Monday, November 30, 2009

Try not to smile as you watch these. Go ahead and try.

Yet Another Idiotic Atheist Ad Campaign

Nothing makes winning an argument easier than playing both sides, which is known as a straw man argument. Although the exact origins of the phrase are not agreed upon, one folk etymology nicely illustrates exactly how this works. This etymology is based on a military training exercise in which soldiers charge straw dummies and skewer them with their bayonets (see illustration). Take that!!

Maybe in the future the "straw man" argument will also be known as the "atheist ad campaign argument". The crux of the biscuit, when it comes to these atheist ad campaigns, is to reduce all discussion of religion down to the false dichotomy of: do you believe in the God of Abraham, nor not?

But the really pathetic part, for the atheists that is, is that they have played into the Christians' own straw man argument!

The ad campaign just announced by the American Humanist Association turns out to be yet another example of atheists cluelessly carrying water for their kissing cousins, the monotheists. Nothing pleases the Christians more than when non-Christians assume, or, even better, forcefully assert, that the Christian "God" is the end all and be all of Religion. Once this key tenet of Christian theology is admitted, that theirs is the one and only "God", the Christians have already won the day regardless of what else follows. No matter how mightily you beat your chest as you do so, as long as you are declaring your rejection of the Christians' "God" you are playing the Christians' game. And more fool you. (scroll down for more.....)

Other posts dealing with the so-called New Atheism:
The Essence of Religion
Sam Harris. In Defense of Torture. Srsly.
The Strange Case of the Wannabe versus the Scientist
Why They Hate Francis Collins
Contra Atheos
Contra Atheos, Part Deux
On Atheism, Paganism, Christianity, and Human Equality

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Religions of the Library, Part Deux

Two Brief Case Studies (Buddhism and Orphic Dionysianism)

1. Each wooden block of the Korean Tripitaka (that is, the Korean version of the traditional Buddhist scriptural "canon") contains 644 Chinese characters. There are a total of 81,340 blocks, for a grand total of over 52 million characters (52,382,960). One of the shortest of these Buddhist texts, the Heart Sutra, is composed of only 262 Chinese characters, and it's English translation takes up about 275 words. So there is a very rough correspondence between individual Chinese characters and English words. There are 774,746 words in the combined Old and New Testaments of the King James Bible. The Buddhist "canon", then, is roughly 70 times larger than the entire Christian canon, and fully 300 times larger than the New Testament (which has a mere 181,253 words).

The contents of the Tripitaka are also found to contain a variety of works that were composed well after the Buddha had lived and died. In Mahayana Buddhism, especially, there are a number of Sutras that were either written centuries after the time of the Buddha, or are even claimed to have been "hidden" by the Buddha for others to discover later. The entirety of the Prajnaparamita texts, for example, which include the Heart Sutra, were, according to tradition, revealed to Nagarjuna, a Buddhist teacher who lived some time around the second to third centuries AD, when Nagarjuna traveled below the earth to visit Nagaraja, the King of the subterranean snake-people called "nagas".

2. Although no complete version of the Orphic myth of Dionysos survives intact, classical scholar Sarah Iles Johnston has pieced together "the story in it's entirety", using a famous passage from Olympiodorus' commentary on Plato's Phaedrus along with a variety of other sources:
Dionysus was the child of Zeus and Zeus' daughter Persephone. Dionysus succeeded Zeus; Zeus himself placed the child on his throne and declared him the new king of the cosmos. The Titans, jealous of Dionysus' new power and perhaps encouraged by Hera, used various toys, and a mirror, to lure Dionysus away from his guardians, the Curetes, and dismembered him. They cooked his flesh and ate it. Zeus, being angry at this, killed the Titans, and from their remains, humanity arose. Because humanity arose from material that was predominantly Titanic in nature, each human is born with the stain of the Titans' crime, but a remnant of Dionysus leavens the mixture. Each human must expiate the Titans' crime by performing rituals in honor of Dionysus and Persephone, who still suffers from the 'ancient grief' of losing her child; by doing so, humans can win better afterlives. Meanwhile Dionysus was in some manner revived or reborn.
[Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets, p. 67]
Johnston goes on to point out that "the typical reader" will find parts of this story "weird" because it differs from more widely known Dionysian myths found in Hesiod, Homer, Ovid, etc. The "Orphic" version of the story of Dionsysus, however, was widely known in antiquity long before Olympiodorus (6th century AD) and significant references to the Orphic version are known from sources as early as Callimachus, Plato and even Pindar. To understand this, Johnston asks us to
remember that in contrast to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the religions of ancient Greece had no canonical, sacred texts. Myths and especially myths asssociated with cults, were fluid; now one version of a story and now another was invoked to suit particular circumstances.
[pp. 67-68]
So-called Orphism turns out to be a variant of Dionysianism, and one that is distinguished by it's own ritual texts and it's own version of the myth of Dionysos, a version that has multiple literary sources. Orphism is also closely identified with both Pythagoreanism and Platonism, and many of our most important literary sources for Orphism are late antique Platonic writings. The hieroi logoi of Orphism, then, include scripts for rituals, literary accounts of the cultic mythos, and an extensive philosophical literature stretching from Pythagoras (born ca 570 BC) to Olympiodorus (died 570 AD).

[Also see the original Religions of the Library post.]

Friday, November 27, 2009

Fake "Buddha" Quote?

This one has been making the rounds on teh internets recently:

"Suffering, if it does not diminish love will transport you to the furthest shore."

It appears to come from a article from several days ago: Huston Smith's Painful Spiritual Odyssey, by John Blake (dated November 23, 2009). According to the article, Smith "recalled" the above words as "a quote from Buddha".

This just doesn't sound right to me. I'd be willing to bet that this is at best a very sloppy paraphrase. Maybe the Buddha might have come up with this if he ever worked for Hallmark Cards. Otherwise, not so much. But I can believe that Smith tried to pawn it off on some reporter as the real thing.

"WAKE UP!!" (The End. The Doors. Live. '67. Toronto.)

This is the end, beautiful friend
This is the end, my only friend
The end of our elaborate plans
The end of everything that stands
The end

No safety or surprise
The end
I'll never look into your eyes again

Can you picture what will be
So limitless and free
Desperately in need of some
...stranger's hand
In a desperate land

Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain
And all the children are insane
All the children are insane
Waiting for the summer rain
There's danger on the edge of town
Ride the King's highway
Weird scenes inside the gold mine
Ride the highway West, baby

Ride the snake
Ride the snake
To the lake
To the lake

The ancient lake, baby
The snake is long
Seven miles
Ride the snake

He's old
And his skin is cold
The West is the best
The West is the best
Get here and we'll do the rest

The blue bus is calling us
The blue bus is calling us
Driver, where are you taking us?

The killer awoke before dawn
He put his boots on

He took a face from the
...ancient gallery
And he walked on down the hall

He went into the room where his
...sister lived
And then he paid a visit to his brother
And then he walked on down the hall
And he came to a door
And he looked inside
Yes, son?
I want to kill you.
I want to fuck you.

