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Quadruple Cultural Comparison

August 17th, 2012 No comments

In my entry on the California trip, I was so focused on just documenting the various events that I forgot to write about the most interesting element. I’ve got a few cultural observations to share, but I’ll start with a quick “update” on the visa situation.

After still getting no word by e-mail yesterday evening (Friday morning in Japan) I called my branch office and spoke with the guy who is normally in charge of keeping teachers’ visas up-to-date. But for whatever reason, it’s not him but the branch manager himself who’s handling my case, and he’s on vacation all week (yes, it was very considerate of him to let me know). He’ll be back on Monday and will get in touch with me then. But I was told something like, “We’re just waiting on the processing of your application now, but getting the visa will be easier when you’re back here in Japan,” which totally confused me because of course I’d thought the entire problem was that I couldn’t get the visa from inside the country. But this guy clearly wasn’t too familiar with my case and just told me to wait until Monday. Before I let him go, I just asked him very directly if I’m in any danger of losing my contract, as this is the fear weighing most heavily on my mind. He said, “No, we’re keeping that here” which I thought meant “here in Chiba” but later thought maybe he meant the physical document of my contract. But either way, he was very cordial and nonchalant the whole time, giving off the impression that everything is fine and there’s nothing to worry about, the total opposite of the branch manager who’s always made the situation sound very urgent and dire. So all in all, while I still won’t know anything until Monday at the earliest, the phone call helped put my mind at ease a little until then.

Now, as for California, the view I had through the Japan-tinted lenses was extra-tinted by my East Coast lenses as well as the Germany-lenses. When I visited Santa Barbara last year after three years in Germany, it struck me how in many ways East Coast / West Coast culture is more different and distinct than the difference between German and American culture overall. German culture overall is very similar to American culture, what with the meat and the beer and sports and politics, but the whole busy, hard-working, rude and direct demeanor of Germans in general corresponds much more closely to East Coast culture than the laid-back, relaxed, casual friendliness of the West Coast.

When it comes to Japan, it’s very clear that the subtle differences between East and West coast culture are extremely minor by comparison with the gaping cultural gap between East and West hemisphere. That said, I found it interesting how some of the cultural contrasts I drew between Japan and New York don’t apply to California, and how some of the contrasts between Japan and California wouldn’t apply to New York. For instance, while there’s a gaping difference in the demeanor of shop clerks in Japan and those in New York/New Jersey, it’s not so striking in California where they’re generally much friendlier. They may not be as rigid and professional as Japanese clerks, but they’re very polite and serve you with a smile, as opposed to East Coast clerks who seem to hate you for making them have to do ten seconds of work.

On the other hand, the laid back and relaxed attitude of the West Coast stands in extremely stark contrast to Japan, whereas the East Coast is a bit more similar. For one thing, Japanese drivers and New York/New Jersey drivers have got to be among the most aggressive in the world, as opposed to Californians who are perhaps the least aggressive (and annoyingly so). And while I’m sure this is true for many if not most East coast workers as well, everyone I had a chat with in California had the same basic attitude about work—that it’s just something you’ve gotta do to get money to afford having fun—as opposed to the Japanese mentality where work is the be-all-and-end-all and fun is just a luxury you can have from time to time, as long as it’s scheduled well in advance.

Then there’s just the basic sound of the way people talk. In southern California they speak very slowly and lazily and with a ton of slang. In New York they tend to speak more quickly and aggressively and with a ton of slang. In Japan they speak quickly but non-aggressively, and always adjust to the appropriate level of slang for all situations, which almost never includes adults talking to one another in a public setting. Germans tend to speak quickly and aggressively like New Yorkers, but with surprisingly little slang.

Other minor tid-bits: surfing is a way of life for many Californians and Japanese, whereas it’s pretty rare on the East Coast and almost unheard of in Germany. Baseball is hugely popular all across America and in Japan but Germans couldn’t care less, while soccer is of paramount importance to Germans and Japanese but not at all to Americans.

Finally, the most interesting contrast between all the cultures is probably religion. Both East and West Coasters are a part of America and therefore more religious in general than Germans and Japanese who are mostly very secular, and yet both East and West Coasters are far more socially liberal than Germans and Japanese, who themselves are actually more socially liberal than Bible-belt America. Both Germany and Japan are considered to be more “conservative” cultures, but their brand of “conservatism” doesn’t even come close to the radical right-wing religious extremism of the conservatism you see in parts of America. That’s unique to that sub-culture, and unfortunately for everyone they don’t have the slightest inkling of just how much of tiny minority they are in global terms because they live in a bubble in which they’re the vast majority, and never spare a thought for the world outside “Amurrica”.

In any case, I’ll end this before it starts getting too political. I just wanted to record some of these thoughts. Maybe I’ll come back to this later and revise some of my opinions, but these are just my general impressions of the different cultures I’m familiar with now. I’ll undoubtedly see things a bit differently and a bit more clearly as I become more familiar with the cultures I know, and more familiar with cultures yet to be experienced.

The Fictional Obama

February 11th, 2012 No comments

Illustration by Gerald Scarfe

Listening to these Republican candidates talk about Obama, I often wish we actually had the kind of president they’re attacking. The paint him as some kind of progressive lion, zealously going after the super-rich on behalf of the working class, steadfastly holding to an ideology of civil liberties even if it compromises America’s safety, and systematically dismantling our empire abroad, all the while apologizing to the world for our previous transgressions. I don’t know who this person is that they keep railing against, but it’s not the Obama I know.

The fact is that the Republicans are banking on the majority of their base having a completely distorted view of the president thanks to conservative news sources like Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, etc. These media outlets have made a calculated decision to create their own narrative about who Obama is and what he wants to do, to emphasize every tiny little thing that supports that narrative and de-emphasize, ignore, or even outright lie about anything that doesn’t.

The Obama you see on Fox News is not a real person but actually a fictional character based on the stereotype of liberals that conservatives have in their minds. He wants to raise taxes, impose strict regulations on business, cut defense, eliminate gun rights, encourage more abortions and gay marriages, read terrorists their rights, and purge all religion from the public sphere. When the Republican presidential candidates talk to their debate audiences and the crowds at their campaign rallies about Obama, they’re talking about this guy, a radically liberal president who—unfortunately for them—doesn’t actually exist.

