Sunday, November 10, 2013

Book Review: The End of Faith by Sam Harris

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of ReasonThe End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having read Letter to a Christian Nation, which I thought was good in places but overall too antagonistic in tone, I was unprepared to like The End of Faith. But Harris's sometimes bitingly funny writing style and clear argumentation hooked me.

As far as the substance of his main arguments, this much I can agree with: Beliefs matter. If you believe that Heaven awaits you for martyrdom in the cause of propagating your faith, then you are a tinderbox waiting for a fuse. A "fundamentalist" is only as prone to violence or peacefulness as the fundamentals (i.e., sacred texts) mandate in their plain language.

His last chapter on the nature of consciousness is a great tonic for the fearful portrayal of violent faith in the rest of the book. He really makes a wonderful case here for the efficacy of contemplative mysticism to short-circuit religion's claims on what is reality. He also argues that religions of the East offer far more wisdom than the Abrahamic religions of the West due to their emphasis on examining the nature of consciousness.

I agree with one other of his main arguments, too, which is really a corollary of the arguments above. Harris points out that not all religions are the same. His most striking case study is that of Jainism. In the chapter "The Problem With Islam", he writes:

A rise of Jain fundamentalism would endanger no one. In fact, the uncontrollable spread of Jainism throughout the world would improve our situation immensely. We  would lose more of our crops to pests, perhaps (observant Jains generally will not kill anything, including insects), but we would not find ourselves surrounded by suicidal terrorists or by a civilization that widely condones their actions.

Incidentally, he repeats this same line of reasoning in Letter to a Christian Nation, and with equally convincing effect.

Of his main theses, however, I still cannot support the idea that religious liberals and "moderates" are worse than fundamentalists because they somehow provide cover for religious extremism. He doesn't make that case well. His argument is basically that religious moderates rely on the same sacred texts as fundamentalists and therefore offer credibility and respectability for the worst parts of those texts, namely the worst parts of the Bible and the Koran. I don't think that's the case.

Whereas I do think that religious moderates (or what I often call "religious modernists") in the West owe a great debt to the advances of secular knowledge that have led to all the modern movements of liberation since the Renaissance, and especially since the Enlightenment, I don't think that means that modernist approaches to traditional religion are null and void.

In fact, I think Harris buries the lead of his book in the Epilogue. There he writes:

The only thing we should respect in a person's faith is his desire for a better life in this world; we need never have respected his certainty that one awaits him in the next.

That's actually a strong argument not to alienate religious moderates, but rather to embrace them. Many religious moderates already do compassionate work for the betterment of humanity now on account of their faith. The End of Faith would be more balanced if Harris made this plain.

My biggest problem with the book is his statement "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them." Harris has received a lot of criticism for this statement, so I'll not regurgitate it all here. His response on his blog, in which he places the statement in context, I still find unsatisfactory. Beliefs matter, but it is a bedrock principle of democratic society that one's right to hold certain beliefs is, shall we say, sacrosanct.

Overall, a compelling and thought-provoking book. I highly recommend it, despite its flaws.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

It Was a Happier Time? Village People Performing "Ready for the Eighties" at the Playboy Mansion (1979)

Another artifact of the strangely optimistic (coked up?) sound and allure of disco culture. Hugh Hefner was, I guess, open-minded. But do we have to see him dance on national television? Yes, if we are compelled, as I am, to indulge in the nostalgic voyeurism of this "happy" T.V. moment. There's Dorothy Stratten, the Playboy bunny who was later murdered, and her co-host--the kissing bandit himself--Richard "Survey Says" Dawson, unashamedly drunk as a skunk. Yes, they're all gettin' down and lookin' forward to the 80s, which the Village People told us were "just gonna be great!"

