Category Archives: Religion

Minority religion is not a punchline (Part 1)

(By Lonespark)

So, today I entered a Twitter conversation for the first time that involved a very big name in my professional field.  I wasn’t talking to her, but she was part of the conversation.  The person I was talking to had been talking to her, and I was responding to him.  Twitter is very nifty like that, and I love it.

This could have been an awesome opportunity for me to expound on my brilliant thoughts about (professional field), but it wasn’t.  I was commenting to criticize him for using “voodoo” and “witchcraft” as synonyms for “bad magic” and more broadly “bad thing.”

Because that is bullshit.

It’s also very common, and the majority of people aren’t actively thinking, “People who practice Voodoo, Haitian Vodou, Puerto Rican/Dominican Vudu, Brazilian Vodum, etc., and Wicca, Druidry, Braucherei, Hexerai, Seidh, Conjure, Rootwork, Shamanism, etc. are bad/evil/etc,” when they do it.

But how is it different from “That’s so gay?”  Or from other negative terms associated with marginalized groups?

Grumpy Lonespark is grumpy.

Who decides what the fundamentals are?

(By chris the cynic)

I’m not Christian.  I come from a largely Christian culture, my morality can largely be described as Christian, and the closest thing I have to a spiritual leader is Fred Clark at Slacktivist.  (I may not believe his religion is correct, but on contemporary matters I have a feeling he’s got a better idea of what God would want than I do.)  But I’m not Christian.

Depending on your personal views on religious commentary, that fact may be quite important to you so I figured I’d get it out of the way.

Ok, so, onto the point. We talk about “fundamentalists”, in part probably because the name has been used in the past (TRADITION!) and “fundies” is a fun word. “Fundamentalists” is a known word, it’s an understood word, it’s a word that we’re not likely to change any time in the future. But it is not some magical gateway to truth, and I think that sometimes we forget that.

The word is self chosen (more than 90 years ago) by a certain Christian group, allowing the group to claim that it was the one sticking true to the fundamentals of the faith while others were leaving them behind. It has since been applied to various other groups and taken on a very different meaning. However, the word still contains the original claim. Fundamentalist. They’re the ones with the Fundamentals.

Except… not.

I’ve never known a religious group that didn’t think it was sticking with the fundamentals of their faith. That’s where most religious disagreements take place: what is it that really matters? What is more fundamental? When things conflict or seem to conflict, what does one fall back on? What are, basically, the fundamentals?

Recently I saw someone online using a neat bit of casuistry* that basically went like this:

You’ve just said that these fundamentalists are bad. Fundamentalists follow the fundamentals. If the fundamentals of a thing are bad then the thing is bad. Therefore since these fundamentalists are bad the entire religion is bad.

It wasn’t laid out quite like that (it called back to other places and so forth) but that was basically the argument. Fundamentalists → People Who Follow Fundamentals. People Who Follow Fundamentals are bad → Thing Itself is bad.

I don’t think many people would quibble with the idea that a thing is bad if its fundamentals are bad. But Fundamentalists → People Who Follow Fundamentals is unsound reasoning. “Fundamentalists” is just a name. It’s like assuming that everyone named Christopher has Jesus on their back (Christopher means Christ Bearer) and then concluding that Winnie the Pooh is a horrible deception because Christopher Robin isn’t bearing Jesus in it (and isn’t a Robin EITHER!)

Assuming that fundamentalists follow the fundamentals because their name indicates they do is like assuming that anyone with the name Christopher Robin is a Christ carrying bird (of what type varies depending on the type of Robin, but we can at least say a small bird) because that’s what the name Christopher Robin indicates.

Except that’s not what names indicate. Names are identifiers not definitions.

Having the name “Fundamentalist” no more gives you claim to the fundamentals than having the name “King” gives you claim to the throne.

Which brings us to the question of the post. Who determines what the fundamentals actually are? People tend to think they know. People tend to disagree.

Here’s a different question: Why are there so many non-Jewish Christians? Jesus stayed in the Jewish community. He was known to hang out with outsiders and pariahs and such, but they were all fellow Jews. How did all these gentiles get in the religion?

The Bible has an answer. It’s given in the Book of Acts. Jesus has returned to the home office, the disciples are left on earth to fend for themselves. Peter is about to get a request to preach the gospel because someone had a vision saying he should get more info on this new religion from Peter, but the person making the request for Peter to come is a gentile. Peter would say no.

