about them we learn some basic truths about the very human urge to connect with something larger than ourselves.

Nothing But the Truth

Blurbs are the way of the future. It is so much easier to read something brief than to have to wade through an entire article. Is that the way the future’s going? I read the blurbs for Christian Century’s round-up page when it lands on my desk at work, and I find plenty of interesting things there. For example, a recent issue suggested that truth may be getting harder to find. It began: “George Johnson [New York Times was the source] says modern culture is reaching the point at which there are no longer any incontrovertible truths, just competing ideologies and narratives.” It goes on to describe how issues like creationism are less concerned with “truth” than with fitting the world into their view. Likewise, those who object to putting telescopes on Mauna Kea see science as cultural hegemony. In a post-modern world there is no objective truth. Even as a college student I remember learning that if I found the Truth, with a capital T, there was no way to know it was actually the truth. “All truth is God’s true” some professors used to say tritely.

That doesn’t stop those of us who’ve been motivated our entire lives by the search for the truth. But how will we know when we get there? I first learned about post-modernism in my teaching days. Some of its ideas are perfectly logical: we can’t completely share an author’s meaning; words have no meanings, only usages; when we read we bring our own meaning to the text; an author’s intention is not definitive for what a text means. These ideas are deeply disturbing when we look at them closely. Then I began to read that scientists recognize that our brains did not evolve to discern the truth. Our brains evolved to survive, and even a dim approximation of the truth will help us get to reproductive age. In fact, dim approximations of the truth might explain much of our dating behavior. So, we’re led to conclude, there’s no Truth after all. Just “competing ideologies and narratives.”

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I studied a fair amount of philosophy in my time, and I do believe in Truth. That’s not the same as saying I’ve found it, since no one can honestly make that claim. All that we can admit is that we believe we’ve found it. Those who object to evolution say they know the Truth and it is special creation. All the evidence points against it, but all the evidence doesn’t fit the worldview. We lose something that can’t be replaced when we jettison the truth. As soon as I learned about existentialism I realized that it had long been my philosophy—making our own meaning in a world where certainty is unknown. Even those who claim that science will give us the answers have to admit that if faced with ultimate Truth we might not like what we find. We can only believe that it will be good. And hope that we are right.

Scholarly Synchronicity

Simon Parker STH Professor April 2, 1999 PORTRAIT

Simon Parker
STH Professor
April 2, 1999
PORTRAIT

One of the great ironies in my life is having been basically ignored while I was employed in higher education only to have people make overtures to me once I no longer had the resources to undertake the task. I’ve been asked to peer review articles, and write articles and contribute to books. I even had a series editor try to get me to write a monograph. Thing is, I don’t have regular access to a library, and I spend eleven hours a day either at work or getting to and from work. When am I going to find time to write a well-researched book or article? Well, I’ve been working on my Society of Biblical Literature article since May and it should be ready by November. If it weren’t based on pop culture, I could never have managed it under present circumstances. Still, when a colleague asked me to contribute to Simon Parker’s Festschrift I couldn’t say no. Although I didn’t take classes with Simon, he was Academic Dean when I was at Boston University School of Theology. Although I didn’t know it at the time, we shared an interest in Ugaritic studies, and we exchanged articles and ideas via letter when I was in Edinburgh. We became friends. Simon died suddenly the year I lost my job at Nashotah House.

Since that time I’ve written over a couple thousand blog posts, and read a few hundred books, but that’s not the same as academic research. I’ve been worried about what I might contribute to do honor to a scholar and a gentleman. Then I tried looking at some old files from two laptops ago. Of course the new laptop can’t open them (that’s why Scrivener is a lifesaver). I pulled out a paper that I wrote the year I lost my job. I never did finish it, but it was well underway when my confidence began to crumble. After translating it to the new decade, I opened it only to find the first footnote dedicating it to Simon Parker. I stopped, stunned. That can’t be right. When I wrote this I knew nothing of a Festschrift. Then it hit me. I had originally written the article just after I learned of Simon’s untimely death. Do I still believe in signs?

