Archive | November 2011

7 Life Lessons You Can Learn From Star Trek

I am not a closet Trekkie… I am definitely a Trekkie. Though I don’t own any merchandise, like this chap. Anyway, I read this and wanted to share. You can find the piece (from the Huffington Post) here. Enjoy.

Let me start out by coming clean: I am a closet Trekkie.

I went to my first “Star Trek” convention when I was nine. I have owned dozens of “Star Trek” toys, models, props and books over the years (and yes, I used to make my Kirk and Uhura action figures kiss). I even have a communicator app on my iPhone (and I’m eagerly waiting for the tricorder app now that Siri has arrived). I don’t own a uniform, but I wish I did (Hint hint: Channukah’s coming, family. I’ll take the classic Captain’s shirt in M, please, so that it rips easier when I get into fights).

My love of “Star Trek” began at an early age and has lasted to this day. But why? It isn’t just because of the campy sets and costumes that are still iconic. It isn’t because of the terrific performance by Leonard Nimoy (Spock) or Captain Kirk’s Shatnerific overacting. It isn’t even because of the superb sci-fi storytelling and writing or the fact that the toys and accoutrements were (and are) so cool that the culture seems to be obsessed with making them real. Although all of that is true.

No, my love of “Trek” has lasted this long because of what I have learned from my friends on the Enterprise over the years.

From the joys of exploration to the simple pleasures of curling up in your own quarters (often with a hot yeoman and a cold drink), from the value of friendship to the value of calling someone’s bluff, I’ve learned dozens of life skills, lessons and even values from the iconic show that ran only three years in prime time when it originally debuted (before I was born).

I think that’s what ultimately motivated me to create and publish (via my company, Quirk Books) “THE STAR TREK BOOK OF OPPOSITES,” as an attempt to familiarize children today (including my own) with the world of “Trek.”

There are no great life lessons in “THE STAR TREK BOOK OF OPPOSITES” (although learning the difference between BIG and LITTLE, HOT and COLD would certainly serve anyone well). But beyond the basics of opposites, the book is a great way to introduce kids to the world and characters of “Star Trek,” in the hopes that someday they will come back to it and begin to appreciate its power and cultural resonance.

I would say there are seven life lessons I learned from “Star Trek” that I take with me to this day. These are lessons I hope to pass along to my own children someday–but for now, I will share them with the interweb.

  1. The best way to travel is to boldly go where no one has gone before. This is true for vacations, for self-exploration, for life itself. If you want your days filled with adventure, laughter, love, learning and the occasional mind-meld, follow this route.
  2. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few–or the one. Sometimes you must make great sacrifices for the greater good. And, like the Genesis device, it will all come back around.
  3. Expressing your emotions is a healthy thing. Sure, McCoy seemed angry all the time when exclaiming, “Dammit, Jim! I’m a doctor not a mechanic/bricklayer/soothsayer,” but he knew that by expressing his anger and frustration it wouldn’t get the best of him and he could then perform at his peak capacity.
  4. When estimating how long a job will take, overestimate–and when you do better your captain will always be impressed. Replace the word “captain” with “teacher” or “mom/dad” and you’ll see what I mean. Sure, Mr. Scott might have been telling the truth–maybe it would take six hours to get the warp engines back online in the heat of the battle. Or maybe he was padding things so he looked good. Either way, when the engines did come back on line, everyone was happy.
  5. Wearing red makes you a target. This is true of cars, dresses and, most especially, shirts. Red gets you noticed–which is good if you want to be noticed, bad if you don’t want to end up vaporized.
  6. When you don’t know what to say, pause. It will give you the time to figure it out. Or at the very least, you’ll sound like you’re being thoughtful. “But….Spock…..why?”
  7. The most powerful force in the universe is friendship. It’s more powerful than phasers, photon torpedos, even more powerful than the force itself. With friends, you can accomplish any task, escape any perilous situation, defeat any enemy–and you get to laugh together when it’s all over.

I am convinced that these lessons will serve us all, adults and children, well as we seek out new life, new civilizations, new experiences. In short, thanks to “Star Trek,” we may all live long and prosper.

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Musings on Bishops in the House of Lords

This post is pretty behind the times, but I am going to write it anyway. I have just read an article on the Church of England website about Bishops in the House of Lords, and it provoked a couple of points to spew from my fingertips. You can read the full article here: http://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2011/11/archbishops-question-case-for-elected-house-of-lords.aspx

The first of my comments concerns the following extract:

In their submission the Archbishops express concern that the Government’s proposals do not address the question of what the powers and functions of a reformed Lords should be, focusing instead on questions of composition and election. A wholly or mainly elected House of Lords would, they argue, be more inclined to challenge the decisions of MPs and weaken the conventions that currently guarantee the primacy of the House of Commons. Conflict and gridlock between Houses would, they argue, lead to a decline in the reputation and public trust in Parliament as a whole: “We are concerned that the proposals in the Draft Bill may, by leading inevitably to a more assertive approach to conflict and disagreement with the Commons, make it harder for the institution as a whole to sustain the trust and confidence of the electorate.”