Come on baby, take a chance with us
Come on baby, take a chance with us
Come on baby, take a chance with us
And meet me at the back of the blue bus

This is the end, beautiful friend
This is the end, my only friend
The end

It hurts to set you free
But you'll never follow me

The end of laughter and soft lies
The end of nights we tried to die

This is the end

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Religions of the Library

The historians of the various nations have given us their accounts -- accounts, it goes without saying, that offer us a very one-sided version of their national religions, and a biased view of the religions of surrounding peoples. The prophets of the Jews and their great hero, Moses, wrote the history of their people in a way designed to favor their beliefs. The Egyptian view of the Jews, not surprisingly, is quite different. Yet behind these views, these national prejudices, is an ancient logos that has existed from the beginning -- a logos, so it is said, maintained by the wisest men of all nations and cities. This logos has been held not only by the sages among the Jews, but by the wise men of the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Indians, Persians, Odrysians, Samothracians, and Eleusians. The Galactophagi of Homer, the Druids of Gaul, and even the Getae (for example) believe logoi very close to those believed by the Jews -- indeed, before the Jews. Linus, Musaeus, Orpheus, Pherecydes, Zoroaster the Persian, and Pythagoras understood these logoi, and their opinions were recorded in books which are still to be consulted.
[Celsus Alethes Logos, Hoffman translation/reconstruction, p. 55]
If there were truth in advertising, the Abrahamic religions would be known as "Religions That Burn Books", rather than as "Religions of the Book." And Pagan, polytheistic religions would be known as "Religions of the Library."

Sometimes one will hear the claim that ancient Pagans had no theology, never mind the fact that theology is, and quite obviously so, a Greek word originally coined by Greek Pagans. Similarly, one also hears that ancient Pagans had no sacred texts. This despite the fact that if one goes back far enough in human history there is literally no literature at all other than the sacred literature of Pagans.

I think the confusion arises because when monotheists envision a "canon" of sacred texts, they think of something that you can hold in one hand, perhaps even discretely slip into your pocket. But it turns out the more Gods you have, the more sacred writings you have. So Pagans have whole libraries filled with our sacred texts. One book, even a big book, simply won't do.

Orpheus, Homer and Hesiod, for examples, were at least as much theologians as they were poets. And this is nearly as true for Sappho, Simonides, Solon, Pindar, Callimachus, Apollonius, etc. And that is just the Greeks! Lucretius, Vergil, and Ovid, and many more, could be added as well from the ranks of the Romans.

In the late fourth and early fifth centuries AD, die-hard Pagans such as Macrobius and Servius spoke of Vergil as Pontifex Maximus. And throughout the Middle Ages The Poet was considered a semi-divine being not only in "high" literature such as Dante's Divine Comedy, but in popular beliefs current among the illiterate masses, who envisioned Vergil as a Magician, Sage and Saint.

(As the case of Vergil very nicely illustrates, the current obsession with distinguishing sharply between the culture of the "elites" and that of the "people" is largely a baseless modern intellectual fad. Homer's poems did not start out as written literature at all, nor did Vergil's Aeneid. These were originally part of the oral popular culture of "the people" long before any Greeks or Latins ever learned to read and write. And so our sacred literature has always been for all Pagans regardless of wealth or social station, not just the "elites" and/or the privileged and educated.)

No less an authority than Peter Brown has acknowledged that Vergil's works, "like the Bible", amount to "an inexhaustible source of precise religious information." Brown speculates that Augustine felt compelled to undertake the arduous task of writing his extended attack on Paganism (City of God: Against the Pagans) at least in part to counter the ongoing threat posed by Vergil, this Pontifex Maximus who had been dead for over four centuries. Vergil was perceived as so threatening because regardless of how few Pagans were still left at the time, and regardless of the fact that these had been deprived of their temples, their priests, their public processions, etc., and had been reduced to skulking about praying to their Gods in secret in small groups or alone as individuals, nevertheless, so long as the works of Vergil were still available he could be looked to as an eternally living teacher and even as the chief priest of the Old Religion. To read more of what Brown has to say on the subject of Vergil and his religious significance see his biography of Augustine, especially Chapter 26: Magnum opus et arduum.

So Pagans are not lacking in sacred literature. Nor is the content of that literature lacking in it's depth or breadth (all of western literature is based on it, in fact!), or in the reverence which Pagans have had (and at least some Pagans still do have) for these precious texts. Pagans do, however, lack a rigidly circumscribed religious "canon", precisely because we lack a process of canonization. It has simply never occurred to Pagans to draw up a single list and say these books, and only these books, are sacred, while the rest should be burned (along with anyone caught reading them). And, even more completely unlike monotheists, Pagans have an expansive, inclusive view of the sacred literature of "others", so that the Greek honors the sacred books of the Egyptian, and vice versa, and so forth.

[Also see Religions of the Library, Part Deux.]

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Vagina (The Dance!)

OK boys and girls, it's high time for a psychic palate cleanser!!

Question: What is the antidote to the viral (or is that virulent?) Christian Side Hug Video?

Here's the answer. That link takes you to a youtube video of the Snappy Dance Theater performance of their mesmerizingly beautiful Vagina (The Dance!)

According to the Snappy Dance Theater website:
Since 1997, Snappy Dance Theater has been enriching the lives of audiences of all backgrounds and ages with its edgy yet accessible style of dance theater. Blending dance with theater and acrobatics, Snappy Dance Theater has taken its audiences around the United States and abroad on a journey that's thought-provoking, often humorous, and always entertaining.

God. Purpose. Culture. Side Hugs.

Totally. Creeping. Me. Out.

[also see: "'Christian Side Hug': Is this for real??"]

It's all starting to come into focus. If you look at the "Christian Side Hug" video at youtube you will see that it was originally posted by an entity identified as "TFHvideos", and that the date when it was first posted is March 13, 2009. "TFH" stands for "The Father's House" (website:, a group based on the belief that "God's Word ... contains every answer to the challenges of life".

"The Father's House" sponsors an annual event called "The EG Conference", with the slogan:
"God. Purpose. Culture."
The 2009 EG Conference was held in late February 2009, just a couple of weeks before "Christian Side Hugs" video was first posted on youtube (here is the website for the 2010 conference). The description of the video states, apparently in complete seriousness, "Breaking it down EG style."

Some people have speculated that this video is "tongue in cheek" and/or a parody of some sort. Admittedly, the thing sure as hell does look like something Christopher Guest might have dreamed up during a (very) bad acid trip. But there doesn't seem to be much to support that view if you look through the website of the sponsoring organization. The same is true if look through a collection of sermons that have been delivered at The Father's House by Dave Patterson (their lead Pastor) and others. Christian Side Hugs are for real and so is the video.

Be. Very. Afraid.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"Christian Side Hug": Is this for real????

