Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

TV Review: The Handmaids Tale (2017).

May 4, 2017

 

The Handmaid’s Tale. (Dystopian Thriller)

9.5/10

Capsule Review: In 2004 the odious Brian Tamaki rallied his Destiny congregation for a march on Parliament to oppose Civil Unions. Some two thousand Evangelicals turned up (he had promised ten thousand) and dressed in black t-shirts pumped their fists in the air and chanted, “Enough is Enough”. Somewhat emboldened Tamaki predicted the Church’s political arm would triumph in the following years general election and turn New Zealand onto gods path. Want some idea of how that might have turned out? The Handmaid’s Tale will tell you all you need to know. One of the most potent and important stories ever conceived about the dangers of ideological theocracy (a system of government in which the religious rule in the name of a god) it has been turned into a TV series and the result is gut wrenching. Essential viewing for those concerned with liberty, freedom and justice. Otherwise The Handmaid’s Tale is brutal dystopian drama of the first order.

 

 

I didn’t want to watch this because knew what was in store: a horror of epic proportions (I have not read Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel but I have seen the very excellent 1990 film twice). Psychopaths, sadists and bestial violence – yes that and more, all of which I am pretty loath to tackle these days (as I get older I am discovering that I am les able to cope with the stress) but it is important, I told myself, to be reminded now and again of just how badly things can go wrong given the right set of circumstances.

The most glaring example of how a society can be hijacked by psychopathy is Hitler’s Germany but this is only one example out of the recent past that includes Stalin’s Russia, Mussolini’s Italy, Hoxa’s Albania and Ceaușescu’s Romania. Then there is Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the reign of the Argentinean Generals, Pinochet’s Chile and apartheid era South Africa to name a few worthy contenders not to forget the subjection and genocide of the American Indian and the brutal slave system in the American South………. but I digress.

In a future that is only moments removed from now, America’s second Civil War is set in motion by an infertility crisis and with the exception of Alaska and a bit of the Pacific Northwest, the Union is in ruins. A fundamentalist Biblical religious movement called ‘The Sons of Jacob’ have managed a successful coup and have renamed the USA ‘The Republic of Gilead’ achieving something very similar to what we saw the Taliban enable in Afghanistan for a time and what ISIS is trying to facilitate with its ‘pure’ Islamist Caliphate in parts of the Middle East at this very moment.

The result is a nightmare for women and male non-believers as the Constitution is suspended and a new ‘moral code’ is enacted. The ‘Eyes’, a secretive police force charged with enforcing the strict new laws based on old Testament biblical morality, are everywhere (akin to Iran’s Gasht-e Ershad – Moral Police) and brutal with it. People are hauled off the street for minor and serious infringements and punishments ranging from eye removal to arbitrary hangings are now normal.

The judicial system could easily be compared with the Nazi’s ‘People’s Court’ where the accused are formally charged and penalties are handed out with no right of redress. Otherwise society is confined to a series of strange and perverse rituals designed to appease god for the moral waywardness that has resulted in the fertility crisis. The Handmaid’s of the title are those few women still able to conceive and thus blessed are set aside for mating with high-ranking officials. They are both treasured and jealously despised. They are also slaves.

Of course this society is immensely sadistic, punitive and corrupt as all extremist ideologies are and those at the top of the hierarchy pay due tribute to the law but behind closed doors they live as they please. The philosophy of ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ is well-examined, reinforcing age-old warnings about those who flaunt their piety. These sort are often not pious at all, more like opportunists in search of the main chance. Images of American Republican notables like Paul Ryan and Ted Cruise on their knees and praying in public outside the White House come to mind.

 

We first met actress Elizabeth Moss in the groundbreaking TV series Mad Men (2007-2015) a few years back and latterly she has appeared in hit Kiwi mini-series Top Of The Lake (Directed by Jane Campion -2013). In The Handmaids Tale she tackles the complex lead role of June (later renamed Offred), a woman struggling under a kind of duress that is almost impossible to fathom.

A student, wife and mother with a job, she is a fairly standard representation of the modern American woman and through a series of flashbacks we examine her life in the ‘time before the fall’. An especially chilling scene is early on in the piece when June’s credit card is declined. “But I have four thousand dollars in my account” she says.

Yes she does, except the new laws enacted that day restrict a woman’s right to an independent life and require that a close male relative manage her finances. Besides “We don’t serve sluts here” she is incredulously informed. The next day all female employees at her work place are laid off and sent home ‘where they belong’. This brave new world is a man’s one and you conform or die. Simple as that.