The real Obama hasn’t raised taxes. He’s far too timid to take the political risk. He’s cut taxes across the board and agreed to extend the Bush tax-cuts for two years. He says he’ll fight to let them expire next time, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

As for the idea that he’s imposing crippling regulations on businesses, that is simply absurd. Barack Obama is the Goldman Sachs president. His entire financial team and his last two chiefs of staff have been Wall Street insiders, and according to internal memos it would appear that they dictate his every move in that area. The “historic financial reform” legislation that passed last year is widely acknowledged by bankers to be a complete joke. Not one of the people who caused the financial crisis of 2008 has been prosecuted for committing fraud, and Wall Street continues to thrive thanks to taxpayer bailouts (which Obama supported) while the rest of the country struggles.

I hear over and over again that Obama has drastically cut defense spending. Simply not true. Defense spending has increased every year since Obama took office, it’s just that the rate of increase has gone slightly down thanks to the cutting of a few strategically unnecessary projects like stealth-fighters designed to fight the Cold War. Some might say that it’s merely stretching the truth to refer to a slower rate of increase as a “cut”, but I call it lying.

And as for the whole general idea that Obama is weak on defense, consider his doubling-down in Afghanistan and the recent foray into Libya. He withdrew troops from Iraq but only because he was forced to under a treaty signed by the Bush administration which he tried and failed to renegotiate.

On gun rights, Obama has not lifted a finger to do anything about it, other than quietly write an op-ed on the issue after the Gabby Giffords shooting, in which he did not endorse a single reform that didn’t enjoy at least a 60% approval in polls. And afterwards he did absolutely nothing to attempt to initiate those reforms.

On social issues, one can point to the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and pretend that Obama is the “fierce advocate” of gay rights that he claimed to be, but he dragged his feet on that issue for quite some time and he still refuses to publicly come out in support of gay marriage. And on abortion, what has Obama done? Nothing. He won’t even touch that issue with a ten-foot pole, so afraid is he of the potential criticism. But he will make it harder for young women to obtain birth control.

When it comes to the idea that Obama would rather read terrorists their rights than keep America safe, this is where the distance between the real Obama and the fictional Obama is at its widest. Not only has Obama continued the civil liberties abuses that began under the Bush administration, but he’s actually expanded them, to the point where now it’s written into the law that the president has the power to throw American citizens into prison without a trial purely on suspicion of ties to terrorism. He appeared to make a genuine effort to close down Guantanamo as soon as he took office, but when that failed he never brought the issue up again, and the prison remains open and could conceivably remain so for generations. He doesn’t do waterboarding anymore but he hasn’t prosecuted anyone responsible for that war crime, all the while bringing the hammer down on whistleblowers like Bradley Manning who dared to make the abuses of our military public. Finally, if you really want to know whether or not Obama is soft on terror, you can ask Osama bin Laden.

And lastly, there’s the matter of religion. Newt Gingrich told a crowd of supporters that as soon as he takes office, he’ll repeal every single anti-religious act passed by the Obama administration. That shouldn’t take long, as no such acts have been passed by the real Obama. The fictional Obama is the one carrying out this “war on religion” we keep hearing about. After all, that guy is secretly Muslim and born in Kenya, and obviously on a crusade to undermine America’s Christian moral foundation.

Running against a fictional character may work for the Republican candidates in the primary, but it’s going to blow up in their faces if they try that in the general election, which is exactly what Obama is counting on. If Mitt Romney accuses Obama in a debate of raising taxes, Obama will be poised and ready with the facts to prove that he has not. The same goes for the accusation that he’s cut defense, gone after gun rights, and so on. The major political advantage Obama has garnered for himself by going against his liberal base time and again on nearly every single issue is that the Republicans can’t make a fact-based attack on him for doing any of the things that liberal presidents are normally criticized for doing. The best they can do is say that he talked about doing such things in the 2008 campaign.

If they’re forced to run against the real Obama, there are plenty of things to criticize him for, but they are guilty of those same things themselves. Romney could expose every last way in which Obama has been a puppet of Wall Street, but he knows quite well that he’s running to be the next puppet of the very same interests.

But the truly funny thing is that aside from his ties to the financial industry, most conservatives would like the real Obama if they knew who he was. If you just changed the D in front of his name to an R and read off a list of the actions he’s taken since his term began, they’d understand him to be a moderate who is slightly left-of-center on some issues but right-of-center on most.

The real Obama governs like a moderate Republican of former days, before the party drifted off to its right-wing fringe. The real Obama would win a national election against any of these clowns the Republicans have put forward in this primary, and they know it. That’s why they have no choice but to run against a fictional character instead, and it’s why they’re going to lose the general election when the curtain is pulled back and independent voters get a good look at who Obama actually is.

Bring on the Rapture!

May 20th, 2011 No comments

According to televangelist and radio-host Harold Camping, the rapture will take place tomorrow, the 21st of May 2011 at 6 p.m. Eastern time. I may be a stubbornly skeptical secular humanist, but I really hope he’s right.

Painted by Michelangelo for this blog post.

If all of the fundamentalist Christians are suddenly whisked away to Heaven tomorrow, that’ll free up the rest of us to finally get serious about some things we really need to get serious about but which the religious right has been obstructing us from tackling for a long time. Granted only the true believers will be raptured up—so all of the congressional Republicans will still be around—but a great deal of their constituents will be gone. They’ll have to face reality and stop legislating Christian morality, as not only would it be politically pointless to pander to a group no longer dwelling on Earth but the Salvation Game will be over and the chance to earn brownie-points with The Man Upstairs will have officially passed.

So we can stop with all the silly anti-abortion legislation and get to work on protecting the environment. Assuming Armageddon doesn’t follow shortly thereafter, those of us remaining on Planet Earth will now know with certainty that this planet is all we’ve got so we’d better take care of it. And if Armageddon is coming, I can just imagine all those children born due to abortion-restrictions looking at the legislators who passed them and saying, “Gee, thanks a lot.”

One can assume that if the rapture does take place it will only have a really strong impact in the United States, as the Far East and Muslim World don’t have quite as many devout Christians in key positions within their societies. A few Europeans may vanish too, but only a very small amount because while Europeans may hold steadfast to their Christian traditions—including baptism, confirmation, and closing everything down on Sundays—most of them don’t really take that stuff seriously.

I would like to see what happens in Uganda, where a strong faction within the government (prompted by American religious conservatives, of course) has been pushing to enact legislation that would make homosexuality punishable by death. If the rapture happens they’ll have to acknowledge that it really doesn’t matter anymore—the doors to Heaven will be closed and the straight people left behind will be just as damned as the gays.

We might as well let them get married—if it weren’t for the fact that Holy Matrimony will no longer have any meaning either.

