Segment 24B – Money and Capitalism

Could we say that capitalism is the religion of modernity? Or at least a part thereof? For the final topic of Rad Religion, we chatted about how money and capitalism could be ‘religious’. Hear us chat here:

We also played a couple of great money-themed tracks: ‘Money‘ by Pink Floyd (of course) and ‘I Need a Dollar‘ by Aloe Blacc.

Money itself is a matter of belief. If we didn’t believe it meant something, it simply wouldn’t. It’s a kind of collective fiction that we’ve made up, and as long as we all run along with it, behave as if it’s really worth something, then our societies function. But if we all stopped believing those little lumps of metal, scraps of paper, or digits on our computer screen were ‘valuable’, then the whole money system would end. Especially since our currencies were floated (that is, there is no pile of gold somewhere tying them to something of ‘real’ value) money is completely a social creation, a shared belief.

But we’ve gone a step beyond that. In capitalism, money comes to structure our lives. It is a system of organising our existence, our society. We become ‘workers’, ‘consumers’ and ‘producers’. We are forced to spend most of our days working, as units of labour, so we can get money to go off and spend on other things, vastly above what is required for our lives. Capitalism becomes a totalising system of belief and practice in a way akin to religions (and perhaps they used to do fulfill this role, thinking of the Catholic Church in medieval Europe). This system includes moral imperatives: you should do whatever makes you the most money. Everyone should do this, and somehow everyone will have more fulfilling lives. This is a religious-like tenet, just as the dreams of a classless society among early 20th Century communists were akin to religious, utopian beliefs.

The free flow of capital – that is, unregulated markets – was held by early economists to be very important for everyone to benefit in this way. Adam Smith coined to term “the invisible hand“, which he believed was a kind of transcendental force that would right a market and keep things in balance. This was an ethical hand, who would keep things best for everyone. Smith may have actually thought of this as divine design – and it’s too easy to see this as a kind of economic God! Later economists in the last 50 years have seen the fundamental reason for deregulation to be freedom. Personal freedom is ultimately the central tenet of contemporary Western ideology and society, and this is reflected in the fervent attachment economists have to free markets, which they see to be necessary for political freedom. Again, freedom here operates as a religious-like principle, the ultimate aim for individual and collective life.

So that ends Rad Religion! At least in its form as a radio segment. I might continue posting interesting religion-pop culture mash-ups on here when I find them. Thanks for reading and listening!


Contemporary Torii Gates

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Torii gates are a distinctive feature of Japanese architecture, and in recent years some of them have been updated with elements of contemporary design; they’ve also become inspiration for other constructions.

Image credits: Kanazawa Station; Odaiba Island; a torii in Kyoto; torii in Second Life; fluorescent globes; torii-inspired table; Itsukushima torii gate; Fushimi Inari torii gates.

Shinto is the indigenous religious system of the Japanese islands, which is broadly animist – in that everything has its own spirit or kamiTorii gates traditionally mark the entrances to Shinto temples and serve as a means of demarcating the sacred space. By passing through the gate the visitor is physically reminded that they are crossing some kind of boundary. The traditional form (see the final two pictures) is made of wood, painted vermilion and black. Stone gates are another traditional variant.

More recently, gates have been made of various metals, concrete, and other modern materials. The gates have also become inspiration for other pieces of public art and architecture, like the first few images above.

They’ve also become a pretty common symbol for Shinto (they are used on maps to mark Shinto temples) and Japanese culture more generally. They’ve been built in Second Life and used for inspiration for furniture.

I also included a picture of traditional torii gates at a shrine to Inari. Inari is the kami of fertility and industry, and it’s become customary for successful businesspeople to donate torii gates with their names on them to shrines to Inari. Thousands and thousands of them do this, producing these beautiful torii tunnels.

Segment 22 – Romantic Love

Today we looked at what might be the most widespread myth in Western culture: the myth of romantic love. Hear us chat about it here:

We played ‘This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)’ by Natalie Cole – which my girlfriend reliably informs me is featured in at least five rom-coms – and ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth‘ by Belinda Carlisle – a track that exposes the religious nature of romantic love in no uncertain terms.

