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Ramadan at work July 15, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion.
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Islam2So, I work for Muslims.

Some people I know would wonder how I could do so (especially since I wrote this), if they were all Islamophobic and such, but it does not bother me.  I really don’t mind working for this Muslim family any more than working for Christians, Jews, or Hindus would bother me.  They are just people, who are from Syria, and who practice Islam.  From my perspective, it’s not much different than working for people, from Italy, who practice Christianity.  They are both silly religions with checkered pasts.

In the several months I have worked there, only once or twice has the issue of religion come up, and never in a proselytizing way.  They are fairly non-political (they have not expressed any strong opinions about what is going on in Syria right now, except to say that America should not be involved, and rarely talk about it at all as far as I know), they seem to support the concept of the separation of religion and government (their comments about groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood seems to indicate that religion should be separate from political and business decisions), and their two sons seem just as American-acculturated as any kids in the neighborhood.  They are not unlike most America citizens; they came here, love it here, and they have a cultural background they brought with them.  It just happens that theirs is a minority culture and religious perspective in America.

Hell, so is mine.

They are relatively observant Muslims.  They pray at least a couple time a day, that I see, in the back office (Muslims are supposed to pray five times a day, according to one of the five pillars of Islam).  They can be heard singing Arabic songs when in a good mood, they sometimes sit and read from the Koran when business is slower, and, well, recently it has become more obvious.

Ramadan feast

Ramadan feast

You see, recently Ramadan started and this has given me a peek into the reality that there is some cultural distance between us which was not as obvious before, but that distance has given me some perspective.  Watching them get more irritable as the day goes on (due to being hungry, thirsty, etc as they fast during daylight hours, which is longer during the summer) and watching the ritual of the sundown feast shows me, up close, how much these people are like everyone else I know from my mostly Christian family background.  Because while there is distance, culturally, between us, this distance is no so far as to make them alien.  In fact, they are so much like the Catholics on my father’s side of my family (many of whom dislike Islam greatly, for political reasons) in that the way they approach ritual and holy times is automatic and interwoven into their routine.

Have you even talked to a (moderately) practicing Catholic about why they do their daily or periodic rituals? Most of the Catholics I know don’t believe all the doctrines.  Hell, they likely don’t even know what most of the doctrine is, as I have had to explain concepts such as the Nicene Creed and other concepts to them, especially in historical context.  Ask a Catholic about the Council of Nicaea some time, and observe the blank stare you will probably get in return.  But when it comes to ritual, they’ve got it down.  There is a sort of sacred time and space and a set of behavior which provides order, meaning, and ‘right’ feelings at certain times.  When there is a baby, there is a baptism.  When they enter a church, they become serious and reverent where before they seem to not care about such reverence.  There is a seeming difference between everyday life and Catholic life, as observed from the outside.

What I have been observing recently is much the same at work.  Ramadan seems to be a sacred time, perhaps somewhat like how Lent is for Catholics, and it seemingly pulls them into a different space of awareness, because they have to fast during daylight which is a constant reminder.  I have not asked them much about it, mostly because they have been a little irritable (being hungry and all) but I suspect that following Ramadan for them is as natural as celebrating Christmas, baptizing one’s child, etc is for Christians.  I suspect that they don’t really think about why they do it, just like many Christians.  It’s just what you do, if you’re  Muslim.

There are other employees there who are Muslims as well.  When sundown comes, they eat with the family for the evening meal.  I have not been invited to join them.  Granted, I am not really hungry because I ate already, not being a practicing Muslim and all,  but I find it interesting that it does not even seem relevant to them.  They don’t even seem aware that this is happening.  As one of the few non-Muslims who works there, I am different.  I am an outsider.  I am kafir.  I don’t feel ostracized or discriminated against (that is, I don’t really care) but it highlights the role of cultural tradition and ritual to simultaneously pull together the in-group and to otherize the out-group.

Religion is not all bad.  However, one of its strengths, creating cultural bonds, has a complimentary function of clarifying cultural lines of division.  Religion fosters tribalism.  Thus, it’s only a strength to bring communities together for those in the community.

This is generally true, for all sorts of cultural traditions, rituals, or ideas.  Monogamy creates bonds within a coupling that others cannot be a part of, by definition.  There are levels of intimacy in all relationships, even in polyamory, which divide those inside and those outside the tribe, family, etc.  Pride of one’s national heritage, as in “I’m proud to be an American” serve the same function.  They pull together a group, but alienates at the same time.

Kirk: “Spock, you want to know something? Everybody’s Human.” Spock: “I find that remark… insulting.”

Kirk: “Spock, you want to know something? Everybody’s Human.”
Spock: “I find that remark… insulting.”

It’s quite unavoidable.  You can try to universalize the message, but this is only a temporary fix.  Define the in-group as humanity and if/when we make contact with alien sentient life, the other is them (I’ve been watching Babylon 5 again…).  It’s a tough knot to untie, and I am not sure there is a solution.  Because having groups of people who vary in importance to us, hierarchical or not, is a logistical and practical solution to only having so much time and energy to spend.  It’s nice to have people close to you, intimate with you, and who you can call family.  But the other side of this is the necessary alienation of others, especially those with whom we share few values.  Liberals, conservative; Democrats, Republicans; Capitalists, Socialists, Communists, Anarchists, etc.  There are people who are, in some way, ‘other’ to you.  Religion, tradition, ritual, and nationalism all use this aspect of human behavior to its simultaneous advantage and disadvantage.

