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Posts Tagged ‘sociology

Moral Reading for Teens

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]

Morality is fundamentally about the choices we make and the behavior that follows. Stories can expose different moral dimensions, circumstances that present contrasts, and give teen readers perspective on their lives and their choices. Given all the media and entertainment options available, books must be compelling to compete. By exploring the age-old questions of family, peer pressure, temptations, personal appearance, sexuality and health, books can challenge teens.

‘Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey From Homeless to Harvard’
Finding the path to responsibility and maturity amid irresponsible adults would be tough for anyone. Finding a way from being homeless and alone at 15 years of age to becoming a Harvard graduate would be Herculean. Liz Murray’s story winds from a roach-infested Bronx apartment with drug-addicted parents to the bridges she slept under and the parade of losers she encountered. She is faced with an array of pitfalls that many never imagine, much less encounter.

‘Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence’
Years of high-profile stories about bullying, murders and suicides of gays and lesbians, the effect of the television series “Will and Grace,” and the legalization of gay marriage in several states has prompted a cultural conversation about love that once dared not speak its name. In this anthology, gay and straight authors speak out with short stories that explore the moral dilemmas faced by people coming to terms with themselves and the reactions of their peers, families and communities. The passage from tolerance to acceptance to respect is often rocky, but the journey can make better persons of us all.

‘The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible’
Author A.J. Jacobs takes up the challenge of living in literal accordance with the Bible, a centuries-old standard of moral guidance. He prays regularly, lets his beard grow, tells the truth at all times, keeps the 10 Commandments and herds sheep. Along the way, he discovers that keeping some biblical injunctions are nearly impossible, and others are downright illegal. Jacobs takes the reader through his year like a tour guide, explaining ambiguous interpretations of some rules, the rationale behind others, and how he choose to follow them. It’s funny, respectful and educational for believers, agnostics and atheists alike.

‘The Pregnancy Project: A Memoir’
Gaby Rodriguez took up an unusual challenge during her senior year in high school. Coming from a family with a history of teen pregnancies, she knew people assumed it would happen to her, too. Rather than fight the expectation, she rolled with it — by faking a pregnancy for six months as her senior class project. Her sociological study triggered whispers among her peers, fears from her boyfriend’s family, and discrimination from many directions. Teen pregnancy is all too common, but Rodriguez’s story provides uncommon insight into the consequences and problems that result.

Written by Influential Prose

June 25, 2015 at 11:37 pm

Chinese Religion & Ethics in the 17th Century

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013. Published version here.]

The Chinese word for religion didn’t enter the language until late in the 19th century, when scholars needed a term to translate the concept from Western texts. The conception of religion as the West understands it today simply did not exist in 17th century China. In the first sociological analysis of Chinese thought, Chinese scholar C.K. Lang wrote, “Even priests in some country temples were unable to reveal the identity of the religion to which they belonged. Centuries of mixing gods from different faiths into a common pantheon had produced a functionally oriented religious view that relegated the question of religious identity to a secondary place.”

Three Traditions
The three dominant influences on 17th century Chinese thought and belief were Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. These are primarily philosophical and ethical systems rather than religions, and each of these traditions have schools of thought and sects. Although aspects of ritual have theist overtones, such as requests for favors from deities, the Chinese relationship to deities can be described as devotion and veneration (respect) rather than worship. There are various deities for different aspects of life, such as the ubiquitous City God, who is often a long-dead former city leader. In Chinese cosmologies, everything is integrated, with no distinction between the natural and supernatural.

Confucianism
Formally taught in China for centuries, Confucianism was the dominant ethical system during the 17th century. Humanist and holistic, it imparts ethics with an emphasis on the practical, presenting a subtle and nuanced structure of ideal behavior. In contrast to the Western stress on personal autonomy, Confucianism centers more on relational values, such as family loyalty, mutual obligation and respect. Schoolchildren learned these values at the earliest levels, and the best students went on to take civil service exams. Exams were explicitly based on Confucian values, and constituted the world’s first comprehensive merit system whereby proof of knowledge and understanding of ethics was required.

