Religion in Its Place

The other day at work I virtually “met” someone else from western Pennsylvania.  It came about in an odd way.  We were both in an online author talk and my colleague put something in the chat about a particular social issue being purely religious for some parts of the country, like his native western Pennsylvania.  I immediately knew what he meant.  For those who think religion is irrelevant, look at the make-up of our government.  Those preachers in rural places wield incredible power.  Their word is law and because of the shortsightedness of our founders, the rural few have amazing sway over the vast majority of the urbanites.  We need each other, of course, but not all have educated themselves on the issues.  When they want to vote they turn to their preachers for the answers.

Interestingly enough, churches lose their tax-exempt status (and thus many can’t afford to survive) if they openly back a political party.  They are required by the law they game to remain party neutral.  Of course, depending on who appointed a federal judge, they are often willing to overlook that particular law.  You get the sense that God favors some commandments over the others anyway.  But back to the homeland—western Pennsylvania is a preacher-dominated part of the country.  That may well have been what set me off on this strange track I follow instead of a career.  We were a church-going family in a church-dominated part of the state.  If you took what you heard on Sunday seriously, we should all be studying religion, down on our knees.

My colleague brought something into focus for me.  The religiously convinced will accept no other evidence.  They’ll refuse vaccines that could save their lives.  They’ll say women and blacks are lesser humans.  They’ll even—since I pay taxes this is okay—vote Republican.  Clergy have been sidelined by much of what’s going on in society.  They are hardly irrelevant, however.  I recently had a minister tell me that if I were to make a formal “questing” status with a denomination I could pick up some preaching cash on weekends.  Without that status, this clergy asked me, “why should anyone listen to you?”  Ah, there’s the rub, you see.  Although I’ve studied religion more than many clergy, and taught those who are now clergy,  I’m not qualified to make it official.  Perhaps it would be different if I were from somewhere else.  


Kids’ Stuff?

Do you want to be popular with the kids this Christmas?  Do you want to hear the squeals of pure delight that every mom, dad, aunt, or uncle wants when that special present is unwrapped?  Might I suggest a book of theology?  Yes, one of the publishers here at AAR/SBL has a table of Theology for Kids.  Staring at that sign during the long hours on the conference floor, my mind kept wandering back to Richard Dawkins’ comparison of teaching children religion to child abuse.  Indeed, my wife had sent me an article in Rolling Stone a few weeks back that declared an Evangelical childhood was a, to put it politely, a total mind-fornication.  It is something from which those of us raised religious spend all our lives recovering.  Some never escape, while others try to make sense of the world without it.

Publishers of religious bodies make up a substantial part of those present at the annual meeting.  The ones with the biggest, flashiest displays are often buoyed up by evangelical dollars.  Teaching kids to think this way is a core part of keeping the meme alive and those of us who dared question it with our God-given brains are the modern heretics and heathens.  Some years here, various publishers are piously closed on Sunday morning (this is only a three-and-a-half day conference) with signs telling the rest of us that they’re observing the Lord’s day.  America is a strange mix of evangelical and secular, the kind of place where you can purchase theology for kids.  I know I grew up with such things, even though we really couldn’t afford the other children’s classics that I only learned about from having a child of my own.

The canon is important to this self image.  For me, I’ve come to expand mine a bit over the years.  That expanded canon includes unconventional sources of spiritual inspiration, or so my conversations with others leads me to believe.  Theology can, and often does, lead to death sentences for adults.  And sadly, occasionally for children.  It’s difficult to blame adults for trying to ensure their children’s eternal salvation, especially when religion is so terribly difficult to escape even as an adult.  I suppose that’s why I still advocate for learning about religion although it has damaged me personally as well as determined what would pass for my career.  So I stand here awaiting my next appointment and find myself again taken into my past which was full of theology for children.


