Archive for June, 2007

June 27, 2007

Religion and bad desires

The Atheist Ethicist is continuing his study on the wrongness of teaching religion to children. This time he is considering why we shouldn’t teach bad desires. First of all, i wish to say that i, of  course, agree entirely that one should avoid teaching bad desires to anyone. However, there are two objections i wish to make on a more general level:

Objection 1: Even though it certainly is the case that teaching bad desires is at times, and perhaps often, a feature of religion, this does not imply that teaching religion is bad, only that the bad desires need to be extracted from the teaching of religion. Of course, if you can show that the bad desires are intrinsically linked to the very essence of religion, then you could ban the whole thing, on account of the former. However, this does not seem to be the case, if only because of the numbers of very good religion children and people who were obviously not taught bad desires – or who at least overcame the teaching of them, which would also prove that there are workarounds should a complete extraction prove difficult.

Objection 2: I am certainly not convinced that it is all that easy to get rid of religion simply by not teaching it anymore. I would rather lean towards the opinion that certain fundamental features of a religious attitude are biologically determined, i.e. that more or less religious attitudes evolved overtime and cannot therefore be brushed away with a national educational directive.  If such is indeed the case, then changing religion and that entails of course changing the teaching of religion – perhaps gradually turning it into ethics – would be the more effective route, regardless of whether or not completely doing away with religion would be the ideal solution.

June 25, 2007

defining religion

Religion is precisely everything we humans have so far called religion. And it is that which we will in future call religion. But it is nothing else: it can be given no further definition, and only a fool would today quarry the word for its precious metaphysical essence. Religion is a vague and intangible substance which derives much of its power from this very indeterminacy. The reason for this is that there really is no such thing as religion; there is only an idea that does not correspond to a reality. Religion is a false concept; it does not cut the world at its joints; it doesn’t mean anything in particular.

Of course, some will yet hope to gather the multitudinous historical instances of religion from the far corners of this world and, through academic inspiration, pen the definitive text that will reveal the hidden meaning of the word, that which we speakers meant all along, but never quite understood. How quaint! And should we nevertheless succeed in convincing these deluded searchers after the Truth that religion is no one thing, they will simply set themselves to searching for many things. They will come to believe that religion must be understood as a set of family resemblances. Thus a thing becomes religious, if it is composed of a handful of the other things: mystery, a community, supernatural happenings, supernatural knowledge, a sacred text, rituals, etc. This divide-and-conquer strategy is, however, doomed, if only because it merely describes how we use the word religion, it does not explain it.

Many a prophet has arisen over the millennia, preaching the imminent doom of all matters religious, either because the gods just don’t care, or because they retired after setting everything in motion, or because they simply died. Yet it is these prophets who invariably went hoarse before the religious folk got around to disappearing. These silly prophets were not always wrong, but they certainly were always barking up the wrong tree: they either were two steps behind religion, preaching the death of a god that no one believed in; or they came up with ersatz religions that no one would buy. You will know a true prophet if his prophecies come to pass. Our enlightened prophets didn’t know what they were talking about, because they never stopped long enough to give a good look at religion and realize it’s much more complex than their little brains could understand. Those who simply say “religion, religion” will not get anywhere. Only those who delve deep into the arcane secrets of this horrendously complex thing called religion will know the truth and will be able to set us free.

The thinkers of things religious must therefore stand warned: not only are they researching no thing in particular, but that which they are looking at is continuously changing – and will transform itself to work around their definitions. Define religion, and religion will change to prove you wrong! This is no weakness, but rather an incredible strength: religion can adapt – and always has – to new environments. It is the chameleon of world institutions. Therefore, do not try to squeeze religion out of existence, for it will simply slip through your presumptuous fingers; rather, nudge it along, gradually transforming it into what you would like it to become. Not the proud but only the humble and patient student of religion will win in the end. A frontal attack will not work because religion has no front – or back: it is that which it is, which is quite a bit, but it is no thing in particular. Caveat scholar.

June 25, 2007

teaching religion

The Atheist Ethicist doesn’t think we should teach religion to children. I mostly disagree.

First, it remains unclear throughout the post what kind of teaching is being talked about. Is this teaching religion in schools, at home, in churches or anywhere and at all?

Second, his main reason for not teaching religion is that it contains (many) flase beliefs and that we should avoid teaching false beliefs. This makes pleanty of sense on a superficial level. Of course we shouldn’t teach lies to children! But that being said, current science is full of false beliefs, only we don’t know how to pinpoint them. So we teach it all and let the kids know that some of it will have to be revised in the future when we know better. There is no reason why we couldn’t teach religion in exactly the same way.

Third, the second part of the argument is that religion makes people have bad desires. Admittedly this is not as much as problem with, say mathematics (if you except the desire to strangle your teacher for giving impossible homework). Nevertheless, you need only ban the teaching of bad desires (“Ok teachers, you are no longer allowed to teach that suicide-bombing is good; it’s been cut from the curriculum”). Religion also encourages many good desires. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Fourth, religion is much more than an ecclectic mass of true or false beliefs. Religion is a social institution that gets people to do good (and bad) things.  It is also a set of rituals that provide meaning in life. Banning the teaching of religious facts is not going to do anything towards adressing the ‘problem’ of a gigantic social institution. If you are going to ban the teaching of religion, you had might as well ban religion altogether – and you had might as well throw cigarettes and all inflamable liquids into the legislation while you’re at it.