It’s lovely to see the bishops caring so much for the power of the House of Commons. One can’t help but wonder why they don’t advocate disbanding the House of Lords all together?

I think they miss a crucial point here. An elected House of Lords would not have to be made up with party-political candidates… the electorate would not even necessarily have to be the public. I think the key argument for an elected House of Lords is that being a peer does not guarantee lifetime membership. The specifics are something else entirely.

An idea I have just had, so feel free to knock it, would be that members of the Lords could be ‘banned’ from having an affiliation with any political party – much in the way that civil servants (as far as I understand it) are. If people elected to the Lords were individuals who had not affiliation to a political party (and perhaps hadn’t ever had such an affiliation) this would in some way avoid political squabbles etc. It might even be possible to introduce a three-year peerage as part of the New Year’s honours or something… Just a un-thought-through plan… let me know what you think!

Onto my second extract:

Whilst welcoming the Draft Bill’s proposals to provide continued places for bishops of the established Church in a partly appointed House, the Archbishops ask that the appointments process also have regard to increasing the presence of leaders of other denominations and faiths.

The Draft Bill and White Paper proposes a House of Lords of 300 members, with either 80% or 100% elected by proportional representation. If the reformed House were to retain an appointed element, there would be places for Church of England bishops, though reduced to 12 from their current 26. Bishops would not be allowed to remain in a 100% elected House under the Government’s plans.

[…]

The Archbishops welcome the proposals in the Draft Bill to continue with places for the Lords Spiritual, and that they should continue to be diocesan bishops of the Church of England: “If, as successive governments have accepted, there is a continuing benefit to this country in having an established Church, the presence of the Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords is one of the most important manifestations of that special relationship between Church and State.”

They also say: “We believe that there is a strong case for placing the Appointments Commission under a duty to ensure, among other things, the presence of those from across the United Kingdom who have or have had senior responsibility in churches and faiths other than the established Church.”

This is rather a long quotation for the short comment that I am going to make, but here we go:

  • Ultimately, who would make the decision about which groups constituted other faiths, and which were just random groups. And would this decision be based upon number of supposed adherents, length of time in the UK, or what? And would the number of adherents be based upon the people who actually turn up to meetings, the official figures, provided by the groups themselves, or by the vast inflation that comes from asking people the question “What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?” (Scottish 2011 Census)?
  • And the very fact that many people feel that there should be religious representation in politics raises many questions about why it is so common to invest religion with this special significance? If the idea is that thousands of people trust these leaders to do a good job and make moral decisions, then why is the argument not made that this should be extended to people who hold positions of trust in companies, charities, sports etc? And if the idea is that religious leaders are in some way fundamentally better at making moral decisions then… I don’t even need to start on all the objections to that!

My apologies for the uncharacteristic political rant.

Wise words on Atheism, Musicals and more from Trey Parker and Matt Stone

I read  a brilliant interview with Trey Parker and Matt Stone (creators of South Park, Team America, and The Book of Mormon) the other day, and I had to share some of my favourite quotations with my own commentary. The interview was conducted by A.J. Jacobs… who wrote the hilarious and stimulating ‘The Year of Living Biblically‘ which I have actually managed to cite in a couple of presentations and a refereed journal. I would check him out, as well as the full interview here.

Here we go:

Here are some things that Trey Parker and Matt Stone hate: Scientology, liberals, radical atheists, conservatives, the Motion Picture Association of America, Glenn Beck, the TV show Whale Wars, and Sean Penn. Also this interview.

This quotation pretty much sums up the ethos that has been spilling out through South Park over the past few years. I am loving the fact that our new flat has a Sky+ box, which means that I have a constant supply of South Park episodes from Comedy Central to keep me happy. This is, I think, the central charm of South Park… nothing is off-limits. These guys will ridicule any position which anyone holds to rigidly… and rightly so. They don’t do this maliciously, but make serious points about what causes us offence, and why. The vast majority of time, when we find ourselves taking offence when someone ridicules our own perspective, it is either because their criticisms ring true and we lash out, or because we hold to the view so rigidly that the sheer presence of someone who disagrees with that view calls it into question. We need to be constantly made aware of our tendency to do this, and for that I respect these guys greatly.

