The Cruelty and Inanity of LGBT Discrimination

From Daniel Fincke’s Camels With Hammers column on Patheos:

[LGBT people] do not want to be praised or blamed on account of the accident of their sexual orientation but want the same dignity to be treated based on the content of their character as expressed in deeds. Even if you had a good reason to say that that homosexual acts were immoral, this does not justify the sorts of conformity enforcing brutality that even non-sexually active homosexually oriented gays have routinely received from bullies—including policemen, including legislators exploiting the vulnerability of this unpopular minority to gin up support for themselves as George Wallace (initially relatively indifferent to segregation) did.

Even were being gay like being an alcoholic, which it’s not, would that justify losing one’s job and one’s family’s approval and being harassed by bullies and policemen even when one’s behavior does not intrude on anyone else’s lives? Unlike the alcoholic who says and does rude, thoughtless, and physically reckless things which endanger others bodily and mentally, the gay person merely being gay in your presence does no harm to you. Why justify the abuse meted out to such people?

And if you think that being gay is a genetic disorder, does this mean you promote disownment of children with gentic disorders? Should mayors who have genetic disorders be assassinated for their disorders as Harvey Milk was for what you think was his? That would not be evidence of any “real” discrimination as I imagine you think Harvey Milk’s murder wasn’t anything “real”?

….

Gays exist. Just because they cannot naturally and directly reproduce with their sexual/romantic love partners as you and I could, does not mean that they cannot love, that they could not raise children with as much love and wisdom as any straight person, does not mean they can not contribute to society morally and creatively as much as anyone else, does not mean they cannot successfully use IVF technology to create genetic children even where some heterosexual couples never are able to.

But you won’t “celebrate” these real human beings who number in the tens or possibly hundreds of millions worldwide finding ways to live as full lives as possible, simply because doing so involves a few extra-circuitous routes to overcome a genetic dilemma. That’s it. So, I guess you close your arms and spit when you see the Special Olympics because, goddamn it, we can’t promote people in wheel chairs playing sports or else people will think of breaking their legs! We cannot approve of access for wheel chairs or more braille in public places lest people think blindness itself or inoperative legs themselves are great things. No one is saying that gays’ inabilities to directly reproduce is what makes being gay a good thing. What we are saying is that this is only one obstacle that can no more “handicap” gays from as loving, as fully excellent lives, including as parents, as you and me and any other straight person is capable of. Just as being in a wheel chair does not stop you from racing and shooting baskets impressively and just as people should be assessed for how they flourish in the conditions in which they actually find themselves rather than according to standards they have no control over (being white, being straight, being able to reproduce, being male, being American, being young, being old, etc.).

This is not just an “alternative lifestyle” this is people’s lives. As full, equal, dignified, loving, creating, morally excellent people. These people do not need your denigration of their entire love lives over the biological obstacles to their directly reproducing. They don’t need your self-centered contempt for and dismissal for the ways that they are routinely marginalized and abused—even by your own language about them. They don’t need to be blamed for being vulnerable to a virus. We all are, it’s part of being an animal, as we all are.

And they don’t need to be offered wholly impracticable choices like “be celibate or marry someone you’re not actually sexually oriented towards”. They don’t need to be reduced to just getting your pity and no affirmation for their pursuit of full, equal, dignified lives because you have arbitrarily decided that an action’s not being able to lead directly to reproduction makes it fully evil or makes those who have that trait fully defective.

Your idea of ethics offers nothing serious, nothing constructive, no real alternatives for gays. It demonizes, it vilifies, it marginalizes, and bullies. It demands alienation where affirmation and constructive thinking and living are possible. It is deeply prejudicial and self-absorbed.

The Langar of Sikhism

Among world religions, Sikhism is among the most fascinating to me. During my period of religious uncertainty, when my exploration other faiths was at its height (though by no means diminished since), the Sikhs were of particular interest, their history, culture, attire, symbols, and doctrines were all quite engaging (though I admit that in those young years, the exoctiism of it all probably played a bigger role than anything).

One aspect of Sikhism that I deeply respect and admire, especially as a Secular Humanist, is the langara public kitchen and canteen that freely feeds any visitors regardless of faith or background.

Even in communities wherein Sikhs are minorities, the langar tradition is maintained, as the BBC reported:

For the volunteers handing out food here, this is more than just good charitable work. For them this is a religious duty enshrined by the founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak, over 500 years ago. At a time of deep division by caste and religious infighting between Hindus and Muslims in India, Guru Nanak called for equality for all and set forward the concept of Langar — a kitchen where donated produce, prepared into wholesome vegetarian curry by volunteers, is freely served to the community on a daily basis.

Today, thousands of free Langar meals are served every day in Sikh temples throughout the UK. The Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara in Southall, thought to be the biggest Sikh temple outside of India, says it alone serves 5,000 meals on weekdays and 10,000 meals on weekends. Every Sikh has the duty to carry out Seva, or selfless service, says Surinder Singh Purewal, a senior member of the temple management team. “It means we’re never short of donations or volunteers to help prepare the Langar.”

