If you haven’t yet started listening to On Being, I can highly recommend it. It’s a respectful and varied trip through people’s belief systems. I rarely do not enjoy it. Some memorable—and perhaps pertinent to MoF readers—shows include an interview with Terry Tempest Williams and two recent episodes focusing on Istanbul (one an interview with a local Dominican friar).
But today, if you only listen to one, let it be Alain de Botton on atheism and keeping the good parts of religion. He has organized what he calls “the School of Life” to fill the community and thinking-deep-thoughts void of areligion. It includes nightly “sermons”, a word he uses instead of lectures to encourage people to take what they learn—or think about—and apply it to their life outside; to keep it from remaining a purely academic pursuit.
This is a place I’d love to visit. I hope that, next time I’m in London, I get the chance to. I hope that it branches out and opens one down the street from me.
One of the major points he makes in this interview is that we are not born knowing how to live—we need to be taught morals, how to love, and how to deal with death. Religion does this well; atheism generally does not. To this end, he’s written a book, Religion for Atheists: a Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, which I have not yet read but which has definitely been added to my List.
Tonight, the day before the First of May, is Walpurgisnacht, a quasi-pagan Germanic holiday celebrating a English missionary/saint/abbess’ canonization. Of course, no one can tell you what she had to do with bonfires, so it seems that the name is just an excuse to keep doing what the pre-Christians wanted to do.
I’ve never—to my knowledge—celebrated Walpurgisnacht, but when I think of bonfires, I remember a night I spent with my classmates in the Alpine forests of Austria. I am almost certain this was in the fall, so it was definitely not Walpurgisnacht. And it was part of a long weekend intended as a community-building exercise.
Before the sun set, we hiked into the forest and, as the sun was going down, we built a bonfire between a hill and a small lake. I don’t remember eating anything, although it seemed we’d been hiking for awhile. (The adults who were with us had walked us in a circle earlier in the day, and the hostel we were staying at was just a short walk away.) And then the magic of the fire took over: someone started drumming with sticks and clapping; someone else started jumping over the bonfire.
I don’t know if I’d do it today, given the chance, but it was exhilarating then. The hill was situated just so as to give the jumper a good run up to the bonfire and the lake was just far enough that there was no danger of ending up in it (unless you managed to catch fire and had to). In fact, the hill was such that, if you started running, you had to jump. There was no way around the fire but over it and the hill was steep enough that you’d never stop if you tried.
I think I only went over it twice—I had to watch braver souls do it a few times, first—but it’s a feeling I’ll never forget. A feeling of one-ness with myself (rare for a young teen) and of camaraderie with my classmates, with the night, with the fire, and with the land. The magic that only popping logs in the silence and sparks in the darkness can convey.
When I see pictures of Walpurgisnacht celebrations, I’m reminded of that night in the woods and I get why, on nights like this, people believe in magic.
A friend and I were talking recently about her belief system (Judaism), about which I know a fair amount, but not many of the intricacies. One thing she mentioned, that was drilled into her during shul (Jewish Sunday school for those who, like me, didn’t know), was that animals should be fed before humans. She described “trick questions” the teacher would ask: “If you’re walking your dog in the park and you see an ice cream stand, what do you do?” The answer is, of course, “Give my dog a small treat and then buy myself ice cream.” The reasoning my friend gave me was that, if you’re hungry, they probably are, too; but the reasoning that came to my mind was Genesis 1:28: “have dominion over […] every living thing that moves on the earth”.
This has always struck me as a call toward stewardship of the earth: God gave us this planet to take care of, not to strip mine. This is a view which is at odds with many Christian interpretations of this verse (see: Not of This World and the devil-may care attitude I think it engenders), but which is in line with my (surprise) personal environmentalism.
I can’t remember when I first wanted to get a tattoo, but it was sometime in high school. I wanted a yin yang on my ankle. In college, I finally got it, but at the last moment, I changed its placement to my lower back. It was amazing. It was transcendent. It was painful. It was crooked.
I love my tattoo, which is at my hara, a placement that means something to me in terms of focusing energy as well as balance. I love its imperfection, though it took me a bit to get there. I don’t like that it’s so hidden from me. I didn’t get it so that others would see it, I got it so that I would know it was there—a commitment to balance, an acknowledgement of imbalance. But ever since I got it, I have wanted another.
