Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Defining Religion, From the Inside Out

Every time I begin another section of RELG 207: Introduction to World Religions, I come back to the problem of how to communicate what exactly is at stake for the adherents of various religious traditions. It's very easy to teach Buddhism and Hinduism as the curious ideas in which other people believe, which you need to know to make sense of an increasingly globalized world. That is to say, it's very easy to fall into the trap of teaching a class on religious beliefs as if they were objects capable of being described, when in fact religious beliefs are nothing of the sort. Description may be possible; but objects they are not.

Certainly religious texts and religious practices admit objective description, but religious beliefs, attested to by texts and practices, are more along the lines of a perspective on objects than they are objects themselves. Not being objects themselves, it is incumbent upon outsiders to actually do the hard work of trying to understand what another perspective of objects might say about the objects of our common human experience.

In other words, you have to admit a very human limitation. If you have gotten as far as admitting the very human reality of the difference between a perspective on objects and the objects themselves, you might as well go the rest of the way and admit that truth of a religious belief fall far short of being something manifestly obvious to everyone possessed of sound mind and body. Nothing, no truth, will ever be self-evident to every person. No matter how hard you try, you will never close the distance between what you think about things and the things themselves. The distance is an infinite one; there will always remain a gap. Only a being like God ever could close it; and last I checked, not of us are able to fill those shoes.

Once this very human limitation is admitted, we can start over by turning the world inside out. The subjective definition of religion, or religious belief, regards, not a discrete set of objects, but a perspective on absolutely everything in existence.

The easiest place to begin an insider's account of religious belief is simply with the the human inclination to think about things, anything, like a computer monitor in front of you, or a desk, or the chair you are sitting on. Now extend the range of your conscious awareness and 'abstract' yourself from your immediate surroundings. These things are most likely contained within a room, which has walls and a door. The room is most likely found in a building containing a good number of other rooms. The building will sit alongside other buildings, within the reasonably well-defined limits of a town or city. Mentally zoom out until you are holding the rather vaguely defined contours of our planet in mind. It's entirely possible to go further, of course, and the process can be repeated wherever you find yourself, though my point should be made.

The point is this: tied into the difference between thinking about things and the things themselves, there is a body always situated here and now, and a mental capacity expanded to embrace an ever wider vista. Between the objective and the subjective, the external and internal forms of perception, there is a radical disjunction. The two are stuck together, they fit into each other, inform each other, and so on. The nearer the scale of your consideration to a bodily human scale of existence, the better defined the mental image becomes. The human scale itself is directly apprehended through the bodily senses, especially of hearing, sight, and touch. The further from a human scale, the more blurry the mental image becomes. What they two sides never do is dissolve into each other. The difference between them is one you will carry around for the rest of your life. In a certain sense, you are the difference: the relation between an 'inner' soul and 'outer' body, relating to itself.

I won't labour this longer than necessary. There's nothing necessary about them--nothing logically compelling. Everyone can distinguish in their own mind between thinking about things and the things themselves, but no one must do so.

If you do think through the distinction, however, the duality of the embodied human being is waiting, even if only indirectly, for you to discover almost everywhere you go among the ancient religions. The human being shares the world with innumerable other beings; but the human being, the philosophers, prophets, and sages of old recognized, also knew they share a world with innumerable other beings.

And whatever name given--call it God, Brahman, Nirvana, Heaven, the Tao, etc.--to that something that explains why there is a world full of things in the first place, it is more like the mysterious depths of conscious thought than it is like the perceptible things human beings think about.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Canadian Office of Religious Freedom

Nothing raises Canadian political ire more than a politician's reference to religion, any religion, but especially religion in politics. Not that everyone is going to condemn every reference. Certainly not. But you can be sure that every reference will be polarizing. Some will approve, and some won't. Those who don't approve will cite precedents for keeping religion out of politics. Those who do approve this time around will be citing the same precedents next time around.

Political conservatives and liberals both have their own way of doing religion, which they see as unproblematic. Even vocal atheists, who tend to be politically liberal, do religion. Some references will slip by as being harmless and not worthy of response. Other references almost seem to require a sarcastic response. Everyone is reaching for a moral high ground; but in the case of the violently derisive discussion about religion, it is unlikely anyone will ever reach it.

