Monday, October 03, 2005

Well, that was interesting...

Last I was here, I didn't think any of the versions of the Mitt Romney essay I wrote (if it can indeed be graced by the definition "essay") had posted. But apparently I just didn't wait around long enough for it to appear since, lo and behold, I returned this evening and there they were. All three tries. Well, I've deleted the first two - they'll probably disappear sometime - and the third one, the one that finally looked right to me (and if there are any typos don't tell me). Well, goodness knows, my computer is just like my car - I know how to use it, but I couldn't explain how it works to save my life.

And speaking of the Romney thing, it seems as if he isn't the only one with foot-in-mouth disease these days. Of course, I'm talking about Bill Bennett and his comments on lowering the crime rate. Sometimes I just don't know what people are thinking about when they let these things come out of their mouths. But, honestly, it doesn't surprise me that he said what he did. That's par for the course. The thing that amazes me is that he doesn't understand that it wasn't the abortion part of the comment that is the real problem. I mean, anyone with a brain knows he turned right around and said that his abortion solution would not be ethical. No, that isn't the problem at all.

The problem is, he seemed to have no problem implying that African-Americans are more inclined than other folks to commit crimes. And that is exactly what he said when he chose to use the example of "Black babies" or however he put it. But now he can't understand, so he says, why everyone is so mad at him. Is he really that stupid? Or that out of touch?

Ah, well. I think we should just all consider the source and move on.

So, let's move on to Boy George's latest appointment. No, not John Roberts. That's already a done deal. I mean Harriet Miers, the woman Mr. Bush appointed today to fill Sandra Day O'Connor's seat on the Supreme court. It seems like he would be kind of shy of appointing someone without specific qualifications for the job. Again. So soon after the Mike Brown brouhaha. Okay, at least she's an attorney. And I'm well aware that there have been other justices who had quite illustrious careers on the Court after having had no previous judicial experience.

That isn't what bothers me. What bothers me is that there is no readily available documentation of her stance on various issues. And I'm pretty soon there won't be much forthcoming. Of course, I've a sneaking suspicion that this is exactly why she was nominated in the first place. And I'm very afraid that she is the ideologue that the neo-cons have been trying to get on the court for a long time to tip the balance away from moderation and toward the far-right agenda. I hope I'm wrong. I'll repeat that. I hope I'm wrong. I'm not all that happy with the cynical thoughts that run through my mind every time my government does something these days. But bless their pointed little heads, I don't trust any of them any farther than I could through a piano with five elephants sitting on it. Not Bush. Not Cheney. Certainly not Rove - I feel like I should take a good bath with a scrubbing brush and plenty of lye soap every time I read about that man. Not any of the administration currently in place in DC.

Oh, and there's one other thing that bothers me about Ms. Miers. She's been described as a converted Democrat. It is a sad truth that converts are often (not always, but often) the most rabid and dogmatic members of whatever group they have converted to - in this case the Republican right wing. I don't know if they think they have something to prove - faith, loyalty, whatever - or if that they just had to be extra-convinced to convert in the first place. But (and I've been there and recovered) converts, be they religious, social, or political, often take the most extreme positions available in their new belief system.

Well. We'll all find out, I guess. Probably not in the hearings but instead, if she wins confirmation, when she starts writing opinions for the Court - or rather when her clerks start writing opinions for her. Of course, that's not always a bad thing, I suppose. Warren Burger is reputed to have written his own opinions when he was Chief Justice. Poor man couldn't put together a coherent sentence, from what I've read of his opinions.

Well, I've vented enough I guess. Be interesting to see how long this one takes to appear.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Open mouth, insert foot...

This is interesting. Sad. But I think it shows what a state we've gotten ourselves into as a nation.

Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has refused to apologize for comments he made advocating the wiretapping of mosques in order to fight terrorism. An apology was called for by various mosques, Islamic organizations, and the American Civil Liberties Union. Romney had made the remarks Wednesday, September 14, while speaking at a conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, in Washington, DC. Even though he was warned that his comments stereotyped all Muslims as terrorists, he stood by his remarks on Friday, saying that he wasn't suggesting anything that isn't already being done, but just that he thinks more of it should be done. In his Wednesday remarks, Romney also said that moe should be done to monitor foreign students studying in US colleges and universities. The remarks were made in the context of calling for far more money and attention to be put into domestic intelligence activities. A Romney spokeswoman called his position a "realistic view" of what steps are needed to fight terrorism. Romney's comments take on added import because he is seen as a possible contender for the Republican nomination for US president in 2008.

In all fairness (which seems to be more than he is willing to extend), Romney used mosques as a "for instance" in his speech, which some supporters are saying advocates the wiretapping of all houses of worship when viewed in context. But, who believes he was really advocating the wiretapping of churches and synagogues as well? What do you think Romney's reaction would be if he found out the government was bugging his Mormon place of worship. I mean, after all, the Mormons have a belief, little discussed outside the faith for obvious reasons, that the nation will "hang by a thread" and the Mormons will rush and take over and save it. Some would look askance at advocacy of that belief, I think. No, if anyone really thought Romney were really advocating bugging anyone but Muslims, he would quickly have to kiss his presidential aspirations good-bye.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

lma confronts the arrogance of belief, and then reflects on part of her own history of belief...

I've become extremely disillusioned with my exploration of belief systems as I run into more and more believers of all stripes who seem to think that they have the right to dictate to everyone else what to believe. One can't have an intelligent conversation about beliefs, it seems, without someone getting all defensive and asserting that he or she has all the answers and that if you don't believe the same thing, well, you're just wrong. I've had a run-in or two like that in the past day or two, and I'll tell you that it's left a bad taste in my mouth.

I'm really seriously considering just closing up shop on my formal (well, about as formal as I'm capable of being) study of belief systems and just let everybody go off into their little corners and play their little holier-than-thou games. The funny thing is, it isn't just the religious that do this. It comes up in the realms of politics and science in just about the same way. Somebody is always convinced that they have all the answers, when they in reality don't know a damn thing except what's going on inside their own heads. It's really mental masturbation at its worst.