It is good to highlight the charity and good deeds of other religious or cultural groups, especially those that are often marginalized, misunderstood, or simply unknown.

While I obviously put no stock in religion, I do make a point to acknowledge and support those doctrines that, while grounded in faith, on a deeper level stem reflect a humanistic values. Compassion and generosity are to be encouraged in whatever form they take, so long as the motivation is sincere and altruistic (e.g. not about divine favor or command).

Here are some photos of langar courtesy of Wikipedia.

A More Religious World

The Atlantic reports on a major new Pew study on global religious demographics that projects two-thirds of the world’s population will be either Christian or Muslim — with the latter outnumbering the former, albeit by a percentage point or two.

The Muslim population, for example, is expected to grow twice as fast as the rest of the world’s population between now and 2050, largely because Muslims tend to be young and have high fertility rates. A majority of Muslims will still live in Asia and the Pacific region, as they do now (even though Islam is the predominant religion of the Middle East, only one in five Muslims live there). While their life expectancy will likely rise over the next four decades, on average, Muslims will still die younger than members of any other religion, including folk religions. Jews, on the other hand, will live the longest; in 2050, the group’s life expectancy will be 85, compared with 75 for Muslims. This is partly because the Jewish population is so concentrated, Hackett said: Roughly 80 percent of Jews live in Israel or the United States, both highly developed countries.

But perhaps the most significant finding is that Muslims may gradually overtake Christians as the world’s largest religious group in the coming decades.

The following graph charts this progression:

This trend is part of the wider shift in population and cultural power to the developing world, especially Asia, where countries like India and China will become battlegrounds of the world’s major religions:

One open question is how religiosity will play out in China. Right now, there isn’t a lot of reliable data about religious affiliation in the world’s most populous country, Hackett said. Most population information comes from the government, which has been more or less hostile toward organized religion since the late 1960s; even if the country’s citizens are religious, they might be unlikely to share their beliefs on a government questionnaire, he said. One scholar, the Purdue University professor Fenggang Yang, says the country is becoming more faithful, though. He estimates that the percentage of Christians in China could grow from 5 percent in 2010 to 67 percent in 2050, based on the growth rate of the religion over time; if this came true, it would significantly shift the world’s total Christian population.

Meanwhile, the historic core of Christianity, Europe, will see its religiosity and subsequent influence over that faith decline:

In Europe and beyond, age, fertility rates, and migration are the most important factors in projected population changes, but religious conversion also plays a minor role in the results. Despite Christianity’s tradition of evangelism, the faith is expected to lose a net total of about 66 million people around the world due to conversions, accounting for both those who convert into the faith and those who convert out. A significant portion of those converts will likely become unaffiliated, a group that’s expected to grow by a net total of roughly 61 million purely due to people leaving their religions (as opposed to via higher birth rates, etc.)

We may well see a future where Christian aesthetics and even doctrine starts to become shaped by Chinese and African culture (not to mention visa versa). One can see widespread blending (e.g. syncretism) of folk traditions with Christianity in places like Sub-Saharan Africa, which is another center of growth for the faith and Islam:

For both Christianity and Islam, the region with the most potential will be sub-Saharan Africa, where the population is expected to double in roughly four decades due to extremely high fertility rates. The number of Christians in the region is also expected to double, reaching over 1.1. billion people, and the Muslim population is projected to grow by an astounding 170 percent, hitting nearly 670 million. Largely because of these trends, researchers estimate that two-thirds of the world’s population will be Christian or Muslim by 2100.

And what about all the research and debate concerning the rise of secularism and atheism? Well as noted before, the religiously unaffiliated — which run the gamut from hard atheists to the nonetheless spiritual — will increase significantly, albeit mostly in the “old” Christian West.

Here is what the projections show from 2010 to 2050. Note that it looks at conversions alone, not natural birth rates (which are typically much higher among Muslims, Christians, and Hindus than among Buddhist, Jews, and the non-religious).

It is worth reiterating that these are just estimates, albeit ones based on fairly comprehensive and substantive research (Pew tends to have a good track record). There is no telling how much will change over the coming decades, especially in a world where religious conflict, dialogue, and interaction alike is higher than ever.

Moreover, this is hardly as clear-cut as Christianity vs. Islam vs. secularists etc. Each of these groups have their own internal problems and divisions; Protestants, namely the Evangelical kind, are making inroads into historically Catholic strongholds like Brazil and Central America, and are competing amongst themselves for souls. The Shia and Sunni split continues to spill more blood, while the more mystical and liberal Sufis are often distrusted and persecuted by Islamic conservatives.

Meanwhile, the broad tent that is “unaffiliated” encompasses such divergent groups as explicit atheists, agnostics, the vaguely spiritual and deistic, and even New Agers who otherwise believe in some sort of divine or supernatural power or another yet choose not to label themselves religious. Secular people hardly represent a united or coherent front (especially as the broader and more technical definition of the term would include practicing Christian or Muslims who simply do not want their religion to influence politics or social policy).