So now I have a base from which to start. I have only a couple months to bang it into shape, and I also have to finish my SBL article. While at Nashotah House I produced an article a year and a second book (published only last year), i.e., the “academic standard.” Nobody invited me to contribute. Now that I have no time, people are finally interested in what I might have to say. Not interested enough, of course, to offer me an academic position, but it does look like the publication record might continue after all. It won’t be what it could have been had I had a library, but I am nevertheless honored. One of the accolades that academics covet is having colleagues care enough to write something for you. I guess that’s been on my mind for a decade in the case of Simon Parker. I only hope that I can do him proud from where I am.

Living Undead

Now that autumn is in the air, my thoughts turn to zombies. I’ve read a few monster books lately, and as I pondered the attraction of zombies to the post-modern psyche, I began to wonder if they weren’t becoming, in their own secular way, a religion. Think about it. Zombies, first and foremost, are about resurrection. In a world ruled by rationality and science, we know that resurrection is impossible. What isn’t possible in science may indeed emerge in the world of monsters. The zombie, often not speaking, proclaims a distorted kind of gospel that the end is not really the end. Resurrection is not all that it seems. Zombies are spattered with gore, reminding us that the visceral existence we know as quotidian experience is temporary. Resurrection comes at the loss of a soul. The zombie is the monster of science: the animating principle is no longer spiritual. It’s just physical.

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Not only do zombies proclaim resurrection, they are the ultimate proselytizers. Their zealous hunger leads them to bite and their biting infects and creates new zombies. Their brainless goal—as they are unthinking consumers—is to convert the entire human world to their point of view. Once the zombies take over completely, there will be nowhere left to go. The way of the undead flesh may be a dead end, but rationality doesn’t always play a role in zealotry. The zombie is all about making more zombies. They are unbelievable, and unbelieving, but they have the making of a mega-religion nonetheless.

As a student of religion, I wonder how belief systems get started. We hold irrational beliefs on any number of things, including our religions. The difference that zombies make is, in real life, nil. And yet we can’t help tuning into the Walking Dead, or watching World War Z. The zombie is the most recognized symbol of the proletariate among the workers of the world—the brainless, soulless drone in the machine. Mega-churches draw in thousands every week for a religion that doesn’t require much intellectual engagement. Keep doing what you’re doing. Think of others once in a while. God really does want you to be rich. And the minions go out and make disciples of all nations. It is a world full of zombies. We see them in our dreams and in our mirrors. And although we think they’re only entertainment, they are oh so much more.

Camping Out

Garsh-darn-it, I’ve missed the end of the world again! I’ve been so busy lately that I hadn’t bothered to pay attention to that which really matters. So here I find myself in the post-apocalyptic world and still waiting for a bus. Was that all there really was to life? I mean, I just found out that the world was ending on the day of. Couldn’t I get at least 24 hours’ notice? (I wish we’d all been ready?) A group called eBible Fellowship, followers of the late Harold Camping, figured out that his prediction of the end for May 21, 2011 was only the shutting of Heaven’s doors. I’d been wondering where that draft was coming from. According to the Radnor Patch, the actual end of the world, according to eBible’s calculations based on Camping’s spiritual algebra, was yesterday. That could explain a lot.

Apocalyptic groups have often had a problem getting the exact day right. No surprise there, however, since the Bible says even Jesus doesn’t know. Historically, there have been a number of options available to the budding apocalyptist. You can simply go very quiet and hope nobody notices. You can commit mass suicide (not recommended). And others would seem to suggest that you can claim it did happen, but that we just haven’t noticed yet. That was the response of some of Charles Taze Russell’s followers when 1914 saw the continuation of the world, despite a war that has scarred it ever since. Maybe the world has ended many times before. Still, the rest of us still find ourselves too busy to notice.

Here it comes.

Hyakutake, 1996. My first comet.

Apocalypticism is most prominent among those groups that hold to a biblical dating of the world. If it has only been here about 6000 years, then its imminent end seems entirely plausible. Those who take a longer view, more on the order of billions of years, seem a little less worried. That’s not to say that the world couldn’t end. A reasonably sized asteroid could finish it for our species. We wouldn’t need a supernova to do us in. Still, we can learn something from the chiliasts. We can learn that introspection is not a bad thing. We don’t need to hoard weapons, canned goods, and water, but we can stop once in a while and ask if all this insane running around we all do is really worth the effort. Since the world has ended, I’m thinking I might slow down a bit. I’ve got a lot that I still want to accomplish, but given that it’s all over, what’s the rush? I just wonder if they’ll buy this kind of reasoning at work.