I don't know. Maybe it's just that I'm tired right now, and it's hot, and my last little nerve ending is really frayed. I know there are very many believers in all religions who are completely sincere and wouldn't think of ever forcing their beliefs on anyone. But I had someone tell me, after I had left a comment on something they had written in their blog, that I had no good reason for leaving the religion that I had previously been a member of. He doesn't know me from Eve, for God's sake, but he insinuated that I had left not because of a lack of belief in the tenets of the faith but because I had sinned, and that there was really no good reason for anyone to leave that church. Now, I thought that was just the least little bit totalitarian. I always thought that religion was a matter of conscience. But apparently this guy's position (and that of the church, which shall remain nameless) is that once you join up with them you don't get to leave unless you petition them to do so. Well, I haven't done that, and I probably won't, since to do that would just be to continue to give them power over me. I'm not willing to grant that power to them. Hell, I wasn't willing to do that when I attended the church; why would I do so now?

It's been a long time since I've really been a part of that religion, and I was never a particularly faithful member. As I said, I never gave them the power over me that they expect all good members of the church to cede over to them, and I never bought into some of the doctrines. Other doctrines weren't really explained to me before I was baptized, and I wouldn't have become a member of that church if I had understood what they really stand for. Mine was what they call a "baseball baptism" or a social baptism. When I was in high school, I knew a lot of members of that church and they were oh, so good at pulling people into their orbit. It was one of those "it seemed like a good idea at the time" situations. I was pretty sure almost immediately after baptism that it wasn't where I belonged. However, I'm nothing if not fair-minded, and I gave it some time and tried to honor the baptismal promises that I had made. Gave it something like thirty years, off and on - although more off than on the past twenty-five or so of those years. But there was this pull exerted. I went back more than once after I said I was through with them. Last time I did that was summer before last. It lasted about three months, even though I had determined to give it a year. That seemed like a fair shake. But they had me teaching a Sunday class once a month, and one day I was standing up there teaching and all of a sudden I had a revelation. I didn't believe anything that was coming out of my mouth, and I never had. Not really. I had always known that at some level, but that day it was like a whole different kind of knowledge, almost on a cellular level.

Before, I had never understood why so many of the people who leave that church are so angry. There's a whole internet forum frequented by those who were once faithful and have left, or who were born into it and never felt like they belonged there. I haven't had to put up with even a hundreth of what some of the people on that board have. But I found my anger, too. Anger that I had wasted so much time giving lip service to something I knew to be untrue. Anger that I had not fought harder for myself when one of the married men in the congregation couldn't keep his hands off my hair even when I asked him to not touch me. When I complained about it, I was told that, oh, he's just like that. And, it was implied, because I am not the most attractive woman in the world, that I should accept male attention wherever it offered itself. Excuse me? Then there was the ever-present question: "So, when are you getting married?" "Never," I finally answered one man when asked me that. "I don't intend to sell myself into slavery."

Oh, and there's the anger about being constantly told that I wasn't good enough because I was unmarried with no kids. That I wasn't really entitled to opinions because I am a woman. That I wasn't a good enough church member because I wasn't a member of the correct political party. That I wasn't nearly as smart as I thought I was. I'm getting pissed off again as I sit here and write this just because I kept going back, hoping things had changed. See, that's what got me back that last time. I had attended a Sunday meeting just to see if the building would fall down when I walked in the door. I had done that occasionally, just sort of checking in to see what was going on and how things had changed. I had heard rumors, and I wanted to check them out. And so, one of the women got up to speak, and during her talk she quoted Professor Dumbledore, out of the "Harry Potter" books. Well, I thought, maybe things have changed. That't wouldn't have flown at the time I'd last been to church.

But nothing had changed, not really. Anyway, not for the better. Things were just getting more and more culty, more and more controlling. So, I'm an apostate now, at least to their way of thinking. I don't hold any of the people in the church any ill will, generally speaking. There are a few individuals who I would like to give a good talking to, but since that a) won't ever happen, and b) would be a waste of my breath anyway, I just try to let it go. Easier said than done, unfortunately, but I'm getting there. Actually being able to write this all down is a step in the right direction, actually. This is the first time I've been able to do this. I've tried before, and I just ended up getting pissed off and giving up. I'm learning to deal.

I didn't mean to go on for so long. I'm not even sure I intended to go in this direction when I sat down to write. And I suppose that this doesn't have much to do with my writing, not a good thing since this is supposed to be a writing journal above all else. Well, almost all of my writing energies have been going into my paid employment lately and what other writing I have been doing is more in the way of fiction than non-fiction. So I guess this will turn, for a little while anyway, into more of a general writing journal than one targeted to a specific writing project, which is where it began.

Don't worry. I don't have any intention of turning it into one of those "and then I did this, and after that I went there" blogs. Nothing wrong with those, you understand. But that's just not my style. I'm still grappling with understanding the world around me - see my last couple of posts for more on that particular circus. So, I'll be talking more about general things, dropping in an essay from time to time on stuff that's going on in the world, and trying to find the time to see where - if anywhere - the project that this blog was originally created for will go. Because it isn't that I've lost my interest in belief systems; it's just that I've lost patience for the moment with a certain segment of the believers who people them - the ones arrogant enough to think that they should be able to dictate to everyone else what their beliefs should be.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Always with the questions...

After breakfast this morning I was sitting at the table trying to read (about the early archaeological explorations of Mesopotamia, actually) and things just started popping into my mind. They pretty much grew out of all the talk lately about Scientology (around Tom Crusie and his strange behavior) and the "20/20" segment last night about Kaballah. So I put my book down (well, the library's book) and started jotting. This is what resulted.

Issues relating to religious/spiritual belief:

1) Is it sane to hold religious/spiritual beliefs? (Some would say no, actually.)

2) Should holding religious beliefs be privileged? (Should speech codes saying that one cannot say anything bad about a religious belief be allowed? There was an interesting opinion piece about this in the Financial Times this week that I only scanned and that I have to go back and read more closely.)

ITEM: I think that professing a belief that there is not God/gods or that religion is not valid is, in fact, a religious belief in the sens that it is a belief about religion.

3) What is religion? Who gets to decide?

ITEM: I don't actually think, based on the little that I know about it, that Scientology is really a religion, but should that be up to me? (I don't think so.) Can we say that religion, like art, is anything you can get away with?