“Whatever libertarianism is, it’s not Glenn Beck. It’s barely us, but it’s not Glenn Beck,” Stone said.”Whatever side Glenn Beck is on, we’re not on it.”

Enough said really…

But the truth is that Parker and Stone, the creators of the decade’s most extreme mass entertainment, are shockingly … temperate. They say it themselves: “There is a middle ground, and most of us actually live in this middle ground.” Consider the short film that launched South Park — The Spirit of Christmas.On one side, Jesus demanded that Christmas be about remembering His birthday. Santa shouted that Christmas was about giving. They kung-fu-battled until they were rolling on the ground, strangling each other.”The boys were in the middle saying, ‘This is fucked up,’ ” said Parker. “Any side who thinks they’re totally right is fucked up. That’s the heart of every show.”

Exactly.

Consider, too, The Book of Mormon. For a play that includes the insertion of a holy text up a missionary’s rectum, it actually offers a nuanced view of religion. Mormonism may be odd, but it produces kind, thoughtful, mostly happy people. “They always look like they’re just about to break out into song anyways,” Stone has said.Religion has its upsides — a position that rankles hardcore atheists such as Richard Dawkins.”He’s such a dick,” said Stone. “You read his book and you’re like, ‘Yeah, I agree with that. But it’s the most dicky way to put it… I think the neoatheists have set atheism back a few decades. And I’m a self-described atheist.”One of South Park‘s best episodes featured Dawkins as a substitute teacher who ends up having kinky sex with the boys’ creationist teacher, Miss Garrison (formerly Mr. Garrison, pre-sex-change-operation). The show ended five hundred years in the future, when Dawkins-worshipping atheists are at war over whether their religion should be called the “United Atheist Alliance” or “Unified Atheist League.”You could argue that their so-called moderation is actually just nihilism. They take potshots at both sides without ever committing to any direction of their own. And there’s some truth to that. So what do they believe in? The central thesis of The Book of Mormon is that storytelling, myths, and fiction are the only things that can save us.

To comment on the above, this is pretty much exactly where I stand on the ‘New Atheism’. And so does the philosopher Julian Baggini, in his article ‘The New Atheist Movement is Destructive‘. Sure they get a lot of people talking about religion, and sure they do a lot to advance a kind-of positive worldview which isn’t based on supernatural postulates. However, one always has to wonder ‘to whom are they preaching?’ Time and again I am forced to conclude that it is other atheists… who seem to purchase their books and DVDs by the dozen, and revel in attending sceptical conferences around the world to join together around the central fact that ‘we don’t believe anything’. Pointing out evil deeds which have been done in religion’s name, inspired by religion, or perpetrated by religious people is not going to convince people that religion is necessarily bad. Likewise, pointing out the ‘human’ origins of religions will similarly have little effect. As Amarnath Amarasingam writes:

Another notable characteristic of new atheist writings is the tendency to present to readers basic historical information about religion, particularly Christianity, as if it were new information. It seems that religious illiteracy is now so pervasive that simply revealing what theologians and scholars have known and published for decades is enough to create skepticism (Prothero, 2007). Having settled on the belief that religion is about blind faith, the new atheists present this information as if it will be crushing to the fragile faith of believers. Hitchens (2007: 102, 105, 115), for example, lavishes on readers such unremarkable insights as: religion is man-made, the Exodus likely did not happen, and Moses could not have written Deuteronomy because it discusses his own death. Although there is much in Hitchens’ text to admire, and several philosophical arguments to take seriously, his presentation of basic historical facts about religion as if they are revelatory is rather perplexing, especially since most religious people (not to mention theologians and scholars of religion) have known about them for years. John Haught (2008: 31) similarly notes that Hitchens ‘‘seems unaware that exegetes and theologians have known about these discrepancies since antiquity, but they have not been so literalist as to interpret insignificant factual contradictions as threats to the doctrine of biblical inspiration.’’ In other words, just because religious people have learned to live with inconsistencies in their religious tradition, this does not mean that they practice blind faith. Hitchens’ claim that religion is man-made is particularly revealing as he believes himself, once having stated it, to have made a devastating critique of religion.