Before the messenger arrives God sends a second vision, this time to Peter. A divine revelation.

And so Peter goes.

He acknowledges that it defies old law, “But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” That’s New International Version. King James: “but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” The version that Fred links to (New Revised Standard Version, I think): “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” Pick your favorite Bible and look it up: Acts 10:28.

Christianity was never going to get this many believers if it stayed a sub-sect of Judaism. Now the vast majority of Christians are gentiles.

From an outsider’s perspective a divine revelation to one of the apostles which resulted in almost, but not quite, all modern day Christians being Christians seems pretty damn fundamental.

I also get the impression that Fred Clark finds it quite fundamental. He’s got an insider’s perspective.

But I know that not all Christians find this verse fundamental because they do call people profane and unclean.

And so who gets final say? Who do we trust to say either, “This is a fundamental part of Christianity,” or, “Screw it, those people are totally abominations and that’s what’s fundamental”?

I’ve asked the question, but in truth I don’t think there is an answer. Unless all members of a group get together and determine what the fundamentals for membership are, I don’t think we get to say, “Well the fundamentals …”

If outsiders such as myself and the person who made the comment that inspired me to write this post decide what the fundamentals are, we are appointing ourselves more definitive speakers on the subject than –in the case of Christianity– almost, but not quite, 2000 years of both scholars and others who devoted themselves to the matter (including Jesus and those who knew him.)

If outsiders decide the fundamentals of Islam then it is a shorter period, but still about 1400 years and, more importantly, it’s still being an asshole.

For insiders I think it’s up to each person to determine for themselves what the most important parts are. And this goes for much more than just religion. The question of winning or losing vs. how you play the game is one that every sport (see: Chess) has to wrestle with.

* I know it’s not the most common word but sophists get a bad rap (2400 years of smear campaign will do that to a group) and I’d prefer not to be using the pejorative “sophistry”. Especially not while I’m thinking about how one shouldn’t judge a group (especially one whose membership is determined by self identification) by its worst members.

Invoking The Queen

(By Lonespark)

Lover…Warrior…Mother:  All Woman.  All Goddess.  All Queen.

Several months ago I read Shades of Faith: Minority Voices in Paganism.  It is amazing, and the experience of reading each chapter had and continues to have a profound effect on my spiritual development.  I recommend it highly, and recommend other works by the contributors as well.

One of the essays in this collection, “Invoking the Queen,” by Heaven Walker, deals with a subject that has come up a few times at the old Slacktiverse and at Ana Mardoll’s Ramblings: Goddess archetypes and the common practice of using a threefold division of same.

(That’s not the only theme of the essay.  The opening section powerfully discusses destructive stereotypes employed against African American women, and contrasts them against imagery of power, wisdom, and sovereignty drawn from history, myth, and contemporary culture.  Every paragraph rewards close study, rereading, and analysis on different levels.)

Walker discusses three orishas (Yoruba deities, female ones in this case) Oshun, Oya, and Yemaya as embodying different  aspects of/approaches to the Divine Queen.  She then identifies resonances of these different holy patterns/roles in two works of literature and in an activist life.

Walker first sketches the character of each orisha.  (I have a difficult time trying to summarize this.  I find it difficult and fruitless to succinctly describe gods.  For someone familiar with the deity in question, minimal description or epithets can point toward the complexity of their character, but without that familiarity I feel like the best I can do is link a bunch of sources and perspectives and discussions and artworks and let people absorb them slowly.  That goes double in this case because I am just beginning to know these deities on the most basic level.)

Oshun is the Priestess Queen and Lover, “deity of rivers, love, sensuality, and beauty…a woman who loves whom she pleases…and whose sexuality is sacred.”  She embodies generosity and healing, but also violence and ferocity.

Oya is the Warrior Queen, with the power of destruction, creation, transformation, catastrophe.   She is the “mistress of change and the bringer of wisdom… the death bringer and the life giver.”

And Yemaya, the Queen Mother, is the ocean and the waves, irresistible, mysterious, keeper of the deepest wisdom.  She is the “mother of dreams,” Her love “both benevolent and harsh,” Her nurture inexorable, Her embrace inescapable.