The best result of the rapture will undoubtedly be peace in the Middle East. Once God lets the cat out of the bag that he actually does exist and that the Christians had it right all along, there will no longer be much reason for the Muslims to fight the Jews, will there? They can at long last sit down together, have a few beers, grill up a few pork sausages, and laugh about all those silly rules they’ve spent their whole lives following.

But I must confess that what I’m most looking forward to are the post-rapture interviews with all the high-profile Christians who didn’t make the list. I can’t wait to see Pat Robertson try to explain his continuing presence on this plane of existence. He’ll probably try to chalk it up to the fact that he didn’t hate the gays enough.

Of course no post-rapture interview will be quite as deliciously ironic as those given by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, authors of the Left Behind series.

But when I come to think of it, I don’t think there are any high-profile Christians who are holy enough to make the cut. In all likelihood, if God were to carry out the rapture tomorrow there will just be a few scattered disappearances of old ladies throughout the Midwest, nobody really noticing except for their astonished families.

Armageddon will continue as scheduled, brought about purely by humans with no help from God—as was the plan all along.

Incomprehensible Horror

February 9th, 2011 No comments

I can’t take it anymore. Every time I hear one of these stories it lodges itself in my brain and refuses to let go. Whenever my mind isn’t otherwise occupied it goes straight to the image of the horrific scene as though searching in vain for some kind of new perspective that will alleviate the sick feeling it gives me for reasons I don’t quite understand. What’s it to me anyway? Why does the story of a horrible thing happening to a girl on the other side of the world—a girl I’ve never met and know nothing about—affect me so much? Is there something wrong me? Am I insane, or is the culture that allows such things to happen insane?

It must be insane. How else to describe a culture that puts rape victims to torture? This is something I just don’t understand. I can’t wrap my head around it. I just can’t comprehend how any culture, any human being can tolerate this, let alone think it’s right.

Before going any further I just want to note that this is not a typical blog entry for me. I’m writing this purely out of psychological necessity, to get the thoughts and feelings I’ve been wrestling with for the past two days out of my head and into words, just as I did when writing about Aisha late last year. My only purpose in writing this is to put these feelings into words and post them online so they’re not spinning around in my mind alone. Just knowing that a handful of others might read this will serve greatly to lighten the load.

This past Sunday I stopped by the office of the language school I work for to use the internet there because it’s currently down where I live. I was scanning the headlines at the Huffington Post and one near the bottom caught my eye. It said “Bangladeshi Girl Lashed To Death After Being Raped By Cousin”.

I immediately closed the web browser and left the office, not wanting to hear any of the details, hoping that I could just shut it out of my mind and go about the rest of my day without thinking about it, but the damage was done. For reasons I’ll get to in a moment, this kind of thing disturbs me more deeply than any other thing that happens in the world. From that point on, whenever my mind was not occupied with something else it would immediately go back to that headline, wondering about that girl and the circumstances surrounding her death. What was her name? Who gave her that terrible sentence? Is there any chance whatsoever that he and the man who raped her will ever be put to justice?

Yesterday I gave up trying not to think about it and searched for the story when I was back at the office. It was a link to an article from a newspaper called The Daily Star, and unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for me) it gave very few details about the incident itself.

The girl’s name was Hena, and she was 14 years old.  After being raped by a 40-year-old relative of hers named Mahbub there was a “fatwa” issued against her at a village arbitration. The local authorities sentenced her to 100 lashes, and she fell unconscious after 80. She was rushed to the hospital but succumbed to her injuries and she died.

Sickening.

The article focused mostly on an order issued by the High Court to the local authorities to explain why they didn’t protect her. Apparently such kinds of “extrajudicial punishment” are illegal in Bangladesh. Confused, I looked up Bangladesh on Wikipedia and was surprised to find that it’s actually a fairly secular, modernized society. This isn’t Somalia or Afghanistan—this kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen there. Yet somehow, some villages still insist on imposing the most brutal interpretation of Shariah law on women.

Hopefully these local officials and the rapist himself will be put to some kind of justice, but no matter what punishment they receive it won’t be nearly harsh enough in my mind. They should all be raped and lashed to death themselves—and even then they would still not have experienced the kind of unimaginable pain and horror that only a young girl would.

This profoundly disturbs me on two levels, and the first is just the idea of the incident itself. Imagining what must have been going through Hena’s mind as she underwent eighty consecutive lashes. Eighty. It’s a wonder and a tragedy that she remained conscious for that long. As I wrote in my Aisha post, whenever I hear about things like this I always try to find an “at least” in the situation. When terrible tragedies befall adults I can think “at least they were old enough to endure it” but there’s usually no “at least” when it comes to children. The only “at least” in this situation is the fact that Hena was not actually sentenced to death (this was supposedly an unintended consequence of the sentence) so she presumably did not have to endure the unspeakable terror of the certainty of impending death. But what else was in her mind at the time? Did she feel that what was happening to her was wrong, or was she also so imbued in the culture of fundamentalist Islam that she actually felt shame—that she deserved this?

That’s the other, deeper level this disturbs me on, and it’s one of the main reasons that stories of so-called “honor killings” upset me more than anything else in the world. I get deeply upset whenever I hear about bad things happening to young girls, probably because growing up I was the kind of boy who was far more comfortable in the company of girls. With only one exception, every best friend I ever had before college was a girl and I remain deeply fond of young girls to this day. I want them all to be safe and happy and loved, and I can’t understand anyone who doesn’t share those feelings. I can understand why others might not feel the same level of compassion towards them as I do, but it just makes no sense at all to me how some people in some cultures can feel no compassion at all.

Isn’t compassion a basic element of human nature? Unless someone suffers from the kind of mental illness that prevents them from experiencing empathy, doesn’t everyone feel a sense of pain when confronted with the pain of others? When we see a suffering child, doesn’t every mentally healthy human being suffer a little at the sight?

So unless these local officials are all sociopaths, I just don’t understand how after hearing about this poor girl getting raped by her 40-year-old cousin they would decide that the girl must be punished. Why don’t their hearts go out to her the same way that mine and those of most other people on the planet do? How twisted does one’s sense of morality have to be to punish the victim, and to order a punishment as unbelievably brutal as 100 lashes?

Seriously—if anyone can offer any insight into the mind-set of these people I’d really like to hear it. Perhaps if I understood it better I’d have an easier time coping with it.

Do they really think it’s the girl’s fault? Do they think that she deliberately tempted her cousin out of some evil desire to be raped by him? Was the 40-year-old cousin just so overwhelmed by the desire she instilled in him that he couldn’t possibly have resisted his urge? If that’s really the case, then these kinds of Muslims must think that all men are incredibly weak and helpless. What about the rest of us who somehow, some way, actually do manage to resist our desires when they are directed towards someone they shouldn’t be? Are we all super-human?

