Illusion in the Freudian Theory of Religion: Part One

April 28th, 2014 No comments
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Adapted from an essay submitted March 2012 to the the Department of Religion, Carleton University

ILLUSION IN THE FREUDIAN THEORY OF RELIGION

 

Sigmund Freud, 1921

Sigmund Freud’s theory of religion, as outlined in his seminal works, Totem and Taboo, Moses and Monotheism,and The Future of an Illusion, undoubtedly contributed to numerous classical and contemporary scholars pointedly labelling him as an enemy of religion.  Despite identifying with a Jewish heritage, many have suggested that Freud was – for all intents – an atheist who viewed religion as merely another manifestation of his psychoanalytic concept of wish fulfillment.  Freud’s reductionist treatment of religion established his adherence to scientific principles, which he viewed as the only means in which to understand the world.  In fact, religion was just another stepping stone for humanity on its way to the scientific age, one in which illusions and fantasy played no part in reality or understanding the human condition. Ironically, in his attempt at developing a theory of religion, he cast aside doctrines of scientific principles and cast a blanket of suspicion over the validity of his claims.   His theory is intriguing, innovative and bold – especially given the time period in which he first advanced his ideas.  Yet, despite his tenacious pursuit of explaining the origination and purpose of religion in scientific and historical terms, he failed to develop a theory that could be described as such.

He staunchly advocated methods of rational inquiry and empirical methodology, and through case studies and observational techniques he developed theories to explain the human psyche and a greater understanding of cultural phenomenon.  Despite these ambitions, many of his theories have gone largely unproven; ironically because they lack universal application as a result of limiting research methods.  His theory of religion is based on several of his psychoanalytic concepts, and as such suggests inherent weaknesses in his approach; however, Freud may have been his own worst enemy due to his refusal to waver from the scientific paradigm in an attempt to explain external reality.  In fact, his critique of religion may actually provide a more positive explanation than the one he overtly claimed.  Far from the parallel of religion as neurosis, his theory suggests that religion works as a mechanism through using illusion and fantasy as a means to resolve reality and the uncertainty of the human condition.  In this view, Freud’s religion becomes a positive mechanism for the development of the human psyche, similar to other concepts such as creativity and imagination.  Thus, Freud – or at least his theory – can be understood as an advocate for religion rather than a dissident.

Freud’s work in religion began in 1907 with a short essay entitled, Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices.  This paper heralded the beginning of a tumultuous relationship between Freud’s psychoanalysis and religion.  In it he drew parallels between the expression of belief in the religious and acts of neurotic psychiatric patients, which he called “ritualistic”.  Both, he suggested, had a shared origin in repressed instincts and supressed childhood experiences.[1]  Specifically, Freud viewed religion as an illusion based on early childhood fantasies, which had been supressed.  Re-emerging in adulthood, these suppressed instincts would ultimately influence the way in which the adult viewed the world,[2] such that reality would become distorted.  Religion was thus realized as a coping mechanism for unrealized childhood wish fulfillment, which ultimately had harmful consequences for the adult human.

Totem and Taboo (1913) by Sigmund Freud

In Totem and Taboo, Freud introduced the concept of totem prohibitions and their relation to modern day religiosity.  In his introductory chapter, he defined totems and their role within the social organization of a tribe, as the first tribal ancestor – animal, plant or force in nature – which held a unique relationship with the tribe.  This relationship was such that a taboo against killing the animal emerged – except for the ritualized annual act of killing and devouring the totem.[3]  This totem meal was instituted in an effort to obtain the power and strength of the totem animal.  Additionally, a strong familial connection to the totem extended throughout the entire clan such that every member of the tribe was deemed blood related.  This led to the practice of exogamy which created a second taboo in the totem social system, namely the incest taboo.[4]  Freud believed that these original taboos signalled the start of morality and ultimately of a social structure[5], which later propagated into religion and other cultural phenomenon.

Freud created a narrative using these totem taboos that extended his thesis in Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices and integrated previously developed theories of psychosexual development, specifically the Oedipus complex.  Drawing heavily from Darwin’s work on primal hordes, Freud described the later manifestation of these primal hordes into totems and subsequently modern day religious traditions.  He postulated that a lone dominant male maintained his status and claim to all females in the tribe through driving out young males to find mates in different totems.  The outcast males then came together and conspired to kill their father.  Subsequently, the sons consumed the father in an effort to assume his power.  Despite their efforts to end the patriarchal horde, the sons became consumed with guilt.  A brother horde was created and soon the practice of exogamy was reinstated, in effect supressing the motivation for the original sinful act.[6] With guilt subsiding and longing for a father-ideal, of which none of them could obtain, the brothers conceived of a symbolic father-figure in the totem animal[7] and commemorated the killing of the father through the annual totem meal.  This ritual was created to relieve the brothers’ guilt through honouring the father and attempting to harness his power.[8] Freud theorized the ceremony and associated symbolic father-image were the precursors to the creation of gods and modern religion.

