The Unkindest Cut

March 11, 2020

I am, apparently, what is known as an “intactivist”. That is, I am totally opposed to the medically-unnecessary genital mutilation of infant boys in the procedure known as circumcision. I have been writing about this on and off since at least 2004.

At the beginning, let me be clear that I am not opposed to circumcision for, say, religious or cosmetic reasons; but this should be a conscious choice made by the man when he is an adult, not something forced on an unwitting child by others simply to satisfy a prehistoric tribal rite or to make the child look like his father.

This distasteful business was brought to mind by my reading of a study that links infant circumcision to autism. The researchers studied the life histories of 340,000 boys before reaching their conclusions.

“Possible mechanisms linking early life pain and stress to an increased risk of neurodevelopmental, behavioural or psychological problems in later life remain incompletely conceptualised,” said Professor Frisch. “Given the widespread practice of non-therapeutic circumcision in infancy and childhood around the world, our findings should prompt other researchers to examine the possibility that circumcision trauma in infancy or early childhood might carry an increased risk of serious neurodevelopmental and psychological consequences.”

In no way would I equate the savage barbarism of female genital mutilation to the removal of the male foreskin, but child mutilation of all kinds is still child mutilation and all such practices should be banned immediately.


Gibran’s The Prophet on Children

January 12, 2020

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts.

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;

For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.


Gibran’s The Prophet: On Marriage

January 7, 2020

You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.

You shall be together when white wings of death scatter your days.

Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.

But let there be spaces in your togetherness,

And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another but make not a bond of love:

Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.

Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.

Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,

Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.

For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.

And stand together, yet not too near together:

For the pillars of the temple stand apart,

And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.


Gibran’s The Prophet: On Love

January 2, 2020

When love beckons to you follow him,

Though his ways are hard and steep.

And when his wings enfold you yield to him,

Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.

And when he speaks to you believe in him,

Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.

Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,

So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.

Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.

He threshes you to make you naked.

He sifts you to free you from your husks.

He grinds you to whiteness.

He kneads you until you are pliant; And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast.

All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart.

But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,

Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor,

Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.

Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.

Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;

For love is sufficient unto love.

When you love you should not say, “God is in my heart,” but rather, I am in the heart of God.”

And think not you can direct the course of love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.

Love has no other desire but to fulfil itself.

But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:

To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.

To know the pain of too much tenderness.

To be wounded by your own understanding of love;

And to bleed willingly and joyfully.

To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;

To rest at the noon hour and meditate love’s ecstasy;

To return home at eventide with gratitude;

And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.


Finding The Original Buddha

December 19, 2019

For anyone interested in religion and spirituality in general, and Buddhism in particular, Alexander Wynne has a marvelous short essay in Aeon about recovering the historical figure behind all the myths of the Buddha.

That he had a princely background, unaware of life’s sufferings, until a particular event is easily dismissed by unravelling some of the earliest strands in the Pali canon.

“In none of these is the Buddha ever called Siddhattha. Indeed, since this word means ‘one who has fulfilled [siddha] his purpose [attha]’, it looks very much like a mythic title, and in fact is used in only late mythic texts such as the Pali Apadāna.  The early texts instead refer to the Buddha as ‘the ascetic Gotama’. While the Mahāpadāna Sutta states that ‘Gotama’ was the name of the Buddha’s family lineage, other evidence tells a different story. Most texts say that the Buddha’s family belonged to the lineage of the ‘Sun’ (ādicca), which agrees with the Buddha’s oft-repeated epithet ‘kinsman of the Sun’ (ādicca-bandhu). Since there is no reliable evidence that the Buddha’s family belonged to the Gotama lineage, and a mass of textual evidence against it, how are we to explain this name? It is likely that ‘Gotama’ was the Buddha’s personal name, just as the Sanskrit equivalent (Gautama) is a common personal name in modern India.”

His early successes as a teacher are also in doubt:

“[A] critical study of the textual record suggests a surprising story: Gotama doubted his own teaching ability, was not taken seriously by the first person to witness him (as the Buddha), and did not achieve notable success with his first audience. How, then, did he succeed?

“[T]he Sutta-nipāta (‘A Collection of Discourses’) – an old corpus of wisdom literature – is more revealing. Gotama here emerges as a lone voice from the wilderness, inspiring others with a call to join an austere cult of meditation. [In the Muni-Sutta] the Buddha describes the sage as a radical outsider:  “Danger is born from intimacy, dust arises from the home. Without home, without acquaintance: just this is the vision of a sage” … Most striking is what could be called the ‘dialectic of silence’: when asked abstract metaphysical questions, such as whether the world is eternal, whether the soul is different from the body, or what happens to a liberated person (tathāgata) after death and so on, Gotama stays silent.”