In short, the picture, as can always be expected, is complicated. But if these projections hold out, it does indeed seem to be the case that while the world will remain religiously diverse — look at the growth, by conversion alone, of various folk traditions and “other” non-major religions — Christianity, Islam, and to a lesser degree Irreligion will represent the dominant strains of thought and lifestyle.

But even this does not show how such labels will change and what these faiths (or lack thereof) will look like doctrinally, culturally, and ideologically. Will Christianity continue to take on the indigenous concepts of its majority African and Asian populations; will Islam shift towards more traditional, moderate, or mystical forms, as it is currently contending with? Will secular people become more hardened into outright atheism or agnosticism, or lean towards vaguely spiritual New Age or Eastern manifestations?

I guess I will see for myself in my lifetime. What are your thoughts?

How Secular Is Your City?

The religiously unaffiliated — an identity that broadly encompasses everyone from strong atheists and agnostics, to New Agers, deists, and “unchurched” Christians — make up almost a quarter of the U.S. population (22 percent to be exact). Unsurprisingly, some regions, states, and cities are more likely to be irreligious than others. The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) lists the major U.S. cities that have the most (and the fewest) people without formal religion.

Note that the data come from the results of over 50,000 interviews across these metropolitan areas. Perhaps it is little surprise that the northeastern and western parts of the country are where most of the least religious cities are located; these regions as a whole tend to be pretty secular, especially when compared to the “Bible Belt” of the south (where the least secular cities are situated).

With 42 percent of its residents identifying as religiously unaffiliated, Portland occupies a space all its own. “Portlandia”, an urban mecca for eco-conscious free spirits, has substantially more unaffiliated residents than the next three most religiously unaffiliated cities, Seattle (33 percent), San Francisco (33 percent) and Denver (32 percent).

The least unaffiliated city in the U.S.? Nashville, with only 15 percent of its residents identifying as religiously unaffiliated. A plurality (38 percent) of Nashville is white evangelical Protestant.

Granted, by the standards of the historically devout South, 15-18 percent nonreligious is pretty high. A large part of this may have to do migration of people from the less religious northeast, a trend that began in the 1960s and ’70s and has continued to this day. Aside from the secularizing effect of these transplants, the results may also reflect the tendency for cities in general to be less religious than rural or smaller urban areas.

Given the overall growth in “Nones” — those who claim no religious affiliation in Census surveys — it is likely that the percentage of irreligious people in cities across the country will continue to grow. Again, this hardly reflects the growth of atheists or agnostics per se, just in people unwilling to identify or associate with any formal religious label or institution.

As for my hometown and current residence of Miami, I guess I am not too surprised that we are just around the national average. The city has a large youth population buttressed by many international and northern migrants. While Hispanics tend to be fairly religious, their children and grandchildren — like younger generations of most other demographic groups — are often less so.

The Problem With a Terrifying and Loving God

One of the first things that caused my religious faith to waver was the paradoxical way in which the Christian God was conveyed (at least by my particular Catholic church): infinitely loving yet presiding over a cosmic system whereby sinners and nonbelievers suffer for eternity without pardon (a punishment that is literally unsurpassable in its harshness).

Now of course, there were always caveats, namely that God does not want anyone to end up in hell (despite first creating and still maintaining such a system), hence Jesus, the work of the church and its missionaries, etc.

Setting aside the ethical and theological scruples, I also took issue (and still do) with the way that Christians themselves use this contradictory nature as some sort of stick and carrot to cajole their opponents (be they nonbelievers, adherents of other religions, or even more liberal Christians).

Captain Cassidy over a Patheos captures this approach perfectly:

When a Christian says something like “You should convert because Jesus loved you so much he died for you, but if you don’t then you’ll suffer unspeakable torment forever and ever and ever”, I’m left wondering just what is being said here. Am I supposed to convert out of awe for this supposed act of love? Or am I supposed to convert out of sheer terror and a desire to avoid torment? Because I honestly can’t tell which tactic the Christian is going for. It doesn’t seem loving to torment people.

And the really bad news for Christian zealots is, you can’t really mix and match when it comes to love and terror. I’m not sure it’s even possible to love that which terrorizes us, or (to be more accurate) that which is used to terrorize us. If you want to go with the lovey-dovey stuff, then terror destroys it; if you go with terror, then it’s hard to squeak about lovey-dovey stuff after threatening someone with lurid torture and pain. That so many Christians seem perfectly content to do exactly this mincing dance seems downright grotesque to me. If they described a real person that way, as a man who would physically hurt me if I refused to do what he wanted but who loved me and wanted my love in return, then I’d tell them to stuff it and keep their abusive asshole of a buddy far away from me. The split-second that violence enters the equation, love leaves it–unless of course someone has internalized violence so effectively that it no longer disqualifies a being from slavish devotion.

When Ken Ham ominously threatens people with “God’s judgment” and says, regarding the possible destruction of Earth by a meteor strike, that “unbelievers should be afraid of Jesus Christ’s judgment instead”, it’s hard not to wonder if he’s saying that people should convert because of their terror of this “judgment”–in other words, out of fear of going to Hell. But which is it? Is his god loving, or is he a sociopathic monster? Which gear is he picking here?