Additionally, he surmised that the ceremonial act of the totem meal was similar to the obsessive thinking and ritualistic act of the neurotic patient.  Fearing the negative consequences of acting against prohibitions and taboos, these rituals provided both patient and prehistoric man a way in which to supress forbidden impulses and unconscious desires[9] – specifically, the latent desire to kill the father and wed the mother (Oedipus complex).[10] Moreover, the rituals served as a way to reconcile the guilt stemming from these unconscious wishes.  Freud believed that this original sin of the brother horde and the subsequent guilt brought about the totemic religious system which would later become a base for all future religions.[11]  In this way, the totem feast became, “…the repetition and commemoration of this memorable, criminal act with which so many things began, social organization, moral restrictions and religion.”[12]

Freud extended this theory further by suggesting that religious gods were always modelled after an idealized father-figure which was greatly influenced by the individual’s relationship with their own father.[13] The paradoxical nature of this relationship was exemplified by the simultaneous disdain and love for the all-powerful father-figure.  Here, the unconscious wishes of the child, the repressed guilt in the neurotic adult due to those childhood wishes, and the religious person converge in the Oedipus complex, and manifest in various ways in which humans view the world.

In The Future of an Illusion, Freud bridged his postulations on religion as illusion with his work in Totem and Taboo.  In it, he discussed the nature of ambivalence toward the father figure through suggesting that children experienced jealousy and fear toward the father for his all-powerful role, but also looked to the father for protection and care.  As the child grew and experienced the harsh reality of life, the realization that he was destined to be helpless forever emerged.  In order to harness the protective feelings experienced from their own father as a child, the adult transferred the father-image into gods that were both feared and revered.[14]

Freud suggested that modern day monotheistic patriarchal religion developed from this idea of helplessness, particularly in reaction to the harsh and unknowable power of nature.  Mirroring the father-child relationship, the relationship between man and nature was such that man was ultimately at the mercy of natural forces, thus creating fear, helplessness, and awe.  In order to adequately resolve these feelings and to identify with nature, man projected his image into illusory beings with humanlike traits in an effort to establish a relationship with these unknown forces.[15]  Realizing that this helplessness would not cease during the course of the adult’s lifetime, the father-figure beings were created as more powerful than any individual to whom the adult could conceive – namely, the father.[16]

It is important to discuss what Freud meant by illusion.  He believed that illusion stemmed from wishes and fantasies and were similar to psychiatric delusions.  The differences between the two are that delusion suggested a struggle with reality while illusion wasn’t necessarily opposing reality.[17]  Essentially, illusion was motivated by repressed fantasies and the content of the illusory narrative was possible, although not always probable.  For Freud, the narratives of religions were certainly possible, but mostly improbable.  As such, he considered them neurotic fantasies.  Freud translated this hypothesis into the notion of religion as illusion, and ultimately called religion, “…the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity,” [18] rooted in the infantile Oedipal stage.  For him, religion was keeping humanity stuck in a childlike wonderment that abandoned reality for the safety and security of fantasies.  The only proper course of action was the turning away from religious proclivities holding humanity in a middle stage of development and adopting the scientific view of external reality, which more adequately explained the world than religious doctrine.[19]

Finally, further development of his critique of religion was put forth in Moses and Monotheism, in which he applied his theory to the development of firstly Judaism, and then Christianity.  Using the story of Moses from the Hebrew Bible, Freud reimagined the narrative through claiming that Moses was born to Egyptian nobility.  He further claimed that an early form of Judaism was founded on an ancient Egyptian Aton religion, prominent under Pharaoh Amenhotep IV and was known as the only form of monotheism in Ancient Egypt.[20]  Freud speculated that this was the precursor to the rise of the first of the great monotheistic religions, Judaism.  He drew comparisons to the Mosaic religion and the Aton religion highlighting such points as a strict adherence to monotheism, which was very uncommon in the time period.  He also suggested that Moses gave the Jewish people more than just a new religion, but also the law of circumcision which was believed to be widely practiced in ancient Egypt. [21]  Additionally, Freud suggested that the Jewish people revolted against Moses for imposing this new religion on them and subsequently killed him.  He pointed to narratives in the Bible which described these uprisings.[22] In what he described as a latent period in the history of the Jewish religion, Freud suggested that after revolting and killing Moses, that the people turned away from the new religion and returned to their polytheistic ways with a particular emphasis on the worship of the volcano-god Jahve.  A long period of denial followed in which both the killing and the religion given by Moses were supressed.  It was only through oral traditions, which were kept alive by a few loyal followers, that the story of Moses came to permeate the cultural consciousness of the Jews and counter the non-objective historical accounts that were given forth. [23]  Freud said, “[i]t was this tradition of a great past that continued to work in the background, until it slowly gained more and more power over the mind of the people and at last succeeded in transforming the God Jahve into the Mosaic God and in waking to a new life the religion which Moses had instituted centuries before and which had later been forsaken.”[24]   This reworked Mosaic mythology provided Freud with the opportunity to tie in his theory of religion introduced in his previous works – particularly his notions of guilt and fantasy as outlined in the Oedipal concept.

Here Freud demonstrated the restoration of the father as he previously discussed in Totem and Taboo through the growing feelings of guilt among the Jewish people and the resurfacing of suppressed memories of the original sin of killing the father as proclaimed by a Jewish rabble-rouser, Paul of Tarsus.  Redemption and salvation were brought to the Jewish people and indeed all of civilization through the sacrifice of the son of god, Jesus.[25]  It was the leader of the brother horde, Freud suggested, that would be most befitting as a potential sacrifice.  He further illustrated connections to his theory by pointing to the Holy Communion ritual, one in which the flesh and blood of Christ is symbolically ingested, as similar to that of the totem feast.[26]  This account showed how Christianity rose from Judaism, but more specifically how the father religion was replaced by the religion of the son through the transference of repressed guilt.  It is here that Freud attempted to connect totemism to monotheism.  Obviously this re-envisioned account created much public criticism of Freud, as he had essentially claimed that the Judaic religion was not founded on the word of God, but rather the edicts of the Egyptians.