Modern western Buddhism (a la Watts, et al) has lost much of the original teachings, relying more on fairly modern interpretations:

“A feature of the modern mindfulness movement, inherited from fairly recent Burmese innovations, is its appeal to the laity, and hence its essentially therapeutic, rather than salvific, aim. Nothing could be further removed from the Buddha’s radical ideal of sagehood. By insisting on ascetic discipline and a life of homeless wandering, Gotama presented mindfulness as a total life commitment [rather than as a component of an engaged lifestyle].”

Wynne suggests it is of value to regain the original insights:

“Whether or not Gotama is correct, his voice is worth hearing. His antirealistic analysis – in which the world depends on the activity of our minds and sense faculties – could be a useful aid to modern cognitive science, and might broaden the focus of the mindfulness movement beyond therapy … Sleeping out in the open, eating once a day, and frequently on the road, Gotama cuts a more austere figure than expected. His silent wisdom comes from somewhere else. We learn about his early failures, and then the strange story of his success: how he created an ancient cult of meditation, through enigmatic silence, radical ideas, and a simple insistence on being mindfully aware of the moment.”


Opium Of The Masses Less Potent Today

October 17, 2019

The Pew Research Centre has issued a major new study entitled “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues At Rapid Pace“.

“In Pew Research Center telephone surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, 65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion, down 12 percentage points over the past decade. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009 …

“all subsets of the religiously unaffiliated population – a group also known as religious “nones” – have seen their numbers swell. Self-described atheists now account for 4% of U.S. adults, up modestly but significantly from 2% in 2009; agnostics make up 5% of U.S. adults, up from 3% a decade ago; and 17% of Americans now describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” up from 12% in 2009.”

The decline affects all geographic and socio-economic groups in the States:

 

The odd thing, of course, is that the evangelicals continue their pervasive hold over the Republican Party (even with an idolatrous and adulterous buffoon as leader). I suspect their conservatism will harden even further as their numbers (and influence in the wider community) continue to deteriorate.  But the longterm outlook is bleak for them, and the GOP may disappear along with organized religion if these trends continue and the party doesn’t find another source of support.

‘Religious “nones” are growing faster among Democrats than Republicans, though their ranks are swelling in both partisan coalitions. And although the religiously unaffiliated are on the rise among younger people and most groups of older adults, their growth is most pronounced among young adults.”

There is an enormous amount of valuable data to absorb from this survey and I have only touched on a few high points.  This is well worth studying in more depth.


The Trend To “No Religion”

April 3, 2019

Open Culture has an article on the popularity of religious groups in the United States.  The growth of those declaring “no religion” over the last couple of decades is noteworthy.

The reasons given are also interesting.  A non-belief in God is only the fourth most popular reason; complaints about religious institutions scores higher. Much of the decline seems to have come from “mainline” protestant denominations.

These changes have significant political effects:

“Evangelicals punch way above their weight,” says [Ryan] Burge. “They turn out a bunch at the ballot box. That’s largely a function of the fact that they’re white and they’re old” … A 2016 PRRI report noted that “religiously unaffiliated Americans do not vote in the same percentages as evangelicals, and are often underrepresented at the polls … Additionally, and most importantly to point out any time these numbers come up: “the nones” is an entirely overdetermined category full of people who agree on little.”

That compares problematically with the evangelicals who tend to vote a lot and as a bloc.


Jonestown: 40 Years On

November 18, 2018

Forty years ago today, in the jungles of Guyana, an extraordinary event took place: the mass suicide (along with some murders) of more than 900 followers of the Reverend James Jones. Almost all the victims were Americans, voluntarily drawn somehow into Jones’ mix of mysticism and socialism, drawn somehow to follow him, mostly willingly, even over the cliff of death into “revolutionary suicide.”

More than half the Jonestown population were women, many with infant children whom they obediently fed kool-aid and cyanide on that last day, forty years ago today.

Cyanide takes a few minutes to kill and it is not a pleasant way to go. But if you are ever tempted to romanticize these deaths, perhaps it is best to remember the radical brainwashing needed to bring hundreds of mothers to the extremes of mass murder and suicide.

Jones joined the “revolutionary suicide” with a bullet to the brain, his ideas forgotten, his death glorified as a gratuitous cult. Guns and knives did for several more about whim no-one speaks.  Not many survived, not many at all.  The people fade into the background, but the event remains.

