Results tagged “religion”

Being Less of a Jerk About Faith

April 9, 2014

One of my recurrent ruminations of the last decade or so is a bit of reflection on my relationship with religion. To be clear: I don't have one. I know there are no gods, that the supernatural does not exist, and that we should not base morality on mythology.

But I was raised Hindu, my family co-founded our local house of worship, and I was raised with a keen awareness of my family's work to protect religious minorities from oppression. So I was raised with a respect for faith and for religions. It' s a respect that, frankly, I seldom show. I also understand the fundamental human desires that drive people to seek out the ritual, community and reassurance of religions; It's only natural that people would gravitate toward any structure which addresses those needs, even if I feel they are better met through science, government, community and activism.

My reasons for being frustrated with, and unforgiving toward, organized religions are the obvious, even trite, ones. Religions are used as tools of oppression, religion is used to prop up other institutions which are unjust, important values of our secular society in America are being undermined by religious extremists, and I've personally had any number of unkindnesses inflicted upon me by people in the name of their religions.

To be clear, I don't much distinguish between the relative "goodness" or "badness" of any of the major religions. The Abrahamic family of Judaism/Christianity/Islam are pretty much indistinguishable to me, and are perhaps most pervasive in triggering my annoyance due to their inescapable influence on American life. But I'm just as offended by the Hindu extremists in India and by the privilege my own family's benefitted from in being part of that religion's highest caste.

Great, Another Annoying Atheist on the Internet

None of this is so new; Finding an atheist being annoyed with religion on the Internet is as easy as finding cat pictures. What I've been struggling with, instead, is figuring out why the hypocrisy and intolerance and ignorance of the religious bothers me so much more than the hypocrisy and intolerance and ignorance of, well, people in general. I generally love to champion unpopular perspectives, or to advocate for mainstream ideas that are considered gauche or uncool by the cultural elite. More importantly, many of the ideas that are most important to me are far easier to discuss with my friends who have a faith.

Forgiveness and atonement, detachment and grace, kindness and kinship — these ideas are so bound to religion in our culture that many people I talk to get confused when I use them in a secular context. Yet they're ideas that are important enough to me that they preoccupy a lot of my thoughts every day, and a logical response would be to discuss these concepts with those who care about them, regardless of what beliefs they profess.


The tension between my desire to in keeping with values of kindness toward others and the undeniable frustration I feel when confronted with people trying to impose their religious beliefs came to a head again a few months ago when I spoke at the Plywood Presents conference in Atlanta.

It was a great event, very well run, and I was relatively happy with how my talk came out. But the best talk of the event happened the first night, when Father Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries paid quiet witness to his work with gang members in Los Angeles.

Father Gregory epitomizes the best of belief, a nearly unfathomable well of goodwill toward others. And he spoke earnestly, honestly and uncompromisingly about kinship. I experience these ideas in the context of citizenship rather than faith, but that seems a silly and trivial distinction to focus on. And none of this is peculiar or unique to me; I can see friends who are also non-believers reckon with the same ideas as well.

What, then is my conclusion? I don't yet know. If faith is about comfort in the face of unanswerable questions, then I should at least be comfortable with questions that are merely difficult to answer. Until I know how to be better about my shortcomings here, I'm settling for a placeholder that at least acknowledges I haven't met my expectations for myself. Yet.

Heaven, Hell, Marvin, Prince and the Party

January 4, 2013

Every great career in rhythm and blues leads only to heaven or hell. The path to hell is obvious: From Sam Cooke gunned down to James Brown leading a multi-state police chase to Sly Stone strung out on crack and living in a van to Whitney Houston's body lying dead as the industry partied a few floors below, our culture's never treated the shining lights of our most soulful genre with kindness. The archetype of this path is Marvin Gaye, facing his demons at the wrong end of a gun aimed by the man who gave him his name and his life.

But heaven doesn't look much better. Whether it's Al Green leading rote singalongs of his greatest hits, or Stevie Wonder's once-essential annual albums slowing down to a trickle of treacle, or Aretha Franklin being used largely as set decoration to signify which events are deemed Worthy Of A Legend. We start to understand why someone like me who loves Lauryn Hill or D'Angelo (or even Dave Chapelle, a comedian who's lived the career of a soul singer) often want to tell them "I've gotten all I ever need from you; Go take care of yourself." Even my beloved Prince has taken to generously sprinkling a still-vital and compelling live show with bowdlerized medleys of greatest hits, interpreting his ever-present religious fixation as a compulsion to undo the ferocity and provocation that earned him his audience three decades ago.

I always thought Michael was going to buy his way to heaven, but held a grim conviction that he might meet his end at the hands of a crazed fan. With the hindsight of a few years, it would appear that, in a way, he did. Those on the heavenly path of an R&B legend are of course faced with the constant temptations of fate and fame; Given enough success, you can just keep paying doctors on retainer until you find the one who's greedy and starstruck enough to not quit in protest when you ask for a lethal dose of anesthetic.

It's no wonder Questlove's most recent quest is to encourage himself and others in the world of soul music to do what it takes to live well past 50. A grim goal made even sadder by the humility of its ambitions.

This is a simple audio essay I put together to go alongside the rest of this essay, explaining some of the ideas.

The father, the son, the lions, the lambs

You don't even have to wait for a soul artist to say "I was raised in the church" when they're interviewed; If they don't recite it themselves, the interviewer will inevitably provide the affirmation without prompting. But R&B legends are also raised by their families, ranging from a litany of "never knew my dad" absences to the all-too-present presence of Joseph Jackson. But as surely as Tito picked up Joseph's guitar, there's a world of difference between preacher dads and player dads.

