Religious chicken and homophobic egg

The three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) get the bulk of the attention in North American media. This is partially due to their immense familiarity and power in the world, partially due to number of believers in North America, and partially due to the fact that they stem from a common root. As a result, the way we think of religion as a concept tends to be coloured by those particular traditions. It is important to note that besides these three, their bizarre offshots (which would include Mormonism, Baha’i, Jehova’s Witnesses, and others), and the so-called “Eastern” religions (chiefly Hinduism and Buddhism), there are a number of religions that are seemingly created uniquely, or at least which weave together a number of other traditions into a new narrative.

Religions like these allow us to examine the way in which humans are able to craft new creation mythologies and rites of worship, and give us a clue into how the older traditions may have gotten their start. Aside from Scientology, which gained its notoriety by systematically making bizarre and grandiose claims while defrauding its adherents of their lives and human rights (which is, I realize, a fair cop for pretty much any religion) and Vodun, which has been mischaracterized and caricatured by Christians into something far more bizarre than anything anyone actually practices, this phenomenon of a completely new religion is probably no better and popularly exemplified than it is by Rastafari*.

Rastafari is a somewhat bizarre patchwork of beliefs, stitching together Christianity, pre-Christian Judaism, African mysticism, post-slavery Afrocentric thought, and the worship of a former political leader in Ethiopia. As a general movement it is mostly harmless, as the main underlying philosophy is an existential exploration of man’s relationship with the divine and with other human beings, often fueled by smoking marijuana. It is, interestingly, difficult to divorce Rastafari from its roots deep within post-slavery Jamaican culture. As such, it is hard to tell where Rastafari ends and Jamaican culture begins, which makes this issue far more interesting:

On November 27th, 2010, protesters in Sacramento, CA gathered outside musical artist Capleton’s reggae-dancehall concert to oppose the violent gay-bashing ideas his lyrics promote.  This wasn’t the first protest against reggae artists calling for violent homophobic acts in their music.  Other reggae artists criticized and boycotted over the last decade for anti-homosexual lyrics include Beenie ManBuju Banton, Sizzla, Elephant Man, T.O.K., Bounty Killa and Vybz Kartel.

A major leader in the campaign against the homophobia found in dancehall music (the reggae spinoff popular in United States and western Europe) is Stop Murder Music, who eventually initiated the “Reggae Compassionate Act”.  This contract requires artists who sign it to preclude all homophobic sentiment from their future music and to vow against further reproductions of prior songs which promoted intolerance or killing of gay individuals—thus ensuring that their music will no longer be subject to boycott.  The original problem that lingers past these artist’s vows of free-but-destructive-speech abstinence, however, is the defense originally used to justify the lyrics:  Homophobia is a cultural, even religious value.

One of the knotty problems when considering the intersection between religion and homophobia (and to anyone who wants to claim that “homophobia” just means “fear of gay people” and therefore doesn’t apply to their particular gay-bashing agenda, please take your pedantry and shove it somewhere uncomfortable – adults are talking) is that there is a real chicken-egg conundrum to resolve. Are people homophobic because their religion instructs them to be so, or does a homophobic society spawn a homophobic religion?

Having been to the Caribbean a handful of times, and having half of my family members being of Caribbean extract, I can claim a bit of familiarity with the culture. As with any group of people among whom machismo and “manliness” is considered a high virtue, homophobia is endemic. After all, what greater abdication of the rightful role of a man could there be than mincing around like a goddamn fairy? Add to this male-centred mentality the extreme anti-gay sentiment of colonial Britain and you have a culture that is richly steeped in the hatred and persecution of gay men (and it is predominantly men – Caribbean lesbians seem to by and large escape the kind of hatred they experience in places like South Africa and the Congo).

It is mostly inevitable that a religion that comes from such a background is going to have homophobic elements. I say mostly inevitable because, by a strict interpretation of Rastafari, there’s really no doctrinal reason why homosexuality is wrong – to get there, one must invoke the Old and New Testaments. Additionally, considering that the reggae prophets of Rastafari (Desmond Decker, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley) chose to spend their time concerned with uplifting the human spirit and avoiding hatred, the focus of contemporary reggae and dancehall music on gay hatred seems like the result of foreign influences rather than something that sprung through the religion itself.

