Sunday, October 5, 2014

Critique: The UofAR "Teaching Religion"

I had the pleasure of attending a recent discussion event at the University of Arkansas here in Fayetteville. And yes, I say "pleasure" even though the event had it's pitfalls, it still had a measure of intrigue and remained surprisingly calm for an age of seemingly ever-rising tensions between different religious communities. I admit, I went to this event with some half-baked expectations and anticipation of some kind of a debate or a panel, I was hoping that this was going to be a bit more in-depth than the rather vaguely written event flyers had advertised. 

Still unsure about what exactly was supposed to go on at this thing, I made an attempt to acquire a bit more information. About a week before this event was held, I took a moment to approach Dr. Lucas Delezene (Biological Anthropologist and guest speaker, I'm in his Introduction to Anthropology class) to try to get a bit more information from him about this. Despite his enthusiasm for public discussion about science, at the time he didn't have much more information about the even than I did: It would seem that the event organizers wanted someone well qualified to discuss "teaching the controversy" (this will come up later, keep reading) and so they dropped this right into his lap. Even in lieu of having little more than the other participants' names for information, though, he seemed genuinely excited and optimistic about whatever the outcome would have been from this, and with a smile he recommended that I attend: Which I did, and the following is just a rudimentary break-down of everything that happened during the "talk."

Unfortunately, I was unable to catch the name of the first speaker: She did mention that her area of expertise was the history of Christianity during the early Middle Ages. 

During her portion of the talk, she showed the audience a brief power-point presentation about the history of Jesus as a historical figure: To include images taken from several different mosaics of everything from an asexual youth being baptised all the way to your typical bearded white guy images, just to demonstrate the fluidity of not only the image, but the "message." And even to my surprise, she threw in an image of an ancient Viking version of Jesus being crucified... to a tree. Not just any tree, the World Tree of old Norse legend. Kinda made me think and reflect on how people who peddle notions of "Absolute Truth" really have no idea what they are talking about, literally AND figuratively. Modern Christians would have had the historical Jesus arrested for vagrancy if they had seen him today, and that is assuming that a flesh-and-blood Jesus ever existed (which, to my dismay, I don't recall them discussing.) So yes, to a point religion DOES have a place in academia as objective subject matter and not as indoctrination: It's important that we understand that these myths are an important reminder of where we came from as a civilization, but also that there's a clear and present danger in looking fondly on "the good old days" as many modern fundamentalists seem so very eager to do. Apparently, last time they had an event like this one, one entire portion of the room was solidly "occupied" by a local Christian fundamentalist sect.

The second speaker at the event was Dr. Timothy Landry, a cultural anthropologist who had spent a great deal of time in West Africa & the Caribbean studying Voodoo. 

Before I begin this part, I'd like to point something out that annoyed me greatly about the entire event: All but two of the of the speakers seemed to have no concept or consideration for time whatsoever. So about five minutes after the first speaker's ten minutes were long done, Dr. Landry was finally able to proceed with his presentation. Straight of the bat, our eyes were bombarded with stock images of commonly known Voodoo practices such as dolls and animal sacrifice. And I say bombarded because these pictures were flashing and repeating at quite a rapid pace: Doll, blood, candles, bone, the word SATAN, a black woman wearing a headdress, a chicken, something on fire, the word EVIL, etc... you get the idea (It was actually pretty fucking metal.) Why did he do this? To prove a point about stereotypes. He continued about the "truths" in stereotyping people and cultures to be incomplete, an easy point to prove with such a stereotyped practice as Voodoo. Admit it, as soon as you saw the word Voodoo in this post, you chuckled at the thought of dolls and dead chickens. He proceeded to ask the general questions about what we, in the West, typically think about when we talk about anything pertaining to religion. What IS religion to us, really? I typically think of modern myth and folklore surrounding figures like Jesus, Mohammed and Tom Cruise, and laugh my ass off at how improbable and silly their ideas are.

