Althouse | category: religion



a blog by Ann Althouse

"By 1532, Giulio Camillo, a professor at Bologna, suggested a means for transforming the mind through a uniquely powerful memory system of his own creation."

"The Memory Theater of Giulo Camillo, as it came to be known throughout sixteenth-century Europe, consisted of a wooden memory palace shaped in the form of a Roman amphitheater."

Writes Richard Restak in "The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind," pointing to this visualization:

Restak continues:
In Camillo’s theatre, the spectator—representing the practitioner of the art of memory—stands on a stage facing the seats that are arranged as a seven-tiered structure with seven aisles extending from top to bottom. On each of the seven aisles are doors representing the seven planets. These doors are decorated with images of Cabalistic, Hermetic, and astral figures. 
On the underside of each of the seats in the theatre are drawers containing cards that detail everything that was known at that time or even potentially knowable. Camillo wrote of his theatre that “by means of the doctrine of loci and images, we can hold in the mind and master human concepts and all things that are in the entire world.” 
In describing his memory theatre, Camillo compares the process of achieving wisdom via the cultivation of memory to the experience of being immersed in a dense forest. At first, the desire to see the whole extent of the forest is frustrated by the surrounding trees. But if a way can be found of ascending along the slope, it becomes possible to see a large part of the forest’s form. When the top of the hill is reached, the entire forest can be seen. Camillo suggests that “the wood is our inferior world; the slope is the super celestial world.”... 
In this process, images drawn from religion are imprinted on the mind with sufficient strength, that when a person bearing this imprint returns to the everyday world, the external appearances of that world became spiritually unified through the power of memory.

"But I’m also getting more obsessive about human beings over huge swaths of time. Part of that came out of being on the Isle of Skye..."

"... during the serious U.K. lockdown. On Skye, if there’s a rock somewhere, it’s probably because somebody put it there. I realized that the rock that I was using to keep the lid on my dustbin was a stone that had been dragged around. People have been in this place for thousands and thousands of years, and in this bay I’m living in, they’ve left behind rocks!"

Said Neil Gaiman, quoted in "Neil Gaiman Knows What Happens When You Dream" (NYT).

Realizing that about the rocks makes you take the long view. Which is that the human race is mostly people just trying to live their lives, and that bad [expletive] is going to happen. That then moves you into other territory. Which is what? The territory of Rudyard Kipling, a very unfashionable writer. 

The British writer, born in 1865 and perhaps best remembered for “The Jungle Book,” has been criticized for, among other things, espousing racism and colonialism. An incredibly good writer, not always somebody I agree with, but thank God I’m allowed to read him. 

He wrote a poem called “Natural Theology,” which begins, “I ate my fill of a whale that died/And stranded after a month at sea/There is a pain in my inside/Why have the Gods afflicted me?” Then a verse goes, “My privy and well drain into each other/After the custom of Christendie …/Fevers and fluxes are wasting my mother/Why has the Lord afflicted me?” And after several more verses, it goes, “We had a kettle, we let it leak/Our not repairing it made it worse/We haven’t had any tea for a week …/The bottom is out of the universe!” 

That poem is Kipling going, We blame the gods — the stories — for the [expletive] that we do, and we don’t always understand it. I would love to think that we are living in a world in which the story of progress, as in the original “Star Trek” series, is always upwards and onwards, and even if there will be mad times, eventually we get to the bridge of the Enterprise where all the problems of Earth have been sorted out. But I don’t know that we ever will. We are humans, and we do collective insanity really well.

Here's the whole poem, "Natural Theology":


I ate my fill of a whale that died
And stranded after a month at sea. . . .
There is a pain in my inside.
Why have the Gods afflicted me?
Ow! I am purged till I am a wraith!
Wow! I am sick till I cannot see!
What is the sense of Religion and Faith :
Look how the Gods have afflicted me!


