Thursday, August 30, 2007

God's Warriors

Christiane Amanpour's three part, six hour special report, God's Warriors which aired last week on CNN was a great bit of reporting. I won't presume to "review" the program. Suffice to say that Ms. Amanpour is, in my opinion, one of the best reporters anywhere. She took great pains to be as impartial as possible, revealing her incredulity only briefly in response to some instances of obvious sexism.

The overarching theme of this omnibus presentation was the advent of religious radicalism now prevalent in all three of the major monotheistic religions of the world - Judaism, Islam, and of course, good old Christianity.That in itself is not news to most earthlings of the human persuasion who haven't spent the last twenty or so years in the asteroid belt. But the program served to put into perspective to some extent, the history and events which brought each tradition to this dangerous pass.

It is worthy of note that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world and, of course, much of the violence being visited upon the planet today is rooted in radical Islam. But it is also important to understand that there are radical Jews and Christians who are equally disposed to doing violence in the name of their god. God's Warriors does an admirable job of articulating that fact.

What ultimately renders any lasting resolution to the conflicts between these religious traditions so remote is the inability or unwillingness of any of them to accommodate the others in compromise. To do so would be forsaking their god. The true believers of each tradition maintain an unswerving faith that theirs is the one and only true path; that all others are deluded, following false gods or being led down the garden path by Beelzebub himself.

I know there are those, especially in the U.S. who believe that the right wing evangelical movement is waning. Certainly, since the last mid-term elections, it would appear that the Christian fundamentalists have lost their momentum. But they are a hearty lot. They have proven to be every bit as steadfast and driven as Osama and his boys.

Radical Christians are in part driven by the awareness that radical Muslim leaders have made great strides in galvanizing their followers into a fairly monolithic and overtly devout group. The Christians don't want to be caught with their spiritual pants down. They are compelled to mobilize and strengthen their flocks in preparation for the ultimate battle against the supposed heathen Islamist hoards. Many are booking passage to Armageddon as I type. I think a new Holiday Inn Express just opened there. There may be package deals on Expedia or Price Line, maybe an "Apocalypse Special"

What else drives the fundamentalist radicals of these respective faiths? We often hear both leaders and followers of these traditions lament the advent of the secular world and the dissolution of traditional morality, mainly in the west. Much of the western world, and certainly foremost, the U.S. has, in the eyes of many fallen into a miasma of materialism, sexual perversity, drug use and street violence. The fundies of all faiths believe that the only cure is a return to old time religion - a dose of fire and brimstone to force people to sit up and fly right; that failure to do so will ultimately doom us all to eternal damnation. Even a "loving" god can get testy.

Obviously, I think that's all a lot of hooey. While it is certainly true that materialism, mainly in the form of consumerism, pretty much rules the western world - and now more and more of the east as well, as witness China's massive thrust into capitalist ventures, not to mention thoroughly westernized Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Shanghai plus inroads in South Korea - even Thailand and Viet Nam. But is it all bad?

I think not. As I see it, many of the negatives we are witnessing in westernized societies are essentially growing pains. We are dazzled by technology. Computers, IPods, IPhones - all the electronic junk that is being foisted upon us is for many intoxicating in their possibilities. Many years ago, Zelda Fitzgerald was quoted as saying, "We grew up founding our dreams on the infinite promise of American advertising..." That is certainly no less true today.

While, at my rapidly ripening age, I will likely not see an end to this, I do believe that at some point, we may eventually just get over such fascination - that the gizmos and toys will not be so coveted as they are today. Some will shake their heads. Considering the current state of affairs, there is certainly no evidence of any waning in our love affair with "stuff." But who knows? Such change may eventually come to pass.

Of equally serious concern is the apparent deterioration of our sexual mores. Witness the massive offerings of any and all types of pornography, mainly via the internet, but also on the tube, in films, books, magazines, in our music and so on. Sex in our society has become ubiquitous and pervasive which deeply troubles many, not only those of a religious bent. Sex can be debasing and dangerous. It can be used to degrade both women and men. It can be lethal owing to AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Our concomitant fascination with violence simply adds to the complexity of the problem and the misery it causes either in conjunction with sex or not.

