Sunshine Recorder

Link: The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins

His atheism is its own kind of narrow religion.

… Even more remarkable is Dawkins’s inveterate literal-mindedness. He tells us that “the Pauline belief that everybody is born in sin, inherited from Adam (whose embarrassing non-existence was unknown to St. Paul), is one of the very nastiest aspects of Christianity.” It is true that the idea of original sin has become one with a morbid preoccupation with sexuality, which has been part of Christianity throughout much of its history. Even so, it is an idea that contains a vital truth: evil is not error, a mistake of the mind, a failure of understanding that can be corrected by smarter thinking. It is something deeper and more constitutive of human life itself. The capacity and propensity for destruction goes with being human. One does not have to be religious to acknowledge this dark fact. With his myth or metaphor of the death instinct thanatos, Freuda lifelong atheistrecognized that impulses of hatred and cruelty are integral to the human psyche. As an atheist myself, it is a view I find no difficulty in sharing.

Quite apart from the substance of the idea, there is no reason to suppose that the Genesis myth to which Dawkins refers was meant literally. Coarse and tendentious atheists of the Dawkins variety prefer to overlook the vast traditions of figurative and allegorical interpretations with which believers have read Scripture. Both Augustine and before him the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria explicitly cautioned against literalism in interpreting the biblical creation story. Later, in the twelfth century, Maimonides took a similar view. It was only around the time of the Reformation that the idea that the story was a factual account of events became widely held. When he maintains that Darwin’s account of evolution displaced the biblical story, Dawkins is assuming that both are explanatory theoriesone primitive and erroneous, the other more advanced and literally true. In treating religion as a set of factual propositions, Dawkins is mimicking Christianity at its most fundamentalist.

There is an interesting inconsistency between Dawkins’s dismissal of religion as being little more than a tissue of falsehood and his adherence to an evolutionary account of human behavior. In the later chapters of An Appetite for Wonder, Dawkins recounts his work on the behavior of blowflies, and later mice, guppy fish, and crickets. As always, what he describes as his “Darwin-obsessed brain” analyzed these behaviors in terms that were meant to be consistent with Darwinian orthodoxy. His best-selling manifesto The Selfish Gene originated in 1973, when strike action by miners led to a “three-day week” in which there were frequent power-cuts. Dawkins needed electricity for his work on crickets, but he could do without it for writing, which he did on a portable typewriter, so he began to write instead. By 1982, we find him “trying to push Universal Darwinism”the view that genes are not the only replicators in natural selectiona theme he had explored in the last chapter of his best-seller, where he presented his theory of memes. Dawkins’s suggestion is that memes “leap from brain to brain, via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation,” and it is clear that he sees this process at work throughout human culture, including religion.

There are many difficulties in talk of memes, including how they are to be identified. Is Romanticism a meme? Is the idea of evolution itself a meme, jumping unbidden from brain to brain? My suspicion is that the entire “theory” amounts to not much more than a misplaced metaphor. The larger problem is that a meme-based Darwinian account of religion is at odds with Dawkins’s assault on religion as a type of intellectual error. If Darwinian evolution applies to religion, then religion must have some evolutionary value. But in that case there is a tension between naturalism (the study of humans and other animals as organisms in the natural world) and the rationalist belief that the human mind can rid itself of error and illusion through a process of critical reasoning. To be sure, Dawkins and those who think like him will object that evolutionary theory tells us how we got where we are, but does not preclude our taking charge of ourselves from here on. But who are “we”? In a passage from The Selfish Gene that Dawkins quotes in this memoir, he writes:

They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, these replicators. Now they come by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.

If we “are” survival machines, it is unclear how “we” can decide anything. The idea of free will, after all, comes from religion and not from science. Science may give us the unvarnished truthor some of itabout our species. Part of that truth may prove to be that humans are not and can never be rational animals. Religion may be an illusion, but that does not mean science can dispel it. On the contrary, science may well show that religion cannot be eradicated from the human mind. Unsurprisingly, this is a possibility that Dawkins never explores. 

For all his fervent enthusiasm for science, Dawkins shows very little interest in asking what scientific knowledge is or how it comes to be possible. There are many philosophies of science. Among them is empiricism, which maintains that scientific knowledge extends only so far as observation and experiment can reach; realism, which holds that science can give an account of parts of the world that can never be observed; irrealism, according to which there is no one truth of things to which scientific theories approximate; and pragmatism, which views science theories as useful tools for organizing and controlling experience. If he is aware of these divergent philosophies, Dawkins never discusses them. His attitude to science is that of a practitioner who does not need to bother with philosophical questions. 

It is worth noting, therefore, that it is not as a practicing scientist that Dawkins has produced his assaults against religion. As he makes clear in this memoir, he gave up active research in the 1970s when he left his crickets behind and began to write The Selfish Gene. Ever since, he has written as an ideologue of scientism, the positivistic creed according to which science is the only source of knowledge and the key to human liberation. He writes wellfluently, vividly, and at times with considerable power. But the ideas and the arguments that he presents are in no sense novel or original, and he seems unaware of the critiques of positivism that appeared in its Victorian heyday.

Some of them bear re-reading today. One of the subtlest and most penetrating came from the pen of Arthur Balfour, the Conservative statesman, British foreign secretary, and sometime prime minister. Well over a century ago, Balfour identified a problem with the evolutionary thinking that was gaining ascendancy at the time. If the human mind has evolved in obedience to the imperatives of survival, what reason is there for thinking that it can acquire knowledge of reality, when all that is required in order to reproduce the species is that its errors and illusions are not fatal? A purely naturalistic philosophy cannot account for the knowledge that we believe we possess. As he framed the problem in The Foundations of Belief in 1895, “We have not merely stumbled on truth in spite of error and illusion, which is odd, but because of error and illusion, which is even odder.” Balfour’s solution was that naturalism is self-defeating: humans can gain access to the truth only because the human mind has been shaped by a divine mind. Similar arguments can be found in a number of contemporary philosophers, most notably Alvin Plantinga. Again, one does not need to accept Balfour’s theistic solution to see the force of his argument. A rigorously naturalistic account of the human mind entails a much more skeptical view of human knowledge than is commonly acknowledged.

Balfour’s contributions to the debate about science and religion are nowadays little knowncompelling testimony to the historical illiteracy of contemporary philosophy. But Balfour also testifies to how shallow, crass, and degraded the debate has become since Victorian times. Unlike most of those who debated then, Dawkins knows practically nothing of the philosophy of science, still less about theology or the history of religion. From his point of view, he has no need to know. He can deduce everything he wants to say from first principles. Religion is a type of supernatural belief, which is irrational, and we will all be better off without it: for all its paraphernalia of evolution and memes, this is the sum total of Dawkins’s argument for atheism. His attack on religion has a crudity that would make a militant Victorian unbeliever such as T.H. Huxleydescribed by his contemporaries as “Darwin’s bulldog” because he was so fierce in his defense of evolutionblush scarlet with embarrassment. 

If religion comes in many varieties, so too does atheism. Dawkins takes for granted that being an atheist goes with having liberal values (with the possible exception of tolerance). But as the Victorians well knew, there are many types of atheism, liberal and illiberal, and many versions of atheist ethics. Again, Dawkins imagines an atheist is bound to be an enemy of religion. But there is no necessary connection between atheism and hostility to religion, as some of the great Victorian unbelievers understood. More intelligent than their latter-day disciple, the positivists tried to found a new religion of humanityespecially August Comte (1798–1857), who established a secular church in Paris that for a time found converts in many other parts of the world. The new religion was an absurdity, with rituals being practiced that were based on the pseudo-science of phrenologybut at least the positivists understood that atheism cannot banish human needs that only faith can meet.

One might wager a decent sum of money that it has never occurred to Dawkins that to many people he appears as a comic figure. His default mode is one of rational indignationa stance of withering patrician disdain for the untutored mind of a kind one might expect in a schoolmaster in a minor public school sometime in the 1930s. He seems to have no suspicion that any of those he despises could find his stilted pose of indignant rationality merely laughable. “I am not a good observer,” he writes modestly. He is referring to his observations of animals and plants, but his weakness applies more obviously in the case of humans. Transfixed in wonderment at the workings of his own mind, Dawkins misses much that is of importance in human beingshimself and others.

To the best of my recollection, I have met Dawkins only once and by chance, when we coincided at some meeting in London. It must have been in late 2001, since conversation at dinner centered around the terrorist attacks of September 11. Most of those at the table were concerned with how the West would respond: would it retaliate, and if so how? Dawkins seemed uninterested. What exercised him was that Tony Blair had invited leaders of the main religions in Britain to Downing Street to discuss the situationbut somehow omitted to ask a leader of atheism (presumably Dawkins himself) to join the gathering. There seemed no question in Dawkins’s mind that atheism as he understood it fell into the same category as the world’s faiths.

In this, Dawkins is surely right. To suppose that science can liberate humankind from ignorance requires considerable credulity. We know how science has been used in the pastnot only to alleviate the human lot, but equally to serve tyranny and oppression. The notion that things might be fundamentally different in the future is an act of faithone as gratuitous as any of the claims of religion, if not more so. Consider Pascal. One of the founders of modern probability theory and the designer of the world’s first mass-transit system, he was far too intelligent to imagine that human reason could resolve perennial questions. His celebrated wager has always seemed to me a rather bad bet. Since we cannot know what gods there may be (if any), why stake our lives on pleasing one of them? But Pascal’s wager was meant as a pedagogical device rather than a demonstrative argument, and he reached faith himself by way of skeptical doubt. In contrast, Dawkins shows not a trace of skepticism anywhere in his writings. In comparison with Pascal, a man of restless intellectual energy, Dawkins is a monument to unthinking certitude.

We must await the second volume of his memoirs to discover how Dawkins envisions his future. But near the end of the present volume, an inadvertent remark hints at what he might want for himself. Darwin was “never Sir Charles,” he writes, “and what an amazing indictment of our honours system that is.” It is hard to resist the thought that the public recognition that in Britain is conferred by a knighthood is Dawkins’s secret dream. A life peerage would be even better. What could be more fitting for this tireless evangelist than to become the country’s officially appointed atheist, seated alongside the bishops in the House of Lords? He may lack their redeeming tolerance and display none of their sense of humor, but there cannot be any reasonable doubt that he belongs in the same profession. 

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Link: "God didn't die, he was transformed into money" — An interview with Giorgio Agamben

A 2012 interview with the Italian philosopher, who expresses his views on the economic crisis, capitalism as a religion (Walter Benjamin), the role of history in European cultural identity, “bio-politics”, the “state of exception”, and the fate of contemporary art (“trapped between the Scylla of the museum and the Charybdis of commodification”).

Peppe Savà: The Monti government is invoking the crisis and the emergency situation and it seems to be the only solution for both the financial catastrophe as well as the indecent forms assumed by power in Italy: is Monti’s perspective the only solution or could it to the contrary become a pretext to impose serious limitations on democratic liberties?

Giorgio Agamben: These days, the words “crisis” and “economy” are not used as concepts but rather as words of command that facilitate the imposition and acceptance of measures and restrictions that the people would not otherwise accept. Today, “crisis” means, “you must obey!” I think it is very obvious to everyone that the so-called “crisis” has been going on for decades and that it is actually nothing but the normal functioning of capitalism in our time. And there is nothing rational about the way capitalism is now functioning.

In order to understand what is taking place, we have to interpret Walter Benjamin’s idea that capitalism is really a religion literally, the most fierce, implacable and irrational religion that has ever existed because it recognizes neither truces nor redemption. A permanent worship is celebrated in its name, a worship whose liturgy is labor and its object, money. God did not die; he was transformed into money. The Bank—with its faceless drones and its experts—has taken the place of the church with its priests, and by its command over credit (even loans to the state, which has so blithely abdicated its sovereignty), manipulates and manages the faith—the scarce and uncertain faith—that still remains to it in our time. Furthermore, the claim that today’s capitalism is a religion is most effectively demonstrated by the headline that appeared on the front page of a major national newspaper a few days ago: “Save the Euro Regardless of the Cost”. Well, “salvation” is a religious concept, but what does “regardless of the cost” mean? Even at the cost of sacrificing human lives? Only within a religious perspective (or, more correctly, a pseudo-religious perspective) could one make such plainly absurd and inhuman statements.

The economic crisis that is now threatening many European countries: can it be generally conceived as a crisis of modernity as a whole?

The crisis that is now affecting Europe is not so much an economic problem, as we are being told, but above all a crisis of our relation to the past. Knowledge of the past is the only way to have access to the present. It is through their quest to understand the present that men—or at least the Europeans—felt compelled to interrogate the past. I have specified that this involved “we Europeans” because it seems to me, granting that the word Europe has any meaning, it now seems obvious that this meaning cannot be political, or religious, or much less economic, but consists in the fact that the European man—unlike, for example, the Asians and the Americans, for whom history and the past have a totally different meaning—can approach his truth only by way of a confrontation with the past, only by settling accounts with his history. The past is not just a patrimony of objects and traditions, of memories and knowledge, but above all an essential anthropological component of European man, who can access the present only by looking at what happened in the past. The special relation that the European countries (Italy and of course Sicily are exemplary from this point of view) have with their cities, with their works of art, and with their landscapes, is not a matter of preserving more or less valuable, but external and accessible, things: it is a question of the true European reality, its indisputable survival. This is why, by destroying the Italian countryside with the concrete of highways and high-speed trains, the speculators, while refusing to deprive themselves of their profits, are destroying our very identity. The very expression, “cultural goods” is deceptive, because it suggests that the term embraces certain goods and excludes others, goods that can be economically exploited and even sold, as if one could liquidate and offer one’s own identity for sale.

Many years ago, a philosopher who was also a high official of the nascent Europe, Alexandre Kojeve, maintained that homo sapiens had reached the end of his history and that he had only two choices: access to a post-historical animality (as exemplified by the American Way of Life) or snobbery (as exemplified by the Japanese) that continues to celebrate its tea ceremony, empty and devoid of any historical meaning. Between an integrally re-animalized United States and a Japan that remains human only by renouncing all historical content, Europe can offer the alternative of a culture that remains human and vital even after the end of history, because it is capable of confronting its own history in its totality in order to proceed from there to attain a new life.

Your most famous book, Homo Sacer, is a study of the relation between political power and naked life and reveals the difficulties that both terms entail. What is the point of possible intermediation between these two poles?