James and John

One of the first questions expectant parents are asked is if they have yet come up with a name for their child.  Quite often, and probably without realizing it, some of the most popular names are biblical.  Jacob is one of the most common boys’ names in English.  It derives from the story of Isaac’s younger son in Genesis.  Its popularity increases exponentially when its variant James is added to the total.  The name James comes into English from Old French where it was derived from the Latin Iacomus.  B and m are, phonetically speaking, bilabials (the former voiced, the latter not).  This Latin form also led to the Spanish name Iago, which many know from the apostolic name Santiago (“Saint James”).  Or Saint Jacob, only nobody calls him by that name anymore.  Biblical names are exceptionally common in the western world.  Even so, it often seems implausible that names like Jimmi could be alternatives to Jacob, but small steps make evolution possible.

It has been popular among evangelicals for years to know that Jesus is the Greek form of the name Joshua.  Having a savior named Josh just doesn’t have the gravitas we’re looking for, however.  Greek is an Indo-European language while Hebrew is a Semitic one.  While these two family trees have points of contact, their vocabulary and syntax developed quite independently.  Names change when they’re translated.  Many of our familiar New Testament names are translations from their Hebrew (or Aramaic) counterparts.  The New Testament was written in Greek and we receive Greek versions of such names.  John, for example, is another name that comes to us in many forms.

The apostle we call John was called Ioannes in Greek.  This was derived from the Hebrew name Yochanan.  John comes into English via the Germanic form Johannes, where the connection to the Greek becomes obvious.  From there it shortens to John.  It comes in many varieties too: Juan, Jan, Ivan, Han, Evan, Sean, Jonas, Giovanni, and even Jack.  The latter sounds more like Jacob, but in their original forms the names are quite different.  Apart from names, Indo-European borrowing from Semitic languages isn’t terribly common.  Throughout the Christianized world, names based on these two apostles, however, have become extremely popular.  In recent times parents have been branching out into more creative names for their children, but many of them still derive from their biblical antecedents.  This is just one more way that the Bible continues its influence in an increasingly secular world.  


Seasonal Viewing

Any movie that begins with an excommunication ought to be good.  Especially with its list of stars you’d think To the Devil a Daughter might’ve turned out better.  Still, it is a good example of religion and horror mingling together.  I’ve never read any Dennis Wheatley novels, but reputedly he didn’t like this film adaptation of his book.  It certainly has a convoluted plot.  So an excommunicated priest has started a new religion that worships Ashtaroth.  He has to baptize a child, now 18 (three-times-six, don’t you see), with the blood of the demon so that she can become his (Ashtaroth’s) avatar.  This is apparently the eponymous daughter to the Devil.  She was baptized initially by her mother’s blood at her birth.

The girl’s father, who survived her birth—unlike his wife—has decided at the last moment to save his daughter.  He appears to be independently wealthy yet he talks an author of occult books into doing the saving for him.  The girl, it turns out, is a nun in this satanic religious order and is only too willing to do what she can to serve “our Lord.”  The way that all of this plays out is confusing and Byzantine, but it does raise a serious question: what if a child is reared in a bad religion?  (And there are some.)  Who has the right to decide if a religion is good or bad?  Children are easily indoctrinated and not too many question the faith in which they were raised.  Yes, we all think the religion we believe is the right one.  The problem is everyone else thinks the same thing.

One of the things this movie got right is that the “heretics” are portrayed as sincerely believing that their religion is for the improvement of the world.  Calling themselves Children of the Lord, they believe Ashtaroth is good.  And a good lord wants what is best for the world, right?  This is the dilemma of exclusive religions that teach only their own outlook can possibly be the correct one.  Otherwise you have to give adherents a choice and another religion may be more appealing.  Or worse, they may reason out that if you’re given a choice that means your own religion is also merely one of many.  Historically religions have gotten around this by valorizing true believers who never question anything.  To the Devil a Daughter isn’t a great movie.  It’s not even a very good one.  Nevertheless, it raises some questions that lie, of course, in the details.