I like this way of looking at the roles of woman and goddess because it’s not tied to specific characteristics; instead it’s about your focus and your actions.  Any woman/all woman can be a warrior, a nurturer, a lover.  Any women/all women sometimes are, or must be, or wish to be, sensual, fierce, creative, protective, intuitive, iconoclastic… maybe not all at once, but at different times and in different circumstances.

Maybe you embody the Priestess Queen on Friday, the Warrior Queen on Wednesday, the Queen Mother on alternate weekends.  Maybe you grew up acting as the mother protector to younger siblings, and later had the chance to be the playful, free, self-knowing Queen of Love.  Maybe you’ve always been a warrior, a radical, a resister of stasis, stagnation, the oppressive Powers that Be.  Or maybe you focused all your energy on creating a family and being a parent, and now the children are grown and its time wield your wisdom and experience as a tool for change.  Maybe you follow one of countless other permutations for your Story.

And because these archetypes are all holy, there can never be only one right decision, nor a single correct way to experience womanhood.  At every turn of the road of life, with every pain and every joy, every action and thought, there are Powers to reach out to, seeking guidance and strength, and offering praise and communion.

Playing with other people’s toys, filling in the blanks, writing between the lines, and Greek Mythology in general

(By chris the cynic)

This week has sort of been set aside for talking about the future of the board, but today is the day I was supposed to finally get the Deconstruction roundup started (once it’s started there shouldn’t be much work to keep it going, but getting it started is where I keep on failing) and since I don’t have bread and circuses to placate you, you get a hastily written article and the hope that next week I get it started.

Next week, by the way, we return to regular scheduling and on Monday you’ll get a real live, well thought out post.

Ok, so, once upon a time there were great empires that we don’t know a lot about.  They had writing but Linear A we don’t understand and Linear B was primarily used for lists of inventory and such.  Then, round about the traditional age of the Trojan War, everything went to hell.  Every civilization that was around was either entirely destroyed or extremely diminished.

What some call the dark age began.  Note that this is the modern meaning of dark age (age we cannot shed much light on) not the original meaning (the Roman Empire had awesome shining literature and we’re living in the dark ages now) not only because it predates the Roman Empire, but also because we just don’t know.

When writing returned to the Greek Language it was, for the first time we know of in Greece, used to write down literature.  Think Homer and Hesiod.  They both rise out of oral traditions that were presumably well known but are lost to us.  (Note that these were not authors, other people wrote the stuff down after the fact, these were speakers/singers/bards/vatic poets.)

Greece was swimming in a myth soup everyone already knew but which we, looking back, do not.  The job of a poet, a play-write  a writer, or whatever, was not to tell a new story, it was to tell the existing story in a new and different way.

This was, you must understand, a time before copyright.  It was also a time before the abolition of slavery, the viewing of women as full people, and (at least in the beginning) before sewer systems.  The Romans, at least, had sewers, Ancient Greece was covered in shit.  (Also, those beautiful white statues you see, they were painted.  Think mannequins and you’ll get an idea of how they looked.  Sometimes, by which I mean in at least one case, they had clothing put on them.)

And so, the stories changed.  Read the Odyssey and you’ll get a brief glimpse into the story of Oedipus.  It’s not the story you know.  His mother-wife did kill herself, but instead of eye-gouging and exile he stayed king.  Just a rather cursed one.

Me being me, I want to know the Homeric story of everything.  Not just Oedipus who stayed king but also Jason, because I feel that Jason gets a raw deal since we know him primarily through Euripides and Apollonius of Rhodes (and Ray Harryhausen, who is probably the best source of the three.)  Anyone who has their story primarily told by Euripides and Apollonius is naturally going to come off bad, but a Homeric era Epic of Jason might cast an entirely different light on things.

It is not, just, that stories don’t match up across eras though.  And it’s not just that they don’t match up between authors.  Sophocles has forever cemented the story of Oedipus in the popular imagination, but his version (three tragedies) doesn’t match up with itself.  The plays are internally consistent, as far as I can tell, but each one contradicts the other two.  Continuity of story wasn’t the point, it never had been.

To a certain extent the point was the point, but great authors new not to privilege that meaning over being and instead find a way to do both.

