On Discussing Religion

Discussion in 'Religion' started by Tiassa, Jun 22, 2021.

  1. Tiassa Let us not launch the boat ... Valued Senior Member

    On Discussing Religion: History and Theology

    Here are two paragraphs discussing religion:

    This is a work of history, not of theology. It is a study of the development of a concept in the human mind, not a metaphysical statement. Historical scholarship cannot determine whether the Devil exists objectively. The historian may, however, suggest that men and women have seemed to act as if the Devil did exist. Evil—the infliction of pain upon sentient beings—is one of the most longstanding and serious problems of human existence. Frequently and in many cultures evil has been personified. This book is a history of the personification of evil, which for the sake of clarity I have called “the Devil” ....

    .... The historian faces special difficulty in a history of values, which are always in flux, and the difficulty is compounded in a cross-cultural study, where terms relating to values must be translated from one language and cultural context to another. The inevitability of error and disputable interpretation should not, however, deter a writer from dealing with what he perceives as a problem central to humanity and to himself. A work of scholarship should be more than an exercise. In writing, the writer should himself change; and his best hope is that in reading, the reader may change also.

    In between, medievalist Jeffrey Burton Russell discusses the origin of his book, arising from trying to understand the fuller implications of the subject matter—("I came to see that I could not understand the medieval Devil except in terms of its historical antecedents")—and justifying that his "is a work of synthesis", during a time when "tide of historical scholarship is in the direction of analysis".

    And while in such considerations we learn something about the framework of the book, so also does the introductory focus of The Devil (Cornell Univ. Press, 1977) tell us something about the intended audience. Additionally, we are given clarification of "a point that was sometimes misunderstood" in a prior volume on witchcraft:

    The historical evidence can never be clear enough to know what really happened (wie es eigentlich gewesen), but the evidence as to what people believed to have happened is relatively clear. The concept—what people believed to have happened—is more important than what really did happen, because people act upon what they believe to be true.

    There is an intersectional joke about Russell's audience, that he can read as pompous to armchair and professional readers alike, but the point he makes is kind of important. In what way is what people believe to have happened more important than what actually happened? This is part of understanding history; as Russell observes, "people act upon what they believe to be true".

    Here are two more paragraphs discussing religion. Mark A. Noll, opens the introductory chapter to America's God (Oxford Univ. Press, 2002) with a basic explanation of purpose:

    This book is a contextual history of Christian theology. Its pages describe evolutionary changes in Christian doctrine that occurred from the 1730s to the 1860s, a period when theology played an extraordinarily important role in American thought, but the emphasis throughout is on the contexts—ecclesiastical, social, political, intellectual, and commercial—in which those changes took place. Because it features connections between theological development and early American history, the book often asks how religion influenced the early United States. Yet Christian theology, not the United States, is the primary concern.

    The book's main narrative describes a shift away from European theological traditions, descended directly from the Protestant Reformation, toward a Protestant evangelical theology decisevley shaped by its engagement with Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary America. It is not an exaggeration to claim that nineteenth-century Protestant evangelicalism differed from the religion of the Protestant Reformation as much as sixteenth-century Reformation Protestantism differed from the Roman Catholic theology from which it emerged.

    Again, the discussion of religion is presented as a question of history. Moreover, while the consideration of Protestantism, Catholicism, and what is not an exaggeration does read as some manner of thesis statement, it is not necessarily the central focus of the book, but, rather, an important aspect of consideration.

    Here are two more paragraphs from Noll, perhaps more familiar around here:

    Western Protestantism in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was moving from establishment forms of religion, embedded in traditional, organic, premodern political economies, to individualized and affectional forms adapted to modernizing, rational, and market-oriented societies. Theological manifestations of these changes can be described in several ways. They first reoriented specific beliefs: God was perceived less often as transcendent and self-contained, more often as immanent and relational. Divine revelation was equated more simply with the Bible alone than Scripture embedded in a self-conscious ecclesiastical tradition. The physical world created by God was more likely to be regarded as understandable, progressing, and malleable, than as mysterious, inimical, and fixed. Theological method came to rely less on instinctive deference to inherited confessions and more on self-evident propositions organized by scientific method.

    Theological changes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries also involved a shift in meaning for key concepts that operated in both religious and political life, for example, “freedom”, “justice”, “virtue”, and “vice”. For theology, the process at work was the same as Gordon Wood once described for intellectual developments more generally: “Although words and concepts may remain outwardly the same for centuries, their particular functions and meanings do not and could not remain static—not as long as individuals attempt to use them to explain new social circumstances and make meaningful new social behavior.” In America as much was happening in theology from new meanings given to old words as from the introduction of new vocabularies.

    A quarter-century after Russell, we find Noll approaching a similar question of reality and belief: "Theological method came to rely less on instinctive deference to inherited confessions and more on self-evident propositions organized by scientific method", Noll asserts; and, "as much was happening in theology from new meanings given to old words as from the introduction of new vocabularies".

    While the idea of redefinition, a transformation or even evolution of words and language, is hardly unknown, we might also wonder what redefinition or transformation is actually taking place. If we consider three basic ways of discussing religion between people, in terms of faith, history, or politics, none of those forms are utterly removed from one another, but they attend the words differently, and only one of those forms purports to seek reliable, functional definitions. Consider Noll's invocation of Wood: While "words and concepts may remain outwardly the same", "particular functions and meanings do not and could not remain static" inasmuch "as individuals attempt to use them to explain new social circumstances and make meaningful new social behavior.”

    And if we examine Noll's particular meaning of the phrase, "scientific method", we might find it not uncommon in historical and literary discourse from and about the period. The period of Noll's consideration overlaps with the rise of what historian Karen Armstrong describes as an idiosyncratic and eccentric conception of religion, and also with literary Romanticism, in which the application of scientific method to notions a more modern outlook would consider unscientific was, at the very least, common.

    Things can get complicated, here, even if a basic distinction is pretty straightforward. Part of the "scientific method" Noll refers to really was so simple as organzing data in a useful way. The thing about the "particular functions and meanings" in discourse is that nothing about that notion of the "scientific method" required that the data organized be scientifically valid or reliable.

    The straightforward part is that discourse of faith is not easily validated, to put it mildly, and has no obligation to reliable treatment of words. Or, perhaps that is not fair, but utterly internalized reliability is known to be unreliable. Political discourse can be very much similar, and can sometimes be found calculating deception; nor is faith discourse immune or utterly separate from political discourse. That is to say, things can get complicated.

    Again, though, Noll: "Theological method came to rely less on instinctive deference to inherited confessions and more on self-evident propositions organized by scientific method." Think of what that actually means; it's actually pretty straigtforward: Theological method relied less on what the predecessors said, and more on what any believer thought obvious. Neither, as such, is reliable.

    Or, as Russell put it: "The concept—what people believed to have happened—is more important than what really did happen, because people act upon what they believe to be true."
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  3. Tiassa Let us not launch the boat ... Valued Senior Member

    Notes on #1↑ Above

    Armstrong, Karen. Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

    Noll, Mark. America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    Russell, Jeffrey Burton. The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity. 1977. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.
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  5. Tiassa Let us not launch the boat ... Valued Senior Member

    Introductory Notes, or, Notes from Introductions

    Here is a paragraph on religion:

    In October, 1979, rap music burst onto the popular music scene with the highly successful single, "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang. But rap music had been growing for nearly a decade before its first commercial hit. Rap music began in African American and Latino neighborhoods of the Bronx in the early 1970s. Rap's roots are in the dance music produced and performed by the disc jockeys (DJs) at parties and street gatherings. DJs were mobile: they carried with them complete sound systems, including, in some cases, huge speaker systems that could be heard blocks away. DJs used two turntables, allowing them to segue smoothly from one record to the next, a practice taken from Jamaican dance hall DJs. Initially concerned with maintaining a good groove for dancing, DJs soon realized that they also needed to do or say something to interact with and control the ever-increasing crowds. Some DJs began exhorting the crowd with phrases such as "To the beat, y'all," or "Wave your hands in the air, wave 'em like you just don't care." Others drew the audience into responding to them in ways patterned on the African American tradition of call and response. But DJs such as Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaata, and Grandmaster Flash increasingly focused on developing technological prowess at the turntable, they could not pay as much attention to the crowd, and DJs began to have sidemen—called masters of ceremonies, or MCs—who interacted with the crowd in rhymes over the DJ's beats. And thus was born one of the most powerful cultural forces of the late twentieth century: rap music.

