Saturday, July 24, 2010

Owning the implications

I just watched the last episode of the most recent season of Doctor Who. I won't reveal exactly what happened, or the climax of the episode, but some spoilers are inevitable, given that they're the jumping-off point for this post.

Is everyone who minds that gone? Good.

There's a scene in which we see the young Amelia Pond sitting in a parent-teacher conference. She's just painted a night sky with the moon and some stars and her teacher is very concerned. She takes her out to look at the sky and we see a crescent moon... and no stars. The adults tell her that everyone knows that stars are only a legend, and when she's left the room they worry about her joining a 'star cult' when she grows up.

Setting aside the sheer impossibility of this for a second (even in the show it's only possible because of a highly unusual set of circumstances) I think the writers fail to explore the implications of this setting. Besides the references to a legend of stars (somehow) and some distinct oddities in a museum, the world in which Amelia Pond lives seems very similar to our own.

But I suspect that without the stars to try to figure out, science and math would have suffered greatly. There wouldn't be as much impetus for research. And cults aside, mainstream religions would have developed very differently. Human cultures would be very different indeed, and the world would probably be largely unrecognizable.

Unfortunately for us science fiction fans, such speculation outstrips the time, and very likely the budget, available for a single hour-long episode. It's an interesting seed for a story, though.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Step, but in which direction?

On July 3rd I chanted a portion from the Torah. It was a short portion (Numbers 27:1-5) not following any of the usual schemes for breaking readings up, but it seemed like plenty to me. It went just fine, though -  I don't think I made any mistakes, or at least not any big enough to get corrected, and everyone thought I did well, including my teacher, who acted as gabbai (meaning that he would have been the one to correct me had I messed up).

The service itself was rather unusual. Once a month we have a contemplative service. I hadn't been before. Rather than going through most of the traditional liturgy with a few changes and additions to accommodate the congregation's progressive, egalitarian bent, which is what most services are like, the contemplative service focuses on a few lines from each section. The group repeats these lines several times, as a chant, which is more meditative than the regular service. Normally there wouldn't be a Torah reading, but this time there wasn't a regular service, because of the usual low attendance over the summer (this is a fairly young congregation, and many of the families are on vacation now that school's out). So I chanted for the contemplative group. This was a bit odd because I was the only reader and because we placed the scroll on a sort of over-sized cart they use to store the kids' books and games, which was in the middle of a circle of chairs, and everybody (about 20 people) gathered around to give the blessing. Perhaps if you haven't been to a Jewish service before you don't get how unusual that is, but normally it's a much more formal affair, and almost everybody would stay in their chairs. It was a warm group though, with a lot of humor.

The funniest bit was that normally there would be a section at the beginning of the service where we repeat the morning blessings, although in an egalitarian and more positive fashion (rather than giving thanks for 'not making me a slave' it's 'for making me free' and we omit the bit about not being a woman). But instead of that we said the beginning in Hebrew and added our own blessings. It started off with general stuff, but got silly pretty fast, as follows:
"...for Jewish humor."
"for amazing students." (my teacher)
"for teachers." (me)
"for subtlety."

The style of the Torah study that's part of the contemplative service is different as well. Each person speaks and everyone listens, but it's not supposed to be a dialog. And it comes from a more personal place, rather than the legalistic and technicalities of Hebrew that often are the focus in other groups.

It took me over a week to post this because I'm not quite sure I've fully processed this. My mother asked me if I felt more Jewish, and I said something like "more and less". I'm not sure if I'll chant again. But one thing's for sure, humor and religion go well together.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Ethics and Technology

Last Wednesday I had dinner with a friend, and the subject of electronic piracy came up. This is something of a hot-button issue among most of my friends, so I always like to gauge where people stand on it.

The issue as I see it is this: electronic piracy is very tempting and very easy, especially with streaming sites and direct download everywhere. It used to be that the technology wasn't at a level that made downloading movies (for example) either affordable or practical, but over the course of the last few years that has changed. Wed hosting is cheaper and high-speed access is readily available. The degree of policing varies a lot, of course, but it seems that it is often possible to get away with it, especially since uploaders are often prosecuted, not downloaders. And legal distribution does not quite keep up with demand, especially for those of us with somewhat niche tastes.

Of course all of this is against the law in most parts of the world. But is it unethical? This, I think, is a much more serious consideration.