Now obviously, many Christians reject both this tactic and its theological underpinnings. Many religious people are genuinely loving and either downplay or outright repudiate the terrifying nature of God.

But in the United States especially, many people prescribe to this notion and utilize it in their preaching, proselytizing, or apologetics. It represents a cynical and totalitarian mentality that seems less concerned about others’ salvation and more focused on manipulating people: to use my earlier analogy, if the carrot of God’s love does not work, than the stick of His fear just might.

Now that I’m out of Christianity and have been for a while, I can see these fearmongering, terroristic tactics for what they are: attempts to strong-arm compliance and force obedience. If you want to see what a Christian really thinks is persuasive, wait to see what that person’s big guns look like. Look for what follows the “but” in their proselytizing. If you let people do it, they’ll tell you exactly what’s really important to them. “He loves you, but if you don’t obey him then you’ll suffer mightily” is the message of way too many Christians.

Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent, as Isaac Asimov put it long ago. Threats are what bullies use when they can’t get their way any other way. When someone can’t win by reason or logic or facts, and that person lacks a moral compass and has no empathy or compassion for others, then such a person will use force to try to win by any means possible. If Christians actually had a good reason to fear the threats they make, they’d already have given us the goods.

Once you’ve identified the threat being made, then you can ask for evidence that it’s a threat you really need to fear. If Ken Ham really thinks that his god’s judgment would be scarier and worse for humanity than a meteor hitting the Earth, but can’t come up with anything solid and credible to explain why his threat is something anybody needs to fear, then I’m safe in dismissing what he blusters as the bombast of a bully angry that he can’t get his way any other way. And I call shenanigans on him claiming that Christians aren’t scared at all of catastrophes; I was a Christian myself for many years and can absolutely tell him that why yes, a great many Christians are downright terrified of the end of the world. He’s talking out of his ass, but what else is new? His followers will eat it up with a spoon and parrot it, many hoping that their own fears will be allayed if they do.

For me, this strain of Christianity says more about the psychology and personality of its adherents than about the religion as a whole (though insofar as Christian doctrine gives fuel to such a common approach, it definitely has its problems).

Just as I have met many friendly and compassionate people who prescribe to a more friendly and compassionate form of Christianity (which in some forms seems more Deistic or New Agey than anything), so too do less than kind people, often with an aggressive and domineering streak, just happen to apply their Christian faith in that way.

Quite a few non-believers and even many Christians have already abandoned threats and the very idea of Hell as incompatible with the idea of a loving god. But to those Christians who use their religion as a way of expressing aggression and dominance, those threats are their primary tools, and they’ve got all kinds of rationalizations already made up in their minds about why they can’t possibly stop threatening people. Phrases like “for their own good” figure prominently here.

The funny thing is that all we’d need is one single credible piece of evidence supporting their threats. Just one. That’s all. But they can’t do that. Instead, they are content to keep issuing threats. And if someone vulnerable happens to fall for the threats and converts on the basis of them, then these Christian bullies will feel 100% justified in continuing to use threats and bullying to get their way. But even if the threats don’t work, they’ll keep using them because threats are what they, personally, think are compelling–as I’ve mentioned before, these threats overshadow even the very best intentions for many Christians.

If the fear of God’s wrath and punishment is the strongest incentive you have, or think others should have, for believing in your religion, you need to reevaluate the basis and sincerity of your faith. Most of these individuals would never accept fear as a legitimate reason to trust or follow political leaders, or any human being. Does God’s divine nature and / or status as our alleged Creator make him immune to such reasonable considerations? Are we supposed to cower in fear of a loving, fatherly creator and use that terror — in some bizarre combination with love and awe — as a basis to believe in Him? It sounds like an abusive relationship more than anything. How can genuine love be compelled by threat of violence of the worst kind imaginable?

What are your thoughts?

The Untold Story of Buddhism’s Struggle in America

Buddhism’s presence in the United States is seen as a very recent, if not trendy, phenomenon, becoming most visible starting from the 1960s and 70s. But like other minority religions, Buddhism has been around far longer than our public consciousness suggests, and its history here has not always been a pleasant one.

A recent article in The Atlantic discusses the tribulations of Buddhists in the context of Japanese internment during World War II. Because a large number of early American Buddhists were of Japanese ancestry, the legal and social problems faced by adherents were inextricably tied what Japanese citizens and residents faced as a whole.

73 years ago this week … President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the evacuation of all of those of Japanese descent from the West Coast to ten war relocation centers—often called “concentration camps” before that term came to have other connotations.

For the most part, the wartime fears that led to the relocation of Japanese­-born immigrants and their American­-born children were justified on racial rather than religious grounds. Those forced to leave behind homes, farms, and businesses in states bordering the Pacific were not of a single faith. There were Buddhists among them, and many maintained Shinto rituals that provided spiritual connections to their homeland, but there were also Christians of various denominations, as well as those with no particular affiliation.

Religion was not ignored, however. When the FBI set about compiling its list of suspect individuals after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they naturally included members of various American Nazi parties and groups with political ties to Japan. Yet they also paid particular attention to Buddhist priests.