Since first hearing about it (by way of Mamiel's always fascinating Impotent Rage blog) I have been very tempted to suspect that the "Christian Side Hug" viral video is a hoax. It is just too perfect! Also, it seems to be impossible to find out anything about the video: what is the name of this smarmy Christian Rap Group? Where and when does this performance take place? Who is behind the video itself? And, most importantly of all, are there really Christians who really, seriously, truly, advocate "side hugs"???

However, the answer to that last question appears to be "yes". I found a 2006 entry in an Christian blog that actually criticizes the "side hug" and suggests replacing it with "the enthusiastic high five". The Christian blogger in question goes on to offer a very reasonable sounding explanation of the origins of the "side hug" among Christians:
I realize that the side hug probably started occuring because of two main reasons. First, there was some concern amongst churchfolk that full-frontal hugs could arrouse sexual tension between a man and a woman. It might send mixed signals and confuse both parties, thus we should clearly communicate with perhaps a few pats around the shoulder, "'re...a...good...friend." Thus we came up with the side hug to avert this all together to show people that we're close, but not that close. The second reason is because somewhere along the way guys were educated to the point that they realized that giving hugs showed they had some degree of emotional depth. However, going in for the real deal posed too much of a threat to their masculinity, so they came up with the side-hug as a worthy compromise.
[From the "There and Back Again" blog -- entry for 3-23-2006]
The person who wrote this blog entry sounds very matter-of-fact about all this, and also sounds quite rational, sane and intelligent. And there are several comments to that blog entry, one of them from a young Christian minister who says that he was taught to give side-hugs as part of his training! So it looks like this is the real thing. Oh. My. Fucking. Gods.

It really still could be a hoax. But if it is then it is a very well done and well researched hoax!!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Ayodhya: "Frank debate is inversely proportional with street violence"

This post is in three parts:

1. From: Koenraad Elst's BJP Retreat from Ayodhya, Part I
Frank debate is inversely proportional with street violence, and those secularists who suppress such debate are among the culprits of India's communal problem. Unfortunately, the BJP chose to join in this 'secular' (in Europe we would call it anti‑secular) shielding of medieval belief systems from rational investigation and informed debate.

This half‑heartedness made it impossible for the party to argue its case on Ayodhya convincingly. Next to the well-known media bias, this was the main reason why world opinion turned massively against the Hindus. It is entirely obvious that a Hindu sacred site belongs to the Hindus, and no Westerner would want his own sacred sites to be desecrated; yet every single commentator in the West has strongly condemned the Hindu attempt to end the Islamic occupation of a Hindu sacred site.

While in most controversies, there will be some support somewhere for both the sides, in this case, there was no voice of support or even of understanding for the Hindu position. Without exaggeration, the BJP's Ayodhya campaign was the single biggest public relations disaster in world history.

The BJP never did any introspection about this harvest of hostility, but it certainly disliked the experience. After riding the 'Ram wave' to an electoral breakthrough in 1991, the BJP immediately started distancing itself from the issue. By December 6, 1992, Hindutva activists had lost patience with Mr. Advani. When they stormed the structure, he shed tears over the damage done to the BJP's self‑image, as did many BJP men in the party office when they heard the news.

Even VHP leader Ashok Singbal tried to stop the activists, until they threatened to pull off his dhoti. Anti‑Hindutva spokesmen want us to believe that this was all theatre, but it was genuine (as was Murli Manohar Joshi's jubilation). A small Hindutva faction had prepared the demolition, deliberately keeping the leadership in the dark about it.

If the Indian media had meant business, they would have found out and told you within a few days just who engineered the 'Kar Seva'. Instead, they chose to spurn the scoop of the year and stuck to the politically more useful version that the BJP did it, somewhat like late Jawaharlal Nehru's attempt to implicate Veer Savakar in Nathuram Godse's murder of the Mahatma.

Most BJP leaders (Kalyan Singh being the chief exception) dealt with the event in a confused and insincere manner. The gradual BJP retreat from Ayodhya was completed overnight, and the party was reduced to waging its subsequent election campaign with colourless slogans like 'good government'.

This purely secular posturing worked well in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, but it may prove to be yet another "cheque which can be cashed only once," especially considering the BJP's recent loss of credibility regarding governance.

The party's best chance of a meaningful survival now lies in the adoption of a better‑considered Hindu agenda, not focused on dead buildings but on consequential political reforms.
[The Observer Of Business And Politics, New Delhi, Friday December 6, 1996.]

2. From: Koenraad Elst's BJP Retreat from Ayodhya, Part II
The experience of December 6 and 7, 1992, suggests that the secularist media will counter the BJP initiative with hysterical shrieks, whipping up communal passions and de facto inciting riots. Back then, commentators trumpeted that along with the Masjid, the secular state itself had been demolished, so was democracy and even the Indian 'Muslims' very right to live. Who would not have taken to the streets if it was made so clear that the heavens themselves had fallen?

Next time, they will call the implementation of Article 44 similar names say, "a perversion of our secular Constitution," or rabid attack on the most intimate dimensions of the Islamic component of our composite culture." Hindus will again be blackened worldwide as intolerant, there will be murder and destruction, the BJP will burn its fingers again, and I just don't think that a Common Civil Code is worth all that misery.

Instead, the BJP ought first of all to take up an issue which really matters for Hindu communal life abolishing the legal and constitutional discriminations against the Hindu majority, most urgently those in education and temple management. The constitutional bedrock of these discriminations is Article 30, which accords to the minorities the right to set up and administer their own schools and colleges, preserving their communal identity (through the course contents and by selectively recruiting teachers and students), all while receiving state subsidies. That right is not guaranteed to the majority, but should be.

The problem was highlighted when the Ramakrishna Mission went to court to seek recognition as a non‑Hindu minority in order to protect its schools from a take‑over by the West Bengal government. It says a lot about the sorry state of the Hindu intellect that the debate focused entirely on the RKM's ridiculous claim, and not on the constitutional injustice underlying this tragi‑comedy.

The BJP, too, failed to rise to the occasion. In fact, the longest sitting parliamentarian in India, Atal Behari Vajpayee, never moved a finger to remove this thorn from the side of the Hindu society. When foreign newsmen ask BJP leaders about the notion of "pseudo‑secularism" the answer usually mentions Article 30, but the record shows that the BJP does not mean business.

An analogous problem exists for the Hindu temples. Mosques and churches are exclusively managed by the respective communities, but Hindu temples are routinely taken over by the secular authorities. This results in misappropriation of the temple's income and its redirection to non‑Hindu purposes. It is also a major factor in the grinding poverty afflicting most Hindu temple priests and their families.

Recently, the authorities moved court (unsuccessfully) to get the Shirdi Sai Baba temple in Hyderabad registered as a Hindu temple, all for wresting control of the institution and its funds. The BJP does not deserve to get a single Hindu vote if it doesn't address to this injustice.

The BJP can at once take an initiative in Parliament to remove these discriminations. This will force the other parties to take a stand. Either they support secular equality, ensuring a majority for the BJP's proposed amendment. The party can then claim that at long last, it had really achieved something for the Hindus. Alternately, the other parties may defend discrimination and religious inequality, defeating the BJP's amendment. In that case, the proposed amendment comes centrestage in the next election campaign, not as a marginal item on page 64 of the BJP election manifesto (as in 1996), but as the central theme.