So naturally Twitter experienced a minor eruption as Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the name of an ambassador to head Canada's new Office of Religious Freedom. Commentary came mainly from the liberal end of the political spectrum. Comments were incisive and pithy. With only 140 characters to spend, they had to be. Here are a few of the choicer contributions:
CC ‏@canadiancynic

In a shocking turn of events, the new head of the Office of Religious Freedom is a Christian, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2013/02/19/pol-ambassdor-office-religious-freedom-announced.html?cmp=rss …
Herbert Pimlott ‏@Herbert_Pimlott

Proof #Harper has a sense of humour?! Setup Office 4 Religious Freedom & gag scientists, cut dissenting NGOs #cdnpoli http://soc.li/6lwm9id
collin grasley ‏@mode23

Theological Action Plan - harper opens office of c̶h̶r̶i̶s̶t̶i̶a̶n̶  religious freedom. #cdnpoli #FIVEMILLIONTAXDOLLARS
Secular types wonder why Harper has cut government funding everywhere else. Federal Liberals and NDP wonder, in a very predictable turn of events, why the new Ambassador is Christian. Atheists wonder why there is not an Office of Freedom From Religion.

As a religious studies student, and a Christian with an interest in the study of the so-called world religions and natural religion, it immediately strikes me that the cast of the objections are predictably Christian objections. Granted, the objectors may not individually profess the Christian faith. They may even despise everything about Christians and what they believe. But as long as they appeal to a manifest obviousness that actual religious confession has no place in the public square, they whole-heartedly identify with a basic Christian dogma about the separation of the separation of the powers spiritual and temporal (or civil). Render unto Caesar, etc. etc. The joke is on them.

As an idea, at least, an Office of Religious Freedom actually makes a fair amount of sense in a post-Soviet, post 9/11, post-Arab Spring, post-, post- world. The End of History came, pace Francis Fukuyama, but the Last Man turned out to be some variety of cleric: an imam, pastor, or priest. Critics of the Office risk exposing themselves for the cultural dinosaurs that anyone who still has in their head that a secular utopia is just around the corner must inevitably be.

Critics of the choice of a young Roman Catholic prof for the position of Ambassador risk exposing their ignorance about the difficulty of staffing the Office. The critics themselves demonstrate that secular types won't touch the position with a 50-foot pole, which means you are going to have to look for a committed believer, which means...some particular faith. We are told that two other people turned the position down. Which means Dr. Andrew Bennett not the first choice for what will inevitably be a controversial and thankless job. Whether he is a bad choice, however, will not be determined until  we have gone a little ways down this road.

The latest Twitter post:
Iain Harnish ‏@IainHarnish

Office of Religious Freedom http://cbc.sh/ckzNeVR How did a once forward-looking country come to this.
Instead of this sort of armchair quarterbacking, it's better to accept the Office of Religious Freedom as a fiat accompli. Our energies, if we care at all, should be directed towards what sort of issues exactly the office is going to champion at home and abroad. The one danger I see is that the Office very quickly becomes a lobby group for the protection of Christian missionaries abroad. If so, it will champion a very narrow conception of religious freedom, once comes dangerously close to equating religious freedom with the Christian freedom to proselytize. (Other religions proselytize; but only Christianity makes proselytization part of its raison d'etre.) That will undermine perceptions of the Office in Canada at large. It will also undermine, I would argue, genuinely Christian interests, which, I would argue, in the public sphere, ought to be directed towards the dignity of humanity. Beyond that the powers of the state are a honey-trap, which ought to be held at arms length.

And rather than mock the new Ambassador of Religious Freedom, I think it more appropriate to extend the poor bastard my sympathies. We are watching you. And by we, I mean all of us Canadians. And we don't agree on very much at all.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Ancestry.ca

Genealogies were once the province of nobility. A clear record of who married whom and who fathered/birthed whom was necessary to maintain a lineage, with all the economic, political, and social things entailed therein. Among the upper echelon of nobility, the royalty, genealogical research was all the more important to preserve the stability of kingdoms. Where the heir was clear, subjects had reason for cheer.

Today, however, just about anybody can research their family history. A sure sign of the steady democratization of knowledge, the old concerns of inheritance and precedence are largely absent as motivating factors. Sheer curiosity prompts many of us to inquire. Likewise, a sure sign of the capitalization of knowledge, publicly-traded, for-profit companies like Ancestry.ca (or in the United States: Ancestry.com) sell access to large government and other public databases, and provide an attractive online platform with which to organize the information.

Not all is as straight-forward as it seems. On the website's main page, visitors are greeted by a hallmark of advertising campaigns: a hyper-inflation of consumer expectations. The visitor is told: 'Your Family History FREE FOR 14 DAYS: Sign up now'. The link confronts visitors with a repetition of the inflated promise: 'Discover your story...' What the website actually proposes to for paying members is written in a much smaller font size. 'Original images of immigration records, military files, historical newspapers, census records and more are waiting to be explored.'