And so the stories all contradict one another, but also the stories can all be built on and moved forward by multiple authors in no time at all.  You could go to the theater, see something, and start rewriting it in your mind and have that play be put on next time there was reason to go to the theater.  Like I said, this predated copyright.

And if a character you liked was killed, no problem.  You just make up a handwave (she wasn’t sacrificed, she was replaced by a deer at the last minute and no one noticed because Jasper the gods.) so that you can have her alive and well somewhere else where she can team up with their brother: They Fight Crime.

But it wasn’t just about rewriting things, though I would like to have one more example of that before I go on.  As near as we can tell, and these things are hard to tell because most stuff from the ancient world does not survive, before Euripides Medea didn’t kill her children by Jason intentionally.  Either they lived (and there are stories with at least one of them as an adult), or someone else killed them, or their death was an accident.  Since Euripides, Medea murdered her children by Jason.  A single author can change the myth.  Perhaps not for all time, but it’s been 2443 years and his version remains the definitive one.

In addition to rewriting it was filling in the blanks, as Statius (Roman poet under Domitian*) did when he decided that Homer had already handled the end of Achilles’ life, so rather than try to outdo Homer there he was going to tell about the parts of Achilles life not yet told, or previously glossed over.  Like the time Achilles spent as a cross-dresser, no one went into much detail about that, that I know of, before Statius.  It was just this blank space.  It was mostly: Achilles was crossdressing and living as a woman to avoid being drawn into the war, Odysseus was able to trick him into revealing himself, moving on.  Statius decided to dwell.

A generation before Statius we could see people, consider Lucan’s Civil War for example (assuming I’m remembering the right work), trying to top previous authors by upping the special effects (more gore, bigger storms, bigger explosions… Ok, probably not the explosions, but you get the idea) and really reaching the point of absurdity.

Anyway, Statius, filling in the blanks, stuff.  The basic idea was that you look for a blank spot, or a barely covered spot, and you delve into that part.  The story gets filled out, you’re not rewriting an existing story in the manner of Euripides, Apollonius of Rhodes, and Ray Harryhausen, you’re filling in a gap that was left by those before you.  New unwritten territory.  Statius was by no means the only one to do that and certainly not the first, but I remember him best because a scene from Thetis getting Achilles to cross-dress sticks in my mind.

The last thing I mentioned in the title is writing between the lines, and the version of this I’m most familiar with is Ariadne.  The story goes that Theseus abandoned her on an island they stopped at on the way home because his dad told him not to marry a foreign bride and that was more important to him than their relationship or the fact that she saved him many times over.

It’s a quick thing, mention that and then get on with the whole forgetting to switch the sails and how the Aegean got it’s name story.  In one of his poems Catullus expands this scene, he writes it from Ariadne’s perspective and pours a lot of himself into her angry rant.  The genders are flipped, but the feeling of betrayal, the unfortunate tendency to generalize to the entire gender, and some very similar words all remain.

Enter Ovid.  Catullus had Ariadne get up in a couple of lines, if not fewer (I’d have to find the book to be sure, and as I said at the beginning: hasty) it’s not his primary concern so it’s just “she got up now let’s move to the part I’m interested in.”  Ovid expands the waking up scene, he has detail about how it happened, her motions, her thoughts, her actions.  Ovid also does some rewriting of his own, directly contradicting Catullus in places where the Ariadne he wants to tell about isn’t the same as the one Catullus told about.

We still do this today, consider the book Ransom by David Malouf, which expands on Priam ransoming Hector’s body from Achilles.  (And which manages to keep Homer’s ambiguity over whether or not Achilles and Patroclus were lovers, which isn’t easy to do given that you need to raise the question in the reader’s mind and yet never provide definitive evidence one way or the other.)  The Illiad by Homer is divided into 24 “books”, the ransom of Hector is but the last, Malouf expands it into a novel, changing it where he sees fit, but also adding to the space between the lines.  He tells you how it smelled, how it felt, he shows you the richness of life and emotion in a story full of death.

I’m going to close on another example of writing between the lines.  One that I’ll write just for you, except not really because I’m going to include it in my NaNo novel and thought of it before this post.  But typing this will be the first time it was committed to anything outside of my head.