4) Is it possible to say that some beliefs are "bad" and that other beliefs are "good"? (There are separate practical/legal and theoretical components to this question. Also, it can be relevant to other kinds of belief than religious/spiritual beliefs.)

Now, the real question is, I suppose, should I change what I eat for breakfast (Rice Krispies and sourdough toast and strawberry jam in this case), or is it natural for me to be thinking about this kind of thing so early in the morning?

And the other question is, Is there any point in the consideration of beliefs and belief systems where the questions slow down and there begin to be some kind of answers? Because it seems like my list of questions about all kinds of belief (not just religion) just keeps getting longer and longer, while any kind of answers, even preliminary ones, are very hard to come by. I'm beginning to think that there aren't any answers.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005


Am I completely out of my mind? Or is it true that the world is a strange, strange place where people who claim to understand how things work are delusional at best? The “stranger in a strange land” is such a cliché d concept. But it’s how I feel sometimes - and sometimes it’s how I feel most of the time. Things that most people accept most of the time, without question, as just the way things are (a phrase I despise), I find to be completely absurd. Conversely, things that I am interested in are looked at by many other people as marginal, if not completely subversive. If I had a nickel for every time someone has told me I think too much, I’d be a rich woman.

The thing is, things lately seem to be getting stranger and stranger al the time, and at an increasing rate. Sometimes I don’t recognize the world as the same one I grew up in. As silly as it sounds - and believe me, I realize how silly it sounds - I occasionally wonder if someone up in the future developed time travel, got back into the past at some point, and changed history. Forget the fact that even if time travel is possible (and some physicists seem to be coming around to the idea that it might be), I believe that there must be a mechanism that makes event-changing paradoxes impossible. I know, of course, that there are people who would be happy, even eager, to tell me that even just thinking about things like time travel is a sign of instability. Those would be the same folks who think having an imagination is a dangerous thing. But never mind.

What I am tempted to do is study the world for a while, to try to figure out what is really going on. Not to try to figure out the world. I’m pretty sure that’s not possible. That is like men trying to figure out women. Or vice versa. (By the way, that’s one of the things that puzzle me about the world: Why do male and female H. sapiens so often behave as if they are separate species?) No, my aim is more to find out about myself in the world. Am I nuts? Or is it the world that is crazy? By the numbers, it must be me who has the problem. I’m vastly outnumbered, after all. But I’ve also heard it said many times that if you wonder if you’re crazy, you aren’t. So, I figure it’s a legitimate field of study. Call it an anthropological (sociological? psychological?) study of myself in the world. Maybe the first one ever. Nah. I wouldn’t be so lucky as to have that original a thought.

Perhaps, as my first speculation, my whole problem has to do with the fact that I came to awareness of the world as a social and political entity in the 1960s. More and more, I see that decade (or at least the essence of it) as a sweet anomaly, where the expectations for the world were different than they ever had been, different than they ever will be, for that short time. Not that I have an utopian vision of the sixties as a golden age or anything. It started ugly and ended uglier. But for a brief time it seemed like more folks than usual took the ideas of peace freedom and equality as seriously achievable. God knows that hardly anyone does anymore. Oh, lots of people say they do, but most of them seem to have pretty peculiar (as least from my point of view) definitions of what peace is, who should get how much freedom, and what really constitutes equality.

Perhaps I come to this at least partly out of frustration over the writing project that this blog was created to serve. I set out to write about the things people believe, why they believe them, and the things that their beliefs lead them to do. Only the biggest thing I’ve figured out so far is that all most people have in common over belief is a shared attitude that anyone who doesn’t believe what they do is either evil, deluded, or psychotic, and probably deserves what ever bad comes their way. This is not a pretty state of affairs. And, more to the point here, this is not the way I remember things from when I was growing up, I wouldn’t say that this realization has disillusioned me, if only because it was something I already suspected. It’s a hard point to miss, especially in the post-9/11 world. It does disappoint me, though. I had hoped we had gotten smarter than that. But it is starting to seem to me that rigid dogmatism is an inborn trait in H. sapiens. Some individuals have overcome it, but the vast majority have not. I cannot even say that I have gotten completely over it on some levels, but at least I’m trying.

That leads me to another thing I’d like to figure out about the world in relation to my own attitudes. I can admit that I might be wrong. I do that readily and fairly frequently, although it I know I’m right I’ll do everything I can to prove it. Still, I’ve been told that this ability to admit error is odd, and I suspect that a lot of people see such admissions as a sign of weakness. For my part, I just cannot understand how people can be so certain of things that there are no solid proofs for. Things like, but certainly not limited to, the nature of God or even that God, or the gods, actually exist. I want to understand that disconnect. Why can I say, “I don’t know” where other people cannot. Why can I see logic in most sides of most arguments, even when I don’t agree with them? Most people, at least in my native culture, seem to think that understanding an argument is the same thing as believing it. Admitting that the other guy has a point, much less admitting he is right, is seen as a betrayal of one’s own dogma.

Another puzzle, brought up - and definitely not for the first time - by something I saw in a news report a few days ago. Why do so many people get into a position where they have the authority to tell others what to do along with the power to enforce those orders? This extends even to the wish to be able to control the personal habits of others. It would never cross my mind to want to do that. Of course there are perfectly legal things that other people do that bother me or that I think are stupid or unwise (and there is a difference there). That doesn’t mean that I want the power to prohibit them from doing these things.

Another thing (that sometimes ties into belief and sometimes does not) that I cannot understand is the urge to secrecy. It is something I’ve been know to refer to as the “I know something you don’t know, neener, neener, neener” syndrome. Don’t laugh. It’s pervasive. I can, of course, understand the personal wish for privacy. I’m a pretty private person myself, and some things are just on one else’s business. I can even understand the concept of industrial secrets, even though I think that gets carried way too far at times. Same thing with government secrets. I suppose there are some things that it is better for those with nefarious purposes not to know, but I often think that classified information is classified so that our own citizens won’t discover them. The Pentagon Papers are a case in point. The thing is, most of the things that are classified are probably already old news to our international opponents.

