Wednesday, 16 May 2012

"Have You Considered Conversion To Islam?"

At a political meeting in a Mosque Hall, speakers were asked, “Have you considered conversion to Islam?” The main speaker replied, “Let’s leave that between God and me, should we?” In case I speak at a similar meeting and am asked that question, I have drafted a reply.
“I do think that this is a fair question to myself in these circumstances but not one that warrants a lengthy response here. This is a political meeting and I believe in church-state separation. I have not considered conversion to Islam. I was educated as a Christian and have studied scriptures and philosophy. I no longer believe that there is only one god and I think that there are things that gods cannot do for us. The emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class. That's my politics and that's why I am here.”

Outside the context of a political meeting, there could be further discussion of the role of gods. They are none or many: many are imagined; maybe none exist. Their stories entertain and inspire (I find the following litany of deities fascinating but readers who find it tedious might prefer to skip it):

gods and goddesses who descend into the underworld each Winter but return in the Spring;
the triple goddess, personifying youth, motherhood and age;
the Aesir and Vanir, divine races making war, then exchanging hostages;
Odin sacrificing an eye for wisdom, learning runes by hanging on the Tree, swallowed by the Wolf but avenged by his son;
Thor battling against hostile elements personified as giants, challenging Christ to combat, incarnated in Marvel Comics as a mental patient who becomes a powerful super-hero claiming to be Thor (and who is going to argue with him?), reproduced authentically in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series;
Balder not rescued from Hel but returning after the Ragnarok;
Loki, whom my daughter, listening to giant stories, called “the baddest god”;
the Norse archer god, Uller, about whom no stories are told in the Eddas although some could be told by modern writers;
Prometheus stealing fire and Indra releasing rain;
Olympians fleeing into Egypt disguised as animals, thus explaining pharaonic zoomorphism;
Pan, the Piper at the Gates of Dawn, inspiring awe (fear not of him, just fear) in The Wind In The Willows;
Yama, the first man to die, becoming god of death;
Brahma the Creator sleeping while the universe is submerged in the cosmic waters, as it is at the beginning of Genesis;
Vishnu incarnated as a fish, a boar, a dwarf, a lion-man, Rama, Krishna, the Buddha and Kalki;
Shiva dancing creation and destruction but also liberation;
Rama rescuing Sita from Ceylon;
Krishna containing the universe, calling the gods his million faces, visiting many cow girls simultaneously, teaching yoga and revealing his cosmic form on a battle field;
Ganesh invoked by businessmen, with complicated stories to explain why he has an elephant’s head;
disguised gods leading Gotama away from kingship towards Buddhahood;
Mithra, etiam miles (Mithras, also a soldier), born on the 25th of December;
Moses’ god leading his people from slavery while manifesting as a volcano;
the Baals whose prophets Elijah unjustly ridiculed and slaughtered;
Marcion’s god of “Gospel and Apostle,” opposing the Hebrew god of the Law and the Prophets;
Christ wise at twelve, rejecting the kingdoms of this world, dispensing wine like Bacchus, calming a storm like Neptune, feeding the multitude, shining on a mountain, fulfilling laws and prophecies, appearing in a different form, somehow present in bread and wine (again like Bacchus), originally symbolized not by an instrument of torture but by a fish because the Greek word for “fish” is an appropriate acronym;
the mysterious triple god of Freemasonry, combining Elijah’s god with Baal and Osiris;
Aslan and Bacchus freeing the river god;
the Japanese Jizo Guardians apparently helping James Bond against Ernst Stavro Blofeld;
Alan Moore’s Miracleman replacing all other gods in the Era of Miracles.

This list is so diverse that some of its members do not belong on the same page but all are generated by human imagination. These are our gods: we create them; they enrich us. More basically, they help us to exist not as material entities but certainly as human beings. Without myth and fiction, we would not be who or what we are. We would not inherit Homeric, Mosaic, Shakespearean etc traditions. Intelligent beings whose libraries contained only history and science and whose communities lacked fairy tales, children’s stories and legendary heroes would not be recognizably human. But could such beings exist? 

Positive propositions, e.g., “This is red”, entail negative propositions, e.g., “It is not green, blue etc”. Thus, discourse about what is is necessarily also discourse about what is not. Intelligence interprets data and interpretation involves inference of what might be from what is. Thus, what is entails not only what is not but also what might be. Perception and interpretation entail imagination. Scientific theory and historical understanding, no less than science fiction and historical fiction, require the ability to form images of and to think about what is not but might be.

Cognition cannot be limited to factual knowledge of empirical data. When such data are recorded, as in a book or a data base, the record is not conscious. Consciousness is a function of organisms not only perceiving what is happening now but also anticipating what might be going to happen next in order to act accordingly. Thus, consciousness is organic and active, not mechanical or passive.

Mars does not exist as a literal deity but we would not exist as human beings if we were unable to internalize and personify our activities. We personify war as Mars, Ares, Tyr, St Michael, Captain America, Rambo and any other military fictitious character who becomes a modern myth by penetrating popular consciousness to the extent that he is universally recognized even by those who have not read his books or seen his films. A name, rep and iconic film poster suffice.

We can live without Rambo but not without fiction. To imagine human beings without fiction is not to imagine human beings. Fiction requires willing (suspension of dis-)belief. Removing the bracketed words transforms fiction into religion. Myths are intermediate: they can be believed as authoritatively transmitted religions or appreciated as collectively transmitted fictions. This distinction is clear now but, when people started telling stories to make sense of the world, they would not then have asked, “Is this literally true?” They would have compared stories but not condemned alternative versions. In fact, scripture contains contradictory creation stories.