J. Edgar Hoover’s Custodial Detention List used a classification system designating the supposed risk of individuals and groups on an A­B­C scale, with an “A” ranking assigned to those deserving greatest scrutiny. Ordained Buddhists like Reverend Fujimura were designated “A­1,” those whose apprehension was considered a matter of urgent concern.

The priests became the first of a relocation effort that would soon detain more than 110,000. Many within this larger group, having heard of the sudden arrests and harsh interrogations endured by Buddhist community leaders, sought refuge in Christianity, hoping—in vain, it turned out—that church membership might shield them from such treatment.

Those who did not go this route were called “Buddhaheads,” an epithet often applied to the Japanese Americans of Hawaii, but more broadly used to suggest a resistance to assimilation. Within the Japanese community, Buddhists were more likely than Christians to maintain their native language, as well as the customs and rituals performed in that language. They were also more likely than Christians to read publications concerned with Japanese political affairs. Subscription rolls of such publications provided the FBI with a natural starting point for building its “A” list of suspects.

Because of the connections and the traditional knowledge Buddhist temples helped maintain, to be a Japanese Buddhist in America during the 1940s was to be considered a greater risk to the nation.

I recommend reading the rest of this piece, which conveys the struggles of Buddhists and Japanese through the experiences of Reverend Fujimura, and looks at a little-known fight to get Buddhist troops due recognition of their faith on their memorials. Very informative look at one of the many neglected chapters of American history.

America’s Muslim Heritage

Although widely seen as a new — and in some circles, invasive — presence in the United States, Islam has been a part of the nation’s history since colonial days, if not earlier. The New York Times highlights just a few of the known examples:

In 1528, a Moroccan slave called Estevanico was shipwrecked along with a band of Spanish explorers near the future city of Galveston, Tex. The city of Azemmour, in which he was raised, had been a Muslim stronghold against European invasion until it fell during his youth. While given a Christian name after his enslavement, he eventually escaped his Christian captors and set off on his own through much of the Southwest.

Two hundred years later, plantation owners in Louisiana made it a point to add enslaved Muslims to their labor force, relying on their experience with the cultivation of indigo and rice. Scholars have noted Muslim names and Islamic religious titles in the colony’s slave inventories and death records.

The best known Muslim to pass through the port at New Orleans was Abdul-Rahman Ibrahim ibn Sori, a prince in his homeland whose plight drew wide attention. As one newspaper account noted, he had read the Bible and admired its precepts, but added, “His principal objections are that Christians do not follow them.”

Among the enslaved Muslims in North Carolina was a religious teacher named Omar ibn Said. Recaptured in 1810 after running away from a cruel master he called a kafir (an infidel), he became known for inscribing the walls of his jail cell with Arabic script. He wrote an account of his life in 1831, describing how in freedom he had loved to read the Quran, but in slavery his owners had converted him to Christianity.

Continue reading

Reflecting On The Killing Of Three Muslim Students

I rarely post about current events or news stories, but I have a rare bit of time and this even merits attention and reflection.

Last night, three Muslim students — Deah Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19 — were shot dead at a housing complex near University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The perpetrator was Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, who handed himself over to the police afterward. News is still unfolding as of this post, and the motive remains unclear, though some reports claim cite a dispute over parking — of all things to kill lover.

The natural question that comes to mind (or that should) is whether this incident was motivated by anti-Islam bigotry. This would certainly fit the pattern of post-9/11 attacks and harassment towards Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim (namely Sikhs). Opposition to Islam, ranging from criticism of the religion to out-and-out bigotry, have definitely seen an uptick in recent months following high-profile incidents involving Islamic extremists, such as the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the barbarism of Boko Haram and IS.

Given the present lack of information, it is difficult to determine why Hicks killed these people, although some sources have pointed out his open condemnation and mockery of organized religion on social media, as well as his association with atheist groups (albeit mainstream ones like Atheist for Equality that, to my knowledge, do not advocate violence or discrimination against religion people).

Ultimately, whether or not the perpetrator’s dislike of religion played a role in his decision to escalate a dispute into a murderous assault, it remains true that his atheism did not prevent him from such an immoral crime.

This tragic incident reaffirms why I much prefer the label of secular humanist over just plain atheist, precisely because mere disbelief in a deity or the supernatural says nothing about one’s morality or character. Atheism denotes what you do not have — religious beliefs — but not what you have chosen to replace said beliefs or ethical foundations with. Hence why atheists run the gamut from humanists like Albert Einstein to monsters like Joseph Stalin.

It goes without saying that a humanist framework is one that precludes violence against other humans, regardless of their beliefs, religious or otherwise. Of course people will always harm and kill one another regardless of whatever authority or precept they alleged to follow or associate with, whether it is secular or religious in nature. But this fact of human nature, whereby bad actions are caused by all sorts of other factors outside professed belief, does not preclude the creation of a comprehensive and authoritative moral and ethical framework.

