Friday, February 11, 2005

I, Coturnix

I had major computer problems last week so didn't think I would have the time to write a blog entry of my own for the third installment of the Carnival Of The Godless (please send me your submissions), so was going to post a link to an old post, but the title of one of the new Carnival entries, "I, Bloginette", made me think that my blog also has a bird as symbol (a quail, not a magpie), and I also remembered how much I loved the old TV series "I, Claudius", and how wonderful it would sound if I wrote a post I could title "I, Coturnix", so here it is.

Very, very early on this blog, I wrote a couple of posts about myself, but in general, I tend not to write about
personal stuff here very much. Hopefully the personal temperament and experience permeates everything I write anyway.

Also, I rarely write directly about religion, yet it is part and parcel of much of my writing over the past six months here. Some in the Progressive blogosphere consider me a semi-expert on Lakoff and his ideas as I have written more than 40 posts commenting on, or using, or building upon his model (the whole series is up for Kaufax Award in the semi-finals, so go and vote for it to get into the final round), and much of this analysis has to take into account religious aspects of one's political worldview.

Finally, I never connected the personal and the religious before, except to lament that my atheism would prevent me from getting elected to any political office in this country. So, I decided I will try to match Bloginette and write a post about my personal relationship with religion. And I am failing miserably already, as I don't seem to have a personal relationship with religion - my relationship with religion is entirely cerebral and/or pragmatic: trying to understand it and learn more about it, estimating how much good or damage it is doing and if there is anything I can do to help eliminate at least the more fundamentalist and dangerous aspects of it, while guiding and harnessing the benevolent religious organizations to do some good.

Many atheists have a personal relationship with religion because they were raised within a religion and saw the light later in life. They were not born atheists, but became so by virtue of their own thinking, learning, experiencing the world and making tough decisions. I had the good fortune of being born in an atheist family, in an atheist country, surrounded by atheists. I heard religion mocked in school a few times, yet, in a place where religion had absolutely no power and was far from being as in-your-face as it is in the States, there was no need to spend much time thinking about religion, or even to feel any hostility towards it. I think we treated churches with a reverence reserved for the artefacts of the past, like Egyptian pyramids. I actually liked the dark and solemn atmosphere inside the church, the icons and frescoes, the smell of burning candles and thyme, and I love the religiously inspired music, including the liturgy. At the same time, we treated the concept of religious faith with pity and contempt, the same way one may think about primitive beliefs, or belief in Santa Claus.

In Yugoslavia, unlike in most other communist countries, religion was not officially banned, it was juts officially denigrated. Actually, the Theological Seminary remained open and accepted students throughout the 50-year long post-WWII era (the "Tito era"). I knew two brothers a while ago, one of whom went on to become a priest, the other a cop. Another young person I knew who was religious was a nutcase brother of a girlfriend of mine - he was a Seventh Day Adventist and is now the leading Creationist "scholar" in Serbia, publishing books, giving lectures and, actually, going further than most US creationists in that he denies even the evolution of language, as well as uses some highly suspect (and misinterpreted, in "Gene Expression Blog" style) genetics to argue for the racial supremacy of the Serbian nation. Here is a too-nice biography of his written by his brother-in-law: Milos Bogdanovic. You can check out the Englush version of his website, and particularly the part about Creationism.

Otherwise, I did not know anyone younger than 60 who actually believed in God. And even those over 60 I had to search in villages, not in the intellectual hub that is Belgrade. My father, and atheist himself, sang in several church choirs. He travelled around the world and cut LP records with the choirs. I went to church on Sunday with him a couple of times and sang with him (I did not know the songs of the liturgy from before but I can sing from the music-sheet so I did OK). Church services were attended by a dozen or so elderly. The choir members were elderly. It was obvious to everyone that religion was dying out and that one day, when the last old believer dies, the churches will be turned into museums.

So, religion was not illegal, but it was not powerful either. The official view of religion was negative, so honoring some religious practices and holidays was a way to be a little rebellious, but not too much for it to be dangerous. For instance, my brother was not, but I was baptized in the Serbian Orthodox Church, as my father liked the idea of keeping the family traditions. We went to a neighbor's house for Christmas in January (Gregorian calendar runs behind Julian by 14 days), where a New Years' Tree became Christmas Tree, New Years Presents became Christmas presents, New Years' Greetings cards became Christmas cards, and Grandfather Frost (Deda Mraz) became Santa Claus, or Cristmas Lad (Bozic Bata), though one could not tell the difference - everything looked exactly the same. All the symbols of Christmas were appropriated for the celebration of New Years' Eve, the biggest (and most consumerist) holiday of the year, so keeping all the decorations up for another ten days or so allowed one to legally celebrate Christmas.