All of those kinds of secrets are, however, at least partly understandable. What I don’t get are the secret sorority and fraternity initiations, the secret societies that keep all kinds of secrets - I’m talking all the way from the Masons to the Moose to the top leaders who go to Bohemian Grove once a year - to the religions that very seriously and strictly protect their secret rituals, all the while denying that they are secret at all, but are simply sacred. As far as I can see, all that is just childish. And I say that as someone who once went through a sorority initiation. God knows, nothing immoral went on there, nothing illegal, not even anything particularly embarrassing. As I recall after all these years, there was some passing of candles, some religious content as it was associated with a religious group that I associated with at the time, and some sort of pledge sworn to. Oh, and we all wore white dresses that were supposed to signify purity or something like that. No big deal. But supposedly secret. I thought it was silly even at the time.

I could go on and on about all this. This essay as I originally wrote it made at least a couple more points. But I think I’ve gotten my point across by now. No need to belabor it further, even though I didn’t get to all the stuff I can’t understand that gets done in the name of governmental and social control. It’s pretty clear, I’m sure, that I’m pretty much of a malcontent.

Or, maybe I haven’t made any point at all. Perhaps I’ve just rambled on about all the things that bug me. Maybe this will get all the frustrations out of my system and I can just get back to my original writing plan or some variation of it. I kind of doubt that, though. I know that at a certain point - and I know right where that point is - my train of thought seems to veer off on a kind of parallel tangent. But as I see it, it is all related and comes down to what I said at the beginning - the world seems to be much stranger than it used to be. Or maybe it’s just the people in it. This stuff, or most of it, didn’t used to seem to go on as much as it does now. Or if it did, it didn’t seem to matter if some folks chose not to play. There seemed to be room for individuality, while now it seems like any sort of difference from what is considered “normal” is seen as pathological. At least that’s so where I come from. But that is another rant, and I won’t go there now.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Well that's interesting, or...lma reads the newspaper

Sometimes when I talk about doing research into beliefs systems, people automatically assume that I'm either looking into religion or else that I'm into fringe beliefs...UFOs, ghosts, ESP, reincarnation, things like that. When I tell these folks that belief actually touches virtually every aspect of their lives in one way or another, they often look at me like I just arrived on one of those UFOs.

But I took a quick look through the front section of my local newspaper today. I found that it illustrates very well the diverse ways in which belief plays a part in everyone's lives. Personal belief, societal or cultural belief - it doesn't really matter. They all interact to affect the things we do and the things that happen to us, or to other people all over the world. Now, it's true that religious belief often comes into the equation, no matter what aspect of life is being affected. But as we will see, here and later, religious and political beliefs find their way into some pretty unbelievable places.

Now, I'm not even going to touch on the "day-after-Easter" stories reporting on yesterday's various religious services. And I'm not going to factor in the stories related to the continuing Terri Schiavo case. It goes without saying that those are vitally connected to the things that people believe. But look at these other stories.

"States beginning to focus on inmate rehabilitation", reads the headline on page A3 of my local paper. A reprint from the Los Angeles Times, this story talks about how Governor Schwarznegger (that's still a trip to think about, but that's another issue for another day) of California is urging his state to get with the program and put more emphasis on the rehabilitation of prisoners and less on punishment and warehousing. Apparently this is the coming trend after about thirty years of those who advocate rehabilitation being accused of supporting "ineffective mollycoddling." Certainly, in the recent past California's official position was that prisons were for punishment, not for rehabilitation. This a huge change in an institutional belief that has an effect on hundreds of thousands, if not millions of individuals' lives.

Then, on page A7, the biggest headline on the page reads, "Some durggists balk at birth control." This has been an issue for awhile. I've seen stories about it online in places like Prevention magazine's website. Apparently, however, those pharmacists who believe that they are justified in not filling prescriptions for medications that personally offend their sense of morality, are becoming more vocal about their beliefs. There is an issue of the clash of rights here, of course, of whose belief should trump whose differing beliefs. As the article puts it:

Supporters of pharmacists' rights see the trend as a welcome expression of personal belief. Women's groups see it as a major threat to reproductive rights and one of the latest manifestations of the religious right's growing political reach - this time into the neighborhood pharmacy. (Fresno Bee, 27 March 2005, page A7)

Which, of course, also reminds the reader that while church and state might be officially separate in the United States, religion and politics are intricately intertwined.

Then, on page A9, I found a headline on a story that illustrates that belief can affect health issues other than those of reproductive rights. "Rumors of U.S. plot hinder vaccinations" outlines Islamic efforts in Nigerian, especially in the largely Islamic northern part of the country, to stop immunization programs because of suspicions that the vaccinations - first for polio and now for measels - are an American anti-Islamic plot. Again, politics and religion clash due to deeply ingrained beliefs. In this case, the clash of beliefs has resulted in the deaths, so far this yar, of at least 589 people, most of them children under the age of five.

So, we can see that beliefs are not just personal and do not just affect those who hold them. Sometimes the following of those beliefs can create discomfort, chaos, or even life-threatening repercussions in the lives of ourselves and others.

Maybe my own beliefs are intruding here. Because I defintely believe that each of us has an obligation to consider the wider repercussions of our beliefs in the world. This is not to say that the individual should abandon his or her closely held beliefs, but just that each of us should take care to really consider what effects our beliefs will have on those around us and on those we might never consider would be affected by our beliefs.

Well...I didn't mean for this to end with me on the soapbox. But I suppose that is inevitable when thinking and writing about such intimate things as beliefs. And, I think, it is also inevitable when I'm writing at the end of a long, busy day. Which this has been. And which is why I'm going to close this entry now.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

I'm Back

Well, that was a longer sabbatical than I intended to take.

Had a family emergency, moved house, and just finally got my new phone line in so that I can get on here without going to the library and being subject to the half-hour and hour limitations of using their computers. Sigh. It was two months of stress, worry, and new experiences. But I think things are getting back on an even keel (although it makes me nervous to even say that - talk about magical thinking!), and I'm back at work on my writing.

I didn't even have time to do much thinking, much less research or writing, for awhile. Once I finally got moved in there's been more time. In fact, I'm reading a book right now that will certainly come up here when I'm finished with it (and maybe even before). I also learned a few things about my own beliefs while I've been dealing with the events of the past couple of months; those lessons might come into play here as well, although I don't think that the thrust of my work will be changed much - one of the things I've learned is that my belief system served me pretty well through it all. This was quite a relief, to be honest. I take it as a sign that my belief system, such as it is, is fairly well constructed and thought out.