What’s a Bible?

LegaspiWhat is the Bible? This might seem a strange question coming from someone who holds a doctorate in what has sometimes been characterized as biblical studies. Still, it is a valid question. The fact is, very different things are referenced by the word “Bible.” This is made abundantly clear in Michael C. Legaspi’s The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies. Legaspi points out that the Bible hasn’t always been the central force of Christian identification that it seems to have become. Martin Luther was largely (but not solely) responsible for the view that the Bible alone is sufficient for eternal well-being. Historically it had been much more complicated than that. The church had traditions and sacraments, Judaism had Talmud and rabbinic interpretation. The idea that the Bible alone was necessary was more radical than it might seem in today’s secular world. The problem was, the Bible isn’t an easy book to understand.

It has long been recognized that the Enlightenment and the Reformation went more or less together. The mysticism and mystery of “superstition” were bound to fade in the brilliance of pure reason. The Bible, however, still held a revered place, and it had to be studied. The sea change of the scriptural Bible to the academic Bible took place largely in Germany. No surprises there. What Legaspi demonstrates is that this study was closely bound with the university as an organ of the state. Germany didn’t boast the oldest universities in the eighteenth century, but it could claim the most intellectually rigorous. Among its biblical scholars, indeed, perhaps the one who led to the creation of the academic Bible, was Johann David Michaelis. The book is mostly about Michaelis and his influence and background in biblical studies. Clearly, applying university treatment to an ancient text was not going to be Sunday School.

By the time people like me began advanced study of the Bible, the “academic Bible” was about all there was. Many of us with serious training in the field watch in wonder as some (many) theologians take the Bible literally. They use ideas and concepts that biblical scholars have long recognized as artifacts of antique understanding. The problem is once you’ve gone down this path, there’s no going back. You can’t unlearn the academic Bible. So, what is the Bible? Obviously, it’s going to depend on who you ask, but it is clear that no one answer will satisfy all takers, even if they all claim to share a single faith. And should you venture to those hallowed halls of higher education, you’ll find the Bible is studied here, as are dinosaurs and an earth that is a few billion years old.

Eleventh Commandment

Those who know me are sometimes surprised to learn that one of my favorite quick meals is grits and black-eyed peas. For a northerner that’s a bit strange, perhaps, but my father was from South Carolina and my mother often cooked “soul food” at home. Over the years I’ve experimented with ways of preparing this simple lunch, and I’ve found that with a little cheese and a bit of hot sauce, this makes a filling and tasty dish. A few weeks back I posted on Burning Bush hot sauce. I saw it on a tourist trip to Whole Foods. I was very pleased and quite surprised when the president and chief sauceror of Burning Bush emailed me, thanking me for my post. He even kindly sent me a bottle of Burning Bush hot sauce to try. Well, this was a chilly weekend up here in Jersey, so I splashed some Burning Bush on my grits and had my own kind of down-home religious experience. It sure beats the usual tabasco that, like my father, I usually shake over my grits.

I’m sharing this personal religious experience with you to encourage you to have a religious experience. Try some Burning Bush for yourself. If you look back at my post Mind Your Manna, you’ll find a comment from said president and chief sauceror giving readers of this blog an exclusive discount on web orders. Check out that post for the discount code. Also take a little time to browse around www.burningbushhotsauce.com. Burning Bush is kosher and it doesn’t just spice up grits. My favorite part about it is that it isn’t the product of a large corporation. Being one of the little guys, I prefer to help out others like myself. The one percent already have far more than enough.