Such a campaign will be better for the BJP and for India than a controversy over temple sites or the Common Civil Code. Abolition of the said discriminations is far more consequential for Hindu culture. It is impeccably secular, even to the extent that it will be difficult to fool world opinion into believing that this is "Hindu fundamentalism" again. It does not directly affect the minorities and is far less likely to antagonise them. So, it is far easier to handle. Even the BJP could do it.
[The Weekend Observer, New Delhi, Saturday, December 7, 1996.]

3. What if Rajiv Gandhi hadn't unlocked the Babri Masjid in 1986?
by Koenraad Elst (
In 1985, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi gave in to Muslim pressure in the Shah Bano affair. Overruling a secular court's decision that the repudiated wife Shah Bano was entitled to alimony from her ex-husband, he enacted a law abolishing the alimony provision in conformity with the Shari'a. Since India, unlike secular states, already had religion-based Civil Codes, this concession merely brought the minor matter of alimony under the purview of the prevailing arrangement. More importantly, it prevented riots.

Only months later, Gandhi restored the balance by giving the Hindus something as well: he ordered the locks on the Ram Janmabhoomi Babri Masjid in Ayodhya removed. Until then, a priest had been permitted to perform puja once a year for the idols installed there in 1949. Now, all Hindus were given access to what they consider as the birthplace of Rama, the prince posthumously deified as an incarnation of Vishnu.

Fundamentally, this decision didn't alter the Ayodhya equation. Architecturally, the building was and remained a mosque, while functionally, it had been and continued to be a Hindu temple. That is why in my opinion, not taking this decision wouldn't have changed the Ayodhya developments except in their timing. The different players, their strategies and goals, and their resolve to pursue these, all remained the same. The Babri Masjid Action Committee and the Vishva Hindu Parishad would have gone about their "business" just the same.

However, the VHP would have been forced to continue pushing the rather petty demand for removing the locks, rather than move on to the more ambitious and more mobilizing next step of planning the construction of a new temple. Most probably, the BJP would likewise have reaped smaller dividends from such a campaign. In 1989, it might not have jumped as high as 86 seats. Conversely, Congress might not have lost the North-Indian Muslim vote to the Janata Dal. In 1989, it could have remained just strong enough to cobble together a coalition rather than leave the initiative to the unwholesome and unstable Janata-BJP-Communist combine. So, at the level of party politics, Rajiv Gandhi's decision may have made a big difference.

On the other hand, the presence or absence of locks might have made little difference to the Kar Sevaks who brought the building down in 1992. Then again, with a Rajiv Gandhi government returning to power in 1989, there might have been no reason for this extreme move. The Hindus might by then have gotten their sacred site without a fight.

After all, in a situation where both Hindus and Muslims were laying claim to the site, Gandhi's decision in 1986 was important because it allowed for only one interpretation: he favoured the Hindu claim. This was logical, for the site has a sacred significance for Hindus as the putative birthplace of Rama, while it had no special status for Muslims. Historical documents confirm that Hindus continued to go on pilgrimage to the site all through the centuries of Muslim occupation, while no Muslim ever went on pilgrimage there.

Admittedly, a Muslim lobby had been formed which insisted on reoccupying this Hindu sacred site. However, the existing Congress culture notoriously knew how to deal with such problems: give the Muslim lobbyists some ministerial posts, some public largesse for their institutes or a raise in the Hajj subsidies, and they will come around. A small application of this approach was the annulment of Syed Shahabuddin's announced march on Ayodhya in 1988 in exchange for the governmental ban on Salman Rushdie's freshly-released book The Satanic Verses. A similar but bigger concession might have annulled the Muslim claim on the Ayodhya site. It would not have been the most principled policy, but it would have avoided a lot of communal blood-letting.

This pragmatic approach was thwarted midway. It is not often that intellectuals play a crucial role in politics, but this time they did. After the locks had been removed, India's Marxist intellectuals unchained all their devils in order to prevent the full restoration of the site as a Hindu pilgrimage centre. In particular, they started insisting that there had never been a Hindu temple at the site before a mosque had been imposed on it.

This was a strange claim to make, for two reasons. Firstly, it was untrue. Until then, all parties concerned had agreed that the mosque had been built in forcible replacement of a temple. What is nowadays rubbished as "the VHP claim" was in fact the consensus view. Thus, in court proceedings in the 1880s, the Muslim claimants and the British rulers agreed with the Hindu claimants on the historical fact of the temple demolition, but since it had happened centuries earlier, they decided that time had sanctioned the Muslim usurpation and nullified the Hindus' legal claim. Further, numerous documents and several archaeological excavations confirmed the history of the temple demolition (with the court-ordered excavations of spring 2003 removing the last possible doubts). The sudden denial of this history by a circle of Marxist historians was not based on any new evidence but purely on political compulsions. It seems that their long enjoyment of a hegemonic power position in academe had gone to their heads, so they thought they could get away with crude history falsification.

Secondly, the question of the site's history was beside the point. The decisive consideration for awarding the site to the Hindus, both for the Hindu campaigners themselves and for Rajiv Gandhi, was not the site's sacred status in the Middle Ages, but its sacredness for Hindus today. It is the Hindus of 1986 or indeed of 2004 who have been going on pilgrimage to Ayodhya, and they are as much entitled to find a Hindu atmosphere there, complete with Hindu architecture, as Muslims are entitled to find an Islamic atmosphere in Mecca. The VHP has been blamed for politicising history, but it was its opponents who complicated matters by bringing in history, and false history at that.

Nonetheless, the Marxist historians had their way. In their shrill manifestoes, these secular fundamentalists slandered the genuine historians who stood by the facts, and they denounced the Hindus' perfectly reasonable expectation that a Hindu sacred site be left in the exclusive care of the Hindus. They did this with such titanic vehemence that the pragmatists were thrown on the defensive.

Rajiv Gandhi didn't give up, though. In 1989, he allowed the Shilanyas ceremony, in which the first stone of the planned temple was put in place. In 1990, as opposition leader, he made Chandra Shekhar's minority government organize a scholars' debate on the history of the site, obviously on the assumption that this would confirm the Hindu claim. And so it did, for the anti-temple historians showed up empty-handed when they were asked to provide evidence for an alternative scenario to the temple demolition. In a normal course of events, i.e. without the interference of secularist shrieks and howls, this would have set the stage for the peaceful construction of a new temple in the 1990s, with some compensation for the Muslim community, and the conflict would have been forgotten by now. Instead, the sore has continued to fester. In 1991 Rajiv Gandhi was murdered, and his successors didn't have the good sense to continue his equitable and pragmatic Ayodhya policy.
[This article first appeared in the online version of the newsmagazine
'Outlook India' (issue dt. 23 August 2004) at the URL]

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow."