What kind of monster looks at a rape victim and decides that justice can only be served by putting that victim to torture? What kind of twisted creature looks at the rapist and says, “I’m so sorry you had to endure that. She should never have tempted you into taking an action that could taint your soul that way. Don’t worry, we’ll make her suffer until your honor is restored.”

The answer may be clear—the only kind of monster who could do such a thing is one convinced of the infallibility of his religion—but that almost feels too simple. Most religious people, including Muslims, do not think that justice is served by punishing the victim and most feel the same kind of moral outrage I do. But there’s very little doubt that no atheist would draw such a backwards ethical conclusion. Divorced from religious doctrine, an action is usually considered moral insofar as it increases happiness and decreases suffering, and an action is immoral insofar as it causes suffering. The rapist is clearly, obviously the morally condemnable party. It’s so obvious that I can hardly believe I’m spelling it out like this, but apparently there are people in the world (far too many people) who don’t think that way. They abandon all semblance of basic rationality in favor of whatever twisted moral code they were indoctrinated with by their parents or religious leaders.

And in the end, I suppose that’s what troubles me most of all. The fact that natural human compassion can be so easily overridden by religious conviction, and the fact that it is just so horribly common. Did those officials—or any other judges who pass such sentences throughout the Muslim word—feel any sympathy for the girl whatsoever, or were their minds so twisted by religious fervor that they really only looked at her as a wicked sinner deserving of punishment? Did the man who cracked the whip against her back eighty consecutive times even wince as she cried out in pain? Did the people watching feel any compassion at all, or were they so convinced of the rightness of their beliefs that it all seemed entirely appropriate to them?

This kind of thing has got to stop, but I don’t know how to stop it. It’s been going on for centuries and it’s spread throughout the world. There is no clear solution. And in the past I might have even believed that it’s not our place to fix it. After all, it’s not our culture so what right do we have to interfere?

But moral relativism is bullshit in these cases. Certain aspects of certain cultures are just plain wrong, and while we may not share a common nationality or ethnicity, we are all human beings and we have a right to try and change the way our brothers and sisters look at things when it’s clear that they’re looking at them in a severely distorted way that causes unspeakable suffering.

For the longest time I believed that it really wasn’t my place to try and do anything about this. I’m not Muslim. I’m not even female. But if I’m this strongly affected by this issue then perhaps it is my place to try and get involved.

I like to think of humanity as one great collective consciousness, a macrocosm of an individual human mind. Some individuals represent humanity’s conscience with regard to certain issues. Just as one individual might struggle with the morality of eating meat, vegetarians and vegans represent the guilt of humanity as a whole with regard to our treatment of animals. And if my mind harbors some of humanity’s conscience with regard to the problem of honor killings, whatever the psychological reason may be, then perhaps it’s appropriate for me to act on that feeling.

On the other hand, I may actually be too sensitive to this stuff. After searching online for some organizations that fight to stop honor killings I quickly realized that I could never actually join one of them. I’d constantly receive newsletters with the same kind of horrifying headline that provoked this severely negative emotional response in me this week. I can’t just file these stories away in the corner of my mind and not let them affect me. I can’t be happy when I’m constantly thinking about murdered girls. To join one of these groups would be to doom myself to a state of near-permanent depression and despair.

At the very least, I can make donations from time to time. I just gave some money to the International Campaign Against Honor Killings. If anyone who reads this feels even half as strongly about this as I do, hopefully they’ll do the same, and this blog entry will have served a much greater purpose than just making me feel better.

If I could have, I would have gladly traded places with Hena or Aisha or any of the thousands of other girls who are put to death each year for things that are no fault of their own. But from where I am now, this is the best I can do. If writing about this issue inspires anyone to donate to ICAHK or any other anti-honor killing organization and if just one girl’s life is saved as a result, I’ll be able to rest a little easier.

Does Everything Happen for a Reason?

February 5th, 2011 No comments

predestination

It’s one of the oldest philosophical questions in the book, and it’s constantly staring us in the face whether we’re atheists or believers. Is everything that happens the result of a combination of blind chance and free will, or do events unfold according to some predetermined formula written in the laws of nature or in the mind of God? The answer would profoundly affect the way we live in this world, as it touches upon fundamental issues such as whether people are morally responsible for their actions and whether tragic circumstances are unavoidable or if there is a good reason for every bad thing that happens.

A recent piece on the concept karma at the Huffington Post got me thinking about this subject again, and because it’s been awhile since I’ve written a good philosophical musing I thought I’d delve more deeply into the issue. My hope is that I’ll offer some ideas to those who read this that they haven’t considered before, and that I’ll draw in some comments expressing ideas I’ve never thought about either.

As I see it, the idea of predestination can be either religious or scientific. Scientific predestination is a consequence of metaphysical materialism, or the belief that the universe consists solely of forces and particles that operate according to a rigid set of immutable laws. If this is true, then there is no such thing as a free agent because every movement of every atom in the cosmos follows a specific path along a chain of causes and effects from the beginning of time to infinity. You might think that you’re freely choosing to read these words, but in actuality you had no choice. Every neuron that is firing in your brain is a result of previous neural activity stretching all the way back to your birth. Your genetic makeup—itself a product of billions of years of evolution unfolding according to a strict set of chemical laws—combined with the experiences imprinted on your brain throughout your lifetime filled with events that could have only unfolded exactly as they did, all led you to this exact moment in which your eyes are scanning the words on the computer screen in front of you. You had no choice but to read this blog post, just as I had no choice but to write it.

Those with a religious worldview can’t escape this possibility either, whether their beliefs are more closely aligned with Eastern or Western philosophy. The Judeo-Christian religions posit a singular creator of everything, with a divine plan and the property of omniscience. If God is all-knowing it follows that God knows everything that is going to happen to every molecule in the universe from the beginning of time to the end, which brings us right back to strict determinism. The Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism often incorporate the concept of karma, the idea that the universe must always be in balance and that all events serve to maintain that balance. While there is a bit more room for free will in such a scheme (you are free to tilt the universe out of balance and can take as long as you want to tilt it back) there is still a strong element of predestination, particularly when it comes to the luck of your birth. The cards you are dealt at the beginning of your life are a result of how you’ve lived your previous lives.