Does any of this actually count as your history? It's an interesting question on which to reflect. The historian Eric Hobsbawm remarked every historian needs to be aware of the deep divide between personal memory and the information learned from books and the contents of archives, which trails behind humanity at a distance of about a century  If you don't pay close attention to the difference between those things learned by word of mouth from family members and friends and those things learned from an archival resource, the tendency will be to allow the former simply to bleed over into the latter. Personal prejudices are likely to become writ large on a world stage.

At the same time, it's that prejudiced personal aspect that makes the history your history, and not merely your study of the history of other people. Ancestry may be able to show a baptism or immigration record of a grandparent; but that doesn't mean these are yet your history. These records only become so when you add memories shared with living family members into the mix. Why did the grandparent emigrate in the first place? What did they encounter when they arrived? When did you become a remote twinkle in someone's eye? Ancestry runs a commercial on the CBC News Now network that cleverly propels viewers past the all-important difference in the name of technological progress. The scene presented is of a elderly father and a middle-aged son, who wants to take up the father's mantle as family historian. But he wants to do it his way, by which is implied, he wants to take advantage of new technologies. And, not surprisingly, Ancestry is there to sell him their product.

I won't claim that Ancestry might not offer something valuable to some of its customers. On the other hand, I do think it misrepresents itself by claiming to offer more than it can--at this point, at least. It would be interesting to find, as users build Ancestry's database, whether actual human stories, and not merely sets records, begin to fill in the gaps, says, between the record of a person's birth, military service, marriage, and death in ways that significantly aid non-relatives.

Questions should also be raised, as they are for many other social networking platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on, about who knows the information stored on Ancestry. It would be rather troubling to see the bits and pieces of personal history users are able to assemble held hostage by for-profit commercial interests.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Smoggy Days

Glancing through pictures of an obscured Beijing skyline provides a sobering perspective on the local Walmart and Target discount stores, or any product that has 'Made in China' stamped on its exterior. The Atlantic has posted a rather stunning collection, and I recommend to you number 9, especially, as a good example of visual irony. The workshop of the world, it seems China must also therefore be a tailpipe on the engine of economic progress.

It's not as though the Western world is unfamiliar with coal-fired smog. The Great Smoke (or Smog) of London in 1952 lasted four days and killed 4,000 and made 100,000 more ill. More recent research, examining complicating factors, suggests the actual number of fatalities lies north of 12,000. The Great Smoke was the last of the 'pea-soupers', which plagued London through the 19th and early 20th centuries.  On this side of the Atlantic, Los Angeles and Mexico City both have notorious records through the middle of the 20th century. The city of New York also had its problems during the 1960s.

The narrowly defined needs of economic development appear out of step with a much larger set of concerns that impinge on human life--for example, the need to eat, sleep, and, in this specific case, to breathe. These later concerns don't sound as if they are larger, of course, and that has something to do with the way we have been taught to think about ourselves in relation to others. Breathing seems a rather minor affair, by comparison to the number and volume of transactions on the NYSE trading floor or the year-over-year growth of the Chinese GDP.

The way we have been taught to think about ourselves owes something to a titanic debate between the 'ancients' and the moderns', which, on account of being modern, we have largely forgotten about. Specifically: over the definition of 'material'.

For the ancients, material was the stuff that never got into a person's head. One could think about a tree; one could imagine different things to do with a tree. The idea of a tree was in a person's head. But the tree itself, it's bodily, material existence, was out there in the material world, never completely assimilable to human purposes, because it could never be completely comprehended in thought.

For the moderns, the idea that bodily, material existence was somehow beyond the human mind became more and more difficult to mentally digest. Astute commentators have noted that both Adam Smith's account of capitalism and Karl Marx account of communism share in common a 'materialist' basis. But here 'material' refers to the human activity of 'rationalizing' labour processes to maximize economic productivity and 'material' prosperity--or, as Marx would so aptly put it, 'material activity'. In principle, nothing escapes rationalization. What does escape is labelled 'false consciousness'.

The difference between these two definitions of material is obvious. The ancient definition admits that something always escapes the grasp of the human mind, stubbornly evades our best efforts to reduce it to a simple formula, while the modern definition forgets the same. Every once in a while, however, that something rears itself ugly head in very immediate and tangible ways. It does in John Brunner's perceptive 1972 novel The Sheep Look Up, which attempted to describe how a society on the edge of environmental collapse might function. And it is now doing so now in China.

It becomes apparent, in the process of creating artificial forms of material wealth, we cannot simply assume the natural materials--air, soil, water--needed to sustain human life will always be there.