Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Monotheistic Robots of Doom

BEWARE: Major Spoilage to follow!!!!
OK, so I finally watched the movie Caprica, the opening salvo of the new Sci Fi channel prequel series to Battlestar Galactica. In what follows there will be serious spoilers for anyone who hasn't seen it yet and doesn't want to know what happens!

But first I want to talk about the nature of the Beast known as Monotheism. Jan Assmann is one of the world's most prominent scholars of ancient Egyptian religion, and he is also a proponent of a (to some) radical new way of looking at monotheism. Assmann's contention is that the distinction that really matters is not that between monotheism and polytheism, rather it is the Mosaic distinction, as Assmann has named it, between true religion and false religion. In essence, Assmann posits that Moses, or someone like him, invented the notion of Zero Sum Theology (that's my phrase, not Assmann's): it is not enough for my religion to be true - all other religions must also be false.

Here is how Assmann explains himself in the first chapter of his book Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism
The distinction I am concerned with in this book is the distinction between true and false religion that underlies more specific distinctions such as Jews and Gentiles, Christians and pagans, Muslims and unbelievers. Once the distinction is drawn, there is no end of reentries or subdistinctions. We start with Christians and pagans and end up with Catholics and Protestants, Calvinists and Lutherans, Socinians and Latitudinarians, and a thousand more similar denominations and subdenominations. Cultural or intellectual distinctions such as these construct a universe that is not only full of meaning, identity, and orientation, but also full of conflict, intolerance and violence. Therefore, there have always been attempts to overcome the conflict by reexamining the distinction, albeit at the risk of losing cultural meaning.

Let us call the distinction between true and false in religion the "Mosaic distinction" because tradition ascribes it to Moses. We cannot be sure that Moses ever lived because there are no traces of his earthly existence outside the tradition. But we can be sure that he was not the first to draw the distinction. There was a precursor in the person of the an Egyptian king who called himself Akhnenaten and instituted a monotheistic religion in the fourteenth century B.C.E. His religion, however, spawned no tradition but was forgotten immediately after his death. Moses is a figure of memory but not of history, while Akhenaten is a figure of history but not of memory. Since memory is all that counts in the sphere of cultural distinctions and constructions, we are satisfied in speaking not of Akhenaten's distinction, but of the Mosaic distinction. The space severed or cloven by this distinction is the space of Western monotheism. It is this constructed mental or cultural space that has been inhabited by Europeans for nearly two millennia.

It is an error to believe that this distinction is as old as religion itself, though at first sight nothing might seem more plausible. Does not every religion quite automatically put everything outside itself in the position of error and falsehood and look down on other religions as "paganism"? Is this not quite simply the religious expression of ethnocentricity? Does not the distinction between true and false in reality amount to nothing other than the distinction between "us" and "them"? Does not every construction of identity by the very same process generate alterity? Does not every religion produce "pagans" in the same way that every civilization produces "barbarians"?

However plausible this may seem, it is not the case. Cultures not only generate otherness by constructing identity, but also develop techniques of translation. We have to distinguish here between the "real other," who is always there beyond the individual and independent of the individual's constructions of selfhood and otherhood, and the "construction of other," who is the shadow of the individual's identity. Moreover, we have to realize that in most cases we are dealing not with the "real other," but with our constructions and projections of the other. "Paganism" and "idolatry" belong to such constructions of the other. It is this inevitable construction of cultural otherness that is to a certain degree compensated by techniques of translation. Translation in this sense is not to be confused with the colonializing appropriation of the "real" other. It is simply an attempt to make more transparent the borders that were erected by cultural distinctions.

Ancient polytheisms functioned as such a technique of translations. They belong within the emergence of the "Ancient World" as a coherent ecumene of interconnected nations. The polytheistic religions overcame the primitive ethnocentrism of tribal religions by distinguishing several deities by name, shape, and function. The names are, of course, different in different cultures, because the languages are different. The shapes of the gods and the forms of worship may also differ significantly. But the functions are strikingly similar, especially in the case of cosmic deities; and most deities had a cosmic function. The sun god of one religion is easily equated with the sun god of another religion, and so forth. Because of their functional equivalence, deities of different religions can be equated. In Mesopotamia, the practice of translating divine names goes back to the third millennium B.C.E. ... In the second millennium, this practice was extended to many different languages and civilizations of the Near East. The cultures, languages, and customs may have been as different as ever: the religions always had a common ground. Thus they functioned as a means of intercultural translatability. The gods were international because they were cosmic. The different peoples worshipped different gods, but nobody contested the reality of foreign gods and the legitimacy of foreign forms of worship. The distinction I am speaking of [between true and false religions] simply did not exist in the world of polytheistic religions.