In support of this reimagined historical account of the rise of Judaism and then Christianity, Freud offered up the concept of an archaic heritage which he suggested may involve inherited memory traces that could help to explain why individually different people respond in remarkably similar ways to the same experiences.[27]  Essentially, this concept put forth the notion that repressed memories were passed on from generation to generation and remained dormant during the latency periods of mankind.  This concept allowed Freud to connect how the memory of Moses’ murder survived for generations and the subsequent guilt that consumed the Jewish people.

 Read Part 2 of Illusion in the Freudian Theory of Religion here.

M. xo

Suggested Readings:


[1] Kirk A. Bingham, Freud and Faith: Living in Tension (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003), 31-32; Michael Palmer, Freud and Jung on Religion (New York: Routledge, 1997), 12-13.

[2] Beverley Clack, “After Freud: Phantasy and Imagination in the Philosophy of Religion,” Philosophy Compass 3, no. 1 (2008): 203-204.

[3] Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo, trans. A.A. Brill (New York: Vintage Books, 1946), 134. Freud suggested that animals and plants were most often adopted as the tribal totem.  Taboos against destruction of the totem led to a refusal to kill the animal and avoidance in harvesting the plant.  Although he didn’t specifically address the plant totem in his discussion on the annual totem meal, it is feasible to extend the hypothesis and suggest that the totem plant may have been eaten once a year.  Freud did not include a discussion of the tribal totems identifying with forces of nature.

[4] Ibid., 5-7.

[5] Ibid., 45-48.

[6] Freud, Totem and Taboo, 182-83; Palmer, Freud and Jung, 23.

[7] Palmer, Freud and Jung, 25.

[8] Freud, Totem and Taboo, 183.

[9] Bingham, Freud and Faith, 35.

[10] Palmer, Freud and Jung, 24.

[11] James DiCenso, “Totem & Taboo and the Constitutive Function of Symbolic Forms,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion  64, no. 3 (1996): 572; Palmer, Freud and Jung, 25.

[12] Freud, Totem and Taboo,183.

[13] Ibid., 190.

[14] Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, trans. W.D. Robson-Scott (Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2010), 41-42.

[15] Ibid., 29-30

[16] Ibid., 52

[17] Ibid., 54

[18] Ibid., 76.

[19] Ibid., 55.

[20] Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, trans. Katherine Jones (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), 7-26.

[21] Ibid., 28-29.

[22] Ibid., 58. Freud speculated that uprisings which were supressed by the God Jahve during the time of “wandering in the wilderness” may have been during Moses’ time, despite biblical texts failing to explicitly suggest such postulations.

[23] Ibid., 85-86.

[24] Ibid., 87.

[25] Ibid., 109-10.

[26] Ibid., 111.

[27] Ibid., 125.

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#TBT: The Thing That Ate My Brothers (1988)

April 24th, 2014 1 comment
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This installment of #TBT showcases two of my biggest inspirations for my childhood writings – my brothers.  Whether it was a character named after one of them, or a story featuring an epic sibling adventure (like this one you’re about to read), my brothers somehow imprinted themselves into the stories in my imagination.  Of course, this shouldn’t be a surprise because siblings are the first friends most of us make.  They are also likely to be our closest allies and our biggest rivals.  As the eldest, I’m sure I also felt a sense of duty to protect my younger brothers.  I think this story, if read between the lines, speaks quite eloquently to sibling bonds (oh, and my secret desire to be the ‘Pro’). This one’s for my ‘baby’ brothers…

The Thing That Ate My Brothers (1988)

One day, long ago, Peter, Ben and myself were walking through the forest next to our house. Suddenly, a big, black, hairy Thing jumped out of the bushes. With one great big gulp the Thing ate both of my brothers. The Thing charged after me, but I was too fast for it.  I ran as fast as my feet would carry me. I jumped over broken pieces of wood and old car parts. It was more like a dump than a forest.  I finally made it out into the open.  There were cars buzzing up and down the street. I figured I was north of my house. I had ran all the way to the other side of the forest.  Now it was hopeless! The only thing to do was see the Wise One.  The Wise One was an old hermit who lived at the Great Swamp.  I started my long journey.  I felt like turning back, but I was afraid the Thing would try and eat me too.  I thought about my brothers. Maybe there was still hope! Maybe I could rescue my brothers! I quickened my pace.  I reached the Wise One’s house just before sundown.  I knocked on the door three times before I entered.  The old hermit greeted me with a smile.

“Ah! Melissa. Welcome,” the hermit said.

“Hello, Wise One.  I have come to seek help.” I explained the whole horrible story to him. 

“Hmmmm. Very interesting. You say this Thing is big, black and hairy? Well that can only mean one thing!”

“What?!” I yelled horrified. 

“One of my dogs has gotten into my spider-growth potion,” the Wise One said.

“Well, what can I do to get my brothers back?” I asked hopefully.

“Take this needle and stick it in his arm.”

“Well that sounds easy enough. Bye and thanks!” I said.

“Wait!  There is one more important thing,” but it was too late.  I was off to rescue my brothers. 

I walked through bushes and thorn patches. I came upon a dark cave. I could hear the Thing snoring. This was my big chance! I tiptoed in quietly.

“Wait, wait!” a voice yelled.

I turned around. It was the hermit! The Thing awoke. It jumped up and chased after me. I ran into a hole. The hermit followed me. 

“Why did you do that?” I yelled.

“You must stick the needle in a certain spot. Otherwise you may end up killing your brothers. Stick the needle as close as possible to the shoulder,” said the Wise One. 