    Wait, what? Okay, maybe another paragraph from Felicia M. Miyakawa, Five Percenter Rap (Indiana Univ. Press, 2005) will help:

    Whereas early rap lyrics concentrated largely on encouraging and controlling the crowd, by the late 1980s several genres of rap could be distinguished. Party rap, the oldest rap genre, continued the tradition of enticing a crowd to dance to the DJs beat. As rap's popularity moved south and west, regional styles infiltrated what had been a New York City monopoly. From the west coast in the late 1980s came a genre known as mack rap. MCs of this genre, such as Oakland's Too $hort and Seattle's Sir Mix-A-Lot, positioned themselves as ultimate ladies' men and self-styled pimps MCs and DJs from both coasts also developed gangsta rap, a genre known for its "realistic" and often violent and misogynistic lyrics. The late 1980s also saw the birth of "conscious" rap; conscious MCs and crews took black nationalism, Pan-Africanism, Islamic doctrine, education, political empowerment, and other social causes as their themes. With powerful groups such as Public Enemy fronting this genre, conscious rap voiced the woes of social inequality and racism.

    The very compressed history of rap might seem simplistic, coming from a musicologist in the introduction to a book in a series on popular music, but it leads somewhere. If it helps, consider the audience for a midwestern university publication by a white musicologist.

    Many of the most commercially successful conscious solo acts and groups of the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as Public Enemy, Brand Nubian, Poor Righteous Teachers, X-Clan, the Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah, KRS-One, Nas, Busta Rhymes, and the Wu-Tang Clan, had at least nominal ties to Islamic doctrine. Conscious rap became less popular in the late 1990s, but a core group of MCs and crews continued to produce it throughout the decade and into the new century. Many of them are members of the Five Percent Nation, a breakway sect from the Nation of Islam. Their rap music, known with in the Five Percent Nation as "God Hop", is the focus of this book.

    There is a context in which this is all hilarious, at least at first. And it's okay to laugh a little, because things can get messy really quickly. So take a moment to say, "Butt Naked Booty Bless"↱, and get over it. As a literary criticism, we might suggest the introduction presents an effective narrative leading to Miyakawa's explanation of purpose—

    In a 1991 interview with Joseph Eure and James Spady, Wise Intelligent, a member of the rap group Poor Righeous Teachers, was asked, "How did you come up with the name of the group? Is teaching one of the priorities of the group?" Wise Intelligent responded,

    Indeed. Poor, righeous teachers, the statement itself defines those black men who gained knowledge of themselves and then take it as their duty or obligation to teach and resurrect the poor .... So what we're trying to get across to our people is that, you are the fathers of civilization. You are the makers, the owners, the givers, the takers, the Gods of the universe. You are the Lords of all the worlds .... We know who the true and living God is, and we teach that the true and living God is the Son of Man, supreme being Black man from Asia, teaching freedom, justice, and equality to all the human families of the planet earth.

    Wise Intelligent's lyrics are filled with references to his self-imposed goal of teaching: phrases such as, "I educate you through the teacher in me" ("Word is Life"); "So in the head of ignorance, I rip some conscious clip / Niggas is small, my task is educate y'all" ("Gods, Earths, and 85ers"); and "Teaching is the duty of a civilized man / Teach truth to the youth / That be thirstin' for knowledge" ("Butt Naked Booty Bless") are but three of many examples. And Wise Intelligent is not alone in his wish to educate the black masses. From Grand Puba of Brand Nubian we hear "Each one teach one, so here I come to the drum" ("Drop the Bomb"); from the group Gravediggaz, "And this is it, the black God exists/ Can you understand this? Let me teach you a lesson" ("Twelve Jewelz"); and from King Sun, "We have a duty and our duty is to teach and civilize" ("The Gods Are Talking Heads").

    As even these few examples illustrate, Five Percenter rappers see themselves as teachers, bringers of a specific type of self-knowledge. But who are the Five Percenters? What do they believe? What do they propose to teach? What is the nature of the connection between the Five Percent Nation and hip-hop? And how do Five Percenters communicate their theology through the medium of rap music? These questions fueled my six-year investigation into the Five Percent Nation, and they form the basis of this book.

    —but it also tells us something about the audience she is trying to talk to.

    The entire introduction is worth considering; there are several paragraphs describing American cultural intersections; part of the dissertation that became the book, "what would eventually become chapter 3", was in the process of being written on September 11, 2001. As Americans struggled to understand the idea of Islam, the Five Percent Nation appeared in the tale of John Walker Lindh when a major weekly published an article that "went on to single out popular rapper Nas as one of the influences Lindh later rejected when he converted to orthodox Islam"; major news agencies reporting the Beltway Sniper wondered about the Five Percent Nation; as it was, John Allan Muhammad had prior associations with Nation of Islam. This narrative, too, leads back to the point and purpose:

    This book is a long-overdue study of the Five Percent Nation from historical, cultural, theological, and musical perspectives. Such a kaleidoscopic approach is necessary given the Five Percent Nation's complex theology, historical ties to major movements and moments in American history, and deep involvement with popular culture. Five Percenter theology is multiply grounded in Black Muslim traditions, black nationalism, Kemetic symbolism, Masonic mysticism, and Gnostic spirituality. But the Five Percent Nation's history is also tightly entwined with hip-hop's history. The stories of both Lindh and the Beltway Sniper are just two modern examples of this relationship.

    Toward matters of purpose, we might consider two paragraphs explaining the chapters of the book; Russell, in The Devil, offers only a brief paragraph on the prior publication of two chapters; Noll, by contrast, situates his introduction as the first chapter, spending ten and a half pages on laborious narrative setup leading to five and change describing the "Shape of the Book".

    Miyakawa also spends a few words on what the book is not, including that the "book is not intended as a comprehensive survey of rap history". "More importantly," she writes, "this book makes no claims to being a definitive study of the Five Percent Nation." Additionally, she acknowledges limitations: "I am constrained by my position in this study, which is … that of an outsider: the Nation of Islam and the Five Percent Nation both essentially exclude whites from participating."

    Nonetheless, "the only resistance to my research," Miyakawa notes, "has come not from the Five Percent Nation, but from other outsiders who disagree with Five Percenter theology, and urged me to speak out against the Nation." And if "readers looking for objections to Five Percenter theology will not find those objections" in her book, those objections are not actually its role. It is history and religion in the context of a book about music.


    Miyakawa, Felicia M. Five Percenter Rap: God Hop's Music, Message, and Black Muslim Mission. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2005.
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  7. Tiassa Let us not launch the boat ... Valued Senior Member

    Politics and Judgment, or, History and Progress

    Life has a certain way, and I think the current expression would run, approximately: TFW you experience accidental statistical-experiential sublimity, and there is nobody around to share the joke with.


    Coincidence: For whatever reasons, I decided to watch Fullmetal Alchemist; it's available, and I haven't seen it since its first American run on Cartoon Network, and, because of parenthood and other issues, it turns out I never did finish. Anyway, so what. As it happens, I decided to watch FMA again.

    And on the other track, I happen to be collecting excerpts from the introductions to a particular range of books.


    Along the way in FMA, a detail I hadn't noticed is an occasion when the Elric father's name is written down; for the record, it's also in an episode title, later in the series, and eventually spoken repeatedly. That's how I know I never finished; if I'd known that, I wouldn't have reacted as I did when I saw it written down in a scene. And it's true, my first thought was that "Hoenheim" didn't seem like a normal first name.

    And, again, so what. It's anime. Any other day, it wouldn't matter.

    But it actually was the day after seeing the one episode, though, I happened to grab a particular book. Thing is, Brown's Life Against Death isn't exactly about religion, but it does have to do with history and Freudianism, so maybe there would be something in the introduction worth including in the sourcebok I'm gathering, and I'm not sure there is.

    But there was a reference to Jakob Böhme, the Lutheran mystic and heretic whose Wikipedia↱ entry currently includes Richter's description of Aurora, declaring "The Arian poison was not so deadly as this shoemaker's poison", and at Sciforums, we can look back nineteen years↗ for why that line is particularly funny; the entry also includes the line that, "Böhme's writing shows the influence of Neoplatonist and alchemical writers such as Paracelsus, while remaining firmly within a Christian tradition."

    And so it happens, there it is. Paracelsus↱. Physician, alchemist, theologian, and famous figure of the German Renaissance. That is to say, of course the Elric father in FMA was named after Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim. Paracelsus is almost entirely the source of FMA's pretense of alchemy, and, moreover, the prospect of Van Hohenheim as "Hohenheim of Light" is discernible even at the wiki level, e.g., "The Aurora of the Philosophers".

    The actual, trivial coincidence is, as it goes, perfectly mundane. Still, whatever else I missed however many years ago, failing to watch my way through FMA week to week, really, this was a powerfully, stupidly absurd coincidence from day to day.

    But there really was this moment in which it all felt like a nearly perfect joke. I mean, come on, really? This wasn't like coming across a detail months or years later and thinking, Well, what do you know; silly me for not knowing. This was squar' in between a moment of, Oh, that's his name? and a later moment of, Duh, how did I not know that was his name? Right in the gap. It really was sublime.


