(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘religion

“There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California.”*…

The gate at the Aetherius Society, founded by a man who claimed he was able to channel messages from an “interplanetary parliament” in outer space. 

Half a century ago, you could barely walk down the street in California without tripping over some kind of fringe spiritual sect or cult-like group. Pretty much every famous organization, guru, and spiritual trend of that era had ties to the Golden state – from the Maharishi to the People’s Temple, the “Moonies” to the New Age.

Now, with the exception of some Scientology buildings and the occasional Hare Krishna devotee, you almost never encounter fringe spiritual groups from that California golden age.

Some of the groups violently disbanded or their members died under horrific circumstances. Others slowly faded away, pushed out by California’s rising cost of living, or made obsolete by the fact that many of the things that made them appealing were absorbed into the mainstream: Fortune 500 CEOs now regularly attend Burning Man and crystals and Himalayan salt lamps can be purchased at Target. (The more nefarious side of fringe spiritual belief is also becoming increasingly mainstream, as seen in the rise of QAnon.)

But some of California’s fringe spiritual groups are still out there – little pockets of commune dwellers, transcendental meditators, and UFO worshippers dotted around the state…

Cult classics: the faded glory of California’s fringe sects – in pictures,” from Jamie Lee Curtis Taete (@JLCT on Twitter; @jamieleecurtistaete on Instagram)

* Edward Abbey

###

As we become one with the universe, we might recall that, according to (separate but overlapping) deductions made by geologists and religious historians, it was on this date in 33 CE that Jesus was crucified.

source

Written by LW

April 3, 2021 at 1:01 am

“It is a cliche that most cliches are true, but then like most cliches, that cliche is untrue.”*…

Although its, uh, cultural cachet, I suppose, has fallen in recent decades, a doofy poem called “The Desiderata of Happiness” used to be something that you’d see on the walls of doctors’ and dentists’ offices, at your grandmother’s, a great aunt’s house, or maybe in the very home that you yourself grew up in, during the 1960s and 70s. (At one point the hippies even adopted it.)

You don’t see it so often today, but it’s still around. Now that you’ve had your attention called to it, the next time you see it (normally as a varnished wooden wall plaque in a junk shop) you’ll remember this post (and wince).

Here’s an example of the proto-New Age almost meaningless wisdom you will find in “The Desiderata of Happiness”:

You are a child of the universe,

No less than the trees and the stars;

You have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you,

no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

“The Desiderata of Happiness” was written in 1906 by a lawyer named Max Ehrmann, but it was unknown during his lifetime. Its slow burn to popularity began in the 1950s when a Baltimore pastor printed it up in some church materials. The poem’s advice to be humble, live a clean and moral life and to even have respect for dipshits (it doesn’t use that exact term, of course) seems simplistic even by Forrest Gump standards, but for whatever reason this thing struck a chord with the public. (You can read more about its history at Wikipedia).

In 1971, a “groovy” American radio talkshow host by the name of Les Crane (once married to Gilligan’s Island‘s Tina Louise and considered by some to be the original “shock jock”) narrated a spoken word/musical version of the poem (avec gospel choir), that reached #8 in the Billboard charts and won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Performance of the Year. It was on the British pop charts for 14 months.

The following year, a parody version titled “Deteriorata” was created by the National Lampoon’s Michael O’Donoghue, Tony Hendra and Christopher Guest (The words were Hendra’s, the music is Guest’s) released as a single and on the classic Radio Dinner album. Melissa Manchester sings on the record. The humorously ponderous reading was handled by Norman Rose, who was THE voice over announcer of the era. You’ve also heard his voice in Woody Allen’s Love & Death and The Telephone Book.

There are a few then current references in the song that might need some context for listeners almost fifty years later: The line about your dog’s diet refers to a TV dog food ad which wondered, “Is your dog getting enough cheese in his diet?” The “Remember the Pueblo” bit refers to a rightwing bumper sticker rallying cry about the capture in 1968 of the USS Pueblo by North Korea. “Do not bend, fold, spindle or mutilate” was a phrase employed on government checks. And again, bear in mind that narrator Norman Rose would be the equivalent to say, Morgan Freeman or James Earl Jones reading it today…

A cultural history of cultural oddity, “The Desiderata of Happiness”: “The Universe Is Laughing Behind Your Back,” from the ever-illuminating @DangerMindsBlog.

* Stephen Fry

###

As we become one with the universe, we might note that today is The Day of the Dude, he annual sacred high holy day of Dudeism, a religion, philosophy, or lifestyle inspired by “The Dude,” the protagonist of the Coen Brothers’ 1998 film The Big Lebowski.  Dudeism’s stated primary objective is to promote a modern form of Chinese Taoism, outlined in Tao Te Ching, blended with concepts from the Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, and manifest in a style personified by the character of Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski (the character portrayed by Jeff Bridges in the film).

Dudeist logo

source

“A year spent in artificial intelligence is enough to make one believe in God”*…

A scan of the workings of an automaton of a friar, c1550. Possibly circle of Juanelo Turriano (c1500-85), probably Spanish.

