26 June 2011

A Musical History of Ignorance

What's that big thing in the sky, watching over us?
It must know things that we don't know, we give it all our trust!
I have no food, our caves are bare, life sucks we all agree!
I guess that big thing in the sky is freaking mad at me!
Soooo let's build a fire and kill a goat and burn some virgins too!
And then good luck will come to us, our Sun will see us through!

Recently Neurovore shared this piece with me, a history of ignorance (mythology, astrology, the four humors, spiritualism, red scares,  etc) set to a history of music, beginning with a stone age chant and...'progressing' to autotuned homeopathic techno-rap.

Visiting Episcopalians

Photo taken a few weeks ago. 
For a few weeks now I have wanted to attend a morning service at my local Episcopalian church (St. Paul's) for various reasons. It's a beautiful building, and strangely enough part of me wants to associate with it. The Episcopalians I've met have all been so kind, and the church's stances so liberal and progressive, that I thought I might feel at home.    I knew it would be an altogether strange experience for me, seeing as the only kind of church service I've ever attended has been Pentecostal.

Also taken a few weeks ago.
I arrived early to ensure I had a parking space, and met one of the rectors in the courtyard, who I recognized from the church website. St. Paul's  has two rectors: a bearded man in his late fifties or sixties, and a woman in her forties. I met the man, who represented his tradition well -- being an altogether friendly fellow who sounded like Mr. Rogers and who answered all my questions. After giving me a bulletin, he left to get ready for service. The sanctuary was only then being unlocked, so I was privy to some of the dedicatory ritual.

Photo taken last summer, though my viewfinder was not functioning at the time so it's a bit off-center. 

The interior is crossed shaped, the majority of the sanctuary being a great long shaft where the rows of pews are arranged. Beautiful stained-glass windows representing scenes from Jesus' life ran down the walls. The aisle-shaft ends at the entrance doors on one end, and at the altar at another. The altar was made of stone, though covered by cloth, and had a large golden cross upon it. On either side of the cross were candles, which robed individuals solemnly lit as the organ played. Before tending to this, the robed individuals stopped in front of the cross and bowed gently to it.

Also taken last summer.

While the Pentecostal churches I attended in my earlier years consisted of loud, active sound services following by a screaming sermon, the Episcopalians were decidedly more low-key and 'reverent'. As the rector told me, Episcopalians have a liturgical service in which Bible readings, creeds, and prayers (interspersed with hymns played on an organ) are central. The readings and prayers vary from service to service and from season to season, but since they're all from the same Book of Common Prayer,  everybody following it will have the same essential service. The sermon, or homily, appears to be prepared to complement the verses and prayers for that day
As I sat reading the order of service in my bulletin and attempting to find the readings and such in the Book of Common Prayer  people filtered in silently. While a few shook hands with friends, they maintained an atmosphere of reverence. Some stopped before entering their pews to bow gently toward the cross, while others sat and knelt in their pews.  Among them was my old history professor, a beloved old retired Marine and professional curmudgeon who reminds me of Mark Twain. I thought him a strict rationalist, so it surprised me to see him enter, take a pew a row or so ahead of me, and kneel. "Bless his cynical old soul," I thought, "Is he praying?"

The service began at ten o'clock, where a procession appeared behind my shoulders singing beautifully.  They were all robed: the man in front carried a large golden cross on a pole, and behind him another man held a golden book in his white gloves They sang as they marched up the aisle toward the altar, and I enjoyed the spectacle while keeping a solemn look on my face. The clergy appeared to be dressed in green, and there were other members in the processing wearing white robes and green sashes. It reminded me of university  graduation processions, where a man in medieval costume escorts graduates while holding a golden miter proudly in his hands.

The opening service consisted of music (played on an organ, which the audience sometimes sang along with and sometimes didn't),  Bible readings,  and back-and-forth prayers in which the rector read half of a bible verse or prayer and the congregation read the other.  While I looked through the Book of Common Prayer I could not make sense of the table of contents, so I just remained silent throughout the service, sitting and standing on cue by following the lead of others before me. (I messed up once, when we were told to pray: three people on the other side stood up, and I stood up with them -- but the rest of the church entered a kneel, so I swore quietly and found a more prayerful position.) A man from the audience read a passage of the Bible in which Abraham is told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, and nearly does but God sends him a sheep.  This is one of my least favorite bible stories: if you have enough faith to kill at God's command, you have too much faith. The cross-and-golden book procession appeared from the altar and moved into the center of the congregation while more prayers were said.

Presently, one of the rectors -- a female, which pleased me -- gave a short sermon or homily on the topic, "Give it Up". This was based off of the earlier lay reading, but she spoke on the acceptance of loss and the need to give up some habits and attachments which diminish us.  After this they said a blessing, and some people stood up to leave.  I though service was over, but after people talked and shook hands for a few minutes the other rector  stood up and I scurried back to my seat. My professor was one of the ones who left, and I realized we were about to go into the Communion part of the service.

After a few more readings and songs (among the ritual, the Nicene Creed and Our Father prayer), they took up offering. I gave a few dollars out of thanks to the Episcopal church for its progressive stances on various things, and my professor -- let's call him Mr. Twain --  reappeared and suggested I  fill out a visitor's card.  Another procession went up the aisle, this time carrying a golden bowl of purple fluid (wine, I assume) and another dish, which I think might have been the host for Eucharist. I started filling out a card as soon as we sat down, which I think was a mistake because people went utterly silent while the rectors or priests were blessing the communion articles.

Both the professor and the lead rector told me I was welcome to take Communion despite not being Episcopalian,  but it seemed inappropriate to me so I decided I would sit in my pew. The itch to see what happened up there overrode that, though. I knew from the rector and a Catholic deacon that I could cross my arms once I got up there and have a blessing said over me instead, so I chose to do that instead.