"Prophetic" Christianity Naked At Last
Just recently there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth concerning some t-shirts that were (but are no longer) for sale at Cafe Press. The t-shirts indirectly express a wish for President Obama to die, and for his wife and children to suffer terribly as well. The wish is expressed indirectly by way of a literary reference.

The literary reference is not to Mein Kampf or anything like that. Rather, the reference is to a particular book of the Bible, one that is among the most beloved by both Christians and Jews, the Book of Psalms.

But the "psalm" in question is Psalm 109, an "imprecatory" prayer by David to his God, Jehovah. David, it seems, has had it with some of his enemies, and so he has decided to ask God to take care of them. In fact this particular psalm is called "A Cry for Vengeance."

As despicable as this particular use of Judeo-Christian scripture is, how genuinely out of line is it with the original meaning and intention of David's poem? As Biblical commentator Robert L. (Bob) Deffinbaugh has written, "The problem we face in Psalm 109 is one that is far broader than just one passage, or even one book of the Bible. Prayers of imprecation for the destruction of the wicked are to be found throughout the entire Word of God."

Of course what Deffinbaugh is saying should hardly come as shocking news to anyone. Everyone knows the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the slaughter of the first born of Egypt, etc. These are things that Jehovah is depicted as openly bragging about, and his worshippers, one would assume, must approve. Indeed, it is strongly implied that it could be very unhealthy to not approve! So if one is already worshipping a vengeful, jealous, smite-happy, God, why not pass along one's own personal suggestions for additions to the Divine Shit List?

Pastor Deffinbaugh offers several examples of scriptural passages to demonstrate just how broad the problem is:
“Do Thou add iniquity to their iniquity, and may they not come into Thy righteousness. May they be blotted out of the book of life, and may they not be recorded with the righteous.” (Ps. 69:27-28)

"O that Thou wouldst slay the wicked, O God; depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed. For they speak against Thee wickedly, and Thine enemies take Thy name in vain. Do I not hate those who hate Thee, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against Thee? I hate them with the utmost hatred; they have become my enemies." (Ps. 139:19-22)

"Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom the day of Jerusalem, who said, 'Raze it, raze it, to its very foundation.' O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one, how blessed will be the one who repays you with the recompense with which you have repaid us. How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock." (Ps. 137:7-9)

"Do give heed to me, O Lord, and listen to what my opponents are saying! Should good be repaid with evil? For they have dug a pit for me. Remember how I stood before Thee to speak good on their behalf, so as to turn away Thy wrath from them. Therefore, give their children over to famine, and deliver them up to the power of the sword; and let their wives become childless and widowed. Let their men also be smitten to death, their young men struck down by the sword in battle. May an outcry be heard from their houses, when Thou suddenly bringest raiders upon them; for they have dug a pit to capture me and hidden snares for my feet. Yet Thou, O Lord, knowest all their deadly designs against me; do not forgive their iniquity or blot out their sin from Thy sight. But may they be overthrown before Thee; deal with them in the time of Thine anger!" (Jer. 18:19-23)

"And when He broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, 'How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?'" (Rev. 6:9-10)
In fact, such "imprecations" are nothing other than the true face of so-called "prophetic" Christianity. "Prophetic" Christianity is sometimes touted as if it were a kinder, gentler, liberal form of Christianity. In fact it is just a particular tone often adopted by Christians generally, regardless of party affiliation or political ideology, whenever they feel like claiming that all those who oppose them are "wicked". As discussed in this blog previously (see the post Doing the Lord's Work in Rwanda), "prophetic" Christianity attempts to replace the true underlying dynamic of monotheism, based on it's exclusive and intolerant claim to represent the one and only True Religion, with a more palatable claim, that it represents freedom and justice against oppression and injustice.

It's also worth mentioning that the exact reasons given by David for literally calling down the wrath of God on his enemies are rather vague. He seems to be especially annoyed at people who have been saying bad things about him: "wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me, speaking against me with lying tongues. They encircle me with words of hate."

Finally, here is the complete text of Psalm 109, A Prayer for Vengeance:

109:1 Be not silent, O God of my praise!

2 For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me,
speaking against me with lying tongues.

3 They encircle me with words of hate,
and attack me without cause.

4 In return for my love they accuse me,
but I give myself to prayer. [1]

5 So they reward me evil for good,
and hatred for my love.

6 Appoint a wicked man against him;
let an accuser stand at his right hand.

7 When he is tried, let him come forth guilty;
let his prayer be counted as sin!

8 May his days be few;
may another take his office!

May his children be fatherless
and his wife a widow!

10 May his children wander about and beg,
seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit!

11 May the creditor seize all that he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil!

12 Let there be none to extend kindness to him,
nor any to pity his fatherless children!

13 May his posterity be cut off;
may his name be blotted out in the second generation!

14 May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord,
and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out!

15 Let them be before the Lord continually,
that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth!

16 For he did not remember to show kindness,
but pursued the poor and needy
and the brokenhearted, to put them to death.

17 He loved to curse; let curses come [2] upon him!
He did not delight in blessing; may it be far [3] from him!

18 He clothed himself with cursing as his coat;
may it soak [4] into his body like water,
like oil into his bones!

19 May it be like a garment that he wraps around him,
like a belt that he puts on every day!

20 May this be the reward of my accusers from the Lord,
of those who speak evil against my life!

21 But you, O God my Lord,
deal on my behalf for your name's sake;
because your steadfast love is good, deliver me!

22 For I am poor and needy,
and my heart is stricken within me.

23 I am gone like a shadow at evening;
I am shaken off like a locust.

24 My knees are weak through fasting;
my body has become gaunt, with no fat.

25 I am an object of scorn to my accusers;
when they see me, they wag their heads.

26 Help me, O Lord my God!
Save me according to your steadfast love!

27 Let them know that this is your hand;
you, O Lord, have done it!

28 Let them curse, but you will bless!
They arise and are put to shame, but your servant will be glad!

29 May my accusers be clothed with dishonor;
may they be wrapped in their own shame as in a cloak!

30 With my mouth I will give great thanks to the Lord;
I will praise him in the midst of the throng.

31 For he stands at the right hand of the needy one,
to save him from those who condemn his soul to death.

peas and potato soup

(1) Cook 1/3 cup split peas together with 1/3 cup lentils with 1 or 2 bay leaves.

(2) After the split peas and lentils have cooked for at least 20 min., in a separate pan saute one medium onion and then add 1 lb of potatoes to the onions and saute together for about 5-10 min.

Combine (1) and (2) together with 1 can of peas. Cook together until the potatoes are done. Add salt to taste.

More on Freddie Mercury and Zoroastrianism

[See also: In Honor of Freddie Mercury: We Are Zoroastrians, My Friends]

The following excerpts are from Rick Sky's book The Show Must Go On: The Life of Freddie Mercury (Citadel Press/Carol Publishing Group: New York City, NY, 1994). These excerpts can all be found in the com article The Religious Affiliation of Freddie Mercury.