In the Illiad, book 14, Hera gets Hypnos (sleep) to make Zeus fall asleep so that her ally Poseidon could get away with helping the Greeks when Zeus was against it.  Hyponos said, basically, “If it were anyone else, sure, but I remember the last time.”  Zeus was really pissed off, he was throwing gods left and right, looking for Hypnos in particular who would have been thrown into the sea never to be seen again

If Night, the Mistress, had not saved me.
I ran to her, and he relented, reluctant
To do anything to offend swift Night.
(Stanley Lombardo’s translation)

So that’s three lines, and I’m going to concentrate on two of them: “I ran to her, and he relented, reluctant / To do anything to offend swift Night.”  You can assume that Hypnos hid behind Nyx (Night) and she glared at Zeus, or you can assume that they talked it over.  Let’s go with the second and write between the lines:

Hypnos at last reached his destination and hid behind his mother, Nyx, quickly explaining what was going on.  Zeus was soon to follow and demanded Hypnos be turned over to him.

Nyx responded with one word, “No.”

Zeus, enraged, shouted, “Have you forgotten who you’re talking to?  I am Zeus, Aegis-Holder.”

Nyx, “I’ve not forgotten.  The answer is still no.”

Zeus shouted, “You’re in my domain, you have-“

“No,” Nyx said sharply.  Then she calmly explained, “You are in my domain.  I may take this form,” she gestured to her body,” for the ease of conversation and interaction, but make no mistake, Nyx isn’t just my name.  It is who I am.  It is what I am.  And right now” the next words reverberated on all sides of Zeus, “I’m all around you.”

Zeus had no response and Nyx returned to her ordinary mode of speech, “To get to my domain you had to pass through evening, the domain of seven of my daughters.  Before that you started in the domain of my eldest, Hemera (day).  The only time you’re not in the domain of myself or one of my daughters is during the dawn (Eos), she and I have been friends since before you were born, and lest we forget you did overthrow her parents.  

Do you really want to go to war with me?  There is nowhere you can plot that I won’t know about it.

“Setting that aside, whose sides do you think the various gods will fall on?”  She paused.  “Consider your own siblings.  Hera can’t go to war against someone for obeying her commands, no one would ever listen to her again.  Your wife will not be on your side.  Hades lives in misty Tartaros.  Tartaros, like me, came into being before birth, and owes you no more allegiance than I do, or Gaia for that matter.  My husband Erebos fills Tartaros, whenever Hades is at home he is surrounded on all sides by my husband. I’ve never heard them quarrel.  Kharon is my son.  My grandson tends Hades cattle.  My family is much closer to your brother than you are, whose side do you think he’ll take?

“Poseidon makes his home in the depths.  Pontos (one of three personifications of the sea), is of your grandfather’s generation, he owes you no allegiance, Okeanos (second of the three) is of your father’s generation, he might have taken your side in the war against your father, but he’s had plenty of time to reconsider betraying his siblings, and Thalassa (third of three) is my granddaughter.  What makes you think Poseidon can command any of them to go to war with me?  Besides the sea his greatest weapon is a trident forged by my great grandchildren, whom, as I recall, you cast into the depths never to see the light of day again.

“As for your sisters, the seasons still turn which means Demeter still, annually, remembers that she has good reason for hating you, and Hestia… Well Hestia as goddess of the hearth may hold the fate of all mankind in her hands, but if don’t think I’d watch the world burn to save my child then your interactions with Demeter have taught you nothing.”

“Now wait just a-“

“As for the other Olympians, Athena you can count on, I suppose… but then again you did eat her mother.  Apollo and Artemis, I suppose, but I think I hold some sway with their mother Leto.  Ares would be forced to choose between mother and father, I wonder which way he would go.  I wonder if even he knows.  Hephaestus is Hera’s son, not yours.  I’ll give you Hermes and Aphrodite, you did adopt her after all.  As for Dionysus, I seem to remember you incinerating his mother.”

“I said I was sorry.”

“Yes, and I know that whenever I’m incinerated all it takes is someone saying they’re sorry and I drop the grudge immediately.”

“This doesn’t have to be a war.”

“Oh, but what a war it would be, it would over shadow your battle with your father and be remembered for all time.  And remember, the gods of battle, all the gods of battle, are my grandchildren.  But, you’re right, it doesn’t have to be a war.