I thanked the Wise One and dodged past him and out into the open. The Thing glared at me with his big red eyes. Without even thinking I jumped on his arm and stabbed the Thing right under his left shoulder.  It let out one last terrifying roar! It then fell on the floor and changed into a black dog, Peter and Ben. The dog sat on its haunches.

When we arrived home Mom was hysterical. 

“Where have you been?” she asked sternly.

“Oh… we just had an amazing adventure where for once I was the Pro!” 

We all laughed, except for Mom who just stood there wondering. She would never know of the terror and fright our adventure had caused. 

M. xo

P.S. For those of you who know me personally, you’ll know how completely unbelievable this story is because there’s no way I would have ever “figured I was north of my house” given how ‘navigationally-challenged’ I am. 😉

P.P.S. The ‘Pro’ was a family nickname given to the elder of my youngest brothers, Pete.

P.P.P.S. It’s interesting how impressionable the young mind is.  I see influences of some of my favourite books and movies in this story.  Stand by Me was one of the first movies I ever saw in a theatre and the idea of scary things lurking in the forest has always stuck with me.  I was a big horror fan and read a lot of Stephen King books as a kid – probably more than I should have for my age at the time.  I see a lot of influences from the horror genre in my childhood writing. Maybe all those sleepless nights I spent afraid of Gremlins under the bed were worth it after all. :)

‘Things’ that Go Bump in the Night

 

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What is the Psychology of Religion?

April 22nd, 2014 No comments
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What is the Psychology of Religion?  Let’s begin by looking at definitions of both psychology and religion. Examining their historical and contemporary contexts can allow us to better understand how psychology and religion have developed to form a symbiotic relationship (even though some may contest otherwise, but that’s another post for another day).

Psychology

The Greek capital letter psi, often used to represent the word, or study of, Psychology.Humans have been pondering questions of a psychological nature for millenia. Early writings of Buddha, Confucius, Socrates and in Hebrew Scriptures provide glimpses into the historical beginnings of psychological queries. The origins of the word psychology have roots in the Grecian words psyche, loosely translated as, ‘soul‘ or ‘spirit‘, and logos, translated as, ‘meaning’ or ‘account‘. Thus, in its earliest form, psychological musings were concerned with ‘accounting for the human spirit‘.

Psychology as a science did not emerge until the late 1800’s, when the first experiment addressing mental processes was conducted by Wilhelm Wundt. The science of psychology began to flourish and branch into many different paths and theories. Today, the broad definition of psychology as, the science of behavior and mental processes, is widely accepted. This definition serves merely as a generalization of the discipline of psychology as a whole and does not highlight the complex nature of human behavior and cognition.

Religion

RELIGIONESDeveloping a concrete and universal definition of religion is, in my opinion, an impossible task.  Simply Google ‘define religion’ and you’re guaranteed to get dozens of differing definitions.  Indeed, some scholars spend their entire careers seeking out meaningful definitions that can by relevantly applied to all that encompasses ‘religion’.

For the purpose of this post, I contemplated various definitions of religion presented by scholars over the centuries. I cannot wholly accept definitions, such as social psychologist’s Erich Fromm’s, “[a]ny system of thought and action shared by a group which gives the individual a frame of orientation and an object of devotion.” Religion is both personal and social. It is quite conceivable for a single person to hold religious beliefs that may not be connected to a group, therefore, the first part of the preceding definition does not adequately explain religion.

Carl Jung’s definition is, perhaps, more closely aligned to my understanding of the term religion:

“Religion is a peculiar attitude of the human mind […] that is a careful consideration and observation of certain dynamic factors […] of whatever name man has given to such factors as he has found in his world, powerful, dangerous, or helpful enough to be taken into careful consideration or grand, beautiful and meaningful enough to be devoutly adored and loved”.

Clearly, religion is hard to define; however in order to find merit in any scientific study of religion, and in particular facets of religious behaviour and thought, there must be some universal mechanism for measuring the multidimensional concept of religion.

Psychology+ Religion

Religion can be broadly examined through the various dimensions of religion proposed by sociologists, Charles Glock and Rodney Stark. They proposed five dimensions of religious commitment with which to study the multidimensional nature of religion. These included: the ideological dimension, the ritualistic dimension, the experiential dimension, the intellectual dimension, and the consequential dimension (Paloutzian, 1996).

These dimensions of religious commitment enable researchers with powerful tools to measure the behaviors and mental processes of people from various religious traditions. Through applying the various theories of psychology to the most rudimentary understanding of religiosity, a wealth of knowledge begins to emerge concerning religious behaviors and mental processes that span all faiths and doctrines. Despite the seemingly different beliefs found in the world’s religions, researchers can make generalized statements about the behaviors and cognitive processes that bind them all together.

As with any theoretical work, new ideas will change the shape of what is known today and will invariably lead to new paths of theory. This is especially poignant in research that encompasses any religious domain, due to the very complex nature of religion itself. Undeniably, the process of applying variables and measures to the religious domain with respect to behaviors and cognition can only serve to further enhance future knowledge of how and why religion plays a central role in humankind.

M. xo

Further Reading

Myers, D.G. (2004). Psychology: Myers in Modules (7th Ed). New York: Worth.

Paloutzian, R.F. (1996). Invitation to the Psychology of Religion (2nd Ed). Massachusetts: Allyn & Bacon.