As with the anti-gay movement in Uganda, Iran’s bizarre treatment of its homosexual population, and the simmering hatred of gay people (again, predominantly men) here in North America, this intrusion of homophobia into the cultural expression of Rastafari seems to be the pre-existing anti-gay sentiment of adherents being masked as a religious tenet. Of course this kind of hatred tends to be self-feeding as people come to sincerely believe that YahwAlladdha (or Jah, as the case may be) cares more about where your neighbour puts his penis than He does about you specifically inciting violence against one of His creations.

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*I must insist that people remove the term “Rastafarianism” from their vocabulary – the doctrine explicitly rejects “isms”, and even if you don’t care if they don’t think they’re an “ism”, Rastas find such classification offensive. You don’t call Jews “Heebs” simply because they are descended from ancient Hebrews – there’s no need to be unnecessarily offensive.

Movie Friday: Show me a God

There’s never been a conscientious believer who has gone through life completely free of doubt. There is an interesting passage in Mark 9 in which Jesus is asked to heal a child with epilepsy, and the father is told that all he has to do is believe hard enough, and his son will be cured (Jesus was an early Deepak Chopra, apparently). The distraught father says “Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief!” and his son is immediately cured.

The story is complete bullshit, to be sure, but that line “I believe, help me overcome my unbelief” has been uttered, in various permutations, by the lips of the faithful for as long as people have been told to believe in ridiculous stories and impossible propositions with no evidence.

Tech N9ne turned it into a song:

There is an entire branch of theology called “theodicy” that is devoted to trying to square the circle of things in the world that are evil with the idea of a benevolent creator. Guys like Ken Ham, Ray Comfort and Hugh Ross make the claim that suffering is intentionally introduced into the universe to test mankind’s resolve to turn away from sin. If mankind is able to bear up under the crushing weight of temptation and overcome evil, then he is rewarded with eternal bliss in heaven (citation needed). Of course this is a facile explanation that falls apart under even casual scrutiny. Why would a loving god make such a test? Why not make it easier to be good? Why not create mankind with an inner drive to be good? Why punish those who are innocent of any misdeeds, while rewarding those who sin? Why bother testing us at all if it knows who will pass and who will fail a priori?

The other explanations are that YahwAlladdha is not good at all, but a petty heartless trickster who delights in human suffering, or that it is completely indifferent to the suffering of its creation.

Or, more parsimoniously, that it doesn’t exist at all and you’re wasting your time asking stupid questions.

While there are a lot of reasons to hold onto religion in the black community (community organization has traditionally centred on church groups, the belief in ultimate justice helps you ignore many of the day-to-day injustice you see around you), I am glad to see/hear influential voices within the hip-hop community begin to broach the taboo around criticizing religion. Maybe none are so poignant as this track from The Roots:

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P.S. Sorry about the embedding. VEVO is… I have mixed feelings.

Movie Friday: What are you doing New Year’s Eve?

I occasionally make reference to my life and work as a scientist when discussing the various skeptical topics that come up on this blog. I’ve been told that approaching some of these topics with a scientific eye helps make them more easily comprehensible to those of us who are more academically-minded, rather than invoking legal or emotional rhetoric to make my arguments. For me, science is the filter through which I see the world – I try to approach all things analytically and apportion my belief in them to the evidence. It’s not surprising to me that this colours my blogging, although it is certainly not something I make a concerted effort to do.

What I don’t talk about much is the other part of my life. I have a pretty cool Clark Kent/Superman thing going on, wherein I am a fuddy-duddy glasses-wearing nerd by day, and rock star by night. In addition to being a classically-trained viola player, I have been dabbling in guitar since I was in high school, and have been singing since I was old enough to carry a tune. My music is perhaps not as big an influence over my writing and daily life as my scientific background is, but music still plays a big role in my life.

I do have a band here in Vancouver called CROWN, in which I play a number of instruments and sing. It’s a cool thing to be part of a collaboration between a number of great musicians, and we have what I think is a pretty unique sound.