Former Education

Like most people I don’t have time to sit around thinking much about college.  Once in a while you’re forced into it, however.  This time it was by an NPR article.  I attended Grove City College for a few reasons: it was a Christian school close to home, it wasn’t expensive, and, perhaps most of all, I knew campus because the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church held its annual conference there.  I’d been several times during high school.  It didn’t hurt that I was a Fundamentalist at the time.  Grove City was a college of the Presbyterian Church and I loved having debates about predestination with professors who actually believed in it.  At the same time, I was encouraged to think things through, which liberal arts colleges are known for promoting. Is it now “conservative arts?”

Photo credit: The enlightenment at English Wikipedia

The NPR story my wife sent me was about how Critical Race Theory is disputed at my alma mater (sic).  I noticed in the article that Grove City is no longer affiliated with the Presbyterian Church.  It’s become much more right wing than that.  At the same time they ask me for money on a regular basis.  What made them think they had to go hard right?  Are they still educating students or are they indoctrinating them?  It reminded me of a sermon I heard at yet another conservative school I was associated with: Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary (or at least it was then).  The priest made an entire sermon about how it was right to be conservative, as if no matter what the issues there was some creed to get behind in staying behind.  As if virtue exists in never admitting you were wrong.

I suspect that my failure to attain a full-time academic position at a reputable school was because of what looks like a conservative outlook, despite the evidence of this blog.  Yes, I grew up Fundamentalist—you grow up the way you were raised.  Hopefully, however, you start thinking after that.  And experiencing.  And yes, using critical thought.  There comes a time when “because I told you so” just doesn’t cut it anymore.  For many of us that’s when we go to college.  If it’s a good one you’ll be encouraged to debate with your professors.  Not one of them has all the answers, I can assure you.  Education is, by its very nature, progressive.  We learn and we continue to learn.  We don’t stand still and say the 1950s was when God reigned on earth.  It wasn’t.  And it wasn’t any time before that either.  Now we know that Critical Race Theory should be taught.  We know Black Lives Matter.  What I personally don’t know is what became of a college that was once conservative, but at the same time, believed in education.


O Viy

Viy is a most unusual movie.  I’m talking about the 1967 version, of course.  Filmed and produced in the USSR, it was, by many counts, the first Soviet horror film.  There’s been a resurgence of interest in it because of the study of folk horror—and it’s certainly an example of that.  Not really known for its plot, it’s noteworthy in its early special effects.  Since it’s a story that revolves around a monk, however, it participates in religion and horror as well.  Unusual for a Soviet-Era film.  Set in an undefined period in the past—before electricity, in any case, and perhaps the Middle Ages—a class of seminarians is released for vacation.  They’re a rowdy, unruly bunch, hardly the pious priests you see associated with orthodoxy.  When three of them get lost on their way home they end up spending the night at the farm of an old woman.

The woman comes after Khoma (one of the three) that night and bewitches him.  Riding him like a horse—and this is common witch lore—when she finally releases him, he beats the old woman severely.  But she has turned into a beautiful young woman.  Khoma returns to the seminary but is sent to say prayers over a dying young woman—one guess who it is.  Between getting drunk and trying to escape, Khoma seems to guess his fate.  At the compound of a wealthy merchant, the girl’s father, he learns she has died.  The father insists he keep vigil for three nights, praying over her corpse.  In the church scary things happen, not least her return to life.

On the third night all kinds of monsters appear after she calls on the god Viy.  Viy means something like “spirit of evil.”  Each night Khoma has drawn an effective magic circle around himself, which keeps the dead witch at bay.  The last night the monsters make it through, with predictable results.  There’s so much folklore at play here that it’s easy to see why the story by Nikolai Gogol suggested itself for a film.  It was poignant to watch because it’s set in Ukraine (Gogol was a Ukrainian writer).  Gogol had a tremendous influence on other writers, but isn’t as widely cited among western authors in contemporary times.  The film is fairly easily found online, and an updated version was released in 2014.  Even in the USSR, when horror emerged in the late sixties, it was doing so with religion, even before Rosemary’s Baby.


