May 10, 2013
The Canadians have been issuing data from their recent National Household Survey, a kind of voluntary substitute for a long-form census. There’s been a bit of commentary already on the figures relating to religion: much the same story as in the US and England, Christianity still dominant but fading, considerable growth in the number of persons (especially young) not affiliated with any religion.
I may have more to say about this next week. For now, just one snippet: in Metropolitan Vancouver, “nones” now just about equal Christians; this seems to be the first city in North America where that is the case, though Holland crossed that threshold decades ago…
May 10, 2013
For many years I have been having what I call near-dream experiences. They are like dreams in that they occur while I am apparently asleep, and involve perceptions that do not match my regular reality. They are unlike dreams in that they are not fully fleshed out, not fully plotted, usually have few if any characters, and very little happens in them; usually I am stationary, and more often than not I am quite aware that I am lying in bed.
The first near-dreams I can remember were in the early 1980s, associated with sight-seeing trips to distant places – India first, then East Africa. Each time, a couple of weeks into the trip, I started dreaming that I was outside a hotel or some such place, in a corridor outside the entrance or in a bus parked in the street, usually leaning way back in a reclining seat so it felt like lying in bed; it was dark, I couldn’t make out shapes clearly but I somehow “knew” I was waiting (a very long time) for the tour guide to come back from the hotel desk with our keys, or to deal with our luggage. When I awoke I wasn’t sure where I was; I chalked it up to the nature of the trip I was taking, thought of the old movie title “If It’s Tuesday This Must Be Belgium,” and began to label these occurrences “Oh-my-God-Where-Am-I Experiences” (or to make it sound more Freudian, “Ach-mein-gott-wo-bin-ich-Erfahrungen.”) The dreams continued for a few weeks after my return from each trip; with one outlier six months later, which I attributed to having drunk a bit at a party beforehand.
Later, after the last of these travel-related experiences I began to notice another kind of near-dream, in which I was in my own bed, at home, no one else in sight, just as in real life, but something looked different – a pattern on the wall or ceiling, or in the window. Or my eyes would be closed and I couldn’t open them, or when I did open them (or it felt like I had them opened) there would be no light. Or I’d get up and walk around and see things where I couldn’t feel them, or vice versa. I’m pretty sure at least once I caught myself sleepwalking; I seemed to wake standing at the dresser where my clock radio was.
Like the travel-dreams, these were frequent enough for me to remember the pattern, but not so frequent as to be disturbing. I associated them with things I’d read about the physiology of dreaming, how the motor centers of the brain are active as if awake (if I’ve got it right) but there’s a muscle inhibitor so we don’t really move and get into trouble, and sometimes the system malfunctions. I decided that what was happening was that part of my mind was really “awake,” or more so than it usually is when I’m asleep, but couldn’t get the rest of me to cooperate.
A different category perhaps is a series of dreams whose common feature was that I could barely move. I’d have to go somewhere, climb a staircase, walk down a street, and for no apparent reason my body would be very sluggish and I could barely manage to take a couple of steps. Although in these dreams I thought I knew where I was and that there was a reason for what was going on, there was really very little detail apart from the feeling of sluggishness.
The current variation – at least I don’t think I’ve seen the end of it, as I’ve been having it as recently as this week – involves a sense that there is something like an electrical storm going on outside; I see flashing lights through the window, and/or hear a high-pitched whooshing sound. Maybe it’s some weird thing really happening inside my brain. Again usually I’m aware that I am in bed, but the room is configured differently, with walls and windows on the wrong sides; once I thought I had gotten up and was checking to see if the hall light had been left on. Again there’s very little plot or characterization, though sometimes I’m aware of my parents (or one of them) as a background presence, in the next room or across the hall. Once or twice I seemed to be waiting for Dad to come home; but that is also the case in some of my fully fleshed-out dreams.
Another observation is that though most dreams that I remember seem to come after a whole night of sleep, there are always some from which I awaken just 20-30 minutes after going to bed; and all the recent whooshing/flashing experiences happen to be in this category.
I’ve no idea if it means anything, but I thought for once I’d write it down and put it out there.
(More “normal” dreams: I just had a nightmare about the expected cicada infestation; and a friend reports dreaming that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev came to his door seeking asylum…)
May 3, 2013
This week we had a primary here in Massachusetts, to choose the candidates for Secretary of State Kerry’s old Senate seat.
The winners were U. S. Representative Markey on the Democratic side, and for the Republicans (more surprisingly) a political newcomer (ex-SEAL, businessman) named Gabriel Gomez. The state is well known to be heavily Democratic, so Markey is favored in the upcoming election, but Gomez is considered to be the Republican most capable of pulling an upset, because he is an attractive personality, not publicly identified with extreme right-wing positions or causes, socially moderate-to-liberal, a Latino, and above all a fresh face compared to his opponent, who has been in Congress since the 1970s. A poll published today in fact shows Markey with a mere 4% lead, and Gomez leading among Independents.