Here’s us doing a cover of “Steal My Kisses” by Ben Harper with me on vocals:

Covering Chris Isaac’s “Wicked Game” with Paul on lead vocals and me on viola:

And doing an original tune called “Never Let You Go” with Stuart on vocals:

We play down at a pub called the King’s Head in Kitsilano on Fridays and Sundays, which is a lot of fun. Of course none of this has anything to do with the usual fare of this blog; we just happen to be playing a gig for New Year’s Eve tonight so I thought I’d let you know what I was up to.

What are you doing tonight?

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Movie Friday: Merry Christmas!

There is, underneath all the eye-rolling stupidity, a point to the annual debate in the atheist community about the celebration of Christmas. Yes, it has become so mainstream as to have its religious significance diluted. Yes, it is so pagan in its celebration as to strip it almost entirely of any overt Christianity. Yes, it can be (and has been) rebranded as a holiday celebrating humankind’s ability to be at its best in the way it treats other humans, regardless of any person’s beliefs about a supernatural force.

However, the celebration of Christmas does reinforce the false equation of Christianity with goodness – as though Christianity is a moral system (it isn’t) or that Christians are better people (they aren’t). Christianity may offer opinions on good and evil, but can claim no monopoly of either understanding or execution when it comes to questions of morality. However, thanks to centuries of religious domination, we in the west subconsciously equate Christianity with righteousness (“it’s the Christian thing to do”, “we’re God-fearing people”, “WWJD”).

Celebrating Christmas, no matter how secularly we try to do it, requires the inclusion of Christmas songs. Some of them are simple winter ditties (Frosty the Snowman, Winter Wonderland, Jingle Bells), others are secular (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas), and a great many are explicitly religious (O Holy Night, Away in a Manger, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing). By flipping through those messages interchangeably, we prop up the notion that Christmas is explicitly religious, which in turn equates all the virtues of Christmas with the religious celebration.

Luckily, there’s guys like Patton Oswald who ask us to maybe think about things just a little harder:

Whether you’re celebrating a secular, egg-nog-filled Yule or a Jesus-heavy Christ-mas, I hope you enjoy yourself. Remember, I’m off my vacation starting the first weekend after the New Year, and I look forward to seeing you all in 2011.

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Movie Friday: Hardcore Pornography!

Since their first album Mass Romantic dropped almost 10 years ago, I have been a fan of The New Pornographers. They’re an amazing and unique-sounding band that uses unusual combinations of instrumentation and composition to create a musical motif that is not easily classified. Their use of several songwriters and lead singers is something that I’ve co-opted into my own band, which fans seem to enjoy a lot.

(Incidentally, pause it at 3:12 – those of you in Vancouver will probably recognize where this video was shot)

There’s a second reason why I thought I would highlight this particular band today (besides the fact that they’re amazing). Just like the Bare Naked Ladies had to deal with back in the 90s, some puritanical morons in the United States have canceled a performance by the band because of their spikiness over the name:

A Christian college in Grand Rapids, Mich., has cancelled a scheduled concert by Canadian indie band The New Pornographers because of the band’s name. The Vancouver-based band’s website announced the cancellation Wednesday. Calvin College rescinded an invitation to the band to play on Oct. 15 after weeks of discussion, the college said in a statement. The statement said the college found it difficult to explain the band’s name.

Yes, God forbid (pun intended) that anyone mistake the venerable name of Calvin College with anything so revolting as pornography. No, they’d much rather be associated with:

  • Rampant anti-Semitism;
  • Original sin (a disgusting doctrine which preaches that a mythical ancestor ate an apple, and as a result you are doomed to an eternity of torture);
  • Censorship of musical expression (shock! surprise!)
  • Southern Baptist churches (hi Fred!)
  • And of course, Puritanism

Just so long as nobody thinks they’re cool with pictures of nekkid ladies. I felt today’s video was particularly appropriate.