 

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#TBT: Jack Grey’s Adventures with Dog (1986)

April 17th, 2014 No comments
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Last week, I posted on this blog my first Throwback Thursday (#TBT), but instead of posting old photos of myself, I’ve decided to share some writing from my childhood.  This next piece I wrote when I was ten years old.  It was around the time that I started getting interested in counter-cultures – even though I’m quite sure I didn’t even know what that meant at the time.

The main characters are a group of bad boys (and one Superpunk), and a pretty girl who saves the day – just because she can.  Yeah, apparently I was already thinking about reverse gender roles too.

Original draft (1986)

Original draft (1986)

Jack Grey’s Adventures with Dog (1986)

One dark eerie night, Jack Grey, Superpunk, was walking through the dark alley on Johnson Ave. 

“Hey, Buzz, what do you think you’re doing,” said Jack.

“I’m looking for grub,” replied Buzz.

“This is my territory, Buzzhead,” Jack said.

“So what?” said Buzz. “Hey Jack, look what I found.”

“What did you find, Buzzo?”

“Chocolate cake.”

“Leave it,” said Jack, “and come on.”

Jack and Buzz walked back to their fort in an old abandoned zoo on Adam St.

“Hi, George,” said Buzz.

“Whats happening my man?” George said.

Suddenly, George collapsed to the ground.  He had been shot.

“He was always faithful to us,” whined Buzz.

“Never mind him.  We got trouble.  Look who’s coming our way,” said Jack.

It was the Dog, alias Kevin George.  Jack had once said he only was afraid of the Dog.  Jack’s long black hair was flying through the air as he ran.  Jack was only 16 years old.  The Dog was 18 and strong. 

“I’ll cut that giant eagle tattoo off of you, punk,” yelled Dog. 

Buzz and Jack ran until they reached Donna Master’s house.  Donna was Jack’s girlfriend.  Donna didn’t know that Jack stole and lied.  Donna had long blonde hair, blue eyes, and rosy cheeks.  She was sweet, gentle and wasn’t a dropout like Jack and Buzz.  She also despised Dog. 

“Ding, Dong,” went the doorbell.

“Why Jack, what brings you here?”

“I’m here because Dog has a gun and shot George,” Jack said with shivers down his spine.

“Well hurry and get inside,” panicked Donna. 

“Ding, Dong,” went the doorbell again. 

“Open up.  It’s Dog.”

“No, I will not open up.  You know I hate you.  Now go away,” said Donna angrily.

“Ok!  But I’ll be back,” said Dog angrily.

“Well he shouldn’t bother you anymore,” said Donna. 

And he didn’t for a long time afterward.  

M. xo

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Why We Need to Stop the Random Acts of Kindness (RAK) Movement

April 14th, 2014 1 comment
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StopRAKMovement

Each week, at least one viral video pops up on my social news feeds showcasing a random act of kindness (RAK).  These videos tend to pull at the heartstrings and even inspire people to go out and perform their own act of kindness (which is often then uploaded for the world to see).

So, what’s got my feathers in a ruffle about the RAK movement?  It’s not that the acts themselves bother me, it’s that we even need a movement of this sort that I find curious.  Since when was kindness just a courtesy extended to fellow human beings?  Isn’t kindness a way of being, rather than just a single momentary act?  Why do we need to be reminded to be kind?

That’s not all that bothers me about this movement.  I’m also troubled by the number of RAK videos published in an attempt to garner views/likes/self-promotion.  Why does someone have to prove that they were kind?  Shouldn’t kindness be its own reward?  Often, these acts of kindness caught on video are extended to the most marginalized peoples in our communities.  That’s great!  But, why do we have to further marginalize them by using them to publicly self-gratify?

Random acts of kindness hasn’t just become a movement; it’s also become a marketing tool.  For example, just last year in 2013, Canadian airline, WestJet, released a Christmas video (complete with an appropriately branded blue-suited Santa) showing employees of the company performing a monumental random act of kindness for some of their passengers.  To date, the video has over 35 44 million views.  How’s that for some effective advertising?

Final Thought: BE KIND – each and every day.  Live and breathe kindness, so it becomes a part of your soul.  While a single random act of kindness can certainly benefit a person or a moment, BEING KIND extends beyond a single person, community, or moment.  It lasts a lifetime – your lifetime.  And a life lived in kindness is a life rewarded with kindness.

M. xo

*Post updated March 2016*

WestJet Christmas Miracle video

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#TBT: The Pea and the Swiss Cheese (1986)

April 10th, 2014 No comments
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It’s Throwback Thursday (#TBT) and I wanted to try something a little different! Instead of posting an old photo of myself, I thought I’d share some writing from my youth.  I admit, I’m a bit of a pack-rat.  Given this confession, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to find out that I have kept most of my writing over the years – even the horrible teen-angst poetry.  I’ve always believed that writing (and indeed any art form) is a journey.  So, I’m going to take this opportunity to share some of that journey with you here.  Are you ready to go w-a-a-a-a-y back? This first one is a short story I composed in grade school at the age of nine.

Original draft (1986), Age: 9 years

Original draft (1986), Age: 9 years

The Pea and the Swiss Cheese

One day a pea was sitting on the dining room floor. The pea’s name was Peter. He was bored. He had had a little excitement earlier in the day, when the human baby had tried to eat him. The baby had eaten Peter’s parents, and now he was an orphan.

Peter was ten days old. The longest any pea had lived was two weeks. Peter was going to make a vegetable record! Peter started bouncing merrily across the dining room floor.

He came across a piece of swiss cheese. The swiss cheese had been blinded from the bite of the human baby.

“Hi, my name is Peter. What’s yours?”

