posted on 01.21.2006 at 8:13 PM
My first person is currently typing into his Palm, sitting in a dark-wood chair, surrounded by white-washed walls, about 20 meters from a huge lake just a bit northwest of the southern tip of India. (The tsunami had to hang a quick right to get near here, but still managed to kill about 160 people.)
A couple of hours ago his pre-dawn tossin' and turnin' -- as the overhead-fan mixed the thick air -- produced an idea, one that feels large by the standards of his circumscribed world. This idea enabled him to sketch out -- for the first time -- the somewhat more ambitious structure he had been contemplating for the book.
A bit on that idea in another post. The question I'm dealing with now is whether a few small slots in that new scheme should be reserved for that first person -- aka "me."
Do readers -- potentially "you," if you haven't had your fill of this stuff -- want to know, for example, whether their author had his own irreligious epiphany and from what religion he might conceivably be "ir"?
Should there be personal anecdotes?
** "The first time I realized how uncomfortable discussions of atheism could become was when I...."
** Our intrepid book writer manages to locate the site of Bonner's Field -- the outdoor meeting area in London, where, in the mid-19th-century, religious and irreligious freely held forth.
My first person -- who, mind you, wrote a whole book once without ever using the word "I" -- is now watching a cloud-muted dawn attempt to return greens and pinks to the lush landscape. And he ("I") is ("am") currently feeling awfully self-satisfied, on account of this new organizational idea.
Yo, second persons! Do you ("you") care?
posted on 01.17.2006 at 5:21 PM
OK, here I am typing notes about how atheism was and was not punished in Athens while a yoga master is singing a rather lovely relaxation song in my hotel room. (The song is interrupted for a moment by a call on his cell phone, but that's not the point we're after.) My wife has hired this fellow and apparently there was no other place in the hotel where he could check her form on "the sun salutation" and try to get her breathing right.
In Athens impiety or disrespect toward the gods -- asebeia -- was a crime, occasionally punished, occasionally by death. I feel guilty of asebeia in general and guilty of impiety specifically, at this moment, toward yoga, yogis, masters, gurus, etc. Here in India, as he sings, she breathes and I type, it is not a particularly happy feeling.
Atheists insist, persuasively, that the absence of a belief in god does not lead to any absence of wonder at the universe. Awe and humility also seem quite acheivable. But how about reverence? And is it possible to be an atheist and still respond with piety to lovely songs, to a world that brings yogis into your hotel room?
India -- Variety of Irreligious Experience
posted on 01.14.2006 at 12:38 AM
This country sure will chase notions of cultural homogenization out of an American's head.
The Indian street (as alive as any I've seen): where a thousand and one collisions are poised to happen -- between honking car and weaving bicycle, putt-putting auto-rickshaw and intent pedestrian; where a thousand collisions are, with a last-second swerve or stall, avoided.
Skinny women squat on the dusty ground in brightly colored sarees. Skinny men wrap and unwrap loose fabric around their midsections. (No doubt leaving them more comfortable than my jeans leave me.) At the restaurant where I find myself, the men eat their white rice and spicy sauces with their fingers.
And then there's Indian religion. Polytheism is just some quaint historical fact back where I come from. Here in India it's easily visible in the colorful gods, with reassuring smiles, that decorate a shrine in the parking lot of my hotel.
This crowd of Hindu gods, with their different talents and personalities, seems pretty distant from the stern, lonely god-of-all-trades of the Abrahamic tradition. Sure sounds like unhomogenized cultural difference to me.
Somewhere in the comments on another entry on this blog we were discussing whether Jewish atheism, say, is different from Christian atheism. What about atheism here ("rationalists," I believe they're called)? A Hindu nonbeliever has an awful lot of gods to not believe in. Does that make it harder or easier? In what exactly would a Buddhist be disbelieving?
I have a fair amount invested in the premise that it is possible to talk in one sentence about atheism in, for example, India and in the next about atheism in Paris (where only baguettes, grapes and Le Quick hamburgers are eaten with fingers).
That is probably still possible. Nonetheless, It is clearly going to be necessary for me to acknowledge the variety of religious experience in order to make sense of a good variety of humankind's irreligious experiences.
On my plane a gaggle of preternaturally sincere Americans and Europeans, in loose-fitting clothes, whispered about the best rooms in this or that ashram. They didn't come all this way just to experience unfamilar ways of eating or to ride unfamiliar kinds of taxis.
posted on 01.10.2006 at 1:03 AM
Odd how you can be reading something (The Anti-Christ, in this case) that seems to have nothing to do with where you are (India) and then suddenly (inevitably?) things seem to come together. (Nietzsche starts going on about Buddhism.)
Two possible explanations:
1. fate, karma, a caring (unabolished) god.
2. In human culture -- even in seemingly diverse human cultures -- things sometimes turn out to be connected, and human minds are primed to pick up such connections.
How to Write Your Book
posted on 01.09.2006 at 12:00 AM
1. Do not turn on the BBC World News in the hotel to see if there's been any further change in Sharon's condition.
2. When you venture out into the challenging streets here in Chennai, focus on the shrines not the street people.
3. Do not go back to the college again to check your email.
4. Look upon the array of pastel gods that surround one shine not as kind of lovely but as representative of polytheism and then try to recall some theories on whether gods are easier to disbelieve than God.