Most families also celebrated their Patron Saint's Day. Ours was St.George. We had guests for two nights in a row for St.George's Day, as well as made the round of other people's houses as they celebrated St.Mark, St.Nicholas, and others. Special foods were prepared (all of which I loved), and guests tended to stay deep into the night, eating ,drinking, talking, sometimes singing and I, as a kid, loved the whole show. I also helped my Dad with preparations which involved a small ceremony, turning the Saint' Day Cake (slavski kolac) around while saying "Our Father", and dripping wine onto it (and taking a sip), then cutting it in four with a mark of the cross. We lit a candle and an oil-lamp, and crossed ourselves a few times during the whole proceedings. Every year, the ceremony got shorter and shorter as my father kept forgetting more and more how the whole thing was supposed to be done. It did not matter. It was an opportunity for father and son (my brother opted out as soon as he was old enough to say "No", but I liked it thus I persisted - it was short and did not hurt much) to do something together that is meanigful in the context of continuation of a family tradition. He gave me his last name and he taught me how to keep the tradition of St.George's Day which I did not follow here in the States, but at least I would know how to do it if I wanted to. I doubt my kids would be interested in participating in "that silly God stuff" so I am not going to push them. So, since my father passed away (two years ago to the day), the tradition is broken and is likely to die with me.

When I was about 5 or 6, my mother gave me a translation of the Illustrated Bible Stories for Children, as she thought that an educated person should be acquanted with the main stories and characters from such an influential book. I really enjoyed the Old Testament, but got bored at the beginning of the New Testament as it read like a church pamphlet, not a story. A couple of years later, I tried again, and again I enjoyed the Old and quit after starting the New Testament. I never made it through the New, not even the illustrated version. I can only assume that my mother, being Jewish, actually liked the idea that I instinctively prefered Old to the New.

So, it was a fun family to grow up in: all Atheists, yet culturally my father was Serbian Orthodox and my mother Jewish. We had Sholet Eggs and Matzos for Easter. I am not kidding you. We all liked the way our guests never knew the significance of the unusual foods we served for Christian holidays - it was our little practical joke, our little family secret.

Jews in Europe are still so afraid of "being obvious". The kids are not circumsized, nobody wears a yarmulka or any other part of traditional garb, rarely anyone goes to the services, nobody celebrates anything at home, but everyone goes to see "Fiddler on the Roof" once a year. Ten years ago, my wife and I went to Belgrade to visit my parents and we performed a full-blown Sabbath ceremony on a Friday night. My grandparents were looking for hidden cameras and microphones, scared of the knocks on the door at night, yet at the same time they felt really good about the whole affair - it has been decades since they last heard the prayers they grew up with and it touched their hearts. Out of some hidden box came a silver Kiddush cup, an old family treasure that has not been used in decades, and it made its way safely to North Carolina where occasionally it sees some use, not for Sabbath, but we love to host Passover (using the secular feminist environmentalist version of the Haggadah) and kids prefer Hanukkah to Christmas as there are eight days of presents instead of just one.

The resurgence of religion in the area in the 1990s is fascinating to me. I do not believe that most of those people are really religious i.e., believe in God. It is purely a political instrument, as well as a way to use easily recognizable signals to differentiate between ethnic groups that are otherwise indistinguishable. Thus Serbs started sporting Orthodox paraphernalia, Croats Catholic stuff, and Bosnians Islamic symbols.

What I find even more fascinating is the way religion died out so fast after WWII. It was not made illegal, yet vertical transmission of religiosity from parents to children did not happen. How come? It would be really important to understand how, without actually banning church activities, one can get a whole nation to abandon religiosity within a space of a single generation.

When I arrived in the USA in 1991., one of the first things that hit me was that so many people were genuinely, not just culturally, religious. Citizens of the Greatest Democracy on Earth (or is it the Greatest Show on Earth?), citizens of the country with the most advanced science and technology, I found out, actually believe in God!@#$%^&* I wa stunned. I could not believe it. It felt like time-travel, but it was weird as some aspects were like travel into the future, and others took me back to the 16th century. It caused quite a mental dissonance to be in a place that is simultenously so advanced and so backwards.

My wife, also an atheist, and I decided to "officially" declare ourselves Jewish, mainly in order to avoid having to go to her family's Christmas and Easter parties (though we enjoyed going there for Thanksgiving and other occasions). We even joined a Reform synagogue and went to a few services for a couple of years. We decided (OK, my wife decided and I agreed with some grumbling) that our kids need some kind of cultural upbringing so they each spent a couple of years in a Jewish preschool. But we were clear with them, from early on, that there is no such thing as God, Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, or Tooth Fairy. And they are growing up just fine, understanding quite well why some actions are ethical while others are not. My sister-in-law got mad once because my kids laughed at her kids when they said their prayers before dinner.

Then, several years later, we started to worry as we were detecting a rising influence of the Religious Right on the national and local politics. As someone who grew up as "invisible Jew" and never had the opportunity to meet my fascinating grandparents and another 40 family members as they all perished in the Holocaust, I shuddered that day in 1999 when Bush announced he was going to run for President. I thought it was a deja-vu all over again....1932...Germany....I could not believe he won in 2000, or in 2004. Europeans elect intellectuals, while the super-country USA elects a born-again ex-junkie dufus. So, I found it important to understand what makes people believe what they believe, both in terms of religion and in terms of politics, and how much the two are linked.

I soon discovered that belief in Bush is essentialy religious in nature. I found it very interesting how my views on religion remain the same before and after I have read Lakoff's "Moral Politics". I may have not used terms like "external focus of moral authority" back then, as I was not aware of the phrase yet, but I have described it well several months before I have ever heard of Lakoff. Now I have, again, moved away from my personal account and into analysis, so I will quit now and I hope that you will follow the links I peppered this post with and write some comments.

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