Talk: Religion in the Modern World

This is a talk I delivered for SUMSA a while back, thought I would upload it for those interested.
Innalhamda lillahee, nahmaduhu wa nasta’eenuhu wa nastaghfiruhu, wa na’oodhu billaahi min shuroori anfusinaa wa min sayyiaati a’maalinaa. Mainyah dihillaahu falaa mudillilahu, wa mainyudlil falaa haadiya lah.

The question we are posed with today is ‘what is the role of religion in the modern world’ but in many respects the question should have been ‘what was the role of religion in the modern world?’

Because, for all modernism’s lingering language modernity is dead.

It was bullet ridden, laying amongst poppies on French fields in 1916, and was buried at Auschwitz and under Hiroshima’s irradiated rubble.

Nietzsche’s madman lept up and cried ‘Wither is God? I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers!’ he walked, bemused into Christian houses of God and asked ‘What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?’

Yet Nietzsche’s decomposing divinity, a God killed or to be killed by Kant and Descartes and Marx, will leave children of this era confused. It is not the pungent stench of God’s decay that wafts through these hallways, God forgive the metaphor, it is that of modernity’s corpse.

So to ask ‘what is the role of religion in the modern world’ is a regression. We are not in the modern world any more, that wind has changed, and many of the irreligious, as much as the religious, are stuck with their sails in a lull.

What does the question mean, ‘what is the role of religion in the modern world’? What does it point to? To me it points overwhelmingly to the reality that the religious are still being beaten with modernity’s flopping, cold, arms. We are being bludgeoned with the dead ideologies of an epoch that has past us by. Modern and contemporary are no longer the same thing.

I will elaborate.

Modernity arose from the ‘enlightenment’ and led to a radical change in humanity’s relationship with religion. The products of the enlightenment, were weaponised, literally and metaphorically, and turned against ‘religion’ first in Europe, and then in the colonies. French guillotines; scientific execution, British gattling guns; scientific warfare, accompanied and flowed from the rise of modernity in Europe. Kant’s ‘What is Enlightenment?’ sat alongside his ‘On the different races of man’.

Modernity’s heady mix of military power, industrial produce and intellectual tools led to Empires the like of which the world had never seen. These were not merely Empires of steel and gold, but Empires of thought, and the Churches and Masajid were left gutted in their wake. The coercive aspects of the enlightenment, enshrined by Diderot who said, ‘Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest’, were accompanied by the corrosive nature of modernity in relation to religious tradition, as Marx describes it ‘All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned’.

On the back of guns and steel, the technological products of the Enlightenment, Christendom conquered the world, and yet that moment of triumph fell hollow as Christianity’s utility for Empire gave way to newer, more malleable justifications. From the heartland of Christianity arose a cavalcade of new world views, which sidelined the role that religion had once played. These modernisms, summed up, were united by their teleological outlook. They shared a sense of history’s onwards march, as historian Sidney Pollard summarised: ‘a pattern of change exists in the history of mankind [and] consists of irreversible changes in one direction only, and this direction is towards improvement’.

The orientation of Europe thus shifted from God to new religions that promised technological utopia, for white men anyway. The reality of these religions found affirmation wherever European empire dipped its feet. The word ‘discovery’ came originally from a term which described scouting before a battle, and this etymology proved prophetic. European ‘discoveries’ were accompanied with very modern inclinations. ‘Shoot! Classify! Name! Describe!’ was one of the mantras of European expansion, not just for local flora and fauna, but those humans they discovered too.

By the mid 19th Century of the common era, European empires, and by extension modernity, extended to much of the globe. At the time many felt the story ended there. The histories and narratives of that period, right up until the First World War, often have a note of finality to them. Others have a sense of quickening tempo, a dizzying climb into the heights, as the retort in the Futurist Manifesto expresses: ‘Your objections? All right! I know them! Of course! We know just what our beautiful false intelligence affirms: “We are only the sum and the prolongation of our ancestors,” it says. Perhaps! All right! What does it matter? But we will not listen! Take care not to repeat those infamous words! Instead, lift up your head!