“We can settle it right here.  You’re younger and weaker, I’ll let you use the lightning bolts your uncles gave you.  For myself I’ll use no weapons at all.”

Zeus stared at Nyx for a long time, he felt the weight of night around him, he looked into her eyes and saw nothing but determination.  Then he turned away.  “Keep him.  But keep him away from me.”

And thus, Zeus relented.

And that’s how you write between the lines, at least it is when you’re in a hurry.

* An emperor who appears to have been both evil and insane.  Truth be told I’m not sure whether that’s better or worse than being evil and sane.  An argument, I suppose, can be made either way.

The Other Side Wants To Know Too

I don’t remember where it came up. It might have been talking about religion; it might have been talking about Fox Mulder’s “I want to believe” poster.
Someone brought up the famous Carl Sagan-attributed quotation: “I don’t want to believe; I want to know.” And that stuck with me because, though the person didn’t do this and in fact used it well, I’ve seen the quotation used as a stick to intellectually bludgeon theists with at least since high school, probably longer.

And so while the quotation lingered in my mind for days on end, I flashed back to too many arguments to number, or at least too many arguments to remember the number, and what seemed like a fundamental misunderstanding at the core of all of them.

There are people who want to believe. There are people who want desperately to believe. But there’s also a lot of people who want to know, and the idea of “I don’t want to believe; I want to know” being some sort of magic argument that could convince people to abandon theism (thinking on high school now) or even being something anti-theistic at all (which includes a much wider swath than just high school) seems to miss a fundamental point:

The other side wants to know too.

In fact, I think that desire for knowledge over belief can reinforce the very kinds of theism that those trotting out the quote as if it were an argument would most oppose. Specifically extreme science-opposed fundamentalism.

Consider this obviously intended to be funny comparison of “science” and “faith”:

This image is described in the footnote linked immediately hereafter.

Now there are a lot of things that we can point out as wrong or misleading about it. For example it supports the idea that one cannot have faith and science both. The symbols around the “ignore contradicting evidence” section of the faith flow chart include: a crescent for Islam, the religion of Ibn al-Haytham and various other figures critical to the development of the scientific method; a cross for Christianity, the religion of such notable figures as alchemist and Bible code fanatic Issac Newton who provided calculus and our basic understanding of the universe until Einstein brought us General Relativity; a Star of David representing Einstein’s Jewish identity, though (it should be noted) not his faith which is difficult to pin down but definitely not Jewish. possibly not his faith which is difficult to pin down and doesn’t resemble the forms of Judaism I’m most familiar with but may well be Jewish.  (See the comments for the source of the correction.)

But after spending that paragraph pointing out that the dichotomy presented is misleading at best and intentionally hurtful at worst, I’m going to be going with that dichotomy. I’ve pointed out one problem with it, and there are many more, but let’s overlook that because I want to focus on the people for whom that picture is largely accurate.

The fundamentalists trapped by their own efforts, urged on by those around them, in a bubble that keeps out or shoots down all contradicting evidence.

Put yourself in their shoes. Assume that they don’t want to believe, they want to know.

Point to the part on the science side where they reach the point of knowing instead of believing.

That’s a trick, of course. There is no such point. The flow chart never ends. Any theory can be overturned, any belief can be shattered on the rocks; all it takes is some conflicting evidence. Either you have to modify the theory to accommodate it, or you have to abandon the the theory. Either way, it turns out what you believed before was wrong. You didn’t know.

That’s part of what accepting science is. It’s accepting that nothing can be known for sure. That, for what it’s worth, happens to be true. But it also means that you never know, and if you’re honest with yourself you never get to say “I know”. Because in two minutes someone might stumble over a piece of evidence that disproves the theory you believed and send you back to square one.

Now point to the part in the “Faith” side where you get to say “I know”.

Pretty much any place you want will work. So long as you stay in the “Ignore conflicting evidence” bubble you get to keep the idea forever and never have to say that what you thought you knew was wrong.

If you want to know, rather than believe, the fundamentalist model seems more appealing. Preacher tells you, it’s settled, you know, and nothing can change that. Of course you could be wrong. But you never know that you’re wrong. Because you never allow for the possibility that you might be wrong. How could you be? You don’t believe, you know.