[from pages 8-9]:
Just like Mercury himself, the occasion [of his funeral], which the singer had spent weeks planning in meticulous detail, was a bewildering mixture of flamboyance and secrecy, witnessing the collision of two very different worlds--the modern world of rock music and the ancient world of the Zoroastrian religion, in which Mercury had been brought up.

Zoroastrianism is one of the world's oldest and most exclusive religions. Founded by the prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) in 600 B.C., it has only 120,000 members worldwide and just 6,000 in Britain. Its followers see life as a battle between two spirits, Spenta Mainyu, the "Bounteous Spirit," and Angra Mainyu, the "Destructive Spirit." Whichever one a Zoroastrian lives his life by determines where he or she goes to after death. The final resting place is the Zoroastrian equivalent to the Christian heaven or hell.

As Mercury's oak coffin was carried into the chapel, covererd in a satin sheet and topped with a single red rose, Zoroastrian priests, dressed in white muslin robes and caps, chanted traditional prayers to their god Ahura Mazda, also known as the Wise Lord, for the salvation of the singer's soul. Throughout the twenty-five minute service, conducted totally in the ancient Avestan langauge, the priests used no word of English other than commands to the forty mourners to stand and sit.

Mercury had insisted on his funeral being a private, low-key affair, and the magical ancient ceremony was attended only by extremely close friends and family, as he had wished. The singer's parents, Bomi and Jer Bulsara, wept throughout as did Mary Austin and Elton John. Among the other tearful mourners were sixties drummer turned impresario Dave Clark, the three remaining members of Queen, and Brian May's girlfriend, former EastEnders' soap star Anita Dobson.

[pages 12-16]:
Mercury's parents were both Parsees and devout followers of the Zoroastrian religion, and it was in Bombay that the largest Parsee community in the world was to be found. In the tenth century, after the Islamic invasion of Persia, the Parsees fled to India, where they were free to practice their religion. India had a reputation as one of the most tolerant countries in the world when it came to religion, and in Bombay, with its polyglot population, many of the world's religious groups--Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, and Zoroastrians--lived side by side.

The Parsees were one of the most economically successful communities in Bombay. In their early days they had adopted the language and dress of India's largest religious group, the Hindus, but they later exchanged them for the customs and way of life of India's former colonial masters, the British. So the young Freddie was to receive a typical British public school education, even if it was achieved thousands of miles away from Eton and Harrow.

India, at the time the young Mercury arrived, had a population of 400 million, and Bombay was its largest city--and the world's seventh biggest. A harbor port lying on India's western seaboard overlooking the Arabian Sea, it was the country's financial and commercial center. Bombay was a fantastic place for Freddie to grow up in. He loved playing in its winding, narrow streets and visiting the beautiful Hanging Gardens in the affluent Malabar Hill area close by the Parsee hospital. He loved going to the bazaar to watch the snake charmers weave their magical, hypnotic tunes, or to gape wide-eyed at the fakirs, Indian holy men, lying on their beds of nails. In those crammed markets he would watch the traders sell the city's most exotic wares as he feasted on mangoes, coconuts, and litchis. In the afternoon he would go to the harbor and look out on a sea of ships laden with tea, cotton, and rice, ready to set off on voyages to distant parts.

Mercury enjoyed his boarding school, too. He excelled in sports, particularly cricket, boxing, and table tennis. The fast, furious pace of table tennis--involving a mixture of dexterity and speed--was something he was especially skilled in and he became one of the school champions at the sport. It was at school in Bombay that Mercury also began the piano lessons that were to be crucial to those florid, bombastic compositions for which Queen became known. The city was a bizarre musical melting pot, where the eleven-year-old was simultaneously exposed to the classics and operas that his cultured parents loved, the meandering rhythms and romance of Indian music, and a pinch of that relatively new phenomenon, rock and roll, which was slowly beginning to invade the world.

Religion, too, played an important role in Mercury's life, and he went with other Zoroastrian youngsters to the fire temples where the Parsees worship. The sacred fires are a crucial part of their religion, and prayers are said in front of them as an affirmation of a believer's faith. They are kept permanently burning--in some parts of Iran there are fires that are two thousand years old--and are tended five times a day by the priests of the temple.

At the age of eight Freddie became a full member of the Zoroastrian religion in the majestic Mayjote ceremony, during which the young initiate was given a purifying bath while the head priest chanted prayers. (The bath symbolizes physical cleanliness, which devotees regard as essential for the cleansing of the mind and soul.) Then/ in front of one of the eternal fires, he repeated the prayers of the priests, accepting the Zoroastrian religion as revealed by Ahura Mazda to Zoroaster, and was given his sudreh, a shirt made out of white muslin, symbol of innocence and purity. Around his waist the priest then tied the kusti, a cord made out of the finest and purest white lamb's wool and symbolizing the girding of the loins to serve humanity. The kusti was wrapped around him three times to remind the young boy of the three aspects of Ahura Mazda as creator, preserver, and reconstructor, and the initiate was expected to wear it for the rest of his life. Finally Mercury was showered with rice, rose petals, coconut, and pomegranate and dressed in his new clothes. Rusi Dalal, a friend of Mercury's family says of the Navjote ceremony: "It is one of the most important events in the religion and everyone from the Parsee community is invited. It is a very festive and enjoyable event."

Later Freddie was to talk affectionately about his years at boarding school. Many pop stars recall their schooldays as a horrific period that they could not wait to finish, but not so Mercury: "My time at boarding school was very enjoyable..."

Friday, November 20, 2009

In Honor of Freddie Mercury: "We are Zoroastrians, My Friends ...."

[See also: More on Freddie Mercury and Zoroastrianism]

November 24 will be the 18th anniversary of the death of Freddie Mercury. Among very many other things, Mercury is probably the world's most famous Zoroastrian. The beautiful drawing of Freddie to the right, by the way, was done by Julie Popowicz.

Zoroastrianism is often proclaimed to be the world's first monotheistic religion. However, Mary Boyce, one of the leading 20th century scholars of Zoroastrianism, wrote in her On Mithra's Part in Zoroastrianism that when one compares what is known about the polytheistic religion of the Iranians before Zoroaster, with what is known about Zoroastrianism itself, "the two are remarkably and disconcertingly similar, as if the second were a natural development from the first without any break in continuity." Professor Boyce also wrote in her book-length study Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices that the earliest forms of Zoroastrianism included the worship of not only the "the six great Beings" but also "other beneficent divinities, which are the beneficent gods of the pagan Iranian pantheon." [p. 55] In fact, Zoroaster himself called upon "Mazda and the other Ahuras." [p. 61]

But despite Boyce's consistent critique of what she called "the established academic dogma of the prophet's [that is, Zoroaster's] rigid monotheism", when she died in 2006 an obituary (written by one of her students!) begins with the sentence:
The perspective of Mary Boyce, who has died aged 85, on Zoroastrianism, the world's first monotheistic religion, was transformed by a year of fieldwork in 1966 among orthodox Zoroastrians in remote villages around the desert city of Yazd in central Iran.
But in the very next sentence, we are told that "What she discovered there led her to question many scholarly assumptions about the prophet Zoroaster and his followers."!!!! One might never guess (in fact, how could one guess from what has just been said) that among these "scholarly assumptions" is the assertion that Zoroastrianism is a religion with one and only one God, in other words, precisely the kind of thinking that is intentionally perpetuated in the act of trumpeting Zoroastrianism as "the world's first monotheistic religion"!!! It's true that Boyce accepted, with strong and strongly worded reservations, the term "monotheism" as applicable to Zoroastrianism, while never tiring of criticizing those who misapplied anachronistic (and as will be shown below, not merely Christianizing but Protestantizing) interpretations to Zoroastrianism under the guise of "monotheism".