What my research has shown me is that sovereign power has been based since its origins on the separation between naked life (the biological life that in Greece took place in the home) and life as politically defined (which takes place in the city). Naked life was excluded from politics and was at the same time included and captured by its own exclusion: in this sense, naked life is the negative basis of power. This separation attains its most extreme form in modern bio-politics. What happened in the totalitarian states of the 20th century is that power (perhaps by way of science) decided just what, in the final reckoning, is a human life and what is not a human life. In opposition to this view, what we have to do is to conceive of a politics of vital forms, that is, a life that cannot be separated from its form, one that will never be naked again.

The boredom, to employ a euphemism, with which the ordinary person confronts politics: is this connected with the specific conditions of Italy or is it somehow inevitable?

I think that today we are facing a new phenomenon that goes beyond disenchantment and the mutual suspicion between citizens and power, a phenomenon that affects the whole planet. What is taking place is a radical transformation of the categories with which we have habitually thought about politics. The new order of world power is based on a model of governance that defines itself as democratic, but which has nothing in common with what this term meant in Athens. The fact that this model is, from the viewpoint of power, more economical and efficient, is proven by the fact that it was adopted even by the regimes that up until quite recently were dictatorships. It is much easier to manipulate people’s opinions by means of the media and television than to have to permanently impose every decision by means of violence. The political forms that we once knew—the nation-state, sovereignty, democratic participation, political parties, international law—have come to the end of their history. They remain part of our lives as empty forms, but contemporary politics assumes the form of an “economy”, that is, a government of things and of men. So that our only recourse is to think integrally, based on the principle that we previously defined with the expression, which is otherwise so obscure, of “political life”.

The state of exception that you have linked with the concept of sovereignty today seems to take on the character of a normal situation, but the citizens are still at a loss when faced with the uncertainty of their everyday lives: is it possible to attenuate this feeling?

We have been living for decades in a state of exception, which has become the rule; as in the case of the economy, crisis is the normal condition. The state of exception that was supposed to be limited in time is instead the normal model of governance today and this is true of the very same states that call themselves democratic. Few people are aware of the fact that the security regulations introduced after September 11 (they had been established in Italy since the Years of Lead) are worse than the ones that were on the books under fascism. And the crimes against humanity committed under Nazism were made possible by the fact that Hitler had taken power and proclaimed a state of exception that was never repealed. Hitler, however, did not have the same possibilities of control (biometric data, surveillance cameras, cell phones, credit cards) that are at the disposal of our contemporary states. One could very well say that today the state considers every citizen to be a virtual terrorist. This can have no other consequence than to diminish and render impossible the participation in politics that is supposed to define democracy. A city whose squares and streets are controlled by way of surveillance cameras cannot be a public place: it is a prison.

The great authority that so many people attribute to scholars who, like you, research the nature of political power: is it possible that these scholars can awaken in us the hope that, to use a cliché, the future will be better than the present?

Optimism and pessimism are not useful categories for thinking. As Marx wrote in a letter to Ruge: “it is precisely the desperate situation which fills me with hope”.

May we ask you a question about the speech you gave in Sicily? Some people have concluded that it was an homage to Piero Guccioni, to an old friend, while others have seen it as a suggestion concerning how we might escape from the checkmate in which contemporary art finds itself trapped.

It is true that my speech was an homage to Piero Guccioni and to Scicli, a small city where some of the most important painters of our time are living. There the situation of art is vividly felt and it might be the best place to understand the crisis of the relation with the past that we just talked about. The only place where one can live in the past is the present and if the present ceases to feel the life of its own past, then the museum and art, which are the most well known images of that past, become problematic places. In a society that no longer wants to have anything to do with its past, art finds itself trapped between the Scylla of the museum and the Charybdis of commodification. And since our museums of contemporary art are so often temples of the absurd, both of these things go hand in hand. Duchamp was probably the first person to become aware of the dead end in which art had become interred. Just what did Duchamp invent with his “ready-made”? He took some ordinary object, a urinal, for example, and by introducing it into a museum he compelled the museum to show it as a work of art. Naturally—after a brief period of surprise and shock—nothing can be attributed to its presence there: not the work because it is an ordinary object, just any industrially-produced object, and not the artistic work because it involved absolutely no “poiesis”, no production—and much less the artist, except as a philosopher or a critic or as Duchamp liked to say, as “one who breathes”, a mere living being. In any case it is certainly true that he did not claim to have produced a work of art, but to have cleared the way for art, which was stuck between the museum and commodification. As you know, what happened instead is that a class, one that is still active, of clever speculators transformed “ready-made” into a work of art. And so-called contemporary art does nothing but repeat Duchamp’s gesture by filling the museums, which are nothing but organs of the market devoted to accelerating the circulation of merchandise which, like money, have attained a state of liquidity and which they want to continue to value as if they were works of art, with non-works and non-performances. This is the contradiction of contemporary art: it abolishes the work of art and then puts a price tag on the result.

Link: The Fire Burns Yet

Native American peoples are still here and still caring for their land. Can their conquerors say the same?

A few years ago, I was invited to attend a traditional Haida memorial ceremony. It was for a prominent community member in Old Masset on Haida Gwaii, off British Columbia. Before the potlatch, a friend casually mentioned a highly unusual event. When the man had died a few months earlier, a school of killer whales came into the harbour, right up close to the shoreline near his house. Killer whales were one of the deceased’s hereditary crests, passed down through the family matriline.

On the Pacific Northwest coast, Haida families inherit rights of association with certain ‘totemic’ species by virtue of legendary events in which their respective ancestors were involved. Stories of one clan descending from a supernatural salmon or another emerging ancestrally from a cedar tree are typical. But such tales do not merely recount legendary events of the past: they shape how people interpret the present. So Raven, the central character of Haida mythology, brought light and fire (by theft) to the world, and enabled the original Haida to emerge from a clamshell. And today, many Haidas continue to interpret the actions of particular living ravens as communicating to them, signalling messages of value from which their human relatives might learn.

I had already heard, and read, many similar accounts of Native relationships with the natural world and witnessed too many unusual events to be wholly sceptical about killer whales coming to pay their respects to a human relative. So I nodded politely, placed the information in a mental compartment not for literal or scientific scrutiny, and gave the matter no further thought at the time.

At a key moment in the ceremony, a cedarwood box containing small amounts of traditional food (salmon, kelp, etc) is placed on a log fire to consume its material form, while the essence, transformed into smoke, carries upwards. In the ceremony I attended after hearing about the visit of the killer whales, the charred box fell perfectly into four neat sections, cleanly releasing the man’s spirit heavenwards. At that moment, I glanced up, and noticed two bald eagles alighting in a nearby pine tree. They remained there, apparently attending to the events below. Haidas noticed this too, though they gave no overt indication until one of the ministers added a prayer to her litany, thanking the Creator for sending them. Bald eagles, it turned out, were another of the deceased’s hereditary crests.

As an anthropologist, I am a scientist, and profess the standard commitment to search for objective truth via observation and reason; I cheerfully accept established scientific laws. Yet this commitment has often been challenged by my experiences among Native communities involving the natural world, which I am unable to explain by scientific reason. I have come to believe that such experiences point towards a different, genuinely sustainable relationship with nature. But taking account of them means listening much more carefully to other people’s world views than we have done to date.

As the world starts to feel the effects of burgeoning human populations, declining biodiversity, climate warming, sea-level rise, and severe weather events, humanity seems helpless. Our global economy is geared to endless growth, and the in-tandem consumption of resources and production of unmanageable waste. Well-meaning initiatives multiply with each passing day, but typically founder against the unthinkable prospect that we might actually change fundamental aspects of our behaviour.

Of course, our cumulative ‘Western’ knowledge, our science, indeed our technology, has produced many wonderful things, not least modern medicine. But the current organisation of our global economy, and its obsession with endless — often trivial — innovation keeps us stuck on a path that might easily lead to the demise of both our species and its habitat. Can we do no better? After 200,000 years ofHomo sapiens, and less than two centuries of living in industrial states geared to exponential technological innovation, must we just shrug in the face of the inevitable? Have another martini and watch our own sunset? Or are there other models from which we might learn?

I am a social anthropologist, British by birth, American by naturalisation. Since the late 1970s, I have spent a fair amount of time residing in and visiting Native communities throughout the US and Canada. Most of my resident fieldwork has been with the Hopi of Arizona, but I have also worked with some of the New Mexico Pueblos, the Hoopa of northern California, the Puget Salish of Washington State, the Cayuga and Mohawk of upstate New York, the Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw and other peoples of British Columbia, and the Choctaw and Chickasaw of Mississippi and Oklahoma.

As a Briton, I grew up with the idea (shared by many in Americans too) that American Indians had been assimilated, died off or, in all events, lost their traditional culture long ago. My undergraduate education in anthropology at the University of Cambridge in the early 1970s did nothing to correct this mistaken idea. North American Indian studies were almost entirely absent from my course of study, and none of my teachers had any experience of Native North American societies. Indeed, they tended to be disdainful of the very idea: Native Americans were somehow second-class indigenes, mentioned only in connection with ethnographic reconstructions of times long gone. As far as research went, Native American societies were either no longer extant or wholly acculturated and not suitable for anthropological study.

I began to realise how inapt this conception was when I entered graduate school at the University of New Mexico. I went on some initial trips to the Rio Grande Pueblos led by Alfonso Ortiz, a Pueblo anthropologist. I learnt not only that Pueblo peoples were still fluent in their languages (six in all — Tewa, Tiwa, Towa, Keresan, Zuni and Hopi; except for the first three, all completely unrelated to each other), but also that they remained deeply attached to age-old ritual practices and to their subsistence economy. More than anything else, they were jealously protective of their autonomy from the dominant society.

As my experiences expanded, I have been continually astonished at the degree of cultural persistence across Native America. Wandering, with a Hoopa guide, on traditional lands of the Karuk and Yurok in northern California, I ran across preparations for the First Salmon ceremony, and a community life strongly grounded in their aboriginal heritage and the annual World Renewal cycle. On the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation on the US-Canadian border, even after 350 years of intensive colonisation (including, in 1710, a visit to London of ‘the four Mohawk kings’ to meet Queen Anne, and, in the mid-1700s, fighting for Sir William Johnson in the Seven Years’ War), despite continuous missionisation since the 1640s, despite relocation and land appropriation, the St Regis Mohawks still conduct business in the Mohawk language. Some Coast Salish people of the Puget Sound still use traditional beliefs in guardian spirits, who are encountered at power spots in their environment, to guide their actions.

Where Native Americans have lost their languages, as for most of the Haida, Hoopa, Chickasaw, or Puget Salish, there remains a palpable sense of continuity with the deep past, especially in the persistent value placed upon the land, its life-forms, and its sustaining force. A striking example of this can be found in Native service in the US military. Native Americans have the highest per‑capita participation in the military of any ethnic group in the US. While the Navajo code‑talkers of the Second World War are well-known, they were preceded in this by Choctaw code-talkers in the First World War, and accompanied in the Second World War by code-talkers from other tribes, including Hopi, Comanche, Cherokee, Lakota, and Meskwaki. Long before this, in the 18th century, the Six Nations of the Iroquois, having formed an alliance with the British, split in their allegiances to Loyalists and Patriots in the Revolutionary War, with many fighting on both sides. Native Americans fought in large numbers in the War of 1812, in the Civil War, and every major foreign engagement over the past two centuries.

In view of the generally awful treatment they have received at the hands of successive US governments, it seems surprising that so many should continue to enlist. I asked a decorated Hopi Second World War veteran — a man proud of his military service and at the same time strongly committed to Hopi autonomy — about this apparent paradox. He said that Native American patriotism has some different dimensions from that of non-Native compatriots. He pointed out that Natives, as the only class of Americans who are genuinely non-immigrants, fight to defend the land itself, a land for which their ancestors fought and died over countless generations.

This sense of the land has outlasted all the treaties (and their breaches), all its disposition by private cession and government pre-emption, and all its formal alienation to non‑Native hands. Hopis, for example, continue to look to their aboriginal land Hopitutskwa (roughly, the northeastern quarter of Arizona) as both the meaningful landscape of their ritual practices and as their defining territory, even though they have formal control of only a small portion of that (the Hopi Reservation), with the great majority controlled by the federal government and private owners. Native enlistment in military service has a deeper-rooted and more encompassing reality than conventional loyalty to the modern nation-state — it is a commitment to the land and all its life-forms. Of course, many Native Americans are patriotic in the standard sense as well.

Learning from this way of being in the world will require serious attention to Native perspectives: not just as a prop for some Western-conceived environmentalism that marshals the same old metaphysics in new bottles, but with a goal of refiguring the culture-nature, mind-body split that dominates much of Western thought. Such splits tend to reduce nature, including the human body, to physical forms and processes. According to this world-view, only human beings have minds. Nature is thus deprived of intrinsic sentience or conscious intentions: without those, or with only a token acknowledgement of their existence — such as a concern for animal suffering in animal rights ­— there can be no genuine ethics in human relations with other species. And upon our dualist metaphysics is built a whole scheme of global practices — political, economic, medical, even religious — that, notwithstanding its benefits, is the underlying cause of the present global environmental crisis. This is why I believe that refiguring our world-view is a prerequisite to solving, or at least ameliorating that crisis.

The Haida have undergone extensive change since smallpox severely diminished their population and colonial authorities imposed harsh measures of assimilation in the late 19th century. Notoriously the ‘Residential’ schools were designed to detach children from their own culture and language, and from the 1890s to the 1950s the Canadian government outlawed the potlatch ceremony, jailing people for participating in practices that decidedly transgressed against the protestant ethic and the accumulation of surplus. In the 20th century only a few elders continued to speak the language, and with the Canadian government’s suppression of the potlatch, traditional practices ebbed away.

Since the 1970s, however, there has been a cultural renaissance in Haida arts, the potlatch has resumed, and totem-pole carving has flourished. Many people continue to collect subsistence foods — berries, greens, tender pine cones, salmon, clams, etc — expressing age-old habits of relationship, and acknowledging their fundamental dependence on the natural environment of Haida Gwaii (‘islands of the Haida people’). The acknowledgement is not just theoretical: it is saturated with the sense of mutual sentience and engagement: matter-of-fact reports of respectful killer whales and solicitous bald eagles are very much part of everyday life.

Some 2,000 miles south of the Haida rainforests and fishing cultures of British Columbia, the Hopi of Arizona’s high desert would have no trouble recognising these beliefs. Hopis are dry-farmers in a land without rivers or streams, and they depend on meagre annual precipitation to raise their principal crops of maize, beans, and squash. Many Hopis still farm subsistence crops, speak their language (although it is under threat), and continue to practise a religion — and a science — that is fundamentally attuned to environmental processes. The ritual enactment of Katsina spirits epitomises this.

