Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Livelihood and Some Thoughts

I handed in my final paper today. I'm officially done with the requirements for my Masters degree. So, I figured I'd update you a little on my life.

I realize that it's a bit arrogant to think that any of you would actually care about what's going on in my life. When I started this blog, I think I seriously thought people would, or would be interested in some of the topics talked about on the blog. First time blogging naivete, perhaps. Anyway, I've reconciled myself to the reality that this blog is really more of a mouthpiece for some of the things that I, personally, find to be more interesting, or a place to scribble down a few musings as I go, and I'm okay with that. In that vein then, indulge me.

Some of you know me well enough to know what I've been doing with my life for the past little while. For those of you who don't: I finished my BA in psychology and philosophy & religion at Appalachian State University in 2007. I was accepted into the MA in Divinity (note, this is distinct from a Masters in Divinity) at the University of Chicago. I count this as a rather prestigious honor for several reasons - it's a selective school that offers a very excellent education; I've met a lot of really great people here and had the ability to expand my cognitive horizons; and, lastly, I had a lot of extra time during my coursework to take classes in another field of interest - cognitive neuroscience. Now, those of you who know me slightly less well may be saying at this point: "What the heck? YOU? In a Divinity School? But you love science and most of what you talk about is science!"

Yes, that's certainly true. I've always maintained, however, that I am not an expert. I consider myself an educated lay person, and when I don't know something, I look it up or, even better, consult with an actual expert in the field. They're nice people, and are generally willing to answer questions related to their study. A lot of scientists are like that - some are genuinely surprised that other people are even interested in their work. Now, as I said, I've also been taking classes in cognitive neuroscience/psychology, and when I'm in the lab or doing coursework there, I consider myself to be a scientist-in-training. I'm trying to pursue a Ph.D. in the cognitive sciences, but with the current economic situation and universities tightening their's tough. So, no, you should not consider me an expert or a "scientist" just quite yet, but I am certainly working towards that. I will never be an expert in evolutionary theory, or biology in general, that's true. However, I do consider my opinion on these matters to be among the educated lay people, and will try to direct any questions I cannot answer to someone who actually has had that sort of training.

More below...

So why did I pursue a Masters in, essentially, religious studies? Well, that's a bit of a tough one. I deeply appreciate the historical-critical method of investigating scripture, for one. This is the method that is taught in most divinity schools and even seminaries in the country. It is not devotional - that is, it does not attempt to exam the text for life lessons or absolute truths. Instead, you learn about the text - who wrote it, when, why, and how. You learn that scriptures were written by particular people at particular times for particular reasons. Thus, you also come to understand that some doctrines cherished by you or others may not have originally been in the text you're so committed to. For instance, the doctrine of the divinity of Christ or the Trinity are not present in the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament. Tom Sheepandgoats, a guy that I've had fairly frequent contact with, is fond of pointing out some of this information in support of Jehovah's Witnesses having a more probable and better translation of Scripture in these cases, at least. This point, I will certainly grant to him - the Jehovah's Witnesses are right - these doctrines are later insertions. However, we would still disagree as to the actual existence of God and all the rest. Tom, if you're reading this, I don't mean this in a pejorative sense, but an apt analogy would be for when I come into contact with people who believe in Scientology or Spiritualist writings - indeed, your translation may be closer to the original or what was originally intended by the author, but, we're still arguing about things that are unlikely to be true anyway.

Yes, indeed, I am an atheist. Or at the very least, a very strong agnostic (not in the sense of thinking that no one could ever have knowledge about God, but more in the sense that I think it's incredibly unlikely, but I simply do not absolutely know). So why am I studying in a divinity program? Well, for one, I was once a very committed believer. I have that as a personal part of my history, and indeed it has influenced my later life. I likewise find religious belief and behavior utterly fascinating. True or not, religions have been some of the most important motivators for human behavior in all of history. A very, very, very minor point was that I was tired of hearing people complain about people like Dawkins and Dennett by saying "Oh, they don't consider the advanced theological opinions," mostly from theologians. Personally, I have studied these opinions, and the reasons behind them, and I find them utterly unsatisfactory. Part of me wants to understand the psychology behind belief, but I've also come to realize in pursuing this degree that I really want to focus on the scientific fields more and pursue cognitive neuroscience as a career.