Burning Bush

As I’ve confessed before, I’m not really a foodie. Still, sometimes something simple like a new flavor can improve your life. As a matter of fact, when the Burning Bush came to my door on Friday, I planned the coming week’s meals around the fact that I now had something new to try in the kitchen. I suspect I shall be very holy by the end of the week. Just like the Bible, the story of Burning Bush starts in a garden. The best things in life generally do. I’d rather support David than Goliath. Why skimping on the flavor end of things? Why not have a religious experience while you eat? Let Nestle, Unilever, General Mills, and Kellogg hobnob with each other. Remember, when it comes to hot sauce, every drop counts. Why not give Burning Bush a try? And just for reading this blog you get an exclusive discount.

Ghost Rider

GhostsOf all frightening creatures, ghosts are by far the most ubiquitous. Believed in by every civilization ever recorded and throughout the world, not even science has been able to displace them. Lisa Morton’s Ghosts: A Haunted History offers a brief tour through the realm of the dead. With a sense of how ancient the phenomenon is, she also notes time and again how religions have an uneasy but steady relationship with disembodied spirits. After all, religions give us souls that science strives to take away. What makes Morton’s study so interesting is its restlessness. Not focusing on one culture or time period, the reader learns about Asian ghosts as well as the familiar translucent variety favored in the western world. Ghosts are everywhere.

Now that October has invited thoughts of long nights and falling leaves, I often ponder a world without ghosts. If rationalism of the materialistic variety had its way, this would be simply a natural season like any other. No need to be frightened as the sun takes on that quality that suggests some things should not be seen, and the air feels as if anything might happen. Spooky houses are merely wanting maintenance and every creak and rustle can be explained. There are no ghosts in the night and Halloween is only for children. It seems to me, rather, to be the season of belief. It’s more tangible now, the world where unanswered questions dwell. Ghosts, whether in our mind or in this physical world, are part of the ambiance without which autumn isn’t worth having.

Are ghosts real? I can’t say that I have any evidence one way or the other. We all die, and we all wish we didn’t have to. In this world some are lucky enough to make their wishes come true. Might it be that some have found a way to stay when the physical party is over? Religions are uncomfortable with ghosts since they refuse to be contained in any Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. They simply are. People of every education level and social standing see them and some believe while others explain them away. Without going over to the other side we likely will never be able to prove whether they are really real or not. As Morton amply demonstrates in her thoughtful little book, they will never go away as long as consciousness and death coexist.

Secular Family Values

Fear of social disruption runs deep. Things may not be perfect, but people would rather keep things the way they’re used to them being rather than to face radical change. This is natural enough. During the dark days of the Cold War, when nuclear annihilation constantly hung over our heads, atheism was a mark of the Soviet threat. “Godless communism.” Intellectually, however, a kind of atheism was already part of American society as well, although few people talked of it. With our national history of encouraging Bible reading and prayer in public schools, our self-presentation was of the faithful. Those who hold to “old time religion.” In fact, many had moved on, but those of us growing up in small towns or rural settings had no way of knowing that. Life before the internet was primitive in that way.

A recent Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times asks “How secular family values stack up.” In this age of Nones many are worried that the social fabric has already begun to unweave and that our ethical clothes have become threadbare and see-through. The statistics, however, don’t really bear that up. Written by Phil Zuckerman, it is no surprise that the piece takes a positive view of a faith-free value system. The fact is, the social disruption that has been widely hyped, especially by Neo-Con pundits, has simply not occurred because of secularism. As Zuckerman points out, the largely secular European society has handled ethical situations admirably well. Even in the United States, non-believers in jail populations are an astonishingly small demographic, and divorce rates run lower than those who report being more religious. Those who don’t believe tend to be more empathetic and to have closer family ties than many religious families do.

Tolerance of those with different outlooks is important. In a nation that was at one time considered a melting pot, such difference of opinion is only to be expected. In practical terms, people in the United States knew nothing of Buddhism or Hinduism until late in the nineteenth century. Other religions were simply outside of the experience of most. And those who lived in different religious traditions were also moral. Biologists who study the development of moral sentiments find that apes, certainly not religious by any standard, are often inclined toward positive social values (although clearly not always so—there are dangers in extremism). It is time that we overcame our distrust of those who, for whatever reason, cannot believe. Being human is sufficiently religious to make us concerned about our fellow person. It is only the drive and insatiable hunger, ironically, of godly capitalism that leads to unfeeling disregard of human need.