But Dr. Landry didn't discuss "religion" in those familiar terms: As far as practitioners are concerned, Voodoo isn't a religion. If you trace the practice back far enough in history, the word "Voodoo" in of itself simply means "Spirit" guiding you along a path or providing instruction. There are no literal "God" figures in Voodoo, only other spirits and their own unique demands and practices. They don't exclude figures like Jesus or Buddha, they include them as more "spirits" that impart mortals with guidance and wisdom. Yes, they practice animal sacrifice in many of their rites, but I had no idea that the meat was to be shared among the participating community afterward (something that the Bible forbids, by the way {Acts 15:29}) But they don't get their rocks off spilling the blood of animals, not like some of us might tend to think of it, because they consider it an act of honor and love to do so: The guiding spirits, or Loa, get what they want and the community gets a sanctified meal afterward. Now I know what you're probably thinking right about now, "Eew! What a bunch of savages!" I'm sure they probably have some very interesting things to say about eating communion crackers or rolling around on the floor mumbling gibberish, A.K.A., "Speaking in Tongues."

And while religion, ANY religion, is not grounded in fact, it is really easy to caricaturize ideas that we don't understand and then use them to demonize an entire group of people: When I DO criticize Islam, I try to be really damn careful to distinguish between the ideas and beliefs from the people that hold honestly believe them. I enjoyed Dr. Landry's eye-opening talk very much, but as far as I'm concerned my usual policy of criticizing religious belief stands: People have rights, ideas do not. Therefore, no idea is above reproach or mockery, especially when it come to the evils and ignorance of their followers. THIS brings me to the next presenter... 

Dr. Lucas Delezene has been teaching the same Anthropology course (to include the one I'm currently taking) at the University of Arkansas for the last four years. 

Now I did mention earlier that "teaching the controversy" is going to pop up again in this blog post, I'll get to that shortly. Dr. Delezene's work in Anthropology has been very hands-on for most of his career, he's gone out on expeditions and digs in the American Southwest looking for ancient human remains: He's repeatedly noted that Arizona is one of his favorite places to work, especially the Grand Canyon area. His job, in terms of this "talk," is actually pretty simple: In terms of teaching the controversy is concerned, there really isn't one. If there's one lesson that EVERYONE can take out of the Nye vs Ham debate, it's that the matter of physical reality is not something that is this hotly "debated" controversial subject, like religious fundamentalists would have you think. What's real is real, and as scientists like Richard Dawkins have repeatedly pointed out, the scientific process helps us to discover and describe observable phenomena, something religion has failed to do with any measure of accuracy. Dr. Delezene briefly described a concept that I was only loosely familiar with, something called "Non-Overlapping Magisteria." That is, loosely, that science and religion are not necessarily in conflict because they are basically two very different things: Science deals in facts, whereas faith deals in values. Values are subjective and fluid, religious or otherwise: Facts are facts and that's that, pieces of one fantastic puzzle being assembled that we are coming to understand as REALITY.

The process of cognitive dissonance can be difficult, sometimes even painful, for students coming to the University from religious backgrounds and families. Having one's deeply held ideals and beliefs challenged is rarely a pleasant experience, and can be downright frightening for young people who aren't yet used to it. Out of about 2000 or so students that he's taught over the years, he said that only a handful of them were ever hostile toward him in this regard (He also noted that at least one of them later apologized to him over it.) Science and evolution are not magic, science doesn't aim to "prove" or "disprove" anything like theists seem to think, it is the method by which we test, observe and discover things about our world, our origins (hey, like evolution and anthropology!) and our universe. I don't recall if Dr. Delezene himself openly identifies as an atheist or a skeptic, I'd have asked him myself but it didn't seem appropriate at the time to do so. Regardless, he intricately and beautifully summarized religious "conflict" in regard to his own scientific and academic profession much better than I'm doing on my humble little blog.

There were quite a few people that got up and left not long after Dr. Delezene's presentation, I'm not entirely sure as to why this happened. I'm guessing, emphasis on GUESSING, that there were people in the audience who just wanted to see if he would just "blast creationist idiots" during his talk or not, to whatever end. Either way, the room suddenly felt much "larger" than it was when this whole thing began, and then the next presenter took the stage. 

Dr. Sidney Burris is one of, if not THE, senior chairmen of the Honors Program at the University of Arkansas, and he's aparrently spent a great deal of time studying Tibetan Buddhism in Northern India.