Saints and Freedom

There’s a saying that all elections are local.  I suspect that’s true.  Location is important.  There are famous Americans not recognized in other parts of the world.  And there are, of course, local celebrities.  Having settled once again in Pennsylvania, I’ve taken an interest in local religions.  Although not part of the “Burnt-over District” of upstate New York, Pennsylvania, because of its early laws of religious liberty, has produced some noteworthy figures over the centuries.  And institutions.  When someone mentioned St. Vincent Archabbey, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, I was curious.  I’m not Catholic and even though I’d considered a monastic life, I really knew little about it.  St. Vincent is the largest Benedictine monastery in the western hemisphere, as well as the oldest in the United States.  

Image credit: Guerillero, via Wikimedia Commons (Copyleft Free Art License)

Latrobe isn’t far from Pittsburgh.  There is a strong Catholic presence in the area.  Like many Catholic institutions, it has a cluster.  St. Vincent College, also in Latrobe, must’ve sent me—in those days, print—a prospectus back when I was looking at schools.  I’ve known about it for a long time.  There’s also a seminary, also called St. Vincent.  Probably it’s largest claim to fame is that the Pittsburgh Steelers use the College (I suspect the seminary has no athletic program) for their training camp.  Monks and football players—they must have some interesting conversations.  I grew up thinking Catholicism was basically some other religion.  Fundamentalists, misunderstanding the basics of history, tend to claim that Catholics aren’t Christians.  Indeed, until the recent politicization of conservative Christianity, they wouldn’t have had much to say to each other.

Catholicism was frowned upon by the early colonists.  While seeking freedom of religion, what they really wanted was freedom of religion for themselves.  In good, charitable Christian fashion, many colonies tried to exclude those that believed differently.  Especially Papists.   Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, however, notably allowed freedom.  I’ve lived in Pennsylvania long enough to know that even legal freedom isn’t protection from those locals who’d rather not have Muslims or Hindus for neighbors.  And in all likelihood William Penn, a good Quaker, probably couldn’t imagine people of “exotic” religions wanting in.  Indeed, the majority of people in this hemisphere weren’t really even aware of “eastern religions” until the 1890s.  The religions here were forms mostly of Christianity and Judaism.  By 1846 the Benedictines could establish a college, monastery, seminary complex in western Pennsylvania.  And it would become the largest and oldest such establishment in a country that still doesn’t grasp true religious freedom.


Like Sheep

Since horror grew up in the late 1960s, religion has become a favorite theme in the genre.  Although religion had been in horror from the beginning, Rosemary’s Baby marked a definite sea change.  More and more religion has been moving from a subsidiary theme to the main vehicle of horror.  Małgorzata Szumowska’s The Other Lamb is a case in point.  “Shepherd” is the leader of a separatist religion that consists only of women.  The premise itself is creepy enough, but it becomes clear that Shepherd—the group literally has a flock of sheep—physically abuses the women.  They are divided into two groups: sisters and wives.  When unexplained things happen, Shepherd gives prophetic pronouncements.  His followers are expected to accept everything he says on blind faith.  Many religions do this by proclaiming faith against evidence a virtue.

One thing that I’ve emphasized in various presentations I’ve done is that Christianity, and perhaps all religions, work because believers are great followers.  While Shepherd uses biblical-sounding language, there are no Bibles in the film.  There are recognizably Christian themes, but the doctrine isn’t familiar.  Part of the reason, obviously, is that Christianity has a negative view of sex and Shepherd treats his flock as his harem.  The women follow because he “rescued” them from worse situations and their communal life is better.  Only it’s not.  When a woman director stands behind such a film, there’s clearly a message being sent about male privilege.  Any system set up with male superiority will lead to abuse.  When Shepherd’s enclave in the woods is discovered, they must move.  He instructs the women that they are going to find Eden.