Standing on the world’s summit we launch once again our insolent challenge to the stars!’.

One does not find the same hope in the accounts of the colonised. And one finds that overwhelmingly the resistance to colonialism in the non-European world comes from a religious location. Muslim, Buddhist and Dharmic, as well as less prominent local religions stood alongside repurposed forms of Christianity in rejecting that European empire of ideas.

However these movements found their ultimate match in the Maxim gun and it was not ideas that felled the Mahdist revolt in Sudan or the Taiping rebellion in China.

This would change in 1914, when the dizzying upward thrust of Europe suddenly found itself amongst the mud of the Western Front. The weaponised enlightenment, formerly mostly pointed outwards, was brought viciously to bear amongst the societies that had birthed it.

The First World War, and the Second which soon followed it, loosened not only the grip that European colonial power held throughout the world, it loosened the grip of the empires of the mind that accompanied it.  This was modernity’s aforementioned death, as colonialism gave way to a less blatant, if no more exploitative, neo-colonialism there appeared a clear shift in the language and ideas the defined a formerly ‘modern’ world.

This world is still characterised as much by rapid change as that which preceded it, if not more so.

Postmodernity, or as some would name it, ‘liquid modernity’, has reflected an increasingly interconnected world. Replacing the almost monolithic, progress narratives of modernity is a fractured and transient world view, no less shifting and with maybe even less stable ground upon which we can find purchase.

Yet in an era of apparent doubt, religion appears to be far from a dead practice of bygone ages. While the rhetorical orientation of the world we are told has moved away from God, many commentators have described the last half century in terms of a religious revival.

Yet in the midst of this revival we still find ourselves in debate with the likes of the New Atheists, most of them old white men speaking in modernist language. I say ‘we’ here, with a nod to my fellow panel members because I believe this is something that we share. One of the main legacies of modernity is the linking between the fruits of technology, and irreligiosity, yet anecdotally I have little doubt that only a minority of the Muslims here today are in the Arts and Humanities. Contemporary religious communities are far from bereft of practitioners of science and medicine.

What has preceded in my talk so far is a relatively conventional narrative, it describes the rise, fall and decay of modernity, and the challenges of bobbing around in its wake. However what it also describes is a particular exceptionalism that arises in the stories we tell about the past.

Here I want to diverge, and maybe challenge some of these assumptions. There are many things that are unique about this world we live in, but there are also many things that are the same. Doubt is not new, indeed in my opinion the shifting surface we stand upon is mirrored by many a moment in the past.

The world of Musa alayhis salaam was far from bereft of empire, or of doubt. Nor was the Greek speaking world into which Jesus (alayhis salaam) was birthed. What is ‘jahiliyya’ if not an age of doubt?

What even, as a secularist once told me, is the point of a statement like ‘I believe’ without its contrary? She was not wrong, for here in an age of doubt, religion provides orientation. If doubt, postmodernity’s ever shifting sands, are as a shattered mirror, qibla, direction, religion, is a compass, ever fixed ever facing towards God.

An age of doubt, a time without orientation, affirms religion’s importance. From my perspective, the transmission of religion has never been in refutation but rather in assertion. The role of religion, and by extension the religious, is in that assertion. In that spirit I believe that we have nothing to fear from this ‘modern world’ any more than any other, point in the past.

The role of religion, in this world, as in any other, is to point towards God.

As a child of the postmodern, as most of us here today are, I can speak to something of the value of that.

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Talk: Religion in the Modern World

Evolutionary Theory, Race and Empire

Evolutionary theory, at the face of it, offers little beyond narrative to human societies. Its scientific impact, when compared to other changes over the last two centuries, are arguably minimal, or are simply continuations of existing trends (animal husbandry/hybridisation).

However as narrative it has had immense impact upon the way that humans have understood themselves and their place in the world. It has supplanted a range of pre-existing narratives of human existence and in many cases done so through a very conflicted process.