“My name is Swissella,” the swiss cheese replied.

At that moment, the dreaded vaccuum cleaner came charging into the dining room and sucked up the two new friends.

Peter and Swissella were never seen, or eaten, again.

M. xo

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How a Christian and an Atheist Shaped the First Moon Walk

March 31st, 2014 No comments
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I couldn’t resist blogging about this interesting bit of trivia when I accidentally stumbled upon it this morning.  Despite being too young to have been able to actually experience the excitement of human’s first walk on the moon in 1969, I’ve seen the grainy footage an untold number of times.  If you happen to be one of the few in the industrialised world who hasn’t, well, here’s your chance.

Seriously, don’t let the lack of high definition video dissuade you.  This video is EPIC!

Most of us can recite Neil Armstrong’s word’s by heart, “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind,” but what many of us may not be aware of, are the actions of co-astronaut, Buzz Aldrin, just prior to stepping onto the surface of the moon.

In this article, originally published in 1970 by Guideposts, Aldrin describes how he performed the Christian rite of Communion on the Moon.  This clip from the 1998 HBO miniseries, From the Earth to the Moon re-imagines the circumstances.

So, why were Aldrin’s actions kept secretive for so long?  Well, it turns out that on Christmas Eve the previous year, astronauts of Apollo 8 (the first to orbit the moon) sent greetings back to Earth, and included readings from The Book of Genesis.  This ignited lawsuit threats by the founder of American Atheists, Madalyn Murray O’Hare.  Subsequently, NASA officials refused to live broadcast the Communion rite.

Years later, Aldrin discussed in his memoirthat despite the ritual being of personal significance to himself, he should have chosen something more representative of all mankind humankind.

Watch the Apollo 8 crew read from the Book of Genesis, Christmas Eve, 1968

 

M. xo

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St. Patrick’s Day: History & Myths [VIDEO]

March 17th, 2014 2 comments
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Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Every year, on March 17th, people around the world participate in a tradition of donning green clothing, parading in the streets, and partaking in eats and beverages inspired by the Emerald Isle.  Considering the pious origins of St. Paddy’s Day, the celebrations are rather bodacious.

Like other holidays, St. Patrick’s Day began as a religious holiday to celebrate the patron Saint of Ireland.  Over the years, it has been embraced as a cultural holiday, celebrated by the religious and the non-religious alike – and much like other holidays, myths reign supreme.

You know that colour we associate with today?  Yeah, turns out we should all be wearing blue.  And what about the famous shamrock, considered by many as the symbol of Ireland?  It, too, has an interesting history of becoming part of popular culture.  Originally, identified with Saint Patrick who used the plant as a way to demonstrate the Holy Trinity, it later became a national symbol when adopted by an Irish militia group.

Yep, much like other holidays, fact and myth get all jumbled up until the holiday of yesteryear has transformed into something different, perhaps more audacious… or maybe not.  At any rate, before you head out to happy hour featuring green-tinted beer, brush up on your St. Paddy’s Day history with these short, fun, and informative videos.

M. xo

P.S. For a glimpse at what drunk people think St. Patrick’s Day is all about, check out this satirical report.

St. Patrick’s Day | Bet You Didn’t Know (2:23)

St. Patrick’s Day Myths; John Kosich WKBW-TV (1:58)

The History of Saint Patrick – a Short Story (3:15)

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The Lev Tahor Controversy in Canada

March 13th, 2014 No comments
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I couldn’t let an opportunity pass to comment on yet another religious controversy making headlines in my home country.  If you’ve been paying attention to the news out of Canada lately, then you may have heard about a small ultra-Orthodox Jewish group, Lev Tahor, creating quite the controversy here in the Great White North.  Now, Canada tends to be known for its multiculturalism, and as a champion of individual rights and freedoms, including religious freedom.  Although admirable, at times this tolerance creates a firestorm of controversy.

Late last year, media stories began percolating about a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews living in a secluded and tight-knit community in Quebec.  They were clashing with the province over the education of their children, and fled to Ontario in order to privately educate their children (read about issues surrounding private and public education in my post on Creationism in Canada).  What began as an increasingly common story, religious rights versus the public education system, has turned into a media frenzy with accusations circulating of child endangerment, suspicious charitable donations, and religious discrimination.

I won’t bother rehashing all the details that have been steadfastly published in the media.  You can do that for yourself, here, here, and here.  You should also consider watching two investigative reports available on YouTube, one by Global’s 16×9, and the other by CBC’s Fifth Estate.  Both provide some interesting insight into this group, particularly during the interview segments.  Regardless of how sensationally the information has been portrayed in the media, it’s pretty clear that something isn’t quite right.  So, should Lev Tahor be considered a legitimate religious group simply trying to live in accordance with their beliefs, or are they a dangerous cult?

In all honesty, I don’t know.  I hesitate to label minority religious groups, fringe religious groups, or new religious groups as a cult, because the word is far too often misused and abused.  That said, after researching Lev Tahor, something is terrible amiss with the leaders of this group.

It’s no secret that I champion religious tolerance and freedom; however, it’s important to clarify that there are exceptions.  For example, religious rights should never trump basic human rights.  If there is even the suspicion that Lev Tahor children are not being properly cared for, then a full investigation is warranted.  Lev Tahor claims they have nothing to hide, then open your doors and let social service workers have unfettered access to your way of life.