    Here are two paragraphs not quite about religion, from over sixty years ago:

    A by-product, but an essential one, of this reinterpretation of psychoanalysis is a reinterpretation of Freud's own position in intellectual history. As long as he is regarded simply as the founder of a method of individual therapy, it is enough to see him as part of medical history, as the heir of Charcot and Breuer. But if psychoanalysis represents a new stage in the general evolution of human self-consciousness, then it is part of the diagnosis of our present situation to unearth and appraise the more obscure connections between Freud and other trends in modern thought. The unpremeditated affinity between Freud and Nietzsche is well known, and Freud himself acknowledged that the poets had anticipated him in the discovery of the unconscious.

    It was a surprise to perceive, in the course of this study, other affinities not generally recognized: first, Freud's methodological affinity with the heretical tradition in logic that can be labeled dialectical; second, his doctrinal affinity with a certain tradition of mystic heresy of which the most impoprtant modern representative is Jacob Boehme. More generally, the last chapter, "The Resurrection and the Body", outlines my view of psychoanalysis as the missing link between a variety of movements in modern thought—in poetry, in politics, in philosophy—all of them profoundly critical of the inhuman character of modern civilization, all of them unwilling to abandon hope of better things.


    It is worth clarifying that the diagnosis Norman O. Brown refers to in the introduction to Life Against Death (Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1959) actually has to do with the state of Freudianism at the time; one of the interesting things about the psychoanalytical meaning of history, though, is that it is dynamic and even recursive. In a context of self-consciousness, diagnosis is perpetual, and the obscure connections between trends in human thought ever mysterious and begging further inquiry.

    Moreover, consider, for instance, that the connections between trends in human thought are not irrelevant to Noll on theological method, Russell on historical evidence and belief, or Armstrong on an idiosnycratic and eccentric conception of religion.


    Compared to that, the Hohenheim coincidence seems merely a trivial bauble, especially as its sublimity depends so greatly on timing, but there really are little treasures to be found along the way. The value of a particular intersection with Cusanus is similarly obscure. Or the Lytton story; sure, the tale exists in and of itself, but certain personal value emerges for obscure but particular reasons, and, by yet another ridiculous coincidence, that association reasserted itself in recent days, too.


    It is true, the prospect of studying history for the purpose of collecting amusing bits and pieces and relics along the way is nearly solipsistic, so we ought to be clear: The accretion of trivial baubles is something that just happens along the way in studying history.

    And there is, of course, a question of why anyone might attend any particular detail of history. In common politics it is easy enough to see players wielding history as if it were some manner of weapon, fallaciously fashioned into some dagger or truncheon. Questions of politics and judgment are different from the questions of history itself. Inasmuch as civilized society is not a suicide pact, so also is wilful injury unto discourse and history a self-destructive infliction. But that is a question of politics and judgment, or, as Russell put it, the historical record might "never be clear enough to know what really happened", but the record of "what people believed to have happened is relatively clear", and "is more important than what really did happen, because people act upon what they believe to be true". In questions of politics and judgment, there is a practical, functional, and observable difference between acknowledging the fact of human frailty and seeking to exploit it.

    What, though, of the history they wield? What of that history itself, and what is its relationship to the progress or advancement the politicking seeks?

    Attending history is not simply a matter of gathering political weapons While political rhetoric can be wrought from history, that is in itself a political act.

    Even without the Hoenheim story, the run from Brown to Böhme to Richter and the "Arian poison" is a gem, and not just for the personal sentiment; it is also a reminder of something very important about what people believe.

    And in that aspect, we find ourselves coming back to Russell, on history and belief. Compared to people acting upon what they believe is true, consider that the "Arian poison" is to accept that Jesus Christ was a human being instead of a divine creature. Gregorius Richter was a hymn-writer, and even pastor primarius of Görlitz less than a century into the Lutheran Reformation; his indignance is more than merely a trivial bauble.


    Brown, Norman O. Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History. Middletown: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1959.

    Wikipedia. "Jakob Böhme" Wikipedia. 5 July 2021. En.Wikipedia.org. 10 July 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jakob_Böhme

    –––––. "Paracelsus". Wikipedia. 5 July 2021. En.Wikipedia.org. 10 July 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paracelsus
  8. Tiassa Let us not launch the boat ... Valued Senior Member

    Here is a paragraph about religion:

    When I began to research this history of the idea and experience of God in the three related monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, I expected to find that God had simply been a projection of human needs and desires. I thought that "he" would mirror the fears and yearnings of society at each stage of its development. My predictions were not entirely unjustified, but I have been extremely surprised by some of my findings, and I wish that I had learned all this thirty years ago, when I was starting out in the religious life. It would have saved me a great deal of anxiety to hear—from eminent monotheists in all three faiths—that instead of waiting for God to descend from on high, I should deliberately create a sense of him for myself. Other rabbis, priests and Sufis would have taken me to task for assuming that God was—in any sense—a reality "out there"; they would have wanted me not to experience him as an objective fact that could be discovered by the ordinary process of rational thought. They would have told me that in an important sense God was a product of creative imagination, like the poetry and music that I found so inspiring. A few highly respected monotheists would have told me quietly and firmly that God did not really exist—and yet "he" was the most important reality in the world.


    As introductory notes, they can be heavy paragraphs. Karen Armstrong, in A History of God (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), chases a big idea. Here are two more heavy paragraphs about religion:

    This book will not be a history of the ineffable reality of God itself, which is beyond time and change, but a history of the way men and women have perceived him from Abraham to the present day. The human idea of God has a history, since it has always meant something slightly different to each group of people who have used it at various points of time. The idea of God formed in one generation by one set of human beings could be meaningless in another. Indeed, the statement, "I believe in God" has no objective meaning, as such, but like any other statement only means something in context, when proclaimed by a particular community. Consequently, there is no one unchanging idea contained in the word "God"; instead, the word contains a whole spectrum of meanings, some of which are contradictory or even mutually exclusive. Had the notion of God not had this flexibility, it would not have survived to become one of the great human ideas. When one conception of God has ceased to have meaning or relevance, it has been quietly discarded and replaced by a new theology. A fundamentalist would deny this, since fundamentalism is antihistorical: it believes that Abraham, Moses, and the later prophets all experienced their God in exactly the same way as people do today. Yet if we look at our three religions, it becomes clear that there is no objective view of "God": each generation has to create the image of God that works for it. The same is true of atheism. The statement "I do not believe in God" has meant something slightly different at each period of history. The people who have been dubbed "atheists" over the years have always denied a particular conception of the divine. Is the "God" who is rejected by atheists today, the "God of the patriarchs, the God, of the prophets, the God of the philosophers, the God of the mystics or the God of the eighteenth-century deists? All these deities have been venerated as the God of the Bible and the Koran by Jew, Christians, and Muslims at various points of their history. We shall see that they are very different from one another. Atheism has often been a transitional state: thus Jews, Christians and Muslims were all called "atheists" by their pagan contemporaries because they had adopted a revolutionary notion of divinity and transcendence. Is modern atheism a similar denial of a "God" which is no longer adequate to the problems of our time?

    Despite its otherworldliness, religion is highly pragmatic: We shall see that it is far more important for a particular idea of God to work than for it to be logically or scientifically sound. As soon as it ceases to be effective it will be changed—sometimes for something radically different. This did not disturb most monotheists before our own day because they were quite clear that their ideas about God were not sacrosanct but could only be provisional. They were entirely man-made—they could be nothing else—and quite separate from the indescribable Reality they symbolized. Some developed quite audacious ways of emphasizing this essential distinction. One medieval mystic went so far as to say that this ultimate Reality—mistakenly called "God"—was not even mentioned in the Bible. Throughout history, men and women have experienced a dimension of the spirit that seems to transcend the mundane world. Indeed, it is an arresting characteristic of the human mind to be able to conceive concepts that go beyond it in this way. However we choose to interpret it, this human experience of transcendence has been a fact of life. Not everybody would regard it as divine: Buddhists, as we shall see, would deny that their visions and insights are derived from a supernatural source; they see them as natural to humanity. All the major religions, however, would agree that it is impossible to describe this transcendence in normal conceptual language. Monotheists have called this transcendence "God", but they have hedged this around with important provisos. Jews, for example, are forbidden to pronounce the sacred Name of God, and Muslims must not attempt too depict the divine in visual imagery. The discipline is a reminder that the reality that we call "God" exceeds all human expression.


    Right. There is, in fact, a lot that can go right here.

    The thing is, while there are contexts in which the particulars of any explicit divinity, deity, or iteration of "God" do not seem to matter, there are also reasons why those details can and do matter. The difference has to do with why we might consider such particulars.

    Framed as a question of history, we find a context of reality that is vital to understanding what the scholar is telling us: The "ineffable reality of God itself", and the "reality that we call 'God'", can and should be taken in this context as referring to reality itself.