Well, I suppose we'll see exactly what sorts of impact all the things that have been happening will affect my thinking in relation to this project. I suppose I have to suspect that all of the aftereffects might not have manifested yet; that remains to be seen. Of course, that's one of the more interesting aspects of belief, as far as I'm concerned. They can change, sometimes fairly suddenly, and sometimes the beliefs you think you hold the most closely are the first to change. I've seen it happen. In fact, I've experienced it.

Which brings me to the Terri Schaivo case. I quite surprised myself with my reaction to what is going on in Florida. I find myself horrified that her feeding tube was removed. Now, understand, I've always believed that someone in a terminal condition, or in a "persistent vegetative state", as Ms. Schaivo seems to be (at least according to medical experts appointed by the courts), should have the right to, in effect, say, "I'm done. No more." But in her case, there is no written directive or living will, as far as I can tell. The only word we have is that of her "husband" (how he can call himself that, I'm not quite sure), who doesn't seem to me to have the purest of motives. Yet the courts have constantly sided with him. I guess it comes down to the fact that I don't believe him when he says that she expressed that she wouldn't want to continue in her present condition. That's very subjective, I know. And the whole thing is frightening: I even found myself agreeing with President Bush when he said that in cases like this, that we should "err on the side of life." I can't remember the last time I agreed with anything that man said.

Anyway, I'm back.

Monday, January 24, 2005

It's not just about religion...

So far, I've written mostly about religion here. But I just ran across this example of what political belief can lead folks to do, another aspect of belief that I am quite interested in.

It seems that fiveDemocratic Party activists in Wisconsin have been charged with criminal damage to property for the slashing of tires on 25 of about 100 vehicles Republican Party activists had rented in order to get poll watchers and voters to the polls last November on Election Day. You can see the whole story, as reported by CNN, here. One of those charged is the son of a congresswoman and another is the son of the former acting mayor of Milwaukee.

In a way, it seems like a silly prank. Those who carried it out probably saw it that way, as a silly little action that would have the result of advancing the interests of their party and their candidates. But that's exactly how some of the principals in the Watergate scandal saw their activities as well, and that little prank nearly tore the United States apart. So it isn't just a prank; it's an offensive act. I'm a registered Democrat, and my first reaction to seeing that story is that those folks should be ridden out of the party on a rail, preferrably tarred and feathered. Which is why I am so interested in what made them do such a thing. They had to know that it was not only illegal but unethical. Yet they went ahead and did it. Just like a lot of people go ahead and do things they know will not reflect positively on themselves and the institutions they represent.

So, did they act out of belief, or just out of rank stupidity? Unfortunately, there is a good chance that they did it out of belief in their cause.

"Under the Banner of Heaven": A Reveiw and a few Thoughts

I’ve always been interested in the things people believe and why they believe them. Always. But about a year ago I first read a book that not only stirred my curiosity, my determination to look at belief more closely, but also opened up a new dimension of that interest that I had not really thought much about before. That was the question of what belief leads people – as individuals and as groups – to do. It wasn’t the only thing that emphasized this practical aspect of belief in my mind. Certainly, the events of September 11, 2001, made a lot of people aware that beliefs have practical consequences in the real world in a way that they had not thought about before. But 9/11 was such an overwhelming event that I had tried not to plunge too deeply into its implications, including the particular issue of belief and action.

When I read Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (Random House, 2003), however, I realized that I could not ignore that aspect of belief. The actions that people undertake in the name of what they believe are an integral part of the examination of belief, belief systems, and the people who hold them. Belief isn’t only, or even mostly, internal. Everyone’s actions, every day, depend on what they believe, how strong their beliefs are, and how they think others feel about their beliefs. And, like it or not, our actions affect the lives of others, and others’ actions affect our lives every single day.

In Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer looks at the story of how belief impacted the lives of Brenda and Erica Lafferty, a young mother and her infant daughter, when two of her brothers-in-law came to believe that God was sending them revelations, including the instructions to kill Brenda and Erica. This is, of course, an extreme example of the impact of belief on individuals, but the reality is that sometimes belief leads people to do extreme things. That horrible 1984 case is, in turn, a jumping-off point for Krakauer’s examination of various offshoots of the Mormon faith which have not abandoned the early beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as introduced by the faith’s founder, Joseph Smith. These doctrines include plural marriage and blood atonement, doctrines that the official Mormon church, headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, has long since officially abandoned and proscribed. Included in these offshoots are the so-called “Mormon fundamentalist” sects such as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the United Effort Plan (UEP) or FLDS, as well as individual fundamentalist believers such as Brian David Mitchell, also known as Immanuel David Isaiah, who currently stands accused of the widely-reported kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart in Utah in 2002. Krakauer also looks at some of the events that such beliefs led to during the early years of what grew into the official church, when such beliefs were still openly held and practiced. Krakauer’s main examples of this aspect of the story are the events surrounding the introduction of plural marriage by Joseph Smith and the issues and events surrounding the Mountain Meadows Massacre and its aftermath.

Other adherents to earlier, now mostly abandoned, doctrines of Mormonism included Ron and Dan Lafferty, Brenda and Erica Lafferty’s murderers. Raised in orthodox Mormonism, the Lafferty brothers came to accept the idea that the mainstream church had been wrong in abandoning plural marriage, blood atonement, and other doctrines and practices that the orthodox church currently denies. It is a story of what deeply held faith can lead people to do. Krakauer’s account of this story is a fascinating, meticulously researched, and well-written account that reads like a novel, one in which the flashbacks enhance rather than detract from the story.

Some might argue that the story Krakauer tells is really simply a story of religious belief used as a tool for rationalizing what these particular individuals chose to do in pursuit of their goals, or in revenge for the frustration of their goals, when they knew that their actions would violate the most deeply-held mores of the culture in which they were living. Indeed, one way of interpreting the story of Ron and Dan Lafferty is that when they were faced with someone who was standing in the way of their desire to practice polygamy, they used archaic religious doctrines from their own religious upbringing to justify the murder of their sister-in-law and niece, who they saw as frustrating their wishes. After all, it was Brenda Lafferty who urged Ron’s wife to leave him over his desire to practice polygamy. Further, she was the one wife, out of all the brothers’ spouses, who would not submit to their excursions into polygamous practice.