Katsinas represent myriad forces of the natural world, ancestral deities, moral principles, and historical events. During the Katsina season (roughly January to July), the spirits still come each year from their homes in the mountains to dwell around the villages. With human individuals as their spiritual vehicles, they manifest themselves in dance performances in the kivas (ritual chambers) and plazas of the dozen Hopi villages. Katsinas also make themselves manifest as clouds rising from the mountaintops, bringing life-giving rain to nourish all life-forms in Hopi country. Hopitutskwa, Hopi land, is a living, breathing landscape. Tuuwaqatsi, the natural world, or specifically its life forms, populates this landscape. Hopis continue to sing to, celebrate, and propitiate both the landscape and its life forms — the stage and its play.

Just like the Haida, Hopis, who depend on the natural world for their spiritual and physical subsistence, look directly to it for guidance. For example, when a woman gathers plants for food or crafts, she typically returns to the places her mothers have been going for generations. More than once, I have heard a woman say that she feels directed by the plants themselves; sometimes, the plants want her to leave them for another time, and go to gather their more vigorous relatives in another patch. Plants, too, are sentient in this world-view, and have supernatural capacities beyond their intrinsic chemical properties. Some are regarded as particularly effective at drawing down clouds. Hopis have always sung to their plants.

The Hopi year is arranged calendrically; seasonal phenomena are anticipated and ensured by ritual practices. For example, in the cold of Powamuy (the purification month of February), Hopis conduct Powamu, the ‘Bean Dance’, planting beans in containers in the kivas, where a hot fire (nowadays in a pot-belly stove) germinates them quickly. On the day of the dance, Katsinas (here meaning the personated spirits) emerge from the kivas to distribute the bean sprouts among village households where they are added to harukwivi (bean-sprout stew) for a feast. The whole sets out in miniature the desired progress of the agricultural season: planting in April, carefully nurturing the crops until the first fruits at Niman (the Home Dance in July), and thereafter gathering and celebrating the harvest.

The Powamuy ceremony is both a prayer for the agricultural cycle and a ritual prefiguring of it. In the ceremony, Hopis express their wish that the season will be successful, recognise their critical dependence on natural forces larger than themselves, and acknowledge that unless they proceed with care and commitment, acting ethically in relation to nature as well as to each other, things could well go wrong. When things do go wrong — a drought, or excessive rainfall that washes away the fields, or a plague of grasshoppers — Hopis typically blame their own failings: they question whether their ‘hearts’ were truly right, whether they have acted thoughtfully, whether their intentions were pure.

Their whole relationship with the natural world is shot through with the same ethical structure in which they frame their relationship with fellow human beings. This does not mean that individual (or collective) actions always follow those ideals: people get jealous, betray each other, become angry, plot against each other, and so on. In this regard, Hopis are no different from the rest of humanity. But their ideals, norms, morals, and virtues — most graphically on display in ritual performances — point to mutual responsibility, and to collective effort for peace and harmony, in both the natural and the social world. There can be no harmonious society if the balance of nature has not been maintained — by the deliberate exercise of human attentions.

I first attended the Hopi Snake Dance in 1978. It was a powerful example of this deliberate strategy to shape natural events through forms of ritual attention. The ceremony (no longer open to outsiders) features the Snake Society dancing with live rattlesnakes and bullsnakes held in their mouths: they dance in a solemn swaying motion, before releasing the snakes into the desert to carry their prayers to the natural forces, especially the sources of rain. In Hopi thought, snakes are especially associated with water, and are the guardians of springs. Lightning and rain are explicitly associated with snakes and their movements. That first year, I staked out my spot in the dusty plaza at dawn, waiting all day through the August heat until the late afternoon ceremony. I was transfixed, not least by the palpable seriousness of the protagonists: this was not some tourist spectacle but a profoundly thought-out ritual engagement, an age-old practice that seemed to go back to the dawn of time. Sure enough, within half an hour of the dance’s ending, rain began to fall, though there had not been a cloud in the sky all day.

Since then, I have seen the Snake Dance on three other occasions: each time rain began falling within a short period after the dance concluded. Under such circumstances, it felt that my scientific world-view, which identifies weather events solely as meteorological phenomena, needed as much defending as Hopi ‘magical’ beliefs in the ritual power of their snake ceremony.

Like the Haida, the Hopi people have experienced much change over the past century. Many younger Hopis no longer understand the language, nor practise subsistence farming, and the communities experience problems typical of the rural West in general and Indian reservations in particular: widespread unemployment, health concerns including a high incidence of diabetes, alcoholism and substance abuse, and poverty. But, again like the Haida, some of the strength of Hopi traditions derives from the fact that they continue to live where they always have, unlike large numbers of American Indians who were forcibly removed from their aboriginal lands by government actions.

Hopis are very conscious of the (non-monetary) value of their land, and have persistently refused to accept compensation for losses of parts of it. A 1970s Indian Claims Commission award of $5 million (that has grown with interest to near $50 million today), for the illegal taking of Hopi lands in the 19th century, has never been accepted, and it continues to sit in a bank even while many Hopis live below the poverty line. ‘Never sell your land’ is a key lesson Hopis point to as handed down from their elders. Even though these particular lands have long been formally outside Hopi control, some Hopis believe that if they accept the money, they will have sold their birthright, and the sentient land of their ancestors will never again look favourably upon them. Money, Hopis say, can never be relied on in the long run, while the land will always be there to support us.

Hopis know that their traditional lifestyle is tough: Màasaw, the earth deity who greeted them upon emergence from the world below, agreed to accept them only if they were prepared to live his hard, simple way of life. While many Hopis are poor and live in what the federal government defines as substandard housing, the older houses are ones they built themselves with sandstone, clay, and logs, and their owners are not indebted to banks or mortgage companies. For a long time, some villages refused to accept water or electricity lines, disliking the spiderweb-like intrusion into the earth (where Muy’ingwu, the germination deity, has his dwelling), and foreseeing also that this would indebt them to non-local companies, and compromise their independence.

In recent years, to gain access to electricity, some Hopis have installed solar panels, which neither interfere with the earth nor are controlled by utility companies. Amid all the changes over the past century, a core feature of Hopi belief is the animacy of the natural world, and the sentience of all its inhabitants. These beliefs underlie a sense of interdependence that is occasionally reflected in actions and events that Western thought treats as impossible. Hopis continue to celebrate and value this world-view, and identify the environmental breakdowns of the world at large as the result of their fellow humans’ failure to follow a similar path.

Link: Death and Madness at Diamond Mountain: Buddhism in the West

People come from all over the world to Arizona’s Diamond Mountain University, hoping to master Tibetan teachings and achieve peace of mind. For some, the search for enlightenment can go terribly wrong.

Ian Thorson was dying of dehydration on an Arizona mountaintop, and his wife, Christie McNally, didn’t think he was going to make it. At six in the morning she pressed the red SOS button on an emergency satellite beacon. Five hours later a search-and-rescue helicopter thumped its way to the stranded couple. Paramedics with medical supplies rappelled off the hovering aircraft, but Thorson was already dead when they arrived. McNally required hospitalization. The two had endured the elements inside a tiny, hollowed-out cave for nearly two months. To keep the howling winds and freak snowstorms at bay, they had dismantled a tent and covered the cave entrance with the loose cloth. Fifty yards below, in a cleft in the rock face, they had stashed a few plastic tubs filled with supplies. Even though they considered themselves Buddhists in the Tibetan tradition, an oversize book on the Hindu goddess Kali lay on the cave floor. When they moved there, McNally and Thorson saw the cave as a spiritual refuge in the tradition of the great Himalayan masters. Their plan was as elegant as it was treacherous: They would occupy the cave until they achieved enlightenment. They didn’t expect they might die trying.

Almost irrespective of the actual spiritual practices on the Himalayan plateau, the West’s fascination with all things Tibetan has spawned movies, spiritual studios, charity rock concerts and best-selling books that range from dense philosophical texts to self-help guides and methods to Buddha-fy your business. It seems as if almost everyone has tried a spiritual practice that originated in Asia, either through a yoga class, quiet meditation or just repeating the syllable om to calm down. For many, the East is an antidote to Western anomie, a holistic counterpoint to our chaotic lives. We don stretchy pants, roll out yoga mats and hit the meditation cushion on the same day that we argue about our cell phone bill with someone in an Indian call center. Still, we look to Asian wisdom to center ourselves, to decompress and to block off time to think about life’s bigger questions. We trust that the teachings are authentic and hold the key to some hidden truth. We forget that the techniques we practice today in superheated yoga studios and air-conditioned halls originated in foreign lands and feudal times that would be unrecognizable to our modern eyes: eras when princely states went to war over small points of honor, priests dictated social policy and sending a seven-year-old to live out his life in a monastery was considered perfectly ordinary.

Yoga, meditation, chakra breathing and chanting are powerful physical and mental exercises that can have profound effects on health and well-being. On their own they are neither good nor bad, but like powerful lifesaving drugs, they also have the potential to cause great harm. As the scholar Paul Hackett of Columbia University once told me, “People are mixing and matching religious systems like Legos. And the next thing you know, they have some fairly powerful psychological and physical practices contributing to whatever idiosyncratic attitude they’ve come to. It is no surprise people go insane.” No idea out of Asia has as much power to capture our attention as enlightenment. It is a goal we strive toward, a sort of perfection of the soul, mind and body in which every action is precise and meaningful. For Tibetans seeking enlightenment, the focus is on the process. Americans, for whatever reason, search for inner peace as though they’re competing in a sporting event. Thorson and McNally pursued it with the sort of gusto that could break a sprinter’s leg. And they weren’t alone. More than just the tragedy of obscure meditators who went off the rails in nowhere Arizona, Thorson’s death holds lessons for anyone seeking spiritual solace in an unfamiliar faith.

Until February 2012, McNally and Thorson were rising stars among a small community of Tibetan Buddhist meditators and yoga practitioners who had come to the desert to escape the scrutiny and chaos of the city in order to focus on spiritual development. McNally was a founding member of Diamond Mountain University and Retreat Center – a small campus of yurts, campers, temples and retreat cabins that sprawls over two rocky valleys adjacent to historic Fort Bowie in Arizona. In the past decade Diamond Mountain has risen from obscurity to become one of the best known, if controversial, centers for Tibetan Buddhism in the United States. Its supreme spiritual leader is Michael Roach, an Arizona native, Princeton graduate and former diamond merchant who took up monk’s robes in the 1980s and remains one of this country’s most enthusiastic evangelists for Tibetan Buddhism. McNally was Roach’s most devoted student, his lover, his spiritual consort and, eventually, someone he recognized as a living goddess. For 14 months McNally led one of the most ambitious meditation retreats in the Western world. Starting in December 2010 she and 38 other retreat participants pledged to cut off all direct contact with the rest of the planet and meditate under vows of silence for three years, three months and three days. Unwilling to speak, they wrote down all their communications. Phone lines, airconditioning and the Internet were off-limits.

The only way they could communicate with their families was through postal drops once every two weeks. The strict measures were intended to remove the distractions that infiltrate everyday life and allow the retreatants a measure of quiet to focus on the structure of their minds. Thorson’s death might have gone unnoticed by the world if, days after, Matthew Remski, a yoga instructor, Internet activist and former member of the group, had not begun to raise questions about the retreat’s safety on the well-known Buddhist blog Elephant Journal. He called for Roach to step down from Diamond Mountain’s board of directors and for state psychologists to evaluate the remaining 30-odd retreatants. His posting received a deluge of responses from current and former members, some of whom alleged sexual misconduct by Roach and made accusations of black magic and mind control.

Roach rose to prominence in the late 1990s after the great but financially impoverished Tibetan monastery Sera Mey conferred on him a geshe degree, the highest academic qualification in Tibetan Buddhism. Conversant in Russian, Sanskrit and Tibetan, he was an ideal messenger to bring Buddhism to the West and was widely acclaimed for his ability to translate complex philosophical ideas into plain English. He was the first American to receive the title, which ordinarily takes some 20 years of intensive study. In his case, he was urged by his teacher, the acclaimed monk Khen Rinpoche, to spend time outside the monastery, in the business world. At his teacher’s command, Roach took a job at Andin International Diamond Corporation, buying and selling precious stones. According to a book Roach co-authored with McNally, The Diamond Cutter: The Buddha on Managing Your Business and Your Life, in 15 years he grew the firm from a small-time company to a giant global operation that generated annual revenue in excess of $100 million. The book cites a teaching called “The Diamond Sutra,” in which the Buddha looks at diamonds, with their clarity and strength, as symbolic of the perfection of wisdom. But the diamond industry, particularly during the years Roach was active in it, is one of the dirtiest in the world – fueling wars in Africa and linked to millions of deaths.

During a lecture Roach gave in Phoenix last June, I asked him how he could reconcile his Buddhist ethics with making vast sums of money through violent supply chains. Roach stared at me with moist, sincere- looking eyes and avoided the question. “If your motivation is pure, then you can clean the environment you enter,” he said. “I wanted to work with diamonds. It was a 15-year metaphor, not a desire to make money. I wanted to do good in the world, so I worked in one of the hardest and most unethical environments.” It was the sort of answer that plays well with business clients. Rationalizations like this are not uncommon in industry, but they are for a Buddhist monk. If Roach was unorthodox, he was also indispensable. His business acumen might have been enough for some early critics to look the other way. His share of Andin’s profits was ample enough that he could funnel funds to Sera Mey to establish numerous charitable missions.

His blend of Buddhism and business made him an instant success on the lecture circuit, and even today he is comfortable in boardrooms in Taipei, Geneva, Hamburg and Kiev, lecturing executives on how behaving ethically in business will both make you rich and speeding the path of enlightenment. Ian Thorson had always been attracted to alternative spirituality, and he had a magnetic personality that made it easy for him to win friends. Still, “he was seeking something, and there was an element of that asceticism that existed long before he took to any formal practice of meditation, yoga and whatnot,” explains Mike Oristian, a friend of his from Stanford University. Oristian recounts in an email the story of a trip Thorson took to Indonesia, where he hoped a sacred cow might lick his eyes and cure his poor eyesight. It didn’t work, and Thorson later admitted to Oristian that “it was a long way to go only to have the feeling of sandpaper on his eyes.”