    After all, Armstrong acknowledges what is "not … a history of the ineffable reality of God itself", but, rather, "a history of the way men and women have perceived"; the story she tells—

    … will not be a history in the usual sense, since the idea of God has not evolved from one point and progressed in a linear fashion to a final conception. Scientific notions work like that, but the ideas of art and religion do not. Just as there are only a given number of themes in love poetry, so too people have kept saying the same things about God over and over again. Indeed, we shall find a striking similarity in Jewish, Christian and Muslim ideas of the divine. Even though Jews and Muslims both find the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation almost blasphemous, they have produced their own versions of these controversial theologies. Each expression of these universal themes is slightly different, however, showing the ingenuity and inventiveness of the human imagination as it struggles to express its sense of “God”.


    —is best read in a context of literary analysis. Observing the point about the "ingenuity and inventiveness of the human imagination", we might consider the proposition of a psychoanalytical meaning of history, and therein find the value of understanding what it means that a particular idea of God works, that a particular idea of the "reality we call 'God'", i.e., a particular idea of reality, works.

    And, just because: The line from Kharkovli that goes here, about the Sufi element being the "inward component, and the rest is the balance of religion", might seem obscure, but it considers a similar difference.

    Thus, we might wonder, per Armstrong's question of modern atheism as denial of a "God" which is no longer adequate to the problems of our time, in what ways people's idea of reality fails them. After all, atheism generally reacts to religion, not "God". And inasmuch as the rest is the balance of religion, we can wonder at the range that describes. That is to say, what do people make for religion, to attend what they do not perceive of God.

    Which brings us, in its way, back to what Richter and the Arian poison, which, I suppose, ought not be surprising°. And if we search for meaning in history, analyzing this "important sense" in which "God" is "a product of creative imagination" might actually be useful.


    ° Armstrong does eventually get around to Arius, Athanasius, and Nicaea, just not in the introduction. Then again, it's not an unfamiliar discussion↗ around here.​

    Armstrong, Karen. A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

    Kharkovli, Adilbai. "Those Astonishing Sufis". Sufi Thought and Action. Edited by Idries Shah. London: Octagon Press, 1990.
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  9. WillNever Valued Senior Member

    You put a lot of effort into your posts, and if you are welcome to suggestion, I believe that your essays (informal or not) would greatly benefit from very distinct introductory and concluding paragraphs with clear statements of what your main idea is.

    In much of your work, you start off by making supporting arguments without first stating your main idea. This practice of "starting off with the body" is simply not effective writing. Your supporting arguments are being used/wasted on slowly shaping your main idea instead of trying to convince the reader of it. Including all the citations and quotations is laudable, but very much wasted if the reader cannot immediately tie them back to your main idea. If you were to state your main idea at the beginning, people will immediately associate your supporting arguments with it, and they will be much more meaningful and impactful. A concluding paragraph will help unify your ideas. You write a lot, and I hate seeing so much missed potential. Clearly state your main idea in unequivocal terms in the first paragraph of your post.

    See my first sentence in this very post? See how I state my purpose and you know exactly what it is I'm going to talk about for the rest of the post? Go for that -- anywhere in your first paragraph. Believe me; it WILL pay off.
    Last edited: Jul 24, 2021
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  10. billvon Valued Senior Member

    You are assuming his goal here is to be understood by people reading his posts.
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  11. WillNever Valued Senior Member

    I have no idea. I just hate seeing what is clearly a lot of work put into something only for it to be dulled by lack of flow and readability. Each of the above posts is like a list of drawn out bullet points with nothing holding them together. I hate to say it, but it's just bad writing. Writing is an important and useful skill in life. It can be a very powerful tool when honed and utilized correctly. It isn't even that hard to develop; you just have to be willing to.
  12. Tiassa Let us not launch the boat ... Valued Senior Member

    It is unsurprising that someone went there; indeed, it's actually part of the point. Consider that this is a Sciforums thread called, "On Discussing Religion". It is not at all any sort of surprise to encounter a writing critique like this when a critic feels the subject matter exceeds their range. One thing such unfortunately dazzled critics can do in the moment is simply remain calm: Part of the point is to not explicitly shape the discussion.

    You might, for instance, notice some themes; the first post bears its own title, "On Discussing Religion: History and Theology". Historical discussion will be a persistent theme. The topic post offers examples of scholars considering religion in contexts of historical discourse; of Russell: In what way is what people believe to have happened more important than what actually happened? This is part of understanding history … "people act upon what they believe to be true"; and of Noll: Again, the discussion of religion is presented as a question of history.

    The post also shows the connections or overlap between the examples: A quarter-century after Russell, we find Noll approaching a similar question of reality and belief. This is followed, over the course of four paragraphs, by consideration of what Noll means by "scientific method", because it is insightful toward discussing the history. Comparatively: The straightforward part is that discourse of faith is not easily validated, to put it mildly, and has no obligation to reliable treatment of words.

    And along the way, we are reminded of literary analysis as well as political discourse, and in that context directly juxtapose the two examples, Noll and Russell, in the context of theological method relying less on what the predecessors said, and more on what any believer thought obvious.

    There are certainly some suggestions wrapped up in it all, but, no, the point is not to explicitly shape what comes next.

    The post on Miyakawa mostly reminds of historical and literary analysis, but also makes the point that, yes, we can even talk about the Butt Naked Booty Bless. And, actually, in the time since I posted that one, it became weirdly relevant; I don't know who all heard about the weird incident in Massachusetts a few weeks ago when police encountered a bunch of Black men with rifles↱ in an oddball traffic incident, and nobody died. Long story short, they're Moorish sovereignists, and that's its own story, but their history precedes NGE and NOI, a Moorish movement that is part of the heritage leading to Miyakawa's subject matter, actually briefly sketched in the first chapter. And it would have been easy enough to miss the Moorish sovereignty bit without having taken a few minutes, at least, trying to figure out what's going on in some music I listen to.

    The post about "Politics and Judgment, or, History and Progress" actually opens with a pretty straightforward statement of what the rest of the post covers. And, like I said, there really was this moment in which it all felt like a nearly perfect joke; I don't see how this is any more confusing than the reason I would be telling anyone: It really was sublime.

    Still, though, we come back to the general theme orbiting Russell and Noll, as well as the importance of Armstrong's point. That is to say, consider, for instance, that the connections between trends in human thought are not irrelevant to Noll on theological method, Russell on historical evidence and belief, or Armstrong on an idiosyncratic and eccentric conception of religion.

    There is also a comparative consideration about trivia, but such trivialities are not necessarily irrelevant to discussing religion. You might notice the transitional rhetoric: And there is, of course, a question of why anyone might attend any particular detail of history. Notions of politics have particular significance compared to the assessment that "people act upon what they believe to be true".

    And somewhere between collection of trivial baubles and the gathering of political weapons, we find a valuable resource, a reminder of something very important about what people believe.

    Yes, the reminder that twelve hundred years later, even the reformers were guided by earthly pride, is a valuable historical insight, especially in the context of discussing religion. And, yes, that it was wrapped up in that extraordinary coincidence made the occasion feel a little special. That's why the post started by observing an experience of accidental statistical-experiential sublimity when there is nobody around to share the joke with.

    (If I say that's some cosmic-level shit, right there, and don't make me go dragging Perdurabo into it, well, right, nor did he mean what he said, and the joke is completely lost in the void.)​

    But even I wasn't really expecting the way the themes keep swirling about. The Armstrong post establishes a framework for the excerpts, acknowledges a diversity of discursive possibilities, and then makes a fairly clear declarative statement: The thing is, while there are contexts in which the particulars of any explicit divinity, deity, or iteration of "God" do not seem to matter, there are also reasons why those details can and do matter. The difference has to do with why we might consider such particulars.

    The post considers questions of history and a context of literary analysis; that Kharkovli grooves right there is not a new idea.

    What actually stands out about the Armstrong post is its failure; the last paragraphs were more difficult than they needed to be, and as a result, I forgot to include the thematic return to Russell and Noll. I figure we can get to it soon. But it's also true I didn't intend the thematic shape to emerge so dramatically.

    (For instance, of the post about FMA and Norman O. Brown, I really don't know to what degree you, for instance, can appreciate the point that Life Against Death is, technically speaking, out of range for what I was doing in this thread; I shouldn't have been looking there, in the first place, so to speak.)​

    Still, the fact of your writing critique is not utterly pointless; out of everything else, that is what you found to talk about. So, okay, sure, when it comes to discussing religion, there might be more to talk about than your needs vis à vis expository, instructional, or persuasive writing. And, sure, in our moment that one seems pretty obvious, but what about, well, something else? If we think of the question as, ¿What should I single out as an example? perhaps it might occur to wonder why this discussion should need to stake itself against anything so particularly.

