Impolite Conversation

Religion, Sex, Geek Culture & Other Topics Outside Polite Society

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Monday, March 18, 2002

Religion: Deadly Sins

It's pretty often, actually, that the webmag Killing the Buddha adds something extra to their site, so I can never keep track of all of it, but something about this article grabbed me from the headline: Sins of the City.

What's sad is the extent to which their point rings home: In the end, we are not interested in a just city, a fair city, a good city in New York or anywhere else. Even post 9/11, recession looming, half the people you know unemployed (or "freelancing" as we all like to pretend), what we want is a presentable city. It isn't a matter of a more stable, fair, or equitable society. It's about a cleaner, more sanitized society.

Perhaps the fact that it's threatening to come apart at the seems isn't so terrible as one might think. Perhaps it's a blessing, a moment of grace, a mercy.

Thursday, March 14, 2002

Sex: Like They Do on the Discovery Channel

Don't ask what drove me here. It's just safer that way, but got many juvenile kicks and grins from the field notes on copulations among the relocated California Condors in the Grand Canyon.

Can we imagine field notes like this at the average gay gathering:

"After joining Angry Activist 167 at a watering area, Opera Queen 192 over consumend and spent a lot of time displaying himself to Snooty Fag 203. Golden Boy 151 intervened initially, but then later went to attempt copulation with Leather Dad 102.

"Teddy Bear 151 attempted to leave the watering hole and fly to a more prestigious watering hole where more displaying was going on, but was harangued repeatedly by a group of Snooty Fags (which included 92 and 201) until returning to his home hunting grounds."

I told you it was juvenile...

Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Geek Culture: Clarke Saw It First

H.P. Lovecraft meets hard biological sf and you pretty much get Arthur C. Clarke's 60's era short story "The Shining Ones." Who are the great luminescent squid living at the floor of the Indian Ocean, and just how the hell did they reach sentience?

Then, just to prove truth is stranger than fiction, scientists discover this. Not exactly encouraging since there was one spotted in the Gulf of Mexico, Sir Arthur didn't exactly predict our having friendly relations with them.


Sexual Histories

It's not often worth visiting PlanetOut for much more than the personal ads (and those get old after a bit, too). But I dropped by today and was greeted by this news: Gay diaries of Irish patriot declared real.

Lest you think this an odd thing for anyone but gay folks to be concerned about, the very existence of the Black Diaries was a black mark on Brittish-Irish relations for some time. The controversy consumed Irish scholars, politicians, and journalists throughout the 20th century. Casement was not only an Irish revolutionary and a former Brittish ambassador. He was a hoted human rights observer throughout the Brittish Empire. As late as 1998, Irish writer Angus Mitchell was viciously defending Casement's "honor," contrasting the diaries to Casement's other writings. Mitchell even posted the Balck Diaries (as with most things Edwardian, they're rather mild by today's standards) in the hopes of discrediting their authenticity and set off fresh debates.

What was terrible about being gay, no modern Irish writers have said. More thorough coverage (I know - you balk at the idea that PlanetOut might not be thorough) can be found in The Guardian and from Reuters.


Sex: More on Casement

It's sad that a predominately pornographic site can muster better journalism than the queer world's foremost online presence. Ah well -- anyway, this essay from Gay Today, the current events section of adult provider Badpuppy, goes into further detail about Sir Roger Casement: Hero and Traitor. You might also find this report from the AP interesting.


Almost forgot! There are two poems by W. B. Yeats on the Casement affair: One entitled Roger Casement shows that Yeats believed the diaries were forged, and the second The Ghost Of Roger Casement is a more general tribute to Casement's spirit.

Tuesday, March 12, 2002

Religion: Straining an already troubled world...

I know, I know: It's kind of a shock to find a liberal, gay Episcopalian shaking his head over something Billy Graham said. After all, Graham has repeatedly expressed anti-gay sentiment and is certainly a good friend of the Republican right. But it's too easy to dismiss Graham apart from the facts. While holding fast to his evangelical faith, Graham is certainly no fundamentalist, much less the kind of raving rightwing nutcase so normal among televangelists. He's long been known, even by those who differ with him, as a man of integrity and compassion, so it's sort of a blow to hear this from Ethics Daily.


Baptists Make Case for Gay Marriage

And I'm not even sure they know they did it!

While a lot of these assertions should certainly be critically discussed (who the hell are these researchers, anyway, and why do some of these sponsors seem kinda iffy), some of them are right on... and should be extended to gay couples! As the report notes, cohabitation isn't the same thing as marriage. Hmmm...

Monday, March 11, 2002


Yes, the true sign that you have no real ambition in life is playing the "Google" game. The apparent rules (I'm a newbie, please forgive any ignorant mistakes): Enter three unrelated and realtively uncommon words into Google and see what you get. For instance, the words "amphibian," "ontological," and "domestic" turned up this: From Here to Eternity.

I'll leave this for you to contemplate.


