Saturday, March 29, 2008

Democracy and Monotheism: A Match Made in Tartarus

For most of human history, we've been polytheistic, or at least animistic. Many archaeologists believe that monotheism makes its first appearance in Egypt in the 18th dynasty under Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (who changed his name to Akhenaten in deference to his exclusive worship of Aten). Sigmund Freud even argued in his book Moses and Monotheism that the exposure to the cult of Aten was what inspired the worshipers of Yahweh in Mosaic ancient Israel to struggle to elevate their tribal god to the same stature. They were successful at it a bit later, but Akhenaten was not. Egypt reverted to its polytheistic ways and Akhenaten got all of his cartouches chipped off his monuments for his trouble.

Monarchy, in one form or another, is a method of social organization that far predates our emergence into sentience. Any random pack of dogs thrown together will select an alpha dog and proceed about their canine business quite happily. Given that, we can safely assume that as world-organizing concepts go, polytheism and monarchy were the norm for many thousands of years. They probably jostled each others shoulders from time to time, but that was likely about it.

Long about 500 BCE, the lovely city of Athens in Greece came up with a new idea for organizing society called democracy. Athenian democrats (yes, I decided to phrase it that way to poke any Republicans reading this blog) were fairly extreme in their application of the concept. They didn't elect representatives to vote for them, all eligible voters voted on everything! One of my favorite things to point out to patriotic Christian Americans is that their beloved democracy was invented by people who worshipped Zeus, Athena, Apollo, etc. I'm just mean that way.

Anyhoo. While all this was going on in Attica, over in ancient Israel, the followers of Yahweh were doing a pretty fair job of elevating their deity to a supreme position. I suppose I ought to mention that there is extensive documentation of the fact that the pre-Mosaic (and some post) Israelites were polytheistic. That's where most of the exotic-sounding demon names in the Bible come from. Ba'al was the deity of the Yahwist's chief political rivals, so a special place in demonology is reserved for his name.
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So now in a human society that was comfortably used to being organized by polytheism and monarchy, we now have competing models. Polytheism versus monotheism, and monarchy versus democracy.

I smell trouble

Friday, March 28, 2008

And Now, In The Center Ring! Orthodoxy versus Orthopraxis!

Comparative religion has been an interest of mine for a long time, so when my partner explained this basic division of types of religions it seemed completely intuitive to me. What do you know? There's a word for the kind of religion I practice: orthopraxic! We don't really care so much about what you believe, as long as you do the rituals (properly).

I had an experience a few months ago, however, that showed me how non-intuitive the concepts are to some. A discussion broke out in my workplace which was vaguely concerned with changes in language usage. I happened to bring up how disturbing I find it that the words faith and religion are becoming synonymous. Where does that leave religions that are not primarily concerned with belief?

The guys in my office never heard of orthopraxis (not surprising, I hadn't either until recently) and it was such an alien concept to them that they accused me of making it up. Lying. They said I, a devout ENFJ, was lying.
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Adding to my paranoia, the Blogger spell checker apparently doesn't know the word either. It's underlining it as if it doesn't exist. At least Wikipedia is on my side.

Their reaction to the idea that a religion based on action rather than faith was explosive. They shouted over each other; insisting that it couldn't be true. Seriously, it was bizarre. Despite carefully trying to explain the terms orthodoxy and orthopraxis as they are used in cultural anthropology, both of them continued to insist that it was impossible that a religion could exist that was not faith-centered.

In all honesty, part of the reaction could have been to my manner. It never occurred to me that the concept of orthopraxis needed careful presentation. I just stated the facts as I was aware of them. In my opinion, though, the more emotional component arose from a kind of memetic immune response. In simple terms, they flipped out because the orthodoxy meme in their heads perceived an incoming threatening idea and was defending itself.

The scarier thing to me is that I don't think either of them would consider himself religious. That's how deep a hold the monotheism meme has on our collective psyche. It's like we're possessed.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What I'm Not Saying About Monotheism

I think I'm going to write about monotheism and its effects on culture often, so it's best if I get a few things out on the table right away. Might prevent some unnecessary angry comments. I should probably link back to this post from each one critical of the effects of monotheism. Yup. Think I'm going to do that. OK.

Things That Are Definitely Not My Opinion:

Monotheists Are All Bad People That would be daft. There are millions of people following any number of monotheistic religions who are good, kind, smart people. I just don't think that their religion made them good. I think in some cases, it helps them stay good despite the battering that life gives all of us.

Nothing Good Has Happened Since The Advent of Abrahamic Monotheism Another daft idea. Lots of good things have happened, and are happening right now. Women voting, the end of state-sanctioned slavery, the invention of the weekend, the birth of Steve Jobs just to name a few. Oh yeah, and the Internet! Yay! None of these things, however, were the doing of Abrahamic monotheism in my opinion.