From that point of view the inherent instability of science could seem downright frightening. You never reach the point where you get to stop. There is no end. You never reach the point where you can say “I know this”, only the point where you can say “Given the available evidence, this theory fits best and has loads of support, but the possibility still exists that it could be overturned.”

Thus a desire to know seems to reinforce fundamentalists’ isolationism and fight against science. They want it to be simple. “They said it in church, it’s true, done.” We see this in people who say, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it”, or “I don’t believe Jesus is the savior, I know he is.” The desire to know, the desire for certainty, seems to push people to cling to things that don’t get changed, or don’t seem to get changed.

Consider this quote from Men In Black: “Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

It’s a picture of change. It’s a picture of not knowing. It’s revealing that the world is full of uncertainty.

Now compare that with someone who says that they’re the purveyor of a religious tradition that remains true to the words of someone who lived two thousand years ago. It doesn’t matter if it’s not true, because the picture presented is one of certainty and lack of change: this was true then and it is true now. You can know.

Of course, there is an instability in the whole fundamentalist side of things. That is that science marches on. As early as Plato, we see religion incorporating what was then the cutting edge of scientific knowledge. The trouble is that now, that very same stuff seems absurdly unscientific. So if you start a religion right now, accepting all of the scientific theories accepted right now, and then don’t change, eventually you’re going to be believing things that science left by the wayside because it never stops changing. It never stops improving.

And those improvements can sometimes break through the bubble, and when they do… disaster.

At this point I direct your attention to Fred Clark; some excerpts are here but read the whole thing:

From the sound of what your aunt described, that’s going to be the really tricky part for you, because she says you were always taught that everything must be accepted unconditionally — that it mustn’t be tested and that it all, every bit of it, must be held on to forever. All of it or none of it.
And, based on what I heard from your aunt, you were always told that the whole concoction was inseparable — an all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it deal. Instead of being encouraged, or commanded, to test everything and hold on to the good, you were told that you must either hold on to everything or abandon it all. And you were told that these were your only possible choices.
The all-or-nothing bill of goods she sold you when you were younger really is evil. It invites a crisis of its own making. It batters a child with a series of cruel non-sequiturs: If the earth is more than 6,000 years old, it says, then Jesus doesn’t love you. If there weren’t dinosaurs in Noah’s flood, it says, then life is meaningless. If Isaiah was anything other than a carnival fortune-teller, whispering secrets to be decoded millennia later by the magic formula, then all hope is illusion. 

This all-or-nothing mixture of sense and nonsense is a house built on sand. Eventually, it will be tested and it will fail the test. And it will fall with a great crash.

When one knows, then one doesn’t need to test. That’s what knowing is. And when one is trying to sell something as the Honest to God (emphasis on “God”) known truth, then one can’t let doubt seep in anywhere. Thus instead of “Test everything, hold on to the good”, which is a statement from (Christian) faith that I think is pretty well compatible with the scientific method, the seller teaches “Test nothing. You already know. I said so.”

This puts everything on the same level. Everything is known and thus untested. Everything has to be untested because doubt could undermine the whole game. “If my pastor was wrong about X, could he also be wrong about Y?” And if I’m right that a desire to know, a desire for certainty, plays a role in the embrace of fundamentalism, that’s the kind of question a fundamentalist doesn’t want to answer or ask.

And so the whole thing can come crashing down.

We know this because it has happened. There is evidence. But those within the bubble ignore conflicting evidence, so they don’t necessarily know this. They may have been taught the all or nothing approach to keep conflicting evidence of any kind out, but what should that worry them? They know all these things are true. They have certainty.

I think that’s the problem with those who use the “I don’t want to believe; I want to know” quote against religion. The fundamentalists are there beckoning, “We already know, come inside and you can know too,” where science offers only “We don’t know for certain, but we can offer increasingly close approximations of the truth.” If you want to know now, fundamentalist religion seems to have the better offer because they claim to know already, where as scientists are still working on it with no end in the flowchart. Certainly no end in sight.

I want to close by saying that while the (forgotten) recent usage of “I don’t want to believe; I want to know” was what got the phrase stuck in my head and eventually led to the post, it was not one of the seemingly endless times I’ve seen it used against religion. It was used appropriately and well, it just set off memories of it being used badly.