And yes, it will be an improvement if and when humanity outgrows religion, nationalism, etc.  But I doubt that will solve the fundamental problem.  Personally, I’m not sure there is a solution.  I’m not writing this to say we should try to give up the concept of culture, and to transcend culture, because that would just create a new culture.  I’m writing this because we should all be aware of this phenomenon.  And those others who will not understand it are just stupid and evil, or something.  But we, the enlightened, will understand it.  Or something.

As for my employers and this Ramadan thing, I will say that the evening feast usually looks quite delicious.  Perhaps they are trying to convert me with the promise of delicious food.  It’s not working, alas.  Well, if the promise of 72 virgins (or raisins, whatever) won’t do it, food won’t do it, then I guess they are just going to have to verify their claims rationally and empirically.  Yeah, somehow philosophy wins over food and sex for me.  Sorry, religion.

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Atheist Communities and ‘religious’ behavior June 6, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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Over the weekend I had a conversation with some friends about what the atheist community might need to do in order to create an environment that would replace that of the world of religion.  The community, social activities, and even the rituals were mentioned, and it is clear that this is no easy question.  But what I hope is commonly accepted by the atheist community is that we are not replacing religion; we don’t want to emulate the cultural institution in all ways.  We are, I hope, trying to create activities and institutions to improve upon our culture, society, and ultimately the world.  We are not going to build atheist churches, but we are going to build a better world based upon skeptical and rational thinking, evidence, and science.

But how?

First, I would like to make a distinction about what makes up religion.  It is often said that if we are to get rid of religion (which is not the goal of most atheists, I don’t think), we would have to replace what religion does for people socially and so forth.  But what I think is missed here is that the social gathering, community, common purpose that happens when religious communities are done well (As opposed to in-group feeling churches of intolerance, judgmental propensities, and in-fighting, which also is relatively common) are not unique nor original to religion.  Just like how religion usurps the idea of morality as their own, religions often usurp the idea of community as their own idea.  We are not trying to take away people’s communities, we are trying to install reality into them.  There is no need to take away their group upon educating people, we just need to give them new visions of what their communities can be like.  Reality is a good start.

Humans naturally group into communities.  And while I want to see people of different views and opinions talking to each other more, it is clear that we seek out like-minds for most of our socializing.  And so obviously when people come up with strange opinions about the nature of reality, they will seek out others who will accept those views and create churches, temples, and so forth.  But the social grouping came first.  What I take from this is that the atheist community does not have to worry that much about creating alternative communities for people who leave their faith, as that will happen naturally.

However, I think that we, as the atheist community, will need to think about how we organize those communities when we do create them.  We do have to remember that there will be people who are scared, timid, and intimidated upon entering our community for the first time by those who are here and boisterous.  We will have to keep in mind that there are people with very strong opinions and loud voices who will annoy other people.  We have to keep in mind that there are genuine conflicts about definitions, tactics, and goals of the atheist community.  And if we are to try to create umbrella groups (such as UnitedCOR), we have to keep those things in mind.  But since I am not in a position of leadership of such an organization, I will not dwell on the details of how to do so.  Mostly because I really don’t know.

All I want to emphasize is that what we call  “religion” has aspects of it that are good.  Most of these things are natural behaviors of humans whether those humans believe in silly theological positions or not.  But much of what is natural in human groups are things we can leave behind, ideally.  If we are going to, in the long-term, replace the institutions of “religion” with activities that don’t include gods, we will have to be prepared for the reality that things such as tribalism (like what happens between liberals and conservatives) will exist.  In fact, with the arguments such as the one between gnu atheism and accommodationism, it is clear that this already exists.   Because while atheism per se cannot be a religion, the communities that atheists can create will start to emulate, in many ways, the activities of religious groups.  But the mistake that so many commentators make, in trying to argue that this implies that atheism is a religion, is that they forget that the group behaviors that they think of as “religious” are actually as secular as anything gets; they exist independent of religion. So the question is not whether atheism is a religion, but rather whether atheists will create groups like religious people, or whether they will improve upon the idea.

We need to be prepared, as atheists creating communities, that we are potentially subject to the same mistakes that we see in religious communities.  And while we are unlikely to create a system which allows continual abuse (of children or anyone else)  by our leaders, we are certainly capable of sectarian thinking and avoiding continual communication with people of differing opinions.  We must deal with this now, not later.  It’s not as important that we all agree on the definitions, tactics and goals of others (although it might be nice, ideally, to do so) so long as we are trying to comprehend those alternative definitions, tactics, and goals in order to work together when we need to, and set aside those debates for more appropriate times and places.

But we need to keep the lines of communication open, the enemization (rather than demonization) of those we disagree with to a realistic and appropriate minimum, and keep re-building our own views when they are presented with reasonable challenges.  It’s not about being correct, it’s about staying correct.