She is now a slave womb in servitude to one of the most powerful men in Gilead the powerful and high-ranking Commander Waterford and through her eyes we examine the ritual, process and fear that makes up the machinery of the Handmaid system. The Commander and his infertile wife are counting on Offred to provide them with the child they need to bolster their social position and salve their precarious emotional state.

Besides Moss’s contained and deeply nuanced portrayal of Offred (whose head is being kept above water out of hope she might find her confiscated daughter) the talented cast includes Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love, Enemy at the Gates, American Horror Story) as the Commander, Yvonne Strahovski (Dexter, Chuck) as Serena Joy the Commander’s bitter wife and Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls) as Ofglen, Offred’s Handmaid shopping partner (shopping for the ‘families’ food is part of a Handmaid’s duties).

Her real name is Emily and she is a ‘gender traitor’, the new term for gay people, and when she is discovered having an affair with a ‘Martha’ (a lowly infertile female household servant) her punishment is genital mutilation. (Her life is otherwise spared because she is fertile – not so lucky the ‘Martha’) but the after Moss, the standout performer is Ann Dowd (a instantly recognizable character actor of roles to numerous to mention) as Aunt Lydia, instructor and guardian of the Handmaids.

Margaret Atwood talked to RNZ Broadcaster Kim Hill recently and in a wide-ranging interview shared her thoughts and feelings about The Handmaids Tale. A child of the 1930s she was born under the shadow of totalitarian regimes of various stripes including fascism and communism. She describes how these regimes happen as well as the personality types that make them work – from the complaint though to the sadistic and Aunt Lydia is nothing if not sadistic. In fact Aunt Lydia is exactly the type who made the Nazi extermination camps work as efficiently as they did.

 

I don’t usually review a TV series until I have seen the first season at least. It’s for reasons of clarity – making sure that I have seen enough so I can provide as substantive review as possible and besides, it hardly matters if you are a bit behind as streaming has changed the when and whys of viewing. A decent series is going to be just as potent in two years from now as it will be tomorrow so there is no real rush but there are exceptions and The Handmaids Tale is one of those because it is such an important and prescient story in light of the ‘populist’ politics at work in the world today.

Here I am thinking of Trump’s America, Duterte’s Philippines, and Erdogan’s Turkey among others and while the series sticks close to Atwood’s sharply drawn premise it manages some decent commentary on the current state of the USA and the growing influence of Evangelical politicians.

 

This is a skillfully conceived production and the attention to detail is astonishing. The camera work in particular needs special mention with every frame being a minor miracle of composition (often like something out of a Vermeer painting) and an example to all about how the lens can be used but so often isn’t. My only quibble is with Moss’s voice over which veers from commentary to diarist. When it is the former it works superbly. When it is the latter, not so much. Here it seeks to explain unnecessarily what the visuals are already describing aptly. In this context it is irritating.

Otherwise this is a gut-wrenching affair. I began this review by calling it a ‘Horror’ and that is what it is and the beast under the spotlight is not something exterior, but something from within – a monster created by the psyche and cast into life by social dysfunction. This is the greatest terror of all, man’s inhumanity to man by way of extremist devotion to belief and Atwood’s story reminds us that that this beast lurks behind every heartbeat waiting for the right moment to appear. This is why The Handmaid’s Tale is so important; because it reminds of how easily social cohesion can be undermined in times of stress and confusion. Beware, be wary and be warned.

 

Check out Kim Hill’s interview with Margaret Atwood here: http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/saturday/audio/201841216/margaret-atwood-the-resurgence-of-the-handmaid’s-tale

 

Other notable works exploring dystopian political themes include:

George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (The 1966 film version was directed by French film master François Truffaut and is a lot better than many critics would have you believe)

The Children of Men by P.D James (The 2006 film is well on its way to ‘revered cult’ status)

Make Room Make Room by Harry Harrison (the very excellent film version is called Soylent Green)

The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin (Like Orwell’s Animal Farm this work puts the ideologies of communism and capitalism under the spotlight and finds both wanting)

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

The Giver by Louis Lowry

The Trial by Franz Kafka (The great film director Orson Welles’s 1962 film version is hard work but visually stunning)

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick (The brilliantly conceived TV series is well worth a visit)

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Morris and the Comportment of a Good Heart.

