Saturday, October 9, 2010

Giving Thanks

This weekend marks the Canadian celebration of Thanksgiving, and this evening my fiance and I had the pleasure of hosting our very first Thanksgiving dinner. It was not a lavish affair, and her mother prepared the Turkey, though we did make some ham, maple glazed carrots, mashed potatoes and home made cranberry sauce. The conversation was muted as people seemed to be enjoying their fare, which is always an excellent method of telling if they liked your cooking or not ;).

I do see this time as a period of reflection, and seems fitting that it leads up to Oíche Shamhna and the beginning of the dark half of the year. I am beginning to make a habit of including civil holidays into my practices, and understanding them through a GP context. I do usually cook a nice meal on Oíche Shamhna, fitting as it is the traditional end of the harvest in Gaelic communities.Thanksgiving has been a staple celebration in my family, where feasting is mandatory, for as long as I can remember. It is also a decidedly family oriented event, about sharing the bounty of the harvest and the blessing we have received, and hope to receive in the following year.

I find it is an excellent time to begin intensifying the inclusion of worship of the honoured dead, culminating on Oíche Shamhna, and extending into November for Remembrance Day, when we honour those who fell in defense of our nation. Of course for those who are not Canadian, Thanksgiving occurs later in the calendar year. There being no Rememberence day, Veterans Day is celebrated at the same time, and Memorial Day occurring in May, its applicability is perhaps less so. Nonetheless, I do find myself very mindful of the ancestors around this time of the year, but then again liminality will do that.

So what am I thankful for? I am thankful for my fiance, for my hound and for my family. I am thankful for being on the road to what I am supposed to be doing with my life. I am thankful for the guidance of the gods, the sacrifices of the ancestors and the beneficence of the land spirits.


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Theism and popular culture

So I just finished watching an episode of Glee, which I watch with my fiance, but I also enjoy; sarcastic humour has always appealed to me, and I am a sucker for show tunes. However tonight's episode focused on "spirituality." What I (and the shows writers) mean by spirituality, is monotheism.

I'd be naive to say I did not see this coming, in fact I "called it" soon after I read the program description. No, I was not surprised, but still, a slight disappointment did creep out as I watched the episode. For a show that is considerably tolerant with its treatment of minorities and acutely culturally aware (if in a tongue and cheek manner), their treatment of "spirituality" was decidedly homogeneous. The prevailing message of the episode was that "everyone believes in something"; do you hear that atheists, apparently even you believe in "something". Just in case you were wondering, that "something"? Turns out it is the god of monotheism.

The writers were very careful to limit their use of "religion", and so instead they peppered the episode with "spirituality". They were not so careful with the object of spirituality, God. Of course they come at the topic from different religious perspectives: Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism. "Three different religions, so someones prayers had to reach God." Yes, lets all marvel at the lovely interfaith work of people who, while members of different religions, all still manage to worship God. Hooray for inclusiveness! "Spirituality" then, is simply how people learn to express their love and devotion to the god of monotheism, with or without a religious filter. So you're not Jewish, or you're not a Protestant, well you can still believe in God; how lucky you are! It was never stated in the episode itself, but the idea that, "You don't believe in God? Well, He believes in you!" was certainly there in spirit.

So when I constantly talk about the overt cultural dominance of monotheism in every facet of discussion on the subject of religion? When I sigh and wish there was a little more diversity in the discussion of theism? That I get excited when someone who isn't a polytheist, includes polytheism in a discussion of theology? This illustrates why.


Monday, October 4, 2010

Religion and Reason

There exists a climate these days, nothing new mind you, in which people will often call into question the religious beliefs of another.I have no problem with critically exploring religious beliefs, but more often than not the kind of attitude I am speaking about is based on little more than a knee jerk reaction. Often this reaction is built upon a very shallow understanding of some aspect of that religion. If this sounds familiar, wait until I've finished the rest of my intro; because this is not an attitude which is found only among the "usual suspects." No in this case those who often criticize the fundamentalist's intolerance, are found in their company when confronted with a religion that is too "out there". Religious tolerance it seems is a fickle thing, even among those who claim to defend it.

My favourite "whipping boy" in this case is Scientology. You will notice that I did not use a $ sign to replace the S, but it happens more often than not. I am, of course, not a Scientologist; nor do I ascribe to any of their beliefs even in the slightest. I am also critical of the structure of their religious organization, the Church of Scientology. Though unknown to most people, there are many Scientologists who are not members of the Church; so called "Free Zone" Scientologists. I can accept, and in fact share, most of the criticisms of the CoS, however I may differ from most in not finding anything particularly odd about their beliefs.

I mean really think about it, how odd are their beliefs compared to any number of world religions? Judaism; why they pray to an invisible sky man, who revealed his universal wisdom by turning into a burning bush, seen by one guy. Christianity; well they worship the same sky man, but also his zombie son; many of them do this through ritualistic cannibalism. Islam; same sky man, but this time revealed to a guy in a cave who ended up having a lot of wives. Hinduism; a million gods who are all the same god, but then you're not even you, but we. Buddhism: try to emulate a Indian prince who decided poverty was awesome, and owning things is the root of all evil; they seek enlightenment by thinking about weird things.

Part of my point is that anything can be made to sound ridiculous or terrible if you word it the right way, and focus on some detail, taken out of context. Many people would dismiss my points as shallow, erroneous and mischaracterizations of their religious traditions, and they would be right because they are. However there remains a kernel of truth in each statement, skewed as they may be. So people are also willing to ignore, or explain away the odd things which may exist in their traditions, but are not willing to extend that to others, especially minority religions.

Aside from this is a notion of efficacy, or reasonableness. I will provide a short comparison, between one of the oldest forms of religion, animism, and the default in the West, Christianity. From the Christian perspective, worshiping rocks, trees, rivers and mountains is the height of primitiveness; ignorant, superstitious and backwards. Why worship some dirt and pebbles, when you can pray to the supreme creator of the universe, and his son who died to give you the gift of immortality in the life to come? Well from an objective standpoint, it is the Christian, and not the animist, who hasn't got a leg to stand on. While one can not prove that rocks, trees, rivers and mountains have spirits, it can be proven that they exist. The Christian god on the other hand can not.

The practical effects of the objects of worship for the animist are tangible and far more influential than those of the Christian. A tree for example, can provide shelter from the elements, protection from predators, fuel for a fire, sticks to make tools, fruit to sustain you. The Christian god can not provide shelter, protection, fuel, tools or food, except in abstract or symbolic ways. Is it not eminently more sensible, since there are objective material benefits, to give praise and thanks to the objects which allow you to survive, rather than some disembodied sky man? Why then is animism held to be primitive or superstitious, when it is so much more practical than many so called modern religions? Little more than special pleading, or appeal to authority.