Buddhism and Daoism
Buddhism came to China from India via Silk Road trade routes in 67 CE, but it was several centuries before Buddhist concepts were fully adapted and integrated with the Chinese worldview. The Chan (Zen) school dominated through the 1600s. Daoism, also known as Taoism, is indigenous to China, but frequently makes a point of distinguishing itself from other beliefs, such as highlighting its differences with Buddhism. In practice, both traditions have shared deities, include complementary values and in the 17th century, both acknowledged the supremacy of the state over temple.

Folk Religion & Christianity
In the 1600s folk religion was popular among the illiterate, rural peasants who made up the majority of the population. Folk religion was a polyglot of animism, shamanism and elements of the three main traditions in a syncretic mix. This diffuse assortment of practices continued for centuries and still survives today. In the late 16th century, Italian Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci was reestablishing Christianity in China after a long lull, and the 17th century was marked by waves of incoming Jesuit priests fulfilling Ricci’s legacy. By the early 18th century, the Qing emperor was encouraging his subjects to reject Christianity in favor of local beliefs.

Written by Influential Prose

June 25, 2015 at 11:23 pm

Who Advocated Religious Individualism?

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]

The modern understanding of religious individualism, as defined by the Catholic Encyclopedia, “describes the attitude of those persons who refuse to subscribe to definite creeds, or to submit to any external religious authority.” It is conceptually similar to “cafeteria Christians,” a phrase used to describe Christians who take an a la carte approach to their faith. This is done by accepting some aspects of Christianity while rejecting others. For example, one might accept the teachings of Jesus while dismissing the stories of virgin birth and resurrection as myth. The religious individualist expands on this idea to encompass different faiths. Rather than go all in with one religious tradition, a personalized set of ethical views are derived from the elements of a variety of faiths.

Søren Kierkegaard
Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is frequently referenced in relation to religious individualism, but as an ardent Christian, Kierkegaard’s expression of the idea diverges from the current definition. His view could be termed introspective individualism, or internalized religion–faith that is deeply embedded within the individual. Kierkegaard was a fierce critic of the Christian Church of Denmark, and his focus on the individual over the institution contains the seeds of the modern understanding of religious individualism. Today, the religious individualist proactively assembles a collection of values from several sources rather than passively accepting a package of values from a single, institutional source.

Martin Luther
The first advocate of religious individualism was Martin Luther. A respected Catholic priest and professor of theology, he sparked the Protestant Reformation by challenging the church’s positions on indulgences and the path to salvation in 1517. Luther openly defied the Pope by declaring that the Bible, not the Pope, was the final word on divine knowledge, a direct challenge to the Catholic Church’s authority. He also translated the Bible from Hebrew and ancient Greek to common German, making it more accessible to individuals. This further weakened the church by depriving it of the sole power to interpret Biblical understanding. Individuals could now evaluate the Bible for themselves and form their own opinions, a change that would have profound and lasting consequences.

Jean-Marie Guyau
In 1897, French philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau published the “The Non-Religion of the Future,” a book that describes religious individualism in the modern sense. Guyau argues that religion as it exists is in decline and speculates about the dimensions of a secular society. The following year, the “Philosophical Review” published a dismissive review of Gayau’s book, but his ideas have proven prescient in the United States and northern Europe. Much of Europe is now predominately secular, and the segment of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated is growing faster than any faith group.

Religious Deregulation
Sociologist Roger Finke of Purdue University portrays the separation of church and state in early American history as religious deregulation, which triggered variety and vitality in American worship. Religious individualism can also be viewed as a process of deregulation, but on the individual level. Individualism has always been about maximizing personal choice; religious individualism simply extends this power to the realm of values by rejecting subordination and advocating the diffusion of power from institutions to people.

Written by Influential Prose

June 25, 2015 at 11:17 pm

Cultural Influence on Morals

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013. Published version here.]

Culture influences morals. But it is not the only influence, nor necessarily the strongest one. Thinking about how culture influences morals raises several questions. What are morals? What is culture? What are their sources and what causes them to change? The dictionary definition for morals is “relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior.” The definition of culture is “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group.” And it may well be that both culture and morality are less an agreement than a constant process of adding and subtracting effective rules for social cooperation and survival.