[Back to the image]

The image contains two flow charts. The first, labeled “Science”, goes like this:

1) Start. Go to 2).
2) Get an idea. Go to 3).
3) Preform an experiment. Go to 4).
4) Does the evidence support the idea? Yes = Go to 5). No = Go to a).
5) Theory created. Go to 6)
6) Use theory to better understand the universe. Go to 7). (This box is surrounded in yellow border with yellow stars.)
7) Discover new evidence. Go to 8)
8) Can theory be modified to explain the new evidence. No = Go to b). Yes = Go to 9)
9) Improve theory. Go to 6).

a) Bad idea. Go to 2).
b) Revolution! Go to 2).

The second, labeled “Faith”, goes like this:

1) Start. Go to 2)
2) Get an idea. Go to 3)
3) Ignore contradicting evidence. Go to 4) (This box is surrounded by a red border and religious symbols.)
4) Keep idea forever. Go to 5).
5) End.

Because I was (never) a slave in Egypt

I skipped Passover this year. There was a lot going on–Anime Boston was that weekend, and my food processor was broken so I couldn’t make the sauce for the lamb, and so on–and I didn’t think I would miss it. After all, it’s an empty, meaningless ritual dedicated to the worship of a being that doesn’t exist, commemorating events that never happened. Except, of course, that it’s an empty, meaningless ritual I’ve participated in every year of my life except this one.

Oh, and except that it’s not empty or meaningless at all.

Passover is the only time I say prayers. Sometimes in Hebrew, sometimes in English–depends on who I’m celebrating with–every year, I ask call God the King of the Universe and ask hir to bless the matzo and the wine. I sing about how any one of the miracles God performed in the course of freeing the Jews from Egyptian bondage would have been enough, but zie kept on performing more.

The rest of the year, if I find myself somewhere that people are praying (a religious wedding or funeral, say), I keep my head down and my mouth shut. I don’t join in, because that would be dishonest. But on Passover I say the prayers and sing the songs, because that is what you do on Passover.

The prayers and songs, considered in isolation, are meaningless. But they are part of the package of Passover for me, and that package is deeply meaningful, because of its central theme, which as far as I am concerned is the central theme of Judaism: Because I was a slave in Egypt.

I wasn’t, of course. No Jews ever were; the story is just that–a story, not history.

But when I was a kid, my parents used to tell me about their participation in the civil rights movement. Stories of my mother fighting apartheid in her native South Africa, my father hitchhiking thousands of miles from Arizona to join the March on Washington. They did this, they told me, because “never again” means “never again to anyone.” They taught me that, because of the Holocaust, because of pogroms, because of the Inquisition–because of all the times and places in which Jews were persecuted–Jews have a special responsibility to aid other persecuted peoples.

This is a pretty problematic attitude, of course. Everyone has a responsibility to help the victims of persecution, especially if you yourself are among the privileged. But still, there’s something worth pursuing there.

You see, I’ve never been persecuted for being Jewish. Oh, there was apparently some time in elementary school when I came home crying because some other kids accused me of killing Jesus, and there was a nasty kid a few years later who broke one of our windows, but these are isolated incidents. There was no pervasive pattern of intolerance; I’ve never felt less-than because of being Jewish, or missed out on a job opportunity, and I’ve certainly never been put in a labor camp or chased out of my home. Why, then, should I feel any sort of kinship with the victims of persecution?

Because I was a slave in Egypt…

You see, every year at Passover, we recite the story of Passover. There’s a bit in there where it says you are supposed to tell the story as if it happened to us–not our ancestors, fictional or otherwise, but to us. It doesn’t matter that the Egyptian bondage never happened to me–I am still to take the lessons of it to heart. I am still to open my doors to any in need.

“Never again” means never again to anyone.

I don’t recall my parents ever explicitly drawing the connection, but it’s clear to me. So the Exodus never happened? Well, the Holocaust didn’t happen to me, either. My family left Europe decades before the Holocaust began. As far as my own experience is concerned, both events are equally just stories.

But not meaningless. Because I was a slave in Egypt, I support gay marriage and immigration amnesty. Because “never again” means never again to anyone, I oppose the mistreatment of the Palestinian people by the Israeli government.

Of course there are excellent secular reasons to do those things. I like to think that, if I weren’t Jewish, I would still do those things for the secular reasons. But as it is, I do them for the Jewish reasons: Because I was (never) a slave in Egypt.