Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for the ‘Religion and Society’ Category

Still Secular, After All These Years

In American Society, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Society on February 4, 2014 at 10:44 am

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Welcome to the re-launch of American Secularist. I had intended to really focus on writing when I moved to Beijing – then found when I arrived that wordpress blogs are for some reason blocked here in China. After many months of unsuccessfully trying to get around the Great Firewall, I’ve finally figured a way in – at least for now. I hope you’ll forgive the long hiatus and join me in the fray.

It has been so long since I’ve posted, I think a bit of review may be in order – why did I start this blog to begin with?

It all started when I arrived back in the US around Christmas 2009 after a decade of living abroad. It seemed the tone of our political disagreements had taken a turn for the worse in my absence. I had, after all, been in Bangkok when the 9-11 attacks occurred, and had not been back home for longer than a fortnight since. I had made the decision to come back and work in the US back in the spring of ’09, not knowing at the time that I would be arriving at the onset of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Living abroad had certainly made me more liberal / progressive as far as my politics were concerned. Living in China, I saw first-hand how massive government projects could put a country ahead of its peers in a hurry. Asian nations were busy building schools, railroads, and airports, and finding ways to pull their poorest out of need. I wanted my country, ‘the greatest country in the world’, to stop resting on its laurels and do the same thing.

While I admit I had become more open-minded, it seemed my countrymen had moved in the opposite direction. I had witnessed the progress that positive government action could achieve, yet everyone around me seemed to think that such actions were tantamount to ‘socialism’. Perhaps more worrying, many seemed to voice the opinion that ‘bringing the nation back to God’ was the only way to put America on its feet again. This was a curious conclusion to me, as Russia and China (two predominately atheistic countries) as well as India (perhaps the most pantheistic country) were all seeing economic blue skies, no thanks to Jesus. I worried that we were looking at things the wrong way.

Many suggested that I needed to ‘get into the Word’, read the Bible with an open mind and see what God had to say. I thought this was an excellent suggestion. I had read the entire Bible from cover to cover once in my youth, and the New Testament twice more as a young adult. Nevertheless, I had lost my confidence in Christianity over the years. It had sort of become like MS DOS 3.1 to me – brilliant at the time, but it didn’t enable me to cope with more sophisticated problems that I faced as an adult. I found that the old algorithms just didn’t work with the modern realities of life. Was it time to give the old-time religion another go?

That’s where this blog comes in. I decided that I would once again read the New Testament, and comment on it, chapter by chapter. My purpose was to look at it once again with fresh eyes – not from the point of view of the cynic or atheist, but not from the ‘inerrancy of the scripture’ viewpoint either. As someone who has fond memories of both church camp and comparative religion class, I feel I can give a balanced reading.

My main purpose, however, is to specifically look at where American Christianity and American politics and policy intersect, and whether the influence of the former is positive on the latter. In other words, I’m not trying to find out if the Bible is ‘true’ or ‘relevant’. What I am mostly concerned with is looking at how American Christians interpret the scriptures, and whether that interpretation helps or hurts American society. Basically, there are so many people who think that the answer to our ills as a nation would be a ‘Jesus infusion’ that I think it is fair to look at what such an event might entail. And what better place to look for answers than in the Bible itself.

Work, family responsibilities, and the cares of life in general have pulled me off-track, but as the claims of one group become ever bolder – and louder – all of us need to take a closer look at what they are saying; we cannot just smile and nod absentmindedly if we truly care for the future of our country.

I’ll be posting two or three times a week – I hope you’ll join in the conversation.

Enjoy my writing? Make sure to ‘like’ americansecularist on Facebook to get posts as soon as they’re published.

Also, check out my newest blog – nevercomingback – for tales from my travels abroad.

Ghost in the Machine

In Nostalgia for God, Religion and Society on April 14, 2013 at 12:24 pm

There are ghosts in my dish washing machine.

I was reading earlier this evening an essay about the evolution of religious thought. An evolutionary approach to religion posits that our systems of belief have changed over time as our brains and societies have developed. It is closely tied to the psychological approach, which holds that religious beliefs stem from psychological needs – such as the need to understand how our world works or what happens to us after death. Both theories see religion as a construct of the human mind.