Marvin's father was a preacher, his last name spelled "Gay" without the "e", the least-fitting name possible. Marvin Sr. was fire and brimstone and an Old Testament-style lack of compromise. Even years before he murdered his son, he'd undermined his musical genius son enough that Marvin Jr. was constantly felt the need to prove his masculinity, whether through adding a vowel to diminish the presumed affront to his heterosexuality that lurked in his own surname, or through outrageously transparent attempts to affirm how virile and conventionally male he truly was.

Hence the Detroit Lions. Marvin Gaye not only befriended the players — he tried out for the team. While he was a competent player, he was nowhere near capable of playing at an NFL level. But as a symbol of hypermasculine strength, what could be more credible than being a professional football player?

Naturally, an obsession (and insecurity) of this magnitude shows up in the music. Though any "party" that appears in a pop song is necessarily artificial, there really were Detroit Lions players in the studio to provide the introductory party vibe that starts "What's Going On". Marvin spoke of sidelining his musical career in favor of athletics, but the seriousness of the threat was undermined by the ferocity with which he fought Berry Gordy for the right to release What's Going On despite Gordy's objections to its brazenly political stance.

Hired Gun Brimstone

Prince's party was carefully constructed, arranged as if it were a string section, to be multiracial and ambiguously gendered.

Prince's dad John Nelson had none of Marvin Gay Sr.'s misgivings about the music; He was in a band called the Prince Rogers Trio, whence came his second son's name. And though they too had a tumultuous relationship, there was at least enough of a rapport between Prince and his father that they collaborated several times during John's life.

But having a dad who was also a musician must have helped shaped Prince's utilitarian view of relationships, where the people in his life were sometimes just instruments to be arranged in the service of a composition.

It shows up in the way that parties appear on Prince's work. From the track "Eye No" that opens up 1988's Lovesexy, we get a party breaking out over the final fade that segues into Alphabet Street, the next track on the record. But a closer listen to the "party" reveals it to be far more scripted than Marvin's "What's Going On"; All of the folks taking part were part of Prince's studio crew or touring band.

More telling than the fact that the party was scripted (because obviously, it's not like Marvin Gaye was spontaneously recording a house party on What's Going On) is the fact that Prince reuses the exact same recording of party sounds a number of times in his work. Before appearing at the end of I No, the party segue showed up at the end of an unreleased track called The Ball, which was a sort of prototype for the song made a few years earlier. That original recording segued into one of Prince's all-time greatest blues guitar tracks, Joy In Repetition. But that song wouldn't be released until 1990's Graffiti Bridge.

That time period also marked the beginning of the first signs of the wild unevenness that would characterize Prince's post-80s work, so some of the reuse of the party sounds may have simply been in-studio laziness on his part. But the fact that the party didn't even have the pretense of being anything but an element of a larger composition offers a glimpse into the intense, nearly obsessive focus Prince had on seeing everything, and everyone, in his world through the lens of how they could be part of his soundtrack.

It's not hard to picture that kind of single-mindedness being grounded in having a father who, in stark contrast to Marvin Gay Sr.'s skepticism, was in fact an accomplished musician himself. Fortunately in Prince's case, that turned into a competitive drive that fueled a nearly-unparalleled burst of pop creativity. The downside was that, rather than seeking out success in a wildly-unfamiliar territory like professional sports, Prince's world retreated to the safe-but-well-known path that leads to being a greatest-hits jukebox.

Ever After

I love this music. It's the soundtrack of my whole world, and usually the way I end the day with my son, listening to these artists and their peers and the echoes of their fathers and their faults. I'm an optimist; I want to believe that it doesn't take extreme and trying circumstances for a talented child to grow up to be a truly profound artist as an adult.

More broadly, I want to think I can be moved by an artist's work without thinking I'm being complicit in their destruction. If they're finding redemption, from the tribulations of their youth or from the challenges of their faith, in creating a work, I don't want my embrace of their celebrity to be an instrument of their undoing.

That soul music is grounded in heaven in hell is the basis of its power. This is why songs that seem like they're incessantly talking about superficial aspects of being in love can tell stories that are profound and timeless. But it seems truly profane that the people most blessed to tell these stories are doomed to follow them to paths that either leave them tormented or robbed of their flame. Maybe the next people who can find salvation in these songs can be those who actually create them.

Related Reading

These themes have been fixations here for a while; Here are some variations on the theme:

Embracing Constraints, Revisited

November 28, 2007

[P]erhaps the two best examples of how [religion-based food] bans have resulted in delicious and fascinating food are Jain cooking, with its ban on anything that remotely involves taking life, like root vegetables (little critters might get killed while you dig them up) or yoghurt left overnight (too alive), and Jewish cooking, with its complex set of Torah derived rules including bans on pork, on fish without scales (shark, shellfish) and on cooking milk and meat together. I'm not concerned at the moment with the logic of these bans, just their results.

That's from a fascinating article in India's Economic Times. As much reverence as there is in American culture for "thinking outside the box", I'm always fascinated by the things people cook up by rooting around inside the box.

Freedom From Choice

September 27, 2007

A.J. Jacobs, master of the year-long book stunt, spent a year trying to live by all the rules dictated in the Bible. As stunts go, it's not that interesting to me ("Hey, I grew a beard!"), but one of the lessons he mentioned learning in this Newsweek interview indicates he really did go in with an open mind:

We all talk about freedom of choice, but there’s something very attractive about freedom from choice. Religion provides structure, mooring, anchoring. Should you covet? No. Should you give 10 percent to the needy? Yes. It really structures your life. After my year I felt unmoored, overwhelmed by choice. I have adjusted, but I’m still overwhelmed by choice, as we all are in America.

There's an analogy here about why those who preach simplicity in the realm of technology sound so much like they're preaching religion, and why those who agree with them often take on a near-religious fervor, but I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader.