Sunday, September 23, 2012

Change in attitude towards religion - II

Men rarely (if ever) managed to dream up a god superior to themselves. Most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child. -Robert A. Heinlein, science-fiction author (1907-1988)

I will sometimes read an an article about very religious people having views opposite to what they normally preach. They tend to favour military action,  are against gun control, tend to be against universal health care, tend to be more tolerant of inequality etc. Sometimes Jaya will tell me about a flaming row between some people who I have never heard of and people who they consider beneath their station like the watchman or the driver. I will flippantly remark that they must be very religious. I used to be surprised at how often this turned out to be true. 'Religious tolerance' has become my favourite oxymoron. I also read about the many common arguments given by believers.

Many standard statements that people say for form's sake started sounding silly. For eg., while commentating during a cricket match soon after Raj Singh Dungarpur's death, Ravi Shastri said, 'I know you are watching, Rajbhai.' I know? How? There is the typical reaction after accidents which I began to find jarring. Lying for religion is often excused. The popular notion that god is required to guide our action seemed increasingly untenable.

I used to be puzzled by how religions make women feel privileged about being treated as second class citizens.All religions subjugate women in some way. The most religious men seem to have the most conservative views on women's issues.They seem to be insecure that women are becoming more independent. I increasingly found myself agreeing with Don Prothero's observations in Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters:
Psychologists have long shown that humans are very good at self - deception and trying to convince themselves of anything that they fervently want to believe in.  Given a strong belief system, humans can convince themselves that black is white or to ignore obvious evidence and focus only on what they want to see, and miss the forest for the trees.  As Gorge Orwell put it, "We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts as to show that we were right.  Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time; the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against a solid reality."
I used be struck by the fact that people spoke admiringly of mythological characters who seemed to be a lot less likable than they themselves were. In Does He Know A Mother's Heart?, Arun Shourie writes:
In the myths, just as many tragedies and catastrophes have resulted from curses hurled by evil persons as by saintly ones. It is of course ironic that rishis who, after all, have mastered their senses through long and severe austerities, fly off the handle at the slightest provocation or an even slighter mistake of someone, even some dear to them.
I didn't know much about the Bible (which can be said about my knowledge of any religious text) except for Biblical phrases that are commonly used in English and some random stories (is it a coincidence that I knew only the good stories?) so I was surprised to hear Julia Sweeney's account of how she lost her faith. Dan Dennett's suggestion that every child ought to be educated about the facts of all the major world religions has merit. Somebody rightly said that it is a blessing that most people are better than god. I can vouch for it from personal experience. For eg., I studied in a Catholic school (Little Flower School, Jamshedpur) and I have great respect for the nuns who administered my school and taught me. It is an example of the good effects of faith which is the only aspect that gets airtime.

The medieval laws in existence in many places to protect religion decrease the position of religion in my eyes. People get into a frenzy over stories. Is this a sign of confidence? Or do they have something to hide? Judging by the only book that I have read that has mainly to do with religion, they have plenty to hide. If you have some confidence in your beliefs, you won't mind criticism. In my experience, the most insecure show the maximum eagerness to proscribe any criticism. I've had about enough with religious zealots becoming apoplectic and screaming murder every time someone says 'boo' to them. Respect is commanded not demanded.  As Richard Dawkins said at the Jaipur Literature festival, 'Our whole society is soft on religion.'The tolerance of intolerance encourages intolerance, a point that Hitchens emphasises in this debate with Sashi Tharoor.  Having an invisible Super Boss creates problems.

One scene I remember clearly was of Manu Sharma (the killer of Jessica Lal) rushing off to some temple where he would no doubt have been blessed by some saffron-robed paragon of piety. The gods have a curious sense of humour. You often see politicians, royalty, film stars and businessmen getting special treatment at various temples with cameras in attendance. I don't know how devoted these people actually are but in a god-crazed country it doesn't hurt to display some piety.

If you can’t be any of those personages,  be an auditor in a Public Sector bank to gain easy access to the sanctum sanctorum without having to waste time in queues.This is because temple authorities know that nothing persuades believers to go easy on tough questions as giving them easy access to the sanctum sanctorum. Since most auditors will be believers, this is a useful strategy to avoid tricky questions.