What I want to discuss in this post however is its relationship with both Empire and race theory (you can no doubt see the links with the previous post). I would argue that one of the main uses of evolutionary theory has been as a tool of Empire, and indeed remains as such.

The concept of race itself emerged from enlightenment thought in Europe in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries. It was partly a continuation of pre-existing ‘isothermic’ explanations of human difference (which explained difference as a product of climate). The idea of ‘race’ was a novelty, and really an unprecedented idea in human history.

It caught hold predominantly because the idea had immense usefulness in justifying a range of Imperial practices, from slavery to warfare. It infantalised and dehumanised the other in a way that was previously a far less explicit process (tied in with religion, culture, tribe, family). Yet its logical foundations were not particularly explicit, as they relied almost wholly on things like explorer’s accounts of different cultures, as well as emerging national identities in Europe.

Evolutionary theory provided a handy foundation for race theory to rest upon, and it was rapidly adopted as such. Whether this was a sincere and accurate understanding of the theory is beside the point, the theory did not need clarity because its practical implications were really minimal.

Its primary utility was justificatory.

Like race theory, it was flexible, and therefore had a ‘memetic’ character. It found its home across a wide range of movements, from Japanese Imperial narratives to secularists in the United States. The idea stuck, and yet the idea itself was amorphous, found its main representation in narratives of superiority, or inferiority, the so called ‘social darwinist’ trend.

This process did not end, and this is the central point of this post. The primary utility of evolutionary theory continues as a marker of savagery, barbarity. The adoption of the theory has no practical uses in countries in the Global South, and yet their teaching of it (or not), their belief in it (or not) is held up as a marker of the primitive. This in turn becomes a vector along which new imperial structures flow. To find an example of this one needs to look no further than the new atheist movement.

So, to conclude, before you laugh at those ridiculous heathens who don’t believe in the theory of evolution, reflect for a moment on the things that those who have believed in it have done its name, and how much of an improvement their adoption of it would mark. Does it improve lives? Does it free people from oppression?

These questions are for more important than ‘is it true’ (the answer to which I, for the record, believe is a yes).

Evolutionary Theory, Race and Empire

The Peculiarity and Normality of Japanese Empire

There is something telling about the fact that Japan is held by many as a perfect example of a non-Western state which successfully adopted modernity.

The manifestation of that state was not a state, but an Empire, and one which was ultimately founded on peculiarly modern concepts. Both Darwinism and its constant companion, race science, were rapidly deployed as the justificatory architecture for Japanese expansionism in the Pacific.

While America WW2 propaganda cast the Empire of the Rising Sun as being possessed of a kind of rampant expansionism driven by a racialised warrior avarice, America and Japan were essentially contesting the same ground for the same reasons. Western decadence and weakness, itself racialised by Japanese propaganda, was the mirror of anti-Japanese propaganda produced in swathes by the American propaganda machine.

Like the Nazis, Japan was far more similar to the Allies than they would like. Japan’s rapid spread in the Pacific was partly a response to American expansion in the Pacific (which cut off Japanese access to the oil so necessary for the development process). Japan expanded into islands and regions already held by a patchwork of European empires, and their withdrawal was ultimately to end the grip that those empires held (or at least open them up to falling into America’s sphere of influence).

Japanese history ultimately throws up a number of historical dilemmas that it can be interesting to think about. Was the adoption of modernisms simply a necessary part of military, scientific and industrial development? Alternatively was it merely associated with its source, a coat of ideological paint on a train engine, which with time could be scraped off or repainted?

The answer to these questions says a lot about how we imagine the world today, and where it is heading. An article I read today talked about the tendency in Western historiography to view Japan through the lens of its own stories. This to me seems a logical trend, when the things that cause Japan to be viewed with such revulsion, is its mimicry of a Western Imperial history.