Roach gave Thorson a structure to his passion and a systematic way to think about his spiritual quest. After Thorson began studying Roach’s teachings in 1997, Oristian remembers, some of his spontaneous spark seemed to fade. Kay Thorson, Ian’s mother, had a different perspective. She suspected he had fallen under the sway of a cult and hired two anti-cult counselors to stage an intervention. In June 2000 they lured him to a house in Long Island and tried to get him to leave the group. “He was skinny, almost anorexic,” she says. They tried to show him he had options other than following Roach. For a time it seemed to work. Afterward he wrote to a friend about his family’s attempt to deprogram him: “It’s so weird that my mom thinks I’m in a cult and so does Dad and so does my sister. They talk to me in soft voices, like a mental patient, and tell me that the people aren’t ill-intentioned, just misguided.” For almost five years he traveled through Europe, working as a translator and tutor, but he never completely severed ties. Eventually he made his way back to Roach’s fold. In 1996, when she was only two years out of New York University, Christie McNally dropped any plans she’d had to pursue an independent career and became Roach’s personal attendant, spending every day with him and organizing his increasingly busy travel schedule. And though his growing base of followers didn’t know it, she would soon be sharing Roach’s bed.

The couple married in a secret ceremony in Little Compton, Rhode Island in 1998. As had many charismatic teachers before him, Roach established a dedicated following. As it grew he planned an audacious feat that would take him out of the public eye and at the same time establish him in a lineage of high Himalayan masters. He announced that, from 2000 to 2003, he would put his lecturing career on hold and attempt enlightenment by going on a three-year meditation retreat along with five chosen students, among them Christie McNally. In many ways, Roach’s silence was more powerful than his words. Three years, three months and three days went by, and Roach’s reputation grew. Word of mouth about his feat helped expand the patronage of Diamond Mountain and the Asian Classics Institute, which distributed his teachings through audio recordings and online courses.

Every six months he emerged to teach breathless crowds about his meditating experiences. At those events he was blindfolded but spoke eloquently on the nature of emptiness. Finally, on 16 January 2003 he dropped two bombshells in a poem he addressed to the Dalai Lama and published in an open letter. In his first revelation he claimed that after intensive study of tantric practices he had seen emptiness directly and was on the path to becoming a bodhisattva, a sort of Tibetan angel. The word tantra derives from Sanskrit and indicates secret ritualized teachings that can be a shortcut to advanced spiritual powers. The second revelation was that while in seclusion he had discovered that his student Christie McNally was an incarnation of Vajrayogini, the Tibetan diamond-like deity, and that he had taken her as his spiritual consort and wife. They had taken vows never to be more than 15 feet from each other for the rest of their lives and even to eat off the same plate. In light of her scant qualifications as a scholar, Roach legitimized McNally by bestowing her with the title of “lama,” a designation for a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism.

These revelations severely split the Tibetan Buddhist community. The reprimands were swift and forceful. Several respected lamas demanded that he hand back his monk’s robes. Others, including Lama Zopa Rinpoche, who heads the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, a large and wealthy group of Tibetan Buddhists, advised that he prove his claims by publicly showing the miraculous powers that are said to come with enlightenment – or be declared a heretic. That Zopa Rinpoche was one of Roach’s greatest mentors made the criticism all the more pertinent and scathing. Robert Thurman, a professor of religious studies at Columbia University, met with Roach and McNally shortly after Roach published his open letter. He was concerned that Roach had broken his vows and that his continuing as a monk could damage the reputation of the larger Tibetan Buddhist community. “I told him, ‘You can’t be a monk and have a girlfriend; you have clearly given up your vow,’” Thurman says. “To which he responded that he had never had genital contact with a human female. So I turned to her and asked if she was human or not. She said right away, ‘He said it. I didn’t.’ There was a pregnant pause, and then she said, ‘But can’t he do whatever he wants, since he has directly realized emptiness?’” On the phone I can hear Thurman consider his words and sigh. “It seemed like they had already descended into psychosis.”

Link: Chris Hedges: Imploding the Myth of Israel

Israel has been poisoned by the psychosis of permanent war. It has been morally bankrupted by the sanctification of victimhood, which it uses to justify an occupation that rivals the brutality and racism of apartheid South Africa. Its democracy—which was always exclusively for Jews—has been hijacked by extremists who are pushing the country toward fascism. Many of Israel’s most enlightened and educated citizens—1 million of them—have left the country. Its most courageous human rights campaigners, intellectuals and journalists—Israeli and Palestinian—are subject to constant state surveillance, arbitrary arrests and government-run smear campaigns. Its educational system, starting in primary school, has become an indoctrination machine for the military. And the greed and corruption of its venal political and economic elite have created vast income disparities, a mirror of the decay within America’s democracy.

And yet, the hard truths about Israel remain largely unspoken. Liberal supporters of Israel decry its excesses. They wring their hands over the tragic necessity of airstrikes on Gaza or Lebanon or the demolition of Palestinian homes. They assure us that they respect human rights and want peace. But they react in inchoate fury when the reality of Israel is held up before them. This reality implodes the myth of the Jewish state. It exposes the cynicism of a state whose real goal is, and always has been, the transfer, forced immigration or utter subjugation and impoverishment of Palestinians inside Israel and the occupied territories. Reality shatters the fiction of a peace process. Reality lays bare the fact that Israel routinely has used deadly force against unarmed civilians, including children, to steal half the land on the West Bank and crowd forcibly displaced Palestinians into squalid, militarized ghettos while turning their land and homes over to Jewish settlers. Reality exposes the new racial laws adopted by Israel as those once advocated by the fanatic racist Meir Kahane. Reality unveils the Saharonim detention camp in the Negev Desert, the largest detention center in the world. Reality mocks the lie of open, democratic debate, including in the country’s parliament, the Knesset, where racist diatribes and physical threats, often enshrined into law, are used to silence and criminalize the few who attempt to promote a civil society. Liberal Jewish critics inside and outside Israel, however, desperately need the myth, not only to fetishize Israel but also to fetishize themselves. Strike at the myth and you unleash a savage vitriol, which in its fury exposes the self-adulation and latent racism that lie at the core of modern Zionism.

There are very few intellectuals or writers who have the tenacity and courage to confront this reality. This is what makes Max Blumenthal’s “Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel” one of the most fearless and honest books ever written about Israel. Blumenthal burrows deep into the dark heart of Israel. The American journalist binds himself to the beleaguered and shunned activists, radical journalists and human rights campaigners who are the conscience of the nation, as well as Palestinian families in the West Bank struggling in vain to hold back Israel’s ceaseless theft of their land. Blumenthal, in chapter after chapter, methodically rips down the facade. And what he exposes, in the end, is a corpse. 

I spent seven years in the Middle East as a correspondent, including months in Gaza and the West Bank. I lived for two years in Jerusalem. Many of the closest friends I made during my two decades overseas are Israeli. Most of them are among the Israeli outcasts that Blumenthal writes about, men and women whose innate decency and courage he honors throughout his book. They are those who, unlike the Israeli leadership and a population inculcated with racial hatred, sincerely want to end occupation, restore the rule of law and banish an ideology that creates moral hierarchies with Arabs hovering at the level of animal as Jews—especially Jews of European descent—are elevated to the status of demigods. It is a measure of Blumenthal’s astuteness as a reporter that he viewed Israel through the eyes of these outcasts, as well as the Palestinians, and stood with them as they were arrested, tear-gassed and fired upon by Israeli soldiers. There is no other honest way to tell the story about Israel. And this is a very honest book. 

“Goliath” is made up of numerous vignettes, some only a few pages long, that methodically build a picture of Israel, like pieces fit into a puzzle. It is in the details that Israel’s reality is exposed. The Israeli army, Blumenthal points out in his first chapter, “To the Slaughter,” employs a mathematical formula to limit outside food deliveries to Gaza to keep the caloric levels of the 1.5 million Palestinians trapped inside its open air prison just above starvation; a government official later denied that he had joked in a meeting that the practice is “like an appointment with a dietician.” The saturation, 22-day bombing of Gaza that began on Dec. 27, 2008, led by 60 F-16 fighter jets, instantly killed 240 Palestinians, including scores of children. Israel’s leading liberal intellectuals, including the writers Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman, blithely supported the wholesale murder of Palestinian civilians. And while Israelis blocked reporters from entering the coastal Gaza Strip—forcing them to watch distant explosions from Israel’s Parash Hill, which some reporters nicknamed “the Hill of Shame”—the army and air force carried out atrocity after atrocity, day after day, crimes that were uncovered only after the attack was over and the press blockade lifted. This massive aerial and ground assault against a defenseless civilian population that is surrounded by the Israeli army, a population without an organized military, air force, air defenses, navy, heavy artillery or mechanized units, caused barely a ripple of protest inside Israel from the left or the right. It was part of the ongoing business of slaughtering the other.

“Unarmed civilians were torn to pieces with flechette darts sprayed from tank shells,” Blumenthal writes. “Several other children covered in burns from white phosphorous chemical weapon rounds were taken to hospitals; a few were found dead with bizarre wounds after being hit with experimental Dense Inert Metal Explosive (DIME) bombs designed to dissolve into the body and rapidly erode internal soft tissue. A group of women were shot to death while waving a white flag; another family was destroyed by a missile while eating lunch; and Israeli soldiers killed Ibrahim Awajah, an eight-year-old child. His mother, Wafaa, told the documentary filmmaker Jen Marlowe that soldiers used his corpse for target practice. Numerous crimes like these were documented across the Gaza Strip.”

By the end of the assault, with 1,400 dead, nearly all civilians, Gaza lay in ruins. The Israeli air force purposely targeted Gaza’s infrastructure, including power plants, to reduce Gaza to a vast, overcrowded, dysfunctional slum. Israel, Blumenthal notes, destroyed “80 percent of all arable farmland in the coastal strip, bombing the strip’s largest flour mill, leveling seven concrete factories, shelling a major cheese factory, and shooting up a chicken farm, killing thirty-one thousand chickens.”

“Twelve [years old] and up, you are allowed to shoot. That’s what they tell us,” an Israeli sniper told Haaretz correspondent Amira Hass in 2004 at the height of the Second Intifada, Blumenthal writes. “This is according to what the IDF [Israel Defense Force] says to its soldiers. I do not know if this is what the IDF says to the media,” the sniper was quoted as saying.

The 2008 murderous rampage is not, as Blumenthal understands, an anomaly. It is the overt policy of the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who advocates “a system of open apartheid.” Israel, as Blumenthal points out, has not lifted its state of emergency since its foundation. It has detained at least 750,000 Palestinians, including 10,000 women, in its prisons since 1967. It currently holds more than 4,500 political prisoners, including more than 200 children and 322 people jailed without charges, Blumenthal writes, including those it has labeled “administrative detainees.” Israel has a staggering 99.74 percent conviction rate for these so-called security prisoners, a figure that any totalitarian state would envy.

Blumenthal cites a survey of Jewish Israeli attitudes on the Gaza bombing, known as Operation Cast Lead. The survey, by Daniel Bar-Tal, a political psychologist from Tel Aviv University, concluded that the public’s “consciousness is characterized by a sense of victimization, a siege mentality, blind patriotism, belligerence, self-righteousness, dehumanization of the Palestinians, and insensitivity to their suffering.” Bar-Tal tells Blumenthal “these attitudes are the product of indoctrination.” And Blumenthal sets out to chronicle the poison of this indoctrination and what it has spawned in Israeli society.

The racist narrative, once the domain of the far right and now the domain of the Israeli government and the mainstream, demonizes Palestinians and Arabs, as well as all non-Jews. Non-Jews, according to this propaganda, will forever seek the annihilation of the Jewish people. The Holocaust, in which Israeli victimhood is sanctified, is seamlessly conflated with Palestinian and Arab resistance to occupation. The state flies more than 25 percent of Israeli 11th-graders to Poland to tour Auschwitz and other Nazi extermination camps a year before they start army service. They are told that the goal of Arabs, along with the rest of the non-Jewish world, is another Auschwitz. And the only thing standing between Israelis and a death camp is the Israeli army. Israeli high schools show films such as “Sleeping With the Enemy” to warn students about dating non-Jews, especially Arabs. Racist books such as “Torat Ha’Melech,” or “The King’s Torah,” are given to soldiers seeking rabbinical guidance on the rules of engagement. Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira and Rabbi Yosef Elitzur, the authors of the 230-page book, inform soldiers that non-Jews are “uncompassionate by nature” and may have to be killed in order to “curb their evil inclinations.” “If we kill a gentile who has violated one of the seven commandments [of Noah] … there is nothing wrong with the murder,” Shapira and Elitzur write. The rabbis claim that under Jewish law “there is justification for killing babies if it is clear that they will grow up to harm us, and in such a situation they may be harmed deliberately, and not only during combat with adults.”

These narratives of hatred make any act of deadly force by the Israeli army permissible, from the shooting of Palestinian children to the 2010 killing by Israeli commandos of nine unarmed activists on the Turkish boat the Mavi Marmara. The activists were part of a flotilla of six boats bringing humanitarian supplies to Gaza. The Israeli propaganda machine claimed that the small flotilla was a covert terror convoy. Never mind that the Mavi Marmara was in international waters when it was attacked. Never mind that no one on the boat, or any of the five other boats, was armed. Never mind that the boats were thoroughly searched before they left for Gaza. The Israeli lie was trumpeted while every camera, video and tape recorder, computer and cellphone of the activists on board was seized and destroyed—or in a few cases sold by Israeli soldiers when they got back to Israel—while those on the boats were towed to an Israeli port and detained in isolation. The ceaseless stoking of fear and racial hatred—given full vent by the Israeli government and media in the days after the Mavi Marmara incident—has served to empower racist political demagogues such as Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, a camp follower of Meir Kahane. It has also effectively snuffed out Israel’s old left-wing Zionist.

“In Israel you have three systems of laws,” the Israeli Arab politician Ahmed Tibi observes in the Blumenthal book. “One is democracy for 80 percent of the population. It is democracy for Jews. I call it an ethnocracy or you could call it a Judocracy. The second is racial discrimination for 20 percent of the population, the Israeli Arabs. The third is apartheid for the population in the West Bank and Gaza. This includes two sets of governments, one for the Palestinians and one for the settlers. Inside Israel there is not yet apartheid but we are being pushed there with … new laws.”

Link: Singing to the Dawn: Thomas Berry on Our Broken Connection to the Natural World

Excerpt from “How Shall I Live my Life” by Derrick Jensen. In this collection of interviews, Derrick Jensen discusses the destructive dominant culture with ten people who have devoted their lives to undermining it.

Thomas Berry doesn’t fit the image of a typical environmentalist. A Catholic monk in his late eighties, he is a philosophical forebear to younger generations of activists. His main focus is not the immediate battles being fought, but the roots of the problem, which he traces back to the beginnings of Western civilization.