Religion and the Problems of Monotheism

"A believer in this Kalimah can never be narrow in outlook. He believes in a God Who is the Creator of the heavens and the earth, the Master of the East and the West and Sustainer of the entire universe. After this belief he does not regard anything in the world as a stranger to himself. He looks on everything in the universe as belonging to the same Lord he himself belongs to. His sympathy, love and service are not confined to any particular sphere or group. His vision is enlarged, his intellectual horizon widens, and his outlook becomes as liberal and as boundless as is the Kingdom of God," asserts this essay on Islamic monotheism: Effects of Tawhid on Human Life.

While I can take issue with a lot that the author has to say on my own (most notably that members of other faiths are small-minded and prone to suicide), his first three assertions are engaging: that monotheism creates a wide perspective, that it grants self-esteem, and that it promotes a humble life. His arguments would be engaging if history weren't against him in such a painful way: Members of two of the world's three largest monotheistic religions are killing each other in record numbers over the borders of Israel and Palestine, and today is the six month mark for remembering the events of September 11, 2001, perpetrated by terrorists who boldly asserted their Islamic identity. And despite the noble side of monotheism expressed in my own church's catechism, Christians have their own history of terror perpetrated against non-Christians, heretical Christians, gays, and women (no sizeable and historical Christian group can do much to claim innocence from these crimes). In fact, monotheism seems to have had a troubled history since Akhenaten and Nefertiti tried to force the worship of Aten on the priests of Amun-Ra.

This is nothing new, of course, but as an honest monotheist can hardly ignore it and dismiss it and still attempt to live in a way that testifies to the expansiveness of monotheism. Over all of our prayers and devotions hangs a cloud: Does my belief in God make any difference? What separates me from a crusader, a terrorist? Pious words are ultimately empty. It's all too easy to disassociate ourselves from the crimes of our religious forebearers with "well, they weren't really very good..." and try to go on with our lives, but you can't blame anyone for finding the rhetoric unconvincing. Pointing to the atrocities committed in the name of secularism doesn't help much either. It helps to even the score a bit, but how convincing an alternative is a religion that seems (on the surface, at least) to only provide an outlet for the awful traits that most people will display anyway.

Perhaps the answer lies in the way we come to know God -- a Ghazalli and Thomas pointed out.


A Brief Bright Glimpse

Of course, in the mess that monotheists have made of monotheism, there are brief, bright, meaningful sparks: "My Legs Were Praying": Theology & Politics in Abraham Joshua Heschel. Thought for the day: "We have failed to offer sacrifices on the altar of peace; now we must offer sacrifices on the altar of war.... Let Fascism not serve as an alibi for our conscience.... Where were we when men learned to hate in the days of starvation? When raving madmen were sowing wrath in the hearts of the unemployed? . . . "Good and evil, which were once as real as day and night, have become a blurred mist. In our everyday life we worshipped force, despised compassion, and obeyed no law but our unappeasable appetite. The vision of the sacred has all but died in the soul of man." ("The Meaning of This War [World War II]," pp. 210-212. Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Susannah Heschel, ed. [Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996]).

Friday, March 08, 2002

And Yet More Religion

This article, Naming the Names of God: Muslims, Jews, Christians, (by David Burrell in a 1990 issue of Theology Today) draws out several interesting tidbits. Burrell, a Notre Dame professor and early collaborator with Stanley Hauerwas (CNN/Time's theologian of 2001), asserts that what is important in studying other religions is not how they are similar, but how they are "complementary."

In the article, he briefly examines the effect of the idea of "naming" God has on spirituality in three theologians: Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Moses Maimonides, and Thomas Aquinas. Interesting thought for the day: "whoever is characterized by one of these ninety-nine names (Ghazali refering to the traditional Islamic names of God) enters paradise."

There isn't much material from Ghazali, or other major Islamic writers, online. However, you can read this excerpt from Burrell's translation of The Ninety-nine Beautiful Names of God at the Great Books website. (I suppose Anne Coulter's Ivy League reading list was too limited to cover books by Muslim authors, even if they did inform the works of major Jewish and Christian thinkers.)

Ghazali here has an interesting take on God's mercy. Since God is perfect and incapable of suffering in Ghazali's theology, does that mean God lacks empathy, and thus compassion: "one who is merciful out of empathy and suffering comes close to intending to alleviate his own suffering and sensitivity by his actions, thereby looking after himself and seeking his own goals.... the perfection of mercy consists in looking after the one receiving mercy for the sake of the one receiving mercy, and not for the sake of being relieved from one's own suffering and sensitivity."

I couldn't find any of the works of Maimonides online, but I did find the referenced section from Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica.


Geeks Unite!

In another blow for conformity-centered pyschotherapy, Science News reports: Bereaved adjust well without airing emotion.

For those of us whose personalities and cultural preferences are a bit off kilter, it can be off-putting to live in a therapy-bloated society that encourages everyone to deal with life in the same way. Now we have even more evidence that it does more for the psychotherapists' pocket books than it does for our psyches. All those stoic action-movie heroes aren't so psychologically unstable as everyone thought, were they?

On a less heady note Science News also reports that Scrabble's random letters apparently, aren't so random: The hand-held Scrabble Express game seems to be a tad off kilter in it's distribution of vowels and high-scoring consonants. Maybe the programming is wrong? Maybe the statistics are wrong? Maybe the computer has finally reached sentience and is playing to win?