In truth, however, that seems a bit too Byzantine an explanation to be the whole truth. Every day, people get mad at others who stand in the way of their desires. And every day, people commit violent acts to remove those obstacles. Most of these people do not feel the need to fall back on some sort of religious belief system to justify their actions, to themselves or to others. That sort of long way around seems to me to be just too much work. In addition, the Lafferty brothers had a history of serious study of the doctrines they claimed as the reason for their crimes. It isn’t as if they killed Brenda and Erica and then said, as an afterthought, "Oh, and by the way, God told us to do it."

Another way to look at this story, one that Krakauer specifically brings up in the course of his book, is that Ron Lafferty, in claiming to receive revelations and, to a lesser extent Dan, in helping him to carry those revelations out, were victims of a delusion. Ron’s defense tried to use that argument in an insanity defense. However, one of the witnesses in Ron’s trial, Dr. Noel Gardner, a psychiatrist, testified that holding unusual religious beliefs does not necessarily mean that the person holding those beliefs is delusional. Gardner also testified that while Ron Lafferty might well fit the profile for one suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, most self-proclaimed prophets – including the founders of most major world religions – could be classed this way, and that very few of them were murderers. Consequently, it seems to me that one must finally conclude, at least on the basis of the information presented in Krakauer’s book, that Ron and Dan Lafferty were not mentally ill in a clinical sense, really believed that they were receiving revelations from God, and that their actions in killing Brenda and Erica Lafferty stemmed directly from, and were justified in their minds, by the beliefs they held.

The Laffertys' story is a fascinating one, even if only in the same sense that any disaster is fascinating. The wider story the books tells of the birth, growth, and schism of a new religious movement and its offshoots is equally interesting. I would be willing to wager that most Americans have no idea that there is an entire town in the Arizona desert, north of the Grand Canyon and near the Utah border, that lives a strictly religious, polygamous, lifestyle led by a prophet who wields near-total control over the lives of the town’s citizens, to the extent of reassigning the wives of apostates to other men. Even paying attention to such issues, I did not know about this particular group until I read Krakauer’s book. Likewise, I did not realize until reading this book that experts estimate of the number of fundamentalist Mormon polygamists at between thirty and one hundred thousand. Krakauer’s inclusion of the information about these groups serve as an illustration of the sort of schisms that have split believers in Joseph Smith’s teachings into widely diverse groups. This information also shows one of the sources of encouragement the Lafferty brothers might have had in their own split from the orthodox Mormonism of their upbringing.

Another aspect of Krakauer’s book that interests me is the fact that the mainstream Mormon church had problems with it, so much so that they denounced it publicly. I suspect that a huge part of what the Salt Lake church took issue with was Krakauer’s persistence in calling the folks who still believe in and practice things like polygamy and blood atonement “fundamentalist Mormons.” The mainstream church insists that there is no such thing as a fundamentalist Mormon and that people like Ron and Dan Lafferty and the polygamist sects are not Mormon (a label the church doesn’t much like anymore, anyway) in any way, shape, or form. And, it is true that the official church excommunicates anyone who publicly practices and advocates polygamy. I understand from those who might have reason to know that this might not necessarily be true of those who practice polygamy privately, but because I only have hearsay to go on I can’t say that I know this for sure. I do know that most of the prosecutions of polygamists in Utah have been on other grounds, such as child abuse, statutory rape, or welfare fraud, and not for the actual practice of plural marriage. There is, interestingly, one interpretation of current mainstream Mormon doctrine that holds that only the practice of polygamy in this world was halted, but that orthodox doctrine still accepts it as an essential practice in the afterlife. Whatever the official stance and actions of the Salt Lake church, among those excommunicated for nonorthodox practices are both Ron and Dan Lafferty.

A second part of the problem the mainstream church has with Krakauer’s book is that he discusses some very controversial aspects of the history of the church and the actions of some of its early leaders. For example, Krakauer asserts early on that the promotional materials handed out by mainstream Mormon missionaries neglect to mention that Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon church, was married to at least thirty-three women and that he may have married at least one girl as young as fourteen years of age, or that Smith apparently denounced plural marriage to his followers even while he practiced it himself for a period of time before he announced that he had received a revelation endorsing the practice. Krakauer also claims that Brigham Young, who gained leadership of the early church after Smith was killed in jail, and who led the church to Utah, occasionally hired local Native Americans in Utah in his struggle against the Gentiles (to a Mormon, anyone who is not a Mormon is a Gentile). This was at a time when the United States government and the Mormon church in Utah Territory were on less than friendly terms. The role of these Native Americans was to harass Gentile wagon trains crossing the territory, presumably so that they would not be inclined to settle in the area.

This sort of activity culminated in the Mountain Meadows Massacre of September 11, 1857, in which approximately 120 members of what was known as the Fancher Party of emigrants – men, women, and children – were killed. Despite reports from some who claimed that most of the “Indians” who were said to have carried out the massacre were actually Mormons disguised as Native Americans, historians, Krakauer says, are divided on the issue of what Brigham Young’s intentions were with regard to the Fancher Party. The facts seem to be that Young’s first tactic was to blame the Native Americans, but that later he put the whole blame for the massacre on John D. Lee, Young’s own adopted son and a devout Mormon. Young was instrumental in having Lee tried (a second time), convicted, and executed for the murders of members of the Fancher Party. Was Young pursuing justice, as he claimed, or making sure his own complicity in the crime remained unknown? Again, historians are apparently divided as to the truth of the matter. What is clear is that the mainstream Mormon church, as an institution, is not interested in having anyone even speculate in public about the matter.