My idea of ethics is that we should avoid causing harm to others as best as we can while trying to alleviate harm that has already been done. So does piracy cause harm? The issue I struggle with is that some of us (perhaps a lot of us) wouldn't have bought the product we pirated. Or what if it's something that is unavailable (or very rare) through legal channels, like a movie that has only been released in another country or a book that's been out of print for twenty years? I mean, the harm that might conceivably be caused is that of the legitimate producers (creative talent, distributors, etc.) not getting a profit, which is a tenuous kind of harm at best.

At the same time, as I told my friend, it seems to me that the urge to download illegally comes from a somewhat ugly bit of entitlement - I want it, so I should have it. And this bothers me, even if no one's much harmed in the process.

Fan works, on the other hand, I fully support, including the ones like music videos that take bits of the original material and remix or re-envision them.

I try to stay in the gray area of things that are unavailable, and I have bought some that later became available, but I remain quite conflicted on this issue.

I think it's hard to have an ethical system that isn't laid out for you ahead of time, and no matter your ethical or moral system, it's hard to follow the rules.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A faith for space travelers

My interest in science fiction has lead me to wonder what our descendants will believe. Some authors seem to believe (or hope, I'm not sure which) that in the future, religion will disappear. Anne McCaffrey, whose fictional world of Pern has no religion, comes to mind. I think that while a colony group with no religious members is entirely possible, eventually someone would invent a religion. I think that religion will be with us for a long time yet, although it may lose influence or change dramatically. And in a society that started out with no religions, it might be harder for a religion to take hold.

So with that in mind, what kind of religions would flourish in a society of space travelers?

Religions reflect the society that gave them birth. I think we can agree, for instance, that the gender roles espoused by various religious groups not only affect the broader cultures they are part of, but spring out of that background. So an egalitarian society would likely have clerics of all genders and backgrounds in any homegrown religion, whereas one with strong social barriers such as ours would reject some people (women, homosexuals…) from participating fully. Of course in our society this is changing, but I don't think we can take it as a given that the people of the future will be more open-minded.

People also have a tendency to worship natural forces (or the supposed controllers of natural forces) that affect them. So I think some people, especially on generation ships might worship a god of the void, for example. Or say that their god lived in the nearest black hole or quasar. What if they stayed on their ship so long that they forgot what a planet was like? Can you imagine their surprise upon landing? Or upon meeting planet-bound societies?

Aliens might very well not produce religions as we recognize them. Even if they did, they would probably worship beings that looked like them and the creatures they knew. Would any humans join their sects? Would they join ours?

It's also important to note that aside from very new colonies, it's unlikely that any planet would have a single homogeneous culture. Even if there was a world government, there would probably be pockets of resistance and non conformity, and this would go for any intelligent aliens (except for hive minds) just as much as for humans.

We've also seen science fiction in which one race worships another, one with vastly better technology, that passes itself off as a race of gods. I think that one Star Trek episode even had the characters become objects of worship when they interfered with another society. And some people even think that ancient religions on our own planet can be explained by alien intervention, which just goes to show that people refashion old beliefs to fit new needs and trends.

Anyone read any good books that address this?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

God is Human (and he could not be otherwise)

Atheists who have read the Bible (or parts of it, like me) often say that God's actions are inconsistent (especially when reading the Christian Bible) but what strikes me the most is that whatever theologians say about the folly of anthropomorphizing God, he is a very human figure as portrayed in the Bible. This is especially true if you don't buy that the inconsistencies in his actions are due to greater knowledge. If you treat him as a petty and sometimes foolish character, it makes sense. But this is not an interpretation that works well in a monotheistic framework, at any rate not a conventional one.

However, there is some evidence that early Jews believed in more than one god, and that many didn't even confine their worship to their own tribal god (the god of the Bible). Modern Judaism, of course, doesn't support this view, but I am rather fond of it - I like the drama of a group of quarreling deities, as in the Greek and Roman myths, rather than the comparatively boring idea of a single benevolent creator, or the frightening one of a single strict or even vindictive deity.

But the reason I think that God has to be human (by which I mean that as a character he is humanlike) is that we only know one intelligent species capable of communication - Homo Sapiens. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to imagine an intelligent being that was not humanlike (which is also part of why most science fiction aliens look a lot like us). He has to either be a humanlike character or a non-character.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

More reflections on religion in fantasy worlds

Lately I've been working on a new story. It's fantasy, but set in a sort of alternate-history version of the real world, so I don't have to do as much world building as if I was starting from scratch. For example, the geography is the same, aside from the location of borders and man-made features such as canals. But the historical change is big enough that I can't just use real-world governments or religions.