So what is the myth of romantic love? It’s a kind of narrative, a group of ideas that guide people’s lives and imbue them with meaning. Some of the central tenets of the myth include: that we each have ‘the One’, the single person who will be perfect for us, our soulmate; that we can fall in love at first sight, just by clapping eyes on the right person; that the love will be everlasting; and that “I love you” is a sacred phrase, that should only ever be uttered with absolute sincerity. Pretty much all of these are consistent elements of rom-coms.

Love is not a universal, essential experience inherent in humanity. Of course there are biological aspects to attachment and eroticism, but different cultures differ on the rules of how people should relate to one another. The idea of romantic love – an intense, personal relationship with an idealised other – is a peculiarly Western construct, and one that developed slowly since the eleventh century. It really took off with the increase in rampant individualism in the modern West: the idea that we should be free to choose our own partners based on personal bonds is central to this idea of romantic love.

Also with modernity (we’re talking seventeenth, eighteenth centuries here) we saw the breaking of the hegemony of Christianity in defining how people should interpret the world and give meaning to their lives. Both the institutional power of Christian churches and personal belief in God have declined, more or less steadily, since then (this is not to say that it will die out entirely, there have been signs of revival in certain sectors of the West in the last couple of decades). What early modern philosophers were rejecting in the Christian God were his authoritative roles, his power in controlling the individual’s life. This assault on Christian symbolism left behind, however, the idea of having a personal relationship with the ultimate. That desire was relocated to other systems and ideologies in the West – most strongly, perhaps, to the myth of romantic love.

So we’ve seen the shift of religious qualities from God and Christ to personal human relationships and the idealised ‘lover.’ Romantic love becomes a source for mystical experience – being lifted out of yourself and being absorbed in something greater (an idea prevalent in mystic thought worldwide, from Sufis to Buddhist monks). The lover is also given a salvific quality, meaning that they have the power to ‘save’ the individual. We see this throughout rom-coms. At the start the individual is waylaid, disenchanted, unhappy, and through the discovery of their love with their soulmate, they are transformed, authenticated, they discover their true self, they become self-actualised. This is often tied into a whole host of other things that the West attributes to successful people: once they fall in love, they get the house, they get the promotion, they’re popular, they’re happy, and so on. In this we see the qualities of the heavenly afterlife relocated to the secular sphere, to having a perfected life. The lover can attain, as Belinda Carlisle sung, heaven on earth.

And people believe this. I believe it too, to a certain degree. This is the myth of romantic love, and it has a good claim to being the undeclared religion of the modern West.

P.S. The ideas presented in this post are a simplification and butchery of a thesis written by Sarah Balstrup. Anything worthwhile comes from her; anything else, from me.

P.P.S. I do this segment as a volunteer on 2ser, community radio in Sydney. At the moment its our Supporter Drive, themed ‘Share the Love’ (thus this topic). In Australia, community radio has a crucial role in providing an independent voice in the media landscape. Please consider supporting the station, which literally needs your help to survive. So head to their website and chuck ’em a few dollars.

Spontaneous Shrines

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Image credits: Princess DianaColombia; September 11Aurora.

Just a brief post this week, nodding towards an interesting new mourning ritual that has emerged in the West over the last twenty years or so. We’ve all seen the assemblages of flowers, candles, pictures, poems and, bizarrely, teddy bears that develop around sites associated with a deceased person. These spontaneous shrines – frequently referred to disparagingly in the media as ‘makeshift memorials’ – often draw on the imagery and cosmology of organised religions, but take on a life and meanings that are truly their own.

Some of the biggest and most widely publicised examples were those for Princess Diana and the victims of the Columbine shootings, but the phenomenon has truly taken hold in many places, such that small shrines will develop after deaths that aren’t publicised at all. The practice of setting up crosses on the sides of highways to mark road deaths can be tied into the same trend – an increasing desire, it seems, to publicly express one’s grief.

Shrines often take on unique appearances depending on the context. Shrines at universities tend to feature varsity mascots and jerseys; in America one often sees the stars and stripes fluttering away among the flowers; for Steve Jobs we even saw little Apple stickers with quick notes stuck on the front windows of Apple stores.

I’ll finish by pointing you towards another blog that is dedicated to cataloguing a wide variety of examples of this phenomenon. It is aptly named Spontaneous Shrines.

Back next week with more audio – looking at the myth of romantic love in the West. Fun fun.