The Mosaic distinction was therefore a radically new distinction which considerably changed the world in which it was drawn. The space which was "severed or cloven" by this distinction was not simply the space of religion in general, but that of a very specific kind of religion. We may call this new type of religion "counter-religion" because it rejects and repudiates everything that went before and what is outside itself as "paganism". It no longer functioned as a means of intercultural translation; on the contrary, it functioned as a means of intercultural estrangement. Whereas polytheism, or rather "cosmotheism," rendered differed cultures mutually transparent and compatible, the new counter-religion blocked intercultural translatability. False gods cannot be translated.
[pp. 1-3]
I find Assmann's analysis to be valuable and penetrating, but there are at least three major problems with what he is saying:

(1) The emphasis on "cosmic" Gods is misplaced. Nature, including especially terrestrial nature, is very much a part of the "cosmos", and an Earth Goddess is (obviously) just as "cosmic" and "international" as a Sun God.

(2) Assmann is stuck in the rut of a progressivistic mindset that requires the construction of a primitive other whose religion was "ethnocentric", and this small-minded tribal religiosity, in Assmann's view, had to give way to the superior, civilized, universalizing religiosity of urban polytheism.

(3) But by far the most egregious deficiency of Assmann's theory of the "Mosaic distinction" can be summed up in two words: no robots.

This, of course, is where the movie Caprica comes in (and, therefore, this is also where the spoilers are to be found). It is one thing to identify where monotheism goes wrong [that is, in creating the true versus false religion dichotomy]. But how did monotheism come to be so powerful? The answer to that turns out to be somewhat complex, but it definitely, as you have probably guessed by now, involves robots. You see once upon a time (in the future) there was a highly advanced civilization that was based on 12 different planets, the so-called "twelve colonies". The inhabitants of these worlds worshipped a variety of Goddesses and Gods, more or less based on the Olympian Deities of ancient Hellas.

Amidst these space-colonizing polytheists of the future are a small number of anti-social, violent, fanatical monotheists. They have no power to do anything other than occasionally carry out vicious acts of terrorism, in between which they gather in secret and fantasize about "driving out the many Gods" worshipped by human society at large, and replacing those Gods with their "one true God".

Among these mentally disturbed monotheists are three mentally disturbed teenagers, who decide to run away from home together. At the last minute one of the teenagers, Lacy Rand, chickens out. The other two get on a train and begin their escape, but one of them (whose name really doesn't matter - and, besides, I can't remember it) starts acting really nervous. The other teenager, Zoe Graystone, keeps asking him what's wrong.

Finally, the teenage boy reveals what his problem is: he has decided to take his monotheism to the next level by becoming a suicide bomber. He opens his coat and shows Zoe his explosives - and then blows up everyone on the crowded train (including Zoe).

The thing is, though, that Zoe was an evil genius who had found a way to create a computer simulation that was a perfect copy of herself. It also turns out that Zoe's daddy is a big-shot executive for a military contractor trying to create a battlefield ready robot-soldier. The only problem for Zoe's daddy is that his robots literally can't shoot straight. Well, one thing leads to another and Zoe's digital simulacrum, complete with excellent hand-eye coordination and evil religious fanaticism, ends up inside one of the robots. And that is how the end of the human race begins....

See also (links NOT automatically generated):
Constantine (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Three)
Moses (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Two)
Akhenaten (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part One)
Monotheistic Robots of Doom, Part Deux
Lies, Damned Lies, and Pagan Monotheism
Hic Sunt Dracones

"even his enemy": Glenn Greenwald and Thomas Paine gang up on torturers

If you are not already, please start keeping track of Glenn Greenwald, especially what he is writing on torture. And that's not just because he has some excellent quotes from Thomas Paine in today's column:
An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.
The executive is not invested with the power of deliberating whether it shall act or not; it has no discretionary authority in the case; for it can act no other thing than what the laws decree, and it is obliged to act conformably thereto. . . .
[both of these quotes are from Paine's Dissertations on First Principles of Government]
In yesterday's column Greenwald wrote about "What every American should be made to learn about the IG torture report." Among the things that Greenwald thinks we should all be made to learn are that American torturers used

(1) threats of execution

(2) threats against detainees families (including the threat of raping detainees wives in front of them and murdering their children)

(3) severe physical abuse

(4) the use of power tools in interrogations

(5) the deaths of dozens of detainees as a result of torture done by Americans.

Greenwald provides extensive excerpts from the Inspector General's report documenting all of the above (click here for a pdf of the IG report).