Throughout, the movie is more creepy than scary in the traditional sense.  There are no jump-startles, but the situation makes you sense that something’s not right.  The women, acclimated to this lifestyle, many of them for years, know no other way of being or even where to go.  They have no vehicles.  Forced to move, they walk—Shepherd carries nothing while the women backpack out supplies.  Once Eden, on the shore of a lake, is reached, Shepherd baptizes the sisters and drowns the wives so the younger women can take their place.  You get the sense throughout that this movie is a parable.  Men like to take the privilege of determining women’s fates without understanding women’s needs.  This new kind of horror is insightful and symbolic.  There is no final girl when women band together.  The Other Lamb deserves wider exposure than it’s had.  It’s a good example of what religion can do to those who simply follow.


The Roll of Churches

I really don’t have time to follow any social media religiously, generally glancing at a page and perhaps scrolling down an inch or two when I have a moment.  I tend to glance at headlines, often pre-selected for me by a non-human intelligence, I expect.  Nextdoor dot com occasionally has a story that looks important to read, because it’s local.  Recently a poster from Bethlehem noted meeting a homeless person and was asking virtual neighbors where to turn for help (for the homeless person).  The answers weren’t surprising but reminded me of something I recently heard elsewhere—this is where churches still have a chance to shine.  While I’m tired of all the doctrinal and theological nonsense that arises from those who didn’t pay close enough attention in seminary, I do lament the plight of our churches.

Society has been too Republican for too long to care for those who can’t make it in an uber-capitalist environment.  Those with mental illnesses turned out when Reagan-era “reforms” “improved” our system for handling them.  Those who, through no fault of their own, can’t hold down a job.  Those who just happened to end up on the wrong side of a wave and find that a new wave breaks over them before they can properly take a fresh breath.  As the most affluent nation in the world, each homeless person is a reminder of the terrible price we pay for living within a system that rewards greed far above anything else.  Churches do have their problems—I’ve experienced many of them firsthand—but they often feel an obligation to take care of the sick, the homeless, the elderly.  Those not of value to a capitalist system because they don’t “contribute.”

When I commuted to Manhattan my bus arrived early.  I often saw the many homeless sleeping on the street as I made my way across Midtown.  Many days I wished I had an extra peanut butter sandwich with me so that I could give them something.  Anything.  Churches that aren’t caught up bickering about whose genitals belong where, or whether females are equal to males, often turn their sights to those who need help.  These churches are supported by the donations of members (for which said members can claim a tax break).  These are members who care for those they’ve never met, simply because they are human and in need.  Churches themselves are now facing difficult times and, unless they support Republican causes, can be assured they won’t receive a government bail out.  Compassion may be a dying species.


Woman in the Wilderness

The “Burnt Over District” is religious historian shorthand for upstate New York.  That particular region, during the “Second Great Awakening,” spawned so many religions and hosted so many revivals that it was difficult to believe anything more could sprout there (thus, “burnt over”).  One of my great fascinations is the origins of religions.  Not only that, but where those religions began.  On a continent-size level, Asia is clearly the champion, with all of the “big five” beginning there.  But religions evolve, sometimes rapidly.  Christianity in Britain gave rise to such groups as Quakers and Anglicans, and, in a post-Christian phase Britain gave the world Wicca.  The Germans were also great religious innovators with Luther and the Pietist and Anabaptist traditions.  Perhaps it’s in the Anglo-Saxon blood to make religions new.