A particularly instructive case would be the ‘Church of All Worlds’, which my friend Carole could tell you a lot more about. Essentially this religion is based upon a 1961 science fiction novel by American author Robert A. Heinlein entitled ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’. The religion was dreamt up by college buddies and it has now blossomed into a fully-blown religion. All adherents are aware of this man-made origin, yet it makes absolutely no difference to the fact that it seems to work for them, and is what they want to do with their lives…

This has been a rambling way of saying that I agree once more with Parker and Stone’s stance on the new atheists. You can be an atheist without wanting to shove it down others’ throats. You can even respect other people’s beliefs…

Moving on:
“There’s the Family Guy structure, which is ‘We’re just going to keep doing crazy shit, and maybe there will be a thread through it, but it doesn’t really matter,’ ” said Parker. “Our structure is, we’ll come up with this funny thing, and then make this funny thing go on for twenty minutes. Sometimes it makes really crappy television and sometimes it makes cool television.”

I don’t know how many times I have had the argument about Family Guy with friends… it just isn’t that funny. Each episode has a couple of funny moments, but it is essentially a glorified sketch show which would have to rank far below South Park, The Simpsons… hell, even 30 Rock in my estimation.

And finally two quotations which I just appreciated in general:

Parker especially says his worldview has darkened. “I was always a very happy, optimistic person,” he said in the little room off the cafeteria. “I’ve only become an angry person in the last two years. I’m becoming Carl Sagan. I used to be like, ‘Oh, the wonders of the universe.’ Now I’m starting to say, ‘Humanity’s fucked. The universe is going to collapse on itself. Everyone’s doomed.’ I think it’s just getting older.”

Parker and Stone say they don’t know what’s next, either. In seven years, will we see a Dianetics-based Broadway show? Probably not, for fear of being pigeonholed as the “guys who make musicals about religion.” Same with a Koran-based one. “You might have trouble getting people to invest in that,” Stone said. “I would watch it, though.”

I must apologise that this had been so long and rambling. I’d encourage you to read the full interview. And to take my comments with a pinch of salt…

Muktuk: Hard-Boiled Shaman

Not that I shall have time to read it… David has introduced me to this fascinating comic strip:

Muktuk: Hard-Boiled Shaman.

20 Reasons Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere

This somewhat belatedly came through an email list that I read regularly… and it still rings true 9 months later. Of course it is a big generalisation, and filled with spelling errors, but I particularly agree with the emergence of the new ‘unemployed graduate’ group…

Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere

Paul Mason | 19:07 UK time, Saturday, 5 February 2011

We’ve had revolution in Tunisia, Egypt’s Mubarak is teetering; in Yemen, Jordan and Syria suddenly protests have appeared. In Ireland young techno-savvy professionals are agitating for a “Second Republic”; in France the youth from banlieues battled police on the streets to defend the retirement rights of 60-year olds; in Greece striking and rioting have become a national pastime. And in Britain we’ve had riots and student occupations that changed the political mood.

What’s going on? What’s the wider social dynamic?

My editors yesterday asked me put some bullet points down for a discussion on the programme that then didn’t happen but I am throwing them into the mix here, on the basis of various conversations with academics who study this and also the participants themselves.

At the heart of it all are young people, obviously; students; westernised; secularised. They use social media – as the mainstream media has now woken up to – but this obsession with reporting “they use twitter” is missing the point of what they use it for.

In so far as there are common threads to be found in these different situation, here’s 20 things I have spotted:

1. At the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future

2. …with access to social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and eg Yfrog so they can express themselves in a variety of situations ranging from parliamentary democracy to tyrrany.

3. Therefore truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable.

4. They are not prone to traditional and endemic ideologies: Labourism, Islamism, Fianna Fail Catholicism etc… in fact hermetic ideologies of all forms are rejected.

5. Women very numerous as the backbone of movements. After twenty years of modernised labour markets and higher-education access the “archetypal” protest leader, organizer, facilitator, spokesperson now is an educated young woman.

6. Horizontalism has become endemic because technology makes it easy: it kills vertical hierarchies spontaneously, whereas before – and the quintessential experience of the 20th century – was the killing of dissent within movements, the channeling of movements and their bureaucratisaton.

7. Memes: “A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.” (Wikipedia) – so what happens is that ideas arise, are very quickly “market tested” and either take off, bubble under, insinuate themselves or if they are deemed no good they disappear. Ideas self-replicate like genes. Prior to the internet this theory (see Richard Dawkins, 1976) seemed an over-statement but you can now clearly trace the evolution of memes.

8. They all seem to know each other: not only is the network more powerful than the hierarchy – but the ad-hoc network has become easier to form. So if you “follow” somebody from the UCL occupation on Twitter, as I have done, you can easily run into a radical blogger from Egypt, or a lecturer in peaceful resistance in California who mainly does work on Burma so then there are the Burmese tweets to follow. During the early 20th century people would ride hanging on the undersides of train carriages across borders just to make links like these.