I once read somewhere that, if you think you want a tattoo, wait five years. If you still want it, then you really want it. Indeed, I’ve already decided on a third tattoo, but it has a few more years of thought left to go into it. It has been five years since my first tattoo and I’m ready for my second.
I’ve been wanting a spider tattoo for some time and only recently started thinking concretely about it (I had to give it 5 years, after all). I know where I want it (on my foot) and that I want it to be a realistic (rather than stylized or cartoony) spider. But what kind of spider? I did a lot of research & kept coming back to the black widow, a beautiful spider. But I knew I didn’t want the hourglass—I want the emphasis on the fact that she’s a beautiful spider, not that she’s a beautiful killer. I just recently realized that I could get a top view of a black, shiny, beautiful spider.
But who? When I got my first tattoo, I went into Venice (Beach) and stopped at the first place I found. Not a real sophisticated approach. I knew enough to make sure they were clean & ask the right questions, but I didn’t have a relationship with the place. My step-mother-in-law has recently gotten a few tattoos, each time developing a relationship with her artist and working together with him or her to develop a design. And they are beautiful. This has been what has been stopping me from heading back into Venice. I don’t just want a permanent mark. I want an experience.
At the Edwardian Ball recently, I saw & met (sort of) one of the sponsors: Zulu, of Zulu Tattoo. When I interacted with him, I didn’t realize he was someone, but he was kind and gracious and warm and friendly. So I looked up his parlor. I found following poem on his site (I’m doing it an injustice printing it statically, you should go to the website for the full effect):
Since the dawn of time…
Man has marked his body…
To associate with his tribe…
and his Gods
this ancient art is preserved by the Primal Spirit that dwells in us All
that Spirit which yearns to artistically express it’s Pride and Ancestry
Welcome to the Tribe
I want my next tattoo to be a deeper experience. Zulu Tattoo seems to be the right place to do it. Then I read Zulu’s message to his visitors: “My concern is to provide you with a custom design fitted for you alone. I encourage clients to get involved in the creation of their sacred markings as we work together to bring that which is within you to the surface. I look forward to having the pleasure and the honor of being chosen to give you your sacred mark.” That’s it. I want a sacred mark. And I want to get it at Zulu Tattoo.
said the friend sitting next to me at Christmas Eve dinner, with a vague look of disgust on her face, like I’d just admitted to enjoying self-flagellation. I was in the company of a number of people who had escaped Western religion (all some form of Christianity) and landed firmly in Eastern religion (all some form of Buddhism). With three beautiful dogs wandering about, Deva, Metta, and Gaia, this was a decidedly religious environment. And yet, there was no prayer before dinner, no implicit religion anywhere. There were buddha heads, mala, and yes, even crosses hung on the walls and displayed on shelves. But this was a place I felt at ease enough to say something atheistic enough to “out” me.
Later, another attendee told a story about a different dinner to which an atheist was inadvertently invited. One who waxed lyrical about the evils of religion and the stupidity of the people engaged in it. He was quieted with a “Yes, fundamentalism of all kinds is horrible,” and a glass of alcohol. This may or may not have been aimed at me, but was accompanied by shock that anyone could presume to know for sure what is or is not.
It is true, however, that my particular brand of atheism is less anti-Divine and more anti-Religion. As far as I am concerned, religion is objectively fucked up. But I believe that there is in all beings something special. Something worthy of awe, respect, love, acknowledgment, and equality. As a feminist, I can believe nothing else. I strive toward treating everyone with a namaste attitude. I feel filled with a sense of wonder when I walk in the forest, talk with good friends, or meditate. There is something out there, which name I give “the Divine”, that I cannot deny. Nor do I wish to.
And so I call myself an atheist to distinguish myself from any religionist who might make you uncomfortable by trying to convert you (or even just by talking too much about it). And while I have a great deal of respect for the hard-core, dyed-in-the-wool, fundamentalist atheists, I also don’t consider myself one of them. DH calls himself a “humanist”, though I’m not certain how he defines this, in order to avoid the atheism label (although he is the only person I’ve ever met who grew up completely outside of any religious influence).