April 11, 2017

 

 

Morris was not long married and father of one when he signed on with the British Army as a Chaplin in 1939. He would not see his family again for five and a half years.

“I feel asleep in a trench in the Burmese jungle and woke up to find myself surrounded by Japanese soldiers. They must have thought I was dead because they were taking no notice of me so I stayed dead for a few hours. Suddenly there were shots and two Jap’s fell down about me and the rest fled. A moment later members of my unit piled into the trench and one said ‘we got about five miles down the line and we realised we had lost you Padre’. They fixed me some food and a hot drink and off we went”.

About two months before he died he grabbed my hand and said he had a confession to make and needed absolution. I looked about like a startled hare and wondered if I was the right person for the job but he wasn’t hearing any of it. “I have never told anyone this but I need to get it off my chest. I had two affairs during the war. Once with an Indian nurse while on leave in India and once with a Chinese schoolteacher while on leave in South Africa. “You have to understand I was young and lonely and sure that I was going to die out there and I was looking for warmth and connection”. He paused for a moment then asked me if I thought he was a bad man? I didn’t and told him so. He seemed relieved.

 

Morris was an Anglican vicar who had felt the call to serve ‘the loving Jesus’ since he was a child. “I never rose through the ranks because I refused to play the game.” The game he was referring to was politics. Morris didn’t care about being seen to do the right thing, he did as he felt and this included tending to the needs of homosexual parishioners in a time when homosexuality was not only a mortal sin but also illegal with it. This did not make him popular with his peers nor did his acceptance of other faiths including Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. “At their best they are all paths to love” he confirmed.

It was his open mindedness that bought him and his wife to New Zealand, that and a daughter who had married a Kiwi and had moved out here several years earlier. She sent him a clipping from the NZ Herald about an iconic Anglican church in the heart of a major NZ city that was falling on hard times and in need of a vicar who could make a difference. Morris got the job and in 1967 he and his wife made the big move and began life afresh.

I wished I had of asked him more about these times because as I am writing I am only beginning to realise how spare my knowledge of him is. I am recalling snippets about how he revitalised the parish by organising dances for single Christians wanting to meet other single Christians and putting on special services for Gay Christians. They retired in 1979 and moved to the Central Waikato to be near their daughter.

Morris flirted with my then wife, a pretty and vibrant young woman of considerable charm while reassuring me that it was all a game. “I am a eunuch you see old boy so I am no competition to you.” He had contracted testicular cancer a few years before I met him and they had been removed. Not long after he had lost his beloved wife to illness. This last one was real blow and he staggered back to life determined to find new meaning. “I lost interest in the Church of England. It was moribund and had forgotten the essential Christian message of love”. Like me his searching had bought him to the Rosicrucian Lectorium, a Gnostic Christian sect based at Karapiro just outside of Cambridge.

The Rosicrucians suited Morris to a tee. They were Christian but they also borrowed heavily from the Eastern spirituality that had long impressed him. He liked their egalitarian attitude and enjoyed their fellowship though he couldn’t cope with their vegetarianism. He was part Basque and carried that peculiar Basque genetic profile that meant his body could not absorb iron from plant food. He needed flesh.

Otherwise he saw through their more pretentious allusions and made a great deal of fun at their expense. These Rosicrucians, (or as he liked to call them: The Rosy Crustaceans) were of Dutch origin and being typically dour were ripe for the picking. He referred to their founding figure Jan van Rijckenborgh as J Rickenfuhrer or Rickenburger as the mood took him all in honor of Rijckenborgh’s instruction that the leader should never be exalted. Of course they exalted him, at every turn, but Morris was always there waving the satirical flag to remind them of their obligations.

In this context he referred to their bi-monthly magazine The Pentagram as The Penthouse. To their credit they put up with up with it possibly because he was creakingly old and to protest would just be wrong headed. Still, for those of us less inclined toward unswerving fealty he was fresh air blowing out the bull dust.

Once he decided to surprise his daughter and her husband by going out to their farm with the idea of completing the renovations underway on their house while they were on holiday. He managed to pull the roof in on their living room while inadvertently setting their entire winters wood supply alight. That story followed him about like a bad smell and any mention of it were the only times I ever saw him look displeased.