5. When you do go back to the college again, do not click on 'check mail' a third time, even though you have one or two acquaintances in New York who occasionally are up at 3:10 am.
6. Consider whether that woman cooking on the half-dirt, half-concrete sidewalk finds consolation in religion. Don't consider why you have the right to assume she requires consolation.
7. Put your energy into polishing chapters not blog entries.
One Holy Man
posted on 01.05.2006 at 6:01 AM
The first time I visited India, almost five years ago, I saw a holy man sitting on a rug on a sidewalk in downtown Delhi. A small crowd had gathered. I stood off to the side.
The grey-haired man began performing some impressive gymnastic stunts on a branch of an overhanging tree. I surreptitiously took out my video camera. He was alert. He saw. And he more or less demanded thatÃ¢â‚¬Â¦I come onto his rug to get a better shot. Then he announced that he was going to do "penis tricks."
And this holy man proceeded to wrap his flattened penis around a broomstick, which he then slowly twirled.
Of course, I don't mean to imply that this is any way representative of modern India. Still, it is there. And maybe I do mean to imply that it is, in some tenuous way, representative of an element that survives in modern religionÃ¢â‚¬Â¦.. Can't say I've ever replayed that videotape, though.
A Positive Idea of Atheism?
posted on 01.03.2006 at 5:55 AM
I've been waiting, for a while now, for a new idea to come. I used to flatter myself with the thought that they came with some frequency. (Not truly original ideas, of course -- you're lucky to be blessed with one or two of those in a lifetime, as Norman Mailer noted somewhere; just something -- the product of a reaction, perhaps, between a thought heard and a fact read -- that seemed to have a new and interesting configuration.)
Such ideas appear, perhaps, to come a bit slower lately. Yeah, I've been too busy: moving, teaching, hassling this or that. Yet, I have been reading and even, sometimes, thinking and still...
I fear, as you may have noticed, that it has something to do with age. There probably is less RAM available to the central-processing unit. But, just as important, you gain, with wisdom, places to file most of the odd observations and little anomolies that used to cause confusion and, once in a while, spark a new thought. That's one reason I've taken on, in atheism, a topic upon which I had not accumulated great stores of wisdom.
I've known what kind of idea I want. Atheism can easily devolve into againstism: "Oh, no he doesn't!" I call this, unoriginally, the "negative idea" of atheism. I've been looking for the "positive idea."
Disbelief -- in sky spirits, in Apollo, in Genesis -- has cleared the way for science and aspects of philosophy. But is there a thread -- something positive that can be untangled from science and philosophy -- that runs through the thought of the often brilliant nonbelievers who will wander through my book? Don't want to sound too cocky, but I've assumed, since early in this project, that there is and that I'm gonna find it. But the idea hasn't come.
In the idea-generation business, travel, as we know, helps -- the quiet of it (once you've finally done all the crap that must be done to be able to go); the sense of being unstuck (physically and, often, temporally); the stimulation of "parts unknown" (or release from the bondage of vistas and conversations too well known).
And it is on the leg from Paris to Chennai -- reading The Anti-Christ and typing notes into my Palm -- that I think I might have come up with something. Nietzsche (who may have exceeded the Mailer limit by more than anyone) is fulminating against what he sees as Christianity's decadent, life-denying disparagement of health, intellect, strength and power. Christian "pity" particularly repulses him. And then he writes something that surprises me, something I have no comfortable place to file away: "Pity persuades to nothingness!" Nietzsche exclaims. "One does not say 'nothingness': one says 'the Beyond'; or 'God'."
Now, just last week (as I wrote here) a rabbi had told me how Roman soldiers, in the process of destroying the Temple, were shocked to enter the Holy of Holies and find...nothing -- no image, no statue, a void. And this rabbi (improvising, I suspect) suggested that the relationship between the Jews and their god might be seen as an attempt to establish a relationship with the void.
Now I've accumulated some dollops of wisdom over the decades on the idea of "the nothing," the void. (Heidegger's tour de force on the subject, "What is Metaphysics?", may be my all-time favorite piece of writing.) But I'd always thought of religion as an escape from nagging notions of nothingness, as an attempt to paper over the void.
Have I been missing a profound (in the rabbi's view) or decadent (in Nietzsche's) flirtation with, immersion in, nothingness by religion -- at least of the non-pagan variety? Can god be seen as the void with a beard?
And here, at the risk of it sounding anti-climatic, is the idea: Maybe the positive idea of atheism is the alternative to the can't-be-seen, can't-be-heard, inscrutable, unknowable nothing of god. Maybe, without denying its own involvement with relativism and uncertainty, atheism is an injunction to focus on the earthly, mortal, excessive, hopelessly messy, something -- the plentitude.
Or maybe I've just been reading too much Nietzsche....
A Journey to the East
posted on 01.01.2006 at 4:22 PM
The post below -- on atheism and agnosticism -- will be my last before I head off for the land of the Carvaka: India.
I'll try to keep up a flow of posts, after I arrive, and to keep you posted on any encounters with holy men or meditations on the Buddha.
This brief interregnum might also be a time to ask if anyone has thoughts on what this blog -- not just a work in progress but an experiment -- should or should not be doing.