This kind of soft determinism is actually what most Christians believe as well. Very few people, religious or otherwise, accept strong determinism because to do so would call so much of what we take for granted into question. We all judge other people for their actions, but such judgments become meaningless if we believe that people have no actual choice but to do the things they do. If the universe is set up in such a way that events can only occur exactly as God or the laws of nature have determined them, then the rapist can’t truly be held accountable for his crime because the rape was bound to happen—it was inevitable from the moment of the Big Bang, or from the instant the universe was created.

Unfortunately there is no logical way to disprove strict determinism. The best we can do is make arguments as to why such a scheme of things is improbable. Scientifically, we can base those arguments on the properties of nature’s most basic elements. In particle physics, the locations of things like electrons with respect to the nuclei of atoms can’t be measured with any certainty but can only be expressed in terms of probability, which opens the door for chance to play a major role in the unfolding events of the universe. Furthermore, quantum mechanics seems to indicate that particles behave differently depending on whether or not they are being observed—they exist as particles only when they are being observed and exist merely as waves of probability otherwise—which paves the way for the free will of conscious beings to serve as agents of causality. However, our knowledge of the subatomic world is still severely limited, and it is theoretically possible that with sufficient technology every movement of every particle could one day be predicted with 100% accuracy.

As for the Christian doctrine of pre-destination or the Eastern idea of karma, it is purely by intuition that we tend to accept the softer versions of these forms of determinism. If God created intelligent beings, a Christian could argue, it would be nonsensical of Him not to endow them with free will or their lives would have no value. He may know what each and every one of them is going to choose at every moment, but it is still they who make these choices (whether or not such a proposition is internally inconsistent is a question that has generated endless debate all on its own). But at least when it comes to karma, soft-determinism is practically a given. In a universe where everyone’s lot in life is a result of their decisions in previous lives, it stands to reason that those decisions were made freely. However, we still run into problems when we consider the bad things that happen to people through no fault of their own: if someone says “it was her karma to be raped” that implies that the rapist had no choice in the matter either.

I’d like to turn now from the question of whether everything happens for a reason to the question of whether we ought to believe that everything happens for a reason, and in doing so I will put scientific determinism to the side and focus only on religious interpretations. What separates science from religion is that all propositions are inherently assumed to be fallible. If we accept a strictly scientific worldview we don’t really have to wrestle with the question of free will and determinism, as we must simply accept that our current technology is insufficient to perform the kinds of experiments that answering this question would require. We could conceivably know the answer in the future, but for now the best we can do is assume we are free agents while acknowledging the possibility that we aren’t.

When it comes to religion there is not as much of a willingness to accept “we don’t know” as an answer. The whole appeal of religious systems, in my mind, is precisely to avoid the existential angst of not knowing why we’re here or how we’re supposed to live. The question of whether or not everything happens for a predetermined reason is an absolutely essential element of the question of the meaning of life. How much of what occurs is attributable to God or karma and how much of what happens is a result of our own decisions makes an incredibly significant difference with regard to the meaning of our lives. Are we responsible for almost everything we do, for nothing we do, or merely for how we deal with the situations that God or karma puts us in?

It is helpful to think in terms of concrete examples, and one of the questions to which spiritual determinism has the utmost significance is that of abortion. Most people, whether pro-choice or pro-life, see abortion as a moral evil. The most vociferous opponents of abortion’s legality are motivated by a completely understandable revulsion at the idea of innocent life being terminated without it having any say in the matter. For whatever reason, the idea of terminating a fetus in the early stages of development does not horrify me to the same degree and as such I am staunchly pro-choice, but I do feel just as powerful a revulsion at the idea of the death of children who are old enough to understand and fear death but too young to make peace with it. But whether it’s an unborn baby or a child, we have a case in which the person dying can not be said to have any responsibility in the matter. The same cannot be said for the mother who chooses to abort, or the vile creature who murders a child.

Under strong determinism, neither the mother nor the aborted child has any responsibility for the termination of that life. That life was simply not meant to be and therefore could never have been. I often wonder at the fundamentalist Christians who believe in a divine plan yet speak out so strongly against a woman’s right to choose an abortion. If God is in control of everything, isn’t He responsible for the woman’s choice? She’s not preventing a life that would have otherwise existed from existing—it would have never existed in the first place. Indeed, under strict determinism I could not even condemn a child’s murderer for committing that crime.

It is clearly best for humanity to reject the belief in strong determinism. We must be able to hold people accountable for their actions and punish those who commit wrongdoing, and we must be able to believe that doing so makes a difference. Otherwise we would all just throw up our hands and accept all of the evils of the world, whether they be horrifying crimes or merely the unjust scheme of things in the world whereby the few have so much and the masses have so little. If we accept that this is the only way it can be we must also accept that this is the way it should be, and there are some things we must be able to say should not be.

But is soft determinism any better? If we believe in karma, we may believe that the aborted baby or the murdered child actually deserve that fate due to actions committed in previous lives. If we believe in the Judeo-Christian God we may believe that these individuals were deemed unworthy of living out their lives in full. If we believe in karma we may believe that the privileged few who live lives of luxury at the expense of the poverty-stricken masses have earned this success and that the masses should accept their fate because their souls are not yet worthy of anything better. If we believe in the Judeo-Christian God we may believe that there is an unknowable but just reason for inequality in the world and that any attempts to bridge the divide between ultra-rich and ultra-poor are both unnecessary and futile.

I must admit that there is a strong appeal to the idea of spiritual determinism. If all is as it should be then we are absolved from any responsibility to change it. Nor must we feel moral horror at any terrible action. The pro-life people need not sweat the aborted babies because those babies were supposed to be aborted, and I need not lose sleep over the murdered children because those children were supposed to die. The universe unfolds exactly it must unfold and in no other way, and we are under no obligation to do anything to change it. We can slip into a state of spiritual detachment and live out our entire lives as though merely going along for a ride.

However, it’s easy to see how it would be disastrous if everyone were to think this way. If I want my government to stop dropping bombs on foreign countries and killing children, I have to be able to believe that those children do not deserve to die, that they could have lived if my country had acted otherwise. This greatly increases the feeling of tragedy regarding such events—just as it horrifies the pro-life people to think that all of those babies could have lived rich and fulfilling lives—but it also serves to push us in the direction of putting a stop to them. If we believe that things like war and poverty are not inevitable and that a future of peace and higher standards of living for everyone is possible, it makes the last few millennia more tragic to think these things could have been avoided but drives us that much harder to work towards that future in which they no longer plague us.