Halfway through his ninety-third year his body shut down and he went fast. It was a peaceful death at home in his own bed surrounded by friends and family. The Anglican Bishop of the Waikato officiated at the funeral and stood before us all in his finery and waxed lyrical about Morris’s eccentricities (his Gnostic faith) and suggested that god would take into account all Morris’s good work and forgive him for his aberrations. Seriously, I wanted to kick the smug bastard where it hurt the most and regret that I didn’t. I have seldom before or since met a person with a truer heart than Morris’s. A man who judged no one but himself, he didn’t deserve to go out on a snipe like that.

 

 

 

 

Van Morrison, Mike Nesmith and the Road to Enlightenment.

April 11, 2017

 

 

From 1977 through to 1982 Van Morrison had a neat run of radio hits in New Zealand that included Wavelength, Cleaning Windows, Full Force Gale and Bright Side of the Road. I liked them all, especially the last one and decided to add some Van to my album collection. I was going through a heady Flying Nun thing at the time so musically this was quite a departure.

Before I go on I should acknowledge the apparent paucity of my Van choices. I became friends with an avid Morrison fan a few years back and said over a beer “Oh! I like Van too”. His interest piqued he asked what my favourites were and as I listed the aforementioned songs his falling expression said it all – I had it wrong. Very wrong. “What? No Moondance, Brown Eyed Girl, Astral Weeks, Gloria………..” (It was a long list).

He decided I needed educating and over the next weeks proceeded to play me some ‘proper’ Van. His pot was good and he had a fridge full of Mac’s Gold so who was I to complain. Did he change me? No, he had missed the point. The thing that had connected me to Van had less to do with music than with the message.

I look back on those years and a series of albums that include Beautiful Vision, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, A Sense of Wonder, Into the Mystic, Enlightenment and No Guru, No Method No Teacher and it’s all about the artist searching for meaning – something to explain himself to himself while exploring the overarching mystery of existence that was drawing me in.

If I were to sum up the overall mood of this loose collection it would be ‘reaching for the transcendent’. Through these years Van was a seeking spiritual truth/enlightenment and his songs were asking to similar questions to the ones that were swirling about my psyche. While I liked Van’s tunefulness it was in his lyrics that struck a chord with me, a kid who was in the process of casting aside the Catholicism of his youth and embarking upon new adventures of the mind and spirit.

At this juncture I should pause for a moment to consider what it is I mean by enlightenment and after some thought I have settled on a series of words: perspective, knowledge, informed understanding, insight, clarity. In a classic spiritual sense, someone who is seeking ‘enlightenment’ is exploring the workings of the mind in order to better understand suffering and unhappiness.

The literature tells us that that desire, attachment to worldly things (including inherited tradition and possessions), expectation and ambition imprison and limit us. Enlightenment is the liberation of oneself from this psychological imprisonment. Once free of our cultural programming we are able to experience life in unique and exciting new ways.

I purchased No Guru, No Method, No Teacher on the title alone. It was ‘Guru’ that caught my attention. Except for some Beatle references as regard their passing flirtation with Indian spirituality I knew little else about the term but felt that there might be something worth exploring here. My first task was trying to figure what it was Van was trying to say with this title and this being pre-internet days it meant scouring whatever music magazines on offer at the library looking for information via reviews and interviews.

There wasn’t much but I did find a review that suggested Van was a Gnostic Christian though it didn’t elaborate. I learned that Gnosticism referred to a kind of Western esoteric mysticism that emphasised letting go of worldly preoccupations in order to achieve a ‘higher’ form of understanding about life, the universe and everything – yeah, just like Eastern Spirituality. I also learned that within the many wisdom schools (that exist in parallel with most every major world religion) there are numerous ways of seeking enlightenment that do not always include a method or guide.

The no guru, no method, no teacher approach is all about using a combination of self-reflective analysis and research to find your own peaceful accord with the mysteries but it is controversial approach and not popular with those who declare that enlightenment cannot be achieved without assistance. The cynical might suggest that lack of financial gain or institutional control may have a role to play with this perspective. One especially virulent Guru proponent declared, “This way is just anarchy. People require guidance – no ifs or buts about it”. As for Guru, it is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘master teacher’ as opposed to a ‘generalised teacher’.

Christian Gnostics did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God, more an enlightened teacher. This put them swiftly offside with the early Christian church and they were literally rubbed out of existence. The survivors became secretive and hidden – they had to and this is a tradition that has endured to this day. These sects often shroud themselves in mystery and use arcane symbolic language to conceal their message. Check out the situation of the French Cathar’s in 1209 to get a more complete picture of the psychology at work.