Popular Culture
Popular culture — TV, movies, media, fads — is a social conversation. The media provides news, ideas and entertainment, generally presented within the bounds of existing moral codes. For example, kissing on TV shows and movies has long been depicted in American media, but was taboo in Indian media for decades. The social conversation is about where the boundaries lie. Sometimes, morality sets the parameters and culture determines what behavior, within those parameters, is acceptable. Both America and India have moral codes, but the boundaries have sometimes been in different places. Different cultures, different ideas about right and wrong.

Family and Other Influences
We are exposed to cultural values from many sources — family, peers, education, authorities, religion. Because we spend most of our formative years with family, the values of the family, good or bad, are a powerful influence. The impact of other sources varies with age, experience and understanding. As we enter adolescence, for example, the influence of peers grows and that of family often wanes. These multiple influences affect our personal values and our outlook. Who we are and what we believe evolves, even as we recognize some enduring principles.

Conflicting Moral Sources
Values from multiple sources sometimes conflict. Behavior that is accepted at home may not be accepted at school and vice versa. Where does culture end and morality begin?

The religious answer is that our aspirational values are set down by a deity and it is our task to live in accordance with them. But another answer has been suggested by research on primate behavior by Dutch/American biologist and ethologist Frans de Waal. His studies have identified moral behavior in socially intelligent mammals — chimpanzees, monkeys and elephants — implying that morals have developed as a result of natural selection.

Generational Change
We are born into a world of values that have existed throughout humanity’s history. We absorb these values as children while we navigate our social environment, processing and reevaluating them through our adult lives. While value systems resist change within generations, they are subject to fresh inspection by each new generation, and each new generation chips away at the norm.

Samuel Butler once observed that “Morality is the custom of one’s country and the current feeling of one’s peers.” Morals are also subject to change, but usually over longer stretches of time. There are clear instructions on slave management in the Bible; it was an accepted practice at the time. Our moral values and our culture are different now. Our culture says slavery is wrong, and our moral code agrees.

Culture influences morality, and morality influences culture. But they don’t always agree. That’s why the social conversation never ends.

Written by Influential Prose

June 25, 2015 at 11:10 pm

Globalization & Religious Violence

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]

Even as the world population has grown, globalization has made our planet shrink. Travel options have expanded, more people are living in cities, and the products we use daily are increasingly made and distributed by multinational corporations. Mass production and its economic advantages have been expanded to nearly all corners of the world, to the point where one can find familiar food, clothing, tools and services wherever people gather in large numbers. Change, such as the worldwide use of mobile smartphones, now spreads with amazing speed. For people of faith who live in accordance with established traditions, the velocity of change can feel threatening and provoke violent backlash in defense.

Resistance to Change
Venerated social values are resistant to change. The dominant religious traditions today — Christianity, Islam and Hinduism — have existed for centuries, their core tenants preserved and passed on through generations. When rapid change ripples outward, it generates friction as it collides with deeply held religious beliefs. Occasionally this friction flares into violence.

In September 2005, a stark example began in Denmark, where the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten broke an Islamic taboo by publishing mocking images of the prophet Muhammad. The images quickly appeared in other newspapers around the world, sparking widespread riots. This violent reaction also became a global phenomenon. Buildings burned and an estimated 200 people died soon after publication because news is now globalized through the internet.

Elements of Conflict
In his book “Religious Violence in the Age of Globalization”, Hans G. Kippenberg observes that conflict is never caused by religion alone. Rather, violence results from the complex interaction of economic interests, political division, cultural discord and social upheaval. Sometimes tensions with a surface appearance of religious or ethnic strife may mask more basic disagreements.

An example is the ongoing conflict in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has been blamed on differences between ethnic Sunni Kurds, Turkish forces and Iraqi Shi’a Muslims. However, the region is rich with oil, and this has been another major focus of contention. Much to Baghdad’s consternation, the semi-autonomous Kurds have done oil survey and extraction deals with several multinational firms. Thus, it may be misleading to simply attribute conflict to ‘religious violence’, as it is likely that more than just religious faith is involved.

Cultural Hegemony
The most casual study of history shows conquest has often been accomplished by violence. Empires have subjugated, enslaved and annihilated peoples, cultures and faiths. But trade has played a role as well. It can have the effect of normalizing cultural exchange, and globalized trade has delivered many benefits. But it has also prompted accusations of cultural hegemony — cultural domination by economically powerful nations — as Western influence expands in tandem with the growth and spread of market economies. The primarily Western members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development account for 59 percent of global gross domestic product.