The mainstream church’s position on these matters, as I understand it, is that these “facts of history” are actually lies manufactured and disseminated by enemies of the church, meant to damage if not destroy the institution and its leaders, past and present. There are church authorities who have been known to advocate the idea that it is more important that histories of the church be “faith promoting” than that they hew strictly to the information discovered by historical scholarship. In an article in the Summer 1981 issue of the journal Brigham Young University Studies, Boyd K. Packer, one of the General Authorities of the church, said that “Some things that are true are not very useful.” Specifically speaking of the history of the church, he said, “The Lord made it very clear that some things are to be taught selectively and some things are to be given only to those who are worthy.” Going one step further, he addresses the issue of historical information that is already in print but does not support the church’s official history; he believes that such information should not be “disseminated.” It isn't just for prospective converts that the mainstream church wants to santitize history; I have heard reports that a current church lesson manual focusing on the life of Brigham Young represents him as having been monogamous even though there is plentiful historical evidence that he practiced polygamy. Again, I haven't seen this manual myself, but the reports are plentiful enough that I tend to believe them.

No wonder the mainstream Mormon church was upset with Krakauer for writing Under the Banner of Heaven. He makes a good case that the history set forth in his book is the result of solid historical research, and not just an attack on the Mormon church. It would have helped to strengthen his case even further if Krakauer had more thoroughly documented his research through footnotes, although he does include chapter notes and an extensive bibliography to aid anyone who wishes to validate his contentions in the book. Even by discussing these issues, however, Krakauer made himself a target of the mainstream church. You can find the defense he issued when the church attacked his book even before it was published online at

The mainstream Mormon church does not help their case by its practice of limiting access to its official archives to researchers they deem friendly to the church. Nor does it improve its position through its treatment of Mormon scholars who do not toe the official doctrinal line in their publications. In a section of “Author’s Remarks” at the end of his book, Krakauer writes about two Mormon historians, Fawn Brodie and D. Michael Quinn, who were ultimately excommunicated from the church at least in part because they did not write history as the church wishes it to be represented. A third writer, Juanita Brooks, who wrote about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, is mentioned, but it is unclear weather she was excommunicated or left the church of her own volition. This sort of treatment of scholars who write the truth as they see it and not necessarily as the church sees it continues up to the present day. In the past month or two Grant Palmer, a devout Mormon and longtime employee of the church’s educational system, was disfellowshipped for the things he wrote in his book, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins. The mainstream Mormon church is clearly not fond of the concept of academic freedom.

In a way, Krakauer had it easier as a non-Mormon writing about the Mormon church’s early history and its later dissenters and schismatics. All the Mormon church could do to him was to denounce his book, which probably only called more attention to it and likely gained him more readers than he would otherwise have had. At any rate, the postscript added to the revised paperback edition of Under the Banner of Heaven, in which he addresses the church’s criticisms and concerns over his book, seems to indicate that the church was much more bothered by his book than he was by their criticisms.

All of this is a lesson for anyone interested in looking at and writing about beliefs and belief systems, especially religious beliefs but, more and more, political beliefs as well. Individuals and institutions, sometimes especially institutions, can be protective of their deeply held beliefs. The writer must realize going in that some folks are going to be highly sensitive about anything you might say about what they believe. What the writer considers completely non-controversial might be perceived by the believer as highly inflammatory. One of the many reasons I’m so interested in looking at beliefs and belief systems is that I want to see if there is any way to ratchet down the sensitivity so we can talk about the things we each believe without so much defensiveness and stress.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

And people wonder why I'm interested in this stuff...

For an example of why belief and believers fascinate me so much, I invite you to click over to JP's blog, scroll down a bit to read "Religion as Usual", his take on what is going on in Bangalore, India over a visit of faith healer and evangelist Benny Hinn to that city. I have to say that I just don't understand (and want to desperately) why some folks (some Hindus in this case) get so exercised by others who believe differently from themselves.

But this also illustrates what comes from the excessive emphasis some Christian adherents put on conversion. That's mostly a monotheistic thing, I suspect, and from one point of view I can see how believers from other traditions might not appreciate that. On the other hand, as JP points out, going so far as asking the government to guarantee that no conversions be allowed, as some Hindus have done in this case, in a violation of India's constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion (thanks, JP, I hadn't realized that before). It is also, as I see it, a violation of any individual's right to make decisions of a personal nature - as the choice of one's religion certainly is - on their own. On the third hand (?!), the sad truth is that there are certain Christian traditions which seem just as reluctant as these particular Hindus to allow their followers the right to change their mind about which religion to follow.

I suppose I don't understand this because I don't expect everyone to believe exactly the things I believe. I've been told on occasion that this attitude means that there is something wrong with me. My view is that it would be a really boring world if everyone believed the same things and understood those things in the same way. It would also mean that I would have to find another subject to investigate, because the questions I'm asking as part of this project wouldn't even exist.

Friday, January 21, 2005

In Which Yours Truly Sinks Into the Abyss of Definition...

At first, I thought that I would just look into the things people believe and why they believe those things. But, as usually happens, matters are a little more complicated than that. I should have known; after all, the philosophers have gotten hold of knowledge, which includes belief, as a category for inquiry. They even gave this study, as philosophers are prone to do, a ten-dollar name: epistemology. Not to be confused with eschatology which, in Christian theology (and perhaps in other theologies as well), is the study of matters related to the end times. That is a matter of belief, but not related to the study of knowledge or belief. I mention it because, when I was at university, I got those two words confused for the longest time.

Yes, I’m wandering. It’s easy to do when dealing with belief, since almost anything you can think of can be a matter of belief. But wait. There is even a school of thought in philosophy, fueled by neurobiology, called eliminative materialism. This school of thought holds, as I understand it, that consciousness does not really exist at all and that therefore things like belief are illusory. (Thanks to Wikipedia for that.) I’m in the process of tracking down more information on this theory, but it frankly sounds a little bit too reductionistic for my taste.

Be that as it may, I have a habit of starting out a project like this by looking for definitions. When I say I’m interested in looking a belief, for example, I figure it’s a good idea to have some guidelines for the type of thing I’m dealing with. This is especially important in this case, as it turns out, as belief seems to be a fairly elastic concept. From the definitions I’ve seen so far, it seems like there is a sort of hierarchy of knowledge/belief that revolves around how much confidence the individual has in the thing believed. Which in turn is very elastic, as what one person would say is a matter not only of faith, but of blind faith, another person would claim as a matter of sure knowledge. We’re looking at quite a wide gulf between the two, faith and knowledge, sometimes.