Gnosticism is from the Greek word Gnostic meaning ‘knowledge’ and the emphasis is on intuitive knowledge rather than intellectual knowledge. European Gnosticism was probably influenced by ideas picked up from Merchant trains out of the East (Buddhism is another notable influence) and has been at large before the Greek gods were even a twinkle in the historical firmament. Later they grafted the Jesus into their belief system and evolved in new directions though older forms have persisted.

Gnosticism, as I discovered, is no different to other belief systems, fractured into a multitude of parts each claiming pre-eminence over the others. I got in deep for a year or so before waking up to the reality of the situation, that I had swapped one belief system for another and was exactly back where I did not want to be when I had left the Catholic faith of my youth.

But it wasn’t all a loss. The sect I found myself in taught me a few useful things like: “Tear down the mental constructs inside of you and rid yourself of everything you think you ‘know’ and here on the empty landscape of the mind discover your true self”. It has proven a useful method but one has to be very wary of erecting a whole new set of constructs in the place of the old. Otherwise the system of reflective self-analysis they taught has helped me to evolve as a person.

 

Van makes mention of numerous Western esoteric traditions in his music including metaphysical treatise The Golden Dawn and the Theosophical Movement ( Theosophy is mash up of spiritual ideas drawing from diverse sources). Well known spiritual philosopher Alan Watts gets a song, and esoteric Irish poet W.B Yeats is ticked off on the track Rave on John Donne (Inarticulate Speech of the Heart 1983) along with a host of other esoteric luminaries including Walt Whitman.

Then there is the more mundane and less exciting Christian orthodoxy (his ghastly 1989 Christian duet with Cliff Richards – May God Shine his Light was probably the nadir of this period). On his recommendation I explored them all (except for the Jesus love us stuff – had been there and done that) and found value as well as a whole lot of jiggery pokery.

But it wasn’t just Van who was teaching me stuff. In 1977 I wrote to former Monkee Mike Nesmith (remember fan mail) telling him how much I liked his song Rio, which had been a huge hit across Australasia. But more than the song itself was the title of the album it was off: From A Radio Engine to the Photon Wing. Now what was that all about I thought as my mind conjured up strange images of landscapes beyond the confines of space and time? Mike wrote back and with the letter came a box full of records he had made including one called The Prison (he explained nothing but seemed grateful some kid was taking notice).

A book with a soundtrack, The Prison was my first introduction to the album as a conceptual device and I loved it. It was the first vinyl record I wore out. The album opens with the words: ‘Life is the unsuspecting captive of a million dreams, chains of desire bind so vastly to the earth. Seeing the attachment born, of knowing all those things, being alone and at one with the joys of rebirth’ – Opening Theme: Life, the Unsuspecting Captive.

I had no idea what this all meant but it resonated with me and I sang it to myself over and over trying to get to grips with the ideas at play. Later Van led me to Gnosticism and Gnosticism to the Tao De Ching (our particular sect was very big on the Tao De Ching, a Chinese philosophical text dating back some three thousand years), which led me to the ideas outlined in The Prison. Nesmith was big on the Tao (or ‘the way’) and metaphors alluding to it abound throughout his music catalogue.

Tao is the essential, unnamable process of the universe and The Tao De Ching instructs us in the art of letting go and learning to roll with the nature of things and in the process discovering peace and fulfilment. Resistance it tells is not only futile, it is counterproductive. Nesmith’s potent 1972 contractual obligation album, the ironically titled And The Hit’s Just Keep On Coming even features a track called Roll With The Flow featuring a series of narratives linked by a refrain that goes – I roll with the flow wherever it goes and its rolling out of here. Otherwise filled out with lyrical flourishes like ‘he was a didactic minister’ ‘she was a lacklustre lover’, he also taught me a lot about lyric writing, wordplay and phrasing.

Beyond his pop superstardom, movie production (he was the brains behind classic cult film Repo Man) esoteric mysticism, car racing and business career (he is a successful entrepreneur as was his mother – she who invented Liquid Paper), Nesmith is a progressive thinker dedicated to all manner of causes like The Council of Ideas- a forum dedicated to solving the great problems of our times. He is interested in technology and his ‘Video Ranch’ is a pioneering online shopping and recreational site.

