Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Religion retard

Second best
Originally uploaded by pwilnyc.

So, I've already established that I am not, as they say, a person of faith.

I'm not sure they say that. I might have made it up. I like it though - it is almost a funny thing to say, if you load it with enough faux delicacy, and yet it is a perfectly descriptive and nonconfrontational way of saying I don't believe in God. Gods. Any god. People can get really itchy when you say, "I'm an atheist."

"Atheist" always sounds like there's a big gang of us out there, actively campaigning against Him. Well hell, I don't give a crap, believe what you want, especially if it makes you behave more nicely.

I didn't believe in god quite early. In fact, when I was a kid, I didn't think anyone did. I went to church every week, sang in the choir, but it all sounded like mythology to me. I liked mythology. It wasn't until much later that I realized that most mythology had been religion at some time.

Very very sucky, when looking at a Tibetan thangka illustrating some 400 Tibetan Buddhist deities, to say (to a Tibetan) "That is some cool mythology you guys have." Tibetan history has been continuously documented for like 4,000 years. Those deities aren't mythology, they're history. Culturally insensitive much? Oh sister, that's my middle name.

Once, I was training a group of curators and registrars at the Jewish Museum on the software my company had installed. I was groping for an example from their collection that might illustrate how the database handled composite objects: objects that are made of separable pieces.

I said, "Take, for example, a seder plate. A seder plate has the big round platter and then the, what, 6, 7, 8, little bowls."

Thirteen pairs of eyes rolled in unison. I've never seen anything like it. It was like Busby Berkeley meets Woody Allen.

On my lunch break I snagged a book in their gift shop and discovered: seder plate? One big plate, yes, with 6 spaces (which may sometimes be dishes): one for the charoset, one for the egg, the karpas, the shank bone, and two places for the bitter herbs. Not gonna make THAT mistake again.

Anyway, at the age of 8 or so, after church one Sunday, I asked my mom something like, Dag, how can that preacher live with himself, doing all that talking about something that doesn't exist? She kind of swallowed her gum and then had a conversation with me that left me entirely unconvinced.

Not to say I'm not interested in religion - no, I'm a fan. Of the imagery and the ritual, of course, not the dogma. Growing up going to a Presbyterian church, we didn't have saints, incense, Hebrew, ritual food, special clothing, crap smeared on the forehead, man we barely had curtains.

So I love all that crap. It's like a tenth-generation American who grew up on food cooked with soup, who as soon as she could, started eating and cooking food from cultures that use spices. In fact, it's exactly like that.

My first exposure to serious Catholicism came in 1994 when I traveled the Mediterranean countries by myself. I don't know dick about saints, but I quickly realized that I didn't really have to. That stuff was made for illiterates, and so the stories are right there in the visuals. You can piece it all together, and that's so great.

I made long lists of the saints I had seen -

  • Barbara: holds a building
  • Roch: shows people the wound on his thigh
  • Lucia: has eyes? on a plate
I collated all the information from the statues and paintings I saw in Spain, Portugal, France, and Italy, and later looked 'em all up. UN believable. Saint Agatha, who had her breasts cut off because she wouldn't have sex with someone, was later claimed as the patron saint of bakers and bell-makers, because literacy had declined and people thought those lumps she held on a platter were buns or bells, and not in fact boobs.

That is so cool.

I was mesmerized by the exhibit that my old museum put on about Haitian vodou (it originated at the UCLA Fowler Museum). The exhibit designers created representations of shrines to Ogou, Danbala, etc, massing together iconic objects preferred by these entities: a Darth Vader figurine, a certain brand of rum, perfume, colors, materials. And it turned out that visitors to the exhibit... tossed offerings to the spirits. MetroCards, cigarettes, etc. The intention of the exhibit was unimportant. Merely putting these objects together in the same place invoked the entity. If playing cards, smokes, a mirror, and something blue were blown together by the wind into the end of an alley, that place would be a place to entreat that spirit.

This comes close, to me, to the origin of the idea of sanctity. Sanctity as experienced in the world. You come across a spring, a flowering tree above it, and you are hit with the feeling of specialness. One way to translate that is: God was in that place.

Haitian vodou appropriates the images of Catholic saints and some of the icons of the Masonic tradition. I like that. To me, it gives the Haitian spirits more validity: everybody knows what Papa Legba likes, and when a Haitian spotted a picture of Saint Francis, he thought, "Legba wears brown - this is totally Legba, he'd love this!" It is the opposite of assimilation, the opposite of conversion. "Hey thanks missionary guy, I know just what to do with this!"

Doesn't take anything away from the saint. The Haitian knows that the concept expressed by that icon is separate from the image itself, and that he can use it in a different way, without offense to this spirit that the white guy is yammering on about.

It's the same with me. I see the picture of Saint Rita with a nail in her forehead, and I know just what to do with that. I'll draw a comic! A comic about domestic abuse and how much crap women take sometimes. Doesn't take anything away from the saint that somebody is praying to. She is not her picture. She is not even her story.

I heard something on NPR the other day about how the mikvah, the traditional Jewish ritual post-menstrual immersion bath, is now being appropriated as a feminist gesture. The implication of uncleanliness has been discarded, and women are now using the mikvah to get in touch with the sanctity of their bodies, to symbolically cleanse themselves of bad experiences, etc. Some rabbi expressed concern that it might become trivialized, stripped of its spiritual origins, "like feng shui."

Well... was Taoism really harmed by the feng shui fad? Sure, a lot of people hung a lot of crystals without understanding why, but has there been an overall decline in the respect granted the ancient traditions of China? Have spiritual practitioners of feng shui suffered?

Worse things could probably happen to Orthodox Judaism than the acculturization of the mikvah. Joe Lieberman, for example.

One of the big benefits of being a stone atheist is - I don't want to say a buffet approach to the rituals of this world, because I still don't participate in a single freaking one (except for the feng shui, I rearranged the wind chimes after reading part of Move your stuff, change your life) - but appreciating the icons and rituals and observing that the buffet approach can be beneficial. Cross-pollination can indeed stimulate new growth in new directions.

There's a lot of crap that people have to deal with in this life, and we should accept succor and remediation where we feel we can find it.

I still think it's all horseshit, but then, I used to read palms.