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Hurricane Joaquin

The name Herostratus is deservedly obscure. In fact, I shouldn’t even be mentioning him here. His use as an object lesson, however, seems apt in a country fascinated by firearms and fame. Herostratus was an arsonist of the fourth century B.C.E. who destroyed the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. He perpetrated this crime so that he would become famous, and he is representative of those who want fame at any cost. So it was that on Thursday a gunman, who shall remain nameless here, shot and killed nine people at Umpqua Community College in Oregon before being killed by police. This individual, upon investigation, had been fascinated by how obscure people gain immediate fame by killing innocents. After a summer of what seemed like endless, pointless shootings, we now have nine more graves of students to mourn, and as a nation we still lovingly stroke our guns.

Society is a dangerous combination of a cult of celebrity and violence. Most of us live our lives in utter obscurity, not being noticed. For many that is the way they want it, but for some it is a pathology. Guns are so easy to find. Police discovered seven firearms in this man’s apartment, in addition to the six he took to campus. Doing the math confirms the madness of a nation that makes guns so very accessible. Even the insane may buy. All it takes is money. The Temple of Artemis was one of the most magnificent structures of all time. It even gets mentioned, in an indirect way, in the Bible. Although it had been rebuilt, the idea had already fermented, without firearms, that fame could be had for infamy. In antiquity the perpetrator’s name was outlawed. Now anyone can find out who he is.

No shooting is without tragedy. Those that take place on college campuses and high schools are especially tragic because education is the only way to move forward from barbarism. Those who went to class on Thursday were improving their minds. Education makes the world a better place. They were, however, eliminated by a nameless man with easy access to weapons and a wish for fame. Perhaps American Idol and American Gladiator should offer a venue for those who wish to slaughter each other in public. It could be sponsored by the NRA. It was the ancient world, after all, that also gave us bread and circuses. Although the hurricane may be veering away, we have already been hit by tragedy, only this one was of our own making.

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Monster Smash

MnfsttnMnstrsIt’s the time of year when young men’s minds turn to monsters. Well, at least this middle-aged man’s does. Seeing a book by Karl P. N. Shuker entitled A Manifestation of Monsters, I was intrigued. I had some Amazon points burning a hole in my internet, so I took a chance on it. The fact is good books on monsters are hard to find and Shuker is listed as “Doctor” and that sometimes stands for something. Subtitled Examining the (Un)usual Suspects, the book is a curious Mischwesen of folklore, actual animals, and cryptozoology. The latter should be no surprise as Shuker is a noted cryptozoologist. Compiled from many of his previously published articles, the book contains some fascinating accounts of extinct creatures and some improbable accounts of modern monsters.

Since Banned Book Week is a time to explore challenged ideas, why not read about some cryptids? They are anti-establishment monsters. Banned creatures. As is usual with monsters, there’s little rhyme or reason to the arrangement. Unlike many in the field of cryptozoology, Shuker is skeptical of outlandish claims, and has actual training as a zoologist. What stood out to me as I read accounts of unusual creatures is that some people report seeing the oddest things, and that other people are driven to hoax all kinds of monsters. It is clear that the human mind is programmed to believe in the possibility of the improbable. Critical thinking, as anyone with advanced training knows, is hard work. Belief can be a far simpler matter. We crave a world with the exotic, and potentially dangerous. Shuker’s piece on the mythical chupacabra demonstrates that nicely.

While I’m pondering things that are banned, I consider how some who use critical faculties well like to disparage others. This, of course, is not in the best interest of science. We haven’t discovered everything yet. We think that because of the internet we’ve gone about as far as we can go in hive-mind mentality. Never mind that bees and ants beat us to it. People, many of them very intelligent, continue to see things they can’t explain. Others say that any living creature larger than a breadbox has already been discovered. I tend to think the world is a pretty big place and that people prefer to huddle together in cities for a reason. The mountain gorilla, for example, was discovered just in 1902. Now that the season for monsters is upon us, I like to imagine what else might be wandering around unseen by human eyes. And I hope banned ideas may continue to thrive in the forests of our minds.