Thursday, February 27, 2014

Breaking the Spell V

In chapters six and seven, Daniel Dennett goes on to speculate on how folk religion developed into organized religion and became institutionalized , or, as he says, “domesticated,” complete with “stewards,” such as shamans, imams, rabbis, clergy, and other leaders who use their power to ensure the perpetuation of belief, religious practices, organizational structures, and, of course, their own positions.  These stewards use fear, deception, the promise of rewards, and organizational hierarchy, as well as, appeals to a Higher Power to maintain their positions and sustain the religion.  Religions act like corporations, developing a “brand,” competing in the “marketplace,” and selling “goods” to their “customers.”  A “God you can talk to,” who offers eternal life, is the ultimate consumer good.

In chapter eight Dennett discusses how “the stewardship of religious ideas creates a powerful phenomenon, belief in belief,” which reinforces the need, even the duty, to believe.  This belief in belief serves to deter rational questioning and disinterested investigation.  One form that it takes is the redefinition of religious terms to make them ever more resistant to empirical doubt.  Thus “God” develops from a supernatural, anthropomorphic being to an abstract concept, a concept, like infinity, which seems compatible with math and science. 

To say that Dennett casts religion in a cynical light would not be too strong a statement.  Repeatedly, often sarcastically, he inveighs against religious insistence on belief in “fictions.” 

As stated in a previous post (Jan., 2014), I continually find myself wondering if Dennett is capable of suspending his disbelief long enough to appreciate the power and, yes, the truth, of imagination.

Can fiction ever tell the truth?  Can religious “fictions,” understood figuratively or symbolically, embody an important truth of human experience?  Just because a story or belief is literally false, does that mean it cannot be true in a larger sense?

In the 18th century there were a group of literary critics who argued that it was irrational and unrealistic for a play to move freely through time and space.  If a play takes three hours to perform, it should take place in three hours.  Similarly, since a play can only be performed in one place, the action on the stage should occur in one locale.  They also thought the action should be limited to one plot.  Otherwise, the spectators would not be able to suspend their disbelief enough to appreciate the performance.  Shakespeare, of course, broke all these rules of the “three unities,” as they were called.  And Samuel Johnson famously derided these critics, arguing that “the audience is always in its right mind” and can both believe and disbelieve at the same time.  That is, the audience is capable of knowing that a dramatic performance is both imaginary and “true” at the same time. 

Surely, even an atheist can appreciate the power and truth of religious myth.   Let’s take the story of Jesus Christ. 

Most Christians probably consider it to be a unique story, but actually it follows the familiar pattern of a hero/quest myth found in almost all, if not all, cultures: (1) mysterious or miraculous origin, (2) hiding, (3) initiation and divine signs or special powers, (4) preparation, meditation, withdrawal, refusal, (5) trial and quest, (6) death and the scapegoat, (7) descent to underworld, (8) resurrection and rebirth, (9) ascension, apotheosis, atonement.  Not all hero myths contain every element, but all roughly follow the same outline. (See David Leeming's *Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero,* 2nd ed.)

In the case of Jesus Christ, (1) he is born of a virgin, (2) he is born in a kind of “hidden” place, a manger, (3) he shows a maturity beyond his years during his conversation with religious teachers, (4) he spends  forty days and forty nights in the wilderness resisting the temptations of Satan and preparing for his “quest,” (5) he calls his disciples and undertakes his ministry performing miracles and spreading his message, (6) he is crucified and dies as a scapegoat for human sin, (7) he is buried in a tomb, (8) he rises from the dead, and (9) he ascends into heaven and is deified.

So, if we dismiss the story as factually and literally false, on what basis can we affirm its truth value?  For one thing, we can affirm that, regardless of time and place, some individuals seem to acquire special status.  These individuals perform outstanding acts or make noteworthy contributions to their communities.  In turn, their communities elevate them and attribute unusual qualities to them in recognition of their accomplishments.  Hero myths thus represent the enduring human truth that some individuals rise above the rest of us and that the rest of us confer upon them a distinctive standing.  Likewise, these myths embody the truth that, as humans, we seek role models, mentors, and heroes, who inspire and lead us toward our own higher life.

From a psychological perspective, we can also view these myths as representing the universal story of each individual’s life journey.  As we grow, we become conscious of ourselves as having a distinct identity.  We often think of ourselves as having a special calling or mission in life.  We may face threats to our survival; we look for signs of our “destiny” or our unique goals in life; we seek success in one form or another and we prepare ourselves to achieve it; we encounter obstacles and trials that must be overcome in our life’s “quest.”  Not all “heroes” are successful, and we may experience a failed quest, perhaps more than one.  Regardless of success or failure, we must face death, but we take comfort that we will live on after death, even if it is only in the form of the memories of the living or the legacy we leave behind.   Psychologically, our apotheosis is the mark we leave on the world.