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Being creative without a Creator

A friend sent me a link to a 20-minute talk on creativity by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the novel Eat, Pray, Love. I’m not a big fan of the book (I got through about 25 eye-rolling pages before giving up and reaching for the remote), but I am a big fan of (my friend) Claire, so I gave it a chance. I was right with her up until 8:30 when she started in on “creative mystery” and an external, supernatural source for creativity, and then the rest was invocations of magic and self-indulgent privileged pap, the likes to which Jim Carrey would be a fervent subscriber.

I do not know if Claire’s intent was to murder my neurons; I doubt that she was trying to lobotomize me through the intarwebz. She did ask me to write about some of my thoughts on the creative process from the perspective of an atheist. I suppose I have some claims to qualifications in this regard, given that I do spend the non-science half of my life playing and creating music. I’d like to share some of my thoughts on this subject, but first I want to address some of the themes that came up in Ms. Gilbert’s talk, which is available below:

Is suffering necessary for creativity?

A commenter on my strangely-popular “I am not my ideas” post from a few months ago brought this up. Some of the greatest artists of all time (think Van Gogh, Beethoven, Vonnegut, the list goes on) have suffered, and from their suffering came their genius. The image of the tormented artist is so common as to have become almost completely cliché. Douglas Adams satirized this phenomenon in his Hitchhiker’s Guide series, in which time travel inadvertently robs the galaxy of one of its greatest works of art by making the artist happy. Of course, we have to remember that Douglas Adams was a creative genius, and was not particularly unhappy. Nor, by all accounts, were Bach, Shakespeare, da Vinci, John Lennon, this list goes on as well. While suffering can yield insight that can bring creativity forth (and in my experience it is much easier to write albums when you’re sad than when everything’s awesome – just ask Matthew Sweet), it is not necessary to suffer in order to bring forth great works.

Is the supernatural the source of creativity?

Ms. Gilbert spends some time talking about daemons or geniuses, supernatural embodiments of inspiration that are the conduits between the artist and the divine. As with all supernatural agents of causality, there’s no evidence for the existence of faeries (which, to her credit, Gilbert admits). Being a musician, I can testify that inspiration does seem to come from nowhere. I’m sure that other artists and musicians have a much more palpable experience of inspiration than I do (things kind of just pop into my head, rather than being overcome by a ghost that demands me to have a pencil in my hand). However, given the diversity of ways in which inspiration strikes people, and the fact that it hits some people more often than others, and that to all appearances it strikes at random, it’s safe to say that inspiration is not likely caused by a supernatural force for which there is no evidence.

Subjective experience vs. objective reality

Our brains make a fundamental error when it comes to subjective and psychosomatic experiences. Because we interpret the outside world through our senses, we confuse sensory experiences with reality. So when, after meditating for an hour, we feel connected to an external loving presence, that does not constitute evidence that that presence exists in reality. Don’t get me wrong – there is a lot of value in subjective experience. Feeling connected to the world, or to nature, or to your fellow human beings can bring you a sense of happiness and motivate you to be a better person. However, to make the leap from feeling something and then assuming that it exists requires non-subjective proof. To wit, just because artists feel an external force driving them to create doesn’t mean that there are muses or daemons or disembodied geniuses that explain it.

Gilbert would like us to return to the days of magical thinking, in which we attribute inspiration to outside ethereal forces. Reality is all well and good, she seems to say, but we’d feel a lot better if we pretended there were invisible spirits whispering in our ears. If we screw up, well it’s the fault of the spirits. When we succeed, attribution to the spirits will prevent us from getting swollen egos. Who cares if it’s all a lie if it makes us feel good? You can probably tell I’m not a big fan of self-deception, even when it’s practical. It might comfort us to lie to ourselves, but the truth is important. It enables us to deal with each other in a way that reflects the world around us, and prevents us from endangering each other through misinterpretations of reality.

So where do I think inspiration comes from?