    Thus, on discussing religion, sure, there might be more to talk about than [_____], but such juxtapositions can easily be too defining. Framing theological discussion as historical and literary criticism is hardly new to my repertoire, and inasmuch as we might ever consider why we discuss such history, why we discuss religion, the question how we go about it is actually kind of important. And that point extends beyond merely this thread.

    And if I'm not surprised that the response is a pretense of writing critique, this is, after all, Sciforums. That this is the critique one can muster says whatever it says, but is not uncommon.



    WBUR News and Wire Services. "11 Men Charged After Armed Standoff That Shut Down Parts Of I-95 For Hours". WBUR. 4 July 2021. WBUR.org. 24 July 2021. https://wbur.fm/3x2MejM
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  13. WillNever Valued Senior Member

    When you have freely been given educated advice on how to write more effectively, try utilizing it.

    Stop taking it personally. It is meant to help you, not hurt you. Learn to accept criticism and be open to change. Instead of immediately going to hit the reply button, try showing a little bit of sophistication: take a step back, breathe, and reflect. Realize that you have areas of weakness and address them instead of arguing them with pavlovian replies
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  14. Tiassa Let us not launch the boat ... Valued Senior Member

    Perhaps these paragraphs seem underwhelming:

    It was originally as Yahweh that this formidable deity set himself apart from the myriad rival gods and goddesses of neighboring peoples in the ancient Near East—at the same time that the chronicles and heroic legends of those peoples were being absorbed into the early writings of the Old Testament.

    The original source of those borrowed tales was the Fertile Crescent, a term that describes the belt of rich, arable land that extended roughly from the Nile valley in the west to Damascus in the north and down to Ur and Babylon in the southeast. The term Fertile Crescent also evokes the incredible intellectual productivity of the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia, who lived between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It wqas there that mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and many more of civilization’s great intellectual advances were first investigated systematically and preserved in writing. Writing itself, one of mankind’s greatest achievements, was also invented there, more than five thousand years ago.

    The Old Testament is a product of this tradition, following and incorporating the many legacies of even more ancient cultures—the Creation myth, the story of the Flood, and most important, the idea of monotheism, the belief in one God. Sometimes this fidelity to the tradition even extends to outright plagiarism.


    Manfred Barthel, in, What the Bible Really Says (1980), does not actually seem to break new ground, but we might also consider how difficult it might be to convey the differences today from forty years ago. And while it might at first seem obscure to recall Russell on the "tide of historical scholarship" tending toward "the direction of analysis", that was all of a couple years before Barthel advised, at the intersection of science and religion:

    Archaeology has unearthed the Old Testament’s literary predecessors and thus disproved the idea that the Old Testament is a unique, unprecedented, and unified expression of God’s Word. In many cases the investigation of ancient sites has verified passages in the Old Testament that had previously been dismissed as myth and legend. The names of kings and cities that were as fully encrusted with legendary associations as Arthur to Camelot have been transformed into historical realities, and a great many surprisses are still in store for us in the future: a mere 5 percent of the known sites that date from bliblical times have thus far been disturbed by the archaeologist’s spade.

    But the cheering news that archaeology can confirm the historical authenticity of some passages in the Old Testament has unfortunately led to the astonishing conclusion that everything in the Old Testament must be verified scientifically—if not by archaeology, then by physics or astronomy. And where archaeological verification becomes the acid test for biblical authenticity, if a particular passage then fails the test, we are also meant to doubt not only the biblical description, but also the very existence of the event.


    And where Russell juxtaposes analytical scholarship with his own attempt at synthesis, we might consider Barthel's intended comfort "that the soundings and burrowings of the archaeologists can help us achieve a better understanding of the Bible, which means that we have both a great deal to learn and a great deal to forget":

    The churches will have to realize that not every word of the Bible was necessarily dictated by the Almighty. Archaeologists will also have to stop assuming that discrepancies between their findings and a biblical account discredit the Bible, for scholars of the second millennium A.D. (as well as scribes of the first millennium B.C.) have been known to misinterpret their data and make mistakes. And Bible readers would to well to distinguish between purely religious writings—which can still be profitably compared with material from other contemporary traditions—and straightforward historical narrative, because the Bible contains a great deal of both.

    Philo, the Jewish historian and philosopher who lived in Alexandria around the time of Jesus (A.D. 30), maintained that, “Everything in the Old Testament is true, and everything that is true is in the Old Testament.” A comforting thought, but today we have to look a bit further than that. The modern interpretation of the Bible, for example, starts with the premise that everything in the Book of Genesis from the Creation up to the construction of the Tower of Babel is quite simply a parable in which the authors were trying to make comprehensible the unfathomable workings of the Lord.


    Not only do we find in Barthel's telling some hints toward what Russell was referring to—i.e., what "must be verified", and what archaeologists assume, compared to a juxtaposition of analysis and synthesis—but also an important historical intersection that is not immediately apparent.

    Looking back, the German scholar, Barthel, seems nearly blithe about certain aspects of the Bible that might easily slip unnoticed past later political-historical discourse. Across the Atlantic, 1980 is also the year Americans elected Ronald Reagan to the presidency, and students of religious or political history might recall the notion of a Reagan Awakening, when the Republican Party mobilized evangelical and fundamentalist voters in ways not previously undertaken. If we consider the period between then and now, Barthel's easy comfort and nearly chirpy admonition dismissing biblical literalism seem nearly mystifying compared to the American experience. Explaining the difference is an adventure as fascinating as it is fraught.

    But at the same time, that precipitous tale tumbles through familiar territory; after all, if e'er a tale of history begged psychoanalytical meaning, there is this long and winding road traversing the territory of the way men and women have perceived God, and the effective, applied demonstration that people act upon what they believe to be true.


    Perhaps this is the right moment for a particular contrast: Do not let people you already know are wrong set the terms of discussion.

    This is hardly an unfamiliar line, but here we have an historical-scale example. If we consider the idea of an historical period in which traditionalist and Christian supremacism wrapped itself in a pretense of literalism that was never actually genuine, perhaps it might stand out that the whole time—that is to say, since even before the Reagan Awakening—literalism had already been ceded as an anti-historical relic of faith. In its way, the period can describe people disputing over the wrong question.

    There are, of course, reasons to recognize the language and perspective and logic another proffers, but we might also consider to what degree that language should define the boundaries of discussion. While it is true that we can never know the absolute boundaries of relevancy and function, there are asserted shapes of ideas and discourse that we can already recognize are wrong specifically for that reason. More directly: While it might be impossible to describe something absolutely correctly, sometimes it is clearly observable that a description of something is wrong, and while it is important to pay attention to what people say, we ought to be cautious about letting just anyone tell us how the discussion goes.

    It is one thing to work the field and play the words and try to wring some living result out of logic, but here again we find ourselves treading familiar but precarious ground; if we consider that it is more important for a believer that God works than makes sense, recall that theological method in an idiosyncratic and eccentric idea of religion came to rely on propositions self-evident to the believer, and observe that people act on what they believe to be true, then it might more easily become apparent that there is only limited value in lexical games and sleights of rhetoric.

    While we cannot attend absolutely every aspect of particular religious discourse, there are some manners of discussion that preclude any real hope for resolution. That is, sometimes it doesn't matter how well one works the field and plays the words to build whatever logical wringer, because the important thing for the believer is that God works, the meaning of which is defined according to what is self-evident to the believer. Within this range, attending the stations of discourse we already know to be wrongly founded is at best a futile endeavor; it also has the potential to behaviorally reinforce erroneous, dysfunctional, or otherwise problematic arguments and decisions.

    And if the point is to not let people we know are wrong set the terms of discussion, there are clear alternatives. Of everything in the world one might discuss, the clear alternative is to refuse to settle for a discussion we already know is wrong, to insist on and participate in more useful and less dysfunctional discourse. Easier said than done, true, but perhaps a better prospect compared to the last forty years spent running 'round the mulberry bush.


    Barthel, Manfred. What The Bible Really Says. 1980. Trans., Mark Howson, 1982. Avenel: Wings Books, 1992.
  15. Tiassa Let us not launch the boat ... Valued Senior Member

    Intermezzo: Rhythm & Jewelz

    Anyway, a post on shaping the discussion is heavier than I want it, so some distraction is in order. Apropos of nothing, other than having transcribed some lyrics with the intention of using them for something that I still have yet to get around to.

    From Miyakawa; see #3↑ above:

    Wise Intelligent's lyrics are filled with references to his self-imposed goal of teaching: phrases such as, "I educate you through the teacher in me" ("Word is Life"); "So in the head of ignorance, I rip some conscious clip / Niggas is small, my task is educate y'all" ("Gods, Earths, and 85ers"); and "Teaching is the duty of a civilized man / Teach truth to the youth / That be thirstin' for knowledge" ("Butt Naked Booty Bless") are but three of many examples. And Wise Intelligent is not alone in his wish to educate the black masses. From Grand Puba of Brand Nubian we hear "Each one teach one, so here I come to the drum" ("Drop the Bomb"); from the group Gravediggaz, "And this is it, the black God exists/ Can you understand this? Let me teach you a lesson" ("Twelve Jewelz"); and from King Sun, "We have a duty and our duty is to teach and civilize" ("The Gods Are Talking Heads").