Moreover, it is worth pointing out the distinction between being critical of religion as an idea and institution — all while still recognizing the humanity of its adherents — and hating religiously identifying people on such a visceral and hateful level as the perpetrator allegedly did. I myself am highly critical of religion as a whole, but I certainly do not view religious people as this faceless Other without personality, hopes, dreams, feelings, and humanity. Atheist or not, there is a difference between disliking or criticizing beliefs and ideas and taking the next step to hate or kill those innocents who hold such beliefs without harm to anyone else.

That said, it is important to remind fellow atheists to be careful to distinguish themselves (and their atheist leaders) as religious skeptics from religious bigots who incite such attacks or (in thankfully rare cases) directly perpetrates them. I am not trying to make this tragedy about me or the atheist movement, but highlighting the inherent dangers of proclaiming moral superiority by virtue of casting off religion while ignoring that one can still be a bad person, morally or behaviorally, regardless of what one believes.

If we are going to promote a skeptical view of religion, and opposition to its more harmful affects (both institutional and ideological), than we must do so alongside the propagation of a humanist ethic. By all means, critique religion and seek to minimize its harm, as I certainly do, but also recognize and fight the harms of non-religious origin, and more importantly see the humanity of the billions of fellow humans who, like it or not, hold religious views of some form or another.

All that said, I do not mean to read into this senseless act the larger issue of bigotry, lack of empathy, and the like; while likely factors, the details once again remain unknown for certain. It is also certainly not my intention to exploit a tragedy as an opportunity to get on a soap box for my own purposes and movement.

Rather, I am just tired of seeing people kill each other in such wanton manners for one reason or another: ideological, religious, anti-religious, opportunistic, etc. While I know this horror is a fact of human existence (at least for the foreseeable future — I cling to a kernel of utopianism), that does not mean that I want to be indifferent to the large psychological, social, and ideological factors underpinning so much of the killing and harming that goes on everyday somewhere in the world.

Given what little help I can lend to these unfortunate victims, the very least I can do — and in fact, feel obligated to do — is use the opportunity to reflect upon my own moral foundations and those of my fellow humans, both secular and non-religious. Maybe it is my way of trying to make sense of the senseless, or trying to derive meaning from sheer tragedy, but it is all I can do. I like to think that if enough of us continuous reflect on why we do the awful things we do, and what we can do about it, such barbarous acts will become more rare if not extinct.

One can still dream. In the meantime, my heart goes out to the victims and their loved ones. From what reports show, these young people were not only bright and talented, but socially conscious and humanitarian. By all accounts, they were, in other words, what humanists should aspire to be.

Santa Muetre

Close-up view of a Santa Muerte south of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. (Source: Wikimedia)

Translating roughly to “Holy Death” or “Saint Death”, Santa Muerte is a syncretic sacred figure that is widely venerated in Mexico, mostly by the downtrodden and ostracized segments of society: prostitutes, criminals, substance abusers, the sick, the poor and other lower-class groups.

Saint Death combines Catholic and indigenous Mesoamerican beliefs, therefore embodying two distinct but complementary views of death: the Christian use of skeletons to remind people of their finite lives, and the Mesoamerican reverence towards the power of death.

The Cult of Santa Muerte is very complex, seen as either a part of Mexican Catholicism or a distinct religion altogether – the Church in Mexico condemns it, while individual believers have different views. The exact origins of Saint Death are unknown, although Mexico has long retained a syncretic combination of its European and Mesoamerican traditions, such as through the Day of the Dead.

The cult was said to have surged in lower-class neighborhoods of Mexico City during the 1940s, while other sources suggest it emerged in the 1960s in the state of Hidalgo. Either way, it’s only been recently that this controversial belief system has become more popular and public, with at least two million followers, if not more. As Mexico endures widespread death and violence from its current drug war, and as its political and economic climate faces renewed trouble, reverence of Holy Death seems to be increasing.

Indeed, her popularity is directly tied to individual or national incidences of hardship, to the extent that anthropologists identify her belief system as a “Cult of Crisis,” someone people turn to in desperation.

Iconography and Symbolism
Santa Muerte is referred to by a number of other names, Señora de las Sombras (“Lady of the Shadows”), Señora Blanca (“White Lady”), Señora Negra (“Black Lady”), Niña Santa (“Holy Girl”), and La Flaca (“The Skinny One”). No two images of Santa Muerte are exactly alike, as it often varies from person to person. Her icons range from small images or figurines that can be held in one hand, to statues or full-blown shrines; some people even have the image tattooed on their bodies.

Despite the variances, there are some near-universal motifs, including a similarity to another Catholic-Mesoamerican combination, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. Like Mexico’s Virgin Mary, Lady Death is usually dressed either in long robes or long dresses, covered from head to feet with only the face and hands showing. However, this has deeper symbolizing, as it is meant to represent two things: how people hide their true selves from the rest of the world, and how flesh covers the bones of the living. Both these facades are temporary and eventually fall away in death (note that the Aztecs used to portray figures as having half their flesh removed, in order to get a similar point across).