If you can't stand to watch the first four minutes of disco-dancing and puppet-humor in this clip, then see the Village People perform the song "Ready for the Eighties" at the 4:40 mark. Incidentally, in one of my rock 'n' roll endeavors of the nineties, I had my band record an overly distorted but still disco-ish version of this song. The recording isn't so great 16 years later, I have to say, except at the end in a noise-guitar send-up when I yell "Managua!" Because, well, that was the eighties. I think it is about time to revisit this song yet again.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Deity's Angry Man

I never thought I'd see a bona fide Deist fundamentalist! But now I have. The thought actually never occurred to me before watching this video that this particular form of rabid faith could possibly exist. This guy's really, really angry that atheists don't cling to the one, true non-faith of Deism-with-a-capital-D, as revealed to humankind in the sacred texts of Thomas Paine.

But this guy also claims to be a truer atheist than atheists are because he rejects both God and also the No-God of atheism. Try to stay on that mental treadmill without falling off!

Watch the 15 minute video above, if you've got the grit to endure it. This chap excoriates Richard Dawkins and Ricky Gervais and "active atheists" everywhere for spreading their "gospel" that mirrors the religions they despise. I practically had to wipe away the spittle I imagined flying at me from my computer screen.

Here's a drinking game: Take a shot every time he says "Abrahamic faiths."

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Arrival is Here

Unarius used to have an incredible presence on Public Access television. I'll never forget their space-truckin' Cadillac. Archangel Uriel and her husband seemed fringe even within the New Age movement, but so much more entertaining than the rest (with the exception of Master Ho). The Unarian religion-like thing is a masterpiece of confusion. The Unarians (Unariuns?) call what they do "science." But do they really believe their own shtick? I'll never know, and Unarius: The Arrival, an hour-length narrative film about the true story, er, mythology of the Unarius cult, doesn't answer much. But what a strange, frivolous, incoherent, and happy place to be for a while! The film somehow has the glacial pace of a Tarkovsky film crunched into one hour, which I think makes it kind of an epic.

UPDATE: In answer to my own question, it appears they really DO believe what they say! At least, that's what appears in this trailer for Children of the Stars: A Story of Unarius. I'm lost, but willing to get more lost in this documentary about Archangel Uriel and her outer-space friends. Caveat emptor, though. For all I know, this cult has its own sordid history as do so many other cults.

SPOILER ALERT: I am left with a question that troubles me about the morality of this film. Why is living a pastoral life as an early human somehow karmic punishment for mass murder?

Edited 7/27/13.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Wire: "We Don't Play Requests" on Rockpalast (1979)

At least once or twice a year for the last three decades, I have listened to Pink Flag and am reminded of Wire's singular genius. They were, in some ways, the punk band's punk band. They had an inscrutable stage presence, sometimes withdrawn, other times seemingly anguished. Colin Newman could deliver an obtuse line with anxious force. It's all on display in the full, televised Rockpalast concert available (for now) in the clip below. I don't think "genius" overstates my case.

To my joyous surprise, Wire's recent output has much good stuff in it, especially 2008's Object 47, which I anticipated disliking because of the absence of original guitarist Bruce Gilbert. Below is the official video for the opening song, "One Of Us." They've long since embraced injecting standard choruses into their songs, and to memorable effect, as heard here with "One of us will live to rue the day we met each other."

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

That Signature Sound

What, you get a "hardshell case" with this, but no screwdriver?  This video made some neurons in my brain twitch and falter for a few seconds. But why can't Lee Ranaldo's signature Jazzmaster be used for this? Why NOT? It is a beautiful-looking thing, I must say.

Are your neurons twitching enough yet? If not, please ease into a comfy place on the couch, close your eyes, and listen as Thurston Moore's signature guitar gets used in these interpretations of "Satan Is Boring" and "Death Valley '69." Rock out, but not too far out!