Much like Van, Nesmith has maintained a singular musical career and has been beholden to no one, including The Monkees, sidestepping most of the reunion tours and associated activities. “I am to busy” is his standard reply to questions on this subject. He also refuses to sign autographs. The Prison is an allegory about the cultural constructs that imprison our minds and blind us to the vast potential beyond perceived reality and I will be ever grateful to Nesmith for opening that particular door for me.

 

Eamon, a guy I know from Belfast – Van’s base and hometown, told me that he was selling natural gas for the home on the phone and the next name on the list was a Mr V. Morrison. “Can’t be I thought to myself but the feck it was.” he said. “So what did he say?” I asked. “Told me feck off then thought better of it and asked how much then signed up.” How many people can say they have sold natural gas to Van Morrison?

Another story concerns his father who was doing backstage security the night Belfast threw a big concert to celebrate Van’s 70th birthday back in 2015. “My Da said he was drinking before the show and being a difficult c**t but they got him on-stage in one piece and he was brilliant”. I took everything Eamon said with a pinch of salt because he had a fair share of the blarney about him. Still he was entertaining and played the consummate Irishman abroad well.

In his biography Testament Band guitarist/songwriter Robbie Robertson tells about rehearsing with Van for the concert film The Last Waltz. Nervous, anxious and prickly (and a little drunk) throughout Van turned up late on the night dressed in an Elvis one piece and armed with Elvis style karate style kicks proceeded to knock the roof off the show. Complex, unfathomable but when push comes to shove…….

He often alludes to the difficult aspects of his nature in song and has clearly struggled with life and living at times. But enlightenment, when you distil it down, is mostly about learning to ‘know’ yourself and coming to terms with who and what you are. I get the sense he found his peace with himself and has moved on from his restless searching. Grumpy and contrary are a better fit for the man than smiling over at Cliff Richards while singing about Jesus the lord and saviour.

We are what we are and for many of us the best we can do is recognise the worst about ourselves while keeping a firm eye on the good. So much of human life is bulldust. Eschew the crap, cast aside the clutter of ideas and learn the value of silence and everything will be as it should be. This is enlightenment according to Lao Tzu the composer of the Tao De Ching.

Flowing robes, a serene countenance, adoring devotes – yeah probably not so much. That’s more like cheap perfume. And as for music, sometimes it is nothing more than a catchy tune. Other times it can be a life altering experience. Whatever, as an art form it’s ability to influence should never be underestimated.

‘No guru, no method, no teacher, just you and I and nature, and the father in the garden’ – Van Morrison.

 

 

Richard Dawkins: The Unbeliever.

April 12, 2016

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A while back I realised that I did not know as much as I thought about Darwin and his paradigm shifting ‘Origin of Species’ and in my quest to sharpen my understanding of Darwin’s legacy I watched a TV series exploring the man and his work hosted by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (‘The Genius of Charles Darwin, 2008), a person whose name I had seen bandied about but knew little of outside his ‘banner waving’ atheism and association with evolutionary science.

The series was a little underwhelming and I didn’t learn anything that I didn’t already know but I learned an awful lot about Dawkins, a man of absolute conviction with a fondness for polemic. While I did not disagree with his anti-religious sentiment I found his own world view a little blinkered, especially on the subject of scientific reason. Perhaps I am being too harsh because the man feels passionately but seems to struggle to express himself as fully as he might. However, I was interested enough to give another series called ‘The God Delusion’ (2006) a spin.

A visual account of his best selling book of the same name, here Dawkins lets rip at those extreme sort of religious believers who dismiss science in favour of bronze age fairytales (his words not mine), quite rightly pointing that humanities old stories about ourselves no longer fit in light of new knowledge about how the world came to be. He goes on to suggest that these people are evil potential: wilfully ignorant and happy to use fear and violence to protect their belief system/world view, a perspective I agree with fully.

The 2013 Netflix documentary film ‘The Unbelievers’ examines the Dawkins phenomenon as stadium filling atheist rock star. Dawkins is on the road with friend and colleague physicist Lawrence Katz. Both men are frustrated with the religious world view and are on a crusade to change hearts and minds. Listening to them speak to adoring audiences about the beauty of evidence based reason while making dismissive comments behind the scenes about those who see things differently was, for me at least, a little uncomfortable, not because I disagreed with much of what they were saying I simply did not agree with their absolutist conclusion that reason precludes the idea of a creative intelligence at work in the machinery of existence.