Santa Muerte generally holds two objects: a scythe in the right hand and globe in the left.  The scythe symbolizes many things, depending on the individual: the cutting of negative energies or influence, a harvesting tool for collecting hope and prosperity, or the moment of death, when a scythe is said to cut a silver thread representing our lives. The scythe has a long handle, indicating that it – like death itself – can reach anywhere. The globe represents Death’s dominion and presence over the entire world, and can be seen as a kind of a tomb to which we all return; the fact that she even holds a globe is an indication of her vast power (it should be noted that in European iconography, royalty would be depicted holding globes for similar reasons – sure enough, Medieval societies would portray skeletons doing the same, especially during famines or plagues, when death ruled supreme, even claiming nobility.

Other objects that can appear with an image of Santa Muerte include scales, an hourglass, an owl, and an oil lamp. The scales allude to equity, justice and impartiality, as well as divine will: death makes no judgments, as it claims everyone, good or bad. The hourglass indicates many things: the limited time of life on earth, but also the belief that death is the beginning of something new, as the hourglass can be turned to start over. It also denotes Santa Muerte’s patience, as all living things are visited by death eventually. An owl symbolizes her ability to navigate the darkness and her wisdom and is also said to act as a messenger, while a lamp symbolizes the intelligence and spirit needed to light the way through the darkness of ignorance and doubt.

It may seem strange that such a morbid figure could have such positive connotations. But that in itself is a symbol of death’s neutrality: it is not a purely good or bad thing, and it could have elements of both depending on the person. The duality of death, as both a positive and negative force, is prevalent across human cultures. This individualistic and personal nature of this faith – the fact that Lady Death means different things to different people – is largely what makes the faith so popular.

Rituals, Customs, and Beliefs
According to popular belief, Santa Muerte is very powerful and is reputed to grant many favors. Reflecting her nebulous and individualistic nature, the abilities attributed to Holy Death vary widely, and both the methods of worship, and the reasons she is sought after, differ from person to person.

Rites dedicated to Santa Muerte are similar to the processions and prayers seeking help from Catholic saints. Many believers in Santa Muerte identify as Catholics and will invoke the name of God, Christ, and the Virgin in their petitions to Santa Muerte. Often times, she stands near statues of Catholic images of Jesus, the Virgin of Guadalupe, St. Peter, or St. Lazarus. In the north of Mexico, Santa Muerte is venerated alongside Jesús Malverde, another pseudo-saint and folk figure popular among drug traffickers. However, some adherents warn that Santa Muerte is very jealous and that her image should not be placed next to Catholic saints, as it could result in consequences.

In any case, Santa Muerte will be subject to altars that are usually surrounded by any or all of the following: cigarettes, flowers, fruit, incense, alcoholic beverages, coins, candies and candles. As with Catholic saints, Lady Death’s icons are treated as real persons who can give favors in return for the faith of the believer, including miracles.

But unlike her traditional Christian counterparts, Santa Muerte is said to grant favors that no other saint can, such as making someone fall in love with you, damaging property, or even harming or killing someone – albeit only for just reasons.

As Señora de la Noche (“Lady of the Night”), she is often invoked by those exposed to the dangers of working at night, such as taxi drivers, bar owners, police officers, soldiers, and prostitutes. Indeed, she is generally used to protect against assaults, accidents, gun violence and all types of violent death.

Her image is often dressed differently depending on the request: for example, she may be dressed as a bride for those seeking a husband, or as a nun for those requesting hope or faith.

The color of the robe can indicate the nature of the petition as well: white is the most popular, symbolizing loyalty, purity or the cleansing of negative influences. Red is for love and passion with one’s partner, friends, or family, and also signals emotional stability. Blue garb indicates wisdom (popular for students), brown robes are used to invoke spirits or the dearly departed, and purple robes indicate the need to open some kind of pathway or opportunity (such as for a career). Gold indicates economic power, success, money and prosperity, while green signals justice or unity with loved ones. Amber or dark yellow indicates a search for health and/or money, and Lady Death figures can be seen wearing this color in areas frequented by alcoholics, drug addicts, or ill people. When dressed in black, the image is said to provide total protection against black magic or sorcery (though conversely, she may be dressed this way in pursuit of negative magic or power).

There is also a version of the image in a rainbow-colored robe, known as the Santa Muerte of the Seven Powers. The colors of this robe are gold, silver, copper, blue, purple, red and green. Gold is for wealth, red for love and passion, purple for the changing of negative to positive, silver for luck and success, green for justice, copper for lifting negative spirits, and blue for spirituality.

In additional to these variances, each worshiper adorns his or her own icon in their own way, using dollar bills, gold coins, jewelry, flowers, a paper with a request, and so on.

Santa Muerte also has her own “Saint’s Day,” which is celebrated on either November 1 or August 15, depending on the adherent. She’s often dressed in a bridal outfit during the occasion, and is subject to public gatherings and festivities.

Veneration
Despite its growing popularity, the controversy of the faith means that it remains secretive: most worshiping is done in homes of devotees or in shops tending to spirituality and the supernatural (tarot readers, curanderos, herbal healers, etc) However, more shrines and public festivities devoted to her are appearing in public; some time ago, a believer by the name of Enriqueta Romero Romero decided to take a life-sized image of Santa Muerte out of her home and build a shrine for it, visible from the street. Though it doesn’t hold Catholic or occult rituals, thousands of people continue pray and leave offerings. Several public shrines have been set up elsewhere in the country in response.