After visiting Ephrata Cloister recently, my mind naturally turned to the “Hermits of the Wissahickon.”  If you’ve not heard of them, you’re not alone.  They, despite being men to a man, preferred the title “Society of the Woman in the Wilderness.”  They were followers of Johannes Kelpius.  Kelpius, like Conrad Beissel after him, was a German mystic, Pietist, and musician, and he also believed the end of the world was imminent.  This was in 1694, just a few years before Beissel laid the foundations for Ephrata Cloister.  Like Beissel, Kelpius decided Pennsylvania was the best place to set up camp.  Although founded by Quakers, Pennsylvania offered something some other colonies didn’t—real religious freedom.  Given that you could be killed for being a Quaker in some of the other colonies, this didn’t seem like a bad idea.  Convinced Jesus would return in 1694, Kelpius and his followers settled into a cave just outside Philadelphia, by the Wissahickon Creek.  They set up a quasi-monastic community to wait out the clock near the city of brotherly love.

It’s difficult to know if Conrad Beissel was consciously imitating the work of Kelpius.  Religious leaders tend to have pretty strong views of their own outlooks.  The draw to Pennsylvania, in those days, was strong.  Interestingly, both Kelpius and Beissel are remembered for their music.  The death of Johannes Kelpius isn’t as well documented as that of Beissel—you can see the latter’s burial place in Ephrata.  Like millions of others, Kelpius lived through the “great disappointment” of not having the Second Coming occur when he supposed it would.  Some suggest Kelpius believed he would be translated after death.  He died in 1708, as his younger colleague was exploring the wilderness several miles to the west.  Keplius’ final resting place is listed, perhaps fittingly, as “unknown in Pennsylvania.”

Beissel’s Grave, Ephrata Cloister


Ephrata Cloister

Conrad Beissel isn’t exactly a household name.  I never heard of him until a visit to Ephrata Cloister during a Lancaster staycation.  My wife knew about the Ephrata Cloister due to a music course she took at the University of Michigan; he was influential in developing a distinctive musical style.  Since we were in the area we stopped in for the tour.  Beissel was banished from what would become Germany in the early eighteenth century.  He made his way to America where he established a kind of monastery in south central Pennsylvania in the early 1700s.  Not Catholic, he was inspired by German Pietists, the Anabaptists, and Christian Mysticism.  Not ordained, he established what became a Seventh-Day Baptist association because whenever he tried to settle as a hermit others came to him.

Celibacy has always been a hard sell for religions.  Once his Camp for the Solitary was established, it grew to about 300 members, with only some 80 celibates, or solitaries.  This 80 was half men and half women.  They built around 40 buildings in what was then the frontier and they couldn’t have survived without the 120 or so married people who joined the church but continued to live at home with their families.  Like many separatist groups, the Seventh-Day Baptists were expecting Jesus’ return at any day and lived their lives accordingly.  Not strict about others joining him in this, Beissel was an early vegetarian, eventually becoming primarily a vegan (although that name wouldn’t develop for a couple centuries).  They had midnight worship services since they believed Jesus would return in the middle of the night.  They were, with the supportive families, self-sufficient.  The group established a printing press, and at one time it was possibly the largest printing operation in the colonies.

After Beissel died, the community continued.  They realized that, like all celibate communities, it would be difficult to survive and the celibacy rule was dropped.  The last celibate member died in 1813.  The community by then had taken on the form of an independent church and it survived until the 1930s.  The remaining land—some of it had been sold off over the years as the community shrank—was bought in the early forties to be preserved by the state.  Theirs was never a very large group, but it was significant enough that their memory was felt to be important enough to preserve.  Beissel wasn’t alone in establishing such sects here in Pennsylvania.  The tradition is, interestingly, part of the American heritage and demonstrates how the religious, ordained or not, live in their own worlds.