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Pink Horse and Hitler's Karma

About 20 years ago [at Vidiots in Santa Monica, CA], I came across a fantastic 30-minute documentary on VHS called The New Believers, which focused on four figures on the fringes of the then-burgeoning New Age spiritual scene. Having searched in vain for a copy of it on eBay and Amazon, and seeing no clips on YouTube, I gave up hope of ever seeing it again. But it seems that in the last year or so, the good folks at Video Paté decided the world should know about....The New Believers.

The highlight is Master Ho, a crystal-wielding, silk-robed "healer" who appears to channel an alien entity named Thomas, though not on camera. "They," says Master Ho before he can reveal Thomas's secrets, "cut me right off."  Since this was filmed, it appears that Ho has founded his own religion called the Universal Spiritual Church.

Be sure to watch the clip all the way to the end to hear about the hypothetical (or not) pink horse.

The second highlight of The New Believers is, shall we say, far less lovable than the wok-rocking Master Ho and his biblical UFOs. It is the Rev. Neville Rowe, a bloke who can trance-channel a school of dolphins...he even "talks" like them! order to share their amazing wisdom with us. (Trance-channeling and crystals seem to be the main tenets of the New Age.)

The dolphins tell us about the "infinite I AM" and on and on, but also apparently dispense explanations for the Holocaust that will leave your mouth agape. "Rev. Rowe" does confess that his view on Hitler's karma is "unpopular," after all. (Yes, I imagine only a very few idiots think like him.) Come to think of it, maybe we can't really blame the dolphins for his anti-semitism. Maybe it is all his.

Creep out and enjoy!

Edited on June16, 2013 with note about Vidiots.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Two Old Stoned Libertarians

Not a libertarian myself, I still feel an appreciation for the likes for Karl Hess, former speechwriter for none other than Barry Goldwater, and an even deeper appreciation for Robert Anton Wilson, fnord. (I've written about RAW here, here, and here.)

Below catch the two of 'em light up a joint and rap about the New Left, conspiracies, the FBI, politics, and paranoia, all onstage at what appears to be a libertarian conference around 1987.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Boy Scouts Take a Half-Step Into the 21st Century

The celebratory announcement of Scouts for Equality,
an organization dedicated to making the Boy Scouts of America
relevant to civilized people.

Yesterday, 61% of the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America voted to overturn its self-imposed ban on openly gay youth being allowed to participate. Sounds like a victory, right? In a way, it is.

But the Boy Scouts of America ("BSA") have only taken a half-step towards equality. Openly gay Scout leaders (adults) are still verboten. As long as the organization tells kids that it's not OK to be a gay adult, then it's telling kids it's not OK to be gay, period. On its face, the new policy shift seems non-discriminatory, but it really sends the message that gayness is something that teens will "grow out of" eventually.

Though it may seem weird to readers here that I care about what the Boy Scouts do at all, I guess I do because I earned the Eagle rank in the 1980s and therefore feel an obligation to use that "Scout cred" to speak up for people mistreated in the organization. So I've signed some petitions. I have good memories of camping, at least, and camaraderie. I remember wearing my 45 Grave t-shirt to Scout camp and exchanging cassettes with other misfit Scouts.

Moreover, the BSA is an organization that has as its honorary leader whomever happens to sit in the Oval Office. That means YOU, Mr. Obama. Also, it's an organization that, like Future Farmers of America, is federally chartered by Congress. That's right. Under Chapter 309 of the U.S. Code, the BSA is a chartered "patriotic organization." Seems like it's about time, then, for them to get on the right side of the Fifth and 14th Amendments.

After the BSA allows openly gay adults to serve with full equality, I hope it's just a slippery slope toward ending the insipid ban on atheists, too.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Cult Video Interlude, Part 8: "I Don't Think At All"

WARNING: This post is a bit dark, a bit depressing, and maybe even a little more nauseating.