I'm also getting married. I'm engaged to someone who makes me happier than I have ever felt, and I feel wonderfully blessed (in a non-deity way) to have met her and to be with her. To think that out of all the billions of years of the universe, out of all the possible people who could be here in my or her place, out of all the trillions of things that could have been different so that we would never have have our particular molecules come together here, at the same place and the same time, is truly wonderful and astounding. Some would call this a religious experience - in the sense that it is awe-inspiring and wonderful, then indeed, yes, I would agree. But I need no God behind it to make it so wonderful. Some would complain that this is the monk mistaking the finger pointing for the moon. I would say that these people are more ones who want to argue that the elephant's wings are its most noble and glorious quality.

I want to say, briefly, that I actually don't have that much against religious belief or behavior, so long as it does not interfere with other peoples' freedoms. I understand the motivation, the drive, behind witnessing to others, and to an extent, the desire to make into law your own position. I have been there, but I also came out of it and realized how terrible it really was. Here's the essential problem for a democracy though - how can you have a successful democracy, and democratically represent and respect those who refuse to recognize the organizing principles behind democracy? That's a post in and of itself, and I'm not going to get into here. All I'm going to say is that I am strictly opposed to people trying to legalize their own opinions and make illegal any other opinion on the basis of a faith statement. I would make that statement stronger, and simply leave it at "make illegal any other opinion," but the actually issue is a bit more complicated, and again, I don't have the time or the desire at the moment to go into it at the moment. If a person has religious beliefs, that's absolutely fine. If they want to voice them, likewise, that's fine. But, I stress, what is also fine is if I want to argue with them over those beliefs. I am deeply appreciative for Tom Sheepandgoats. I don't agree with him on several issues, but I am very glad to have that conversation with him and come to better understand what I actually think about these issues through those conversations. Would I like to have him come to agree with me? Well, in some ways yes. In other ways, I more appreciate the dynamic of disagreement.

So, I want to leave with a few thoughts right now. I'll be posting more on interpretations of books of the bible or classical theories of religion over the summer, and whatever else tickles my fancy, but for right now, I want to ask a simple question. Why is it that we spend so much effort, time, money, and volume against foreign terrorists who want to kill American citizens, ostensibly for the freedoms that we enjoy, when we have domestic terrorists who have bombed American facilities and assassinated American citizens? Yes, I am talking about anti-abortion extremists. These guys have had a long history of violent protests, intimidation, assassinations, and bombings, culminating most recently in the death of Dr. George Tiller in Kansas. This was a tragic occurrence, and what makes it even more so is that there is no sanctioning of these extremists. When was the last time that you heard of anti-abortion advocates being killed for their viewpoints? I hope that it doesn't come to that, but it is disturbing to see entire media networks, such as Fox News, pushing the type of behavior that led to Dr. Tiller's death. Why have we not come to the conclusion that we can differ in opinions without the need for violence, and if violence occurs and seems endemic to a position, perhaps it should be watched more carefully. Now, I personally am disquieted by late-term abortions. I would personally prefer that they not happen except in life-threatening cases. However, I also believe that it is a matter between a woman and her doctor (and her god if you happen to believe in that sort of thing). My personal opinions should not take away the freedom of someone else whose situation I do not and cannot know.

In a (perhaps) related note, a question occurred to me recently while I was taking a class on Ancient Near Eastern Mythology and Magic. We have been covering magical rites in ancient Mesopotamia for the second half of the course, and the majority of these rites deal with eliminating witchcraft and the influence of witches. The majority of these rites involve creating figurines of a witch and warlock, setting up an alter and a crucible, burning incense, invoking a deity, listing the afflictions the supplicant has, accusing some unidentified person as the one causing the afflictions, imploring the deity to find and destroy these persons, burning or otherwise destroying the figurines, and then offering praise to the deity and washing oneself clean.