I’m a dualist, a pantheist, a pagan, a feminist (in the religious sense, though not a Dianic), a meditator, a yogini, a post-Christian, an ex-Catholic, a Jino (Jew in name only); a pray-er to Bastet, Au-Set, Gaia, & Luna; a talker-with-animal-spirits and to trees; a student of Fire, a daughter of Earth, a foe of Water, a student of Wind; and an atheist. I meditate, I cook, I swim, I do yoga, I ski. I pray to the deities that strike me at the time, be they Mary or Skadi, Ra or Thor. I pray to the animals whose flesh I consume. I cast spells to help and to harm. And I reject the effect of prayer (whether as meditation, as supplication, or as spell) on anyone or anything other than the one who prays. I’ve seen and touched things that cannot be explained and which I cannot deny. But having no desire to foist them upon you, or to congregate with others in an effort to gain favor with a being who we cannot hope to affect, I reject the labels of religion. I refuse to allow anyone’s religion into my government and hope for a secular society, where all practice whatever they believe in their homes; whether that means meditation or family dinners.
“Yes,” I should have said, “I really am an atheist. But that makes me just like you.”
I have a playlist called “Holiday” that contains 379 songs, including a startling number of “O(h) Holy Night”s. One of the things I miss the most about Christmas with my family (probably the only thing, really), is singing. I remember harmonies and piano accompaniment and Spike Jones. Now, I play holiday songs in my car since I know they drive most other people batty. Although, I don’t have a lot of “Jingle Bells” or “Rudoph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. Most of my collection is pretty religious, with the occasional exception for flat-out comedy. In that spirit, today’s music monday is a few of my favorite religious holiday songs. The kind that make me want to cry, the kind that make me sing, the kind that make me weak. Read more >>
Thanksgiving is a religious holiday. When the pilgrims first gathered to give thanks that they made it through their first few months in a wild new world, they weren’t thanking the natives for helping them, they were thanking their god for making the natives to help them. As a harvest festival, it has its roots in pagan celebrations giving thanks to their gods for a good harvest. When we say that we “are thankful for” something in our lives, even as atheists, we’re generally thanking a nebulous “universe” or “luck” that things are the way that they are.
But there is value in acknowledging that we are lucky people, that we are people who have things to be thankful for. Here is my (far from exhaustive) list of things I am thankful for; from the universal “family and love” to the mundane. Please add your own—the meditation of giving thanks has value even for the secular.
Read more >>
I had my first final today. In preparation, I spent some time on the library’s balcony, enjoying the view, the silence, and the not-school-ness. I also spent some time in the library’s prayer room. (I also spent some time watching the Shiba Inu Puppy Cam, but this post is not about that.)
Hanging out in these two places reminded me of all the praying I did when I was still pretending to be Catholic. It was boring, tedious, stressful, painful, and made me fall asleep. We prayed the rosary as a family when I was kid: we all knelt in a circle with beads dangling from our hands and intoning like zombies. This was the worst prayer for me. Kneeling on the ground was certainly not good for my knees, but even seiza would have been better than right-angle kneeling. Then there are the prayers. It’s deceptively simple: 10 Hail Marys (which come in two parts, one starting “Hail Mary” and the other starting “Holy Mary”—I constantly got them confused), an Our Father, a Glory Be…if you’re lucky. Then there are the prayers that only ever come up in the rosary, at the beginning and the end. One’s a creed, but it’s just different enough from the creed said in mass to mess you up. And you have to lead the rest of the group; that means, you say half the prayer and they respond. That means, if you’re the youngest or just don’t know the prayers as well, everybody knows when you mess up. If that weren’t enough, the prayers said between each decade (named for approximately how long it feels like you’ve been kneeling) change every day. By the time the rosary was over (50 years later, by carbon dating of my asleep feet), I wanted to crawl into a hole and hide of embarrassment, kill myself from the pain in my knees and the pins and needles in my feet, or just join a convent so I could take a vow of silence and never be caught saying the wrong words to a prayer again.
Non-public prayer was better, although I didn’t do a whole lot of it. I’ve had trouble falling asleep my whole life, but discovered in middle school that a few Hail Marys would put me out right quick. If I attended a public rosary today, they’d probably think I suffered from narcolepsy. The praying you did silently but in public (like after Communion, or before Mass) was pretty easy: a vacant stare toward the front of the church afforded a good opportunity to re-count the bricks in the wall, the pipes on the organ, the ceiling tiles on the ceiling, and, if I was lucky, the blades of a spinning fan (they’re harder to count while spinning). If I was feeling particularly pious, I’d close my eyes, or bow my head and let my imagination wander. I read a lot of fantasy books as a kid, including some filled with real gods (you know, the ones who answer prayers, whose priests can cause mystical happenings) and magic. I often went here and wondered what it would be like if I had a real god. This usually ended with me doing fantastical feats in church, to the amazement of all the parishioners; until a great chasm opened in the center of the aisle and I was swallowed whole by it.