How can the skin of rat or mouse hold
Anything more than a harmless flea?. . .
The burning plague has taken my household.
Why have my Gods afflicted me?
All my kith and kin are deceased,
Though they were as good as good could be,
I will out and batter the family priest,
Because my Gods have afflicted me!


My privy and well drain into each other
After the custom of Christendie. . . .
Fevers and fluxes are wasting my mother.
Why has the Lord afflicted me?
The Saints are helpless for all I offer--
So are the clergy I used to fee.
Henceforward I keep my cash in my coffer,
Because the Lord has afflicted me.


I run eight hundred hens to the acre
They die by dozens mysteriously. . . .
I am more than doubtful concerning my Maker,
Why has the Lord afflicted me?
What a return for all my endeavour--
Not to mention the L. S. D!*
I am an atheist now and for ever,
Because this God has afflicted me!


Money spent on an Army or Fleet
Is homicidal lunacy. . . .
My son has been killed in the Mons retreat,
Why is the Lord afflicting me?
Why are murder, pillage and arson
And rape allowed by the Deity?
I will write to the Times, deriding our parson
Because my God has afflicted me.


We had a kettle: we let it leak:
Our not repairing it made it worse.
We haven't had any tea for a week. . .
The bottom is out of the Universe!


This was none of the good Lord's pleasure,
For the Spirit He breathed in Man is free;
But what comes after is measure for measure,
And not a God that afflicteth thee.
As was the sowing so the reaping
Is now and evermore shall be.
Thou art delivered to thine own keeping. 

  Only Thyself hath afflicted thee!


*I got tripped up on "Not to mention the L. S. D!" But this helped:

L. S. D.: the abbreviation for the Latin Libræ solidi denarii ‘Pounds, shillings and pence

"[T]he early Christians believed that both the bodies that created life and the world that sustained it were proof of the 'continual creative activity of God.'"

"Women and nature were aligned, in this view, as the material sources of God’s plan. 'The word nature is derived from nascitura, which means "birthing," and nature is imagined and felt to be like a pregnant womb, a matrix, a mother,' [writes historian Barbara Duden]. But, in recent decades, she notes, the natural world has begun to show its irreparable damage. The fetus has been left as a singular totem of life and divinity, to be protected, no matter the costs, even if everything else might fall. The scholar Katie Gentile argues that, in times of cultural crisis and upheaval, the fetus functions as a 'site of projected and displaced anxieties,' a 'fantasy of wholeness in the face of overwhelming anxiety and an inability to have faith in a progressive, better future.' The more degraded actual life becomes on earth, the more fervently conservatives will fight to protect potential life in utero. We are locked into the destruction of the world that birthed all of us; we turn our attention, now, to the worlds—the wombs—we think we can still control."

"Patients were typically confused when presented with a clinic that looked mostly like a house and a little like a church."

"They described to me how anti-choice protesters would prolong and exploit this confusion to keep patients away from medical care for as long as possible, employing medical misinformation or simple guilt. When a car did make it into the clinic parking lot, the protesters could not physically approach whomever got out of it without trespassing, so they just yelled at them. They had an elevated platform for this purpose, built right up against the clinic’s property line...."  

They chose to talk about sex a lot. They tended to be opposed to birth control and were fond of explaining 'God’s plan for human sexuality.' One woman illustrated this plan with unasked-for details about her virtuous married sex life. She felt that abortion and hormonal birth control were murder, and that condoms were undignified. Her husband learned to suppress his sexual urges, she said, and they now had sex only for procreation.... 
I was confused by some protesters’ opposition to birth control and focus on virtuous motherhood. Because I was raised by blunt and truthful people, I first assumed the weekly standoff at the clinic was caused by an honest difference in opinion about abortion. This didn’t jibe with the protesters’ hatred of contraception.... 
All of society was telling me I was part of a cultural conflict over the question of when human life begins, but my experience was showing me the conflict was broader. The protesters appeared to want sexual expression and gender roles to be governed by conservative Christianity.... 
Publicly they claim the goal of saving unborn children. I sense that just below the surface there is a more ambitious dream: conservative Christian dominion over human sexuality and gender."