Incoming trade and migrants can expose people to conflicting values, and the secular decoupling of religion and government in the West is anathema to some cultures. Resistance to this perceived hegemony is another factor that has motivated religious fundamentalists to commit horrendous acts of aggression — witness the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

Globalization of Violence
The globalization of information and travel has provided radical militants and smaller, less-developed nations with new levels of agility and lethality. The weaponization of biology is becoming increasingly feasible, and the potential for small groups of religious fundamentalists to instigate a nuclear and/or biological attack against nations in response to real or perceived injustice is aided by these developments.

Embassy attacks, seemingly-routine roadside and suicide bombings, and other violence — some of which has a religious component — has shaken parts of the Middle East, Africa and other regions over the decades. Those attacks provide abundant reason to believe that globalized technologies can be leveraged by small angry groups, both religious and secular, in any part of the world. No place on earth is invulnerable to that possibility.

Violence is sparked by conflict. Trade requires cooperation. For better or worse, both conflict and cooperation are now globalized. Humanity’s future depends on how we manage these opposing influences.

Written by Influential Prose

June 25, 2015 at 11:03 pm

The Advantages of Early Intervention for Deaf Children

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]

The importance of early intervention for deaf children is universally accepted, but controversy persists over which forms of intervention are best for the child. The deaf community strongly emphasizes a linguistic approach, giving priority to early exposure to language. The medical model emphasizes an auditory approach that prioritizes the ability to speak and hear. Most researchers agree that language acquisition occurs early. Children who do not reach common linguistic milestones as toddlers lag their peers in language skills. If the delay is severe, the lag can become permanent. Early intervention is focused on preventing this stunted communication growth. The debate centers around the benefits and drawbacks of linguistic and auditory approaches.

Linguistic Intervention
The advantage of the linguistic approach is that American Sign Language is a complete, natural language fully on par with spoken languages. Exposure to ASL introduces the child to language immediately, creating a foundation for the later addition of other languages. With family engagement and daily face-to-face communication, ASL is a first step toward full literacy. With the language base secured, it becomes possible to learn the grammar, vocabulary and idiosyncrasies of other languages, particularly English.

Bilingualism
The common fear is that learning ASL will inhibit the understanding of English. But the opposite is true — ASL enhances English learning. Bilingualism has demonstrated benefits in communication as well as brain development and the ability to monitor the environment. The grammar of ASL is expressed in three dimensions, a useful mode of expression not available in English. Rather than generate confusion, knowledge of multiple grammars enhances mental agility.

Auditory Intervention
Auditory early intervention relies on technology to deliver sound perception and intensive training to detect patterns through speech reading. This typically means hearing aids for mild to severe hearing impairment or cochlear implants for profoundly deaf children. The U.S. Federal Drug Administration permits implants as early as 12 months as of 2013. The advantage of the auditory approach is the network effect. Most people rely on speech and hearing to communicate. Children with the capacity to participate in this network have broader access to the resources of the network and the people in it.

Combined Strengths
Parents of a newborn deaf child are faced with the task of sorting out which early intervention strategy they feel is best. If they are hearing, as 90 percent of parents with deaf children are, the prospect of learning ASL can be daunting. Implants require invasive surgery in the skull with variable results, depending on age of implantation, condition of the auditory nerve, degree of recipient’s familiarity with sound and speech, post-operational mapping process and several other factors. Speech reading is most effective for children with mild to moderate levels of hearing impairment.

If the decision is made to go forward with hearing aids or an implant, a hybrid approach that includes ASL exposure may confer the greatest advantage. Current auditory technology is not equivalent to full hearing. Broadly, the effect has been to deliver the equivalent of being hard-of-hearing, leaving critical gaps in comprehension when relying on speech reading and hearing alone. ASL can help fill these gaps, especially during early development when language access is crucial.

Written by Influential Prose

June 25, 2015 at 10:35 pm

Learning Language in a Home With Deaf Parents

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013. Published version here.]

Ninety percent of children born to deaf parents have normal hearing. Not all deaf adults converse in sign language, but in homes where they do, children grow up bilingual. American Sign Language is often their first language. Because spoken language is so common, children easily acquire speech through interaction with other family members, playmates, day care, movies and television. Dr. Laura-Ann Pettito, a neuroscientist doing research on the biological basis of language, says “Study after study showed that for every level of language organization, signed languages and spoken languages were using the identical brain tissue.”

