One of the many benefits that come with the study of religion is that scholars never run out of material. This speaks, of course, to the fact that religion is a human universal that simply begs for explanations, none of which will be simple. After surveying this weekend’s news and considering my own reading, I thought a roundup of sorts to be in order. Things are simply too hot in religion land to stick to any one topic, so without further ado let’s get going.
Stephen Prothero, whose new book I covered in this post, has an excellent article (“Separate Truth: It is Misleading — and Dangerous — to Think that Religions are Different Paths to the Same Wisdom“) in today’s boston.com. If this excerpt from the article (which I highly recommend) is any indication of what Prothero’s book contains, I can’t wait to read it:
What the world’s religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point. And where they begin is with this simple observation: Something is wrong with the world. In the Hopi language, the word “Koyaanisqatsi” tells us that life is out of balance. Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” tells us that there is something rotten not only in the state of Denmark but also in the state of human existence. Hindus say we are living in the “kali yuga,” the most degenerate age in cosmic history. Buddhists say that human existence is pockmarked by suffering. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic stories tell us that this life is not Eden; Zion, heaven, and paradise lie out ahead.
So religious folk agree that something has gone awry. They part company, however, when it comes to stating just what has gone wrong, and they diverge even more sharply when they move from diagnosing the human problem to prescribing how to solve it. Moreover, each offers its own distinctive diagnosis of the human problem and its own prescription for a cure. Each offers its own techniques for reaching its religious goal, and its own exemplars for emulation.
Christians see sin as the human problem, and salvation from sin as the religious goal. Buddhists see suffering (which, in their tradition, is not ennobling) as the problem, and liberation from suffering as the goal. Confucians see social disorder as the problem, and social harmony as the goal. And so it goes from tradition to tradition, with Hindus seeking release from the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, Muslims seeking paradise via submission to Allah, and practitioners of the Yoruba religion seeking sacred connections — among humans, between humans and the persons of power they call the orishas, and between humans and the natural environment.
The great religions also differ fundamentally when it comes to the techniques they employ to take you from problem to goal.
If people of these faiths took human evolution and cultural history seriously, I suspect there might be more agreement on the starting point, or what has gone wrong. Humans, after all, are primates with a long and complex evolutionary history. The human brain was cobbled together over a few hundred million years, and no one should be surprised that it is not perfectly stable. For those interested in the meandering evolutionary construction of the human brain and its many imperfections, you might want to read Gary Marcus’ book, Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, which Raina Kelley reviewed here. To think that this history culminates in a creature without imperfection is simply naive. And to think that the social and cultural edifices created by walking and talking primates are without flaw is equally naive.
As if to prove Prothero’s point about the differences between religions and the consequences of those differences, CNN asks: “Has ‘South Park’ Gone Too Far This Time?” Simply asking such a question suggests the answer — No! — but Todd Leopold makes some interesting observations:
Nothing is sacred on “South Park.”
This is a show, after all, that once painted God as a gap-toothed rhinoceros-monkey, portrays Satan as a simpering milquetoast and regularly features Jesus as a superhero — the kind who’s not afraid to ignore the peaceful teachings of the Sermon on the Mount to smite his opponents. The show has mocked Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Scientologists and atheists, among (many) others.
It’s a formula that’s generally served “South Park” well, allowing it to score comic points by riffing on hypocrisy while emphasizing a message of libertarianism and tolerance, and it’s one that goes back to the show’s beginnings, points out former Dallas Morning News TV critic Ed Bark, who blogs at UncleBarky.com. After all, he recalls, the show began as a Christmas short violently pitting Santa Claus against Jesus.
But have they gone too far this time with a depiction of the Prophet Mohammed in a bear suit?
I don’t watch South Park, but appreciate their equal opportunity offending. The predictable fatwa followed, and a militant Islamic group issued the obligatory death threats to the show’s creators.
As Jason Linkins reports over at HuffPo Religion, the outraged Muslims — known as “Revolutionary Islam” — duly had their website hacked, laced with further blasphemies, and then redirected to other blasphemous sites. This, in turn, prompted Revolutionary Islam’s leader to really go off:
He’s mad at the media for their “senseless” coverage of their death threats and the way they “never cover any of the other crimes against Islam we write about.” He also rages at “dumbed down, stupid and pathetic” Americans who are “worried more about missing their favourite TV show” than they are about “the world,” which is a terrific pretext for calling for people’s deaths.
“It is American oppression,” he said. But, he added, we probably wouldn’t understand such issues as we are “Darwinist faggots who are as despicable as the rest, walking around eating your Triscuits.”
Setting aside for a moment this splendid example of religiously inspired vitriol, there are some non-sequiturs here which again are the result of a generalized failure to take human evolution seriously or understand it. First, all Darwinists know that homosexuality is rare — evolutionary fitness, after all, revolves around reproduction. Evolutionary biologists also understand that there are perfectly good explanations for homosexuality, and they have nothing to do with morality. Second, all anthropologists know that humans did not begin consuming cereals (i.e., Triscuits) until relatively recently. The domestication of cereals began about 12,000 years ago and humans only began eating cereals on a regular basis some 5,000 years ago. Thus, humans may not be especially well adapted to Triscuit consumption. The USDA’s food pyramid, which places cereals at the base and calls for 6-11 servings per day, is probably excessive and driven by commercial interests rather than nutritional fact. Is this the American oppression of which Revolutionary Islam speaks? Too many Triscuits?
Finally, we have Hindus complaining that Yoga — a $6 billion per year industry in the United States — has been extracted from its Hindu roots and crassly exploited by Western commercial interests. In “Yoga: Stolen from the Hindus,” Aseem Shukla bitterly comments:
Hinduism has lost control of its brand as yoga thrives, delinked from its essential religious character. It would seem that yoga’s mother tradition, Hinduism, would be shining in the brilliant glow of dedicated disciples seeking more from the font of their passion. Yet the reality is very different.
Hinduism, as a faith tradition, stands at this pass a victim of overt intellectual property theft, absence of trademark protections and the facile complicity of generations of Hindu yogis, gurus, swamis and others that offered up a religion’s spiritual wealth at the altar of crass commercialism.
It appears that the Vedic authors and early Yoga masters could have used intellectual property lawyers a long time ago. Seriously, in the age of late consumer capitalism (so aptly diagnosed by Frederic Jameson and described by David Harvey) is anyone surprised that bits and pieces of religion are packaged, sold, and consumed — all in easily digestible forms that don’t interfere with our business of earning and spending?
Beware, however, that too much yoga taken too seriously might interfere with these pursuits:
But be forewarned. Yogis say that the dedicated practice of yoga will subdue the restless mind, lessen one’s cravings for the mundane material world and put one on the path of self-realization — that each individual is a spark of the divine. Expect conflicts if you are sold on the exclusivist claims of Abrahamic faiths — that their God awaits the arrival of only His chosen few at heaven’s gate — since yoga shows its own path to spiritual enlightenment to all seekers, regardless of affiliation.
Hindus must take back yoga and reclaim the intellectual property of their spiritual heritage — not sell it out to win more clients for the yoga studio down the street.
That should be enough for today. I need to find my yoga mat and get off to class. Namaste!