Really Geeky Stuff

Fans of Star Trek V (all three of you) have a big disappointment in store: It appears the center of the galaxy is not the home of the original paradise planet. Apparently it's a giant black hole and bunch of star birthing clouds and the graveyard of lots of old suns according to (who else?) Science News Online.

The good news is that the gas at the center of the galaxy isn't as hot as astronomers once thought (only 10,000 kelvins, not 100,000 kelvins) and is much less likely to keep hanging out at the center of the galaxy -- I'm sure you find this as comforting as I do. I don't have time to finish the whole article in order to see if there's any balancing bad news (such as my previously referenced link demonstrating that it's possible we may one day get run over by another galaxy), but I promise to try and review it in more depth.


Thursday, March 07, 2002
Well, if this isn't a brilliant piece of porse, it's because I wrote my most brilliant stuff last night, only to have Blogger crash and burn, taking all of my insights and intuitions right down with them... So here's the:

Religion Redux

Continuing, if erratically, my readings in online pieces by/about/on Islam, I stumbled across this piece: Human Rights In Islam.

What I found most interesting, even more than the snippets from the Koran, were the extent to which the writer sees Muslim ethics grounded in the idea of monotheism: "the oneness of God stands dominant and central, and necessarily entails the concept of the oneness of humanity and the brotherhood of mankind." We are not, asserts the ethical monotheist, children of particular, warring, rivalry-bound pantheons: We are members, despite barriers and appearances, of the same family. Monotheism invites "mankind to transcend... mere ties fostered by the kinship of blood, racial superiority, linguistic arrogance, and economic privileges. It invites mankind to move on to a plane of existence where, by reason of his inner excellence, man can realize the ideal of the Brotherhood of man."

This is, of course, a good thing: Ignoring the concept of "family" allows numerous gross travesties. In Tolkien (see The Silmarillion), Orcs were not one of the "free peoples" because they had been born of a different, evil, and lesser deity than humans, elves, and (theoretically) hobbits. This theology echoes that of the medieval period and the enlightenment: Non-Christian people could be taken as slaves, mistreated, and abused because they were outside the Christian family. In fact, early missionaries, evangelicals, and pietists were often physically assaulted, imprisoned, or otherwise detained in order to prevent them from converting the peoples the Europeans wished to enslave. If these people were acknowledged as Christians, then Christian ethics had to be extended to them. The movie The Mission illustrates this among Roman Catholics in South America, but Dutch protestants in South Africa also similarly abused the Moravian missionaries who came to work with Zulu and other tribes. In response, of course, Christian theologians more forcefully asserted this basic principle of monotheism: the essential inter-relatedness of all humans.

The problem, of course, is that we aren't always all that great to our own families. Indeed, as the 10,000 Maniacs eloquently pointed out in "What's the Matter Here," family relationships often justify for our abuse of each other.

When our family members don't listen, don't follow our beliefs, and openly challenge what we think is right, we too often feel justified in using coercion instead of persuasion. (The difference between the two was eloquently put in the link I posted from The Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs yesterday.) Stalin and Pol Pot, who were fanatically devoted to their own interpretations of the Communist ideal, certainly believed (at least in theory) that all working people were equal. Of course, if those workers ever questioned the dictator's authority, punishment and death were bound to follow. Parents have a long history of using "tough love" on children with the wrong political ideas, religious beliefs, life goals, personal ambitions, or sexual orientation -- and not only conservatives, I've met more than one child of a East Coast progressives who were told "You'll become a (Catholic/Baptist/Christian/Orthodox Jew/Young Republican) over my dead body."

So is seeing a great "Brotherhood of Man" enough (even after patching up its sexist language)? Is it even desirable? Is the family metaphor the problem? Or is the way we live out our idea of family?

Wednesday, March 06, 2002

Religious Freedom

The often insightful Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs offers this Q&A on the school vouchers issue. I guess when even Baptists won't support W., it's gotta be tough: Protecting Religious Liberty. Quote for the day:

Authentic religion must be wholly uncoerced. Religion should depend for its support on the persuasive power of the message it proclaims and not on the coercive power of the state. Utilizing the things of Caesar to finance the things of God is adverse to true religion and violates the spirit of freedom upon which it is based. Thomas Jefferson once said, "To compel a person to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical." The same principle applies to religious education.

Friday, March 01, 2002


I think that Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas hit the nail on the head (if anyone can point me to a Hauerwas website, I'd love to see it): To the extent that mainstream Christian churches fail to speak in a compelling, forceful, and intelligent way against this kind of theological idiocy, they are, in part, responsible for this. I'll even raise him one: The whole notion that religion is solely a private choice which should never raise its head in public (a notion underwritten by most mainline Christians) is also responsible.

It seems to me this is what happens when religious and theological discussions are pushed to the sidelines: They become the sole domain of the unstable, the irrational, and the absurd. The whole debate, the whole topic is ceded into the hands of fundamentalists and extremists. This, then, is what you get.