All this got me thinking about fictional religions again. In spite of the obvious influence of real-world religions on fiction, I can't think of a fantasy world that simply uses a real religion. In fact, though the writers are often Christian, or at least live in largely Christian societies like the United States, and although the model for a lot of fantasy is medieval Europe, fantasy religions are often polytheistic. Perhaps this is because fantasy religions are taken to be true for the world in which they are set, with gods whose clerics possess real powers, which might be less plausible if it was a real religion that we knew about. I think the nostalgia some people have for the polytheistic faiths of Europe that were replaced or subsumed by Christianity also plays a role.

Urban fantasy, of course, uses real religions for the most part, but what I'm mostly interested in is fantasy set on a different world or a very different version of this one.

So how do writers create religions, from a psychological point of view? In my case, the story I'm working on takes Gaulish beliefs, about which we know very little, as a jumping-off point. I've created a national myth, a sort of collective origin story, for the culture from which the main character comes, a story that explains why many in that society exhibit magic powers. From there, I'm trying to work out how that would affect religious belief and practice, and how other societies would react to my characters and their powers. I'm finding that it takes a lot of work to dream up a culture, even starting from something that really existed.

But I still have to wonder. Does the creation of a fictional religion parallel in any way the creation of a real-life new religious movement? I mean, I suspect most religious leaders are in earnest, but even so, do the same tendencies come out in fiction as in religious belief? The same ideas about what is and is not religion, about what kind of truth-claims one can credibly make? I suppose these questions are as much sociological as psychological, and they are rather beyond the scope of this blog.

Friday, May 14, 2010

An atheist, chanting the Torah?

Last night I went to Torah chanting class. This is something I'm rather fond of, even though I don't believe (much) of what it says in the Bible. That is to say that I don't treat it as probably true. I treat it as a collection of stories, which say more about the authors' conceptions of human nature and the world than anything else. If some bits turn out to have some basis in reality, so much the better! It must be said, though, that I am capable of adopting a more traditional view from a "what-if" perspective for the sake of services and Torah study.

But going back to the chanting, the second time I went to a Jewish service (the first being a friend's bat mitzvah, which I don't remember very well) I was very impressed that they chanted the Torah. So when I heard about a free, once-a-week class, no Hebrew knowledge necessary, I decided to go.

As it turns out, the entire Hebrew Bible is full of cantillation marks (or trop(e) marks), as seen on the right in Genesis 3:17-19 (from the JPS Tanakh) which indicate the placement of the emphasis in the word, the tune to which each word should be sung, and the way the sentence is broken up. There is at least one such mark per word, but occasionally there are two. There is no widespread agreement on the set of tunes to use - it isn't like musical notation - and there are different sets for different texts and certain holidays. The class I'm in focuses on the Torah set for everyday (non-holiday) use, because of course that's the one that gets the most use.

I've been at this for a while, on and off, and I've studied Hebrew to the point where I can almost, but not quite, keep up with the Hebrew chanting in class, and am thus no longer forced to study in English (it is very unusual to chant in English, but at this synagogue some people do). The teacher, who is not officially a synagogue employee but plays an active role in many services and makes money tutoring bar and bat mitzvah students, has been suggesting for a few sessions now that I should chant a short portion of three to five verses in a few weeks. This time I told him I was a little uncomfortable with chanting something I don't believe, even if it is in Hebrew, but it turns out that my classmate, the Israeli atheist, isn't the only person who's involved with this group without believing, and of course a lot of them believe in unconventional versions of the religion, so it's a bit of an oddball group. I'm still on the fence about chanting, but apparently I'm Jewish enough for them. I just might do it, but the idea of chanting from the Torah, which not only lacks cantillation marks but also vowels, and which would involve several other things I haven't done before, such as putting on a tallit and possibly saying my own blessing, makes me nervous.

Why do I like it? There's a certain solemnity to the whole procedure, which really makes it feel special. It's oddly musical, even haunting, especially once you get to know it, and chanting can be a very meditative practice. It's also very intellectually demanding, especially because of the Hebrew, unless you take a pure memorization route. That, and I'm all for any excuse to sing. I also like the teacher and many of the people who come to class. It's drop-in, so you never know what to expect, although the more advanced students who come in are almost always there to practice a specific portion that they're going to chant within the next few weeks. It's nice to hear them work on it, and some weeks I feel up for the class, with its academic air, but not for Saturday morning services.