Believers come up with Orwellian statements like atheists are arrogant and intolerant, science is also faith, doubt is part of faith, atheists are closed minded, science lacks imagination, scientists are dogmatic etc. The first thing that comes to my mind is what John McEnroe would have said, "You cannot be serious." In my readings and experience, it was all exactly opposite. They make hypocrisy look bad. I suppose it is a case of psychological projection. In Coming of Age in the Milky Way Timothy Ferris writes:
It is the grand, mystical systems of thought, couched in terminologies too vague to be wrong, that explain everything and seldom err and do not grow.
If there is a god, I think it is the height of arrogance to think that he or she will be bothered about what I do. Considering the scales of things in the universe, the god that believers describe is too boring for words. Being too religious primes you to accept simplistic explanations. (Of course my examples are the lowest of low hanging fruits.) Neil degrasse Tyson explains the problem with this line of thinking.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Change in attitude towards religion - I

Some people have views of God that are so broad and flexible that it is inevitable that they will find God wherever they look for him. One hears it said that 'God is the ultimate' or 'God is our better nature' or 'God is the universe.' Of course, like any other word, the word 'God' can be given any meaning we like. If you want to say that 'God is energy,' then you can find God in a lump of coal. - Steven Weinberg

 People find many purposes in life, most of them religious. Many people keep analysing religious belief and coming to various conclusions. I had never thought about these issues before my stroke. Religious belief is a complicated phenomenon that I luckily escaped from. I was a latitudinarian in the Jefferson mould -  "it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg". I still am like that but my views about religion being a benign force that can always be given a pass has undergone a change.The Internet has helped.

I have given some reasons in earlier posts. I will give some more in the next few  posts. Obviously it feels awkward criticizing the cherished views of good people. Bear in mind that many of the people I like the most are religious. But I felt that some harsh words cannot be left unsaid. I sometimes felt like deleting some of those sentences after meeting those nice believers because they were not the ones I had in mind while writing them but I ultimately decided to retain them. As Johan Hari said, 'All people deserve respect but not all ideas do.' And generally, when I say religion, I mean organised religion not religion as a place-holder term for human rights, charity, love, etc.

It is often seen that in difficult times people become more religious. It was thus thought that after the stroke, I would shed my earlier  indifference to religion and become more spiritually inclined. Many people seem to have the idea that their god has the same mindset as one of Richard Nixon's advisers who had a poster in his room with the slogan "When you've got 'em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow." But I don't recall having any interest in religion following my stroke. It was years later, after becoming more aware of and irritated by the tyranny of organized religion, I began to read a bit more about it.

A typical instance of the situations I began to dislike was when some people came home, corralled Jaya in one corner of the room and told her in breathless tones how various miracles had had happened at some temple when certain rituals were performed there. They then turned their attention to me at which point they were told that I was not religiously inclined. They seemed to be somewhat nonplussed that someone could live peacefully without god (many people do) especially one who had slipped on life's banana skin (as Wodehouse would have put it). Inevitably, they finally said, ' He will find god someday.' I had visions of the climax scene in Deewar when Amitabh Bachachan staggers into a temple and pants, 'mein aa gaya hoon maa.' I would have liked to say what Jeeves told BertieWooster on some occasion, 'The contingency, sir, is a remote one.'

On one occasion, some  strange guy came home, made me sit in front of the of some gods, stuck flowers on one of my earlobes, lit an incense stick and kept circling around me muttering something. I resented having to sit like a dumb doll and subject myself to these strange rituals being conducted by a strange guy strutting around with an expression of 'wisdom, gravity, profound conceit'. I felt particularly riled by the fact that these guys blithely assumed that I would have no objection to being the focus of such rituals. They ignore Julia Sweeney's version of the Golden Rule:' Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, but ask them first if it’s okay.' (Such 'faith pimping' also seems to be common in the US.)

I finally came to the conclusion there is some truth to the statement that if u don’t protest u lose by default. The meek don’t inherit anything.The superstitious beliefs that I  have mentioned in various posts were given by people out of solicitousness and force of habit rather than because of any malicious intent but the prospect of politely agreeing to their suggestions forever was not appealing. I informed Jaya that I didn't like being put in such situations and I didn't mind if she managed to wriggle out of them in any way she saw fit.Of course, I knew that there will be times when she will have no choice but to accede to the requests. In 'The Code of the Woosters' when Jeeves puts Bertie in a sticky spot, the latter muses:
I don’t know if you were ever told as a kid that story about the fellow whose dog chewed up the priceless manuscript of the book he was writing. The blow – out, if you remember, was that he gave the animal a pained look and said: ‘Oh, Diamond, Diamond, you – or it may have been thou – little know – or possibly knowest – what you – or thou - has – or hast – done.’ I heard it in the nursery, and it has always lingered in my mind.  And why I bring it up now is that this was how I looked at Jeeves as I  passed from the room. I didn’t actually speak the gag, but I fancy he knew what I was thinking.
I knew that there will be times when I will have to be satisfied with giving the Bertie look. But over time, word spread that I was one of those crazy chaps like Oscar Wilde who thought that "The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” The zeal to make me enthralled by the rites and symbols of religion gradually withered away not fully but in great measure.