But again, I look upon it as a phase - a troubling one, no doubt - but nevertheless, a phase. It is a logical response to hundreds of years of sexual repression. On the whole, western society is mad for sex and violence. In a sense, we want it all. We want to see it, feel it, smell it and taste it. We want to experience the whole gamut of pleasure and pain. We want to wallow in its perversity. Ultimately, though, "civilized" society will get beyond it. It will likely take a while - at least several decades, more likely, a few centuries. But, should man survive, most of the perverse thrill of sex and violence may become passe', perhaps boring.

Humanity will not be doomed to hell for its sins. There is no hell - and certainly no heaven, no afterlife. No god. If we don't nuke ourselves out of existence, if we don't get wasted by an earthly collision with a giant comet, we may one day wake to find that we are well and happy, that we are whole, totally on our own, owing no allegiance to any god or other "higher power."

But in the mean time, anyone disturbed by the growing threat coming from radical fundamentalists of all stripes should be attentive and watchful. It was one thing to wage religious war in the days of swords and spears. It is quite another in an age when some true believer may have his nervous little finger on the nuclear button. The fundies, in their religious zeal, may rush us all to an end we didn't believe would or could happen.


Thursday, August 09, 2007

Secular Music

Back in May a letter appeared in the Humanist Network News the "ezine of the Institute for Humanist Studies" signed by one "Tenor with Reservations" regarding the conundrum of being an atheist or agnostic struggling with misgivings about performing religious music. "Tenor" had been asked by a neighbor to join a local civic chorus. He told her that owing to the strong religious content of much of the music the chorus performed, he couldn't in good conscience join such a group.

I responded with a letter which appeared in the same publication a few weeks later stating that I too had been faced with a similar problem. I wrote: "As it happens, most of the greatest music in the western world is, like it or not, religious. Bach, Mozart, Palestrina, Bernstein, etc. - virtually all of their choral works are religious. While the inspiration for this music originated with belief in a god, it was, nevertheless, composed by and for us lowly humans to play, to sing, and listen to."

I had a three year tenure with a choral group in Indianapolis. Not all, but most of the music we performed was religious in nature, mostly Christian. I didn't embrace the message provided by the mosly biblical texts. I just reveled in the greatness of the music.

As atheists or agnostics, we still marvel at great cathedrals, sculpture and paintings of religious subjects. Remember, this life is the only shot we get. I say. . . go for it. Embrace the music and sing out."

As it happens, the 'Tenor with Reservations" is a member of the "Brights, the humanist organization."
"Tenor" sent me an email thanking me for my comments and suggested that since we appear to have a common interest - singing, music, etc. - that I might consider becoming a Coordinator of Musical Development for the freethought community. While intriguing, such a task seemed a bit ambitious for the likes of yours truly.

But Tenor voiced his frustration at the "dearth of music" heard at various humanist gatherings, conventions and the like. I may be wrong here, but what I believe Tenor is looking for is accessible music with a humanist bent - music that would be appropriate for such gatherings, but that is of such a nature that the audience could relate to and/or actually participate in. (Humanist karaoke?)

Obviously, there is a great deal of what is considered to be "secular" music. But, for the most part, few of us know of music specifically inspired by and written as a celebration of humanity as opposed to music composed through supposed "divine" inspiration. I am aware that many 20th century composers had either openly or covertly broken with the church and some came to deny any belief in a god - Stravinsky, Shostakovitch, perhaps Mahler among others, just as many writers and other artists did. Although many of these composer's works are highly respected, little of it is accessible to the average person.

So, what am I getting at here? A response from any fellow "Brights" or anyone else pausing to read here who can offer suggestions regarding what's out there. Are there individuals or groups of whatever genre who are composing and/or performing music which is in whole or in part focused on humanity, on the human condition, living without god, or consideration of some "higher power?" Perhaps music focusing on the struggle between belief and non-belief?

I know I am not conveying this very clearly. Perhaps it's because many of us, myself included spend a great deal of time detailing who we are NOT, what we do NOT believe, as opposed to defining who we ARE, and what we DO believe. Words fail me.

If you do understand what I'm getting at, and know of such music or musicians, let me know here. In the near future there should be some kind of notification in this regard at Nothing is set up there as yet owing to some health problems with one of the director's families. If we can be directed to this type of music and their creators (not of the heavenly type,) perhaps it could be beneficial for all.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Let us all revel in the "glory" of the morning!