A somewhat simplified version of the theory goes like this – the least developed religious ideas are basically different versions of belief in magic, fetishism, dream interpretation, and the like. Next comes animism, where the belief in souls or spirits prevail – appeasement of the spirits of departed ancestors or those who have some influence over nature. Spirits that are venerated for more than a few generations may become so powerful in the minds of believers that they morph into deities and demigods, and the next phase – polytheism – is  achieved. After this comes monism – the belief that there are several gods but you choose to worship only the one you think is best – and finally the short step from there is taken to monotheism. Some would insist that this evolution is still continuing today, and would ‘complete’ the process by appending deism, agnosticism, and atheism to this list.

Religious evolution doesn’t take place neatly even within a single culture, as some accept new ideas and others prefer to stick to the old ways. Even when a religion is considered to have evolved to a certain level, it often retains elements of the ‘lower’ form of belief – monotheists may venerate a relic in much the same way a primitive person believes in a fetish, polytheists might still pay soothsayers to perform magical incantations.

And agnostics may cling to ghosts, even when they know better.

My most prized possessions are a set of coffee mugs my mother gave me on our last Christmas together. In general, I have a lot of rules about drinking. There are certain drinks for certain times of the day or year, and they must be served in the proper glass or cup to be fully enjoyed – heavy cut crystal for scotch, chilled Imperial pints for ales, small snifters for cognac, etc. For coffee, the right mug is critical. Too big and not only does the coffee cool before you can finish, you look like you’re at clown school while drinking it. Too small and you can’t stir in your cream without sloshing some over the edge. The mug must have sufficient heft, thick enough to keep from scalding your hands.

ghost

In years of visits to my parents’ house, my mother had observed me drinking my coffee out of exactly the same set of mugs every time, going so far as to pull one out of the dishwasher and wash it by hand if none were clean. She commented more than once that the coffee would be just as good out of one of her other cups; I let her know that she was mistaken. Her last Christmas, I think knowing deep down inside that the cancer would not let her see another, she gave as gifts to friends and family many of her personal possessions – jewelry, photographs, figurines. She gave me the coffee mugs.

Every morning since her passing, I wake up, start the coffee, pull one of those mugs from the cupboard, and sit for a moment or two with my mom.  I don’t actually talk with her – or talk at all really. I’m just aware of her presence, somehow the cup in my hand bringing her closer for a moment or two. I think about what she might have to say about what’s happening in my life, or if the weather outside would suit her.

I know this is absurd. I know that we are material only, and that what we call the soul is a manifestation of the physical brain, nothing more. There is no spirit that continues to live – not on any alternative plane of existence, heaven, Elysium, nirvana – nor in our own. We know that when part of the brain is damaged, that part of the person we once knew can disappear; why do we think that when the entire brain shuts down, that person would continue to exist elsewhere? Dishes can last forever – the people who fill them by their labor and love do not.

But there are ghosts in the machine, old patterns of thinking wired into the hardware of our brain in more ancient times, ideas we know to be false but are still attractive. And so we preach against prejudice but are careful to move to neighborhoods with ‘good’ schools. We eschew organized religion but fall prey to gurus. We knock on wood, cross our fingers, pray.

Sometimes, the more ‘primitive’ religion has better ideas than the modern one. For example, most animistic cultures do not venerate an ancestor spirit for more than a predetermined number of generations; once everyone with any direct memory of the ancestor has died, the spirit of that ancestor is considered to be permanently gone. This means you can’t make up untrue accounts of what your object of worship supposedly said or did – because someone else would remember and call you out. You might recite words of wisdom that had been handed down from generation to generation – but you don’t worship the person who said them. Imagine what a better place the world would be, how much nonsense we could avoid if we didn’t have such misplaced veneration for people who supposedly said and did certain things hundreds of years ago.

But ghosts are strong, and the struggle to rid ourselves of their influence continues. We hear the forgotten hymn and are moved by it. We miss the form, the ritual.

We whisper to a coffee cup in those dark and quiet moments before the dawn.