9. The specifics of economic failure: the rise of mass access to university-level education is a given. Maybe soon even 50% in higher education will be not enough. In most of the world this is being funded by personal indebtedess – so people are making a rational judgement to go into debt so they will be better paid later. However the prospect of ten years of fiscal retrenchment in some countries means they now know they will be poorer than their parents. And the effect has been like throwing a light switch; the prosperity story is replaced with the doom story, even if for individuals reality will be more complex, and not as bad as they expect.

10.This evaporation of a promise is compounded in the more repressive societies and emerging markets because – even where you get rapid economic growth – it cannot absorb the demographic bulge of young people fast enough to deliver rising living standards for enough of them.

11.To amplify: I can’t find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations – but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.

12.The weakness of organised labour means there’s a changed relationship between the radicalized middle class, the poor and the organised workforce. The world looks more like 19th century Paris – heavy predomination of the “progressive” intelligentsia, intermixing with the slum-dwellers at numerous social interfaces (cabarets in the 19C, raves now); huge social fear of the excluded poor but also many rags to riches stories celebrated in the media (Fifty Cent etc); meanwhile the solidaristic culture and respectability of organized labour is still there but, as in Egypt, they find themselves a “stage army” to be marched on and off the scene of history.

13.This leads to a loss of fear among the young radicals of any movement: they can pick and choose; there is no confrontation they can’t retreat from. They can “have a day off” from protesting, occupying: whereas twith he old working-class based movements, their place in the ranks of battle was determined and they couldn’t retreat once things started. You couldn’t “have a day off” from the miners’ strike if you lived in a pit village.

14.In addition to a day off, you can “mix and match”: I have met people who do community organizing one day, and the next are on a flotilla to Gaza; then they pop up working for a think tank on sustainable energy; then they’re writing a book about something completely different. I was astonished to find people I had interviewed inside the UCL occupation blogging from Tahrir Square this week.

15. People just know more than they used to. Dictatorships rely not just on the suppression of news but on the suppression of narratives and truth. More or less everything you need to know to make sense of the world is available as freely downloadable content on the internet: and it’s not pre-digested for you by your teachers, parents, priests, imams. For example there are huge numbers of facts available to me now about the subjects I studied at university that were not known when I was there in the 1980s. Then whole academic terms would be spent disputing basic facts, or trying to research them. Now that is still true but the plane of reasoning can be more complex because people have an instant reference source for the undisputed premises of arguments. It’s as if physics has been replaced by quantum physics, but in every discipline.

16.There is no Cold War, and the War on Terror is not as effective as the Cold War was in solidifying elites against change. Egypt is proving to be a worked example of this: though it is highly likely things will spiral out of control, post Mubarak – as in all the colour revolutons – the dire warnings of the US right that this will lead to Islamism are a “meme” that has not taken off. In fact you could make an interesting study of how the meme starts, blossoms and fades away over the space of 12 days. To be clear: I am not saying they are wrong – only that the fear of an Islamist takeover in Egypt has not been strong enough to swing the US presidency or the media behind Mubarak.

17. It is – with international pressure and some powerful NGOs – possible to bring down a repressive government without having to spend years in the jungle as a guerilla, or years in the urban underground: instead the oppositional youth – both in the west in repressive regimes like Tunisia/Egypt, and above all in China – live in a virtual undergrowth online and through digital comms networks. The internet is not key here – it is for example the things people swap by text message, the music they swap with each other etc: the hidden meanings in graffiti, street art etc which those in authority fail to spot.

18. People have a better understanding of power. The activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri, but the ideas therein have become mimetic: young people believe the issues are no longer class and economics but simply power: they are clever to the point of expertise in knowing how to mess up hierarchies and see the various “revolutions” in their own lives as part of an “exodus” from oppression, not – as previous generations did – as a “diversion into the personal”. While Foucault could tell Gilles Deleuze: “We had to wait until the nineteenth century before we began to understand the nature of exploitation, and to this day, we have yet to fully comprehend the nature of power”,- that’s probably changed.

19. As the algebraic sum of all these factors it feels like the protest “meme” that is sweeping the world – if that premise is indeed true – is profoundly less radical on economics than the one that swept the world in the 1910s and 1920s; they don’t seek a total overturn: they seek a moderation of excesses. However on politics the common theme is the dissolution of centralized power and the demand for “autonomy” and personal freedom in addition to formal democracy and an end to corrupt, family based power-elites.

20. Technology has – in many ways, from the contraceptive pill to the iPod, the blog and the CCTV camera – expanded the space and power of the individual.