June 9, 2007

leaving calcutta

here is a poem i wrote upon leaving india, and which i have now given up on. hence i can publish it. it’s not good by shakespearean standards, but it’s probably better than most of the other things i’ve stuck up here for public consumption:

leaving calcutta

the stench of
naked men shoveling whet shit out of sewers
as emaciated mongrels the size of untouchable
rats tossed back into hell from the high rack of life’s tortures
ignore them and
loud wretched rickshaws displace overgrown mamijis,
splashing urine-colored seepage into
the blaring and fetid air that strong-arms its way into
your naked nostrils.

… in the street too many people come and go,
shouting at michael`s baffled toe …

young-bosomed girls fair as ginger-scented chai
saunter in small posies over secret lotus leaves
under the migrating shadows of ingratiating trees
as they giggle in light saris that embolden the wind
to carry them off
to non-resident spouses
in swell-sounding places.

chinese-indian restaurants serve swet and sour pork
or something cho mane to fatherless families of two
or raucous families of ten as himanshu
and i imbibe the same old future talk of past meals
with suspicious waters and blood-spattered forks
invariably re-assigned to the same old receptacle
for here, we recycle.

… where the roads diverge many cars come and go
honking an unwitted marc polo …

empty men in godawful temples
hand out cakes and red petals
to the masses for a bribe
as holey politicians preach peace,
prosperity and fuck
with everyone on the side
during friday bandhs when pretty boys
worship cricket in empty streets
deserted by communist pride.

… through the ‘mortal sun i came and went
gasping in the arms of mother india’s scent …

tomorrow or yesterday ganesha
found me and vice versa
at the tourist’s store as i pressed him
to my sole
heart with a fistful of bucks.
We strolled down proud streets, raising envy
and dust, our hands impossibly mixed
and dripping to the tune
of mythological rhythms ‘vented in bollywood.
His large ears flapped
and i,
feverish mosquito or sadist rat,
leaned over his bosom
and bit them.


books and brushes
only will conquer
(the wretchedness of)
this continent.


who am i
to open my mouth and
speak disparaging sounds
to you, india, the greatest of mothers
and divine of nations,
to point out your failings with a splinter in my left eye
(and desire your women with a throb in my sinister heart)?
i am ashamed at my truths & yours –
and what has become of us:
in your vast indifference you
spurned my advances and left me to rot
in a putrescent suburb;
and i died the death of the foreigner,
the death of unbearable truth
and unrequited hope. India! you
kill your own and then some,
you despise your poor and me,
orating lofty towers with shit on your boots.
you beckoned, i came, and you bruised me;
so i whine and whimper and soon
scamper away, india!

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June 2, 2007

humean catholic jokes

Let it not be said that philosophers lack a sense of humor, nor that they write boring books. Here is David Hume telling a joke about the roman catholic doctrine of real presence (from chapter XII of his Natural History of Religion, 1757):

I believe, indeed, that there is no tenet in all paganism which would give so fair a scope to ridicule as this of the real presence. For it is so absurd, that it eludes the force of all argument. There are even some pleasant stories of that kind, which, though somewhat profane, are commonly told by the Catholics themselves. One day, a priest, it is said, gave inadvertently, instead of the sacrament, a counter, which had by accident fallen among the holy wafers. The communicant waited patiently for some time, expecting it would dissolve on his tongue; but finding that it still remained entire, he took it off. “I wish,” cried he to the priest, “you have not committed some mistake. I wish you have not given me God the Father: He is so hard and tough there is no swallowing him.”

June 2, 2007

what’s left of christianity?

Well, i’m back to posting, people.

An interesting take on the current evolution of religion: Dolan Cummings asks on Culture WarsWhat’s left of Christianity?” In reviewing a few new books on the subject he claims that christianity is not so much going to disappear as we once thought, but is becoming or has already become (in Europe at least) politically irrelevant and thus exclusively personal. As far as i can tell, his assessment is right on.

It is not so much that religion is finished, then, as that it is subject to something analogous with natural selection. It is the survival of the fittest, with fitness defined as the ability to cater to a more personalised conception of spirituality that speaks to people as individuals with their own concerns and desires, and even offers relief from the external regulation and surveillance experienced in other spheres, from education to work.

Indeed, it is a measure of the detachment of religion from political power that religious groups are ‘allowed’ to hold all kinds of eccentric opinions. People can believe whatever they want on religious questions because it doesn’t really matter. When Christianity was at the centre of power and political life, doctrinal disputes had real urgency, political movements rose and fell and wars were fought over the correct interpretation of the one true faith. Today, only constitutional anoraks worry about the political consequences of the established church’s doctrines, and those who do object argue quite rightly for disestablishment rather than seeking to correct this or that point of belief. In any case, it has become something of a running joke that the Church of England doesn’t really believe in anything anyway. Anglicanism, bumbling affably along, seems to embody the fate of religion adapting to survive in relativistic times.