    If part of studying history involved listening to pop music, it's probably not worth trying to explain the Stryper joke↗ again, and there is fascinating discussion to be found about Christianity, fantasy, and expectation in a literary consideration of British and European pop music, discourse about the Five Percent experience will feel quite a bit different, as it attends particular priorities. The above-referenced Gravediggaz track, "Twelve Jewelz↱:

    As long as you got mentally dead people, who are living in a mental death, meaning living in a mental grave, you need somebody to dig that grave up and bring them back to life. There's no chance for a physical dead, but there's chance for the mentally dead, so we gonna come and resurrect them. That's why they call me the Rzarector. I'm about to resurrect the mental dead, by diggin' up their graves, bringin' 'em back to the surface.

    Niggas is caught up in the midst of six; you better grab ahold of your crucifix. And this is it: The black God exists. But can you understand this? Let me teach you a lesson, yo:

    The pre-existence of the mathematical, biochemical equations—the manifestations of God: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water—which are in its basic formation, solid liquid and gases—that caused the land masses, and the space catalyst and all matter that exists and is dense, third dimension, that must be observed through physical comprehension. It takes a nerve to be struck, wisdom is the wise words spoken to wake up the dumb who've been sleeping. The fourth dimension is time, it goes inside the mind, run the channels energized up through the back of your spine. So observe as my chi energy strikes a vital nerve. One swerve of the tongue it pierces like a sword through the lung: Have you not heard, that words kill as fast as bullets when you load negative thoughts to the chamber of your brain and your mouth pulls the trigger that propels wickedness straight from Hell, from the pits of your stomach where negativity dwell? I searched the East coast and West coast down, and most found the small towns is like ghost towns: Everybody moves slowed down, from Uptown to Bucktown, give a fuck now Shaolin gots the crown. And cops'll still serve you from Jamaica Ave to Myrtle, and cats carry more shells than turtles. Brooklyn, down Park Hill, pussies infertile. Buy wholesale, never retail, get females in deep spells; if you eat well, you sleep well, send enemies to Hell. What makes hair, skin, epidermis, fingernail regenerate, when everything else disintegrate—a Teflon vest so bullets can't penetrate. On the corner of my block there stood this old man, a black immigrant from the land of Sudan who used to tell stories to the children in the building, but never had a dollar to keep his pocket filled in. He bombed, he knew Deuteronomy, the science of Astronomy, but didn't know the basic principles about economy. I say the wise man don't play the role of a fool; the first thing a man must obtain is Twelve Jewelz: Knowledge, Wisdom, Understanding, to help you achieve Freedom, Justice, Equality, Food, Clothing, and Shelter; after this, Love, Peace, and Happiness. He had the nappiest head, I told him total satisfaction is to achieve one goal in the scheme of things: He who works like a slave eats like a king.​

    We might consider something having to do with the place of the song in the album track order, but the transition is not easily described, or is extraneous to our moment; it's not quite the beginning of the preach and teach, but it is perhaps the beginning of the testimonial lesson.

    There is, of course, a reason this one wasn't a Top Ten hit. To the other, at the intersection of religion and cultural expression, one need have nothing against Jewish folks if you would rather listen to some badass rap and try to understand what people are saying instead of searching for hidden messages in the math of klezmer violin. (No, I've never seen a study on that latter; I don't know that it actually exists.)

    Think of it this way: It's not just a song, or a preachy message; it's a primary source account of history in a way that a Stryper love song about Jesus just isn't. "Twelve Jewelz" is a fairly straightforward and particularly frank glimpse into the communication of Five Percent culture.

    It's also an excuse to sit back and listen to some tunes.



    Gravediggaz. "Twelve Jewelz". The Pick, the Sickle and the Shovel. Gee Street Records, 1997. https://youtu.be/29mmygBiDss

    Miyakawa, Felicia M. Five Percenter Rap: God Hop's Music, Message, and Black Muslim Mission. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2005.
  16. Tiassa Let us not launch the boat ... Valued Senior Member

    Introductory Notes: Religion and History—Symbiosis and Narrative Priority

    A paragraph about religion and history:

    The external history of a religious tradition often seems divorced from the raison d’être of faith. The spiritual quest is an interior journey, it is a psychic rather than a political drama. It is preoccupied with liturgy, doctrine, contemplative disciplines and an exploration of the heart, not with the clash of current events. Religions certainly have a life outside the soul. Their leaders have to contend with the state and affairs of the world, and often relish doing so. They fight with members of other faiths, who seem to challenge their claim to a monopoly of absolute truth; they also persecute their co-religionists for interpreting a tradition differently or for holding heterodox beliefs. Very often priests, rabbis, imams and shamans are just as consumed by worldly ambition as regular politicians. But all this is generally seen as an abuse of a sacred ideal. These power struggles are not what religion is really about, but an unworthy distraction from the life of the spirit, which is conducted far from the maddening crowd, unseen, silent and unobtrusive. Indeed, in many faiths, monks and mystics lock themselves away from the world, since the glamour and strife of history is regarded as incompatible with a truly religious life.

    There is in the telling a contrast between the easy flow of Karen Armstrong's narrative in Islam: A Short History (Modern Library, 2000) and the delicate complexity of its setup. The book is, after all, about Islam:

    In the Hindu tradition, history is dismissed as evanescent, unimportant and unsubstantial. The philosophers of ancient Greece were concerned with the eternal laws underlying the flux of external events, which could be of no real interest to a serious thinker. In the gospels, Jesus often went out of his way to explain to his followers that his Kingdom was not of this world, but could only be found within the believer. The Kingdom would not arrive with a great political fanfare, but would develop as quietly and imperceptibly as a germinating mustard seed. In the modern West, we have made a point of separating religion from politics; this secularization was originally seen by the philosophes of the Enlightenment as a means of liberating religion from the corruption of state affairs, and allowing it to become more truly itself.

    But however spiritual their aspirations, religious people have to seek God or the sacred in this world. They often feel that they have a duty to bring their ideals to bear upon society. Even if they lock themselves away, they are inescapably men and women of their time and are affected by what goes on outside the monastery, although they do not fully realize this. Wars, plagues, famines, economic recession and the internal politics of their nation will intrude upon their cloistered existence and qualify their religious vision. Indeed, the tragedies of history often goad people into the spiritual quest, in order to find some ultimate meaning in what often seems to be a succession of random, arbitrary and dispiriting incidents. There is a symbiotic relationship between history and religion, therefore. It is, as the Buddha remarked, our perception that existence is awry that forces us to find an alternative which will prevent us from falling into despair.

    It is often difficult, according to given settings, to convey not so much a subtle concept in and of itself, but the point that such a concept and perspective actually exists. If the particular narrative fits neatly into Armstrong's larger tale, it is not so simply a case of saying, of course it does. Rather, what stands out is a mix of sentence structure and word choice relative to the narrative itself; those paragraphs actually explain a fairly simple and straightforward progression of ideas, and if it ever occurs to someone to ask why that complex setup if something shorter, neater, or perhaps more concise, would get the job done, the answer is that the short form doesn't actually get the job done. Consider the question of audience: Who is reading the book? For whom did an author write; to whom does a narrator speak? The answer, of course, can be complicated, either generally or particularly, and looking back more than twenty years, it is not difficult to see suggestions of commonality, that Armstrong is telling the same story to the same audience nearly fifteen years later, in Fields of Blood, when responding to an ahistorical and political proposition about religion and violence. Or, perhaps, the overlap is an appearance; consider that in both cases, she appears to include particular ranges of political critics among her intended audience.

    The later example, regarding religion and violence, is a bit more direct, but consider that the introductory narrative setup in Islam: A Short History leads to discussion of Islam. At this point, the only mention of Islam is the inclusion of imams alongside priests, rabbis, and shamans vis à vis human frailty. That is, history, raison d’être, politics, human frailty, Hindu tradition, ancient Greece, the ministry of Jesus, Western Enlightenment, and even the Buddha—and now, for something completely different, paradox:

    Perhaps the central paradox of the religious life is that it seeks transcendence, a dimension of human existence that goes beyond our mundane lives, but that human beings can only experience this transcendent reality in earthly, physical phenomena. People have sensed the divine in rocks, mountains, temple buildings, law codes, written texts, or in other men and women. We never experience transcendence directly: our ecstasy is always “earthed,” enshrined in something or someone here below. Religious people are trained to look beneath the unpromising surface to find the sacred within it. Jean-Paul Sartre defined the imagination as the ability to think of what is not present. Human beings are religious creatures because they are imaginative; they are so constituded that they are compelled to search for hidden meaning and to achive an ecstasy that makes them feel fully alive. Each tradition encourages the faithful to focus their attention on an earthly symbol that is peculiarly its own, and to teach themselves to see the divine in it.