Some complications….

a) all of the above are generalisations: and have to be read as such.

b) are these methods replicable by their opponents? Clearly up to a point they are. So the assumption in the global progressive movement that their values are aligned with that of the networked world may be wrong. Also we have yet to see what happens to all this social networking if a state ever seriously pulls the plug on the technology: switches the mobile network off, censors the internet, cyber-attacks the protesters.

c) China is the laboratory here, where the Internet Police are paid to go online and foment pro-government “memes” to counteract the oppositional ones. The Egyptian leftist blogger Arabawy.org says on his website that : “in a dictatorship, independent journalism by default becomes a form of activism, and the spread of information is essentially an act of agitation.” But independent journalism is suppressed in many parts of the world.

d) what happens to this new, fluffy global zeitgeist when it runs up against the old-style hierarchical dictatorship in a death match, where the latter has about 300 Abrams tanks? We may be about to find out.

e) – and this one is troubling for mainstream politics: are we creating a complete disconnect between the values and language of the state and those of the educated young? Egypt is a classic example – if you hear the NDP officials there is a time-warped aspect to their language compared to that of young doctors and lawyers on the Square. But there are also examples in the UK: much of the political discourse – on both sides of the House of Commons – is treated by many young people as a barely intelligible “noise” – and this goes wider than just the protesters.

(For example: I’m finding it common among non-politicos these days that whenever you mention the “Big Society” there’s a shrug and a suppressed laugh – yet if you move into the warren of thinktanks around Westminster, it’s treated deadly seriously. Dissing the Big Society has quickly become a “meme” that crosses political tribal boundaries under the Coalition, yet most professional politicians are deaf to “memes” as the youth are to the contents of Hansard.)

That’s it – as I say, these are just my thoughts on it all and not researched other than through experience: there are probably whole PhD theses about some of this so feel free to hit the comments.

Likewise if you think it is all balderdash, and if you are over 40 you may, vent your analog-era spleen below.

Scientology…

Scientology: All-American or Aging Hoax? By Gordon Haber

  • Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt , 2011)
  • The Church of Scientology byHugh Urban (Princeton U. Press(2011)

In Los Angeles, I’ve heard a lot of stories about Scientologists. There was the jaw-dropping (and unfortunately off-the-record) one about the flagrantly unethical executive. Or the one about the articulate grip who calmly explained the religion’s tenets at the craft services table. And then there’s the stylist who has so many run-ins with proselytizing Scientologists that she calls it “getting Sci-Tied.”

What’s interesting is that all these experiences were related as momentarily discomfiting but ultimately harmless. Of course, the perception of Scientology is something else entirely. The church is seen as a scam, as a fake religion, as a refuge for credulous actors, as the domain of paranoid, exploitative leaders. It is also seen as rich, powerful, and vindictive. I’ve often heard people mock the Church of Scientology—but always in private.

This discretion is likely due to Scientology’s history of remarkable hostility toward critics. When it sees a threat, the church goes nuclear. Consider Paulette Cooper, author of The Scandal of Scientology. After her book was published in 1971, Cooper was subjected to years of harassment, including frequent lawsuits (a classic Scientology tactic), a smear campaign, and an outrageous attempt to frame her for bomb threats.

Read more…

Transformations of the Sacred in Europe and Beyond

I could comment on the agenda which this very worthwhile conference seems to be pushing, and the lack of representation of non-religious or ‘indifferent’ positions being studied, but I’ll leave that to you…

I’d surely submit a paper if I had the funding. Enjoy…

The ESA Sociology of Religion Research Network’s First Bi-Annual Conference, Transformations of the Sacred in Europe and Beyond, will be Monday 3- Wednesday 5 September, 2012 at the University of Potsdam, Campus Griebnitzsee.

The mid term conference is coordinated by the RN34 Vice Chair, Heidemarie Winkel (Potsdam/Berlin).

Call for Papers

clip_image002 ESA Research Network 34 – Sociology of Religion
clip_image004 Call for papers – Mid-term Conference

University of Potsdam,, Germany

3-5 September 2012

Transformations of the Sacred in Europe and Beyond

The thesis of secularization, once sheer uncontested in the social sciences, is increasingly under fire. Secularization is nowadays often deconstructed as an ideology or mere wish dream that is intimately connected to the rationalist ambitions of modern Enlightenment. Such alleged blurring of morality and science, of what ‘is’ and what ‘ought’, informing sociological analysis obviously obscures clear sight on recent developments in the Western world.