We may never know whether events are predetermined from the beginning of time, if we’re responsible for everything we do, or if it’s some combination of both, but in our ignorance we must choose to live our lives under one of these assumptions. I firmly believe that the assumption most likely to take our species in a better direction for all of us is to assume that everything does not happen for a predetermined reason and that we must face the responsibility for everything that happens in the future. It’s a huge responsibility—downright terrifying even—but rather than retreat into lives of spiritual detachment and acceptance of the way things are, I believe we must refuse to accept the current scheme of things and do everything within our power to change it.

 

[If you agree, please consider joining Revolution Earth. Philosophical musings like this are just one of many types of contributions you can make, or you can join the discussion on the current topic of the month: ideal government.]

Aisha and Humanity

October 26th, 2010 No comments

I wish I’d never heard her name. From the moment I read about her story two years ago, all I’ve wanted to do is forget it. I initially hated the blogger from whom I first heard about it, wishing he’d made the point he wanted to make without using such a mind-numbingly horrific story to do so. But as the months went by I kept hearing about her, each time confronted with new and increasingly sickening details about the event. I was bound to hear about her at some point, and as long as her story is out there I’ll never be able to forget it. It’s already so firmly entrenched within the neural fibers of my brain that it can never come out—images of the scene as I picture it all-too-frequently flash before my mind with only the slightest hint of an association, dragging me down to depths that can take minutes, hours or even days to recover from.

I last heard the story on a recent podcast of Dan Carlin’s Common Sense, and while that was two nights ago I still find myself looking at the world through darkened lenses because of it. The only thing I can do is to write about it and hope to find some clarity through that.

If anyone reading this doesn’t know the story of Aisha, you might want to consider not reading this and sparing yourself the psychological/emotional torture that I’ve been enduring since the story was sprung upon me without warning. I’m writing this mostly for myself, and for anyone else who might be struggling with the same feelings and for whom a written account of another person’s thoughts might be helpful.

Almost everyone is aware of the practice of “honor killings” in which Muslim women are murdered for adultery. Nearly every week there’s another story in the news about a woman killed by her own family for being with another man. Sometimes no actual adultery is committed—the woman need only be alone in a room with a man who isn’t her husband to earn a death sentence. Occasionally the punishment will be as sickening as mutilation or as horrifying as being buried alive, as some young teenage girls recently were because they dared to flirt with boys their own age.

And yet nothing is worse than what happened to poor Aisha. Her story remains the single most horrifying thing I’ve ever heard. It’s the kind of thing that makes me look at humanity and almost wish that our species had never evolved to the point where we became capable of such things.

Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow was a 13-year-old Somali girl who committed the ‘unforgivable crime’ of being gang-raped by three men and then reporting it to the local authorities in the Kiyasmu region, the al-Shabab militia. Under certain interpretations of Islam, letting oneself be raped is akin to adultery, and the punishment for adultery in Kiyasmu is death by stoning.

On October 27, 2008, Aisha was dragged before a crowd of over 1,000 spectators in a stadium at the southern port of Kiyasmu where she would be buried up to her neck in a hole in the ground while 50 men threw stones at her head until she died. While she was being dragged to her death, she reportedly shouted and pleaded with her executioners “No! I won’t go! Don’t kill me!” No mercy was shown to her.

During the execution, at least a few of the spectators showed some humanity and attempted to save her, but the militia opened fire and killed a boy who was a bystander. The rest of the crowd sat and watched.

At one point they pulled Aisha from the ground and nurses were instructed to determine whether or not she was still alive. They announced that she was, and she was put back in the hole for the stoning to continue. One can only hope that by this point her body was in such a state of shock that she could no longer feel anything. One can only hope.

Every time I hear this story I get the most sickening feeling in my gut, I feel like my insides are burning and that that my brain might tear itself apart in blind rage. I just want to find the al-Shabab militia members who sentenced Aisha to death and the men who stoned her and pummel each of them to death one by one. But that would accomplish nothing. Aisha is dead and no vengeance will bring her back. She had to undergo that experience and it will never be erased.

Part of the reason this disturbs me so much has to do with the way I look at reality. Time is a relative thing, so everything that happens exists permanently. Subjective experience is a part of the universe, so all experiences exist permanently as well. I also think that the nature of consciousness might be universal, in that the same Being—call it God, the Brahmam-Atman, or whatever it may be—is at the centre of the awareness of everyone and everything that is aware. What happens to one of us happens to all of us—we only perceive different events through different minds.

So whenever I hear about a tragedy, I imagine the experience from the point of view of the victims. I can usually find some kind of “at least” in the situation. As in, “at least he was strong enough to face death bravely,” or “at least she was old enough to accept her fate” but with children it’s a different story. The only “at least” I can find when something bad happens to children is “at least they were too young to understand what was happening.”

But Aisha was 13—old enough to understand death but far too young to make peace with it. She was also female—and in a patriarchal culture, no one would have bothered to help her cultivate the qualities of strength and bravery that would have been encouraged in male children.

No, Aisha was as vulnerable a victim as there can be. And to imagine the horror from the perspective of a 13-year-old girl of being buried up to your neck, desperately trying to claw your way out of the ground but unable to move an inch, lying there helpless as heavy stones fly at your face, each new crack in your skull producing an eternity of agony and bringing you one step closer to a death of which you are terrified, the pain and fear too overwhelming to comprehend.

This experience is a part of the universe and it always will be. And that almost makes me wish the universe never existed at all. Better to have eternal nothingness than a single moment such as that…

But what really makes this story so unbearable to me is the setting. This event happened in a stadium of a thousand people, and while at least a few were horrified enough to try and put a stop to it, the majority of spectators must have felt…what?

Were they enjoying it? Did most of them get some sick macabre sort of pleasure out of watching a poor defenseless girl cry out in horror as her life was ripped away from her? Did they actually feel that justice was being served—that this adulteress, despised by Allah, was getting what she deserved?

That’s the thought that keeps me up at night, because that is one of the great unsolvable questions of humanity at this stage in history. Many people would hear this story and blame it on Islam, but the problem goes much deeper than that. The practice of honor killings may have been integrated into some versions of Islam but it almost certainly pre-dates the religion, going all the way back to tribal existence. This is an element of the culture in that part of the world that goes unquestioned by what may be most of the people there, including the women. When asked whether they approve of the practice of honor killings, it might be the case that this cultural tradition is so firmly ingrained in their minds that a majority of them would insist on its moral correctness.