While many emphasise the superiority complex apparently exhibited by Japanese expansionists, on the ground there was a primary emphasis upon Japanese benevolence. The Japanese push into the Philippines, for example, told the same story that the Americans had told before. It was a tale of a benevolent Empire, pushing out another, worse, one. Empire has been ‘for your own good’ since long before modernist supremacist narratives provide justifications for Imperialists.

So in this respect, Japanese Empire was not so much peculiar as it was an old story replayed on a new stage. It is an illustration that the West has never had a monopoly on Empire, it was just better at it for a historical moment. This in turn must have us question a kind of Western exceptionalism which casts post-enlightenment European Empire as a historical novelty.

The question then becomes not ‘why was Japan an exception’ but rather ‘was Europe really that different?’

The Peculiarity and Normality of Japanese Empire

Scatterbrained

In my opening post I referred to myself as ‘scatterbrained’ and last night, in my mind, as I awaited sleep, I wrote a post explaining bit further what I meant by it.

When my beautiful wife and I went on our honeymoon, we spent a lot of time on buses. Our travels took us from Santiago in Chile to the Atacama desert in Chile’s North, then all the way South to Patagonia, across the Andes into Argentina and then up to Buenos Aires. None of this was by plane, so our trip was defined by hour upon hour of bus travel, often overnight.

Wifey would sit, content with her thoughts, staring out the window at the mountains and trees as they passed us by. I would look at her and be wracked with anxiety…. how could she just SIT there, for hours and hours, doing nothing!?

Me? I read, or listened to my iPod, or talked, or something, anything, to pass the time. The idea of sitting in stasis, unoccupied, was mortifying. This was an unexpected point of friction between us. I would ask her if she wanted to listen to something and she would be frustrated by the headphones glued to my ears, the book attached to my hands.

We worked it out and she worked me out, and it is no longer a problem for either of us, but it made me realise that the way my mind acts was not exactly the way that everyone else operated.

My mind is a constant buzz, whether I like it or not. I have to be occupied with something or I fidget, become distracted and irritable. At night to get to sleep I write out stories or blog posts or political theories in my mind, line after line which are ultimately forgotten as sleep takes me. Or not, sometimes I cannot sleep, ranting on twitter til a regretful 4 am.

It must then seem odd then that I chose history as a profession, taking up work where I spend hours reading over the same things, time passing like treacle. I agree, it is odd, but I’m also good at little else.

Maybe it is because this brain is like a museum of curiosities. It stores things in a gigantic jumble; trivia, poetry, metaphor, from which I extract meaning. I can’t remember my friends names (honestly) but I can draw vast maps in my mind of the sweep of time and events far removed from me, pull them fully formed from that jumble.

It is perverse, sometimes torturous, but it is how I am.

It is an aspect of my character that it is often hard to get this across. I have often caught myself at a friend’s irritation as their conversation trails off as my mind wanders to some theory or stupid joke or hip hop line. And they are certainly justified in their irritation.

I’m pretty sure there is some pathology you could find for it, but I’m happy with self diagnosing for now. ‘Scatterbrained’ adequately sums up the sense I have of my mind as a blunderbuss, exploding pot plants and scattering papers across the room.

Scatterbrained

Travel Tips

Some things I have learnt from experience that are indispensable to a traveller.