 


The Swerve

January 7, 2018

I thought that a revisit of my 2013 review of “The Swerve: How The World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt, the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard would be an interesting read for a rainy Sunday.

The Swerve” tells the story of the re-discovery in 1417 of a long poem in Latin by Lucretius called “On The Nature of Things” which, the author claims, led to a flowering of the humanist movement, to a modern scientific view of reality, and to the disintegration of (or at least a serious challenge to) the accepted world view of the Catholic Church.  Enormous claims, and the author does a fine job of defending them.

Lucretius’ poem is a discourse on the philosophy promulgated by Epicurus (341-270 BCE), that life should be led without any fear of death, that the pursuit of personal well-being should be the prime motivator of one’s existence, and that all life and all things are composed of “atoms” that collide and coalesce and then disaggregate once again upon death.

Epicurus

The Epicurean belief that there is no creation, the universe is eternal, that death is the final end, that there is no afterlife would prove to be a major challenge for the Church, a challenge they met with both cruelty and disdain.  It is from their deliberate twisting of these teachings that most people today consider Epicureanism to be a form of gluttony and greed and little more.

The first half of the book gives an excellent background to the Europe of the late medieval period, discusses the growth of humanism through the re-discovery of Latin and Greek texts, and follows the life of Poggio Bracciolini, a Papal secretary who found, copied and circulated a manuscript of Lucretius’ De rerum natura.

The second half describes the Epicureanism of Lucretius in some detail and it is worth noting the major points:

  • Everything is made of invisible particles that are eternal, infinite in number and are in motion in an infinite void
  • Nature ceaselessly experiments
  • The universe was not created for or about humans
  • Humans are not unique
  • The soul dies; there is no afterlife; there are no angels, demons or ghosts
  • All organized religions are superstitious delusions, and are invariably cruel
  • The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain
  • The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion
  • Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder

The book then travels forward through history to show the extent of the poem’s influence.   Early humanists, such as Giordana Bruno, were burnt at the stake for preaching its beliefs.  Thomas More wrote Utopia as a direct attack on Lucretian Epicureanism, while Lucretius was the direct inspiration of Botticelli’s Primavera.  Montaigne’s Essays are infused with epicureanism, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a materialist masterpiece, even mentioning “little atomi” in its description of Queen Mab. Gallileo was clearly influenced by the poem,and the Puritan Lucy Hutchinson wrote an early English translation.

Perhaps the most famous political influence was in the work of Thomas Jefferson, a self-confessed Epicurean, who added “…the pursuit of happiness” as one of the three inalienable rights of all people.

This was a fascinating read.


Surviving the Reformation

October 31, 2017

Exactly 500 years ago today, a German priest named Martin Luther is said to have nailed a statement to a church door in Wittenberg. That seems doubtful. What he did do on this day was send his 95 Theses to his Bishop. They were a detailed list of complaints about the Catholic Church doctrine of his day, complaints that would have him excommunicated three years later.

Luther’s basic position was that salvation came solely from the grace of God — from simple faith and belief — and required no good deeds on the part of the believer. His other important statement was that the Bible needed to be read and understood by the common people in their own language rather than interpreted by the priests.

Over the next few hundred years, hundreds of millions (without exaggeration) of human beings were killed in an effort to prove one side of the argument was more right than the other. We see the same things still happening today in the doctrinal disputes between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. And that doesn’t even count the countless millions more killed in disputes between different religions.

Looking back over these terrible and terrifying centuries, I am ever more convinced that “religion” began as, and has always continued to be, an effort to control others and take power over them. It may be that some sects started with generous desires but always — always — they devolve into political struggles for power.

It is very hard to argue that “religion” is a worthy end in and of itself.


The Hypocrisy of Greed

November 29, 2015

The whole western world has gone nuts over ISIS or ISIL or the Islamic Caliphate. The pundits and the politicians and the military leaders say we have to stop them taking power or keeping power, have to stop them becoming a permanent presence in the middle East.  Why? Because, say the talkers, their way of life is unconscionable and needs to be eradicated from the earth.

Apparently, ISIS wants to be a sovereign state that runs itself along strict fundamentalist, not to say fascist, religious guidelines, that has a tiny elite with all the power, that wants to keep women down by imposing moral and sumptuary laws, that have religious police who are above and beyond the ordinary law, that imposes public executions and beatings, that believes all other religions are evil and need to be exterminated.

I can see exactly why people would be opposed to that — after all, we have an example of what it will be like if it succeeds: Saudi Arabia.  Read the last paragraph with wahabbist Saudi Arabia in your mind and tell me if I have gotten anything wrong?