He's met the Dalai Lama at least once, and he talked a great deal about him. In fact, that's pretty much all he talked about for well over half of his presentation: The Dalai Lama and some of the stuff that he did. He mentioned Thich Nhat Hahn's writings a few times during the duration of his speech, but that's about the long-and-short of it. And this is right about where I started to get really annoyed with the entirety of this event, when Dr. Burris seemed to deviate so drastically from the commonly followed (and STILL aimless) format of this event: How does religious practice directly affect your ability to teach your respective area of expertise? Because a great deal of his presentation was talking about other people's work, mostly that of the Dalai Lama. Don't get me wrong, I learned a lot about Buddhism as a system of ideas, AND a lot about the Dalai Lama as a person, but I can't shake the notion that I could have just as easily learned all of this from YouTube: To include all of the popular Dalai Lama quotes that I can pull off of my Facebook and Twitter feeds at any given moment.

For real, that's all he did the entire time was talk about the Dalai Lama, and then proceeded to do so even after he had gone over his allotted time: Which, in retrospect, I probably could have forgiven if he had a point to make.

Understand that I intend no disrespect to Dr. Burris himself in my critique here, but damn dude: YOU are on the Honors Committee...?

Last but not least, Professor Jennifer Hoyer, who is an expert on Jewish culture and literature.

I'd like to say first, that I don't understand much about Judaism or Jewish culture: I was never formally brought up as a Jew, even though I am one according to my ancestry. This was part of Professor Hoyer's problem as well, teaching a subject matter so drastically unfamiliar to so many people. It saddens me to say that even I was a bit confused by her presentation, but that's not the least bit her fault: I am just as unfamiliar with Jewish terminology and practice as many of her incoming students are. What a unique predicament that must be, to not only be an expert in a subject matter that so many people don't understand because they've never been exposed to it, but having the task of trying to explain it to a room full of people. Well, there's ME sitting in the audience feeling the steaming breath of my own ignorance breathing down my neck, but I'm okay with admitting that publicly. There's A LOT that I don't know and don't understand, after this it would just seem that Jewish culture and literature are among those things. 

And that's kinda the point, really: It's hard to teach about a culture and it's literary accomplishments without establishing a proper context. Now I don't mean using "context" to justify carrying out atrocities, in this particular case I'm talking about written works like poetry, novels and stories. Public perceptions of Judaism often seem so "narrow," according to Professor Hoyer, that people often forget the thousands of years of discussion and dialogue around it and within it. According to Jewish tradition, each time the scriptures are read, they change in value and meaning according to the person reading it. In the sense that two people can look at the same peice of art and get two very different ideas from it, sure. Naturally, that doesn't make anything that any holy-book actally says the least bit true: But in terms of poetry, literature and art, that's hardly the point. Those things are all about culture and interpretation, they thrive on differing opinions. Maybe that's why I love religiously themed artwork even though I despise their doctrines. No one, to MY knowledge, ever suicide-bombed a crowded public market after visiting the Sistine Chapel.

IF the University ever holds an event like this in the future, despite this particular one not being terribly exciting overall, I'd still go.

Not only am I optimistic that maybe they can all agree on a common format or theme for which to discuss, but that there could perhaps be a little bit more engagement between the speakers themselves as well. True, the event was never advertised as a debate or discussion panel, but perhaps the error was mine in ASSUMING that it would be: I let myself down, in that respect. 

The entire event was polished off by a reception at the Inn at Carnall Hall here on campus: There was tasty cheese, awkward silences and a dude sitting two seats away from me that wouldn't shut up about the Columbine Massacre (and I still have no idea how he got on that topic.) 

I had my cheese, revised my notes from each presentation, and now here I am posting this entry several days too late as usual.

7-Oct-2014 Correction: It's been brought to my attention that one primary reason why many people left the talk after Dr. Delezene's presentation had nothing to do with anticipation or ideology, but due to time constraints and prior commitments: Largely brought on by the fact that the first speaker went WAY OVER her time, which presented some measure of inconvenience for others. At least for some, my "guess" turned out to be inaccurate. My apologies.

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