    Paradox, transcendence, and also Jean-Paul Sartre on imagination. And, at last, we arrive at the turn to Islam:

    In Islam, Muslims have looked for God in history. Their sacred scripture, the Quran, gave them a historical mission. Their chief duty was to create a just community in which all members, even the most weak and vulnerable, were treated with absolute respect. The experience of building such a society and living in it would give them intimations of the divine, because they would be living in accordance with God's will. A Muslim had to redeem history, and that meant that state affairs were not a distraction from spirituality but the stuff of religion itself. The political well-being of the Muslim community was a matter of supreme importance. Like any religious ideal, it was almost impossibly difficult to implement in the flawed and tragic conditions of history, but after each failure Muslims had to get up and begin again.

    While the Preface exudes a certain universality, an appeal to broad and general readership befitting such context as we might imagine of a Modern Library Chronicle, there is also a nearly apologistic tone, as if the entire setup is not simply to lay obvious relevant markers for an audience that knows little about religion and even less about Islam, but also to justify both the tale and its telling, according to an awareness of presupposed illegitimacy.

    That question of legitimacy could easily be characterized as deriving from a Western, English-speaking, post-Christian historical experience and its prejudices, both xenophobic and theologic, against Islam. But Armstrong also includes atheists and catchall critics of religion among her audience.

    If once upon a time, someone reminded that one need not know much about something in order to not believe it, or, more particularly, there also arose a question of what an atheist actually needs to know in order to have what opinion, the difference is between atheism and criticism; one need not know history to disbelieve a deity, but it might help, if one chooses to criticize that history, to have a clue.

    And in that context, go back and read that first paragraph again; there isn't anything extraordinary about any of the sentences. But they are also familiar notions in historical discourse; the arrangement is not useless to students of history, as it serves its basic narrative purpose, but is oriented for readers who are not as familiar with historical discourse in general, or religion in particular.

    If the first paragraph walks the reader through certain contrasts as landmarks establishing a discord and tension between history and faith, perhaps it would be easy enough to skip directly to the fifth, with Muslims looking for God in history. The intermediate three paragraphs, though, are not simply noise, nor simply a sculpted hedgerow maze leading the hapless wanderer to an inevitable end. The question of what path for which readers influences narrative priorities, and understanding those priorities can be as fascinating an inquiry as it is important to comprehending the tale itself.


    Armstrong, Karen. Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

    —————. Islam: A Short History. New York: Modern Library, 2000.
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  17. Tiassa Let us not launch the boat ... Valued Senior Member

    Perspective: Note from a Dying Man

    David J. Linden is dying. The neuroscientist from Johns Hopkins University reflects on his career and looming demise↱:

    The field of neuroscience has changed significantly in the 43 years since I joined it. I was taught that the brain is essentially reactive: Stimuli impinge on the sense organs (eyes, ears, skin, etc.), these signals are conveyed to the brain, a bit of computation happens, some neural decisions are made, and then impulses are sent along nerves to muscles, which contract or relax to produce behavior in the form of movement or speech. Now we know that rather than merely reacting to the external world, the brain spends much of its time and energy actively making predictions about the future—mostly the next few moments. Will that baseball flying through the air hit my head? Am I likely to become hungry soon? Is that approaching stranger a friend or a foe? These predictions are deeply rooted, automatic, and subconscious. They can't be turned off through mere force of will.

    And because our brains are organized to predict the near future, it presupposes that there will, in fact, be a near future. In this way, our brains are hardwired to prevent us from imagining the totality of death.

    If I am allowed to speculate—and I hold that a dying person should be given such dispensation—I would contend that this basic cognitive limitation is not reserved for those of us who are preparing for imminent death, but rather is a widespread glitch that has profound implications for the cross-cultural practice of religious thought. Nearly every religion has the concept of an afterlife (or its cognitive cousin, reincarnation). Why are afterlife/reincarnation stories found all over the world? For the same reason we can't truly imagine our own deaths: because our brains are built on the faulty premise that there will always be that next moment to predict. We cannot help but imagine that our own consciousness endures.

    While not every faith has explicit afterlife/reincarnation stories (Judaism is a notable exception), most of the world's major religions do, including Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, Daoism, Hinduism, and arguably, even Buddhism. Indeed, much religious thought takes the form of a bargain: Follow these rules in life, and you will be rewarded in the afterlife or with a favorable form of reincarnation or by melding with the divine. What would the world's religions be like if our brains were not organized to imagine that consciousness endures? And how would this have changed our human cultures, which have been so strongly molded by religions and the conflicts between them?

    While I ponder these questions, I am also mulling my own situation. I am not a person of faith, but as I prepare for death, I have a renewed respect for the persistent and broad appeal of afterlife/reincarnation stories and their ultimately neurobiological roots. I'm not sure whether, in the end, faith in afterlife/reincarnation stories is a feature or a bug of human cognition, but if it's a bug, it's one for which I have sympathy.

    A feature or a bug: Perhaps it is all the difference in the world for us, a reflection of why humans evolve. That is, the neurobiological root seems something of a necessity. Where and how does our fear of death, something Linden is intimately familiar with, intersect with our hardwired faith in enduring future; or perhaps we ought view that dread as a result, a quirky, inefficient ad hoc effect of evolutionary history that has not selected to any better refinement.

    But I also think of a comparative, from Karen Armstrong, in Fields of Blood, addressing attitudes and beliefs about the relationship between religion and violence; Linden's phrasing would seem an evolution of the question. How would a different neurobiological circumstance have affected the development of the religions that so influence our cultures? It is, of course, a complicated and even recursive inquiry, but the difference is one between a point of inquiry and a presupposed conclusion; as a question of religious belief and custom, the difference is an inquiry into symptom compared to an assertion of cause.

    If in her role as an expert who speaks on religion, Armstrong frequently hears "how cruel and aggressive" religion has been, a proposition that "eerily, is expressed in the same way every time: 'Religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history'", a notion "recited like a mantra" across professional and economic spectra. Several years later, Linden's gloaming consideration attends a different vector: "What would the world's religions be like if our brains were not organized to imagine that consciousness endures?" he asks. "And how would this have changed our human cultures, which have been so strongly molded by religions and the conflicts between them?"

    It really is an extraordinary question. Consider its elements. This isn't mere armchair speculation, but the thoughts of a neuroscientist, and based on a scientific understanding of how our brains work. If our brains presuppose that there will, in fact, be a near future, and in this way are hardwired to prevent us from imagining the totality of death, then what are the socio-evolutionary implications of a human species that imagines, and can more basically and psychologically accept the fact of death. In a word, or perhaps two, the implications are nearly unimaginable.

    It's one thing if religion is at its etymological heart a context of obligation, but the ideas around which we organize our religious obligations include our relationship with the fact and prospect of death. And perhaps our brains might grant us some emotional relief from fear in processing a final absence of future consideration, but this is a different circusmtance from our everyday experience.

    I'm uncertain what to say about the epigenetics of holly leaves, except perhaps that something about differentiation goes here; it's an easy example. In our humanity the fact of conscious differentiation, our awareness of differentiation, is itself an evolutionary result, a tool for survival and propagation. If we were not hardwired to calculate some aspect of the future—which requires presupposing that future—there arises a question of demand, the evolutionary pressure toward awareness of differentiation, the diversity of data and its relative meanings, those calculations require. It seems there ought to be a vast territory of possibility between the epigenetics of prickly aquifolium and how our human brain calculates its continued function, yet some part of the question comes down to informational perception, recognition, and calculation. To presuppose the future seems baked into our perceptive range, symptomatic of our evolutionary circumstance.

    But if I suggest it's not quite that we somehow learn to filter out that much perceptive data while retaining sensory abilities, it really is hard to imagine our human circumstance without this hardwired predeliction to presuppose enduring experience.

    And some part of me wants to borrow a phrase; we have a particular neurobiological root, and the rest is the balance of religion. That hardwired presupposition of a future, a next moment, is fundamental to our living experience. What conflicts with it—awareness of death in an experience requiring imaginative capacity—becomes the object around which our neurotic resolutions orbit. Or: The cognitive dissonance arising from our awareness of death—the fact of presupposing future experience compared to an inability to reconcile the observable fact of mortality—becomes our fear of death, around which we organize the religious obligations that assuage the fear and soothe the dissonance.