Countless empirical and theoretical studies convincingly demonstrate that religion is alive and well in Europe and beyond. Particularly after the attacks of 9/11 in 2001, religious identities have become salient in a situation of cultural polarization and religious pluralization. Moreover, we are witnessing a trend towards ‘believing without belonging’ (Davie, 1994) and – particularly in those European countries that are most secular – a shift from organized religion to ‘spiritualities of life’ (e.g., Heelas and Woodhead, 2005), paganism and ‘popular religion’ (Knoblauch, 2009). And although the thesis of secularization has always been highly problematic from a non-European or global perspective, the rapid globalization of Islam and the Evangelical upsurge – especially in Africa, Latin America and East Asia – fly in the face of the long-held expectation that religion is doomed to be a marginal or socially insignificant phenomenon.

Evidently, then, the focus of sociological analysis has shifted over the last decades from religious decline to religious change. More than that: it is theorized that we are living in a “post-secular society” (Habermas, 2005) where religion is re-vitalized, de-privatized and increasingly influences politics, voting behavior, matters of the state and ethical debates in the public domain (e.g., Casanova, 1994). Motivated by such observations, the mid-term conference calls for papers addressing changes in the field of religion and, more in particular, transformations of the sacred in Europe and beyond. Particularly we welcome studies covering the following topics:

  • Studies on how and why conceptions of the sacred, religious beliefs, doctrines, rituals and organizations of long-standing religious traditions – such as Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism or Hinduism – transform under the influence of processes of globalization, individualization, mediatization as well as changing gender relations.
  • Studies dealing with trends of believing without belonging, i.e. non-institutionalized beliefs, personal ‘bricolage’ and privatized conceptions of the sacred outside the Churches, Chapels and Mosques. Encouraged are also studies addressing new, more informal ways of ‘belonging’, religious communication and collective effervescence, i.e. in loose social networks, discussion groups or virtual communities on the internet.
  • Studies covering popular religion and post-traditional spirituality, i.e., New Age, esotericism, paganism, occultism, discussing for instance an epistemological turn from belief to experience and emotion; a shifting emphasis from transcendence to immanence; from seriousness to playfulness; or a transition from dualism to monism.
  • Studies dealing with implicit religion, i.e. addressing a re-location of the sacred to seemingly secular domains in society such as self-identity, sports, modern science and technology. This avenue of research may also include the place and meaning of the sacred (i.e., religious narratives, symbols and images) in popular media texts – in novels, films, series on television or computer games.

These topics are rough guidelines; papers dealing with religious change and the transformation of the sacred in Europe and beyond other than these outlined above are also very welcome. Furthermore we invite PhD and post-doc candidates to contribute to a poster session, including work in progress; the best poster will get a – small, but nice – prize.

Dates & Deadlines in 2012

March 15 Submission of abstracts and online registration starts

April 20 Submission of abstracts ends

May 10 Acceptance of abstracts

June 30 Early-bird registration ends

September 3 – 5 Conference

For further information, please visit: http://www.esareligion.org

Contact: esa-religion@uni-potsdam.de

Rethinking Secularism – A Seminar Discussion, Santa Barbara

The Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies, Santa Barbara

 presents

 Rethinking Secularism – A Seminar Discussion

Friday, November 18, 2011 – 12:00 noon, Orfalea Center seminar room – 1005 Robertson Gym

 With:

Craig Calhoun, President, Social Science Research Council, and Prof of Sociology, NYU

Jonathan Van Antwerpen, Editor-in-Chief, The Immanent Frame, SSRC online magazine

Mark Juergensmeyer, Director, Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies

 Comments by:
Benjamin (Jerry) Cohen, UCSB Political Science
Wade Clark Roof, UCSB Religious Studies
Giles Gunn, UCSB Global & International Studies

 The speakers will discuss the background and content of the multi-year project of the Social Science Research Council on the crisis of secularism that resulted in their recently published, co-edited volume Rethinking Secularism (2011 Oxford UP). The project (and the volume) involved an interdisciplinary group of leading theorists and scholars, including the philosopher Charles Taylor, the literary theorist Talal Asad, the political scientist Peter Katzenstein, the sociologist Jose Casanova, and many more. The project focused on the central issues of how ”the secular” emerged historically, how it is now constituted and understood in different ways around the global, and how it has presented an analytic challenge for the social sciences, the humanities, and international affairs.


The Clergy Project

http://clergyproject.org/

The Clergy Project is a confidential online community for active and former clergy who do not hold the supernatural beliefs of their religious traditions. The Clergy Project launched on March 21st, 2011.