There’s a common criticism of skeptics and scientific skepticism that we want to strip the majesty and beauty out of life. Apparently, to some people, understanding how something works makes it less beautiful. Of course, having no idea how something works makes you sound like a complete moron, but that may not be the worst thing in the world. That being said, I still reject the idea that familiarity breeds contempt. I’ve known that stars were inconceivably large nuclear reactions happening in space billions of kilometers away since I was a little kid – none of that makes a starlit night any less beautiful. I’ve known that music is caused by vibrations in air resonating tiny bones within the inner ear causing neuron activity since I was in elementary school – none of that makes me enjoy Beethoven’s 6th symphony any less. I’ve known that there are evolutionary roots for familial love since I was in university – none of that makes me love my parents any less. Understanding the processes behind the world around us can lead to deeper and more beautiful understanding of reality.

We know that the brain is incredibly complex. It adapts to novel stimuli, regulates an incredible number of processes simultaneously, all below the level of what it’s most famous for – conscious thought. It is entirely possible that the way some brains are wired permits a type of lateral thinking that pulls together disperse thought processes that come together to form music. The phenomenon known as synesthesia – wherein sensory input of one type is interpreted as another type (seeing sounds, hearing smells) – certainly supports this conjecture. Some brains might just be better-suited to creativity than others, and ‘inspiration’ may ‘strike’ these brains more often. The arrival of such a strike would be experienced in a variety of different ways. This would also explain why creativity is often (but not necessarily) associated with poor mental health – an atypical brain chemistry and structure will have broad-reaching effects.

Without intending to, Elizabeth Gilbert has paralleled my idea of separating one’s ideas from his/her sense of self worth. I have written songs I’m proud of; I’ve written some stinkers that even I don’t like myself (sadly, far more of the latter than the former). I don’t beat myself up for writing crappy songs, or having crappy performances, in the same way I don’t get a swollen head when something I’ve written makes people cheer. It feels good, but I know that it’s not about me, it’s about the song. I don’t think the song was floating around in the ether, waiting for me to pull it in – that view, if anything, is more arrogant than being glad that my brain popped it into my head. I’m not my ideas in the same way that I’m not my songs – I’m just happy to be able to use my brain to say things in a way that people will listen.

So while I think Ms. Gilbert has the right conclusions in thinking that musicians shouldn’t live and die by their success, and that a rejection of the song or book or painting is not the passage of judgment on who the artist is as a person, she spuriously tries to invoke magic and daemons to make this happen. There are better, non-magical, non-woo-woo ways of accomplishing that goal.

TL;DR – Artistic inspiration can be explained through natural processes, and does not require appeals to woo-woo to exist. The non-magical nature of inspiration doesn’t make it any less wonderful or special.

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Movie Friday: Anotherآجر in the دیوار

I don’t often talk about my musical side (I actually had to create a new “music” tag for this post). I’ve been playing since I was a little kid, and I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t banging pots and pans, or singing, or doing something else musical. Music is, quite literally, an integral part of my entire life. I guess I’m lucky I don’t live in Iran, where rock music is banned (and for about a gojillion other reasons). Music isn’t just music. Anyone who knows about Dmitri Shostakovich, or Bob Dylan, or Chuck D knows that music can be, in addition to social commentary, fuel for a revolution. Hip-hop is being picked up by Inuit youth in Northern Canada as protest music against social injustices. Reggae, as many people forget, was equal parts smooth grooves and calls for uprising (think of Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up or Desmond Dekker’s Israelites). As hip-hop is to disenfranchised North American youth, and reggae is to oppressed Caribbeans and Africans, rock and roll is to a generation of Middle-Eastern youth, growing up in a war zone they had no part in building.

Enter Blurred Vision, a Toronto band fronted by two Iranian brothers, who use rock to comment on what is happening in their homeland of Iran. Right now, a single of theirs (a re-imagining of Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall (pt. II), is reaching an international audience. Because this is right up my alley, I thought I’d share it with you.

Okay, I’ll be the first to admit it – it’s not Mozart. The thing that struck me about this song is that 30 years after The Wall was released, this song can be perfectly applied, almost unedited, to a country that didn’t exist (in its present, oppressive, theocratic form) at the time. There are themes in music that are timeless, and good music can reach out through the veil of history and resonate within our psyche. So to anyone who brands any type of music as “just noise” or “not really music”, remember that Philistines said the same thing about Pink Floyd back in 1979.

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