American Sign Language
ASL is a complete language, distinct from English, with its own grammar, sentence structure, expression of tenses and time. It is a three-dimensional language, which enables conceptual constructs not available to spoken language. Children — deaf and hearing alike — who learn ASL as their first language arrive at common linguistic development milestones at the same pace that spoken language milestones are reached. At 3 to 6 months, they are “fingerbabbling” in imitation of finger-spelling, At 6 to 12 months, they will gesture. First signed words appear at about 8 months, with 10 or more understood and expressed signs at 12 months. In a paper titled “Milestones of Language Development,” researchers report that, “The phonology, syntax, semantics, morphology and pragmatic aspects of language are acquired around 4 years of age whether the parental input is in sign or spoken language”

Bilingualism
It is now widely recognized that bilingualism boosts mental agility and flexibility. As Pettito states, “It’s almost as if the monolingual child’s brain is on a diet and the bilingual child’s brain stretches to the full extent and variability that Mother Nature gave it to use language and exploit human language.” For children, the process of learning signed and spoken language at the same time is natural and intuitive. Bilingual children in deaf households respond to ASL in ASL, to speech with speech, and switch between them as needed. Because this requires more active monitoring of their environment, they do monitoring tasks better and more efficiently than their monolingual peers.

Deaf Children
Early exposure to English is important for deaf children. A helpful tool in this area is the availability of captions and subtitles in movies and televisions. Early recognition of the differences between English and ASL grammar supports strong reading and writing skills later. Parental involvement matters, too. By sharing children’s books, the text can be signed and read in English, providing a bridge of understanding between both communication modes. In a 2000 study titled “American Sign Language and Reading Ability in Deaf Children,” a strong correlation was found between deaf children of deaf parents and higher reading achievement scores. Deaf parents have no need to “get up to speed” on the use of ASL as a language, so ASL development in their children begins immediately. This early acquisition of language facilitates learning English and reading skills later.

Children of Deaf Parents
Children of deaf adults have a special role in the deaf community. As hearing children of deaf parents, they learn to juggle relationships with hearing and deaf individuals, institutions, cultural norms and languages. They might have deaf or hearing siblings, or both; they often grow up with both deaf and hearing friends. They are not only bilingual, they are bicultural. Among professional sign language interpreters, children of deaf adults are common. Growing up with deaf parents gives them a native’s grasp for the subtleties and nuances of ASL, and their grasp of both English and ASL is strong enough that they can earn a living interpreting between them.

Written by Influential Prose

June 22, 2015 at 9:45 pm

Strategies Used for Disruptive Aggressive Behavior in Children

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]

Benjamin Franklin famously said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Strategies for dealing with aggressive behavior fall into two categories. Prevention is using techniques to minimize or eliminate continuing aggression. Intervention is dealing with aggression as it happens.

Preventive strategies are time-consuming and require patience. But they work, and they are superior to dealing with chronic aggression, whether it is physical, verbal or relational (spreading gossip, rumors, exclusion, etc.).

Prevention Before Aggression
The first preventive strategy for dealing with aggressive behavior is to minimize risk. Think about the environment where aggressive behaviors occur. Aggression can target property, other people, or the self. Self-aggression can concern either the aggessor’s self (suicide threats, for example) or you. Survey the home, classroom and play areas, and clear away or block access to obvious hazards.

In situations where aggression is chronic, it’s important to pay attention and think ahead. When you are familiar with the child’s behavior patterns, it’s often possible to see the storm approaching long before the rain starts falling. Intervene early when you see the elements for an aggressive episode coming together.

Preventive Intervention
When you see a conflict between children heating up, separate them. When you see one child provoking another, step in and call out the behavior. When you see attention-seeking behavior that typically leads to aggression, redirect the child’s attention to another activity.

Redirection is a very effective technique; with practice and skill it can prevent many episodes. Keep a written or mental list of alternative activities so you have something ready to suggest when you need it. Also remember that each child is unique. Compare notes on what works and what doesn’t with your co-workers, the child’s parents and others familiar with the child; they may have helpful tips or knowledge. The more you know, the easier it is to head off trouble.

