Over at Salon is an article that starts out with Scientology and Going Clear, the book and documentary about it, but then deals in the much broader realm of belief. It deals with everything from the Rwandan genocide to the Mob and how people, once caught up in a group, use belief to justify the things that they have done. At a certain point belief in something is more painful than coming to terms with the reality of a situation. An interesting read.
I recently read Candide by Voltaire. I will add my voice to the many over the years that have deemed it a classic. I think I would even say it is one of my favorite books I have read. If you were to tell someone to read a book that was written by a French intellectual in the 1700’s, many would imagine something dense and challenging. However, despite the amazing wealth of ideas in the book, it is direct, accessible, funny, and full of truths that still resonate in the modern day. I almost felt in certain ways that I was reading a precursor to Carlin or Vonnegut, people that are able to speak truth to power in very direct and clear way, while making you laugh out loud at things you shouldn’t be laughing at.
I was a history major at WVU for several years, before finally graduating with an American Studies degree from Penn State. One of the things in history that always comes up is trying to justify or condemn someone for what they did based upon the times that they live in. “Well so and so owned slaves, but you have to understand the times that they lived in.” I think something like that is only completely true if you know how far thought had progressed in certain societies. If slavery or some other evil is accepted by almost everyone, then you might not be able to judge someone if the light of truth hadn’t been shown on that particular evil yet. On the other side, if people knew something was evil, or unethical, than you can judge those people in their own time.
Reading Voltaire makes me think that the argument, you have to understand the times, doesn’t hold water as much as I thought. Voltaire satirizes almost all of the evils of his time and ours: Violence over religion, colonialism, exploiting other humans for profit, violence against women, war, and on and on. The book was written in 1759, before the United States even existed, yet there is a passage where he points out how absurd it is to treat those of another race cruelly, especially in the name of God and country. He is constantly satirizing different religious sects for fighting with each other over beliefs.
The book basically follows the title character, a well meaning but naive man from Germany who is told by a court philosopher that all is for the best, that all is part of some natural order. When Candide gets kicked out of the castle he is living in, for being with a woman that he shouldn’t be, his story becomes a downward spiral of the tragic and comic as one bad thing happens after another. The language is very direct and simple, but the amount of terrible deeds listed almost becomes poetic in its scope. It certainly is one of those works where things are so terrible it goes through the looking glass, where the awful becomes funny as a result of perceived absurdity. The book holds a mirror up to the human race, asking the question, almost screaming, “What are you doing?!!!”
The forward to the book makes the case that above all, Voltaire was against superstition. It was superstition, belief in things that have no basis in nature, that is man’s biggest folly. He understood the cruelty that humans could do to one another through created orders like religion and nation states.
Although Voltaire doesn’t have any answers, he does have a direction by the end of the book that at least points towards ways in which humans could lead lives worth living. Although this is a book largely of darkness, even if hilariously conveyed, this is not a book completely without light.
Although the world has progressed in certain ways since the time of Voltaire, many of these problems are still with us. I couldn’t help but ask myself several questions: How did he have such a clear view of the world before modern science and so much other knowledge existed? If he had such a clear view of the world of the world, why were so many others in his time so lost in the dark? If he had such a clear view of the world in 1759, why is it that so many of these problems still persist? How is it that someone writing in the 1700’s could see the world, when so many people, SO MANY PEOPLE, of right now are so lost in the woods? Why do so many idiocies associated with religion and superstition still exist, if he knew so much then and we have gained so much knowledge since his time?
Who knows such things…
Reading the Brendan Behan play Richard Cork’s Leg in the van today. If I were to tell you a play featuring two prostitutes and two beggers pretending to be blind, among others, all taking place in a graveyard, was funny, you might not believe me, but it is. One of my favorite George Carlin specials is Life is Worth Losing, where his stage set is a graveyard as well.
There is that old saying that tragedy plus time equals comedy. I think it is perspective too. A war viewed from on high, where two armies butcher each other over nothing more than a disagreement in religious beliefs, is so absurd I can’t help but imagine some supernatural beings having a laugh in the clouds. What would one think if they watched the battle of Gettysburg from far away, watching an army walk directly into cannon fire, largely over some misinformed ideas concerning the inferiority of certain people because they looked slightly different? We do strange and horrible things down here. If someone is watching from above, we surely have provided them with a lot of folly over the years.
If you are looking for more proof that religious behavior is foolish, go no further. In this NYT story it happens to be Judaism that is featured, but we can find plenty of examples of religion treating women like second class citizens. (Conservative Christians want to control women’s bodies and Muslims have all kinds of hangups with women, just for starters.) Apparently certain orthodox Jews don’t want to sit next to women on planes. Concerning religious beliefs about women, and to paraphrase George Carlin from a piece I posted the other day: People just made all of this shit up!
Tomorrow morning I am getting a skin test. I suffer from allergies that are beyond what most people associate with the term. I took a skin test before and was allergic to every airborne allergen except for dog. I haven’t been able to take antihistamines in the last week. Posting has been a bit slow as I get closer and closer to outer space. I almost find it to be comedy, as spending time outside is one of my favorite things to do. Meanwhile nature, sometimes, hates my shit! I often think of the title of the 1980 comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy!
I genuinely care about people, but I am an introvert who feels worn down and runs out of patience if I don’t get enough alone time. I feel that there is a mysterious spiritual side to life, but when I am in church I never feel further away from it. I could make many statements like these. Maybe it isn’t the gods that are crazy, but me! Who knows such things…
Wizard Ted Cruz says that global warming alarmists are the equivalent of flat-earthers. It would be easy to get angry about this, except we already know Cruz is saying this to whip people like myself into a frenzy all while appealing to his know-nothing base. I feel pretty confident that people like Ted Cruz, as harmful as they are, are the exact kind of people that are going to doom the modern Republican Party and its anti-science brigade to the history books. I’m scared about what damage they can do on the way down, but there is no doubt that Ted Cruz and his ilk represent the last gasp of a dying order. People become extreme and rabid when they feel something slipping away forever. Ted Cruz, even though he is appealing to the hoopleheads*, really represents unfettered corporate power combined with religious zealotry. Fortunately for us, in a democracy even such power needs a base to support it and that base is mostly old and white on and on the outs. What’s scary though is that we are running out of time to stave off the worst impacts of climate change. So while Ted Cruz and those he represents will not be with us for long, they just might be able to do enough damage to doom the rest of us and the descendants of the human race for a long time to come. So while I don’t think we need to worry much about Ted Cruz, I think those of us that care need to fight his ideas at every turn.
*Hooplehead: a member of the ignorant masses; an uneducated commoner; an idiot. word popularized by HBO’s Deadwood.
A couple days ago I posted Matt Taibbi teeing off on David Brooks. Now Jeffrey Taylor is doing the same. This time it is over his lazy criticisms of secularism. Fore!