Segment 21 – Sikh Rock

Christians aren’t the only ones rockin’ in God’s name – today we looked at the Sikh bands who are doing the same thing. Listen to some tracks and our discussion here:

We listened to ‘Tu Kaun Hai‘ by The Roving Sikhs, and ‘Ik Ongkar‘ by Anhad.

Sikhism isn’t very well known, but it’s actually the fifth largest organised religion in the world, with about 30 million adherents globally. Most Sikhs live in Punjab, a region split between Pakistan and India which is the historical birthplace and homeland of the Sikh community. The religion was founded in the 15th Century CE by Guru Nanak Dev. The dominant religious traditions of the area at the time were Islam and Hinduism, and the guru preached a new, distinct faith which drew on elements from both. Sikhism is monotheistic – meaning there is only one God, like in Islam – and yet they also believe in the cycle of reincarnation and the notion of karma – both Hindu concepts. There were ten living gurus, the last of which was Guru Gobind Singh, pictured. He declared the holy scripture of the Sikhs to be the eleventh guru, to remain so in perpetuity.

The Sikh community was militarised early on, and has had to fight for its independence (or regional dominance, depending on the century we’re talking about) throughout its history. They felt badly treated by the Partition of the British Raj into two states of India (secular) and Pakistan (Islamic) in 1947. Sikhs demanded their own state, however this was not awarded them, and their homeland was split between the two new countries. Subsequent political agitation led to the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh guards. All Sikh boys are given the surname Singh, and all Sikh girls are given the surname Kaur. The capital of Indian Punjab, Amritsar, is home to the Golden Temple – the major temple of Sikhism. From personal experience, it’s absolutely beautiful.

To my knowledge there are a total of about five Sikh rock bands in the world, and today we looked at two of them. The Roving Sikhs are from Jammu, and claim to be India’s first all-Sikh rock band, while Anhad are from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Both bands are devoutly Sikh, wearing their turbans on stage and drawing on their faith explicitly in their music. The Roving Sikhs feel that “God gave us music itself, that we might pray beyond words.” Similarly Anhad “believe that God is a part of every breath, every moment of our every day” – even during rock concerts and YouTube videos. The word ‘anhad’ itself means the ‘unstruck melody’ – the primordial sound from which all others have descended. (The word ‘om’ takes this role in Hinduism.) Anhad use mantras from the Sikh holy text – from their eleventh guru – for their lyrics, making their music explicitly devotional and even meditative.

I’m taking a break next week, but I’ll be back on the radio on October 18, joining 2SER’s Subscriber Drive (themed ‘Share the Love’) to talk about the religious nature of the Western myth of romantic love. It’s going to be great.

Segment 20 – Day of the Dead

Today we tried to get ourselves immersed in Mexican culture with the quirky traditions of la Día de los Muertos. Hear us chat about it here:

We played a couple of traditional Mexican tunes to get in the mood: ‘Cruz Olviada‘ by Dorance Ospina and ‘Vamonos‘ by Lila Downs.

The Day of the Dead is a national holiday in Mexico that goes for two days, 1-2 November. The basic idea is celebrating the deceased. People make altars in their homes or visit the graves of their loved ones and conduct various ritual practices to attract their spirits and commune with them. A big part of it is offerings: people leave sugar skulls with the deceased’s name inscribed on their forehead; they cook the deceased’s favourite food; they print pictures and write message to the deceased. Other little idiosyncratic items are also left, like toys for children or little bottles of tequila for adults. Then they play music, dance, have picnics and so on around the graves. It’s sad, but celebratory at the same time.

The tradition can be traced back to the indigenous practices of the Aztecs and other native peoples of central America. These people did not see death in the same way as Europeans – it was just another stage of life. The Spanish invaders had a different reaction, thinking that they were mocking the dead with their use of skulls and so on. They saw it as inimical to the Catholicism they were trying to evangelise and attempted to suppress the celebration, which at that time went for a whole month in about August. Ultimately they gave in and decided to appropriate it instead, moving the holiday to November 1-2, the dates of the Catholic All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days (known in popular Western culture as Halloween). These holidays are also about communing with the dead, so the move was successful. Now, Catholic elements are spread through the celebrations: masses, prayer vigils, rosaries, images of the Virgin Mary, and so on.