Communication
There are many reasons for aggression. Part of prevention is determining an aggressive child’s motivations. It’s not always clear, even to the child. They may be angry about something they wanted and didn’t get. They may be suffering abuse, seeking attention or responding to provocation. Motivations matter; knowing them can help you address their concerns and devise specific strategies.

Discerning motivation requires communication, and there are three things to do: listen, acknowledge and empathize. This doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with the child. The child may lie, bluff and exaggerate. Stay with it. Gently confront obvious contradictions and dishonesty. Your purpose is to understand motivation, then build respect, trust and rapport to the point where the child’s mind is open to positive suggestions. Ask questions when the child is calm: How did this start? Why did it happen? How can we prevent this from happening again? What can you do differently to prevent this? Most importantly, listen.

Situational Intervention
When a physical fight erupts in a workplace, such as a school or day care center, your intervention strategy is determined by your workplace policy. If your workplace doesn’t have one, it needs one. Know the policy and be clear on it so you’re prepared when the time comes. If there are specific interventions required, get training for them.

In other places, such as at home or on a playground, you have decisions to make. Do you intervene physically? This may be a practical solution with small children, but you have to take into account the reaction of other parents and risk of injury to children. What about athletic teenagers? Physical intervention in that context could lead to severe injury or death. When you are concerned about attacks on yourself, prearrange defensive help in place or nearby.

Very often, your authority as an adult is enough to stop a fight. Simply stepping forward and saying, “Alright, that’s enough, break it up NOW.” is sufficient. If not, you may add that the police will be called if they don’t cool it. The key is to remain calm and firm — be the adult. Adult authority can also be applied to verbal and relational altercations, but with lower intensity. Talk. Invoke the golden rule – are you treating others the way you would want to be treated? Why not?

Prevent aggression when you can. Get help when you need it. Review incidents afterward for lessons learned, then apply them to future situations. Finally, praise positive behavior. Aggressive children are accustomed to being disciplined. They need feedback when they do good, too.

Written by Influential Prose

June 22, 2015 at 9:39 pm

Astro-Theology & Shamanism

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]

Astro-Theology and Shamanism both explore the intersection of ancient astronomy, early religion and psychoactive plants, as part of a genre known as entheogen studies. This focuses primarily on past and present use of psychoactive plants and fungi in spiritual/religious contexts. A variety of authors in the genre claim that aspects of Judeo-Christian tradition are rooted in fertility cults, pagan rituals and the use of hallucinogenic plants — such as mushrooms and peyote – which were integral to worship. As the subject matter necessarily entails a study of ancient cultures and mythologies, supporting evidence for some claims are drawn from rich stew of fact, conjecture, educated speculation, and uncertainty. Caution regarding claims and evidence is advisable.

Astro-theology
The field of archaeoastronomy examines the historical, cultural and scientific roots of humanity’s relationship with the sky. Prehistoric skies, undimmed by modern bright lights, were a rich source for ancient myths and cosmologies. Astro-theology is rooted in this tradition. Even today, references to God assume a position skyward, in the heavens.

The earliest astronomers and astro-theologians, the Chaldeans of Babylon, were priests and scribes in the 6th century BCE. They believed planets were deities — Ishtar was their name for the planet Venus — and the practice of naming gods for planets continued through the Greek and Roman empires. The Chaldean legacy is written in the surviving legends, artifacts, calendars, relics, rock paintings, and megalithic structures, More importantly, their attempts to understand the world through observation and record-keeping was an early example of the scientific method.

Shamanism
Historically, shamanism refers to northern European and Siberian beliefs in “an unseen world of gods, demons, and ancestral spirits, responsive only to the shamans,” according to Merriam-Webster. In the context of their native cultures, shamans are seen as community leaders and intermediaries with the spirit world, a role that bears similarities to modern clergy.

Shamans functioned as doctors at a time when an understanding of medicine was incomplete. Their knowledge of natural resources, particularly plants, could be useful for the alleviation of pain or illness. They employed entheogens in ritual, such as to cleanse away evil spirits, and thus entheogens became imbued with mysticism in recognition of their mind-altering properties. Beyond physical pain or illness, hallucinogens were considered a way to treat sickness of the soul and communicate directly with guiding spirits.