Boyce always emphasized the simple fact that Zoroastrians have always recognized and worshipped multiple Deities. For example, according to Boyce, King Darius (who reigned from 522 to 486 BC) would "call upon 'the other gods who are' and upon 'all the gods'" although Darius "only invoked Ahuramazda by name." Artaxerxes II, who reigned from 404 to 358 BC, however, invoked the divine triad Ahuramazda, Anahita and Mithra -- each by name, and from that time on all three Ahuras, along with Verethraghna, the Yazata ("one worthy of veneration") of Victory "became the chief objects of popular devotion also." And as Boyce's choice of words implies, these four Deities were not the only "objects of popular devotion." [p. 56 of Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices]

Many other Yazatas, in addition to that of Victory, were also revered in Zoroastrian Persia. Each of the twelve months had its own Yazata, and the same is true for each of the thirty days of each month. There was also a Yazata specifically for Prayer, named Sraosha (also known at the Yazata of Obedience). This Yazata gained in prominence during the Achaemenid period, but was already "beloved by Zoroaster himself. The prophet names him several times in the Gathas, and once (Y 33.5) calls him 'greatest of all', presumably as guardian of the means -- prayer -- through which man can approach God." [p. 74]

The following three excerpts are all from Boyce's monumental A History of Zoroastrianism: The Early Period:
From the days of ancient Greece Zoroaster's own name had been familiar to the learned as that of a fabled Eastern sage; and when the
Avesta came at last [in the 18th century] into [western] scholar's hands, they sought eagerly in it for teachings which would justify this fame. At the time European men of letters acknowledged the twofold authority of Christianity and Reason, that of the former being as yet unchallenged by scientific advance; and Zoroaster's faith, since it had been propounded by one of the great teachers of mankind, was expected to be of a kind which a rational Christian could approve. There was dismay when its scriptures showed it to be be on the contrary in many respects remote and strange. For one thing, it was a faith which acknowledged, under God, many lesser divine beings, who were reverenced with a wealth of complex rituals and observances. Christianity and acquaintance with Greek mythology had combined to create in Europe a conviction that polytheism belonged to the childlike past of the human race, having been superseded for all advanced peoples by monotheism. Protestant Christianity, moreover (in which faith most Western interpreters of Zoroastrianism were reared), had no high regard for ritualism, even in the worship of a single God. To accept Zoroastrianism as it was, and to try to understand Zoroaster's teachings with the help of the living tradition, proved accordingly too much for the West; and a solution to the resulting dilemma was eventually found. in the middle of the 19th century, by the brilliant philologist Martin Haug. By painstaking study he isolated the Gathas (a group of seventeen ancient hymns) as the only part of the Avesta which could be regarded as the direct utterance of Zoroaster.; and he then proceeded, in all sincerity, to interpret these archaic and very difficult texts (concerning whose translation no two scholars to this day agree) independently from the actual beliefs and practices of Zoroaster's followers, whose forbears, he thought, must have early corrupted their prophets teachings. Struggling as a pioneer with these baffling hymns, Haug managed to understand Zoroaster to have preached a strict monotheism -- stricter even than that of the Hebrew prophets -- rejecting while he did so all the rituals of sacrifice and worship, apart from prayer. He assumed, that is, that the prophet of ancient Iran had been the bearer of a rational and ethical theism, which was so remote from the concepts and customs of his own people that, though they brought themselves to accept his teachings, they could not long live with their austerity, but soon distorted them, relapsing more or less into their former beliefs and ways.

One consequence of this simplification of Zoroaster's message was that it delayed recognition of his vital part in shaping those Messianic and eschatological doctrines which were to have so great an influence on later Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In seeking to exalt the prophet's stature, Haug in fact diminished his role in the history of human thought. His thesis proved, however, a potent factor in the development of Zoroastrian studies, and even in that of modern Zoroastrianism. In Europe it was adopted by a number of leading scholars, who were happy to be enabled thus to view Zoroaster in a way acceptable to their own time and culture; and in India, where Haug expounded it in person in the 1860's, it was warmly welcomed by one groups of Zoroastrians themselves. This was composed of Parsis who had received a Western education in Bombay, and who found in Haug's theories a swift and radical solution to a problem that had been tormenting them, namely how to reconcile the elaborate doctrines and usages of their venerable faith with 19th century scientific thought, and to maintain its dignity against the assaults of Protestant Christian missionaries. They gave ardent support to the idea thus presented to them that Zoroaster had not been a dualist -- a doctrinal position abhorrent to the proselytizing Christians -- but had taught a very simple faith, free from all ritualism and subtleties of dogma. Hence to become his true disciples they had only to reform the existing religion on this basis, making it once more a creed to which any thinking man who was not an atheist could readily adhere.

These reformists, setting vigorously about their task, expressed themselves mostly in English, and so it was their voices which were chiefly heard in the West, where by a circular process they were welcomed as confirming scholarly interpretations of their ancient faith. Within their own community they met, however, with strenuous opposition from those, both learned and simple, who were not so ready to abandon the beliefs and customs of their forefathers for a religion newly defined at a European desk.
[from the Forward]

In his
Gathas Zoroaster invokes, as well as Ahura Mazda and the seven Bounteous Immortals, the "other Ahuras" (who can only be Mitrha and Vouruna Apam Napat). He also refers by name to a number of the lesser yazatas: Sraosa, Asi, Geus, Tasan, Geus Urvan, Tusnamaiti, Iza -- beings who win mention in his hymns, it seems, because of their close association with the rituals of sacrifice and worship. It is clearly implied in the prophet's words what is stated in the tradition, that all these beings were part of the creation of Ahura Mazda, brought into being to help him oppose the forces of evil and owing him utter loyalty and obedience. This is the monotheism of Iran, preached by Zoroaster and maintained in the face of all adversity by his followers down to the 19th century AD: that in the beginning Ahura Mazda alone existed as a being worthy of worship, the solitary yazata, wholly wise, just and good. He is the only uncreated God, and is himself the first cause of all else that is good, whether divine or earthly, sentient or insentient -- for after bringing into being his divine helpers he proceeded, through them, to fashion the world and all that is good in it, as a further means of confounding evil and bringing it in the end to nothingness.
[p. 195]