July Forth

Independence Day.  What does it mean in a nation on the verge of a fascist takeover?  Supreme Court justices, themselves appointed by crooked but technically legal politics, have just struck down the independence of half the people in this country.  Independence Day for whom?  Originally a celebration of freedom from monarchy, one of our political parties has opted for authoritarianism—the objection to which was the very reason the Revolutionary War was fought.  The colonists wanted religious freedom, but now we find religiously motivated politics driving the bus off the cliff.  If you’re not a white evangelical these rulings are not for you.  Your religious freedom has been compromised by politics.  So we gather in grassy places to watch fireworks.    We celebrate the independence of the wealthy.  Those who can break the law and buy the results they want with lawyers without scruples.

I think of Independence Day from the perspective of our Black siblings.  Freedom to be shot for a traffic stop or to be publicly strangled to death for petty crime.  To be redlined and kept in poverty.  Independence from literal chains only to be shackled in bureaucratic ones.  Being sentenced to prison for things a white can easily afford to pay off.  Independence Day in a nation with over 40 million people in poverty and where just three white men own more than the bottom fifty percent of Americans.  Give them fireworks and firearms and let the bottom half work it out for themselves.  When is the last time a Supreme Court justice had to worry about having enough for both rent and food?  Freedom, those on the top tell us, is not free.  Watch the pretty lights.  Hear the loud booms.

What of American Indians, still awaiting freedom?  What is Independence Day to them?  Kept out of sight and in poverty, we don’t want to be reminded.  No, we only want freedom to get more for the white man.  As a child in the sixties I had some hope that we might be making progress.  Freedom and protest were in the air.  There was at least hope for some justice.  The privileged white leaders now give us a day off work.  The wealth can still flow upward, even if we take a brief hiatus from labor.  Women, Blacks, the poor, American Indians, and many others who make America what it is are nevertheless denied basic freedoms.  This loss of independence at least comes with a light show.  Just watch it and be grateful.


Lost Civilizations

At the rate rain forests are being decimated for our lust for beef, it seems amazing that there are any unexplored regions left at all.  That’s what makes Douglas Preston’s account of visiting the fabled Ciudad Blanco, a lost Honduran city, so compelling.  Like most intelligent people, Preston is ambivalent about the discovery he chronicled.  The pristine jungle he encountered had to be cleared, at least in part, to allow for exploration of a lost civilization.  But what an adventure it was!  The danger of drug lords, a volatile government, large poisonous snakes, and ruins discovered by lidar combine in a true tale of danger and fascination.  As with Rudolf Otto’s description of the holy, this is something that fascinates and terrifies simultaneously.  And it’s controversial.

The Lost City of the Monkey God crosses several boundaries.  It discusses not only “Indiana Jones”-style archaeology, it involves one of the last unexplored places on earth.  It doesn’t sugar-coat the genocide initiated by Europeans—in fact, Preston describes some of the diseases in graphic detail—and he doesn’t excuse the guilt.  The book also addresses global warming and the possibilities of a global pandemic (the book was published in 2017).  Preston contracted Leishmaniasis while in the jungle and notes that as the globe warms up, it is making its way north.  The descriptions aren’t for the faint of heart, nor are his descriptions of the politics of treatment.  The first part of the book, describing the people and the set up of the base-camp show Preston’s chops as a thriller writer.  His encounter with a fer-de-lance had me checking the floor in the dark when I got up in the morning.

The civilization of the city, now known by the more respectable title City of the Jaguar, was unknown.  It was not Mayan.  The city was likely abandoned because of disease brought to the Americas by Europeans.  Even so, his description of the society in which the ruling classes keep their power by displaying their own sanctity that the average person doesn’t question rang true.  Societies from the beginning have used that playbook.  Convince people that the gods (or God) has revealed certain things that they (the ruling class) understand, and everyone else falls in line.  We see it even now as the messianic Trump following falls for it yet again.  This is a quick read, written much alike a thriller.  A few years ago I read Preston’s engaging Dinosaurs in the Attic.  I’m thinking now that some of his thrillers should also be on my list.