The authority of astro-theologians was based on their knowledge of the sky and their interpretation of its meaning. The authority of shamans was based on their understanding of plants and their ability to heal. Between them, they sought understanding of the earth and the sky.

Religious Hallucinogens
Prehistoric use of psychotropics and worship of astronomical phenomena is well-documented. It is known that Mayan, Aztec, Egyptian and other ancient civilizations used entheogens spiritually and celebrated its use through art. Modern groups still practice entheogen use in spiritual contexts; examples include the Urarina of South America and Rastafari of Jamaica.

Evidence cited in support of entheogen origins of Christianity include a 13th century illustration in the French Plaincourault Abbey that appears to show Adam and Eve separated by a large mushroom, suggesting that the mushroom is the “forbidden fruit” in Genesis. Also cited is a King James version biblical passage in Exodus 16:14-15 that describes manna as a small round growth. The intimation is that the growth is a psychotropic mushroom.

Christian Connection?
John Marco Allegro’s 1970 book “The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross” develops the thesis that Jews in Rome created a pagan fertility cult to hide their true convictions during a time when Christianity was illegal. According to this view, aspects of the cover story, particularly the use of entheogens, were adopted as part of early Christian practice and spread as the religion did. Allegro’s analysis met with controversy, with some critics declaring he had committed academic suicide.

Written by Influential Prose

June 22, 2015 at 9:36 pm

Secularism After the Crusades

secularismaftercrusades

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]

The Crusades were a series of military conflicts spanning two centuries, from 1095 – 1300. The First Crusade began as a bid by Pope Urban II to wrest Jerusalem and surrounding areas from Muslim rule (sometimes referred to as the East, or Asia Minor) and back under Christian control (the West). The First Crusade was successful, but the seven Crusades and assorted minor battles afterward fared poorly, with lasting consequences. The aftermath altered attitudes toward the Roman Catholic church and encouraged skepticism. This diluted church authority, led to the Protestant Reformation and the secular ideas of the Renaissance.

Winners
In the West, merchants in Italy’s port cities on the Mediterranean Sea grew rich as middlemen moving troops and supplies to the Levant, while also shipping goods like rice, coffee, sugar and cotton cloth from the Muslim world to Europe. Their wealth, together with the increase in travel and commerce, would become critical to sparking the Italian Renaissance and early thinking about secular governance in the 14th century.

In the East, the Islamic world was united by the sultan Saladin, attaining military supremacy following a period of internal division. Secular governments ruled by sultans and emirs already existed in this era, but the division of power between political and religious leaders (caliphs) was in transition. Military and economic matters became largely secular, while social administration was primarily governed by Sharia law.

Losers
The Crusades’ many military defeats cost the Catholic church substantial respect and credibility, weakening the papacy. Perceptions of corruption and turmoil in the church continued, leading to the Western Schism in 1378. Cardinals elected two different popes, triggering a political crisis and warfare. The aftermath emboldened kings and spurred resistance to church authority, paving the way toward a more secular worldview in the West.

An incalculable — and for Christians, self-inflicted — loss of world knowledge occurred when Norman (Christian) crusaders burned the Imperial library during the Sack of Constantinople in 1204, destroying both secular and religious literature. This assault on the eastern center of Christianity marked the end of the Byzantine empire, the last vestige of the Roman empire wherein Christianity first emerged.

Consolidation
Despite ongoing war and dissension, the time of the Crusades — known as the High Middle Ages — were also a period of consolidation and expansion for secular and religious spheres alike. Greater stability emerged in legal and financial institutions, communication systems improved and political organization gained sophistication. Church bureaucracy grew to include the papal curia, a variety of organizations that helped administer the Roman Catholic church.

Inquisition
Doctrinal compliance and consolidation of church authority was accomplished through the medieval inquisition, beginning around 1184 through the 1230s. Deviation from official church doctrine became subject to a series of aggressive, locally-based efforts to eliminate dissent and heretical views. Bishops and papal emissaries were given wide latitude — including torture — to root out heresy, but as church representatives, they were not permitted to kill. The job of burning unrepentant heretics at the stake was conducted by secular authorities. Little imagination is needed to perceive the effect on secular thought.

Written by Influential Prose

June 22, 2015 at 9:32 pm