Anyway, the progression, as I’ve been able to classify it so far, goes something like this, at least as far as general definitions run: knowledge, opinion, belief, faith.

First, there is knowledge, which The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: The Macmillan Company & The Free Press, 1967) defines as “justified true belief” (vol. 4, p. 345). This definition assumes that knowledge is, indeed, a species of belief. There are apparently some who would argue “that knowledge cannot be a kind of belief…because they exclude each other” (p. 346). According to Anthony Quinton, the author of the Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on “Knowledge and Belief”, this argument is based on a notion that belief implies not knowing. Quinton dismisses this argument as absurd, and I tend to agree. So, I think, it is justified to call knowledge the most secure form of belief. It is a belief that has lots of facts to back it up.

It might be a toss-up as to whether the next level of belief is “opinion” or the general understanding of “belief” itself. The definition of “opinion” in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Eleventh Edition, 2003) differentiates them this way: “Opinion implies a conclusion thought out yet open to dispute….Belief implies often deliberate acceptance and intellectual assent” (p. 870). That sounds to me very much as if opinion implies belief on a more factual basis than belief requires. In fact, the second definition of “opinion” is that an opinion is “a belief stronger than impression and less strong than positive knowledge” (p. 870).

Merriam-Webster defines “belief”, in the first instance, as “a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing” (p. 111). The third definition calls belief a “conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon esp. when based on examination of evidence.” I suppose that the caveat “based on examination of evidence” might be seen as putting opinion and belief on approximately the same footing. On the other hand, it seems to me that “evidence” does not necessarily imply hard fact. I guess I’ll have to look that up, too – but not now. For the moment, I’ll work on the assumption that the progression can legitimately be considered to run with opinion having more bearing of fact behind it than belief has behind it.

This brings us to faith. I think it is fairly clear that faith would rank after belief when ordering the species of knowledge based on how much reliance on proven fact they each imply. As a synonym of belief, Merriam Webster says: “Faith almost always implies certitude even where there is no evidence or proof” (p. 111). That same dictionary’s definitions of “faith” run from “belief and trust in and loyalty to God”, to “firm belief in something for which there is no proof”, to “something that is believed esp. with strong conviction; esp: a system of religious beliefs” (p. 450). There is also something in there about loyalty as a general concept, but that is beyond what is being considered here. That is one of the beauties and frustrations of the English language: one word can have widely different meanings and implications. Aside from that, the point here is that, as a species of belief, faith has the least to do with proven fact. It is also abundantly clear that faith is the species of belief that has the most to do with religion, although it can have much to do with other objects of belief as well.

So, I’ve got a tentative definition of terms that will give me an idea of the sorts of things I want to look at as a part of this project. Thus far, I’ve been trying to avoid too much philosophy. Reading philosophy tends to give me a headache. I doubt I’ll be able to avoid it forever. I just hope that when I do get into it, it won’t confuse me too much. Meanwhile, I’ll just continue to follow up on what I’ve found and will continue to find in light of this hierarchy of belief. At least it gives me a structure to start with. I just wish I didn’t have this fear that someone has already gotten there first and already constructed the same hierarchy. Well, if they have, I’ll find it eventually.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

What this is all about...

As a writer working on a book-length project, I need a place where I can work out ideas I’m thinking about and to perhaps get some feedback from others on the directions I’m going with the ideas I am thinking about. Writing is a solitary pursuit, even more so where I am living in a fairly small predominantly agricultural town where writing is often seen as a bit of a suspect activity. But it always helps to have a place to bounce ideas around, not necessarily on the writing itself, as that has to be mine (although I might share some of that at some point) so much as the ideas going into the writing. This web journal seems like a good way to do that.

I’m mainly interested, here, in belief systems and the ideas that power them. At bottom, I think these ideas are individuals’ and institutions’ opinions about how the world works – physically, culturally, politically, spiritually, and in all other ways. So, I’ll be writing a lot about ways of belief and how people seem to arrive at the things they believe. I think all this is fascinating because these beliefs are responsible for how the world, ultimately, works – or does not work.

Because I consider the whole universe to be fair game in this exploration, however, belief systems are likely not to be the whole of the discussion here. I imagine there will be some excursions here that will make some folks reading these entries tilt their heads and say, “Huh? What does that have to do with anything?” The thing is, I tend to agree with what John Muir had to say about connections and connectedness: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” (My First Summer in the Sierra, quoted in The American Wilderness in the Words of John Muir [Waukesha, Wisconsin: Country Beautiful, 1973], p. 60.) In other words, I suspect that on some level everything has to do with everything.

I hope you will bear with me. Besides being a writing project, this is a journey I’m on, a quest to figure out why people believe the things they do, how the world and the universe work, and most of all what I really believe about all of it. There is a reason for my taking on this project. I used to think I understood the world and how it works. Now, most of the time I’m not sure I understand anything about the world. I’m not looking to be converted to anything, mind you. I’ve been down that road – something else I’ll no doubt be writing about from time to time, if only as to make my own biases and their sources clear – and, frankly, once was one too many times for me. I’m not looking for anyone to hand me any ready-made answers. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear what you think or that I won’t learn from you.

I will also probably be expressing a lot of my opinions on a lot of topics here. That means I’ll probably make everyone who reads this on a regular basis angry from time to time. That’s okay. It just means that I’m doing my job as a writer. I’ll just hope that no one will take any of my comments personally. I really won’t mean them that way. I will also not, I hope, come across as being entrenched in my opinions. If anything, I’ve always been honest enough with myself that I realize my opinions might well be wrong. I’m not easily argued out of some positions, but I’m always willing to consider the other sides of an argument (I’ve never met an argument that had only two sides), and I’ve even been known to change my opinion from time to time. In political terms, I don’t consider that to be flip-flopping on issues; I just agree with the person (it may have been Oscar Wilde, but I’m not sure) who said that the only people who are truly consistent are the dead.

I don’t know, even, if anyone will read this web journal but myself, although I’ll definitely be inviting a few people specifically to look in from time to time, and as I’m able I’ll also be issuing general invitations for anyone who is interested to read whenever they like. In other words, I might well end up only talking to myself here. But I’ll welcome any and all readers and whatever contributions they have to make to this endeavor.