People are wondering if Gomez will be another Scott Brown, who won the special election to succeed Ted Kennedy a few years ago; his opponent Martha Coakley had started out as the overwhelming favorite. It can happen; but there are factors working against Gomez as well. For one thing the anti-Obama mood of 2010, which helped elect Brown, seems to be behind us. Also, there is the fact that there’s already been a Scott Brown; the Markey campaign won’t be caught by surprise, they’ll know better than to be take the election for granted as Coakley seemed to do. They’ve already begun campaigning hard against Gomez, trying to portray him as more right-wing than he comes across in person, and also pointing out that however nice a guy he might be he’ll still be a vote for the Republicans when it comes to organizing the Senate (and very likely disrupting it with filibusters as they’ve been doing). On the other hand going after someone with a nice-guy image can backfire badly if the attack can’t be made to stick.
A couple of other things: Markey may be the consummate Washington insider, but locals here don’t seem have the same antipathy towards such types as they do towards Beacon Hill insiders. Moreover, Coakley was Attorney-General; in other states prosecutors may be popular heroes and have a leg up in seeking higher office, but here they seem to make more enemies than friends, as the people they feel they have to prosecute are often well connected. Scott Harshbarger, I seem to recall, ran into this problem when he ran for Governor in 1998…
An irony is that we wouldn’t be having this election at all, or the one in 2010 that gave us Senator Brown, if the Democrats hadn’t tinkered with the law in 2004. Until then Massachusetts, like most states, allowed the Governor to fill Senate vacancies by appointing someone to serve until the next regular Congressional election; but that year Kerry ran for President, and if he’d won Mitt Romney would have appointed his successor in the Senate. The overwhelming Democratic majority in General Court (as we call the state legislature) didn’t like that idea, so they reduced the term of an appointed Senator to just enough time for a special election to be organized. But Kerry of course ended up staying in the Senate; by the time an actual vacancy did arise we had a Democratic Governor, but it would have looked bad even by Beantown standards if they’d tried to change the law back.
April 18, 2013
Since the age of 13 or 14, when I first began reading about Eastern and especially Indian-origin religions and philosophies, I have been strongly attracted to aspects of Buddhism. For years I was especially drawn to Theravada, also sometimes called “Hinayana” or “Southern Buddhism,” the tradition practiced in Sri Lanka and in Southeast Asia west of Vietnam. I often felt that if only there were a Theravada community near me that I could blend in to, I’d be happy to make that my “religion.”
One morning in the early 1990′s, though, I awoke to an NPR news report about an incident in Sri Lanka in which monks from a Theravada monastery instigated, or maybe even actively participated in, an armed (supposedly retaliatory) attack on a Tamil Hindu village. At that moment I said to myself that there is no religion in the world which I can join without a measurable risk of someday waking up and finding myself implicated in an atrocity. Except maybe the Quakers.
So of course I ended up with the Unitarian Universalists, who are just about as safe as the Quakers… and now I’ve begun practicing Zen, which both is and is not “Buddhism,” which in turn both is and is not a “religion”…
And now, in Burma, Theravadins are acting up again.
So much more to say, so little time…
April 1, 2013
Let’s see, where was I? Ah yes, “religion.” Marriage is said – by people on both sides of the orientational equality issue – to be a “religious” institution; traditionalists take this to mean that it is God-given (or the equivalent in non-theistic belief systems) and therefore beyond the power of the secular state to tamper with, while libertarians and many liberals say that because it is “religious” the secular state shouldn’t recognize it at all.
I have posted previously on my dissatisfaction with “religion” as a general category. For now let me just distinguish between the countable and non-countable senses of the word: between “religion” taken to be a human universal, understood for instance as an inner sense of something supernatural, a “longing for God,” and “the religions,” specific nameable systems of belief and practice like Christianity and Buddhism and Islam and Shinto. There may be such a thing as “uncountable religion” though so far I haven’t found an account of it that I find quite satisfactory, a definition that is both precise enough to be useful and capable of demonstration as a true universal; but in any case I find it more useful to speak of “the religions” because they are what attract the most attention and are responsible for most of the public controversy. And my first point is that even if it can be shown that everyone has “religion” in some version of the uncountable sense, it is manifestly not true that everyone has “a religion.” These great systems – these “sovereign states of the soul” I call them, with their anthems and banners and border-crossing formalities, taking a dim view of dual citizenship – are all the product of a particular phase of the evolution of human society; they didn’t exist prior to at least some degree of state-formation, they have not existed in all civilizations, and there is no reason to think any one or all of them will be around forever. It is because of their (at least partial) state-like character, I hold, that defining their relationship to the actual state is so problematic; no country that I know of has felt the need for constitutional provisions regarding the relationship of the government with art or literature, say, or science, only with “religion.”