I once considered myself a moral relativist, but not anymore. Just because something is accepted in another culture does not make it right. There is a certain amount of happiness and suffering brought about by every action, and certain actions cause a degree of suffering so great that the scale could never be balanced. Aisha’s death was so horrible that no amount of satisfaction on the part of the executioners or spectators who felt that justice had been served could outweigh it. This is as black-and-white as it comes. No matter what culture or time period you’re talking about, this kind of thing is plain wrong.

And yet, what can any of us do about it? Some suggest that a Western military presence in the region serves this very purpose. If we can bring stable democracies to these areas in which women are given the power to help shape their societies, eventually these practices will end.

But I’m for leaving Iraq and Afghanistan, and whatever I may feel in my heart, I know in my mind that staying would cause more overall harm than good. As much as I would desperately like to change their culture, I consider it the height of arrogance to think ourselves capable of doing so. You can’t change thousands of years of tradition by rolling in with tanks and shooting everything that looks threatening. If centuries of colonialism taught us anything, it’s that more just societies can’t be imposed from above. They can only transform from within.

But how long before the women in these societies awaken enough to question their cultural traditions and feel strong enough to fight against them? How many more innocent girls are to be buried alive or stoned to death before such things are resting firmly in the trash-bin of history where they belong?

The only shred of positive thinking I can muster from Aisha’s story is that it may serve as some kind of wake-up call within the collective human consciousness. I never met this girl. I don’t even have any idea what she looked like. I never knew she existed until she no longer did. But if I can feel such powerful emotions over the manner in which she died, then others can too.

I said that I wished I’d never heard of her, and that may still be true. I didn’t want to have to face the reality that we live in such a world where an event like her death can happen, and that I’m a member of a species that is capable of doing such a thing. But perhaps more people need to be confronted with this reality. More people need to know about Aisha, to lose sleep over her, to picture her crying face sticking up from a hole in the ground whenever a random comment triggers the firing of those neurons.

Only by confronting the horror can we hope to one day be rid of it. It’s either that or wait until the planet rids itself of us. But for Aisha’s sake I have to hope it’s the former. If the human species wipes itself out, at least these kinds of horrors will stop but it will all have been for naught. If we can come together and forge a global society in which the murder of children is not tolerated by anyone, at least such deaths won’t have been in vain. And if there is any truth to the idea of immortal souls, I can only hope that Aisha’s will be able to see what we’ve done and to know that her suffering did not go unnoticed—that the cries she let out as death took her in that stadium did not fall on deaf ears.

One can only hope.

Germany’s Lack of Church/State Separation

October 8th, 2010 No comments

During a conversation with two of my students yesterday, I was reminded of something that most Americans don’t know about Germany—that there is no separation of church and state. If you’re a member of a church, you pay extra taxes which go to the church. This is one of the biggest reasons that far fewer Germans are church members—there is a financial incentive not to be.

For those who pay the extra tax, the church uses this money to do their standard church things, like building and maintaining churches and kindergartens and doing positive work in various communities. But the church is also politically active. They give money to political parties more closely aligned with their own views.

My students work for E.ON, one of Europe’s largest energy companies which earns a large portion of its profits from nuclear energy. Two of Germany’s political parties, the Green Party and the SPD, are opposed to nuclear energy. Those parties receive some donations from the church.

Because he is a member of the church, one of my students is technically funding the effort to rid Germany of nuclear energy, which would in turn put his job in jeopardy. He recognizes the absurdity of this, and is considering leaving the church because of it.

I just found this very interesting. Germans in general are far less religious than Americans in general, but they don’t have a separation of church and state. Not only that, but Sunday is still the day of rest, in which everything from supermarkets to outlet stores and even most pharmacies are closed. On the surface, you’d expect the people to be more religious but that’s not the case at all.

There are many candidates running for office in America, especially now with the rise of the Tea Party, who would like to do away with the separation of church and state. They might want to consider how this might actually be to the church’s detriment.

Ground Zero: “As we forgive those…”

August 27th, 2010 No comments

I lost my faith a long time ago, but I’ll bet that most of the people making loud noises about the Park 51 Community Center (a.k.a. the “Ground Zero Mosque”) consider themselves good Christians.

Every day, or at least once a week, these people say the following to their God:

“forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”

If one wants to live according to true Christian values, one has to forgive the 9/11 hijackers.

The things is—the people who are building this community center are NOT the 9/11 hijackers. They had nothing to do with 9/11. In fact one of their primary goals in building the center is to promote understanding of Islam and push back against the animosity that has risen against Islam in the wake of 9/11.

But not only do these “good Christians” not forgive the 9/11 hijackers (and personally, I don’t blame them for that) but they direct their anger and their hatred at a group of one and a half billion people, 99.9999999873% of whom were not responsible at all for the attacks.

Now at least they’re no longer saying that Muslims should be deprived of the right to build a mosque (that was too much Constitutional-hypocrisy even for them), but they’re saying that these Muslims should build somewhere else out of “sensitivity”.

We’re not saying you have to sit at the back of the bus, Ms. Parks, but you should be sensitive to those who think you don’t belong there and sit somewhere else.

We’re not saying you can’t build a synagogue, Jews, but you should be sensitive to those who blame you for killing Jesus and not build near any churches.

We’re not saying you can’t get married or serve in the military, gay people, but you should be sensitive to those who might not want…oh wait…right. You still can’t do either of those things.

As we forgive those who trespass against us.

Neither blacks nor Jews nor gays nor Muslims have actually trespassed against these people, but they refuse to forgive them anyhow. Apparently they don’t even listen to their own prayers.

The Paranoid Delusions of Bryan Fischer

August 14th, 2010 No comments

The opposition to building a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero was bad enough, but now we’ve got a right-wing fearmonger calling for a ban on the construction of all mosques in the United States:

Permits should not be granted to build even one more mosque in the United States of America, let alone the monstrosity planned for Ground Zero. This is for one simple reason: each Islamic mosque is dedicated to the overthrow of the American government.

Much has already been said and written about Bryan Fischer’s anti-mosque screed this past week, but I can’t resist bringing my artillery to this fight. While most reasonable-minded conservatives would never go as far as Fischer, I’m afraid that reasonable-minded conservatives are a dying breed these days and that once one wingnut jumps off an ideological cliff the rest of the lemmings quickly follow. It’s important to push back as forcefully as possible against this kind of divisive, hateful, fear-driven nonsense or the next thing you know it’ll be considered “mainstream”.

So Mr. Fischer, what evidence do you have that every single Islamic mosque is dedicated to the overthrow of the American government?

Here is the strategy, in their own words, in the words of “An Explanatory Memorandum” circulated by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1991 which outlines “the General Strategic Goal” for the Islamic movement “in North America.”