These are important questions: Is opposition to abortion really about saving the lives of the unborn? Or does opposition to abortion really come from a different place, a desire to control sexuality? Everyone can see the problem of killing the unborn, even those who want abortion to be available. The argument Skinner makes — and I've seen it before — is that what really puts you on one side or the other on this issue is whether you believe that society should channel people into expressing their sexuality within traditional marriage.


And WaPo, get the word editing right: It's not "the protesters could not physically approach whomever got out of it." It should be "the protesters could not physically approach whoever got out of it." Isolate the phrase that begins with the who/whom word — "whomever got out" — and the mistake is easy to see.

"The voice who had been with her longest warned of catastrophes coming for her family in Zionsville, a town north of Indianapolis, calamities tied in some unspecified way to..."

"... TV images from the gulf war: fighter planes, flashes in the sky, explosions on the ground, luminous and all-consuming. A woman’s voice castigated her at school, telling her that her clothes smelled and that she had better keep her hand down, no matter that she knew the answers to the teacher’s questions. Another voice tracked her every move, its tone faintly mocking. 'She’s getting out of bed now; oh, she’s walking down the hall now.'..."

From "Doctors Gave Her Antipsychotics. She Decided to Live With Her Voices. A new movement wants to shift mainstream thinking away from medication and toward greater acceptance" Daniel Bergner (NYT)(adapted from the book "The Mind and the Moon: My Brother’s Story, the Science of Our Brains, and the Search for Our Psyches"). 

[Caroline Mazel-Carlton] began leading Hearing Voices Network support groups — which are somewhat akin to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings — for people with auditory and visual hallucinations. The groups, with no clinicians in the room, gathered on secondhand chairs and sofas in humble spaces rented by the alliance. What psychiatry terms psychosis, the Hearing Voices Movement refers to as nonconsensus realities, and a bedrock faith of the movement is that filling a room with talk of phantasms will not infuse them with more vivid life or grant them more unshakable power. Instead, partly by lifting the pressure of secrecy and diminishing the feeling of deviance, the talk will loosen the hold of hallucinations and, crucially, the grip of isolation.... 

At the outset, Mazel-Carlton invited everyone to open up by reminding: “This is where I can go if I have direct experiences of the divine. It’s a place I can go, if I’m someone with a psychiatric label, to talk about spirituality without having my experience pathologized. We validate one another here.” 

A man described being rocked and comforted by “an upside-down angel” when he was growing up. Mazel-Carlton modeled an H.V.N. principle that prizes curiosity about other realities by asking the man for more about his experience. In reply to another participant, she said, “I’m so sorry that people are refusing to honor your soul’s identity.” 

Then a woman talked about visiting her grandmother in a nursing home during Covid and seeing her grandmother’s “glowing pink orb rising from her chest” and everything as “sparkling and glowing and timeless.” The woman said, “Everything was connected; there was this pulse, this flow” — and there was a fight with a nurse when the woman, feeling that she was God, took off her mask. A psychiatrist labeled her psychotic, “so I couldn’t keep telling him my experiences, because he was telling me I’m sick, and I’m not sick.” 

In this, according to the mainstream view, she was confirming her illness; denial of one’s diagnosis, termed anosognosia, is seen as a glaring symptom of psychotic disorder.

Much more at the NYT article (or, alternatively, the book).

David Mamet talks to Joe Rogan about why we need the Bible.


"To go back to the Enlightenment... If the human being is the measure of all things, what does that mean? Our reason. And our reason is completely flawed. All of us do things every day which are unreasonable, sinful, wrong, and absurd. Right? And the reasonable person says, wait a second, why'd I do that? What do I have to refer to in my confusion and my self-loathing? Well, the Bible was a pretty good bet.... Let's talk about human nature: You really aren't that smart. You really aren't in charge of the world. You really aren't. Although you think you are. You think that 'cause you're human. But God's in charge of the world, and there's a certain way things are, and if you'd like to get out of your wretched self-consciousness and self-delusion, you'd better get your ass into church."