I stood in line at the altar platform, ascending the steps as the line moved.  In front of the altar was a long, golden rail, and a place for people to kneel in front of it. Behind the rail, clergy officials -- the rectors and a few others -- gave pieces of the host, or crackers (this was a very serious moment and I was trying to be respectful, so I didn't ogle much, and couldn't confirm what kind of bread it was) to people who were kneeling. As soon as space cleared up,  I carefully knelt down. The female rector came to me, and I crossed my arms as instructed. She asked my name, and I whispered, "Stephen", then played my hands in a prayer position upon the rail as she made the sign of the cross upon my forehead and told me, among other things, that I was a special creation of God. I closed my eyes and bowed my head as seemed appropriate, so I didn't see how the wine was administered to others. I then took my place in the pews again.

After another prayer and song (a prayer which somehow incorporated astronomy and evolution into the Christian story), we began to get ready for dismissal. The cross-and-golden-book procession moved into the back again, singing beautifully as they had done the first time,  and soon the grand old doors opened and everyone was coming by to say hello. They were friendly, and afterwards I had lemonade while Mr. Twain gave me a tour of the church's innards.

I promised to come back, and I will. Although I can't say things like the Nicene Creed, I enjoyed witnessing the ceremonies. The people were very friendly, and I'd love to spend more time with my old mentor.

Photo taken last year.

24 June 2011

Book Review: God is not One

Back in late 2007, while thinking on what direction this blog might take once I'd hammered out my basic philosophical worldview, I thought about posting movie- and book- reviews on subjects skeptics, humanists, et. al would find of interest.  By that time I'd already started a book blog (This Week at the Library), and I decided not to go through with the book reviews here as I assumed it would be redundant. I reconsider almost every time  I read a book on religion or skepticism, though, and tonight I've decided to cross-post for the first time. For those who follow TWATL, the review is exactly the same, though future reviews might be somewhat different: I write to a more general crowd over there. I can see editing reviews for an audience I assume to be mostly skeptical here.
God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Rule the World and Why Their Differences Matter

© 2010 Stephen Prothero
400 pages

Despite the promises of modernity to drive religion out of the human mind, the New York City skyline bears witness to its continuing relevance. While religion can serve as a force for good,  it’s a master at nurturing the darker sides of human nature, and the good religions have achieved is often a testament to the moral courage of humans who have fought to push these systems of thought beyond their origins.  Some have gone so far as to say that the differences between religions are unimportant, that they are merely different paths up the same broad mountain which arrive at the same place. Stephen Prothero says different.  None of this tearing-down-the-walls-that-divide-us nonsense for Prothero, he intends to prove that religions are all rigidly disconnected boxes, and that while we may choose to shake hands with or shake fists at the fellows in the other boxes, we can only do it through tight little windows.

I looked forward to grappling with this book, largely because my own mind is so divided on the subject: while I believe that all religions were created by human beings to understand the world and perhaps to better themselves,  I also know that some religions are so defined by their aggressive assertions that they cannot easily find peace with other.  I found God is not One to be an unsatisfactory sparring partner, however, being  frustratingly simplistic, and ultimately disappointing.  In the first eight chapters, Prothero analyzes eight  of the the world’s major religion’s through  four-points:

  • a problem
  • a solution
  • a technique
  • an exemplar

He believes each of these religions (Islam, Confucianism, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Yoruba, Taoism, Hinduism) attempts to address one of eight different problems in human nature, and offers eight fundamentally different approaches to life based on that problem.  This analysis is entirely too simplistic for the problem at hand, however. While it’s possible to identify characteristics within a religion that make them unique, those characteristics do notconstitute the religion. This eight religions, eight boxes organization ignores the more fundamental similarities religions might have:  the constant cycle of life/death/rebirth in Hinduism and Buddhism, for instance, and the hateful split between the material and spiritual worlds that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are so keen on convincing us of. 

A second problem with this is one Prothero tip-toes around: although the eight religions he identifies here do have many varied differences, they are not necessarily hostile.  Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism have all existed in China together for centuries, for instance: they each have different offerings, and people happily sample beliefs and practices from each table, cafeteria-style, arriving at a worldview that meets their needs. Prothero speaks of religions ruling the world like hostile nation-states, but not all religions are as imperialistic (and therefore, conflict-prone) as the dominant forms of Christianity and Islam.  The Asian triplets point out the greatest problem with this book, Prothero’s sinister attitude about the relationship between humans and religion.  He would have us owned by religion, forced to live within that particular religion’s box. In the beginning, he snorts that attempts at interfaith dialogue which ignore the walls of differences are “disrespectful” of religion. I say poppycock. Why should we be respectful of religion and let it lie like a dusty rug? We should pick it up, bring it into the sunlight, and then beat it vigorously until all the dirt has fallen away and nothing but beauty remains. Why should we, the living, be content to breathe the dust of our ancestors?

Although Prothero’s thesis never grows legs to stand on here, the book may have some use for those interested in learning about other religions. He shows no bias toward one religion over another, though I advise nonreligious readers to steer well clear. He is bizarrely hostile toward humanists and atheists, dedicating an entire chapter to calling the ‘New Atheism’  a religion and its advocates hypocrites and plagiarists. This is stupidity, of course: religions are organized systems of beliefs, while atheism is a single belief -- and Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are no more plagiarists for making the same criticisms of religious assertions that Bertrand Russell did than is the second man in the crowd who dared to say the emperor had no clothes on.

I’m ultimately disappointed with this book: while it has its uses for comparative religion readers, there are assuredly superior books out there on that subject. I daresay even The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World Religion or some similar work would be better. I despise the spirit that sees the integrity  of religions as more 

important than the good we might do by overcoming our differences.