Frank Jones went by so many names: Da Free John, Bubba Free John, Adi Da, Da-Love Ananda, Adi Da Samraj, etc. He was part of the "Eastern mystic" cultural explosion following the freak-out of the 1960s, and in 1970 apparently had a visionary moment in the Vedanta Society Temple in Hollywood, California. Like just about every other self-styled guru, he realized he was a god-like being, or God himself. He then wrote books with esoteric titles, like The Knee of Listening and The Dawn Horse Testament. These books (and what I suppose must have been charisma) attracted followers to him, whom he proceeded to instruct, manipulate, and coerce in the ways of swinging, 70s-style.

As part of his "crazy wisdom," he intended to free a devotee of his or her "ego," which not surprisingly seemed to be code for foisting his power trip on people who wanted his approval while getting his own jollies at others' expense. Ego-shattering rituals could involve choreographed sex acts for the entertainment of Jones/God, but could also involve so much, uh, more than that. Here's just a taste of the vileness of Adi Da, from "Former members describe sadistic sexual predator, who says he's 'God'" (1985) by the intrepid cult-reporter Rick Ross:
Another former member told the press that devotees made porno for their master. A basement room became a studio for skin flicks. She said, "I heard him telling men and women go downstairs and do it, and I saw the women crying hysterically afterwards. Everything that was done was interpreted a lesson about your own lack of spirituality," she said. The same woman also told a reporter that once she saw Jones wife Nina come out of his house with hair ripped off her head and a black eye. [more]
A class act, that Adi Da. Lawsuits from abused former members of his Adidam organization eventually convinced, or forced, the troll-like Adi Da to flee with a cadre of worshippers to a private island in Fiji. Judging from the plethora of lengthy videos available on Youtube, it seems this Fijian lot could film video after video to their hearts' delight of the narcissistic Bald God.

I picked the video below at random, or maybe just because it was shorter than most of the others. In it, Adi Da Bubba Jones God pops a mint in his mouth, or a horehound drop, or more likely a fossilized turd, and proceeds to suck on it while telling a woman--who refers to him as simply "Beloved"--to "take on a life-long vow of not thinking." Uproarious laughter from his worshippers ensues, and he then smugly says, as quoted in the title of this blog post, "I don't think at all." So true, Adi Bubba God Free God Ananda Da Da Da Love Jones!

He's dead, by the way.


The moral of this story is: Anyone who claims he or she has the way to free you of your own ego, and then makes that freedom contingent upon your calling him or her "God" or "Bubba" or "Beloved" or some equivalent, is someone to be avoided at all costs.

More Rick Ross.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

"It Ain't Easy" to Play an Omnichord

His name is Techno Cowboy, and he has recorded a song-for-song version of Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars using only an Omnichord (pictured in his hands).

The sound of the Omnichord is like that of almost any early-80s Casio, or maybe more like an old Lowrey organ condensed into the something the size of an autoharp. Manufactured first in 1981 by the Suzuki Company in Japan, the Omnichord is one of those anyone-can-play instruments.

From the Suzuki Company's web site: "It quickly became adapted by singers, songwriters, musicians -- and people who wanted to play an instrument but never found time to learn." (Emphasis added.) You play it by strumming an electronic pad: "Just press a chord button and strum away." I did so myself today, in fact, and it was easy to make anything sound okay.

Interesting that another well-known method for creating a kind of universal musical development bears the same name. The Suzuki Method provides a means for children to learn to play music regardless of any formal training. There seems to be no connection, however, between the violinist Shin'ichi Suzuki, founder of the Suzuki Method, and Manji Suzuki, president of Suzuki Company. But both have brought music to the unlikely musicians of the world.

Techno Cowboy's use of the instrument for this Bowie tribute is quite a feat. I wouldn't have the patience for it. Hear snippets Techno Cowboy uploaded to Youtube:

Below is a nice clip of him in Hollywood performing another Bowie classic. But the tune was entirely unrecognizable to me for about 45 seconds, and even then only vaguely familiar thanks to his slowly drawn-out wail of "faaame." Maybe it was the R2D2 sound effects:

(hat-tip to Michael Miller.)