Saturday, October 11, 2008

death becomes us?

Are the various ways of disposing of the dead significantly different in regards to the beliefs that underlie them, or are they just minor variations on a single theme?

The ultimate ‘disposal’ of the deceased is a necessary progression towards the finality human beings need in order to survive, as it were, either mentally or physically, depending on the nature of the death. Does the character of the disposal, the way in which it is orchestrated, define a community, define a religion? Or is it just superfluous detail that masks the true, and rather base practice of simply getting rid of the body? Various social structures adhere to their defining rituals and so the dead are treated accordingly. Some are cremated, some buried with their possessions, others are entombed and mummified, and some are the inducement for cannibalism. One could assume that although the end result is essentially the same, the defining elements of these practices differ because of the demands of a particular spiritual faith, which ultimately defines a culture. The underlying beliefs that bear the framework of the community influence the ways in which the dead are treated. Of course the ‘theme’ is singular and similar, it is all means to an end. However, even though the paths by which we travel can lead to the same intention, the personal journey is always divergent, and thus it is our actions that ultimately define us.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

attitudes to death

Arguably humankind has not altered significantly although the eons eat away at us. We still react as expected to whatever difficulties arise, be they physical or mental. All in all, man is an animal known for his predictability; history repeats itself. If one considers a man to possess the superior empathetic capacity of a chimpanzee, the latter demonstrating a keen awareness of death, then one can conclude that whatever reaction ensues after the loss of a loved one, is not only primal and instinctual, but something which has the potential for evolvement. Humanity’s capacity for mental awareness grew and changed from base acknowledgement of companion to something deeper and more complex, signifying a change in the way the dead were treated. Death is an ambiguity that we as modern humans have yet to fully comprehend, due to the various elements involved. To loose a comrade, or a family member in a violent manner leaves a sense of almost animal confusion, there is no immediate closure. 300,000 years past, people’s reaction to a death would demand that same sort of primal distress and sudden incomprehension, thus leading to a reverent disposal of the body and subsequently drawing in that essential feeling of resolution. Whether the burials were ceremoniously executed, or whether the corpses were left to rot away from the group and then disposed of, is irrelevant. The point in question is that our ancestors made an intentional effort outside of the given primitive nature of their species, and created something out of a natural order in which they lived. This implies they felt a similar connection to each other as we do today. They experienced the same recognition of tragedy and of loss, and how that loss is to be then contended with. If one can express love, even at the most rudimentary level, and human beings are recognized at their ‘superior’ ability for love, then one can certainly express a reaction for the loss of love, be they cave men with sticks, or businessmen with briefcases. The rest is just history.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Who invented religion?

Asking the origin of religion is almost like asking who invented story telling. There are intangible qualities that we possess which define us as human beings. The abilities to empathize and to recognize divinity in ourselves and in our companions enable us as a species to progress and to create. With artistic creation, comes the freedom to expend this sort of indefinable desire for godliness, a connection to the world in which we live. One could argue the invention of religion is synonymous to the birth of the campfire story-a lyrical union drawing people together huddled in the dark, like moths to the flame edging ever closer to the light. People have forever needed to express themselves, hence the formation of language. Religion is a consequence of story and social correlation. It is a vehicle that provides an inherent release of sensation within a community, and a basis on which a group of people can relate to one another; in turn making them feel more secure and less fearful. The invention of religion is not due to a definite time or a definite root, it is a collective evolution of ideas and feelings that has progressed as man has, staying as constant and as reliable as humanity itself. Who invented religion? The potential for it has always been there within our awareness.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

religion and ritual; differences and definitions

If there is one thing that inherently binds humanity together, religion, or the idea that a phenomenon greater than our own base power is at work. Given the comparable natures of religious practices throughout the world, it is evident that we as a society (albeit culturally from first to third world,) all seem to present the similar questions: who are we, and why are we here? Perhaps the most indicative and contentious question of all; “is there a God, and indeed, is my God better than your God?” This leads us into a seemingly never ending and often bittersweet exchange, where more often than not the sword is mightier than the pen.

Subsequent to the great amalgamation that is religion, we see the methods of worship: the ritual.

The idea of a religious ritual is synonymous to the idea of the separation of the physical and the divine. Whatever religion the ritual belongs to is initially irrelevant in respect to attempting to firstly define and understand the concept. The concrete idea that remains the same and present in all religious convictions is that of worship; whether it be to a God, several Gods and Goddesses, or something completely different, the point of worship could be anything. The actual ritual is an enactment of a sacred concept, which then in turn evolves into a tradition consequently binding a group of peoples together who share the same beliefs, conclusively resulting in religion. Therein lies the connection. Although the two differ in basic definition, neither could exist without the other as both nourish and encourage their connecting values.

It is interesting to see the contrast and when the lines become blurred when it comes to the actual practice of a particular religion and how it can differ and stray from the original intent. For example, the following quote from the Koran: “And the servants of the Beneficent God are they who walk on the earth in humbleness, and when the ignorant address them, they say: Peace 25:63.” This embodies the intrinsic nature of The Koran, an exemplary bulk of teachings and concepts to help the individual better themselves spiritually, much akin to the Christian Bible. However, concepts can be manipulated, and as we have seen in recent years, extremist sects such as the Taliban have taken some ideals whilst discarding others for their own benefit, and coloured the original model of their religion, subsequently turning “ritual” into a warped version of their own self-interests.

Fundamentalists often pose a universal concern, due to the strict adherence they have to their religious principles. During the early twentieth century The Irish Republican Army manipulated the Catholic faith in such an extreme way religion was used as a an excuse for violence, rather than a justification for peace. That is where the ritualistic nature of religion can become distorted.