The wooden monk, a little over two feet tall, ambles in a circle. Periodically, he raises a gripped cross and rosary towards his lips and his jaw drops like a marionette’s, affixing a kiss to the crucifix. Throughout his supplications, those same lips seem to mumble, as if he’s quietly uttering penitential prayers, and occasionally the tiny monk will raise his empty fist to his torso as he beats his breast. His head is finely detailed, a tawny chestnut colour with a regal Roman nose and dark hooded eyes, his pate scraped clean of even a tonsure. For almost five centuries, the carved clergyman has made his rounds, wound up by an ingenious internal mechanism hidden underneath his carved Franciscan robes, a monastic robot making his clockwork prayers.

Today his home is the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, but before that he resided in that distinctly un-Catholic city of Geneva. His origins are more mysterious, though similar divine automata have been attributed to Juanelo Turriano, the 16th-century Italian engineer and royal clockmaker to the Habsburgs. Following Philip II’s son’s recovery from an illness, the reverential king supposedly commissioned Turriano to answer God’s miracle with a miracle of his own. Scion of the Habsburgs’ massive fortune of Aztec and Incan gold, hammer against the Protestant English and patron of the Spanish Inquisition, Philip II was every inch a Catholic zealot whom the British writer and philosopher G K Chesterton described as having a face ‘as a fungus of a leprous white and grey’, overseeing his empire in rooms where ‘walls are hung with velvet that is black and soft as sin’. It’s a description that evokes similarly uncanny feelings for any who should view Turriano’s monk, for there is one inviolate rule about the robot: he is creepy.

Elizabeth King, an American sculptor and historian, notes that an ‘uncanny presence separates it immediately from later automata: it is not charming, it is not a toy … it engages even the 20th-century viewer in a complicated and urgent way.’ The late Spanish engineer José A García-Diego is even more unsparing: the device, he wrote, is ‘considerably unpleasant’. One reason for his unsettling quality is that the monk’s purpose isn’t to provide simulacra of prayer, but to actually pray. Turriano’s device doesn’t serve to imitate supplication, he is supplicating; the mechanism isn’t depicting penitence, the machine performs it…

The writer Jonathan Merritt has argued in The Atlantic that rapidly escalating technological change has theological implications far beyond the political, social and ethical questions that Pope Francis raises, claiming that the development of self-aware computers would have implications for our definition of the soul, our beliefs about sin and redemption, our ideas about free will and providence. ‘If Christians accept that all creation is intended to glorify God,’ Merritt asked, ‘how would AI do such a thing? Would AI attend church, sing hymns, care for the poor? Would it pray?’ Of course, to the last question we already have an answer: AI would pray, because as Turriano’s example shows, it already has. Pope Francis also anticipated this in his November prayers, saying of AI ‘may it “be human”.’

While nobody believes that consciousness resides within the wooden head of a toy like Turriano’s, no matter how immaculately constructed, his disquieting example serves to illustrate what it might mean for an artificial intelligence in the future to be able to orient itself towards the divine. How different traditions might respond to this is difficult to anticipate. For Christians invested in the concept of an eternal human soul, a synthetic spirit might be a contradiction. Buddhist and Hindu believers, whose traditions are more apt to see the individual soul as a smaller part of a larger system, might be more amenable to the idea of spiritual machines. That’s the language that the futurist Ray Kurzweil used in calling our upcoming epoch the ‘age of spiritual machines’; perhaps it’s just as appropriate to think of it as the ‘Age of Turriano’, since these issues have long been simmering in the theological background, only waiting to boil over in the coming decades.

If an artificial intelligence – a computer, a robot, an android – is capable of complex thought, of reason, of emotion, then in what sense can it be said to have a soul? How does traditional religion react to a constructed person, at one remove from divine origins, and how are we to reconcile its role in the metaphysical order? Can we speak of salvation and damnation for digital beings? And is there any way in which we can evangelise robots or convert computers? Even for steadfast secularists and materialists, for whom those questions make no philosophical sense for humans, much less computers, that this will become a theological flashpoint for believers is something to anticipate, as it will doubtlessly have massive social, cultural and political ramifications.

This is no scholastic issue of how many angels can dance on a silicon chip, since it seems inevitable that computer scientists will soon be able to develop an artificial intelligence that easily passes the Turing test, that surpasses the understanding of those who’ve programmed it. In an article for CNBC entitled ‘Computers Will Be Like Humans By 2029’ (2014), the journalist Cadie Thompson quotes Kurzweil, who confidently (if controversially) contends that ‘computers will be at human levels, such as you can have a human relationship with them, 15 years from now.’ With less than a decade left to go, Kurzweil explains that he’s ‘talking about emotional intelligence. The ability to tell a joke, to be funny, to be romantic, to be loving, to be sexy, that is the cutting edge of human intelligence, that is not a sideshow.’