Berry wrote his book The Dream of the Earth (Sierra Club Books) beneath an ancient oak in New York City, on a slope overlooking the Hudson River. That tree, to which he dedicated his book, lived through many changes, be- ginning with the arrival of the Europeans and the end of traditional Native American ways. It lived through the disappearance of the wood bison, the passenger pigeon, the great American chestnuts, the wolverines who prowled the shores of the Hudson, the Atlantic salmon that were once so numerous they threatened to carry away fishermen’s nets. It stood there as men cut down the neighboring trees, demolishing the forest where its life began. It lived through the pouring of billions of tons of concrete, the erection of brick buildings and rigid structures of steel.

Born in 1914, when there were fewer than 2 billion people in the world, Berry, too, has lived through many changes. He grew up in an undeveloped— read, undestroyed—area of the South. “I saw the beginnings of the auto- mobile age,” he says, “and, to some extent, the age of industrialization. I remember the discovery of the Arabian oil fields in the 1920s, and the development of the petrochemical age after the Second World War. By the time I was eight years old, I already saw something happening that I didn’t like.”

Berry has spent much of his life trying to understand why this culture is bent on destroying the natural world. When he was twenty, he entered a Passionist monastery, and for ten years, he got up at two every morning for liturgy. From 3 a.m. on he studied the foundations of Western thought. He discovered that environmental degradation is not a recent development: for example, by the time Plato wrote his Republic, the Greeks had already cut down the forests of their homeland.

At thirty, Berry went to the Catholic University of America, where he earned a doctoral degree in history. He also learned Chinese and Sanskrit, he says, “so I could find out how other cultures and religions dealt with the problems of human existence.” Berry traveled to China to teach and later be- came director of the graduate program in the history of religions at Fordham University. In 1970, he founded the Riverdale Center of Religions Research in Riverdale, New York, and remained its director until 1995.

The fate of the next generation, which will live to see a world of 8 to 10 billion people, is often on Berry’s mind. “They are going to be in a tragic situation,” he says, “particularly in regard to petroleum. Our food depends on petroleum, and in a sense is transformed petroleum, just like our energy, transportation, clothing, utensils, and plastics. What are people going to do when the petroleum is gone?”

One of Berry’s book titles is The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (Crown Publishing). The “great work” facing humanity, he says, is to move from mindlessly extracting and consuming the earth’s resources to establishing a mutually beneficial relationship with nature. His other books include two academic works on religion, Buddhism and Religions of India (both Columbia University Press), and The Universe Story (Harper SanFrancisco), coauthored with cosmologist Brian Swimme.

The old oak tree under which Berry wrote is no more. It was cut down by a homeowner worried that its branches would fall on his roof. And Berry no longer lives in New York. He has returned to his place of birth in North Carolina, where he lives on a former farm that is now part of the city of Greensboro. I stayed there on a cool November night, talking with him until the small hours and starting up again the following frosty morning.

DJ: Do you think this culture will undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living?

TB: The first part of answering that question is to ask what kind of transfor- mation we have to undergo. It seems to me that there are two dimensions to this transformation. The first is that we have to get beyond the artificial division we’ve created between the human community and the rest of planet. There is only one community, and it lives and dies as a unit. Any harm done to the natural world diminishes the human world, because the human world depends on the natural world not only for its physical supplies but for its psychic development and fulfillment. This is most important, because people talk about the need to destroy the natural world in order to advance the hu- man world. Well, anything that diminishes the wonder and fulfillment we receive from the natural world spoils the human enterprise. We may get a pile of possessions, but it won’t mean much if we can’t go to the mountains or the seacoast, or enjoy the songs of birds or the sights and scents of flowers. What does it do to our children when they cannot enjoy such things?

The other dimension to this is that we have to somehow get beyond Western Civilization, which must be profoundly altered because it is so destructive in its present state. This alteration is so absolute and so deep in its implications that a person has to wonder about the continuity. In other words, Western Civilization itself is causing our difficulties, which makes this type of a change hard to really comprehend. Transformations of this magnitude are generally associated with some type of religious change.

It seems clear the mission of our times is to reinvent what it means to be human. One thing we know about human beings is that they invent themselves. As a species we are genetically coded toward a further transgenetic cultural coding through which we become fully human. We must be taught how to be human, through our parents, through our community, through rituals, through interactions with the natural world. This is why there is a diversity of ways to be human under different cultural contexts. The Western mode of being has developed into such a distortion that it is causing over- whelming impact not only on the human dimension of the planet but other dimensions as well. Civilized humans have become a planetary power, be- yond what any species has been previously. Because language derives from experience, and ultimately from the natural world, we’re in a situation that is hard to present in any kind of known language. All of this means that it can be hard even to imagine the type of transformation that is necessary. We need to imagine it before we can deal with the question of whether or not people will voluntarily accept it.

I suspect that when it happens it will not be so much voluntary or in- voluntary, but subconscious. In other words, I don’t think we’ll be entirely conscious of what’s going on. Cultural formations don’t happen consciously. For example, we surely did not intend to damage the continent to this ex- tent, nor did we intend to establish a structure of human lives that would have these implications. There may be some people who understand the transformation—just as there are some people now who understand the culture’s destructiveness—but for the society at large the actions of the culture are nearly always unconscious.

DJ: You’ve written about the role of Passover in the beginning of a process of separation…

TB: The beginning of Western Civilization. The spiritual structure of Western Civilization gets its start in a very profound way at the time of the Passover, when the Hebrew experience of the cosmological springtime festival was transformed into an historical event of liberation. This is a profound change: from the experience of the divine in the cosmological order—in the world around us—to the experience of the divine as manifested in the historical moments of particular communication between the divine and the human. It’s profound because this then becomes the basic referent for what might be called reality and value; it changes the entire mode of human development.

DJ: I don’t understand.

TB: Within the earlier perspective, communication between the cosmological and the human worlds generally took place through shamanic types. Within the newer worldview, divine/human communication takes place through prophetic types.

DJ: What’s the difference?

TB: The prophetic type becomes the voice of the personal divine, or the medium whereby the divine communicates itself to the human and the human communicates itself to the divine. But the shamanic world is more cosmological, by which I mean that the shamanic personality is in relationship with the powers present throughout the universe.

In back of this, and really what I’m concerned with, is the question of how we experience the universe. My proposal—and this is why a cosmological worldview is so important—is that a cosmological order is what might be called the great liturgy. The human project is validated by ritual insertion into the cosmological order. Our job is to participate in the great hymn of praise that is existence.

We have lost touch with the natural order of things. For example, which day of the workweek it is may be more important to many of us than the great transition moments in the seasonal cycles, and which hour of the day it is—will I get to work on time? Will I avoid rush hour traffic? Will I get to watch my favorite television program—may be more important to us than the transitional moments in the diurnal cycles. We have forgotten the great spiritual import of these moments of transition. The dawn is mystical, a very special moment for the human to experience the wonder and depth of fulfillment in the sacred. The same is true of nightfall. And it’s true when we pass from consciousness to sleep, where our subconscious comes for- ward. That this is a special moment of intimacy is particularly apparent to children. They often know that the moment of falling asleep is the magic or mystical moment when there is a presence. Parents talk to their children in a very special way at this time. It’s very tender, sensitive, quiet. It’s the great transitional moment in our day-night cycle.

There are magical moments in the yearly cycle, too. There is the winter solstice, the moment when the transformation takes place between a declining and ascending sun. It’s a moment of death in nature, a moment when everything is reborn. We have lost touch with this intimate experience.

In the springtime, humans are meant to wonder and to ceremonially observe succession, leading to the fulfillment of summer, and the beginning of the movement again toward death. At the harvest there is another time of gratitude and celebration. I think the Iroquois thanksgiving ceremony is one of the greatest festivals in the religious traditions of humankind. Different elements are remembered and thanked: the water, the rain, the wind, the fruitfulness of the earth, the trees. The Iroquois articulate fifteen or more specialized powers that humans need to commune with and be grateful for.

All of this is cosmological. Such experience evokes a sense of wonder at the majesty of things. We participate in the world of the sacred, the world of mystery, the world of fulfillment. To recognize our fulfillment in these moments is to know what it is to be human.

We can say the same for places as for moments. To be fully human is to fully experience the spectacular formations of the planet: particular mountains, particular rivers, certain rock structures.

We no longer do this. We don’t experience the natural world surrounding us. We deny ourselves our deepest delight by not participating in the dawn, the dusk, the solstice, the springtime.

I went to a monastery when I was twenty. The monastery rituals are based on cosmological processes. We get up at two in the morning to celebrate the liturgy of the night. At dawn we have the liturgy of the day, largely singing or chanting songs of the Bible or hymns written through the centuries to celebrate the dawn or the particular season of the year. Songs celebrating the summer are different from songs celebrating winter. The point is that all through the various moments of the day we celebrate the wonder of existence: the night, the dawn, midday, vespers, the evening, then the closing of the day.

But even with this basis, the sense of it being caught up in sacred cosmological liturgy escapes most people in monasteries. If it is difficult even for people performing these celebrations so many times each day, how much more so for those who do not often reflect on, much less sing to, the dawn?

We can’t lay the blame for all of this on the Passover transition, or the movement from mythological to historical celebrations. That one incident didn’t kill our sense of the cosmological. Our connection to the rest of the planet and the need to celebrate all life lives deep within our bodies, and has never been easily eradicated. Instead, it has slowly been eroded over the centuries and millennia of civilization.

DJ: Can you back up?

TB: After the Passover and with the rise of the Judaic tradition, we saw an increasing emphasis on the historical, the literal, the linear, as opposed to the mythological, the cosmological, the cyclical. Moses was a real person, who had a specific connection to God at that place and at that time…

DJ: And Moses or God were the points of the story, instead of the burning bush itself.

TB: Yes, and later Christianity followed this same path. Jesus was a historical figure, as opposed to a mythic one. Connection to the sacred or to God— who is distant from the earth and not of it—is reserved for a special few who exist in specific places at specific historical times, and everyone else must experience the sacred through these representatives. This experience of the sacred is not, within this perspective, something available to all through their participation in the greater whole.

This historical Christian world then bonded with Greek humanism to create the Western anthropocentrism with which we have unfortunately become all-too-familiar. Humans are the only creatures on the planet who matter. Everything else loses its sacrality, its wonder. All wonder and sacrality is, in fact, vested only in these prophetic figures. It is not vested in the natural world, according to this perspective, and does not surround us every day. All of those things—not beings—that surround us are here merely for us to use. They are not here, under this worldview, to fulfill their own destinies, to commune with each other and with us, and for us to commune with them.

Now, as I said, this perception of the sacred in the world is not easy to eliminate, and so the cosmological relationship did continue, up through the medieval period, until the plague, called the black death, that took place be- tween 1347 and 1349, when a third of Europe died. In Florence, the population declined in six months from ninety thousand to forty-some thousand. In Sienna the population went from forty thousand to fifteen thousand in less than a year. Because part of what we do as human beings is discern meaning, these events had to be interpreted. Not having the slightest knowledge of germs, people didn’t have the possibility to interpret all of this physically. They could only think of moral explanations; for example, the idea that God was punishing humans for becoming weak and sinful. The thing to do, then, was to become more spiritual, and to get redeemed out of a world increasingly seen as a vale of tears anyway. So over the next hundred years there was a big change in the spirituality of Europe. The art, for example, changed dramatically. When studying late fourteenth-century art from Florence, you keep encountering scenes of death, or last judgment scenes, where Christ with an upraised arm condemns the wicked into hell. You never saw these things before. The last judgment became a fearful thing, as did death. Before that, death had been more or less acceptable, simply part of life, something you dealt with through religion. But the people had been traumatized, and now death frightened them far more than it had before.

DJ: Let me get this straight…

TB: People lost touch with much of their participation in the great liturgy: the world instead became filled with manifestations of sin, became horrifying. The task of the spiritual person was to withdraw from the natural world as contamination, as seductive. This was articulated well by the great spiritual writer Thomas á Kempis. Then in the sixteenth century Protestant Puritan- ism overlaid this withdrawal with a certain sternness. In the seventeenth century you get Catholic Jansenism, a kind of Catholic puritanism, an aversion from the natural world. The Jansenists determined that the eucharist—the communion celebration with wine and bread in commemoration of the last supper of Jesus, making Christ present in a special way—was such a holy ritual, and humans were so wicked, that even those who went to mass were not considered worthy to receive the eucharist more than, say, once or a few times a year. Not only had one’s direct access to the sacred been banished from the world, the faithful had been alienated from the church’s own rituals. It was only after much soul searching and penitence that at the beginning of the twentieth century the custom was reasserted for common people to participate in communion each time they went to mass.

Things continued to get worse after the Jansenists. If you perceive the natural world as not sacred, and as composed of things put here for your use, you are going to exploit it. The church articulated the need to be redeemed from the earth, whereas science articulated the need and means to under- stand and control the earth. Thus really began the division between the sa- cred and the secular in the contemporary Western world, which made both the church and scientists happy. The religious people were happy because they didn’t have to deal with the secular side of life, and the secular people were happy because they didn’t have to deal with the spiritual. This latter has led directly to the aggressive commercialization of the planet. Because the natural world was ostracized from the world of the sacred, we have felt free to do with it anything we wanted.

DJ: Let’s go at this from another direction. You’ve written how there are three fundamental types of relationships humans can enter into.

TB: From the beginning, Western Civilization has been very conscious of God-human relations as well as our intrahuman relationships. Think of the Bible. Much of it is concerned with how humans should relate to God, and how humans should relate to each other. What gets lost in all of this are intimate relations with the natural world.

What this means is that our theology has long been highly developed, and particularly in modern times our anthropology has become highly developed, as have our social studies, as part of anthropology. And of course we have the so-called life sciences, but we are still trying to figure out how nature works in order to control it, not how to regain our sense of the natural world as sacred, as fulfillment.

All that is left to most of us these days is the possibility of gaining a kind of romantic fulfillment in going to the seashore, the mountains, or traveling to wilderness areas. But this has progressively tended to become less meaningful, and more separated from our day-to-day existence. In our day-to-day existence, our workaday existence, we are no longer present to the natural world in any manner. We no longer see trees as other beings to be communed with. Nowhere are we taught how to do this. Nowhere is it encouraged for us to speak of this. That is why we live in this world of concrete and steel, of wires and wheels and mechanisms. That’s the tragedy of our children. They don’t see the stars because of light pollution, they play on grass poisoned with pesticides, they experience the world as circumscribed by so much human- made material. Our children have been taken away from any kind of normal human/earth relationship.

We maintain that disconnection as adults. At one time we depended directly on the earth for our life support. We recognized this dependency, gave praise and thanks for it, as do indigenous and agricultural peoples. By now most of us have no idea where our food comes from.