Redacted

A friend recently introduced me to Redactle.  Yet another of those daily internet games that have become trendy in these pandemic years, Redactle gives you a page that looks like a Freedom of Information Act piece from the government.  Most of the words are blanked out and all you really know it that it is taken from one of the significant pages on Wikipedia.  You get some clues from the format, the way the prepositions and articles they give you are arranged, and occasionally, the punctuation.  You just start guessing words and it fills in the blanks as you get hits.  Like most things of this sort, there’s one puzzle per day, otherwise none of us would ever get anything done.  I’m a sucker for learning games, so we’ve been playing it as a family for a few days now.

A redacted file from the CIA, via Wikimedia Commons

The thing that has surprised me the most in our early on is that the trickiest ones to get right were on religions.  In our first week of play, two of the puzzles were religions: Lutheranism and Shaktism.  We’d been able to guess famous people in two dozen guesses, and countries in about the same.  Religions are trickier.  Despite having studied religion my entire life, my thought process doesn’t include guessing words like “theology” and “worship” for important articles on Wikipedia.  (In the case of Shaktism it took well over 100 guesses.  I taught world religion maybe fifteen years ago, but I haven’t kept up with my Hinduism.)  In the case of both of these religions what eventually gave them away was the place names: Germany and India.

India, of course, has been the birthplace of many religions.  The majority of Indians today are Hindu, but Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism were also children of India.  Even in this increasingly secular world, religions remain the driving forces behind lives.  So much so that some religionists consider Secularism a religion.  The fact is we all believe something.  It may not be supernatural, but then not all religions are.  They often brush up against philosophy at their most sophisticated end, and literalism is the least developed form of any belief system.  With some exceptions it doesn’t pay well to be a religionist.  Perhaps that’s because thinking hard about religion reveals uncomfortable truths.  Not only that, studying religion is no guarantee that when you have to fill in the blanks you’ll be able to guess one when it’s right in front of you.  That’s why I appreciate learning games.  


Souls, All

What is a soul?  Can you lose your job for believing in one?  Well, maybe not lose your job, but be placed on paid leave.  Yesterday’s New York Times ran a story about Google engineer Blake Lemoine being put on leave after claiming a soul for the company’s artificial intelligence language model.  Isn’t that what artificial intelligence is all about?  We’ve become so materialistic that we no longer believe in souls, and when we create life we don’t expect it to have one, right Dr. Frankenstein?  One of the sure signs that we are alive is our sensing of the many qualia of biological existence.  We understand that we’re born, we’re biological, and that we will die.  We also sense that there’s something beyond all this, our self, or mind, or psyche, call it what you will.

In our minds the soul has become entrenched with the Christianity that provides the backdrop to our somewhat embarrassing history of repression of those who are different.  How do we redeem one without having to be shackled to the other?  And once we do, can we declare why AI doesn’t have a soul while biological beings do?  Or will we insist that it is solely human?  In this odd world that’s evolved, we view animals as innocent because they can’t know what they’re doing.  Historically there have been animals put to trial.  That’s an aberration, however, from our usual ways of thinking.  We don’t know what a soul is.  We’re not even sure there is such a thing.  To suggest a machine might have one, however, is taboo.  Would we trust a soul made by humans?

Skepticism is good and healthy.  So is having an open mind.  We’ve been a polarized people for a long time.  If it’s not politics it’s elites versus uneducated, materialists versus those who think there might be something more, self-assured versus those who question everything.  The path of learning should keep us humble.  We should be open to the possibilities.  There’s no way to measure the immaterial since all our tools are material.  Even psychology, which utilizes categories to help us understand neurodiversity, often finds chemical solutions to the most cerebral of problems.  Perhaps overthinking is an issue—it can certainly get you into trouble.  Believing in souls can put you in a place of ridicule or suspicion.  Does AI have a soul?  Does a soul emerge from biological existence, whenever a sufficient number of neurons gathers in one place?  Is it the fabric of the universe from which we borrow a little?  We have some soul-searching to do.

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker; Wikimedia Commons