-duct tape (for everything).
-small padlocks and keys (for bags or if your room doesn’t lock properly).
-ziplock bags (to compartmentalise your backpack and protect from spills, keep food fresh, keep money clean etc. Etc.).
-2 sarongs/lungis (multi-purpose, can be used as towels, prayer mats and can form a layer between a dirty mattress and you).
-1 chador/blanket/shawl (as above, a good substitute for a heavy pullover, I don’t travel without my chador).
-zip ties (to secure bags or other things in a pinch).
-pants with elastic at the bottom (good travel pants will be easily rolled up, both for mud and horrible toilets).
-powerboard (many hostels only have one outlet and this works out weight wise because you won’t need to carry a bunch of adapters).
-multiple pens (always useful, keep in ziplocks).
-sard wonder soap (best laundry soap by far and can be used to wash if necessary)
-wet wipes (clean everything, substitute shower).
-a proper first aid kit, geared towards everyday comfort more than triage (travel sickness tablets, rehydration salts etc.).
-miswak (good for cleaning teeth when water is hard to come by, also a sunnah).
-a tube of peanut butter/vegemite (necessary for all those moments you can’t get food or need to add flavour, peanut butter is great post apocalypse food, portable calories).
-headlamp and spare batteries (far superior to a torch).
-earplugs (don’t leave home without them).
-portable phone charger (for emergencies/ the flight).
-plastic garbage bags (these are useful to cover your pack and stop you polluting the wilderness, but are mostly used to store dirty- and especially wet, clothes)
-strong string (as a clothesline and to tie stuff), paracord is good.
-toilet paper, because 1 ply is standard and gets old fast.
-possibly sterile needles if you feel it is worth the risk. If so, take a letter from your doctor
-deet (insect repellent) in swathes.
-a cheap durable digital watch like a Casio F-91W. No way I’m taking my Tag with me. Don’t take jewellery if you can help it, possibly get fake jewellery.
-photocopy of wedding certificate, especially if you are part of an intercultural couple. Some countries have restrictions on unmarried couples staying together. I was once refused accommodation in a hostel as it was assumed Oishee was a sex worker.

-a decent versatile multitool like a Gerber Crucial or even just a Gerber Dime. Something small and handy. Remove from carry on!

-packing cubes, basically small zip up rectangular bags with mesh that you put in your bigger bag. They are thin and weigh next to nothing, they allow you to compartmentalise your stuff easily and conveniently. Another way is drawstring bags.

Other tips:

I travel with 3 shirts and 2 pairs of pants. Avoid cotton like the plague as it takes a long time to dry. Take an excess of underwear and socks. I don’t bother with aqium or other hand cleaning things as they have questionable efficacy. Eat local, go to busy places and eat fresh food. Tourist places are the worst to eat at. Eat what and where locals eat.

Be polite to touts, always. It is always good to make friends with other travelers on the road, they are a good source of information and can be good to share travel costs.

Spread money across your stuff (and your companion if you have one), place small amounts of local currency and usd in various places in your bag and person.

Use the internet for information before the guidebook, it will usually be better. That said, we usually buy the .pdf of the guide regardless.

I like a good, large travel wallet where I keep passports, money and itineraries. I’ll always keep this in my day pack. Keep electronics and valuables in a day pack and on your person.

Learn local customs, especially taboos. Learn the word for ‘thank you’ first.

Get a local sim with data if you can, communicate with friends and travel companions using whatsapp.

Let people you know know your itinerary. Keep colour photocopies of your passport in various places in your possessions, get the number for the local embassy.

Don’t try to pose as a local, instead dress nondescript and comfortably. I’m never going to pass as not white, and sometimes ‘dressing up’ makes you stand out more.

If you get a bad feeling about something, don’t ignore it. I may have annoyed my wife a few times with my paranoia but we have travelled a lot and never been robbed or seriously scammed once and I attribute this to both luck and the fact I am paranoid. Be paranoid but not rude. Don’t listen to headphones when walking the street.

Don’t ride motorcycles and avoid minibuses where it is possible to take other transport. Both are death traps. I’ve seen far too many bodies laid out by the side of the road to trust either.

Smile at people.

Travel Tips

A few Nerd things.

How do you deal with something you love having an undercurrent of awful?

Junot Diaz gets to part of the core of it:

‘He read The Lord of the Rings for what I’m estimating the millionth time, one of his greatest loves and comforts since he’d first discovered it, back when he was nine and lost and lonely and his favourite librarian had said, Here try this, and with one suggestion changed his life. Got through almost the whole trilogy, but then the line “and out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls” and he had to stop, his head and his heart hurting too much.’ (The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao)

The racism which pervades Western culture is by no means absent from its cultural products. The (now largely imagined) cultural distinction of nerddom forms no barrier to that kind of thing. So you see the Hobbit with the inclusion of a few black extras making the whole thing all the more white in the contrast. You see Game of Thrones’ white saviours (written about best by Aamer Rahman) and pointless, glaring misogyny. Then you have GamerGate.