DJ: And we work a lot harder to get it, harder at least than hunter/ gatherers.

TB: The way humans lived before civilization was a lot less work, because the planet naturally produces, naturally renews itself. It offers itself to us not only for food, but in the sense of offering wonders, and its presence. There’s none of this separation of the sacred and the secular in the natural world, both spiritual and physical well-being are offered at the same time, because—and this is what is most important—the physical and the spiritual are two dimensions of the same thing.

If people would only pay proper attention, there are certain verifications that someone could receive even from within the scientific worldview. For instance, the fact that nothing is itself without everything else. The human story and the universe story are in reality a single story. The story of anything requires the telling of the story of everything. And each thing is so present to everything else in the universe that nothing is separated. Every atom influences every other atom without passing through the intervening space.

Many scientists understand this, but often they do not take the next step of understanding. Steven Weinberg, for example, wrote The First Three Minutes, a brilliant scientific study of the first three minutes of the universe, but then later in the book he says, “The more you know about the universe, the less point it seems to have.” My response to that is, “Well, Steven, if there’s no point to it, why do you study it so much? Why do you give your life to it?”

The answer is very simple. The point is the attraction of the Great Self and the small self. Every being has two dimensions: its individual dimension and its universal dimension. The universe is the Great Self of every part of the universe. Why are we so happy being with trees, other animals, hearing birdsongs, seeing the colors of flowers, the flow of rivers? Why do these inspire us so? Well, that is what might be called the large self, where we experience our fulfillment. We are not ourselves without it.

Imagine a drink of water when you are thirsty. It is as spiritual an experience as it is a physical one. You see a river. You drink from it. The river takes care of you physically, and spiritually. That is everything right there.

DJ: Different subject. I’d always thought traditional indigenous peoples lived in dynamic equilibrium with their surroundings, but you propose something else: creative disequilibrium.

TB: Well, there are two basic forces in the universe: differentiation and bonding. That is, pushing things apart, making them different, and bring- ing things together, making them present to each other. At the beginning of the universe, it had several options. If the differentiation overcomes the bonding, then the universe disperses, and nothing happens. If the bonding overcomes—is too strong for—the differentiation, then it collapses. If the bonding and the differentiation enter into equilibrium, everything becomes fixated. The only viable option of the universe is for it to be in a state of creative disequilibrium, holding together sufficiently to not fall apart, but open enough to be expanding.

DJ: How does that manifest in relations involving humans?

TB: Creativity. Play. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Paul Winter, the musician. He asked me to write something he might read at his wedding. I wrote a verse he made into a bookmark. “Look up at the sky. The heavens so blue, the sun so radiant, the clouds so playful, soaring raptors, meadows in bloom, the woodland creatures, rivers singing their way to the sea, wolf song on the land, whale song on the sea, celebration everywhere, wild, riotous, immense as a monsoon lifting an ocean of joy and spilling it down over the Appalachian landscape, drenching us all with a deluge of delight as we open our arms and rush toward each other, Paul and Chez, and all of us, moved by that vast compassionate curve that brings all things together in intimate celebration, celebration that is the universe itself.”

There is a difference between a philosopher and a poet. Philosophers look for equilibrium. Poets delight in a teasing disequilibrium, in the interplay and modes of tension of all beings with each other.

This is also the difference between Chinese and Japanese art. Chinese art, while it has its dynamism and interplay, looks for balance. Japanese art, on the other hand, always insists on a certain disequilibrium. That’s why it is often more free than Chinese art.

DJ: Do you think we’re in a state of destructive disequilibrium?

TB: I’d be more inclined to say we’re collapsing from excessive equilibrium.

DJ: I don’t understand. What’s in equilibrium?

TB: We can’t stand the wild. We can’t stand the creative disequilibrium. Concrete and asphalt are flat. They’re under control. That’s a form of equilibrium. Probably the ultimate form. Stasis. Which is surely what Western Civilization aims for.

If we are to expect to survive, and to remember what it is to be human beings, we need to establish a pattern of viable activity for the whole earth community. This community should be ruled by the principles that every being has three rights: the right to be; the right to habitat; and the right to fulfill its role in the ever-renewing processes of nature.

God Loves Uganda (Trailer)

With God Loves Uganda, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams (Music by Prudence) explores the role of the American Evangelical movement in fueling Uganda’s terrifying turn towards biblical law and the proposed death penalty for homosexuality. Thanks to charismatic religious leaders and a well-financed campaign, these draconian new laws and the politicians that peddle them are winning over the Ugandan public. But these dangerous policies and the money that fuels them aren’t coming from Africa; they’re being imported from some of America’s largest megachurches. Using vérité, interviews, and hidden camera footage, the film allows American religious leaders and their young missionaries that make up the “front lines in a battle for billions of souls” to explain their positions in their own words. Shocking and enlightening, touching and horrifying, God Loves Uganda will leave you questioning just how closely this brand of Christianity resembles the one you think you know.

Link: God & Evil

No, not a screed on the evils of religion, but an exploration of how monotheistic faiths (and Christianity in particular) account for evil in the world. It is another in the ‘Lost Pages’ series – sections of The Quest for a Moral Compass, my book on the global history of ethics, that I had to cut from the final version for reasons of space. Previous excerpts were on MachiavelliDescartes, Locke and Greek cynics, skeptics, atomists and relativists. Since this extract is long, I am splitting it into two sections. This first part begins with the Book of Job, perhaps the most important Biblical text about the problem of evil, and ends with the significance of Augustine and Original Sin. The second part, mainly about the idea of Satan, I will publish next week. This is not a deep discussion of theodicy or theology but a relatively quick look at the tensions created for monotheistic faiths by the question of evil.

The Old Testament’s Book of Job is a magnificent creation, one of the great works of Western literature. It tells the story of Job, a prosperous businessman, a pious man ‘perfect and upright’, who ‘feared God and eschewed evil’ but who becomes the subject of a wager between God and Satan, then still an angel in Heaven. Job shows such piety, Satan suggests to God, only because Yahweh has made him wealthy. Were God to take away ‘all that he hath’, then he would ‘curse thee to thy face’. God and Satan strike a wager. Take away all Job’s wealth and power and happiness, God tells Satan, and let us see if he remains pious.

Satan sets about his task with relish. Job’s flocks, his houses and his family are all destroyed, When he still does not curse God for his misfortune, God agrees that Satan can devastate him with illness to further test his faith. So Satan ‘smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot unto his crown’.

Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, insist that he must have sinned to incite God’s punishment. God always rewards good and punishes evil, with no exceptions. They berate Job for refusing to confess his sins. Job maintains that his suffering is unjustified and  wants God to answer for his actions.

A new and mysterious figure, Elihu, whose name means ‘My God is He’, now enters the scene, arguing for God’s power and redemptive salvation. God, he insists, is always correct in his conduct. He might, however, be forced to impose suffering not just upon the sinful, but upon the righteous, too, as a warning, or for moral betterment. Real repentance, Elihu insists, requires not, as Job’s friends believe, for a sinner to identify and renounce his sins but for him to renounce his belief in his moral authority, an authority that belongs to God, and God alone. Job was a righteous man. But in his insistence on putting his case before God, and making God answer to him, he is assuming that he possesses a superior moral standard. Such arrogance deserves divine punishment.

Finally God Himself speaks ‘out of a whirlwind’. What makes Job think that he has the right to question the Lord, he demands.  ‘Where wast thou’, God wants to know, ‘when I laid the foundations of the earth?’ ‘Have the gates of death been opened unto thee?’, he thunders, ‘Or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death? / Hast thou perceived the breadth of the earth? declare if thou knowest it all.’ God is sovereign over the cosmos.  He is not subject to questions from His creatures.

Job humbly acknowledges that he has spoken beyond the boundaries of his understanding in demanding an answer of God. ‘I know that thou canst do everything’, he says contritely, ‘and that no thought can be withholden from thee.’ And given the power and majesty of the Lord, Job’s only response, even to his undeserved suffering, can only be to ‘abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.’

At the end, it is Job’s three friends who face the wrath of God because in His words, ‘ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath.’ God restores Job to health, doubling his riches and blessing him with seven sons and three daughters, ‘and in all the land were no women found so fair as the daughters of Job’. Job lives on another 140 years, living to see his children to the fourth generation and dying peacefully of old age.

Read without sympathy, the Book of Job’s God appears a callous gambler and a boastful bully, a Creator intoxicated with the sense of his own power. But read as the early Israelites would have read it (or rather heard it), as Job himself would have understood it, it is a narrative of considerable depth, both psychological and spiritual, and one that raises profound questions about the nature of righteousness, suffering and faith. At the heart of the book is an attempt to wrestle with the profound new questions raised by the emergence of monotheistic religions. Why does evil exist? Why do the righteous suffer? And why should one obey God?

In traditional pantheistic religions, such questions had little purchase. Good and evil were woven into the fabric of the universe. The righteous suffered because gods could be nasty, vindictive, brutal and immoral.  One obeyed – or, rather, appeased – gods because one did not wish to make enemies of such powerful, yet often capricious, beings.  It was the irrational, unpredictable nature of the gods that led Socrates, Plato and Aristotle to look to secular reasons for piety and righteousness.

The question of evil had an entirely different character within faiths in which God was seen both as omnipotent and as willing good upon the world. The existence of evil suggests either that God is not omnipotent or that He is responsible for such evil. Since neither view was acceptable to believers, a new kind of explanation was required.  As David Hume put it in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion:

Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?

The question of how to reconcile belief in a good, omnipotent God with the reality of evil has been central to moral and theological debate over the past two millennia.  Perhaps the most enduring of the many explanations that have been volunteered is of evil as a consequence of human sinfulness, the failure to obey God’s law.  So, when in the eighth century BCE the Assyrians destroyed Israel and slaughtered its people, they were acting, in the eyes of the prophet Isaiah, not as God’s enemies but as the instrument of his fury, ‘the rod of mine anger’, sent against ‘an hypocritical nation’ whose people were to be ‘tread… down like the mire of the streets’. Two centuries later, after Judah too had been overrun, and Solomon’s Temple sacked, another prophet, Jeremiah, similarly saw God’s hand at work. ‘Because you have not heard my words’, an incensed Yahweh proclaims, so he would send forth the armies of ‘Nebuchadrezzar, the king of Babylon, my servant, and will bring them against this land, and against the inhabitants thereof’ and take from them ‘the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness’ so that ‘this whole land shall be a desolation and an astonishment.’

For these early prophets, Yahweh is an angry and vindictive god, full of terror and fury. Over time, He softened and mellowed, acquiring the virtues of goodness and compassion. As God’s character changed, so necessarily did the explanation for evil.  The idea of suffering as divine retribution never disappeared, but it became less plausible as a means of reconciling the goodness of an omnipotent being with the presence of wordly torment – after all, a deity that deliberately brings suffering to His people appears neither good nor compassionate.

Evil came increasingly to be seen not so much as a rod of God’s anger as the washing through of human moral frailties. It was an explanation interwoven with the developing concept of free will. God, so the argument ran, had created humans as beings capable of making moral choices. Evil was an expression of the kinds of moral choices that humans sometimes made. The world contained evil not because God chose to make people suffer but because humans did, despite God’s best attempts to instill in them moral rectitude. As the twentieth century Christian thinker CS Lewis put it in his book The Problem of Pain, God could only eliminate evil by thwarting every malevolent action, by ensuring, for instance, that ‘a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon’ or that  ‘the air refused to obey me if I attempted to set up in it the sound waves that carry lies or insults’. But for God to do this would mean that ‘freedom of the will would be void’. Evil is therefore the price that has to be paid for allowing morally frail creatures the good of free will.

The introduction of free will allows believers to transfer responsibility for evil from God to humanity.  But it raises the question as to why, given that God made human beings, He should make them so morally frail. God made humans as beings with free will. But He also made humans with a particular nature and essence, a nature and essence that determined how humans freely responded to good and evil, to temptation and sin. It was within God’s power to make humans with a nature less frail, less given to temptation, more robustly willing to follow God’s will. He chose not to.  Would a benevolent God really have chosen not to? If God has chosen not to, should we not consider the responsibility for human moral frailty – and for the willingness of humans to sin – to lie with the Creator himself?  But, perhaps most importantly, the introduction of free will does not address the question that so torments Job: why should the righteous suffer? If evil is a consequence of humans choosing to disobey God’s law, then why do those who choose to obey also have to endure punishment?

Link: Forms of Delirium: The Night Wolves

Peter Pomerantsev circles the Kremlin.

In the Moscow compound of the Night Wolves, the Russian equivalent of the Hells Angels, ships’ conrods have been refashioned as crosses ten feet high. Broken plane parts have been bolted to truck engines to make a giant stage; crushed Harley-Davidsons have been beaten into a bar; boats’ hulls have been moulded into chairs; and train parts into Valhalla-sized tables. The crosses are everywhere, wrenched together out of old bike parts and truck shafts and engines. The Night Wolves, or Nochnye Volki, are bikers who have found a Russian God. In an act of patriotism they have changed all the words on their leathers from Latin lettering to a gothic Cyrillic. One of the Hells Angels symbols, a ‘1 per cent’ inside a diamond, is still etched on a great stone at the entrance to their kingdom. In Hells Angels lore it stands for the 1 per cent who are outlaws. But the Night Wolves have engraved a new text around the diamond, transforming its meaning: ‘In heaven there is more joy at the 1 per cent of sinners who confess than the 99 per cent who have no need of salvation.’

‘We only have a few years to rescue the soul of holy Russia,’ Alexei Weitz said. ‘Just a few years.’ Weitz is a leading member of the Night Wolves. There are five thousand of them in Russia, five thousand Beowulf-like bearded men in leathers riding Harleys. It’s Weitz who has done most to turn them from outlaws into religious patriots. For the past few years, Vladimir Putin has posed for photo-ops with them, dressed in leathers and riding a tri-bike (he can’t quite handle a two-wheeler). They defended the ‘honour of the church’ after the Pussy Riot affair, roaring in a cavalcade through Moscow bearing golden icons of Mary the Mother of Christ on the front of their Harleys. The Kremlin gives them several hundred million rubles a year and they work to inspire loyalty across the country with concerts and bike shows that fuse flying Yamahas, Cirque du Soleil-style trapeze acts, Spielberg-scale battle re-enactments, religious icons, holy ecstasies, speeches from Stalin and dancing girls (there are booths for go-go girls next to the great crosses). At the last concert in Volgograd, 250,000 locals turned up, a world record for a ‘bike show’. Evander Holyfield was meant to come, to introduce a boxing match that went with the patriotic fireworks, but he had to pull out at the last minute – there was a problem with his visa. Everyone sang the anti-communist perestroika anthem ‘We Want Changes’.

