Wednesday, October 27, 2010

African religion: Begin by trying to understand

A story in Slate (October 25, 2010) about traditional African religion, based on the author's reminiscences and V. S. Naipaul's recent book, almost works, but for its author's tiresome attack on all religions except his own (which I take, from his earnestly sarcastic tone, to be atheist materialism). Here's Johann Hari, "The Valley of Taboos: V.S. Naipaul dares to discuss Africa's indigenous beliefs":
There is a great thudding taboo in any discussion of Africa. Western journalists and aid workers see it everywhere, yet it is nowhere in our coverage back home. We don't want to talk about it. We don't know how to. We smother it in silence, even though it is one of the most vivid and vibrant and violent parts of African life. We are afraid—of being misunderstood, or of sounding like our own ugliest ancestors. The suppressed topic? The African belief in spirits and spells and ancestors and black magic.
Well, full marks for understanding that all cultures have taboos, including ours. Honest discussion of the differences that really do make a difference is a Big Taboo in North America today. And he is right to think it is a serious problem:
These are not trivial side-beliefs, like vague fears of black cats crossing your path. They are at the core of many Africans' understanding of themselves and the world. I have stood in a blood-splattered house in Tanzania where an old woman had just been beaten to death for being a "witch" who cast spells on her neighbors.
He asks where such a belief comes from.

Well, I have an idea: He also tells us,
In most indigenous African religions, "God" is pretty much inaccessible to humans. But they believe every human is surrounded by a swirl of spirits—of the dead, of the living who can temporarily leave their bodies, of nature—that are constantly at work. Many of these spirits will take on physical representations at key moments, from trees to carved idols to animals. They can protect and heal, or they can smite and curse. Life is a constant exhausting process of wooing the spirits and warding them off. They can be communicated with directly, but it is easier to talk through the local soothsayers and witch doctors. Africans who describe themselves as Muslims and Christians will often retain these traditional beliefs not far beneath the surface.
In other words, the idea that God is a loving father or a just ruler, and always accessible to his rational creatures is absent. And what assumes his place? The spirit of one's still angry dead mother-in-law, who must be placated at all costs ... or something even worse. No wonder missionaries wanted to reach the people with what, for most, seemed good news.

Nonetheless, Hari acknowledges,
Almost all homegrown African belief systems are, or were, based on a reverence for local ecosystems—a belief that the forests and rivers are sacred—and this helped persuade people to preserve them, alive and intact. But when the colonialists arrived, they dismissed such notions as mumbo-jumbo and forcibly imposed religions that originated in the desert and had nothing to say about the African environment. The old taboos were stamped out, and before long the forests began to be systematically destroyed. It's an eco-catastrophe from which Africa has never recovered, and which many Africans have picked up and are continuing to perpetrate today. Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, offered a personal example when I interviewed her, speaking about one particular tree near her village that she loved: "That tree inspired awe," she told me. "It was protected. It was the place of God. But in the '60s, after I had gone far away, I went back to where I grew up, and I found God had been relocated to a little stone building called a church. The tree was no longer sacred. It had been cut down. I mourned for that tree."

This sense of grief at seeing a forest destroyed—or even as morally akin to murder—is in fact more sane than our shrugging.
I've mourned for trees too, but if I ever got around to seeing them as akin to people rather than as elements of places, I'd be well on the road to superstition.

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Media and religion: If people cannot safely say what they think, what effect can media have?

Media watchdog Brent Bozell charges "NPR's Religion Double Standard'" (Townhall, October 27, 2010), in connection with the abrupt firing of Juan Williams, for saying honestly that people in Middle Eastern Muslim dress on airplanes made him nervous:
National Public Radio's firing of Juan Williams tells you all you need to know about the radical, and thoroughly intolerant, left. Williams is a liberal, but still, he isn't liberal enough. The idea that he would acknowledge a mere thought of discomfort at the idea of people in "Muslim garb" on airplanes in a post-9/11 world became a firing offense. It didn't matter that he prefaced it with all the perfunctory and politically correct disclaimers about not being a bigot and we shouldn't blame all Muslims for terrorism.


Today's left is void of any principles whatsoever. They can be as astonishingly offensive and insulting as they want toward Christians, and no one gets punished. The indefatigable Catholic League provides the documentation.
Bozell goes on to talk about insults to the Catholic Church that are supported by NPR types.

Fair enough, but the reality is that old atheists and new, and all types in between, have stubbed their toes kicking the Catholic Church for two millennia. So?

A greater concern, in my view, is media that do not seem interested any more in what people actually think. Having bought into the idea that citizens are simply random collections of molecules that can be directed by the will of an intellectual elite (among whom they conveniently class themselves), they think they can simply fix or airbrush everything so that their aggregations do not conflict with each other. And if that doesn't work, they fire someone just to prove they are in charge (in charge, that is, of truckling to the right political correctness icon).

