Sunday, September 28, 2008

On foxholes and prisons

The first time I heard the phrase, 'there are no atheists in foxholes' was also the first time I'd ever heard the world 'foxhole'. Unaware of its military meaning, I was intrigued by this aphorism-cum-koan and found my thoughts turning to fables of foxes or documentary-style canine 'fun facts'.

Turns out, of course, that the underlying message here is 'there's nothing like getting shot at to put the fear of God into you'.

Atheists, particularly atheist veterans, get understandably livid by this sentence, which is among other things an affront to their service and sacrifice. I've always thought, though, that we can appreciate the trite sentiment for what it is: valuable insight into the theist mind.

"There are no atheists in foxholes." When people are safe and comfortable in their lives, they have no need to pretend there is a god. Only when they fear for their lives do they develop a need for a supreme deity. Theism: the ultimate act of desperation.

This above is not what I believe, mind you: I know it's wrong on both sides (there are atheists in foxholes and theists out of them). It is, as I see it, the underlying message of that particular canard.

And whereas it is usually presented as a triumphal 'aha!' in the face of atheists, it seems to me to carry nothing but a sad message for theism. It's the equivalent of saying 'there are no non-cannibals in a plane crash': even if that were true, it's hardly an advertisement for cannibalism, is it?

Having said that, though, there is an increasing tendency for some atheists to scream bloody murder regarding the foxhole sentiment, and then to turn around and retaliate with 'there are no atheists in prisons'.

How that particular canard works is that you quote some dubious statistic saying that while 85% of the general population believes in God, fully 98% of the prison population does. (I've just made up those statistics on the spot, of course, but you need to quote percentages if you're making an atheist argument and you need to defiantly avoid percentages if you're making a theistic argument.)

You should then not elaborate much on the stat, merely casually throwing it on the table for the perusal of others, hoping they'll understand the rather subtle implication that clearly atheists are shining examples of the goodness of humanity, whereas god-fearin' people are unstable criminals.

I exaggerate the point, but apart from considering the crazed extent to which chaplains are allowed to roam prisons engaging in extreme missionary work, I'm bothered by the assumption because it's as much of an 'ad hominem' attack on theism as the foxhole slander is on atheism. Even if it were true that, in society at large, atheists committed fewer crimes than theists, it would really tell us nothing useful about atheism or theism, because the argument that not believing in God makes you less likely to commit crimes is as patently absurd as the argument that believing in God does.

If anything, it might merely tell us that people of a criminal temperament are perhaps less likely to engage in existential thought, and in the USA (where I believe the statistics originate) there is a general tendency for people to 'default' to theism (specifically Christianity) if they've never given it much thought. All in all, not much of an argument, really.

There are plenty of great arguments to be made in the existential battle. These two are not among them, though.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A confession

It's been said before that it's not the finding in life that matters so much as the searching. By and large, I'm inclined to agree with this. For the past several thousands of years an uncountably large amount of people have gone on quests to find God. As a disbeliever I am, of course, bound to believe that not one has succeeded – at least, not succeeded on the main quest. However, I believe that there are large amounts of people out there who have set out to find God and ended up finding themselves instead. Which makes the journey worthwhile.

In the caves of Afghanistan lie the remnants of the Taliban organisation, a school of militants who once controlled the whole country (and still control parts of it). One of the tenets of the Taliban was that all music except the melodic recitation of the Qur'an beforbidden. And it was something they took quite seriously, even to the extent of jamming radio airwaves. Certain Christian sects have also spoken about the complete abolition of non-hymnal music.

This I can never understand. Although it's worded in a rather clumsy way, Peter Buck of R.E.M. has the following to say: "I'm an atheist, but I'd probably be Christian if I was black, because the gospel music is so exciting I would never have got through that."

Stevie Wonder once sang: "Music is a world within itself with a language we all understand." I see exactly what he means. Whatever it is, there is something about (the best) music that makes it universal and makes it operate somehow on a plane higher than that of mundane day-to-day reality. Whatever the hell the 'soul' or 'spirit' might happen to be, in the best music somehow I feel that we have greater access to it. They use the word 'transportative', and I must say that I quite like the coining. Certain musics truly can take you on a journey – a quest, if you will.

Vodun practitioners frantically chant and play drums. What then happens they interpret as a spirit entering the body of one member or some members of the congregation. Black American Baptists 'lift their hearts in song' in their churches and some people report being able to 'see the light'. Dervishes point one hand to the sky and one hand to the earth and then twirl around until they enter a kind of ecstatic trance wherein, they will tell you, they approach God.

Is that really what's happening? Well, again – I can't believe it. But what others may call God may just be a special place in our own minds – or souls, if you prefer. A place we can rarely access. Music seems able to take us there. Why it can is, in my opinion, one of the rapidly-diminishing numbers of true mysteries out there. But it can.

So does it really matter whether or not the people who make the music believe that they are communicating with God? No, it doesn't. After all, when you strip away the intent, all you're left with is music of the soul, music by the soul and music for the soul. Whatever that is.

Which brings me to my great confession: I like religious music. Not all of it, or even most of it - but much of it. In the grips of heroin addiction, John Coltrane once recorded what he called a 'hymn to God'. It resulted in A Love Supreme, possibly the greatest composition ever. Do I find God when I listen to it? Of course no. Do I find my own soul? Well, maybe... Not every mystery demands explanation.