There are also questions surrounding how Lev Tahor generates income, particularly when so few members work outside the community.  According to community leaders, generous donors help sustain the community.  It was reported that at least one charity run by Lev Tahor had their charitable status revoked.  As a taxpayer, I’d like to ensure that tax exemptions are indeed being given to real charities. Further, it was reported that some Lev Tahor members receive thousands of dollars in child tax benefits.  This causes me concern too.  Child tax benefits are intended to ensure that children are being adequately taken care of, but clearly there are numerous accusations that suggest otherwise.  This must be investigated fully.

I don’t wish to see Lev Tahor members persecuted, but there are too many unanswered questions that need to be addressed.  I hope that officials and the media can do so in a responsible and unbiased manner, so that religious freedoms and basic human rights are appropriately balanced and equally championed.  Anything less would be ‘un-Canadian’.

Do you have thoughts or questions about this story?  I’d like to hear from you!

M. xo

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Nature-Connectedness: The Greening of Behaviour, Well-Being and Christian Imperatives: Part 3

February 24th, 2014 No comments
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Read Part One and Two

Getting Back to Nature – A Christian Imperative

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion … over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26)

“And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31)

In perhaps one of the most significant articles in religion and ecology discourse, Lynn White Jr. (1967) in his article, The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis, discussed the impact of Westernized Christian tradition on the proliferation of the misuse of science and technology that ultimately led to perpetuating a polarity between humankind and nature. Acknowledging that people remarkably and often unintentionally impact the natural world (p. 1203), he suggested that a historical overview of the advent of the ecological crisis was warranted. White discussed the rise of Western industrialization, leading to modern science and technology as harbingers of doom for nature (p. 1204). In a critical examination, White admonished the Western Christian tradition for spreading ideological narratives from the Biblical account of the story of Creation that called for a fundamental reign of humankind over nature (p. 1205-1206). He suggested that solutions to the ecological crisis should be one of a religious nature because its origins were based in religion. Further due to the influence of the Christian tradition on science and technology, he believed that further remedies of this nature could not aid in a resolution because they were ultimately based on religious ideology (p. 1206-1207), therefore a religious response could be the only proper course of action.

White’s arguments provide a sound base for what roles, if any, religion and science should impart in the continued efforts toward ecological salvation. Clearly, this argument lays the blame squarely at the foot of the Western Christian tradition and as such has incited much response from the community. Responses have ranged from outright denial to acknowledgment of partial culpability; however, there appears to be a growing trend of redefining the terms and understanding of dominion or stewardship as suggested in the Genesis account. Indicative of this sentiment have been many messages and appeals from leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly Pope John Paul II.

 

Christian Perspectives

In a 1990 address celebrating World Day of Peace, Pope John Paul II discussed an emerging adversary to world peace – the present day ecological crisis (Message of His Holiness, Intro., par. 1). Pointing to the same passages in the book of Genesis that White used in his argument, in which Adam and Eve were granted dominion over the Earth (Gen 1:28), he expanded the interpretation to suggest that dominion was granted on condition that it was carried out with love and care. He further suggested that it is through sinful acts of rebellion against the Creator’s instructions that have led to the present day environmental devastation (Sec. I, par. 2).

The Pope’s message also discussed the negative impacts of consumerism, irresponsible use of science and technology, a complacent disregard for life, and the lack of education encompassing an environmental ethic. These, he theorized, are all factors that have contributed to ecological devastation affecting every life on the planet. The solution he put forth called for a united world of peoples who step into their place as proper stewards of creation (Sec. II – Sec.V).

His Holiness also exalted the benefits of the human-nature relationship, “[o]ur very contact with nature has a deep restorative power; contemplation of its magnificence imparts peace and serenity” (Sec. IV, par. 8). In closing his address, Pope John Paul II alluded to a kinship with nature by urging people to keep, “[…] alive a sense of ‘fraternity’ with all those good and beautiful things which Almighty God has created,” (Sec. V, par. 5).

Clearly, one of this generation’s most influential leaders of the Christian tradition felt a deep urgency over the state of matters concerning the environment. In addition, he appears to have intuitively connected with notions of the beneficial effect of nature on not only one’s physical well-being, but also one’s spiritual well-being. His ecotheological contemplations lay forth a path in which Christians can breathe new life into the Biblical account of Creation, including a new standard of humankind’s call to stewardship of the earth.

Renowned ecotheologian and Catholic priest, Thomas Berry, has written much on the subject of the relationship between humans and nature. He suggested that, “[w]e have indeed become strange beings so completely are we at odds with the planet that brought us into being” (Meadow Across the Creek, 2000, par. 9). Discussing the upbringing of children in industrialized nations, he posited that a learned alienation from nature imparts indifference concerning the effects of future economic aspirations that exploit the environment (par. 9).

One response Berry (2003) offered to reconnect humankind with the earth was to usher in an age which he dubbed ecozoic. In this new era, Berry believed that people will and must come to appreciate not only the intrinsic value of all life forms (pg. 569), but also their role as a supreme manifestation and celebratory agent of the universe (pg. 565). Endowed with the ability of self-awareness and heightened intelligence, humankind is tasked with responsibility of stewardship (p. 565) in such a way that honours the symbiosis of all species and the earth itself (pg. 568).

Berry’s reflections suggest a deep spiritual connection and rational understanding about people in relation to the environment. He discussed the inharmonious consequences of human actions on the balance of nature and how this reflected a tragic implementation of the gifts and burdens of intelligence and self-awareness (p. 565-567). Despite the culpability of people on the present state of the natural environment, he acknowledged that future pursuits must still maintain the interests of humans, but also maintain the health of the planet (p. 566-567). Through initiating responsible ecological and economical governance Berry suggested, “[…] that the well-being of each [is] fulfilled in the well-being of the whole” (p. 570). It is in recognizing that the “[…] universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects,” (p. 570) that the greater potential of humankind may be actualized.