No. We must start by asking people to say - with no fear of editing, censure, firing, or punishment: What do you actually think/feel about this? If we want to solve a problem, we start there and move out from there.

Bozell, and many, want NPR defunded. Hmmm. I'd prefer they be asked to voluntarily revisit what happened here. If they prove arrogant, well ...

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No peace between "science" and "religion," prof warns

This post was about an atheist facing death, and it is inspiring.

This one is about an atheist blowhard - an evolutionary biologist who seems determined, so far as I can see, to collapse in the ruins of Darwinism. Some excerpts from Jerry A. Coyne's "Religion in America is on the defensive" (USA Today, October 11, 2010):
Atheist books such as The God Delusion and The End of Faith have, by exposing the dangers of faith and the lack of evidence for the God of Abraham, become best-sellers. Science nibbles at religion from the other end, relentlessly consuming divine explanations and replacing them with material ones. Evolution took a huge bite a while back, and recent work on the brain has shown no evidence for souls, spirits, or any part of our personality or behavior distinct from the lump of jelly in our head. We now know that the universe did not require a creator. Science is even studying the origin of morality. So religious claims retreat into the ever-shrinking gaps not yet filled by science. And, although to be an atheist in America is still to be an outcast, America's fastest-growing brand of belief is non-belief.
As neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and I demonstrate in The Spiritual Brain, materialist explanations have utterly failed in explaining the human mind. They continue to fail even as I write and you read, with one limp speculation after another.

But soft! There is ancient evil about:
But faith will not go gentle. For each book by a "New Atheist," there are many others attacking the "movement" and demonizing atheists as arrogant, theologically ignorant, and strident.
Well, if so, you just heard from Exhibit 1.

It gets better:
Science operates by using evidence and reason. Doubt is prized, authority rejected. No finding is deemed "true" - a notion that's always provisional - unless it's repeated and verified by others. We scientists are always asking ourselves, "How can I find out whether I'm wrong?"
To that, I can only reply "Climategate," which made clear that a number of key climate scientists were willing to manipulate the system to advance their opinions versus evidence. And in the age of Signature in the Cell (Harper One, 2009), Expelled (a documentary about attempts to suppress findings that contradict atheist materialism) did not help the new atheists' image.

My favourite lines from Coyne's screed are
And this leads to the biggest problem with religious "truth": There's no way of knowing whether it's true. I've never met a Christian, for instance, who has been able to tell me what observations about the universe would make him abandon his beliefs in God and Jesus. (I would have thought that the Holocaust could do it, but apparently not.) There is no horror, no amount of evil in the world, that a true believer can't rationalize as consistent with a loving God. It's the ultimate way of fooling yourself. But how can you be sure you're right if you can't tell whether you're wrong?
Well, if one does not believe that one's mind has an independent reality, one cannot tell whether anything at all is true, or right or wrong. After all, if morality is all about survival of the fittest, then there is no morality, only survival of the fittest. Many Darwinists have said that our brains are adapted for fitness, not for truth.

The funniest part is this:
Out of 34 countries surveyed in a study published in Science magazine, the U.S., among the most religious, is at the bottom in accepting Darwinism: We're No. 33, with only Turkey below us.
Well, the United States put men on the moon, mapped the outer planets, and generally leads in science. And it is more religious than other countries. So, if religion makes a difference, bring it on.

The real lesson is that leading nations lead. They can lead in both science and religion. There are nations out there having a fit about both.

More on the new atheism (atheism on stilts):

The new atheists: Santa's sleigh came and went, and never gave them what they needed

Salvo 7: Just released edition features batty bioethicists, suckered scientists, senseless psychologists ...
(And we don't mind sayin' it either.)

Imagine no Religulous


Christopher Hitchens: Attempting the good death without God

In "Christopher Hitchens: A humanist at heart" (Washington Post , October 15, 2010), Michael Gerson offers some thoughts on celebrated atheist author Christopher Hitchens's disdain for "deathbed conversions," despite his serious illness and recent bad news. Gerson comments,
... Christopher Hitchens is weaker on the personal and ethical challenge presented by atheism: Of course we can be good without God, but why the hell bother? If there are no moral lines except the ones we draw ourselves, why not draw and redraw them in places most favorable to our interests? Hitchens parries these concerns instead of answering them: Since all moral rules have exceptions and complications, he said, all moral choices are relative. Peter Hitchens responded, effectively, that any journey becomes difficult when a compass points differently at different times.

