I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird – a book about the writing life which dozens of people had recommended to me, but I had never gotten around too.  It’s hilarious and very reassuring to newbie writers.

Anyway, in this little tangent on god, and  people she finds irritating, she quotes a priest friend of hers who says, “You know you’ve created God in your own image when he hates the same people you do.”

Perfect.  This perfectly describes the view of certain evangelical fundamentalists who ignore the ‘love thy neighbor’ teachings of their savior and use their view of god to spew hate and anti-compassion everywhere to anyone who doesn’t comply with their narrow view of the world.

And, I’m the furthest thing from an expert on the bible, but my recollection of the original biblical phrase that is purposely misphrased above is that it is we who are created in god’s image, not vice versa.  So a nice little play on words there.  Delicious!

The story of the pharmacist in Montana refusing to provide contraceptives (even to a woman who was using them not as contraceptives but to address other medical issues) is one of many similar stories.  It will be interesting to see whether the media-attention has any impact either directly (by changing their minds, doubtful) or indirectly through loss of business the way it did on walmart a few months ago.

In any event, it reminded me of a similar experience I had when I first came to this small city.  When I arrived, I had, in addition to a 2.5 year old, a five month old baby. A month or so later I stopped breast-feeding and wanted to resume birth control pills (which you can’t take while Bf-ing).  A neighbor, an older lady*, recommended a local ob/gyn practice.  I called them up and was informed that they were not taking new patients at the moment because one of the doctors was on maternity leave and suggested I call back in a month.  I was ok with this because in my own rough research, this was the closest ob/gyn practice that had women doctors, which I greatly preferred for this particular service, so I waited using non-presciption methods in the meantime.

So a month goes by, I call, they take various information from me and then ask why I am seeking an appointment.  I reply that I have stopped breast-feeding my second child and want to go back on birth control.  At which point, they said, “Oh we don’t do that here.”

“Uh, excuse me? You are an ob/gyn practice, right?”

“Oh yes, but we are affiliated with [local catholic hospital] and we don’t do that type of thing.” 

Oh, so really they are only a ob practice, not an ob/gyn practice

I ended up at another local practice with guy doctors that frankly I’m not thrilled with, but they have an awesome female nurse practitoner and I get the contraceptive prescriptions that I need.

But.  And I have had this discussion a couple of times with doctor friends who disagree — IMO, you have no business doing an ob/gyn practice if you are not going to offer full services.  IMO you have no business being a pharmacist if you are not going to offer full pharmacy services.  The only exception I might permit (if I were chief goddess) is if, the second that doctor’s office had answered the phone they had said, up front (rather than wasting a month of my time) We offer only limited services.  Even then I think there are certain obligations you have if you are going to set up in an area where the pool of medical professionals is limited.

But still, there is something wrong with this.  There are a million areas of practice in medicine.  Why go into a particular area of practice when you won’t provide services considered basic to that practice field.   There is the argument that you can go elsewhere, but really, in smaller towns, particularly conservative ones, you don’t have a lot of options. 

Great satirical piece:

Via Official Shrub blog.

So the NYT magazine had an interesting piece this weekend about how scientists study the belief in God.*  In other words, not creationism v. evolution, but the study of how the need to believe might have evolved. 

I was struck by this statement from one of the ‘experts’ in the article: “I started looking at history, and I wondered why no society ever survived more than three generations without a religious foundation as its raison d’être,” [Scott Antran, anthropologist]**.  So my immediate reaction was “what!” 

Look, obviously religion is very important to people and to societies, but this sentence makes no sense.  Unless I gravely misunderstand the meaning of the phrase “raison d’etre” this is utter nonsense and the article just leaves it there. The reporter does not poke at it, but leaves this quote like an utterance from on high.   Religion has not been “the reason for being” for this country and a lot of others for a long time.  I’m not saying it’s not important and very important to a lot of people, but it’s not the founding principle, its reason for being. 

Geez, one of our founding principle was freedom of religion or freedom from religion, not a particular religion itself.  And to  those who will protest, “but!Plymouth Rock!”, I remind you that settlers in Virginia had already established assemblies before the Pilgrims landed.  And the purpose of the settlement at Jamestown? Money, the raising thereof. 

But I digress.

This article was interesting in its concepts: agent detection (tendency to assume observable items are caused by an active agent (lion!) or (god!);  causal reasoning (the need for a story to explain phenomena); and folkpsychology (the ability to understand that not all minds know/think like ours).