Okay, cards on the table time, I am not a god believer (in the human centric sense of the term at least) but neither and I a strident atheist- the question is too big and the unknowns to numerous for me to be able make a comfortable assessment and to say ‘this is absolutely how it is’ especially in light of the work of physicists like Katz who are attempting to flush out the mysteries that underlie the universe: What is the Universe and where does it come from? These questions are the new holy-grail in our quest for understanding and they are questions whose answers have the potential to answer nothing, rather to simply open more doors to broader horizons.

The ‘absolute truth’ is concept is best left alone for today’s certainties have a tricky habit of turning into tomorrow’s quant philosophies. Science is an ever evolving/broadening/shifting canvas of inquiry forever opening up new frontiers. Yes, we should embrace the pursuit of rational knowledge and yes we should be frightened of those who perpetuate ignorance as lifestyle choice. Yes we should be open minded but being open minded does not preclude thought experiments which may not be acceptable to believers, and here I am talking religious and the non-religious alike.

Atheistic absolutism is as dangerous an ideology as any, here I cite Nazism and Communism, and our challenge in building a more just, inclusive and informed human world is lifting our eyes above and beyond the strictures of the black and white perspective favoured by Dawkins and those he opposes so rigorously.

The cult of Dawkins is not a dangerous one, just a blinkered one that is somewhat suspicious of imaginative enquiry. It is imagination that allows us to navigate the unknown, formulate ideas then use scientific reason to study these ideas. Ideas can be seductive and a healthy dose of cynicism can do us all a world of good; our responsibility as thoughtful thinkers is to be careful about our ideas becoming impenetrable ivory towers. After several hours with Dawkins I came away understanding that to some degree we are all believers and that believing in something is part of the human condition. Dawkins is a believer, he just doesn’t see it.

Don’t freak, I’m Sikh

November 15, 2015

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Fridays and Saturdays nights on Auckland’s Queen St are when the religious come out to sell their wares. An elderly man with a long grey beard sings scratchy little songs on a ukulele about Jesus and eternal damnation. When he isn’t singing he lets us know in no uncertain terms that Mohammed is a false prophet and that we, you and I, are in desperate need of ‘saving’. He speaks in terms of absolutes and uses fear as a selling point. He message is not terribly palatable but hell, the ‘truth’ never is.

Down the way a buff and macho young Polynesian man is also selling truth. “You see,” he says thrusting a bible out toward the passing crowd, “I was a sinner. I used drugs and drank alcohol and had sex with lots of women then I found the truth,” he waves the bible around some more before proclaiming: “I WAS SAVED.” “Why would you want to be saved from that?” I quipped toward the Alpha Male type running the show this evening. It was impulsive of me. I was tired and grumpy. He was unimpressed and I don’t blame him.

Next up are the Mormon’s. They are bold American’s selling ideas the way McDonald’s sells fries, with persuasive guile and gleaming smiles. They walk in suited in pairs, greeting everyone as they go sharp eyes seeking out an opportunity to ‘pitch’ their story. They remind me of circling sharks.

A canny and ambitious Indian religious teacher goes to America and the result is Krishna Consciousness. This Hindu sect is an American innovation and like their cousins the Mormon’s, they ‘hard sell’ their version of the ‘truth’. They want your heart and soul and financial resources, a typically American preoccupation that the Krishna’s have honed to a fine art. On Friday nights, they bring their women out and party up hard, dancing and making music in honour of their Lord. Religious ecstasy makes for a beguiling spectacle but at heart this is a conservative outfit with patriarchal tendencies, strict rules and some extreme ideas, fairly typical stuff for this end of town.

The Pilipino group down by Aotea Square put on a regular a passion play. It’s a little bit Sound Of Music with a big dose of interpretive dance. Their Jesus tends toward compassion and virtue and stands in stark contrast to the ‘Jesus of the fear and loathing’ their neighbours favour.

The other notable religious group on Queen St are the turbaned Sikh who are not out selling religion, they are just out and having a good time. The turban is a sign of devotion to the Sikh way of life and a statement that says the wearer is a man or woman of integrity, one who believes in equality and follows a path of compassionate living.

Sadly since the rise of terrorist groups like ISIS, the less informed have confused the Sikh turban with the traditional headdress worn extensively by Middle Eastern men, an innocent enough item of clothing designed to shield the wearer from the Sun and windblown desert sand, it has more recently become associated with militant Islamic extremism and like the hijab (the scarf like head covering worn by many Muslim women) has become an item that in some eyes singles out the wearer as a person of suspicion.