The best answer that Christopher Hitchens can offer to this ethical objection is himself. He is a sort of living refutation -- an atheist who is also a moralist. His politics are defined by a hatred of bullies, whether Kim Jong Il, Saddam Hussein or the mullahs in Iran. His affections are reserved for underdogs, from the Kurds to Salman Rushdie. The dreams of totalitarians are his nightmares -- what W.H. Auden described as: "A million eyes, a million boots in line/Without expression, waiting for a sign." Even Hitchens's opposition to God seems less a theological argument than a revolt against celestial tyranny.

All this fire and bleeding passion would seem to require a moral law, even a holy law. But Hitchens produces outrage, empathy and solidarity without it.
We constantly hear from atheists that one can be good without God. The problem is, the atheist has set the goal posts for being "good" himself. Anyone can score in that situation.

Hitchen's passion is easily bested by the passion (for slaughtering millions) of fellow atheists like Josef Stalin. Maybe (well, definitely) I like Hitchens better than Stalin, but that establishes nothing. I also like sushi better than ice cream. So?

If God did nothing else for the moral law, the fact that he is something other and higher than ourselves privileges his view. One could say the same thing of the Eastern ideas of karma or the cosmic mind. In other words, the things you cannot escape just by rebelling or not happening to like them.

It is good to want justice, as Hitchens does, but it is God (or karma) that fill in the idea. One sometimes wonders if "new atheists" like Hitchens don't believe in life after death because they realize that no one can be his own judge.

Here, the celebrated atheist author talks to Sally Quinn (from On Faith) about how he copes with his diagnosis of esophageal cancer (a week long series). It begins, "It's a strange thing having a malady like this, because you feel that you must, at the same time, make preparations to die and to live."

Gerson cautiously comments,
At the Pew Forum, Hitchens was asked a mischievous question: What positive lesson have you learned from Christianity? He replied, with great earnestness: the transience and ephemeral nature of power and all things human. But some things may last longer than he imagines, including examples of courage, loyalty and moral conviction.
See also:

The New Atheists are really God's prophets?

All roads end, but usually at another road

Why we must make sure the Darwinists lose (a rather deplorable take on deathbed conversions)

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Branded but stranded? How seriously does Generation Y really take brands?

In "For Millennials, Brands May Be as Important as Religion, Ethnicity" (Fast Company, Oct. 14, 2010), David ZaxThu argues that the “millennials,” (or Generation Y) the generation born between 1980 and 1995, identification with brands is "just about as important as religion and ethnicity" and that they, in effect, market the brands by sharing their enthusiasm online:
Volunteering to try new products and review some of them online is a "core value," according to Edelman, and the majority of those surveyed had recommended products to friends and family via a social network. The research involved interviewing 3,100 respondents in eight countries.
On the importance of brands, Edelman reports:
The study, focusing on people born between 1980 and 1995, finds that globally, at least eight in 10 Millennials have taken action on behalf of a brand they trust – including sharing brand experiences with others, joining online communities and posting reviews online.

Encompassing interviews with 3,100 respondents in eight countries, Edelman’s 8095 global research indicates that 82 percent of 8095ers have joined a brand-sponsored online community, and nearly half have joined more than three. Forty-seven percent share positive brand experiences online, with respondents from China (61%) and Brazil (57%) most likely to do so. Poor experiences also spark this kind of action, with nearly 40 percent reporting they have criticized a brand on a blog or social network. Further, each action reverberates through extensive networks of sources and peers – online, offline and mobile. More than half of the global respondents say they consult at least four sources of information before making a purchase decision.

“Our Edelman 8095 research reflects a diverse generation whose defining life events thus far include being the first group to grow up with computers as part of their everyday lives, 9/11, the Facebook phenomenon and the Great Recession,” said Christina Smedley, global chair, Consumer Marketing practice, Edelman. “With 1.7 billion global citizens who spend more than $200 billion a year and use online and mobile technologies to amplify their voices, the 8095ers are actively defining today’s global and emerging brands.”

Thu is a bit skeptical of all this, as am I. He observes,
We can easily concede that people's online lives-their Facebook pages, especially--are closely integrated with brands of various sorts (which makes Bing's union with Facebook all the more clever, and potentially lucrative). But to what extent is a millennial's online life the deepest expression of who that person is?

Has Edelman really discovered a sea change in the way young people identify themselves? Or has it merely exposed the fact that their online lives, by and large, are barely skin-deep?
I'd say the latter for sure. Many young people facing a bust-up or a failed key exam do not want to talk about it on the World Wide Web. It's easier, safer, and more popular to talk about Cheesi-O's or the latest sport shoe.

On the importance of brands to some people, see also:

Darwinian “triggers to persuasion and captivation” read more like the seven deadly sins.

Picture yourelf deciding you actually like the way you look

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