It is often noticed that god is said to be close to people with various disabilities and ailments. I once asked the nurse to do some channel surfing when I saw a program entitled 'God's children'. I need not have guessed the general theme of the program - it was about a genetic disease that made teenagers look like seventy (Progeria, the disease that the character played by Amitabh Bachchan in the movie  'Paa' suffered from.) God's children indeed!

So it was not surprising that I was sometimes told 'God loves you' or 'You are touched by God'. This god character has a bizarre sense of humour. Religions have a huge support structure that ensures that the same pablum get repeated unquestioningly ad infinitum. George Carlin mocked it in typically caustic fashion.Believers seem to suspend their critical faculties when echoing what their religious leaders tell them thus spreading memes like the just world hypothesis.

It is astonishing how sheep-like some people become when in front of their favourite saffron robed chap.They seem to be primed to get dazzled by deepities (see this Deepak Chopra random quote generator) or by promises of a Spiritual Disneyland or do silly things. Their leaders would like them to lead an unconsidered life and be satisfied with what Kierkegaard called 'tranquilizing itself with the trivial'. Many would probably end up singing, 'Ghungroo ki tarah...'.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The coelacanth

My favourite fish is the coelacanth. (Whaaat? Fish? FISH? You mean the one with scales? And it is not even named Gussie Fink-Nottle! There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.) The coelacanth is what is known as a living fossil. (There are disputes over whether there is such a thing as a living fossil.) I read about the coelacanth in some book when I was in school and I have been fascinated by it ever since.

I recently read a book about it called A Fish Caught in Time. To write a whole book about a fish and keep the reader interested throughout is a tremendous achievement by the author. (You will no doubt be thinking that it also depends on how weird the reader is.) The story of the coelacanth has been called the greatest fish story ever told.(It is more dramatic than Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.)

Let us go to the beginning. (According to the King of Alice in Wonderland, that is generally a  good place to start.)  Not all the way back to 400 million years ago when coelacanths first start appearing in the fossil record. (That reminds me about a joke about the problem of being too exact with large numbers. An attendant in a museum told a visitor that a particular fossil was 65 million and 3 years old. When asked how he knew the age so exactly, he replied that when he joined the museum 3 years ago, he was told that the fossil was 65 million years old.) We will just go back to Dec. 1938 when it was found to be alive when it was thought to have been extinct for about 70 million years.