Often grouped with other transhumanists who optimistically predict a coming millennium of digital transcendence, Kurzweil is a believer in what’s often called the ‘Singularity’, the moment at which humanity’s collective computing capabilities supersede our ability to understand the machines that we’ve created, and presumably some sort of artificial consciousness develops. While bracketing out the details, let’s assume that Kurzweil is broadly correct that, at some point in this century, an AI will develop that outstrips all past digital intelligences. If it’s true that automata can then be as funny, romantic, loving and sexy as the best of us, it could also be assumed that they’d be capable of piety, reverence and faith. When it’s possible to make not just a wind-up clock monk, but a computer that’s actually capable of prayer, how then will faith respond?..

Can a robot pray? Does an AI have a soul? Advances in automata raise theological debates that will shape the secular world; from Ed Simon (@WithEdSimon): “Machine in the ghost.” Do read the piece in full.

Then, for a different (but in the end, not altogether contradictory) view: “The Thoughts The Civilized Keep.”

And for another (related) angle: “Is it OK to torture a computer program?

For more on the work of sculptor and historian Elizabeth King on the Smithsonian automaton friar, please see her articles here and here, and her forthcoming book, Mysticism and Machinery.

Alan Perlis (first recipient of the Turing Award)

###

As we enlarge the tent, we might send revelatory birthday greetings to Albert Hofmann; he was born on this date in 1906.  As a young chemist at Sandoz in Switzerland, Hofmann was searching for a respiratory and circulatory stimulant when he fabricated lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD); handling it, he absorbed a bit through his fingertips and realized that the compound had psychoactive effects.  Three days later, on April 19, 1943– a day now known as “Bicycle Day”– Hofmann intentionally ingested 250 micrograms of LSD then rode home on a bike, a journey that became, pun intended, the first intentional acid trip.  Hofmann was also the first person to isolate, synthesize, and name the principal psychedelic mushroom compounds psilocybin and psilocin.

 source

“It is the province of knowledge to speak, and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen”*…

Wisdom is full of paradoxes. It is one of the oldest topics in the intellectual history of humanity, and yet talking about wisdom can feel odd and disingenuous. People seem to have intuitions about who is and isn’t wise, but if you press them to define wisdom, they will hesitate. Wisdom, with its mystical qualities, sits on a pedestal, inspiring awe and trepidation, a bit of hushed reverence thrown in. It’s easy to distil wisdom’s archetypes in history (druids, Sufi sages) or popular culture (Star Wars’ Yoda, or Harry Potter’s Dumbledore), but harder to apply to the person on the street. Most people would agree that wisdom is desirable, yet what exactly is it?…

Some psychologists are increasingly confident that they can now measure– and nurture– wisdom, superseding the “speculations” of philosophy and religion: “The Science of Wisdom.”

* Oliver Wendell Holmes

###

As we savor sagacity, we might recall that it was on this date in 1964 that Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature despite attempting to refuse it, saying that he always declined official honors since “a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution.”

source

Written by LW

October 22, 2020 at 1:01 am

“God has no religion”*…

Empty seats at a Catholic church in New York City, June 2014

In the early years of the twenty-first century, religion seemed to be on the rise. The collapse of both communism and the Soviet Union had left an ideological vacuum that was being filled by Orthodox Christianity in Russia and other post-Soviet states. The election in the United States of President George W. Bush, an evangelical Christian who made no secret of his piety, suggested that evangelical Christianity was rising as a political force in the country. And the 9/11 attacks directed international attention to the power of political Islam in the Muslim world.

A dozen years ago, my colleague Pippa Norris and I analyzed data on religious trends in 49 countries, including a few subnational territories such as Northern Ireland, from which survey evidence was available from 1981 to 2007 (these countries contained 60 percent of the world’s population). We did not find a universal resurgence of religion, despite claims to that effect—most high-income countries became less religious—but we did find that in 33 of the 49 countries we studied, people became more religious during those years. This was true in most former communist countries, in most developing countries, and even in a number of high-income countries. Our findings made it clear that industrialization and the spread of scientific knowledge were not causing religion to disappear, as some scholars had once assumed.

But since 2007, things have changed with surprising speed. From about 2007 to 2019, the overwhelming majority of the countries we studied—43 out of 49—became less religious. The decline in belief was not confined to high-income countries and appeared across most of the world. 

Ronald F. Inglehart, director of the World Values Survey, explains what’s behind the global decline of religion: “Giving Up on God?”

* Mahatma Gandhi

###

As we contemplate the cosmic, we might recall that it was on this date in 1631 that Sweden won a major victory at the Battle of Breitenfeld against the Holy Roman Empire during the Thirty Years’ War. Initially a conflict between the Protestant and Catholic states in the Holy Roman Empire, it gradually developed into a general European war, resulting in the deaths of over 8 million people, including 20% of the German population, making it one of the most destructive conflicts in human history.

Gustavus Adolphus at the battle of Breitenfeld

source

Written by LW

September 17, 2020 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: