Posts Tagged ‘religion’

The Long Now

20 June 2011

Dear J-

The Clock of the Long Now is underway and when complete it will chime once a year for ten thousand years. That is assuming that our descendants don’t find some way into a new dark age and take the magic of their past apart to salvage advanced metals and machined parts. If there are any lessons to learn from the Antikythera Mechanism then we will continue to be respectful of the past and curious but believe that we’re still more advanced, that we’ve moved forward in technology by the mere movement of years. Ten thousand years from now we may regard the efforts of the Long Now as quaint as reciprocating steam engines and high-wheel bicycles if not completely incomprehensible.

Given the current pace of the state of the art there’s no way to know where we’ll be ten years from now. Twenty years ago the state of the art was wrapped up in a VGA wrapper and color monitors were a fourteen inch expense. Ten years on we were starting to see flat panels. Now tubes are reserved for the retro grouch and VGA is something found on the sad crappy smartphones that they give away with new accounts. I have had a long day and the speculation of how a machine designed to run for ten thousand years makes me think of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem: will we be creating a new religion to promulgate the proper operation and maintenance?

What form would it take? I can see initial generations being flexible and willing to rewrite the instructions but after a few centuries the strucures would become ossified. The years continue to roll and “because that’s what it says” becomes an adequate reason. I already see it with items at the plant today, unearthing thirty-year-old drawings and data sheets to see if we can find modern parts and replacements and I don’t envy the maintainers of the Long Now their burden.




25 September 2010

Dear J-

They say that you can’t count on people to share your politics or your religion (and I would extend that to include music too) but bear with me as I digress for a minute here. Although we were not a regular churchgoing family (my parents’ preferred church* was twenty miles away), I have developed a sort of religion — not a capital R organized sort of Religion**, but more of a personal stance on the everyday miracles that make me think there’s something intelligent up there pulling strings and putting things straight.

There is of course the miracle of you: of the billions of people in the world, it boils down to two people and of those, there’s any one of hundreds of eggs and millions of spermatozoa that could have combined. The astronomical odds boggle the mind. Might a guiding hand have some invisible influence in the process? I suppose this is how it all starts: people start thinking how and why and before you know it there’s an explanation, a creation story that encompasses what we know and how we count it.

The strange ideas I come up with to explain the world in terms I understand don’t bear much mention except to think of the invisible hand as a sort of cosmic accountant: for something here, we need to take away from something there. In all the wish tales I’ve read, the literal meaning of the wish is fulfilled without regard to the intent, so a birth comes from a soul freed by death, riches taken from something else you wanted; a never-ending cycle of O. Henry’s Gift of the Magi. I wonder at our good fortune, worrying about what it must mean for someone else.


* I think they chose the church they did primarily for social reasons: it was the only Chinese congregation at the time, sermons were delivered bilingually, and the last Sunday night of the month was a potluck where we were regular attendees. The church shared space with the Grace Baptist Church, though we were generally shunted into a small basement room while services were held in the gracious upstairs space. It used to inspire a kind of strange gnawing envy: why didn’t we get the chance to head upstairs?

** My main objection to such Religion are the acts committed in the name of Religion from Crusades to jihad, Prohibition, and everything in between.

Big Lies

18 August 2010

Dear J-

Much has been made of the proposed mosque at Ground Zero, now made consecrated ground by the events of 11 Sept 2001. Self-styled conservatives are the ones making the loudest noises of protest, precisely on the grounds that letting “those people” worship at that site is sacrilege. Barring the mosque would be unconstitutional (it would be struck down by any judge with a rudimentary knowledge) and therefore indefensible by anyone in government.

America was founded by people who were fleeing religious persecution; the founding fathers were all Christians, but they had the foresight to ensure that no persecution would be tolerated, no matter how foreign the religion, by refusing to declare a national preference for religion and keeping it out of the government. This is critically important to remember for the conservatives, who would have you believe that the constitution is their guiding principle. Unlike the right to bear arms, this is clear and unambiguous: anyone telling you that it’s become freedom from, not of, religion has got their head in the wrong place and is only trying to make political hay out of nothing.

Besides which, isn’t it time we stopped blaming others and playing the victim? Tell the lie often enough — as it has for the past millennium, dating back to the Crusades and probably before — that Islam is a religion of violence without any redeeming qualities — and anyone is bound to believe it. Let’s not forget that Goebbels was a big proponent of the Big Lie: the more exaggerated, the more truthful it sounds. And his government did its best to blame the woes of the country in enemies within (both religious and social: Jews and homosexuals) and without (the Allies and the Treaty of Versailles), too.


Faith Forth

18 January 2009

Dear J-

I find myself contemplating organized religion again; yesterday there was a nice couple out with their 2.5 kids (one was still in preparation, but I thought better than to ask) who dropped off a Watchtower with me.  It’s not that I feel compelled to join any one group because of it, but rather I’ve been thinking about issues of passion and faith.  Clearly they felt strongly enough about it to go door to door in their free time; I admire the strength of the conviction more than any specific aspect of it.

Few things have the power to move hearts and bodies like religion (I could make a case for Star Trek and camera brands, but that’s just underscoring my limited knowledge of religion and perhaps overdeveloped sense of geekery); while all number of notorious atrocities have been committed in the name and persecution of religion, so too have millions of unpublicized acts of charity.  It sounds vague, but I’m trying to draw the distinction between freedom of religion and freedom from religion — no one’s saying that the moral principles of the US Constitution aren’t guided by the Founders’ religion, but they wisely abstained from declaring an official religion, as great swathes of the United States were founded by religious outcasts.  Gaining power didn’t mean exclusion, it meant acceptance.


I’ve tried to adopt the same sort of philosophy; it’s interesting how many religions claim the same roots and structures, the same holy lands, the same basic teachings.  We were raised on-and-off Baptist, as that was the particular flavor of the only local Chinese-language church (as the sermons were given concurrently and bilingually, it made for some long sessions for squirmy eight year-olds).  For my parents I suspect it was partly more another social avenue to connect with fellow Chinese families in the region (Eastern Washington was 95% Caucasian when I grew up and I’m sure that shaped my world view), as we’d get a bonanza of traditional Chinese and Western holidays to celebrate and cherish.  We’re creeping up on the Lunar New Year as we speak, probably the biggest holiday in Eastern Asia, and it makes me wonder what traditions we’ll be passing on to our next generation.

There’s no getting around the way you look, a happenstance of genetics, circumstance, and environment; it’s important to instead ensure you can meet the eye of the person in the mirror.


Card Choice

23 December 2008

Dear J-

I was listening to NPR the other day; there was a nice-sounding Jesuit priest on who was decrying the current trend of sending family cards around for Christmas.  This I thought was unreasonable, but his argument went along the lines that if, on your birthday, I sent you a picture of my family, how would you react?  It’s been rolling around in my head for the last few days, but it’s clear how I would react:  I’d be happy.  If you choose to honor me by celebrating the things you love, the lives that make your life, so much the better for me, so much more enriched I’ll be.

I understand that Christmas is a celebration of Christ’s birthday; I also believe that the timing — nearly coincident with the winter solstice — is no mere happenstance.  Just as we may co-opt the celebrations of other cultures (ask a native, if you will, how big of a holiday Cinco de Mayo really is in Mexico), so too do we co-opt other celebrations to stand in for our traditions.  And if we choose to celebrate the birth of Christ through gathering family and friends, by showing our love for humanity (peace on earth, joy to the world, and goodwill to men strike any particular chords?), wouldn’t Christ be pleased with that?  It’s not that we deliberately exclude all mention; I just happen to believe that we can be holy in deed, if not words.

It sounds like a cop-out, I know.  And I know that I’m nowhere near religious (the storm I brewed over my head this morning, researching serial numbers and tracing their history, was dark indeed), so my grasp and perception is tenuous at best, and superficial besides.  But I’ll stand by my original assertion, that organized religion had to have its origins in a social code allowing people to live together without excessive strife.  It makes a neat sort of sense to me; should your religion promote killing each other, pretty soon you’re not going to have many followers left.  We believe in intangibles; we have faith in shaping forces; above all we’re bound to discover that what we have in common holds us together more tightly than we suspect, closer than any wedges we choose for ourselves.



14 June 2008

Dear J-

Is it mere logic that keeps our eyes skyward? It seems like most of the religions have some concept of an afterlife, and most of the time, that afterlife takes place with a lofty vantage point (Heaven, Mt. Olympus, Asgard). Has our imagination always exceeded our reach, at least temporarily? We see the clouds, the moon, the sun, and every culture has some story to explain the same sky we all see. Has it been better to touch them, or to leave them untouched? Are we better for resolving the mysteries?