 

Sikhism was created by Guru Nanak Dev (1469 – 1539) in response to the ongoing sectarian warfare between Hindu and Muslims that was the condition of his Punjab homeland (North India) at that time, (Guru is a title bestowed upon those considered to be wise and expert teachers).

Appalled by the harsh social conditions engendered by religious extremism Nanak Dev designed a values system that addressed religious intolerance, social inequality and offered a clear and deeply considered description of the meaning of God meant to counter the misconception common between people’s that different religion meant different god. His idea of God was a unifying principle that came without all the usual human centric add-ons. He was an astute politician whose progressive social philosophy gave rise to a cultural movement that currently numbers some 35 million people worldwide.

The three underlying principles of the Sikh way are: Sharing with others / Making an honest living / Remembering God at all times. Otherwise, ‘Be selfless, fight superstition, have empathy with the poor and less fortunate’. Dev’s message was simple and without affectation: “Live an active, creative, and practical life of truthfulness, fidelity, self-control and purity”

Social Equality is an essential element of being Sikh and Dev declared male and female equal in all things, remember this was in the 15th century and in the context of its time, a revolutionary declaration. The goal of a Sikh is to have no hate or animosity to any person regardless of race, caste, colour, creed, gender, or sexuality. Sikhs believe that ‘all religious traditions are equally valid and capable of enlightening their followers’. Sikhs respect Jesus and other prophets but do not believe that Jesus or any other prophet is the only way to meet God.

What is God?

God is first and foremost, love. Secondly, there is no Muslim, Hindu, Christian nor Sikh God, there is just God. Otherwise God is: indescribable, inestimable, indubitable, infallible, intangible, imperishable, immutable, immortal, immaculate, immanent, unconquerable, unique, formless, fearless, deathless, timeless, ageless, compassionate, omnipresent and creator of all. God, in other words, is an elemental mystery that cannot be quantified, but can be experienced. God is an ‘experience’ that encourages peace and love.

The Sikh culture values learning and casts an open mind toward the world. Nanak Dev, himself an avid traveller, encouraged travel as an educational opportunity and a way to broaden ones horizons. In that context it is worth noting that there has been a Sikh presence in NZ for around a 100 years, most notably in the Waikato where they are sizeable players in the regions behemoth Dairy Industry.

“The community is one of the best anywhere,” replies a young Indian Muslim man to my query about Sikhism. “I was advised by my father that if I get into trouble in NZ I must go to a Gurudwara, they will help.” The Gurudwara, (The Lords Place), can be identified by tall flagpoles bearing the Sikh flag, the Nishan Sahib.  The buildings are usually white and sometime posses a golden dome. The Gurudwara is a place of sanctity. Common to each Temple is a communal kitchen.

A free meal is to be found 24hours a day for anyone (Sikh or not) at each and every Gurudwara. This is a practical demonstration of sharing. Everyone gets the same meal on the same plate in the same proportions. Everyone eats off the same bowl sitting on the same level floor. This is a practical lesson in equality.

If I have made Sikhism sound like some transcendent utopia I apologise because it’s not. Sikhism is like any religious/political culture, it has been around long enough to have been corrupted by habit and suffers the same ills as most human enterprises; those dedicated to Nanak Dev’s essential message of equality and compassion are beset by the reactionary, the conservative and those who are there only by way of family tradition. That’s said; Sikhism at its very best encourages a degree of integrity among its numbers that is rare in the world and Dev’s essential message of equality remains one for the ages.

The last word goes to a young turbaned man I accost in the hallway. What does it mean to be Sikh? He pauses to gather his thoughts and replies, “Sikh are the people that help other people.”

 

British born Indian Pardeep Singh Bahra made the video ‘Don’t Freak I’m Sikh’ (available to view on YouTube) to explain the purpose of the turban: “Sikhism is a religion of equality and the turban should be viewed as a symbol of that. The next time you see a turbaned man walking the streets, remember that he is a man of love, equality and peace… The next time you see a Sikh, you’ll know the turbans true meaning. My turban reminds me to be a good person.”

 

Sikhs do not pursue people to convert them to Sikhism but if someone wants to become a Sikh, they are welcome to join, a stark philosophical contrast to the religious salespeople that ply the streets calling out our sins and asking for our hearts, minds and money in return for salvation. The Sikh way is exemplified not by dogmatic words but by living example.