‘Why Stalin?’ I asked. ‘Didn’t he murder hundreds of thousands of priests?’

‘We don’t know why he was sent by God. Maybe he had to slaughter them so the faith could be tested. We don’t know. It’s not for us to judge. When you cut out a disease you have to cut out healthy flesh too.’ As we spoke, Weitz – who is of folkloric size, bearded with glasses – was changing from his office clothes into leathers. He took me to a little wooden house on the territory to have something to eat. There were icons everywhere. We drank tea brewed with spicy medicinal herbs picked by shamans in the Russian far east. Weitz dropped six lumps of sugar into his goblet and told me his story. ‘I trained as an actor. I received the classic Stanislavsky method acting training. My teacher used to say I can be both tragic and comic at the same time. It’s a rare gift.’ He broke off to quote a line from a famous Russian movie version of The Cherry Orchard, replicating the original perfectly. He paused, waiting for me to clap. ‘My breakdown came in 1994. I was starring in The Cherry Orchard, we were on tour in London – we were staying in a hotel at Seven Sisters. You know it? Nice area – and I just couldn’t take it any more, there were just too many roles. Too many me-s.’

‘You mean too many theatre roles?’

‘Oh no, that was fine. I’m a professional. Something else. For a while I’d been seeing visions, religious visions. I could see devils and angels on people’s shoulders. I could see serpents wrapping themselves around people as they spoke, their true souls. I could see the things others can’t. People’s auras, the colours round them … You’re looking at me like I’m crazy. I just have gifts. I had been interested in religion for a while. Yoga and shamanism. But I was finding my way to the true faith. I couldn’t be both an actor and a man of God.’

When he came back from London, Weitz gave up acting. He became more devout. But he still needed a job so a friend found him a position at a new political consultancy. Using the Stanislavsky method he started training politicians ‘to manipulate public consciousness’ with ‘verbal and non-verbal forms of influence’. ‘I applied the principles of method acting. First they had to decide where they were headed. What they wanted … Where are you headed, Peter?’ he suddenly asked.

I didn’t know.

‘You’re headed to death. We’re all headed to death. That’s the first thing I would make them realise … That’s the thing about us bikers. We live with death every day. We’re a death cult. We know where we’re going.’ Biking had been Weitz’s passion since his Soviet teens. The biking movement in the USSR had sprung up in the late 1980s, utterly anti-Soviet, pro-freedom, pro-Steppenwolf, and by association pro-American. In the 1990s and 2000s it remained a fringe subculture, though connected to biker gangs in Europe and beyond. The patriotic shift came late. The legend goes that Aleksandr Zaldostanov, the Surgeon, the Night Wolves’ leader, met a priest on the road who told him he needed to change his life, help save Holy Rus. Weitz helped give that impulse form. The Night Wolves are a top-down organisation: if the Surgeon and Weitz say they are now Orthodox, everyone follows suit.

Link: The New Dark Ages, Part I: From Religion to Ethnic Nationalism and Back Again

European Historians have long eschewed the term “Dark Ages.” Few of them still use it, and many of them shiver when they encounter it in popular culture. Scholars rightly point out that the term, popularly understood as connoting a time of death, ignorance, stasis, and low quality of life, is prejudiced and misleading.

And so my apologies to them as I drag this troublesome phrase to center stage yet again, offering a new variation on its meaning.

In this essay I am taking the liberty of modifying the tem “Dark Ages” and applying to a modern as well as a historical context. I use it to refer to a general culture of fundamentalism permeating societies, old and new. By “Dark Age” I mean to describe any large scale effort to dim human understanding by submerging it under a blanket of fundamentalist dogma. And far from Europe of 1,500 years ago, my main purpose is to talk about far more recent matters around the world.

Life is, of course, a multi-faceted affair. The complex relationships among individuals and between individuals and societies produce a host of economic, cultural, political, and social manifestations. But one of the defining characteristics of the European Dark Ages, as I am now using the term, was the degree to which those multi-faceted aspects of the world were flattened by religious theology and dogma. As the Catholic Church grew in power and spread across Europe from roughly 500-1500, it was able, at least to some degree, to sublimate political, cultural, social, and economic understanding and action under its dogmatic authority. In many realms of life far beyond religion, forms of knowledge and action were subject to theological sanction.

Those who take pride in Western civilization, or even those like myself who don’t necessarily, but who simply acknowledge its various achievements alongside its various shortcomings, recognize a series of factors that led to those achievements. Some of those factors, such as colonialism, are horrific. Some, like the growth of secular thought, are more admirable.

Not that secular thought in and of itself is intrinsically laudable; maybe it is, though I don’t think so. But rather, that the rise of secular thought enabled Europe, over the course of centuries, to throw off it’s own self-imposed yoke of religious absolutism. And that freeing itself in this way was one of the factors spurring Europe’s many impressive achievements over the last half-millennium.

Most denizens of what was once known as the Christian world, including various colonial offshoots such as the United States and Australia, now accept and even take for granted a multi-faceted conception of life and human interaction. For most of them, including many of the religious ones, it is a given that moving away from a world view flattened by religion, at the very least, facilitated the development of things like science and the modern explosion of wealth. Of course the move from a medieval to a modern mind set also unleashed a variety of problems; but on balance, relatively few Westerners would willingly return to any version of medieval Christian theocracy.1

This confidence in a modern vision of human life and society, which acknowledges that religion, like science, politics, economics, culture and countless other facets, each have a role to play and that none should squeeze out the rest, can lead Westerners to look down their noses at those societies which are currently flattened by religion, or struggling to avoid it. Too many Westerners, either with sneers or pity, look askance at other parts of the world where such battles are currently being waged.

Fundamentalist Muslims in a number of countries are literally fighting to assert a theocratic vision over hundreds of millions of people. And though much smaller numerically and not plagued by civil war, Israel likewise suffers from a deep divide between ultra-Orthodox Jews who want religion to dominate most if not all aspects of Israeli life, and those Jews, both religious and not, who embrace a more secular vision for their state in which those divisions will continue to be respected.

When contrasting the West to places mired in such struggle, it becomes oh, so easy for those of us in the United States, Europe, and other parts of the former Christian world to smugly assert that we moved beyond such theocratic perils some time ago and we simply shan’t be returning. It is tempting for some to see history as an irregular but fairly steady linear advancement, progressing forward. This allows people to frame the secular West as winning some kind of race and as superior to, say, the Middle East, which many suppose is “still” struggling to achieve secularism.

But to think that the West has permanently moved past such Dark Ages, never again to return, is just as big a mistake as failing to realize that some of the societies now struggling to avoid a religious Dark Age have in fact been very secular in the recent past.

Such assumptions are not only mistaken but dangerous. The reality is that there are no guarantees about history except that it is dynamic. Things always change. And change does not occur in some neat, linear pattern, which is precisely why you cannot predict historical change.

I condemn Christianity. I bring against the Christian Church the most terrible charge any prosecutor has ever uttered. To me, it is the extremest thinkable form of corruption. It has the will to the ultimate corruption conceivably possible. The Christian Church has left nothing untouched by its depravity; it has made of every value a disvalue, of every truth a lie, of every kind of integrity a vileness of soul. … These are the blessings of Christianity: parasitism as the sole practice of the Church, with its ideal of brain sickness, of holiness, draining away all blood, all love, all hope for life. The “beyond” as the will to deny reality of every kind. The “cross” as a badge of recognition for the most subterranean conspiracy there has ever been. A conspiracy against health, beauty, well-constitutedness, bravery, intellect, benevolence of soul, against life itself. Wherever there are walls, I shall inscribe this eternal accusation against Christianity upon them. I can write in letters which make even the blind see. … I call Christianity the one great curse, the one intrinsic depravity, the one great instinct for revenge, for which no expedient is sufficiently poisonous, secret, subterranean, petty. I call it the one immortal blemish of the mankind.
— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist

(Source: ludimagister)

Too many of our best scholars, themselves indoctrinated from infancy in a religion of one kind or another based upon the Bible, are so locked into the idea of their own god as a supernatural fact—something final, not symbolic of transcendence, but a personage with a character and will of his own—that they are unable to grasp the idea of a worship that is not of the symbol but of its reference, which is of a mystery of much greater age and of more immediate inward reality than the name-and-form of any historical ethnic idea of a deity, whatsoever … and is of a sophistication that makes the sentimentalism of our popular Bible-story theology seem undeveloped.
— Joseph Campbell

Nietzsche On Buddhism


Nietzsche repeatedly refers to Buddhism as a decadent and nihilistic religion. It seems to be a textbook case of just what Nietzsche is out to remedy in human thinking. It devalues the world as illusory and merely apparent, instead looking to an underlying reality for value and meaning. Its stated goals seem to be negative and escapist, Nietzsche sometimes seems to praise certain aspects of Buddhist teaching—and some of his own core ideas bear a resemblance to Buddhist doctrine.

What exactly is Nietzsche’s evaluation of Buddhism? Is it merely unmitigated nihilism, or is there positive value to be found in Buddhism? There is also good reason to believe that Nietzsche’s knowledge of Buddhism was inaccurate and incomplete, if only due to his historic situation in 19th century Europe. Given current greater Western understanding of Buddhism, would Nietzsche still label Buddhism as life-denying and nihilistic?

Nietzsche most often addresses Buddhism as a rhetorical foil for Christianity, rather than analysing it directly.

Nietzsche exaggerates any aspects he approves in Buddhism as part of his rhetorical strategy. Buddhism is not moral, it is hygienic, prescribing a cure for the horror of the world rather than covering it up in dishonest grammar. In his highest praise of Buddhism, Nietzsche admits that it has dropped the slave morality—and the self-deception that accompanies it. Nietzsche describes Buddhism as clouded by morality. Perhaps specifically defining a thing as beyond good and evil keeps it trapped in the paradigm of defining the valuable by the valueless.

But Nietzsche only speaks favourably of Buddhism by comparison: when he mentions Buddhism apart from Christianity, it is all described as nihilism and desire for nothingness.

An Indian Nietzsche could easily have given Buddhism pride of place in the hierarchy of dangerous, life-denying institutions to discredit. Buddhism has perfected nihilism, but this is not a perfection to be desired.
But while Nietzsche accuses Buddhism of decadence and nihilism in no uncertain terms throughout his work, he still appreciates its honesty: “Buddhism is the only positivistic religion in history; even in its epistemology a strict phenomenalism. In its age, Buddhism has become passive and complacent—feelings of unsatisfactoriness are just accepted without struggle. Buddhism is frail and withdrawn from the world and has resigned itself to weakness and weariness. It no longer desires excuses, it just wants relief.

Buddhism according to Nietzsche is degenerate and lifeless. Buddhism is certainly not saying with its delicate constitution and perpetual worries about healthfulness.

Nietzsche also praises Buddhism for its discarding of God. But while the Buddhists may know that God is dead, they must overthrow their own lingering paradigm:
Nietzsche deplores the last man for his refusal to see the death of God, but Buddhism has its own relics to dispose of. The sensitive and hygienic teachings of the Buddha are just as life-denying as any Christian ressentiment—they propose ways to manage the cruelty of the world, but they do not engage or celebrate the world.
For Nietzsche Buddhism devalues the world in favour of an illusory promise. The world as it is is too terrible, so comforting fictions are spun to keep the herd pacified.

The world is not a nice fluffy place, and so other realms and places of escape are invented. Rather than accepting and affirming the hard truth, self-deception is perpetuated.

Nietzsche describes nihilism as a European Buddhism:

This is certainly further evidence of Nietzsche’s rejection of Buddhism, associating it with a negative, reflex reaction to the devaluation of the world. It is just as bad as the institutions it rebels against. Instead of mindlessly following convention, it mindlessly overturns convention. European Buddhism is active rather than passive, but it still craves destruction as it flails about in the dark. However, as much as Nietzsche rejects nihilism, he also seems to.

Nietzsche’s depiction of Buddhism is consistent as to its nihilism and denial of life. Apart from his rhetorical use of it in revealing the ugly underpinnings of Christianity, Buddhism too perpetuates negativity and passivity in Nietzsche’s view. But can Buddhism be defended?

Nietzsche’s knowledge of Buddhism was necessarily limited. Indian philosophy was only just becoming available in Europe. According to research Nietzsche did read a number of second-hand accounts of Buddhism, as well as a few translated original texts. Many of these books described Buddhism as depressed and nihilistic, and did not describe the many different forms of Buddhism outside of India. Perhaps our more current perspective would change his evaluation? Further, what can be made of the apparent similarities between Buddhism and Nietzsche?

The four noble truths are central to all flavours of Buddhism: (1) There exists suffering, or ‘unsatisfactoriness,’ (2) this suffering arises from desire or ‘thirst,’ (3) the cessation of suffering is nirvana, and (4) the noble eightfold path is the way to nirvana. It is important to note that suffering arises from more or less everything in life—pleasurable experiences as well as pain. Our senses lead us to desires which lead us to attachments and existence (rebirth) and existence is necessarily suffering. The world is transitory—there is nothing stable to grasp on to. In ignorance we think the self is enduring, but it too is at most a chain of passing states. The self is conventional. This lack of suitable objects for our grasping leads to our suffering—seeing the world as it really is hurts. This idea is compatible with Nietzsche—Buddhism and his philosophy identify the same unsettling lack of meaning in the world. But they prescribe different cures. Buddhist practices are intended to break this cycle of desires and suffering by removing desire—willing not to will. In Zen Buddhism there is also the idea of wu wei—actionless action—that describes a sort of immersion in the natural flow of the world, rather than willed action. This is one of the inherent contradictions of Buddhism but it could also be described as ‘life to not life,’ which sounds objectionably life-denying. Living with the hope or intention of not living it all again is not embracing the world as it is.

However, while nirvana is commonly characterized in the West as annihilation, there are arguments that it is in fact positive. Nirvana does not necessarily mean nothingness or death. It could be described as finally seeing the world as it actually is which ends the cycle of desire and suffering. Here Nietzsche and Buddhism would again agree that this is valuable. The awakened or enlightened one has overcome his illusions of self and desire for attachment. If there is no self there can be no real annihilation, but further, nirvana could just be a state of mind and not a physical, permanent escape from life.