"Those raised by professional-class parents... do not experience much in the way of an educational advantage from being religious. In some ways..."

"... religion even constrains teenagers’ educational opportunities (especially girls’) by shaping their academic ambitions after graduation; they are less likely to consider a selective college as they prioritize life goals such as parenthood, altruism and service to God rather than a prestigious career. However, teenage boys from working-class families, regardless of race, who were regularly involved in their church and strongly believed in God were twice as likely to earn bachelor’s degrees as moderately religious or nonreligious boys.... When [the] elites criticize religion, they often do so on the grounds that faith (in their eyes) is irrational and not evidence-based. But one can agree with the liberal critique of conservatism’s moral and political goals while still acknowledging that religion orders the lives of millions of Americans — and that it might offer social benefits...."

From "How Religious Faith Can Shape Success in School" (NYT). 

The article is by Ilana M. Horwitz, "an assistant professor of Jewish studies and sociology at Tulane University and the author of 'God, Grades, and Graduation.'" Focusing on Christian denominations , she "followed the lives of 3,290 teenagers from 2003 to 2012 using survey and interview data from the National Study of Youth and Religion, and then linking those data to the National Student Clearinghouse in 2016."

Talking to NYT readers — the highly educated, professional/managerial people — Horwitz seems to be saying: Don't be so dismissive of religion, because it may be the best substitute for the privilege that benefits you. Religion is practical. Not for you, of course, because you don't have the need. But for the others.

Doesn't that sound more elitist than looking down on religion?

Speaking of wanting to do things that work, it's not practical to disparage religious people... at least when the cameras are running.


ADDED: You may sacrifice educational and career opportunities if you prioritize parenthood, altruism, and service to God, but you may sacrifice parenthood, altruism, and service to God, if you prioritize educational and career opportunities. 

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

"To be sardonic is to be disdainfully or cynically humorous, or scornfully mocking."

Wikipedia explains at "Sardonicism," to which I was redirected when I clicked on the words "sardonic grin" in the caption "Sardo-Punic mask showing a Sardonic grin" under this riveting image:

I found that at the Wikipedia article "Punic people," which I was reading because the letter combination "punic" had arisen in the course of talking about a particular word puzzle.

But what is the "Sardonic grin"?

Both the concept and the etymology of the word ["sardonic"]... appear to stem from the Mediterranean island of Sardinia. The 10th-century Byzantine Greek encyclopedia Suda traces the word's earliest roots to the notion of grinning (Ancient Greek: σαίρω, romanized: sairō) in the face of danger, or curling one's lips back at evil.

One explanation for the later alteration to its more familiar form and connection to laughter (supported by the Oxford English Dictionary) appears to stem from an ancient belief that ingesting the sardonion (σαρδόνιον) plant from Sardinia (Σαρδώ) would result in convulsions resembling laughter and, ultimately, death. In Theory and History of Folklore, Vladimir Propp discusses alleged examples of ritual laughter accompanying death and killing, all involving groups. These he characterized as sardonic laughter:

Among the very ancient people of Sardinia, who were called Sardi or Sardoni, it was customary to kill old people. While killing their old people, the Sardi laughed loudly. This is the origin of notorious sardonic laughter (Eugen Fehrle, 1930). In light of our findings things begin to look different. Laughter accompanies the passage from death to life; it creates life and accompanies birth. Consequently, laughter accompanying killing transforms death into a new birth, nullifies murder as such, and is an act of piety that transforms death into a new life....

Risus sardonicus is an apparent smile on the face of those who are convulsing because of tetanus, or strychnine poisoning. From the Oxford English Dictionary, "A fixed, grin-like expression resulting from spasm of facial muscles, esp. in tetanus." Also:

[Convulsion of the] facial muscles may cause a characteristic expression called Risus sardonicus (from the Latin for scornful laughter) or Risus caninus (from the Latin for doglike laughter or grinning). This facial expression has also been observed among patients with tetanus. Risus sardonicus causes a patient's eyebrows to rise, eyes to bulge, and mouth to retract dramatically, resulting in what has been described as an evil-looking grin.