So, we already have a fully-ISIS style government in place, And the odd thing is, the west (UK, France, US, Canada, etc) faun over the leaders of Saudi Arabia, sell them billions of dollars of advanced weaponry, conduct trillions in trade, kneel to their unelected (and unelectable) leaders.

What’s the real difference between ISIS and Saudi Arabia?  The latter has agreed to fund its personal profligacy using our money, while ISIS has not.  In other words, there is profit to be made in Saudi Arabia, but not in ISIS. It is the hypocrisy of greed.

Saudi


Taking One For The Team

May 6, 2011

According to Harold Camping, a radio-evangelist who has several millions of followers around the world — enough to send him more than $120 million — the world will come to an end at 6pm on 21st May this year, just a couple of weeks away.   The Reverend Camping knows this because he has mathematically proven the date from multiple verses in the Bible.

The Reverend Camping is so certain he is right — even though he was wrong when he made the same prediction in 1994 (“At that time there was a lot of the Bible I had not really researched very carefully,” he said last week. “But now…”) — that he has paid for 2,000 billboards across the States to display his warning of the coming apocalypse. Not only that, he has hired believers to man logoed camper vans in which they drive across all 50 States to push the message.

I am neither mathematician nor theologian enough to take on the Reverend Camping’s predictions. But I do recall that Jesus once said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdon of Heaven.  So, as a gesture of friendship — taking one for the team as it were — I am willing to accept all the Reverend’s followers’ money on or before 20th May.

It would be terrible, wouldn’t it, to be one of the Chosen and yet still get rejected at the Pearly Gates because you have too much money?  Wouldn’t that just be awful?  I’m willing to save all his followers from that terrible fate.

Send checks or bearer bonds to me c/o my email address and prepare to meet your maker comfortabley knowing that you do so naked of both wisdom and treasure.


Judgment Day — Bookings Being Taken

December 3, 2010

You will be relieved to know, I am sure, that while surfing the web today I discovered the date that Jesus is coming to judge us all.

Judgment Day is May 21, 2011.

Don’t go making vacation plans for after that date. Time will have come to an end and you will never get your deposit back.

How can I be so sure of the date? Easy — these folks on the Internet (so you know it must be true) told me. They are so certain about it they are renting billboards to let us all know.

Don’t say you weren’t warned!



The Discrimination of Hate

August 22, 2010

If the anti-Muslim hate march in New York today had instead been opposed to Israel or Jews in general, every politician in America would have condemned it.

But in America Muslims are today’s negroes, disallowed their own beliefs and forced to restrict their actions to those areas allowed by the bigots.  I fear that if the Gingrich-Palin-Mad Hatter’s Tea Party take over Congress, they will swiftly move to amend laws and perhaps even the Constitution to ensure that Muslims become second-class citizens.

This is the bigoted community guilt trip: a tiny band of fanatical Islamists atack America, and so all Muslims must suffer.  That way genocide leads.


Confirmation That The Vatican Is Run By Abusive Idiots

July 15, 2010

In an attempt to calm the maelstrom of criticism that has almost sunk the Catholic Church over the past decade due to its enabling of priests who sexually abuse both boys and girls, the Vatican has issued new rules for how such cases should be handled. The new rules themselves are a major disappointment — for example, bishops still do not have to report cases of known abuse to civil authorities — but that is the least of it.

For some bizarre reason, the Vatican thought to use the issuance of these new regulations to formally state that pedophilia and the ordination of women are crimes of equal value in their eyes. The new document says that a priest who tries to ordain a woman will be defrocked.

The Vatican has for hundreds of years been run, generally, by greedy power-hungry men, and the ex-Hitler Youth Benedict is clearly as bad as any before. The Catholic Church is in turn enabled in its abuse by nation states that allow the Church to run rough-shod over the hard-fought human rights — including gender equality and the duty of reporting known criminal behaviour — that govern all other aspects of our lives in civilized countries.

This disaster of leadership is so sad for all the ordinary Catholics, male and female, who go about their lives in faith and duty.


Don’t Worry, Be Happy!

January 7, 2009

In a clear victory for free speech and secularism, the Atheist Bus Campaign raised more than $150,000 in just four days.  Yesterday, they unveiled their message on the side of 800 buses across Britain.

atheist

Next week, the campaign will put up 1,000 posters on the London Underground system with similar messages.