Meditation, on the other hand, I learned in Judo. I learned to kneel in seiza before class started and simply breathe. I learned to become more aware of the things around me or block them out completely. I learned the meditation of sweeping the mats before practice, the one-mindedness of a really good practice, when no thoughts flit across your consciousness and your body moves like you think it should, unimpeded by gravity or other trivial considerations.
I went to yoga, where I learned the many kinds of breathing: the ones to calm and to excite; to cleanse mind and to cleanse lungs. I learned how stretching and deliberate motion put me in a place of peace and a feeling of unity with myself (not body and mind, but simply me).
I learned that hiking, walking on a rocky beach, and gardening brought the same peace, one-ness of mind, and relaxation as judo and yoga. I learned that many activities could be meditative, especially the mundane.
I learned that sometimes, words help focus the mind and developed or discovered “prayers” that helped me, rather than the ones I already knew would simply distract me (or put me to sleep). I learned that beads kept my body focused just as words focused my mind.
In short, I learned that meditation makes me a more complete person, calms me down, and helps me get through this stressful life intact. Something the prayer of my childhood could never have hoped to do.
I have to post this, since it’s lolreligion. By now, I’m sure everyone has heard that a particular Christian called others to join in prayer at the bronze bull on wall street to ask god to “shift from the bull and bear markets to what we feel will be the ‘Lion’s Market,’ or God’s control over the economic systems”. Which itself sounds super creepy. via etal. Now, attentive biblical scholars will tell you that there is a huge difference between worshipping a golden half and worshipping a bronze bull. I mean, they’re both metal cows, but that’s where the similarity ends. God didn’t say anything about bronze bulls. Just trees, golden calfs, & so on. So, they’re obviously in the clear. Still, this is funny:
from sf_drama stolen without permission.
WaPo’s On Faith asks its panelists Does religion empower women? This is one of the few On Faiths that I’ll probably read each response to. I’m looking forward to the Christian/Catholic answer, which I’ve found generally centers around “having kids is empowering!!1!” There is some wonderful evidence for non-child-based empowerment which I’ve yet to hear a priest mention when trying to keep women in their flock.
While reading chandelle’s recent post and the comments that followed, I had occasion to think about my dualism, which I’ve discussed at length before. Many of the comments discuss the “spectrum of sexuality”, how there may be some people who are completely heterosexual or completely homosexual, but that most people likely fall somewhere in between (of course, leaning one way or the other).
Although this would probably not qualify as a strictly dualist view of sexuality, it is exactly what my dualism is. Day and night may be polar opposites of one another, but only at noon and midnight are they “fully” day and night. The obvious in between stages are twilights, when the one slowly fades into the other. But even pre-dusk has a different quality than dusk itself, and each moment since true noon is closer to midnight.
The symbol of duality that I’ve identified with for the longest time is the yin yang. For a while, I understood the two halves to be separate, but containing “the seed of their own destruction” or the seed of the other. More recently, I’ve thought of it more as a continuum—each blending slowly into the other, with many shades of grey between.
I still think of it, however, as a dualist world-view. Perhaps I’m simply wrong, but it’s still an either/or. A room is either light or dark—but in relation to where you just were. Coming into a lit lodge from the daylit snow, it is dark; coming into the same lodge at night, it is light. There are still two poles, they just depend on where you’re standing.
A vid take on MoF’s Sparks:
First up, Stuart Shepard, who I’d not heard of before today but is apparently a member of Focus on the Family’s activism arm, is encouraging everyone to encourage his God to rain on Obama’s acceptance speech. Which seems to me to be incredibly petty: pray for peace? pray for a cure for AIDS? pray for the inconvenience of a guy you’ve never met? Oh, the last one, please.
Next, a funny/geeky break from your morning drear. Carmensita, starring Natalie Portman (who is entertaining, but really you should watch it for the awesome lip-syncing and the incredible translations). Best to watch at full screen to fully appreciate the subtitles. Wonderful in the way that only Internet vids can be: not quite laugh-out-loud funny, but can’t tear your eyes away and must send it to everyone you know funny.
And, back to your regularly scheduled politics (wasn’t that awesome, tho?), This Lawn is Your Lawn, a plea to the next pres to plant a Victory Garden (and to get more citizens to do the same). I just finished planting herbs on my balcony, so this one’s close to my heart.