Sunday, September 27, 2009

Yes, I'm A Heathen

What's interesting about this one is that the sky was flat as the dickens in the original shot. All the detail came out when I was developing the image in Lightroom. (Incidentally? I heart Lightroom.)

So I pride myself on being a materialist. An atheist. It's taken me a long time and a lot of effort to reach this position. To consciously and knowledgeably reject the fundamental beliefs of the vast majority of mankind ain't easy for a lot of us. But at the end of the day, there is no place where religion contributes to any real understanding of life and the universe. Religion and science are not complimentary means of understanding the world; they are inherently opposed, and religion just don't work. It do not function; it have no technology. I reject any belief in mythology.

But let's be serious. I am a heathen wretch. Despite my intellectual beliefs, I still regard myself as being battered about by unseen forces, and feel my trespasses against the spirit world can cause calamity.

Let me introduce you to some of my stupid, stupid superstitions.

Any show of pride, declaration of intent, or stated desire must be accompanied by knocking on wood in order to show the spirit world that I remain humble within.

If no wood is available, I knock on my noggin, the implication being that I regard myself as a blockhead.

It's bad luck to cuss like a space guy.

"By Saturn's icy moons," or "Great sweltering nebulae!" for instance. I once spent a morning cussing like a space guy and the afternoon brought me terrible fortune. One of the worst days I've ever had. So I've never used any space guy oaths since then, for which my friends and family must be grateful.

Things happen in threes; if two similar events occur, keep your eyes peeled for the third.

But it's true, he bleated plaintively.

And while we're at it, similar events occur in clusters.

As my old pal Angel used to say, shit comes in piles. And so do presents.

Always give the other person the largest share.

Again, if the spirits had any idea what a megalomaniacal narcissist I am, I'd be in real trouble. Always stay humble and you might not die screaming. This one presents me with a certain amount of frustration, given that the missus believes in always taking her bite out of the middle.

Always be polite to strangers; they may be more than they appear.

I always suspect random street crazies of possessing ineffable wisdom and mystical powers. And courtesy to others is a way of demonstrating courtesy to the world at large. Actually, I try and treat everything and everyone with respect when I'm not running amok.

If you put your underwear on inside-out it brings bad luck. In order to correct this situation, you must spit in your underwear before reversing it.

I'm fairly sure this is an authentic piece of folklore -- I believe it's African American but I'm not certain. I have no idea why this notion stuck with me but it did. I've never actually had to launch a loogie but every so often I almost put my underwear on inside-out and catch myself getting a little edgy over the prospect of wearing spat-in boxers.

I may not believe in God, but as the Cowardly Lion once said, "I do believe in spooks."



John Schmidt said...

"there is no place where religion contributes to any real understanding of life and the universe" <-- Francis Crick suspected that the human brain benefits from religion...I think he had something chemical in mind. Dan Dennett made the case for benefits from religious beliefs functioning as parasitic memetic brain viruses. Is religion a good fit for the human brain? After reading Carl Sagan's account of witch hunts through history I wondered if brains have been artificially selected to fit religion. In either case, those of us who are baffled by religion could just be mutants, a minority that lacks some kind of "god gene". I think I stand with E. O. Wilson, a man who was able to walk far enough from his native religion to get perspective, but who could not escape the idea that religion tells us something about human nature.

Sean Craven said...

Hmmm... Looks as if I was a little unclear in my statement. Lemme try again.

The phenomenon of religion is a worthy and interesting subject. It's the internal experience of religion that I regard dubiously.

As someone who's had some fairly overwhelming 'spiritual' experiences, I'd be fascinated to find out more about he physiology that underlays them -- but I don't think that buying into a mythology is gonna give me any useful information.

I once wrote a story based on the idea that rational thought is essentially foreign to the human mind, that science is the result of hotrodding a brain that is more comfortable with religion.

It didn't have a happy ending...

Steve Buchheit said...

Well, it's more profitable to believe in spooks than to believe in God. God, after all, tends to smite whole cities or flood the whole world to get his point across. In that case we're all bozos on this bus anyway and mostly we're collateral damage. Spooks, on the other hand, are highly personal agitators even to the point of singling out one person in a group and bothering them while leaving the rest alone.

So choosing spooks is just pure survivalism.

John Schmidt said...

"science is the result of hotrodding a brain that is more comfortable with religion" <-- Religious ritual is often listed as a human cultural universal as is the cultural practice of passing from generation to generation a mythology to explain the world and our place in it. It seems that human nature evolved in the cultural context of religion while modern science is a recent cultural practice that was simply "grafted onto" our pre-existing powers of thought. "I don't think that buying into a mythology is gonna give me any useful information" <-- I agree that any pre-scientific mythology is as useless as another when measured against modern scientific understanding of the world and our place in it. "Religion and science are not complimentary means of understanding the world" <-- This is where E. O. Wilson offers an interesting idea. Something like a Biblical creation myth might tell us nothing useful about the mechanics of the solar system or the origin of humans, but humans evolved just fine with out such knowledge. Human survival never depended on the difference between a geocentric or heliocentric cosmology. However, it is possible that religious behavior gave our species a critical survival advantage. For example, we might be the only remaining human species an Earth because we are the "religious ape". If human nature is such that human cultures function better when they include religion then that is important information about life and our place in the universe. E. O. Wilson has suggested that a purely rational scientific world view is not a viable human world view. He argued that we need to construct an emotionally satisfying "new mythos" based on science. For example, you can argue rationally about environmentalism, but many people will only respect the environment when they feel a spiritual connection to the planet. Do we need not just "any mythology" but a modern mythology that reflects our scientific understanding of the world?