But one experiment they cited seemed completely tautological.  In this experiment, they show kids of different ages a box that has pictures of crackers on it.  They ask the kids what they think is in the box and the kids say “crackers”.  Then they show the kids that the box actually has rocks in it.  They then ask the kids what their parents will think is in the box.  Apparently a 3 year-old will say “rocks” on the assumption that what they know their parent must know, whereas a 5 or 6 year old will say “crackers” because they understand that their parent is likely to make the same assumption they did based on the picture.  In this same experiment, however, both the 3 year old and the 6 year old if asked what God would think was in the box, they say “rocks” because, as proposed by the experimenters, they think God is infallible.  Thus, the experimenters say, there is a tendency to assume infallibility inherent in our brains.

I just don’t understand the point.  To the extent that these kids believe in God (they don’t say how many of these kids in these experiments are raised by atheists), most mainstream religions promote an infallible god, so of course, he is infallible .   But also, it would appear to suggest that people would over time be less likely to believe in a god (war, famine, etc., not to mention NOT getting your top choice of birthday present, would, to me, anyway, suggest some issues there).  But that’s not where the experimenters conclude from this.  Rather, they suggest that the other stories & culture surrounding religion have found ways to explain these departures from what one would hope for from an infallible god, i.e., that there is a plan we just don’t understand, or to quote Depeche Mode, God has a sick sense of humor.

Anyway, this article left me with a bad taste in my mouth.  I’m hoping that someone more practiced at deconstructing these types of things – PZ? – can better explicate this piece.  I did think that some of the explanation was interesting, the need to believe in something as being a fundamental human trait, even if it arose accidentally.  Overall, I thought the reporter did a good job of summarizing what people in this field do, but not enough criticism (in the poking apart sense) of what and how they are doing it – i.e., whether the experiments have actually proved anything.  The only ‘counterpoint’ seemed to be some references to religious persons who believe that even asking these questions is wrong.

* We get the Sunday NYT & thus Times Select, I don’t know how long it will be before this article goes behind a curtain.

**I’m not sure that an anthropologist is necessarily the best type of scientist to be promoting this type of theory – I guess you need the anthropology to explain the social phenomena, but I would think that collaboration with a biologist would be wise to explain the evolutionary advantages of it.

A recent post by the superlative Twisty discusses, among other things, various aspects of religion & Famous Fighters of the Black Thing  set forth in Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.   Reading her comments on the various religious allusions in the book reminded me of something I first noticed way back in college when taking a Survery of English Literature, which is that not having been raised in any religious tradition, the vast majority of religious allusions, metaphors and other literary devices went completely over my head.

This lack of cultural  commonality meant that my tenure as an English major was short-lived. (Also, the professor of the survey course was uninspiring unlike my poli-sci profs).   English lit, and a good portion of American lit is frequently suffused with religious allusions that, to those with understanding of those symbols, greatly shapes the way they interpret the book.   To people such as myself with no religious background, I miss and have missed the significance of various metaphors and events.

For example, I have a vague memory of my 9th grade English teacher (who rocked) explaining that in the Old Man and Sea, the number of times the old man stumbles on his way home corresponds with the number of times Jesus, as described in the Bible, stumbled with the cross on the way to his crucifixion.  When she described this, I remember being completely non-plussed.  Was this supposed to make the old man more mythic?  What was the point?  Would students with a Christian upbringing have picked up on this, even subconciously?

The lack of such exposure or understanding on my part limited my understanding of certain material in that I didn’t “catch” the references.  I’m sure in many ways I lost out on valuable understanding.  On the other hand, I think it allowed me to view the material more independently, unfettered by assumptions of the significance of a metaphor.  The logic of the metaphor, or the impact of the events (such as the old man falling) had to stand on their own without the support of religious allusion.

When I was in college there were rabid debates (I’m sure there still are) about the utility/necessity of Western Civ classes in ensuring that students were armed with enough understanding of the dominant culture to be able to appreciate/understand the various literary, philosophical, etc. canons.  I am only beginning to understand the magnitude of connections, etc., I missed out on (and that other non-religious, or non-Christian raised students missed out on) because I simply had no background.  I’m sure this is only one facet in how persons not raised in the dominant culture in this country (religion being only one aspect) fail to “catch” things that are assumed to be common knowledge.

At times, I have wanted to read the Bible (or at least read that series in Slate that summarizes it) just to have some better background for the vast majority of literature I read.  But then I think that I should also read the Koran, and similar central tomes for the other literature I read and the project becomes too overwhelming.  Which is why the only sections of the Bible I have actually read are a section of Genesis that was required in college, and the Book of Matthew, which I read in third grade because I had a crush on a boy named Matthew (no, I don’t get the logic either, but it made sense at the time).

But here is a question, how do readers/students who want to study literature or better appreciate it, but do not have knowledge of the dominant Christian paradigm that enfuses so much of Western lit learn this stuff?  Are there primers out there that give enough background that these connections & metaphors can be appreciated?  Are there similar things for people who want a better understanding of other cultures and religious backgrounds to better understand literature steeped in those traditions?

Also, how do we balance the need to convey this information with avoiding it making the dominant approach even more dominant?