In an ideal world, the concept of religion and ritual would be a simple one; a community kept together by shared, fundamental practices, generating a collective temper of love and spirituality. However, human nature is more complex than this, and problems are bound to arise. It is the core concepts of these religions, and the necessity to keep these rituals active, which is important to the spiritual health of the community.

Do you agree with the view that prehistoric archaeology is simply ‘the past tense of anthropology’?

The proverbial idea that culture influences art, and how the construction of culture then in turn affects the artist has always fascinated me. Why do we, as a soft skinned, blood and gut and tissue amalgamation, consistently question the very nature of our own base selves? Does it give us comfort against the darkness of the yet unknown, to not only probe within ourselves, but to question the ideals and the behavior of our neighbors, and therein finding the “other” on whom which we can finally rest our fears and doubts? Can the methodical study of the “primitive” really lead us back to the truth within our own nature? These are all core questions Anthropology ignites. Literally translated as “the study of man,” can a science ever be bettered? What is more important than pulling apart the sinews and digging deep inside society’s mess in order to gain a greater understanding of not only where it is we come from, but who we are to be in the years to come.

To quote Margaret Hodgen would ultimately substantiate my thoughts on the subject of Anthropology. The “mind’s fidelity to the old which has left its mark on Anthropology.” The concept therein being that humanity will always concede to the memory of the past as a touchstone for the future. Perhaps, if memories are indeed our idea of what ‘perfect’ is, then there is little wonder we repeat the same mistakes throughout our histories, be they small and individual, or grander and more earth shattering—or shaping as it were.

Prehistoric archeology exists solely because of the lack of historical records. Had there been written accounts detailing lives of cultures past, then of course the need for assumptions made on what little physical evidence remains would not be necessary. However, the study of humanity remains the same, even though the concepts by which it is exersicsed is different. Whether it is defined as pre historic archeology or the past tense of anthropology, it is still the basic study of humanity. Therefore one can argue that the two are the same. As time and human nature developed alongside one another, the ways in which we studied our ancestors and ourselves developed accordingly. One way of study picked up where the other left off. Humans by nature are forever questioning the how and the why, consequently connecting a fine line between archeology and anthropology. Both address the basic issue of the study of man; one just happens to rely more so on the past physical, rather than the existing material.

Suddenly Smarter-Notes on Richard Klein's proposal

Can the existing state of consciousness of the human mind really be the haphazard result of a genetic mutation? Are we to believe that for the earliest stretch of our existence, we wandered the barren plains and badlands of pre civilization, grunting and prodding each other with sticks, lamely relenting our shelters to predators, until suddenly the purported light bulb went on and eureka; the cultural revolution was born. Richard Klein is suggesting humanity has little to thank genetics for other than that near divine moment of brain amendment, instead of the more widely accepted belief that archeologists have proposed of a slow and gradual evolutionary process enabling logical thought. Klein recognizes that due to lack of essential funding, the spaces between discovery and conclusions are yawning. Admittedly he states, “The research has no economic, medial or political implications.” Is it safe to assume then, that were a project given millions to expend in due context, evidence could be discovered that pre dates 45,000 years, consequently negating Klein’s argument completely? It is straightforward enough to suggest a theory without the confirmation of physical evidence. If this “big bang” conjecture really did occur and humankind suffered intelligence as a result of a mental aneurysm, why then has it not occurred in other species? What makes the human race singular in this experience? A lack of tangible evidence due to the basic flaw in any experiment (no matter which way the world turns it always comes down to the cash) seems to have made this rather radical proposal of Klein’s acceptable.

Is it possible to view religion as an adaptive advantage for humans within the animal kingdom?

Man lifted his face to the heavens, responding perhaps to some arcane stirring and then turned to look within himself, hopeful to connect the distance from sky to self. Was this a moment unique to humanity, the final and explicit separation from the animal? The ability to question not only one’s mortality, but also the impending hereafter makes mankind exceptional. The birth of religion, or the need for worship arises within a group of people bound and held together by the same fears, desires, hopes, beliefs. Does this conjuncture accept then, responsibility for fundamentalism, holy war, genital mutilation, drug consumption, fasting, sacrifice, self flagellation; the imagination can create innumerable ways in which the body can respond to the demands of a religion. In respect to the possibility of religion being an adaptive ‘advantage’ one would have to consider the contrary. Arguably, most, if not all of the issues man creates for himself on this earth, are due to religion, whether it be the lack of or the excess. When something is ‘sacred’ and is threatened, it becomes not just a matter of different opinions between two people or two communities; the argument becomes personal on a different level, the excuse then for resulting consequences more complex and harder to comprehend. With all due respect, call it animal instinct; people inherently need a greater sense of themselves in order to connect each other. This is the basis of all religion. The shaping of a community via the collective consciousness in order to reach some sort of enlightenment be it individual or collective is a primarily advantageous process. The result is tradition, shared moral values, promotion of divinity, love-whatever positive essentials that are the bones of that particular faith. However, it is when the greater good of the whole is neglected in favour of a more individual or selfish purpose, or when love is forsaken for power, and all positive aspects forgotten. That is when religion proves to be damaging. It is like the proverbial argument, what is the danger; the man with the gun or the gun itself? Is religion a nonaligned tool, or is it strictly advantageous or the opposite? The answer can never really be definite. Religion is both good and evil, depending on whose side of the line you are on. Freedom fighter or terrorist? An answer perhaps never to be fully given, unless the context is changed and religion is left out of the equation.