When I was in university, I used to drive my flatmates completely insane with repeated plays of the music which I present below. It's one of who knows how many performances the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan recorded. I'm no expert - he recorded hundreds of albums and I've heard maybe ten maximum. It might test your patience a little, but if you have ten minutes to spare today, I'd recommend turning off the lights, sitting still, closing your eyes and just listening. Who knows when, on a stage who knows where, a Sufi ustad sat down in front of a mic surrounded by a harmonium player and a group of backup singers and... went somewhere. During that time, where did he go? What did he find when he arrived?

And, more importantly, listening to it played back to you, where do you go? And what do you find there?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Death contradicts thee, babe

I wrote this a while ago, when I was playing around with the subtle are of anagramming and had found a webpage devoted to it. I just liked the random 'meaning' that anagrams provide: it's no Kabbalah-style belief in hidden messages or meaning or anything, just an appreciation for randomness. What I did was to take each line of the first verse of the Tao Te Ching and anagram it into a new form. The end result resembles poetry, but make no mistake - it isn't. It's just a string of sentences that I now present for your contemplation. I'd like to put them side-by-side for your contemplation, but the margins aren't quite wide enough here to allow it comfortably. So the first line of my 'poem' is the first line of the Tao anagrammed, and the second is the second, and so on.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1

The tao that can be described
Is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be spoken
Is not the eternal Name.

The nameless is the boundary of Heaven and Earth.
The named is the mother of creation.

Freed from desire, you can see the hidden mystery.
By having desire, you can only see what is visibly real.

Yet mystery and reality
Emerge from the same source.
This source is called darkness.
Darkness born from darkness.
The beginning of all understanding.


Death Contradicts Thee, Babe

Death contradicts thee, babe.
As intolerant to thee
As the conman kept beneath -
Relent to innate shame.

He hesitated, ashamed; he fears an unborn novelty.
Fatherhood: some cretin men hate it.

Her eyes, my chosen duty, seem dead if fed in terror.
Sadly, solitary heaven is easy by new civil neighbour.

Many a dry eye lets it try -
Mother's mere gruesome face;
Sister's silence has dark cloud.
Rankness forms dank borders.
Hung intent: no bad feelings, darling?

I do realise, of course, that this is a sign of insanity. Nobody in their right mind would, of course, undertake such an endeavour. However, I've never claimed to be in my right mind!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The wanderer

Through these years, I’ve seen so many people in desperate and intense longing and prayer for the gift of eternal life, or if not eternal life then at least a little more time.

Time… it’s often been said down the years that people rarely have any idea what they truly need, what is best for them. A cruel god would be one who would grant these foolish people their wish, lest they learn what a burden eternal life truly is.

Which is not to say that I consider our god a kind one. I consider myself one of few people in a real position to testify to our god’s cruelty. Not that I do, mind you: I have long ago learnt that people will believe only what they want to, and as our god has rather grown in popularity over the years, a dissenting opinion is often overlooked. In fact, at times in the past, for such heresy as to call our god cruel I might have been hanged, burnt at the stake or drawn and quartered.

Not that it would have made a bit of difference. Were I able to leave this mortal realm, I should have done so by my own hand on countless occasions. For, you see, in my time – and by that I mean the era into which I was born and should by rights have died, not these subsequent eras I inhabit as a ghost, itinerant and ignored – I was a cobbler. I was a contemporary of our god made flesh and was at work the day he was being taken to the place of his mortal punishment. Knowing little of matters theological, I was on that day more disturbed by the commotion his journey was causing than moved by his plight. In the two thousand years that have passed since then I’ve had ample opportunity to dwell upon my behaviour that day. It is with hindsight that I can express regret at my short temper when I instructed our lord, who had stopped to rest on my property, to carry on and to clear off of my land. However, a short temper is but one of many human shortcomings. And unlike he to whom I was addressing, merely human I was and remain.

Did the punishment fit the crime? In my two thousand years of wandering I have seen that our lord rarely metes out punishment according to the crime. It is, indeed, much more common for our god to let the tyrannous and gluttonous go entirely unpunished while bearing down upon the meek and the disenfranchised with the harshest of punishments. In this life, at any rate. I alone among our god’s creations have been denied the opportunity to see what lies beyond the grave. My two thousand years of wandering, however, have caused me to doubt that the afterlife offers a greater sense of justice than the current life. For a mere transgression against his human form lasting mere seconds, our lord has seen fit to condemn me to a torture lasting two thousand years and counting.

It has been foretold that my suffering will end on that day when our lord returns, and that for some my continual wandering provides evidence that our lord will return. Yet I have grown doubtful that such an event will ever happen. There is nothing that can give me hope that my personal salvation, and that of this world’s, may come from our lord above and not his creations down here.

You may wonder, then, why somebody as pessimistic as I would use the language of reverence in speaking of our lord and his human incarnation, especially the latter as a Jew. To such questions I would say that I have not even once doubted the existence or omnipotence of our god, or the divinity of the gentleman I wronged that day so long ago, since the day of the death of my final living relative. When I continued to survive beyond the anticipated longevity of my mortal body, it became clear to me that the curse upon me was very real. One need not believe in his goodness to believe in god, and the deity with which I am familiar may be more noteworthy for his wrath than for his mercy, but a deity he must be nonetheless. Though his cosmic message appears to be nothing more than that might makes right, and that justice and mercy exist only insofar as it suits his purposes, a god he must be. And, indeed, one capable of carrying events of a miraculous nature. My continued existence is one such ‘miracle.’

A bloody, damned miracle.