GamerGate’s irony is that it has happened before. As Arthur Chu points out, the same thing happened in comics a decade ago. The pandering to an imagined white dudebro majority fell flat, and split fans of the genre.

What is disturbing about this is that there are so many more places where the equivalent movement seems so unlikely to occur. Gaming is, whether GGers like it or not, a hobby with a diverse membership, and in my experience always has been.

The same cannot really be said for my experience of, say, tabletop wargaming. Indeed miniature wargaming has to be the most homogeneously awful hobby community I have ever come across. Cops? Racists? Weirdos? Whatever brand of horrible you seek, you’ll find. I spent some time on an Australian wargaming forum that shall not be named and while I made a few friends, my experience was that the place was far more far right than even the darkest dens on, say, NeoGaf.

It seems that that kind of culture does not retreat. GG seems to have been a product not of a cultural shift within games companies, but rather old versus new. The diversity of the gaming fan base was denied a presence, and so companies emerged catering to that. This is why there is such an indignant response for those whose control over the industry has been circumvented.

I hate to imagine what a similar trend would look like in wargaming. So I wonder where I stand in relation to it all. I know my own nerd crew are generally cool, so maybe the solution is an imitation of the above process, albeit on a smaller scale. I don’t know how you change Warhammer from where it is at now though.

I realise that this isn’t of interest to most, and doesn’t really have a conclusion, because it is a dilemma that remains unresolved.

A few Nerd things.

The Poetry of Wislawa Szymborska

I occasionally read poetry, not as a habit, but every now and again I’ll pick some up. I find it a very calming exercise, and I’ll often go back to the same poems at different moments, for different effect.

I read Sufi poetry (Martin Lings ‘Sufi Poems in Arabic’ in particular) and a lot from the First World War (I wrote a blog about one such poem here) but one poet I keep returning is Wislawa Szymborska.

A line from her poem ‘Reality Demands‘ adorns the first page of my honours thesis:

Embedded image permalink

This poem, and another, titled ‘the End and the Beginning’ are something of an obsession of mine. I find myself forever returning, rereading and reinterpreting the message and meaning of her words

The ironic representation of violence in ‘Reality Demands’ echoed the tone and focus of my honours thesis (which was about returned soldiers). The lines which follow the above quote:

‘What moral flows from this? Probably none.
Only that blood flows, drying quickly,
and, as always, a few rivers, a few clouds.’

get at the peculiarity and perplexity of violence’s legacies.

Similarly in ‘the End and the Beginning’:

‘Those who knew
What this was all about
Must make way for those
Who know little.
And less than that.
And at last nothing less
Than nothing.

Someone’s got to lie there
In the grass that covers up
The causes and effects
With a cornstalk in his teeth
Gawking at clouds.’

These words accompany my writing of history; the graverobbing of past crimes, pulling up grizzly remains, placing them on display. Her poetry shifts from ambivalence to sincerity to mockery in my mind, and it mirrors my own ambivalence; my own self conscious sincerity or sardonic response to the task before me.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this.

Maybe I’m making a point about the importance of reading poetry for the writing of history.

Maybe I’m merely asking questions of myself, over and over again, and just writing them down for once.

Maybe I just want you to read her, and tell me what it all means.

Funnily enough this was a response to the question ‘why is history important’. I guess my answer to that for the time being is a non-sequitur: poetry is important.

Her poetry could not exist without history, and I don’t think my writing would be the same without her poetry. Part of the reason that this post is itself so incoherent is that the only real clarity lays in reading the poems themselves, and that clarity is none at all. So my reflections are worth less than the quotes within.

So maybe don’t read this (too late) and instead read these poems, think on them and maybe tell me what you got from them.

The Poetry of Wislawa Szymborska