Raising of Santa Muerte images during a service in the deity’s honor on Alfareria Street Tepito Mexico City. (Source: Wikimedia).

Furthermore, a group called Iglesia Católica Tradicional México-Estados Unidos (Mexican-US Traditional Catholic Church) built the first temple dedicated to Santa Muerte in Mexico City, with plans to develop devotional material to be sold or disseminated across the country.

Popularity and Demographics
As I noted before, Santa Muerte is especially popular among the lower-classes of Mexican society. For decades she had a following in Mexico’s poorest neighborhoods. The phenomenon stems from scarce resources, desperation, exclusion from the educational and economic systems, and socioeconomic oppression – as such, it is based primarily in t inner cities and the very rural areas. It should be noted that most new religious beliefs start with the lower classes for this very reason.

She’s also gained many adherents who have become disillusioned with the dominant Catholic Church and the inability of established Catholic saints to deliver them from poverty. Indeed, some of the more blighted communities are said to revere Lady Death more than Jesus.

Though most upper-class people look down on the cult as an unsettling or foolish superstition, there have been some accounts of Lady Death making inroads among the wealthy and successful. Whether or not this is due to perceived trendiness is unknown, as the practice is even more secretive among the well-off than the poor.

Some of her most devoted followers are prostitutes, pickpockets, petty thieves and drug traffickers, especially those who turn to crime out of survival. Still, the cult is most strongly associated with the drug cartels that are wreaking havoc on Mexico, a connection that has only heightened the taboo-status of the belief. Mexican authorities regularly linked the worship of Santa Muerte to prostitution, drug trafficking, kidnapping, smuggling and homicides. Indeed, criminals are among her most fervent believers, praying to for a successful operation, or for escaping the police. She is considered to be the “Virgin of the Incarcerated,” such that a large number of convicts will convert to the faith after several months. Many prisons cells have been seen bearing the images of Santa Muerte.

In the north of Mexico, a major center of drug trafficking, she is venerated along with Jesús Malverde, the “Saint of Drug Traffickers”; altars with images of Santa Muerte have been found in many drug houses in both Mexico and the United States.

Interestingly, it has been reported the law enforcement and military personnel conducting the current drug war have asked Lady Death to bless their weapons and keep the same – an interesting twist considering that the criminals they fight do the exact same thing.

Figurines of Santa Muerte for sale in Sonora Market, Mexico City. (Source: Maurice Marcellin).

Santa Muerte and the Catholic Church
Mexico’s Catholic Church considers the worship of Santa Muerte to be equivalent to Satanism or black magic, claiming the she is used to mislead desperate people (many protestant denominations make the same warning). Priests have tried to inform people that death is a phase of life, rather than a figure to be worshiped; they also warn against idol worship, which is a defining element of death cult but officially discouraged by the Church.

Furthermore, the cult is seen as competing with the Catholic Church, since many followers end up leaving to become exclusive Santa Muerte devotees. Nonetheless, the majority of devotees to Santa Muerte do not worry about any contradiction between the church and the worship of Santa Muerte.

Santa Muerte in the United States
Devotion of Santa Muerte has been on the rise in the United States, mostly following the millions of poor Mexicans who have immigrated to the country. Her presence can be found almost anywhere that has a large Mexican community, including New York City, Houston, Tucson and Los Angeles, which alone has 15 registered temples and organizations devoted to her. It should be noted that many of these “adherents” bear icons or symbols mostly for cultural reasons.

The cult has gained some non-Mexican followers as well, most notably in Northern California’s Santisima Muerte Chapel of Perpetual Pilgrimage, which was founded by a white woman. Though it’s doubtful that will spread outside the Mexican working-class, the possibility can’t be ruled out. So far, America’s Catholic Church has not issued any official statements on the matter (though local churches are said to be addressing it).

Global Spotlight: The Nihang Sikhs

Members of the Nihang, a military order in the Sikh religion also known as the Akali (The Eternal) and the Akal Sena (The Army of the Eternal). Renowned for their strict discipline, courage, and martial skill, the Nihang are named after a Persian mythical sea creature to which their fighting prowess was compared (historians of the Mughal Empire likened their ferocity to that of crocodiles).

The Nihang are accorded considerable respect and affection among Sikhs worldwide, for although their role is primarily ceremonial, they are bound to defend their community in times of war. During the festival of Hola Mohalla (which usually occurs in March), thousands of Nihang gather at Anandpur, a holy city of the Sikhs, where they display their famous martial skills (known collectively as gatka).

As you may have noticed, the Nihang are best recognized by their large and often elaborate turbans. They are often reinforced with steel and fitted with various weapons, including a trident (for stabbing in close-quarters), bagh naka (claw-like weapons) and one or more chakram (steel throwing weapons).

I love the character, color, and personality in these photos (the first of which was taken by Mark Hartman but the others whose . Many thanks to my friend and colleague Richard for first sharing the first photo with me, and thus piquing my interest to learn more about this fascinating group and faith.