Thursday, September 24, 2009

"The Sigh of the Oppressed Creature"

Most people misunderstand Karl Marx's view of religion. By calling it "the opium of the people," they think he dismisses religion by trivializing it as a needless narcotic. But Marx recognized that religion was a source of comfort in a world where unjust economic conditions created pain and suffering for many. Until conditions improve, solace from pseudo-solutions like religion will be necessary. The full context from his writing in 1844 makes that more clear:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Despite the advocates of science and reason over faith and belief, people still turn to religion when times get tough. Materialism and the atheist's credo do not help much when your house has been repossessed, your health insurance canceled because you failed to report a case of acne, your investments plundered by Bernie Madoff, and you've been called up for a fourth tour of duty in Iraq. What is your opium of choice?

These questions arise because I've joined a study group on comparative religions organized by the National Museum Volunteers, and I've offered to give a presentation a week from Monday on the topic, "What is Religion?" Three men (besides myself, Jimmy from the Netherlands and Jean-Pierre from France), and about a dozen women gathered last Monday morning at the large apartment of an expat from Israel, to plan the structure of the group. I'm the newest member of the NMV which was formed 40 years ago to lead tours in different languages at the National Museum in Bangkok, and the organization now publishes books and sponsors excursions, lectures and seminars on Thai culture, history and art. When I learned of it from a founding member whose daughter is a friend of mine, I wanted to join. The study group on religion was right up my alley.

Since I've been searching for the meaning of the word "religion," academically and spiritually, for much of my life, the topic I chose for my presentation was a no-brainer. Others will explore the relationships between religion and food, science, sacrifice, music and dance, fire and water, prophets and founders and sacred mountains. The group meets for the next six weeks. Among the participants was a woman married to an ambassador and another whose husband is a member of the Thai royal family. A woman from the Ukraine operates a travel agency. Most are in my age bracket and long-term residents of Thailand. The art-filled and well-equipment apartment includes facilities for PowerPoint which gives me the incentive to finally learn this technology. I've already compiled slides containing some of the more well-known quotes about the meaning of religion, such as the one from Marx above.

Jimmy wanted very much to talk about a book he was reading, Religion Explained: The Human Instincts that Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors, by Pascal Boyer, but the precis he provided did not fit easily into the list of topics compiled by the organizers is a cognitive anthropologist, one of many who think religion is an aspect of culture which does not need its own subject heading in university catalogs. I ran across his name when I was studying Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists last year. He uses Dawkins' concept of memes, a kind of cultural DNA, to show how the mind can be programmed to embrace and spread religious ideas. One enthusiastic reviewer of Boyer's book seemed to believe that the author supported his idea that "religion is a collection of fantasies about spirits." I bought Religion Explained on the way home at Kinokuniya, the largest English language bookstore in Bangkok, and quickly read the first chapter on religion's origin. I found his ideas to be provocative and stimulating. “Religion," he writes, "is about the existence and causal powers of non-observable entities and agencies” and is made up of "a limited catalogue of possible supernatural beliefs." These beliefs are counter-intuitive and violate some expectations (i.e., that a virgin could give birth) while preserving others (she gave birth to a human, not a frog).

Many years ago I gave a talk at UC Santa Cruz on "The End of Religion" in which I argued that a religion was the creation of a community that spoke the same language and shared an identity. I found the objects of religious belief (gods, miracles, rules) less interesting than the social context within which people make creative sense of the problems in their world: illness, death, suffering, injustice, etc. I kept the outline of that talk without detailed notes, and now I'm trying to reconstruct my thinking as well as learn about the new debunkers of religion as a substantive category for intellectual and scientific study. I can sense Noel rolling over in his grave. For him the subject of religion was sacred if not its contents (he was less of a true believer than most people thought). Boyer contrasts the well-known claims of religion with some fanciful constructs and asks how we can tell the difference. I'll share my findings in another post.

Last Sunday Nan's younger sister Ann and her boyfriend Surin invited us for an outing to the Naval History Park where Chulachomklao Fortress is situated at the mouth of Chao Phraya River in Samut Prakan about 30 kilometers from Bangkok. Because it's still an active naval facility, you have to pass through a guarded gate, but apparently Surin had the right credentials. In the 1890s, when Britain and France were actively trying to colonize all of Southeast Asia, King Chulalongkorn ordered the fortress at the river mouth to be renovated. Two French gunboats, despite being fired upon, made it up the river and anchored near the French legation in Bangkok, and forced the Thais to cede all Laotian territory east of the Mekong to the French. Thailand, however, retained its sovereignty, unlike its neighbors on all sides.

In addition to a large statue of the king, Rama 5, the park features a boat in dry dock, the H.T.M.S. Maeklong, a warship commissioned from the Japanese shipyards before World War II. There is a gun park showing the history of guns with a variety of samples, large and small, and also a mangrove forest walk. We ate at a restaurant filled with families and children having Sunday lunch overlooking the broad estuary where the river empties into the Gulf of Thailand. Surin, who is a 62-year-old retired banker, ordered for us, mostly seafood. One dish was new to me, crab eggs or roe. Everyone tucked into it as if it was a delicacy and I tried to follow suit. The eggs are a bright yellow mass, easily found on the crab shell, and, for me, had the texture and taste of ear wax. Of course I tried to be polite, but later I told Nan, "Never again!" One family was celebrating and two dancers in what looked like Hawaiian outfits came out to present coconuts and candles to a diner. It quickly became apparent that one of the dancers was a ladyboy, but she was by far the most talented.

After lunch we strolled through the mangrove swamp on an elevated walkway from which the crabs could be seen scuttling around at low tide. There were missing boards which made walking treacherous. After examining the guns, we toured the ship. Ann and her boyfriend of four years were not speaking, and Nan said he'd disapproved of her shoulderless dress which he thought impolite. Surin was quite friendly to me, trying out his English and in the car playing a CD of 50's and 60's American tunes. His son just graduated from the University of Manchester in England and another son, 13, lives at home. As near as I can tell, he's married, but he and Ann, who is a university student, spend some weekends at Nan's old room. Perhaps she's his mia noi (mistress)? Nan says she doesn't know and never asks. Surin has financed construction on grandma's house in Phayao, the woman who raised Nan and who has not yet been told about me. A few nights before the Sunday trip, Ann had come to visit our apartment for the first time and we went swimming in the pool downstairs. Ann was going to sleep over on our couch but when Surin was told he forbid it because he said it would cause us "trouble." A couple of months ago he was quite upset when he heard Ann had visited a discotheque with some friends. I don't fully understand why they are together. But perhaps their relationship and its wide age difference influenced Nan's decision to find her own old man. I've much to learn.

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