So how does this relate to the marriage issue? Some sort of recognition of family-groups seems to be too widespread to fit into any specific theological or political framework. And yes, it does have to do with procreation. It is a universal necessity for human societies to try to see to it that their children are raised in an orderly manner so as to keep the community going; and encouraging or enforcing lifelong commitments on the part of biological parents where they are available, and of surrogates where necessary, has always been the most obvious way to go about it. So what we have is a universal but far from monolithic folk institution, which all governments and religions have accepted as part of the the raw human material they have to work with. And why not?
I think the reason the traditional terms are being contested today is that a wide range of social changes over several centuries have conspired to make them obsolete. For one thing, although the primary way the folk institution works is by holding biological parents responsible for their offspring and to each other, that has never been quite enough; parents may die young, or be captured and carried off by some enemy, so there has always had to be a role for extended families, remarriage of the widowed, adoption by unrelated persons, etc. But until very recently the basic framework was always the union of breadwinners with babymakers, the latter of course necessarily female, and the former generally having to be male because under pre-modern conditions women had to spend the best years of their lives making babies in order to keep up with the death rate. The development of modern medicine, sanitation, etc has meant that it is no longer necessary for women to be primarily babymakers; they can have whole other careers, maybe opt not to procreate at all; and the modern complex economy depends far less than its predecessors did on the family as a unit of production, ownership and accountability. Thus the great movement towards gender equality that we have seen in recent decades: it is now accepted in all the more developed countries that women have the right to their own careers, even in fields which seem most “naturally” male (like those requiring heavy lifting or violence). There simply are a lot more possibilities for childrearing arrangements than there used to be, single-parenting for instance, surrogate parenting, and yes, pairs of mutually loving and committed homosexuals. We need not demonize the past for its lack of equality; all human society, all morality, function within the limits of the possible. But those limits expand, and there is no reason for us to remain bound by past rules.
But religions, because they are less transparent in their bases and procedures, because of their claim to represent a supernaturally based moral “truth,” have a harder time than governments in keeping up with such changes. That’s all. Give them time, they will adapt or die. Meanwhile progress happens in spite of them.
It seems what I really need to do is spell out my understanding of “morality.” OK, another post or two in the offing!
March 29, 2013
The struggle for marriage equality has been very much in the news this week, with the Supreme Court hearing oral arguments in two major cases, one challenging the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, the other that of the section of the Defense of Marriage Act which denies marital status at the federal level to same-sex couples married by the laws of their own state.
Now this is clearly not the Warren or Burger Court, but it doesn’t seem to be the Taney Court either; the course of the arguments (and especially the questions and comments of likely swing vote Justice Kennedy) makes it seem unlikely that we’ll get a sweeping statement either for or against same-sex marriage on its own merits. More likely a narrow decision which will affect as few people as possible, maybe even a dismissal of one or both cases for lack of standing – a real possibility because both President Obama and Governor Brown have declined to defend their respective laws on appeal, leaving rather irregular bodies standing before the Court in their place.
But what I really want to write about here is the complaint that the Court is being asked to “redefine marriage.” Justice Roberts used the expression in his questions; most social conservatives use it. The way I see it, the Court is simply being asked to interpret the Constitution. The Constitution doesn’t define “marriage;” it doesn’t even use the word. Or “marry.” I did a word search; I can’t find “man” or “woman” either, only “person.” What it does mention is “equal protection of the laws.” That is what the Court is being asked to “define.” Now this isn’t necessarily a simple matter. After all, just about every law differentiates between groups of people in one way or another; what makes a differentiation “unequal” and therefore unconstitutional? There’s a whole body of jurisdiction on this, I don’t want to get into the details right now, but if the Court finds that there is no adequate justification for the government to differentiate between same-sex and opposite-sex couples, as I believe there is not, the government will simply have to stop differentiating. Whether it decides to continue to call this expanded class of relationships “marriage,” or “civil union” (so long as it’s done consistently, not “civil union” for gays only), or take a libertarian position and stop recognizing any particular kind of relationship but just enforce whatever kind of domestic contract people freely enter into, is a different question. If the upshot is that “marriage” is redefined, it’s only because public sentiment opposes the option of dropping the word from the laws altogether.
Aaaargh. I’ve got a whole lot to say about how “religion” fits in, and the role of antibiotics and modern sanitation in the recent changes to sexual morality, and if I try to do it all now I’ll start missing meals and sleep and get cranky. So I’ll let the above stand, post it, and try to get back to the keyboard next week.