We can now regain that sharing of mythologies while understanding the difference between mythological and scientific explanations of phenomena. For example, we can appreciate Babylonian, Biblical, Greek, Norse and Hindu Flood myths without believing any of them, while also researching the global catastrophe behind the myths. Gods are our most powerful personifications, so powerful that many people have been convinced of their independent existence or at least have not clearly distinguished collective imagination from external reality.

That gods do not literally exist but nevertheless are important aspects of consciousness is more like a Pagan or Hindu view. Muslims believe that one and only one god does literally exist. The statement that there is only one god originally addressed a context in which there were many gods in popular culture and imagination. Only if there were, prima facie, many did it make sense to insist that there was only one. There are still many personifications but we now more clearly distinguish between a real person and a fictitious character, either of which can become a popular icon.

I think that the Jesus who preached, healed and was executed was real but his counterparts in the Fourth Gospel and the Koran have achieved mythical status as has Elvis (All-Wise, “Lives”) Presley in some minds. Claims to have met the still living Elvis should be investigated, although they are unlikely to be substantiated, but the fact that the claims are made shows Presley’s status in one part of the collective consciousness. We can acknowledge that Elvis lived and remains important to many people without expecting to find him hiding out with Bruce Lee and Jim Morrison although this idea can generate entertaining fiction even sometimes in newspaper reports that need not be taken seriously. We saw his body although I have heard this denied with a certainty that did not allow for any discussion or argument. St Paul would have been as certain. 

In dialogue with Muslims, I would propose that: 

gods are imagined;
imagination is necessary for humanity;
imagining and believing in gods was a necessary stage of human development;
stories of the gods can still be appreciated;
similar imaginative processes continue, generating fictitious and mythical characters no longer usually called “gods.”

If we accept these propositions, then we disagree with literal theism but can nevertheless opt either for an entirely secular life style or for one that includes ceremonial Paganism. Myths that are passively appreciated can be ritually enacted.

Since Pagans, unlike Semitic monotheists, do not insist on doctrinal uniformity, rituals can be performed by people with very different understandings of them. Sometimes political Conservatives value an established Church not because they subscribe to its doctrines but because they regard it as socially unifying. Those who reject enforced uniformity but seek an older and broader unity can recognize for example that the midwinter festival symbolizes not the birth of Christ but the solstice which remains significant and can continue to be symbolized by a divine birth that is not regarded as historical.

Our remote ancestors transformed themselves from mere bipeds with opposable thumbs into self-conscious persons by co-operating to the extent of becoming a linguistic community. When their social environment had become not only fellow hominids but also communicating persons, they generalized dialogue by personifying and addressing other external phenomena like the sound of thunder. Thunder replied in imagination, possibly including vivid imagination indistinguishable from external perception. Brains making the transition from animal to human, then processing the earliest human experiences, probably did not yet function as they do now. 
Personified thunder was hypostatized as a thunder-controlling person. Forked lightning above a mountain at night might have been seen as a fiery celestial spear striking a rising giant. Thunder at night in Maine sounded to me exactly like Thor tripping over mountains in the dark. There was a sense of a powerful presence becoming suddenly audible as elemental forces cataclysmically collided.

Either because it is natural for language-users to address not only each other but also personified natural forces and imagined superior beings or because I was brought up as a monotheist, I find it easy to pray not to any one god but to whatever gods may be. Although imagined gods do not literally exist, some superior beings might. If it were the case that natural forces are and always have been controlled by powerful intelligent beings, then it would not be the case that such beings have evolved ultimately from inanimate matter. However, it remains possible, though no more than that, that, of the beings that have evolved, some are superior to us and are as unknown to us as we are to many simpler organisms. 

It is a logical error to think that superior beings do exist because no one can show that they do not but it is salutary to reflect on how little we know. There is scope for imagination as long as it is remembered that it is imagination. If any superior beings do exist and can intervene in human affairs, they clearly think that our affairs are our responsibility. We should act accordingly. Asking for help is harmless and seems natural but relying on supernatural help would be counter-productive.

Gratitude for everything good seems appropriate even if we doubt that there is a literal giver. Gratitude to ancestors, without whom we would have nothing, is certainly appropriate. We can either worship ancestral spirits or simply acknowledge ancestral contributions in public ceremonies and private reflections.

We can acknowledge our faults to hypothetical superior beings without thinking that they judge us. We judge ourselves and, if there were an omnipotent creator, then he would be responsible for everything. Whether or not gods exist, we are accountable to each other.
Appendix: Rituals

We have access to several kinds of ritual.
Christian/Muslim etc: when attending weddings and funerals of friends and colleagues;
State: occasions like the Opening of Parliament;
Church-State: the Coronation;
Civic: Mayoral inaugurations etc;
Pagan: celebrating seasonal changes;
Buddhist: focusing attention for meditation;
Magical: can involve focusing creativity (Alan Moore used it to complete a novel);
Masonic: performed in secret but apparently described in accessible texts;
Marxist: expressing both a hope and a program for the future (vestigial but can involve singing the Internationale with clenched fists while displaying red flags and banners).

This is a comprehensive list of aspects of life. We may learn from these traditions because, even during and after a period of unprecedented change, we will continue to celebrate victories, remember atrocities, bury the dead and deepen awareness and therefore will still use some kinds of ritual.

(The above list of kinds of ritual is so comprehensive that I should add that “learning” sometimes means learning what not to do. A secular republic neither crowns its head of state nor involves an Archbishop in his inauguration but does find ways to mark important events and anniversaries. Religious, spiritual and magical rituals are not for state occasions and usually are not secret although, in some traditions, a practice is preserved from corruption by presenting it only to initiates.)


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