    Armstrong, Karen. Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

    Linden, David J. "A Neuroscientist Prepares for Death". The Atlantic. 30 December 2021. TheAtlantic.com 30 December 2021. https://bit.ly/3eJcl8p
  18. arfa brane call me arf Valued Senior Member

    Just a comment on stories I've read about people who are faced with imminent death and survive it, finding themselves in a state like a religious trance, in which they act without thinking or become "selfless"; later they attest that whatever it was, it saved them somehow.

    Or those who have come close to being killed, but survived a close call as if some guardian spirit is protecting them; not just once or twice but too many times to remember all of them. I mean, how many opportunities would a child have to test if this guardian is real, in the modern world? Would they, just to see?

    A story here about putting on a cape and leaping off the roof of a shed comes to mind . . .
    Last edited: Jan 1, 2022
  19. Michael 345 New year. PRESENT is 72 years oldl Valued Senior Member

    Cow pat

    Another cow pat

    I would contend
    • most people don't think about death
    • unless deeply religious know religion, and preaching about afterlife, is a massive cow pat
    • fear more any suffering they might experience prior to dying
    Two sense worth thought bubble

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  20. arfa brane call me arf Valued Senior Member

    A comment on what a sense is.

    I learned that the standard model is that humans have five senses (of): touch, smell, taste, sight, and sound.

    But I think I can add a few more without loss of generality here, I can attest to having a sense of time which is just as inbuilt as any of the above five; I can attest that biological clocks exist, not really surprising given the existence of biochemical cycles.
    A biological clock isn't of course, accurate even over the course of an hour, and yet, these are what drive most of the activities I perform, day to day--my sense of time seems fairly important.

    I also have a sense of temperature-I feel hot or cold depending on external conditions; it can be painfully hot, or cold--pain is in the spectrum of all my senses except my sense of time.

    So, do I have a sense of anything else? A sense of God? Well, I would have to equate this sense, if it existed, with myself because that's all that's left for this sense to be a sense of. What kind of material experience do I need here, to connect the dots? Do I need to understand that everyone, not just me, has this same sense, even if they don't really know or need to know, why?

    Going back to those first five, it's understood these days that taste and smell are closely connected, neurologically; so are sight and sound. The implications there are still being looked at: one obvious one is that the model of five senses is out of date.
  21. Sarkus Hippomonstrosesquippedalo phobe Valued Senior Member

    The notion of there only being 5 senses was, I believe, out of date quite some time ago. I was taught that there were more than 5 back in school - and that was quite a while ago!

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  22. arfa brane call me arf Valued Senior Member

    What was it you were taught, then?
  23. Tiassa Let us not launch the boat ... Valued Senior Member

    I would contend those points reflect more about their author than their object of consideration.

    That people don't think about death is a coin toss on context, akin to the person who didn't really think about death yesterday when reminding that they would rather die in their sleep. However, the proposition that most people don't think about death also fits within Linden's consideration that "our brains are hardwired to prevent us from imagining the totality of death", and that "we can't truly imagine our own deaths".

    The suggestion that people fear suffering more than death does not defy Linden's consideration, but, rather, fits rather quite neatly into the function he describes.

    What really stands out is the estimation of what counts as being deeply religious. Because if I'm reading correctly the assertion that most people do not, unless deeply religious, know religion, well, that becomes its own question: How can one be reading it correctly if filling in the syntax to make it a sentence results in nonsense? Perhaps the key to understanding what your statement means is in what passes for being deeply religious.


    Discursively, it is striking to observe an underlying shift. It is generally far too complicated a calculation to understand why a longtime talking point about fear of death, fairly common in critiques against religion, is to be doubted, dismissed, or left unrecognized by the critique against religion precisely at the moment a neuroscientist hands us an actual neurobiological behavioral component. That is to say, as much as thanatopsis figures into critiques against religion, we might wonder about the lack of recognition, except it might be better to wonder about a given critique against religion; if what ought to help the critique is disdained by the critic, it is for the critic's own reasons.

    One of the basic questions about discussing religion asks why we might consider a subject at all; the answer to that question, even when not enumerated or recognized, shapes how we discuss a subject. As an example, religion as an emotional crutch, or ward against fear of death, is easy speculaton for a newly evangelical atheist. One would expect discussion of how our religious sentiments are driven by earthly processes instead of divine will might be useful in criticizing religious belief and behavior, but there is also a question why any given critic is saying anything about religion. If, for instance, one's purpose is pursuit of personal satisfaction, then perhaps neurological considerations related to the behavior criticized are troublesome for disrupting judgmental dudgeon.

    Consider the question of mental illness↗; perhaps there is satisfaction in the colloquy of accusation, but if it turns out dysfunction is actually the reason for someone's behavior, that person needs help, not scorn, so we need not wonder if what mitigates our righteous anger at another is disdained by those whose discursive purpose is the expression of self-righteous anger. Actually thinking through a human condition is a lot more difficult than blindly loathing it, and in many cases this would be sufficient to explain the insincerity of a given critique.

    It is more than just a question of decency; there is also a question of function: If you, me, and the proverbial next guy all agree there is a problem, why would any of us go out of our way to exacerbate the problem? Sometimes the problem is more than simply whether any of us are annoyed; sometimes a problem is a genuinely dangerous circumstance. We might recall, early in the Covid pandemic, an argument against prophylaxis that went, approximately, that one is covered in Jesus' blood↗; and if, this time later, I have yet to get any coherent answer to how one thinks fallacious, self-serving mockery would help alleviate the dangers of such religious belief and behavior, it might just be that the fallacious, self-serving mockery is its own purpose. Otherwise, if you, me, and the proverbial next guy all agree there is a problem, why would any of us insist on taking action that we already know will only make things worse?

    Meanwhile, the discourse about fear of death is either extraordinary or about what we might expect, depending on our presuppositions. In self-responding surveys, it is difficult to establish the most basic connection that one has this or that religion because they are afraid of death. But there is thanatopsis, generally, throughout the history of religion, and if our living inclination, as well as our expectation of a next moment both tend to refuse death in their ways, then perhaps it is not surprising that our perception of superstitious obligation—i.e., religion—countenances the prospect of death by looking instead at a pretense of transcension. So if, nonetheless, the result reports low occurrence of death anxiety in the normal course of mundane living, that sounds about like what we might expect. Remember that in between the living tendency toward remaining alive, including what Linden describes as "the faulty premise that there will always be that next moment to predict", and religion is a vast range of subjective interpretation. What the neuroscientist describes might be a real result of how our brains work, but there always remains a particular question of what happens next, or, in this context, what we do with that neurobiological circumstance.

    One recent summary↗ suggested, "most religion just started out because people interpreted metaphor literally, and then was used to manipulate them into compliance", which is not an unfamiliar sentiment, but also one not often expressed so directly. It is an interesting notion, as we are aware that religion has long had political implications and even motives, but religion arises from something that precedes all that, including metaphor. If I point to Göbekli Tepe and Tepe Sialk↗ as archaeological benchmarks, the roots of religion precede the monopoly on violence at Sialk sixty-five hundred years ago, or the extraordinary cooperative endeavor among hunter-gatherers in southeastern Anatolia three thousand years before that. From ninety-five hundred years ago to perhaps twenty thousand; if we reach back beyond that neocortical development, Neanderthals committed intentional acts of art sixty thousand years ago. Early Homo sapiens left evidence of ritual seventy thousand years ago. Our first religious inclinations might well have emerged into a limbic, not neocortical, circumstance, such that participation was not so much a question of authority as it was group behavioral dynamic—i.e., not because they must, but because it is what they do.

    And in considering a psychoanalytical↑ meaning↑ of history↑, it is very important to account for baseline inclinations; the difference between neurotically stubborn and neurologically hardwired greatly affects the analysis.

    Still, there is the question of why we might discuss a subject, the answer to which shapes how we discuss the subject; and it is certainly possible to imagine narrative priorities↑ that would disdain certain discourse hauling religion back from the ambit of the sacred and dropping it squarely into the frailty and finitude of its mortal humanity.

    It's like the old song: How do you solve a problem like re-li-gion? And, sure, the answer is, you don't, but more usefully, restore God to Its realm of sublime and useless mysteries. This can be a complicated, and even difficult process, but the basic gist is straightforward enough: Where you, me, and the proverbial next guy all agree there is a problem about religion, one way to change course is to move the focus of religious discourse away from the problematic range. That is, instead of running after religious zealots, make them catch up to others. How many times can we come back to the point about not letting people we know are wrong set the terms of discussion; consider a period running over forty years in which people seem to be disputing over the wrong question↑.

    If people invent gods, then the ways in which we do so would seem something of an important consideration, and, yes, we can easily enough imagine priorities, critical of religion, that would find such prospects excremental.


    Linden, David J. "A Neuroscientist Prepares for Death". The Atlantic. 30 December 2021. TheAtlantic.com 2 January 2022. https://bit.ly/3eJcl8p

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