 

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American Babel

In 2012 Election, American Society, Current events, Religion and Society on October 1, 2012 at 12:34 am

Just a short post today about why I started thinking about the Tower of Babel to begin with.

I was amused to find out that the name ‘Babylon’ – ‘Babilli’ in the language of the Akkadians, the builders of the city – means ‘Gate of God’ – but to the Hebrews, it sounded almost exactly like the word for ‘confusion’. This set up a nice little play on words – basically, that your God doesn’t make sense to me.  I put this in the same category as the word ‘barbarian’, the ancient Greek word for those not conversant in Greek. ‘Barbarian’ is an onomatopoeic word – like ‘buzz’ or ‘sizzle’, it is a word that comes from how it sounds. To the Greeks, the Persian language sounded like ‘ba ba, ba ba ba’, so the people who spoke in such a manner became known as ‘barbaros’. The Romans thought the Germans and Celts uncivilized, and called them ‘barbarius’ – pretty close to our English ‘barbarian’.

So it seems there is a pattern of thought established since ancient times – my ideas encapsulate the essence of civilization; your ideas are incoherent drivel. My ideas protect civilization; your ideas will destroy it. My arguments are beautifully constructed and clearly understandable to anyone willing to understand; I don’t know what the hell you are talking about.

When you travel the world, you begin to realize that there is a natural, mutual dislike between many neighboring countries. The English and French can hardly stand each other. Thailand and Cambodia both consider themselves the cultural heirs of Angkor, and each thinks the other is trying to steal their heritage. Japan and China are nearly always on the brink of coming to blows. Russia hates pretty much every former satellite country on her border – and the feeling is mutual.

But how many times has this hatred, distrust, and lack of understanding existed within the same country – as it does in America today?

I’ve traveled through more than two dozen countries, but I’ve never seen anyplace so divided as we are here in the US today. We’ve become a red state / blue state nation. In fact, something appears to be confounding our common language so that we can’t even converse with one another.

If I say ‘anti-abortion’ in one of my posts, someone will let me know that there is no such word – ‘pro-life’ is the correct verbiage. I say ‘expanded Medicare’ or ‘single-payer option’, you say ‘Obamacare’ or ‘socialism’. I say ‘a woman should have a choice’, someone from the other side calls me a ‘baby killer’.

It’s Babel, version 2012.

I’m worried that Americans don’t even speak the same language anymore, and that the fight for what words mean, the rush to define the other side before they can define themselves, these seem to be the only things that matters now in our political discourse. Words are twisted around to mean what they didn’t intend, they are bent to accommodate a certain point of view, or they are coined anew to sugarcoat something that used to be repulsive – much like that ‘Chilean seabass’ that you enjoy at your favorite trendy restaurant is actually known as ‘Patagonian toothfish’ in Chile.

When Paul Ryan says he wants to ‘save’ Medicare, he actually means that he wants to phase it out. Ending a temporary tax break is known as ‘creating a new tax’. Wars are known as ‘incursions’, despicable prisons are called ‘detention camps’. We have entered the Orwellian world of ‘doublespeak’ where whatever we say really means something altogether different from how it sounds.

I’m not sure how we can begin to solve the problems that our country faces if we refuse to even speak the same language.

Steven Pinker, in his book The Stuff of Thoughtwrites about a parlor game that Bertrand Russell and his friends used to play involving emotive conjugations. It illustrates how we use words to paint ourselves in the best light possible, while tarring those who disagree with us as best we can.  Russell’s examples:

I am firm; you are obstinate; he’s a pig-headed fool. I have reconsidered; you have changed your mind; he’s gone back on his word.

Or, in Pinker’s more humorous example:

I’m exploring my sexuality; you are promiscuous; she is a slut.

This is the sort of Babel that poses for debate in America today. The media, with its insatiable 24-hour demand for content, turns everything into a he-said-she-said circus sideshow, and Americans eat it up as if it were real political discourse.

I thought we Americans were working together in this grand experiment called democracy, building a ‘city on a hill’ a beacon of liberty to the world, a brighter future.

Perhaps God has confused our language?

 

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