Nietzsche possesses some images in common with Buddhism: the child as a model for becoming, awakening, and the enlightened one who returns to help the rest of the world achieve enlightenment. For Nietzsche, the child is the creative and sacred Yes-saying that comes after the lion—in Zen Buddhism the child is a model for the sage. The joy, innocence, and embracing nature of the child are valued by both. Zarathustra is the awakened one who goes down to return to the valley of the sleepers. In Buddhism, a bodhisattva may refuse nirvana until the rest of the world has attained enlightenment as well. The Buddhist idea of the self as a transient and ever-changing collection of parts also fits with Nietzsche’s account of persons being a collection of wills overmastered by one strongest. These similarities of metaphor make Nietzsche out to be an unconscious Buddhist—but there is one important point of disagreement.

Central to Nietzsche’s positive philosophy is the idea of eternal recurrence—the horror of this he shares with Buddhism. To be able to affirm life in your loneliest loneliness and will to repeat it is the ultimate test of Yes-saying. Not mere acceptance of the true nature of the world as it is, but positive celebration. This is Nietzsche’s solution to the ‘human condition,’ if it can be called that—he doesn’t exactly see it as a problem. The word is not characterized by suffering for Nietzsche, but by the struggle of wills. This willing of eternal recurrence is a direct and fundamental conflict with Buddhism, where the goal is to escape samsara. This is where Buddhism is most obviously life-denying under Nietzsche’s evaluation. Buddhism sees life as eternal suffering and sees this as a health problem. The cure is to end the cycle of suffering and escape the eternal recurrence. Nietzsche also sees the world to be difficult to accept without our constructs of morality—although not as a problem per se—but he meets it with affirmation. Whatever the nature of nirvana—be it annihilation, escape to some heavenly realm, a mere change in mental state—it is certainly a devaluation and denial of this life through the wish to escape it.

It is this conflict over eternal recurrence that is the insurmountable difference between Nietzsche and Buddhism. They both see the same meaningless world but respond to it differently. The Buddhist finds the world to be profoundly disquieting and seeks to abandon the senses and will away his desires. Nietzsche instead embraces this horrible meaninglessness and creates meaning within it through power of will. He does not deny or seek to avoid or devalue the world.
Nietzsche evaluated the Buddhism he knew as decadent, nihilistic, and life-denying. While the West now knows much more about the diversity of Buddhist philosophies, some of which argues against the perception of Buddhism as nihilistic, the very core of Buddhism remains at odds with Nietzsche’s life-affirming criteria. Buddhism aims to see the world as it really is rather than forcing a metaphysics on the unlovely truth. But the Buddhist diagnosis of life as suffering, and the cure of rejecting desire and willing, is essentially opposite of Nietzsche’s overwhelmingly affirmative answer to life as it is. Buddhism still tries to project its own system of values on the world rather than embracing the reality and is thus still life-denying.

A lot of this is well analysed, and while misleading in some parts, is a generally good extrapolation of Buddhism from the Nietzschean perspective. What I take query with is the implicit sentiment that Nietzsche misunderstood Buddhism purely because he wasn’t acquainted with it sufficiently, and in turn his criticisms of it aren’t so well founded — ‘straw-Buddha’ if you like. Well I believe that to be wrong.

First of all, Nietzsche was significantly influenced by Schopenhauer, whom was fully aware of Indian religions, especially early Vedantic religions, which Buddhist rose out of. Nietzsche is likely to have picked up correct estimations concerning Buddhism from Schopenhauer, though of course this isn’t a full understanding.

Where Nietzsche derived his understanding of Buddhism from, which has left him   described as “one of the best and most solidly grounded in Buddhism”, is likely to have been from direct scripture — and not even translated scripture, for he knew Sanskrit (from his earlier philological years). As a philologist, Nietzsche is surely qualified enough to read scripture and understand it more than most people. It is from these premises that I say his understanding of Buddhism is quite satisfactory, and in turn his scathing criticisms, too, are well founded.

To add a bit to the article, or to clarify it, Nietzsche is likely to have ascertained his conception of eternal recurrence from the Buddhist notion of bodhisattva, who’re beings who consciously choose to relive life (when they have the choice to escape it) infinite times to facilitate the enlightenment of other human beings. Is this not what Zarathustra does when he descends from the mountains? when his cup is overflowing? after his going under? Zarathustra, and in turn the Overman, is a figure extremely similar to the Buddhist bodhisattva.

Nietzsche’s contention, and occasional admiration, of the ascetic, typical of the serious Buddhist, is often confusing. One could argue either way whether Nietzsche really refuted the ascetic, though ultimately I think he did. In some respects, Nietzsche admires the ascetic as the one who seems devoid of will to power, which for him seems an impossible feat. What he sees is that the ascetic is a powerful manifestation of will, but slightly misinformed, to speak meekly, or cowardly, to speak truthfully.

If the ascetic could direct his will, the objective of will, towards creation instead of suppression then these spirits could very well become the “free spirits” Nietzsche encourages. One could say there’s a very fine line between suppression and liberation — the ascetic could be equally as ‘powerful’, in terms of will, as the free spirit, but, for Nietzsche, they’re certainty not as grand, nor appreciative of life, which seems to be the highest virtue for Nietzsche.

It is the escapism of all religion that Nietzsche disputes.

(Source: )

Link: The Münster Rebellion

Why the European Renaissance wasn’t actually a very good time to be alive.

The man whose face is stamped on this 1535 silver medal is Jan van Leiden. In January 1536, van Leiden was tortured to death with two other men at a public square in Münster, a city in the German region of Westphalia. The city’s officials and a throng of spectators watched as the three were pulled apart with searing hot tongs, one by one, until their agonies were ended with a thrust to the heart. But who was this Jan van Leiden, and why was he so violently and horribly executed?

Germany in the 16th century was a rough place. Martin Luther’s protests against the corruption of the Church sparked a long and partly successful rebellion against the spiritual and temporal authority of Rome. They also sparked smaller movements that branched off of Lutheranism to pursue their own goals. One of the earliest of these offshoot movements was Anabaptism. This new Christian sect proposed that infant baptism was invalid and that, to be truly saved, Christians must be baptised as adults. Some Anabaptists also advocated for total equality between fellow Christians and even the total abolition of property and wealth. Naturally, the Church hated these innovations, but they had their hands full with the Lutherans and the Netherlands and northern Germany became hotbeds of Anabaptism.

Renaissance Europe was a mix of large kingdoms and small principalities, dukedoms and republics. One of these was the Prince-Bishopric of Münster, a constituent state of the Holy Roman Empire. While formally under the control of the Emperor, Münster was truly ruled by Prince-Bishop Franz von Waldeck, who was exactly what he sounded like: both the prince of a territory and a bishop of the Church. He wasn’t the city’s absolute ruler, however: Münster had an elected town council, unusual for a state in that period.

Initially, the population of Münster was composed of a mix of Catholics, Lutherans and Anabaptists. By 1532, however, that balance began to change. Bernard Rothmann, an Anabaptist preacher in the city, began to rail against the Catholic Church, while Bernard Knipperdolling, a wealthy merchant with Anabaptist sympathies, used his printing press to spread Rothmann’s sermons far and wide. By 1533, the city had attracted two of what would become the century’s most charismatic and dangerous men – Jan Matthys and Jan van Leiden. Matthys and van Leiden had traveled from their homes in the Netherlands to answer Rothmann’s call for the establishment of a “New Jerusalem” in Münster: a perfect Christian society that would witness and be spared from the end of the world.

Ironically, their actions ended up bringing down deadly wrath upon Münster and its remaining inhabitants.

Matthys and his lieutenant van Leiden immediately took a considerable share of influence in the city’s affairs through their connection to Rothmann, the firebrand preacher, and Knipperdolling, the respected councilman and merchant. Together, the four initiated a religious reign of terror. They first ran new elections to the Münster city council that packed the body with Anabaptists. Matthys then shockingly urged the council to put the town’s spiritually unfit – meaning its Catholics and more moderate Protestants – to death. Knipperdolling managed to negotiate this sentence down to forced expulsion, and many of the city’s old families were subsequently thrown out without their property or belongings. These remaining assets were transferred to Münster’s new arrivals: thousands of destitute Anabaptists from the surrounding northern German and Dutch lands, attracted by Knipperdolling’s continued printing and publishing of Rothmann’s calls to action.

All of these happenings naturally attracted the attention of the Prince-Bishop of Münster. Waldeck, who had fled Münster ahead of the Anabaptist takeover, promptly gathered his forces, supplemented by mercenary troops, and laid siege to the city.

Meanwhile, Matthys and van Leiden began to organize the city’s defense and stockpile its resources. Helpfully, Matthys claimed to regularly receive messages from God. These divine revelations included orders to put the “faithless” of Münster to death, orders that he and his men carried out swiftly. God also apparently ordered him to ride out of the city armed, with a few dozen followers, to meet the Prince-Bishop’s thousands of troops in battle, because on Easter 1534 that’s just what he did. Jan van Leiden inherited the spiritual leadership of Münster right after Matthys’ death (cause: getting hacked to pieces by Franz von Waldeck’s cavalry.)

Jan van Leiden, a.k.a. Jan Bockelson, was an interesting character. In addition to leadership over the fervently faithful Anabaptists of Münster, van Leiden also inherited Matthys’ direct line to God – as well as his allegedly attractive wife Divara.

This new Jan was slightly different from the old one. Van Leiden first weirded out the people of Münster by running around town naked, supposedly in a divinely induced trance, and then he shocked his followers by announcing that God wanted Münster to adopt polygamy as a legal practice. Jan completed his master plan (assuming he had one) by having himself declared King of Münster, something that the severe Jan Matthys had never done. His Majesty dissolved the city’s old government and created a royal court for himself composed of his inner circle of friends, including the two Bernards, Knipperdolling and Rothmann.

Despite his faults, van Leiden seemed to have been at least kind of competent, because his newly organized defensive military units, composed by the remaining citizens of Münster, successfully repelled two of the Prince-Bishop’s direct assaults. The city was starving, however, and by mid-1535 its some of its people had had enough. Several deserters to the enemy’s siege lines gave the Prince-Bishop enough information to realize that he had worn the city’s inhabitants down. A third assault in late 1535 was successful, and the Prince-Bishop’s men retook Münster after a bloody battle within the city’s walls.

Many of the town’s population were summarily executed, but the leaders of Münster’s short-lived rebellion were captured alive to be questioned and later to be horrifically executed. Van Leiden, Knipperdolling and one Bernard Krechting suffered the officially sanctioned sentence of being ripped apart with coal-heated tongs for one hour each. Bernard Rothmann, the other ringleader of the Anabaptist rebellion, was not available for execution – after the last battle for Münster, he simply disappeared. Even if he had been killed in the fighting, we should probably consider him lucky that he didn’t have to share the scaffold with his friends in January 1536.

As a final insult, the bodies of the now-dead Anabaptist leaders were shoved into iron cages that were then hauled to the top of Münster Cathedral, presumably there to serve as a reminder and a warning. The corpses have long since decayed and scattered, but the iron cages remain hanging from the steeple of the great church to this very day.

This bizarre chapter of history raises all kinds of issues. We’re still not sure just how far King Jan of Münster believed what he told his people during his short reign – many of his actions suggest a desire for self-preservation that Jan Matthys, the man who rode against an army with a handful of citizen-soldiers, clearly didn’t have.

But the short-lived experiment in Münster is about more than this uniquely strange character. It’s also about the role that fanatical beliefs – religious or otherwise – can have on people. Münster was a relatively peaceful town before the arrival of the extremist Anabaptist preachers from Holland, and it was largely due to the influence of the Münsterites Hoffmann and Knipperdolling that they succeeded in overturning that peace and taking control of the city. Otherwise, they probably would have remained two obscure Dutch guys remembered only by hardcore Reformation historians. But they bought their fame at a great price. Thousands of Münsterites were killed, some by the extreme Anabaptists and some by the Prince-Bishop and his mercenary armies. Thousands more lost their homes and livelihoods. And the heads of the whole business lost their lives in an undignified, brutal and incredibly painful way.

Today’s Anabaptist societies, most famously the Amish and the Mennonites, are entirely pacifist and spend their time farming, building furniture, having children and not using modern technology. Maybe living in obscurity isn’t such a bad thing.

Münster’s Anabaptist “coins” aren’t coins at all. Many Anabaptists, including the Münster faction, didn’t believe in money or personal ownership of property, so minting coins would have been pretty useless. Medals bearing the image of Jan van Leiden as king of the “New Jerusalem” were crafted purely for propaganda purposes. These medals were produced at a time when the quality of coins was on the rise: they were beginning to be produced on round planchets, as opposed to the irregular planchets common to medieval coins.

I’m not even sure how many of these things exist, but considering the brief period of Anabaptist rule in Münster and the extreme strain on the besieged city’s resources, I imagine not too many were produced. Medals and other trinkets from the period and place are still around, though. Let me know if you find one!

If you want to learn more about the Münster Rebellion of 1534-5, look up the book The Tailor King. There are probably many more sources on the subject written in German and Dutch, but I can’t read them. If you’re more into podcasts, or you have four and a half hours to kill during commutes to and from work, check out Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History site, which features an episode on the rebellion and its causes and effects. I’m a big fan of his work, and you might find that you’re one too.Share this:

Being an “atheist” is not a simple matter. When Derrida says that there are “theological prejudices” imbedded in “metaphysics in its entirety, even when it professes to be atheistic”, he means that when metaphysics poses as the supreme authority that pronounces “there is no God,” it simply reenacts the role of God. It leaves the “center” standing and reoccupies it with other metaphysical pretenders to the throne: Man, History, Science, Reason, any version of Žižek’s “Big Other.” That is nothing more than a palace coup that leaves the palace system standing. Such atheism, which a lot of us would call “modernist,” Watkin says, “imitates” theism and is “parasitic” on the very framework it purports to negate. Atheism, he argues, is “difficult,” a difficulty Nietzsche proposed to meet when he said “God is dead,” where “God” meant not just the Deity but the whole system of “values,” of “truth” and the “good,” from Plato to the present, every attempt to establish a center, a foundation of knowledge and morals, including modern physics, which is also an “interpretation.” Watkin thinks this atheism is exposed to a “difficulty” of its own, which he calls its “ascetic” approach, because it calls upon us to make do with the resulting debris or “residue” of lost foundations (the “death of God”), to live with finitude and imperfection, giving up on a satisfying transcendence and putting up with an unsatisfying immanence … It does not really annul the place of God but merely leaves it empty … like Camus’ “absurd man” shaking his fist at the void. This is an atheism that regrets that it is right.
— John Caputo, reviewing Christopher Watkin’s new book, Difficult Atheism (via existenti-al)

(via infinite-iterations)