Berry’s profound spiritual reflections show a remarkable integration of the views of his traditional faith, but also those stemming from an understanding of a universal consciousness. It is through the integration of multi-faceted frameworks of spirituality and scientific practice that a new era of environmental ethic can arise to influence humanity in shifting their current relationship with the earth.

 

Toward an Integrated Environmental Ethic

The aforementioned research and philosophical discourse highlights a need for an integrated framework to be adopted in order to appropriately respond to the environmental crisis. Lynn White Jr. made the argument that the most adequate responses must be ones rooted in religion; however, scientific knowledge must also be included in the solution. Religion may offer a motivation toward ecological salvation, but science can assuredly offer important tools and methods that will be invaluable toward implementing responses and measuring successes thereafter.

Science and religion have historically been polarized in such discussions; however, both can provide immense benefits. As has been demonstrated, theologians and ecological thinkers often begin by asking important questions that should, and must, be investigated with the rigor of the scientific discipline. One of humanity’s greatest assets is the ability to ponder profound existential issues, and then follow through with logical methods of inquiry. How then, can humankind use these powerful forces to advance a responsible ecological age, while still advancing the human potential in all its pursuits?

Throughout this paper the concept of interdependency has been explored in relation to people and nature. This same concept can be examined in the context of this issue between religion and science, both of which are inherently human concepts of viewing the world. Striving to integrate these concepts can only serve to benefit broadening humanity’s understanding of these important issues.

As noted, much of the research undertaken has stemmed from ecospiritual ideas. These thinkers expressed concern for the alienation of humans from a fundamental part of their being – nature. Clearly, the scientific community has become more interested in these ideas as evidenced from the growing body of research concerning people and the environment. Similarly, science is both validating these claims through a methodological approach and providing important tools in which to understand the causal links between people and nature. Thomas Berry (2003) advocated this integral framework where science, technology and religions forge a new ecozoic era and universe story.

Religion and ecology literature is replete with discussions on whether anthropocentrism or biocentrism is the problem and/or solution to the unfolding crisis. The examination in this paper suggests that anthropocentrism and biocentrism may not be mutually exclusive ideas in the search for an appropriate response. The research indicates that humans receive enormous benefits from being connected or having a kinship with nature. Human needs and interests are fulfilled when the needs of the environment are also fulfilled. This speaks for an anthropocentric ideal in which human behaviour and utilization of the planet’s resources are based on what is in the best interest of humanity.

Interestingly, this adapted anthropocentric notion may also have elements of biocentrism. Human interests are fulfilled through having a deep interest in maintaining a healthy environment and forging a deep connection to nature. Additionally, as the aforementioned research suggests, pro-environmental behaviour may also increase identification with the environment, thus resulting in a greater appreciation for the inherent worth of the environment. This would suggest that claims of anthropocentrism, argued to be inherent in religious traditions such as Christianity, would not necessarily negate an appropriate response to the environment.

Similarly, the concept of stewardship in the Christian ideology can be integrated into a robust environmental ethic. Historically, there may be evidence to suggest that the dominion argument had precedence over stewardship in humanity’s relations to nature; however, religious traditions evolve and adapt in accordance with the acquisition of knowledge and shifting societal ethics. Clearly, as evidenced by the messages from Pope John Paul II and Thomas Berry presented in this paper, a shift in ideological territory is taking place. Christians are heralding a renewed response to their relationship with the environment; perhaps in part due to the growing scientific evidence that highlights humanity’s culpability in the destruction of God’s Creation and in addition to empirical inquiries into the value of nature for people. Reinterpretation of Biblical passages allows for the integration of this knowledge into an appropriate and decidedly Christian response. Part of this response may include the atonement for past sins perpetrated on God’s Creation. Additionally, Christians can seek guidance and a new ethic based on revisiting their sacred text for renewed revelation.

In light of the research and philosophical discourse above, stewardship can provide a bridge for which Christians may develop a deeper connection to nature. If the research holds true, a deeper kinship with the environment will result in an increase in positive actions toward the environment which ultimately will fulfill God’s mandate to care for the land He created. Befittingly, these actions and connections will likely increase the well-being of the Christian community which could be interpreted as divine reward for fulfilling divine providence.

Essentially, science and religion are working in parallel toward the same prospect. One institution doing so based on divine mandates and influenced by modern knowledge; the other based on contemporary methodologies and influenced by spiritual reflections. Clearly, this suggests that cooperative efforts toward ecological sustainability are already underway. The future challenge will be maintaining this synergy, while valuing the insights each paradigm can offer toward the effort.

M. xo

References

Bible, The King James or Authorized Version of the Holy Bible.

Berry, T.  (2000). The Meadow Across the Creek.  In The Great Work.  Retrieved from http://www.thomasberry.org/Essays/MeadowAcrossCreek.html.

Berry, T. (2003). The universe story: its religious significance. In R.S. Gottlieb (Ed.), Liberating faith: religious voices for justice, peace, and ecological wisdom (565-572). Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

John Paul II.  Message of His Holiness Pope John Paul II for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace. 1 Jan. 1990. Retrieved from http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/messages/peace/documents/hf_jp-ii_mes_19891208_xxiii-world-day-for-peace_en.html.

White Jr., L. (1967). The historical roots of our ecologic crisis. Science, 155 (3767), 1203-1207.

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