Over time the holiday has changed shape, and it is celebrated uniquely in different regions across Mexico. In 1910 a cartoonist named Jose Guadalupe Posada made an etching of a rich woman as a skeleton, named La Calavera Catrina (displayed). She has gone on to become one of the defining images of the Day of the Dead. In fact, depicting people as skeletons is a common cultural practice associated with the festival. Cartoonists regularly depict public figures as skeletons, for example. People also write tongue-in-cheek, mocking epitaphs for their friends or other public figures, as if they were already dead. This kind of open, irreverent approach to death is sorely lacking in contemporary Western societies.

(P.S. If you’re in Sydney, check out the Holy Kitsch stores in Newtown and Surry Hills for all manner of brilliant and surprising Day of the Dead-related paraphernalia!)

Next week we’re going somewhere very different – Punjab – and looking at Sikhism. Surely some of them make rock music, right?

Segment 16 – Atheist Choral Music

“We are One” may look like a Buddhist idea, but it’s also proudly proclaimed by an atheist classical composer named Kenley Kristofferson. Hear us chat about him and atheist choral music more generally:

The two tracks were ‘Cosmos‘ (Movement 3) and ‘We Are Stars‘. [We also played Steve Martin’s hilarious track ‘Atheists Don’t Have No Songs‘ before we began.]

So all this began in recent years, with atheists gathering on online forums and finding that a large number of them enjoyed listening and singing choral music. But as the Melbourne Atheists have said, “If you want to sing in a choir, but don’t like religious songs, what choice do you have? Not much.” Some choral atheists would even join church choirs, just looking for opportunities to sing, belting out Handel’s Messiah without believing a word of it. For many this involved a bit of an internal struggle. They loved the music, but disagreed with the content. Especially being asked to sing in church, even leading the congregation, put many in difficult and uncomfortable situations.

Some manage to rationalise their way out of any discomfort, for example by reimagining the specific religious tales into general commentary on human experience – the Jesus story is not about salvation for these choral atheists, but about noble self-sacrifice. One evangelical commentator online claims that such choral atheists are among the most ‘hardened’ to the gospel out there.

Another way to avoid the internal conflict is to adapt the traditional hymns to express ‘atheist’ messages instead. It is here that we see a bit of the angry anti-theism that has unfortunately come to be equated with atheism in the last ten years. The Melbourne Atheist Choir had small contingents singing in the foyer at the 2010 and 2012 Global Atheist Conventions in Melbourne, with lyrics such as, “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, / All things live and natural, evolution made them all.”

But tongue-in-cheek parody isn’t enough for some people. There is a general push in the atheist movement towards positive values, with less of an emphasis on the negative, anti-religion stuff. Thus some choristers want to be able to express these deeply-held positive principles and values through music. They want to be overwhelmed by emotion when they sing, to imbue their performances with the passion that religious singers can. Enter composers like Kenley Kristofferson. He writes choral pieces that engage emotions that can be hard to find in the rationalist atheist worldview: awe and wonder.

But of course, these emotions aren’t that hard to generate. The more we learn about the natural world – from the minuscule depths of microbiology, to the simple grandeur of a mountain range, to the inconceivable vastness of the universe – the easier it is to be humbled and utterly compelled by the beauty of the world around us. A quote from atheist astronomer Lawrence Krauss gets us closer to this sense of the numinous:

The amazing thing is that every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements – the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution – weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way they could get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode. So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.

Krauss is drawing here on the imagery of Carl Sagan (1934-96), who is also the primary inspiration for Kenley Kristofferson’s music. Sagan – astronomer and science populariser, famous for works such as Cosmos and The Pale Blue Dot – had a knack for reworking the language of science in such a way that it could inspire beauty and awe. One such quote was, “We are star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” He even went so far as to suggest that “a religion … that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”

Kristofferson writes, “Carl Sagan has taught me how beautiful science and the universe can be, and that understanding something enriches the experience, but doesn’t take away from the mystery that draws us to the big questions of life.” He transforms those feelings of reverence and mystery into quite inspirational choral arrangements, which are based on quotes from Sagan, such as “the cosmos is also within us” and “somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

Next week we go in the opposite direction entirely: from atheist to Christian, and from choral to 8-bit chiptune. It’s going to be epic.