In 2009 scientists at the University of Eastern Piedmont in Italy claimed to have identified hemlock water dropwort as the plant responsible for producing the sardonic grin. This plant is the candidate for the "sardonic herb", which was a neurotoxic plant used for the ritual killing of elderly people in pre-Roman Sardinia. When these people were unable to support themselves, they were intoxicated with this herb and then dropped from a high rock or beaten to death.

If I read that correctly: The old people were given a substance that made them look like they were laughing while they were being murdered, and the murderers were also laughing, and not because they found it funny, but because they believed their laughing would transport their victim to a new life.

And that's what "sardonic" means.

"Religion gave us not just an afterlife, but a beforelife, too. God creates people as souls first and then gives them physical shape."

"'Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,' God says to Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5). 'Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be,' David says to God (Psalm 139:16).... Well, if you believe that people exist before they exist, that they’re waiting out there with God somewhere before they are 'heaven sent' into someone’s womb, then of course you’re going to put the needs of that (still pure and precious) person ahead of the needs of the (sinful) womb-holder.... To those of us who don’t believe in God, this sounds fantastical... Human lives, when seen this way, inhabit a strange kind of solidity even in the abstract: Before they live — even if they never live — these people were meant to be.... Reasonable people can disagree about when a developing fetus has rights that must be considered. And people who are happily pregnant might assign complete personhood to a pea-size clump of cells from the moment the pregnancy is confirmed. But how we feel about that clump is not the same as how it feels....  [E]veryone who asks how abortion advocates would feel if they had been aborted, as if unborn people hover about ruing their nonexistence — remind us that religion is driving our abortion debate. Religion — not reason and not compassion for people who already exist in this earthly realm." 

I'm just blogging, not writing a book, so I'm not going to engage with all of that. I will only make a few points:

1. If you don't believe in any world beyond our world, it's indeed easy to say you'd feel nothing if you were aborted. But what's the answer to the question what would you feel if you — you who who believe only in this life — were murdered? You get the same answer: Nothing! 

2. The belief that there is no life beyond this life is also a religious belief. You might want to stand apart from the openly religious people and claim that you — and not they — have true reason and true compassion, but you too are engulfed in belief.

3. I subscribed to the Disney Channel so I could watch the Beatles documentary, but I've used my access to check out some other things, one of which was the 2020 animated film "Soul." This film shows a man who gets off track to the afterlife and finds his way into the place where souls are formed before they can make their way into bodies. It's not presented within a specific religion's framework, but it's an extensive visualization of life before birth:
The filmmakers animated the souls featured in the film in a "vaporous", "ethereal", and "non-physical" way, having based their designs on definitions about souls given to them by various religious and cultural representatives. At the same time, they did not want the souls to look overly similar to ghosts, and adjusted their color palette accordingly.... Animators created two designs for the souls in the film; one for the new souls in "The Great Before", which animation supervisor Jude Brownbill described as "very cute, very appealing, with simple, rounded shapes and no distinguishing features just yet", and one for mentor souls, which do feature distinctive characteristics due to having been on Earth already.

This was a big Pixar film designed to appeal to everyone, not just believers in conventional religions that have doctrine relating to the creation of souls. 

4. The desire to believe in soul is very deeply embedded in the human mind, and if you're a person of reason and compassion, you should not find it easy to slough off.

"By 1532, Giulio Camillo, a professor at Bologna, suggested a means for transforming the mind through a uniquely powerful memory system of his own creation."David Mamet talks to Joe Rogan about why we need the Bible."Those raised by professional-class parents... do not experience much in the way of an educational advantage from being religious. In some ways...""To be sardonic is to be disdainfully or cynically humorous, or scornfully mocking.""Religion gave us not just an afterlife, but a beforelife, too. God creates people as souls first and then gives them physical shape."

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