Currently, the community’s nearly 100 members use it to network and discuss what it’s like being an unbelieving leader in a religious community. The Clergy Project’s goal is to support members as they move beyond faith. Members freely discuss issues related to their transition from believer to unbeliever including:

  • Wrestling with intellectual, ethical, philosophical and theological issues
  • Coping with cognitive dissonance
  • Addressing feelings of being stuck and fearing the future
  • Looking for new careers
  • Telling their families
  • Sharing useful resources
  • Living as a nonbeliever with religious spouses and family
  • Using humor to soften the pain
  • Finding a way out of the ministry
  • Adjusting to life after the ministry

Teaching and Studying Religion

It seems to be that time of year when numerous ‘gig’s get confirmed. I’ll be doing this in December… enjoy!

Teaching and Studying Religion: Choices and Challenges

 BSA Meeting Room, Imperial Wharf, London, 15 December 2011, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.

 Religion is not a neutral subject. As with other significant constituents of identity, such as sexuality, gender, ethnicity, or class, the subject of ‘religion’ as a topic for study is not straightforward. And yet, we study it, deconstruct it, analyse, and measure it, recognising as we do that definitions are bound to be contested, fluid, and sometimes slippery. What are the particular challenges and choices this presents in different disciplines, in different places and times? And what are the ethical, political and methodological implications of this?

To find out more about how participants from a variety of disciplines and contexts have engaged with the choices and challenges of teaching and studying religion, join us on December 15 at the BSA Meeting Room in London, for a BSA Socrel symposium, chaired by Abby Day (Department of Religious Studies, University of Kent and Department of Anthropology, University of Sussex) and Anna Strhan (Department of Religious Studies, University of Kent). We are grateful to the Higher Education Academy, for funding. It won’t be your usual ‘stand-and-deliver’ event. Our presenters are working hard to condense their work into short summaries that will be distributed to all participants in advance of the day via e-mail. All participants will be expected to read the summaries and come prepared for a full day of engaging in vibrant exchanges across disciplines, countries, methods and other conventional boundaries.

Total delegate numbers are restricted to 30. Registration for the symposium is now available on the BSA website at http://bsas.esithosting.co.uk/public/event/eventBooking.aspx?id=EVT10172

 Information on the venue location and transport links, is available here.

For any further information, please contact Abby Day (a.day@sussex.ac.uk) and Anna Strhan (as702@kent.ac.uk). The full programme for the day will be published on the BSA Socrel website: http://www.socrel.org.uk/

Keynote lecture by Adam Dinham, Director of Goldsmiths Faith and Civil Society Unit and Programme Director for the ‘Religious Literacy Leadership in Higher Education’ programme

Confirmed Speakers

Discussants: Paul-Francois Tremlett (Department of Religious Studies, Open University), Chris Cotter (Department of Religious Studies, University of Edinburgh) and Anna Strhan (Department of Religious Studies, University of Kent)

Presenters:

  • Alison Scott-Baumann (Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion, University of Lancaster), Sariya Contractor (Faculty of Education, Health, and Sciences, University of Derby), Women-led Curriculum Development for Modern British Islam
  • Saeed A. Khan (Department of Classical and Modern Languages, Literature and Cultures, Wayne State University), Current Challenges Facing Instructors of Islamic Studies: a Minefield or Marketplace of Ideas?
  • Stephen E. Gregg (School of Theology, Religious Studies and Islamic Studies, University of Wales, Trinity St David), Lynne Scholefield (School of Theology, Philosophy and History, St Mary’s University College, Twickenham), “But is it Hinduism?” Changing the Subject in Religious Studies
  • Saeko Yazaki (Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge), Teaching Religion: Far From Spurious Objectivity and Unrestrained Subjectivity
  • Anna Van der Kerchove (Institut Européen en Sciences des Religions, École Pratique des Hautes Études, Sorbonne), Teaching about religious issues in France: from University to classroom. Some remarks about curricula and their implementation in classrooms
  • Slawomir Sztajer (Department of the Study of Religion, Adam Mickiewicz University), Teaching Religion and Teaching about Religion in Today’s Poland
  • Christina Davis (Forum of Religious and Spiritual Education, King’s College London), Discriminating Tolerance and Religious Education: Dealing with incompatible truth-claims in the classroom
  • Janet Eccles and Rebecca Catto (Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion, University of Lancaster), Pre-University Experiences of Lived Irreligion
  • Jeroen Bouterse (Institute for Philosophy, University of Leiden), Religion in the Scientific Revolution: Concepts and Theories in Historiography
  • Sahaya G. Selvam (Psychology of Religion, Heythrop College, University of London), Positive Psychology: a viable theoretical and methodological framework for the psychological study of religion?
  • Emma Bell and Scott Taylor (University of Exeter Business School), Spiritual Management Education: Tensions and Contradictions
  • Cosimo Zene (Department of the Study of Religions, SOAS), Studying and Teaching the Religion of the Subalterns: a Critical Gramscian Perspective