[T]hat the prophet himself venerated all these beings as individuals, together with Ahura Mazda, has the unwavering support of the whole Zoroastrian tradition down to the 19th century, as well as that of a minority of Western scholars. With respect to the alternate theory (that to Zoroaster they were merely 'aspects' of God) it has been justly said: 'the fervor of piety has nothing to do with such ... subtle distinctions, but addresses itself to divine Beings, whose beauty is felt here as fascinating and whose power is recognized as effective'. [Henry Corbin, Eranos-Jahrbuch XXII, 1953, 101] That attributes of a great god, having been isolated, should then be invoked and worshipped as independent divinities was already a characteristic of pagan Iranian religion, as we have already seen strikingly in the case of the lesser Ahura, Mithra: for around him, the Lord Loyalty, are grouped "Justice", "Judgin", "Valour" and "Obedience" (Arstat, Rasnu, Hamvereti, Sraosa); and close though these beings are to him, each has his or her own separate life, and all receive worship and offerings to secure their individual favors. Nor are these divinities less "abstract" than those of Zoroaster's own revelation. Reverence for deities who personified "abstractions" appear a dominant feature of Indo-Iranian worship, as does also the linking of such "abstract" personifications with concrete phenomena -- Loyalty with fire and sun, Troth with water. The mould in fact was already old in which Zoroaster cast his new doctrines.
[pp. 202-203]

[i hate to blow my own conch-shell, but how many places on teh internets are you gonna find somebody writing about freddie mercury and henry corbin in the same post? not that freaking many, that's how many.]

Thursday, November 19, 2009

What is "Counterreligion"?

For these religions, and for these religions alone,
the truth to be proclaimed comes with an enemy to be fought.
[Jan Assmann, The Price of Monotheism]

All religions do not come into this world looking for a fight. But some do. Unfortunately, those that do have a certain practical advantage. To understand this advantage, think of religions that are not inclined to violence as being like people who are not inclined to violence, and think of religions that are inclined to violence like people with that inclination. When they come into contact with those who are not inclined to violence, those who are inclined to violence have a tendency to come out on top. And once on top they have another tendency, as described so well by J. William Fulbright:
Power tends to confuse itself with virtue and a great nation is particularly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God's favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations – to make them richer and happier and wiser, to remake them, that is, in its own shining image. Power confuses itself with virtue and tends also to take itself for omnipotence. Once imbued with the idea of a mission, a great nation easily assumes that it has the means as well as the duty to do God's work.
[J. William Fulbright, in a speech delivered at Johns Hopkins University in 1966]
A very important thing to be aware of, though, is that religion itself is not inherently violent and intolerant. In fact, for most of human history there were no religions that viewed other religions as enemies. One can go even further and posit that intolerance is inimical to religion itself, properly speaking, and that those "religions" that are systemically intolerant, that is, those for whom "the truth to be proclaimed comes with an enemy to fight" are not religions at all, but are rather more accurately described as counterreligions.

As Egyptologist Jan Assmann has discussed in depth and at some length in his books Moses the Egyptian and The Price of Monotheism a counterreligion cannot exist without enemies. This is one reason why counterreligions are also called secondary religions. Primary religions require no enemies, so they are the only kind of religion that can arise spontaneously, on their own, because only a primary religion can define itself in its own terms, without recourse to condemnation of other religions. Even the very concept of "other" religions is almost impossible for adherents of primary religions to comprehend, for they tend to view all religions as simply varying manifestations of the same basic phenomenon (a point of view which, in turn, is nearly incomprehensible to the vast majority of adherents of primary religions).

Originally, that is, before the advent of counterreligions, primary religion was a natural, organic part not only of all human societies, but of the life of the family and also the life of the individual as well. Wherever it flourishes, primary religion is intimately interwoven into every aspect of life, a characteristic of primary religion that is well understood by social anthropologists and religious history scholars -- but only for so-called "primitive" cultures. Theo Sundermeier, from whom Assmann originally borrowed the primary vs. secondary nomenclature, well illustrates this point in his book The Individual and Community in Traditional African Religions. But, contrary to what Sundermeier and others claim, it is not just in "primitive" and/or "traditional" societies that we find primary religions in which every aspect of life has some kind of religious significance, from giving birth to waking up in the morning to crossing a stream, etc.

As already stated, there were originally only primary religions. But these primary religions were not limited to hunters and gatherers living in small isolated villages. The great civilizations of the so-called Axial Age (~800-200 BC) all had primary religions. This includes the Greco-Roman progenitors of modern "western" civilization. And before the Axial Age, the ancient civilizations of China, India, Sumer, Babylon, and Egypt all had primary religions. The peoples of these ancient civilizations were the inventors of writing, metallurgy, philosophy, engineering, architecture, mathematics, geography, astronomy, etc. They lived in cities, read books, went to plays, wrote letters and diaries, hummed popular music tunes, argued about politics, talked about the weather, traveled on holidays, threw parties, wooed lovers, cheated on partners, got rich, went broke, and in many other ways were very much like us.

But the people of ancient civilizations and of the Axial Age were very different from us in one crucial way: they knew nothing of religious intolerance. This is not naive ahistorical romanticism, and it does not amount to a claim that these people lived in egalitarian pacifist utopias. Their societies had both warfare and great inequality, for examples. But, well, so do we. But they did not fight wars or commit acts of terrorism because of religion, nor did they oppress people because of religion. That such a glaring, objective distinction, with respect to religious tolerance and intolerance, can be justified by well established historical fact is very hard for people to comprehend and accept, if all they have ever known is secondary religion:
Having lived for hundreds and thousands of years on the terrain of secondary religious experience and in the spiritual space created by the Mosaic distinction, we Jews, Christians and Muslims (to speak only of the monotheistic world) assume this distinction to be the natural, normal, and universal form of religion. We tend to identify it [the Mosaic distinction] unthinkingly with religion as such, and then project it onto all the alien and earlier cultures that knew nothing of the distinction between true and false religion.
[The Price of Monotheism, p. 8]

The concept of "counterreligion" is intended to draw out the potential for negation that inheres within secondary religions. These religions are also inherently "intolerant," although, again, this should not be taken as a reproach. Two hundred and fifty years ago, David Hume not only argued that polytheism is far older than monotheism, he also advanced the related hypothesis that polytheism is tolerant, whereas monotheism is intolerant. This is an age-old argument, which I had no intention of revisiting in my Moses book [Moses the Egyptian]. Secondary religion must be intolerant, that is, they must have a clear conception of what they feel to be incompatible with their truths if these truths are to exert the life-shaping authority, normativity, and binding force that they claim for themselves.

In each case, counterreligions have transformed, from the ground up, the historical realities amidst which they appeared. Their critical and transformative force is sustained by their negative energy, their power of negation and exclusion. How they deal with their structural intolerance is another matter. That is not my concern here, although I want to note in passing my belief that religions ought to work through the problem rather than attempting to deny that it even exists.
[The Price of Monotheism, p. 14]