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a curator at the East London museum went down to the docks to inspect some fishes that had been been brought for her. She found the pile uninteresting but then found a blue fin sticking out of the pile. When she removed the slime, what was revealed was 'the most beautiful  fish I had ever seen' but she didn't know what it was. She preserved the fish with formalin and wrote a letter with an accompanying diagram to Prof. J.L.B.Smith, a chemistry lecturer at Rhodes University and amateur ichthyologist. J.L.B. (as he seems to have been known; to the best of  my knowledge, he did not consider changing his name to Tyrannosaurus rex). was an obsessive workaholic with incredible mental powers. The author notes:
There are numerous examples of J.L.B.'s extraordinary mental powers. He had a photographic memory, and could read sixteen languages and speak eight. When he went to Mozambique for the first time, he learned Portuguese in three and a half weeks, and then proceeded to give an hour-and-a-half lecture without notes. During the war, when he was not fulfilling his teaching responsibilities or hunting for new fish, he managed to produce three chemistry textbooks, which went into numerous editions and were translated into several foreign languages....Another time J.L.B. recognized, from a distance of fifty yards, a man he had never met, the son of a fellow classmate he had not seen for fifty years.  The shape of his skull, apparently, had been a dead giveaway.
He saw the letter 11 days after it was sent because he was away on Christmas vacation. When he saw the diagram, he thought it resembled the fossil of a fish that he had seen which was thought to have gone extinct 70 million years ago.
It was a remarkable feat of mental agility.  Smith had apparently taken a rough sketch by someone who was not a skilled artist, of a five-foot fish, found in the Indian Ocean off southern Africa, and connected it with a fossil, a little over twelve inches long and 200 million years old; which had been discovered in freshwater in Greenland, and which he had read about in a scientific journal.
If he was right, it would be the greatest zoological discovery of the century. But if he announced it and it later turned out to be wrong, he would become a laughing stock. The only way he could be certain was to see the fish for himself. It was almost 2 months before he could make it to East London by  which time the soft parts of the fish were lost. The author quotes J.L.B.'s reaction on seeing the fish:
Smith was ushered into the inner room where he saw the fish for the first time, sitting on Marjorie's large mounting table: "Although I had come prepared, that first sight hit me like a white-hot blast and made me feel shaky and queer, my body tingled.  I stood as if stricken to stone. Yes, there was not a shadow of doubt, scale by scale, bone by bone, fin by fin, it was a true Coelacanth.
That is the sort of impact a coelacanth has on adults. (It helps if you are an ichthyologist.) The announcement of the discovery was followed by a media frenzy. J.L.B. then determined to catch a second coelacanth to examine its soft parts which were destroyed in the first specimen because of his delay in getting to it. He distributed leaflets all along the East African coast promising a reward of 100 pounds for the finders of the first two coelacanths. But he had to wait for 14 years to get another one. He got a cable from a friend  that a coelacanth had been caught in Dzaoudzi. He had no idea where the place was.

He found that it was an island of the Comoro archipelago. No commercial flight flew there and a boat would take too long. He was desperate to get there as quickly as possible but as before, it was Christmas holidays - either he couldn't get the person on the line or they couldn't help and he said in frustration, 'Why on earth did Coelacanths want to turn up just before Christmas?'

Finally, an air force plane was arranged at the behest of the South African PM to transport him to the Comoros. The crew was not sure if they had got all the diplomatic clearances or even if there was a landing strip at their destination. J.L.B. remarked to the bemused Commandant, 'I bet when you joined the South African Air Force you never expected to command a plane sent to fetch a dead fish.'

When he finally managed to see the fish, JLB had the same reaction that he had the first time. When he finally managed to bring the fish back, South African Broadcasting Corporation interrupted its  regular schedule of programs for a live broadcast by an exhausted JLB:
The broadcast began, and Smith's confidence grew. His delivery was typically measured, but he could not disguise his emotions as he started to relive the experience. When he told of weeping at the sight of the fish, tears started to fall again. When he finished, he was completely spent. The program was later described as one of the most emotionally charged pieces of broadcasting ever to have been aired on South African radio.
When the find was announced to the world, it created a sensation.  The French were astounded by the reaction. They were miffed that a Frenchman had not hogged the limelight. (The Comoros was under French jurisdiction at the time.) The displeasure of the French almost led to a diplomatic row. They then banned foreign scientists from hunting for the fish in their territorial waters. From then on, for over 2 decades, the coelacanth became a 'French fish'.

Right. So why this kolaveri over a fish? Granted it is big, blue and was thought to be extinct for millions of years. What else? The  coelacanth belongs to a group of fishes known as the Sarcopterigians one lineage of which eventually evolved into humans. The coelacanth is thought to be a close cousin of that lineage. At  one time, it was thought to be a direct ancestor of humans but now this theory is discredited. (BTW, who was the first man?)

Another colony of these fish belonging to a different species was discovered in Indonesia in 1997. (Coelacanth is a name given to a whole Order of fishes. The extant species belong to the genus Latimeria - named after Marjorie Courtney-Latimer -  which is not found in the fossil record.) There are tantalising clues they may be found in other places. It may be better for their long term survival if they are never found.

This post has  some curious facts about the fish.  Here is a documentary about it. (Some statements in the program about evolution eg.saying that animals anticipate requirements in a future environment, are misleading.) Here is another documentary about the hunt for the pre-historic fish. If you have not had enough of this magnificent fish (which of course is the case), you can get more information from this site.

The coelacanth has achieved such worldwide fame that when a German magazine asked, 'Why is it worthwhile living this week?' a schoolchild replied, '...coelacanths still exist.' By now, either you are a fan of the coelacanth or are not a fan of the coelacanth. Inspired by this TED talk, I will summarise this post in 6 words - 'I salute thee, good Old Fourlegs'.And with that, dear readers, we come to the end of this piscatorial post.