What interests me, beyond the rituals themselves (the incantations and other literature is quite fascinating in and of itself), is the relationship between ancient Mesopotamian witchcraft proceedings and the types of things that happened in Europe. Specifically, in ancient Mesopotamia, witchcraft is handled primarily through ritual acts. These acts are often legalistic in nature and tone, but they are directed towards an "unknown" witch, warlock, ghost, or demon. The ritual is performed, the supplicant feels better, social order is maintained, and no one is hurt. It's a relatively bloodless system. Occasionally, and I stress that, occasionally a real person would be accused of witchcraft and be brought to trial, but it was incredibly rare, as far as we know. In medieval Europe, on the other hand, witchcraft accusations were primarily directed against someone within the community and were dealt with, often, by execution. An interesting side note is the folk vampire literature in Europe - a recently deceased person's spirit would return to cause mischief and kill livestock, etc. The body would be exhumed, mutilated, and "dealt with" in an appropriate way. While perhaps disturbing, still, no one was actually hurt.

Why the difference, then? This may be an impossible question to answer. There are many factors that could be in play here. Maybe we simply don't have the relevant texts - that's certainly possible, our excavations are limited and incomplete. Maybe there are socio-economic factors underlying these differences, but what are they? Maybe there are socio-cultural factors to consider - certainly Mesopotamian cultures were very concerned with the idea of a single universal law that bound both gods and men, and they had a god, Shamash, the sun god, who saw everything and would judge every case fairly. Shamash would deal with witches righteously, destroying them through his associate Girra, basically deified fire. However, this still doesn't answer the question of why in Mesopotamia witches went unidentified, or why they didn't accuse other people in the community directly, as happened in Europe. There could be religious factors in play between the Mesopotamian religions and Christianity - Mesopotamian religions are more explicit in saying that witchcraft is not always evil and they can serve a useful purpose (at least until the later periods). And I would like to note that I am not blaming this difference on Christianity. I'm simply pointing out an observed difference and trying to offer possible suggestions which may interact with one another.

If there are any historians or other professionals in the field who happen to read this blog and can or want to comment on this issue, please feel free, I'd love to hear your opinions.

Alright kids, it's getting late and this has gone on for far, far too long. I'm going to bed. Expect more posts in the near future as I'm finally done with coursework.


Emma H said...


I just wanted to say that I too find religious behaviour and belief fascinating, although I'm an agnostic--I took a minor in Religious Studies at school (I recently graduated) and, like you, am an agnostic. If I hadn't majored in English Lit, I might have majored in Religious Studies. A lot of my English professors really wondered why I chose that minor and some even thought I was highly religious. But, like you, I thought examining religious texts through a socio-historical perspective was really interesting. My particular interest was and is Second Temple Judaism. Anyway, sorry to ramble...but nice to know that there's another Religious Studies enthusiast out there who is not religious (not of course, to imply any disrespect to those who are, but I think we're in a minority).

I think you mentioned you were at the U of Chicago--have you thought of taking some English courses there? Some major literary theorists could be interesting to I recall, Derrida does crop up in some biblical interpretations (albeit postmodern ones). But you might find a literary critism course really intriguing and certainly helpful in analyzing texts.

Best wishes.

Emma H said...

Apologies--I forgot that you wrote that you've already graduated from the U of C.

Ragoth said...

Well, likewise, it is good to hear that there are other religion enthusiasts who don't buy into it all as true. Second Temple Judaism is a very interesting period to study, and I wrote a few papers on that while I was in undergrad. Always interesting to pursue.

I've actually been taking some cognitive psychology courses outside of the religion classes and am trying to pursue a Ph.D. in that field. However, I have read Derrida. We actually had a student reading group for Derrida my last year. I find postmodernism interesting and have dabbled in it before, but ultimately I do come down more on the edge of there being an actual, objective reality, regardless of whether or not we can access it fully. So, metaphysically a realist, epistemologically...more complicated?

And no need for apologies. If everything works out, I'll be taking classes again soon enough. Good luck to you too! And feel free to comment on the blog whenever you like. We don't get that much traffic through here.