Sean Craven said...

Steve, that's it. I like to fear supernatural beings that I could either tackle or negotiate with. JHVH-1 don't play that game.

John, this is a fascinating discussion and right up my alley.

I thoroughly agree that it isn't appropriate to expect people to remain entirely rational at all times.

But establishing a mythology seems counterproductive to me.

See, from my perspective (and I suspect this ain't the first time you've run across this concept -- it ain't exactly original) the human experience is essentially an ongoing hallucination.

Everything we perceive, we perceive with our minds, mostly or entirely through the use of our brains. We have no direct access to reality, and as a result our connection with the objective world is a tenuous one.

This is why I mistrust mythological worldviews. I think mythology is actually of great value as long as it is perceived as mythology.

But right now I'm living in a country that has been shattered by mythologically-based delusional thinking. Where there is a significant percentage of the population who actively reject fact-based decision making.

This is the danger of mythology. It is not trivial.

That said, there is no avoiding it to a certain degree. Most people who 'believe' science in the US do so on the same basis that their neighbors 'believe' in one invisible sky king or another -- their belief is based on faith, not knowledge.

That said, myth and folklore are perhaps the most distinctively human artifacts that exist. They are to some degree built into us physically.

This is why I prefer the ideas of using fantasy, make-believe, thought experiments, art, and storytelling to satisfy this fundamental hunger rather than mythology. Let the individual mediate between external and internal realities while recognizing the difference between the object and the symbol, the map and the territory.

Looking back, I suspect that Kurt Vonnegut influenced me strongly here with his church of Bokonon. "Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly, man got to ask himself, why, why, why. Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land, man got to tell himself that he understand."

In other words, I'm in favor of harmless untruths recognized as such, and staunchly opposed to dogma.

John Schmidt said...

"mistrust mythological worldviews" <-- yes. Carl Sagan suggested this formula: wonder and skepticism. "staunchly opposed to dogma" <-- I think the fundamental core of religion is narrative, not dogma. Did you ever see Carl Sagan's "spaceship of the imagination"? In order to explore the scientific mythos Sagan used a cathedral-like set with music to stir the emotions. First hook people with emotion and then they will have the motivation to go on into the hard slog of the science. "storytelling...rather than mythology" <-- We may have a semantic problem with the term "mythology". Yes, we have forms of storytelling now that were unknown when many of our culture's ancient myths were invented, but I think the most sweeping stories of any culture have a chance to be viewed as myths when seen from the perspective of the distant future. Possible theorem: a culture's storytelling is the cauldron of myth making. I also wonder if you ever read Sagan's novel "Contact". Sagan did a good job of exploring the role of evidence in distinguishing between religion and science but I'm not sure that he saw a distinct boundary between science and religion. For humans, myth and fantasy fuel the imagination... science might try to tame and bring order to our flights of fantasy, but is the process of science independent of our human need to create narratives (many fictional) for our existence?

Sean Craven said...

Yeah, I think it's the definition of 'mythology,' that we're disagreeing on. I read the word as meaning a contra-factual explanation of reality -- how the Earth was created, why we have seasons, where did fire come from, what happens after we die, that kind of thing. So far as I can see, contemporary religions are still based on mythology and folk history.

When I say storytelling, I mean narrative in any medium. I'm not sure distance in time is enough to make something into a myth, but we won't know about that until it happens. Will people someday believe that we worshiped Batman and MacGuyver? Would that perception turn pop culture into mythology?

Depends on how you define the word.

Contact is an interesting example to bring up. I thought it was pretty good, with intentions much higher than most genre fiction. I think Sagan succeeded in using a current narrative form to deliver a message of wonder, an invitation to the cosmos.

But if anyone actually believed what he wrote as literal truth, as a means of explaining the world? I think that would go directly against Sagan's intent.

We live in a culture that is in the process of rejecting a shared body of knowledge. There are people who buy into this kind of stuff. And I see that as having a negative impact on the world as a whole.

Glendon Mellow said...

Bravo on this post man. (Forgive my lateness in commenting - ill for a bit).

It's a sign of human intelligence to try and wrest cognitive control from our automatic-pilot superstitions. Not easy, not something we slow down enough to recognize.

And now I plan to cuss like sonuva-supernova to see where that takes me.

Sean Craven said...

Dude, I feel about minds the way some feel about cars -- only a sucker drives a stock model.The ability to gain at least some real perception of one's thought processes is the difference between someone I can hang out with and human livestock.

Of course, I'm a megalomaniacal bastard with a serious dose of hubris.

If cussing like a space guy catches on, I'm certainly going to be caught flat-footed.