Read it and shudder:

Muslims “must understand that their work in America is a kind of grand Jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and ‘sabotaging’ its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all other religions…It is a Muslim’s destiny to perform Jihad and work wherever he is and wherever he lands until the final hour comes, and there is no escape from that destiny…” (emphasis mine)

Um…seriously? That’s all you’ve got? This is going to be easier than I thought.

First of all, I read through the “Explanatory Memorandum” quoted here and was not surprised at all to find that this is by far the most questionable paragraph. The entire memorandum is basically just a proposed framework for how to go about establishing a thriving Islamic community in America. This is from the introduction:

The papers which are between your hands are not abundant extravagance, imaginations or hallucinations which passed in the mind of one of your brothers, but they are rather hopes, ambitions and challenges that I hope that you share some or most of which with me. I don’t claim their infallibility or absolute correctness, but they are an attempt which requires study, outlook, detailing and rooting from you. (emphasis mine)

Hardly a call-to-arms from a violent fundamentalist.

Here’s what the document had to say about the role of these mosques themselves:

Thus, the Islamic center would turn into a place for study, family, battalion, course, seminar, visit, sport, school, social club, women gathering, kindergarten for male and female youngsters, the office of the domestic political resolution, and the center for distributing our newspapers, magazines, books and our audio and visual tapes.

Sounds threatening, doesn’t it? Kindergartners! Audio and visual tapes! The only remotely questionable term is “battalion” but I’d say it’s a safe bet that if you look at the original Arabic word from which it was translated its meaning will be much more benign than “terrorist training facility”.

Of course the word that sets off most of the alarm-bells in conservative minds is “Jihad” but it too doesn’t mean what they think it means. “Jihad” literally means “struggle” and it can refer to a struggle with oneself or a struggle in war. It was first used by Muhammed while he and his followers were under assault in Medina, and is widely understood as a struggle to defend Islam—not to aggressively impose it on others.

But let’s just say for the sake of argument that Fischer is right and this “Explanatory Memorandum” really was calling for the violent overthrow of America. So what?

Let’s just say hypothetically that a group of right-wing Christians met in a Church every week to plot the overthrow of the U.S. Government. [Note: This may not actually be hypothetical at all] Should we therefore ban churches?

Last November, Fischer wrote this in a short piece called “The Difference Between Christian Churches and Mosques”:

American churches: places where generosity and self-sacrifice are nurtured and encouraged. American mosques: places where America’s enemies plot our destruction.

Uh huh. Yeah, that doesn’t sound like a gross oversimplification at all. Obviously there are absolutely no churches in the entire country where hateful rhetoric is preached. Obviously there are absolutely no mosques in the entire country where generosity and self-sacrifice are encouraged.

Seriously, are there any Muslims here who could invite Mr. Fischer to one of your mosques so he can see for himself? Obviously he thinks that all you do is sit around planning the next 9/11. Let him examine every inch of your mosque and see what he says when he doesn’t find the stock-piled weapons, dirty-bomb construction manuals, and viles full of anthrax.

What is Mr. Fischer so afraid of? Is he really so terrified of some kind of Muslim takeover of America that he wants to shred the First Amendment in order to deprive them of a place from which to plan their attack?

It’s actually a microcosm of the absurd Afghanistan strategy: drive the terrorists out so they have no safe-haven from which to plan an attack…except Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Somalia—oh, and Germany, England, France, etc. If they can’t plan their attacks from the local mosque they can just plan them from the fucking basement!

And if they do rise up and try to take over, it’s not like we’d be helpless to stop them. Don’t we have the strongest military that has ever existed on this planet? I’m pretty sure we could take them out rather quickly.

Bryan Fischer is a prime example of the dangerous way the American right operates today. He looks at the most right-wing position of the day—no mosque as Ground Zero—and pushes it a few steps further: no mosques anywhere in the U.S. He’s shifting the spectrum even further to the right, and we have to pull back hard.

So I’ll take the left-wing position of the day—let mosques be built wherever people want them—and push it a few steps further: build more mosques! And pay for them with government money! How about that? Keep building until there’s one mosque for every church! And force kids who go to one to every once in awhile go to the other as well. You know…in the name of tolerance and cross-cultural understanding.

Are right-wing heads exploding yet? Well, now you know how we feel.

Jerusalem Syndrome

August 13th, 2010 No comments

I recently learned about something called “Jerusalem Syndrome” which I thought was excellently fascinating:

The Jerusalem syndrome is a group of mental phenomena involving the presence of either religiously themed obsessive ideas, delusions or other psychosis-like experiences that are triggered by a visit to the city of Jerusalem. It is not endemic to one single religion or denomination but has affected Jews, Christians and Muslims of many different backgrounds.

The best known, although not the most prevalent, manifestation of the Jerusalem syndrome is the phenomenon whereby a person who seems previously balanced and devoid of any signs of psychopathology becomes psychotic after arriving in Jerusalem. The psychosis is characterised by an intense religious theme and typically resolves to full recovery after a few weeks or after being removed from the area.

So perfectly normal, mentally healthy people go to visit Jerusalem and the next thing you know they’re wandering around the desert claiming to be the Messiah. How awesome is that?

It has to make you wonder—what if this isn’t just a bizarre side-effect of a strong Judeo-Christian-Islamic upbringing brought out when one visits a place they’ve read about and revered since childhood? What if this has nothing to do with a religious background but with the physical location of Jerusalem itself—if there’s something about the geography or the climate of the Middle East that makes people believe they’re the Messiah?

Well then you’d have to speculate that Jesus himself was merely a victim of Jerusalem Syndrome, that he was only deluded into believing himself the Messiah and happened to live during a time period when his fellow Jews were not only superstitious enough to believe him but so frustrated with Roman rule that they genuinely wanted to.

Could it be that Horus and the rest of the so-called “16 Saviors” were merely victims of some kind of psychological disorder that makes one believe that they’re the son of God, born of a virgin, and on a mission to save mankind?

Well, I believe that Jesus and the rest of the not-so-fortunate saviors (those who weren’t lucky enough to have their biographies later adopted by a Roman Emperor and thus become the central figure of one the world’s most enduring religions) probably were in fact suffering from some form of dementia. Just like those who come down with Jerusalem Syndrome, they were raised with stories of God and messianic prophecies, and something triggered a part of their brain that made them believe these stories were about them.

On the other hand, maybe they were all suffering from dementia except Jesus, and he really was born of a virgin and resurrected after death. Funny how God’s plan to redeem humanity borrowed so much from earlier myths…