Thus, the literally false myth embodies the symbolic truth of our sense of unique identity, our individual life journey, and our shared human experience of trial and quest, success or failure, suffering, death, and the hope, if not the conviction, that our life was significant.

Stripped of its religious meaning, the story of Jesus Christ is the same story that we each live, and that is perhaps one reason the story can resonate powerfully even for an atheist, assuming the atheist has not rejected imagination along with religion.

Monday, February 10, 2014

"Ain't I a Woman?"

Recently I saw a flurry of activity online regarding Sojourner Truth’s famous oration “Ain’t I a Woman?”  I thought it might be an anniversary of the speech, but when I finally had time to look it up I found it was delivered on May 29, 1851, at a Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio.  Given that I had blogged on the famous speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. (see previous post August, 2013), it seemed appropriate to rank Sojourner Truth right up there with them. 

The problem is that her speech was extemporaneous.  Unable to read or write, Sojourner Truth dictated her memoirs to a friend, but left no written version of her speech.  One of her fellow abolitionists, Marius Robinson, who attended the convention with her, published his transcription of her address in the June 21, 1851, issue of the Anti-Slavery Bugle, an abolitionist newspaper:

“I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman's rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now. As for intellect, all I can say is, if a woman have a pint, and a man a quart – why can't she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, – for we can't take more than our pint'll hold. The poor men seems to be all in confusion, and don't know what to do. Why children, if you have woman's rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won't be so much trouble. I can't read, but I can hear. I have heard the bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again. The Lady has spoken about Jesus, how he never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept and Lazarus came forth. And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and the woman who bore him. Man, where was your part? But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.”

Twelve years later, in 1863, Frances Dana Parker Gage, an abolitionist and women’s rights activist, published a different version, which has become the accepted and famous one:

"Wall, chilern, whar dar is so much racket dar must be somethin' out o' kilter. I tink dat 'twixt de niggers of de Souf and de womin at de Norf, all talkin' 'bout rights, de white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all dis here talkin' 'bout?"
"Dat man ober dar say dat womin needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to hab de best place everywhar. Nobody eber helps me into carriages, or ober mud-puddles, or gibs me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear de lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen 'em mos' all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?"
"Den dey talks 'bout dis ting in de head; what dis dey call it?" ("Intellect," whispered someone near.) "Dat's it, honey. What's dat got to do wid womin's rights or nigger's rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yourn holds a quart, wouldn't ye be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full?"
"Den dat little man in back dar, he say women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wan't a woman! Whar did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothin' to do wid Him."
"If de fust woman God ever made was strong enough to turn de world upside down all alone, dese women togedder ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now dey is asking to do it, de men better let 'em 'Bleeged to ye for hearin' on me, and now ole Sojourner han't got nothin' more to say."

Besides the obvious differences in content, including the famous title “Ain’t I a Woman?” Gage gave Sojourner Truth a Southern “plantation dialect,” but the ex-slave was born in New York and grew up speaking Dutch until she was nine years old.  She may have had an accent, but it wouldn't have been of the style rendered by Gage. In addition, instead of 13 children, most of whom were sold into slavery, as Gage has it, it is documented elsewhere that Truth had five children, only one of whom was sold into slavery. (

Given the lack of any written record and the 12-year time difference, it seems fair to conclude the famous version of the speech is as much Gage as Truth.  Some of the stylistic devices and content appear in both versions and might be taken to be most authentic, and Gage seems to have based her “liberties” on the original.  However, Gage has no doubt tailored the 1851 speech and her commentary on it to suit, not only her distant memory, but her own rhetorical purposes in 1863.

We can surmise that the original relied on the devices of repetition, colloquialism, and Biblical allusion; the claim to be as strong as a man; the plea that women are due their “pint” of rights compared to a man’s “quart”; and the  argument that Christ was born of women without any help from a man.  All these appear in both versions. 

It clearly makes the most sense to consider Sojourner Truth’s speech as part of the oral tradition, a kind of folk literature.  The author may not be “anonymous” in this case, but we have no way of knowing the exact form of the original.

Should Sojourner Truth be ranked with Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., as an orator?  It is made more difficult to say without the ability to compare authentic texts, not to mention delivery.  However, her speech clearly made a memorable impression on its audience of the time.  How many other speeches from the abolitionist and women’s rights movements have entered into the cultural mainstream?  If the familiar version is greatly embroidered, it may be so in part because the original was so powerful.