An interesting element of the bus slogan is the word “probably,” which would seem to be more suited to an Agnostic Bus Campaign than to an atheist one … But the element of doubt was necessary to meet British advertising guidelines, said Tim Bleakley, managing director for sales and marketing at CBS Outdoor in London, which handles advertising for the bus system.For religious people, advertisements saying there is no God “would have been misleading,” Mr. Bleakley said. “So as not to fall foul of the code, you have to acknowledge that there is a gray area,” he said.

Good old England!


Of Burgers, Bigots and Neighbourhood Spirit

November 29, 2008

Last night, Herself and I went to dine at Fet’s.  Nothing unusual in that.  In fact, regular readers will know that Fet’s is our favourite hangout on the Drive.  However, last night we were not there just for the burgers.

While we are at Fet’s, though, we might as well discourse on the food first.   Fet’s has made a real effort recently to have a good changeable fresh sheet.  Last night it included “Moroccan Meat Pie” which I was intrigued enough to try.  It turned out to be a shepherds pie with a spice I couldn’t recognize, a lot of orange flavour, and cheese in the potato topping.  None the worse for all of that, either.  It was served piping hot and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

My bride had the Caribbean burger, which she declaimed was as good as ever.   And that is saying something because in this writer’s humble opinion, the Fets’ Caribbean burger is the finest burger available — definitely on the Drive and probably in the City.  I’m not usually a lover of pineapple, cooked or otherwise; but in this dish it works perfectly.  As always, Eric takes care of his meat, and the burgers are well-formed, generous, and perfectly cooked.

Another fine dining experience.  But on to the real reason we were there.

Some of you may have heard of the Reverend Fred Phelps and his tribe of followers from Kansas.  The leadership and members of his Westboro Baptist Church have become famous for showing up at US military funerals with signs saying “God Bless the Roadside Bombs” and “God Hates America”.   They do this in the belief that America’s soldiers are being killed by God because America allows gays to live and thrive.  Typical extremism, religious fanaticism of the American kind.

phelps

Next door to Fet’s is the Havana restaurant/art gallery/theatre space.  The play opening there last night was about the young gay man brutally murdered in Wyoming a few years back.   Rumour had it that Phelps and his maniacs were motoring all the way from Kansas to Commercial Drive to protest against the play.

His mob was supposed to arrive at 7.   We got to Fet’s at 6 and, on the way, met with several people coming to the Drive to protest against Phelps.  By the time we finished dinner and went back on the street, there were several hundred anti-Phelps folks there, with banners and rainbow flags and a lot of noisy joy considering the continuous heavy rain.  It was wonderful to see our neighbourhood pour out onto the cold and wet streets in support of the consenting diversity that flavours the Drive and, indeed, the entire Province.

My night-time camera skills are minimal and I didn’t have a tripod to steady the long exposures; so this is an impressionistic view of the crowd outside the Havana last night:

phelps-demo1

In the end, Phelps and his people never showed up.  Perhaps he was stopped at the border, perhaps he was scared off by our numbers.  Who knows?   We stayed around for quite a while.   This was community in action.


Happy Birthday Earth!

October 23, 2008

Back in the 17th century, Biblical scholar James Ussher calculated that God created the earth on October 23, 4004 BC.  That makes today the earth’s 6,012th birthday!

There are of course still some who actually believe the factuality of Ussher’s work.  I think some of them ran for US President this year.


Holi Day

March 20, 2008

The Spring Equinox is an important time for many religions and groups to celebrate a new beginning. There is Easter, of course, and Purim. In Iran and that region, many celebrate the new year — Nowruz Mubarak! In India, it is the festival of Holi.

Holi

A colleague at work, Vikas, wrote me about Holi: “It’s a festival of colors and brotherhood. People play with colors and apply color on each other’s face and give hugs. It’s actually about forgetting the differences of past and starting afresh and colors make all people look same, nobody is big, small, rich or poor, equality among all.”

How can you beat that?


The Debtor Religious Right

February 16, 2008

I left politics at my last blog, and this post is about the visualization of data at least as much as it is about the actual data itself. Researchers from the University of Utah and Cal State have examined the relationship between the location of payday lending companies and the political strength of the religious right. They find a strong correlation between the two. The explanation put forward by the authors is:

“When the Christian Right allied itself with conservative Wall Street business interests in the 1980s and early ‘90s, consumer protection law was placed to the side as an inconvenient sticking point. The laws allowing an astonishing number of triple-digit-interest-rate lenders throughout most of the Christian South and Mormon West are a legacy of that political alliance.”

I think that is kind of interesting; but it really comes alive when you look at the data in a visual way. Thanks to Consumerist, we have two splendid maps that speak for themselves:

religious lenders

This ties in nicely with another map recently published in an entirely different context.

US Religions