Every Aspect of Monotheism Is Bad You guessed it; daft. I think that it will take some time, and some conversations with my Corps of Discovery, and some writing, but sorting out what is good about monotheism is a necessary step for my criticisms to be worth considering.

A Law Must Be Passed Banning Monotheism Daft. I believe that society is on an evolutionary path. Human discourse is one of the forces shaping that path. So is biological evolution and every environmental factor you can name. After forty-odd years of kicking around the place, I'm ready to enter the fray officially on the side of polytheism, but I want the universe and the meta process of social evolution to decide if I'm right or wrong - not a legislative body.

I guess that's about it for now. Gotta go make some offerings to my ancestors.

How To Get Over The Ewww! Ick! Response

Ben Browder surprises Michael Shanks with a kiss on the cheekIn a recent post on my friend Michael's blog Pop Culture Institute about Queen Latifah, he made reference to having had a boyfriend with whom he had sex. (gasp!) This, seemingly innocuous fact provoked a "too much information" comment from a regular reader.

It was clear to me that the reader in question didn't mean any harm. I've seen lots of good-natured, supportive comments from that individual on Michael's blog so rather than getting my manly boxers in a bunch, I decided to write a little about the subject of Ewww! Ick! I don't care if you're gay but for Gods sakes, don't talk about it!!! statements by otherwise friendly hetero folks.

First, the straight-forward analysis (pardon the pun)

When you talk about some part of your life, especially a very personal part, and someone else's reaction is visceral disgust, it hurts. It hurts a lot. It can make you feel ashamed of yourself, whether or not your intellect agrees that a shame reaction is reasonable. That's the kind of shame that Gay Pride was invented to heal. That's why we still need our parades. We need a vacation every once in a while from the fear that if we talk about our love lives, even in the most innocuous terms, that we'll get a shame-provoking Ewww! Ick! response.

Now, the shoe-on-the-other-foot analysis (this is where the help getting over it happens)

Gay people, by and large, are raised in hetero households by heteros. Most of us over 35 and a good portion of those younger were taught that gay people are gross, icky, other otherwise unwanted by society many years before we realized we are gay. When that realization did dawn, can you imagine the shock we felt at discovering that we were part of a socially unacceptable group?

Imagination is both the source of the Ewww! Ick! response and the secret to getting over it. Nature is like that: problem and solution tied up in one tidy package.

As we gay people move through our daily lives, we have to listen to, watch on TV, see in movies, ads and countless other sources graphic, explicit descriptions and images of heterosexual erotic activity. Believe me, we have the same Ewww! Ick! response when we see boys and girls rubbing their pink bits together.

What triggers that feeling? Imagination, of course. All people naturally identify to some degree with people they see in the media. That's how entertainment and advertising works; we imagine ourselves in the same situation. If they're doing something we think we would like, we have a positive response; if not, well, then Ewww! Ick!

When I was a young person, seeing hetero erotic activity produced a strong negative response in me. Over time, however, that response started to get weaker, and I could start to relate to the common human experience of love and desire without my imagination putting me into the role role of the guy on screen and getting grossed out.

So, what does it take to get yourself past the response? Exposure and time. With just a little effort, your subconscious will get tired of producing the negative response and learn that you aren't in any danger of being man-loved. At that point, like I did from my side, you'll be able to see two people kissing. Someday you might even be able to say Awww! and really mean it.

And no, I'm not saying that you should rent gay pornography and watch it over and over with a bucket under your chin. There are actually a fair number of decent gay-themed movies out there that you could occasionally choose (maybe one in ten times, just to be fair?) to rent and watch; Brokeback Mountain being the best, of course.

So, how do I know that choosing to not hide from tasteful expressions of same-gender affection will help you get past the Ewww! Ick! response? Partly my own experience, but party because that's what the social conservatives desperately, desperately don't want you to do! Their work to keep neutral or positive images of same-gender affection out of the public eye is calculated to keep the maximum number of otherwise reasonable people locked into the negative response cycle. Don't let them block your advancement as an enlightened human being!

I mentioned viewing gay-themed movies (not pornography - start breathing again). If you have trouble feeling comfortable browsing in the "gay and lesbian" section of your local video store, you can:

  • take your girl friend
  • subscribe to Netflix
  • Wear a Nixon mask
  • Ask a gay friend to go for you

So, there you have it. I know that "too much information" comments for simply putting in print the fact that gay people actually love members of their own gender aren't meant to hurt us, but they do. So stop it, OK?