Twilight Saga and Gay Marriage

twilightsaga What does the Twilight saga have to do with gay marriage? Surprisingly, the popular young adult vampire romances can be a stepping point towards understanding why the question of marriage between homosexual lovers is so contentious in the United States.

Stephenie Meyer’s quartet of vampire romances has enjoyed unprecedented commercial success, having racked up some 100 million sales worldwide. The novels have an accessible intensity, but are not particularly well written; Stephen King has remarked that Meyer “can't write worth a darn. She's not very good.” However, he also recognised the appeal of the books, stating “it's very clear that she's writing to a whole generation of girls and opening up kind of a safe joining of love and sex in those books.” There is something to King’s remarks in this respect, but the issue goes much deeper than his analysis suggests.

Meyer belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS for short), more commonly known as the Mormons, and acknowledges that her faith has influenced her work. Although she claims she has not consciously promoted the virtues of sexual abstinence, it is hard not to find this theme developed in the narrative, and many critics have commented on this element in both the books and the films adapted from them. The theme of abstinence helps enormously with their appeal – it means they have the potential to reach an incredibly wide audience since abstinence is a selling point for many of the world’s 2 billion Christians, who make up about a third of the population of the planet. Of course, the books are enjoyed by non-Christians as well, but there can be little doubt that they would not have sold 100 million copies without accessing this vast market.

More than this, however, the LDS has a highly mythic attitude towards marriage, one that many other Christian denominations share in broads strokes, but which is it quite explicitly developed among the Mormon community: the idea that marriage is eternal. When a man and a woman marry among the Church of the Latter Day Saints, they are not just marrying for life, but for all time, for they believe that the two souls joined in marriage will be together not just in this world, but in a world to come. Of course, many Christians believe something similar, but the theme is most explicit among the followers of Joseph Smith. 

The theme of the joining of souls is far older and far more widely accepted than just Christianity, however. Plato, in The Symposium, has the comic playwright Aristophanes tell a mythic tale of the origins of sexuality, in which humans were once very different creatures who were cut in half by Zeus. These original humans were of three kinds: hermaphrodites, who were split into men and women, and two kinds of double-gendered beings, who were split into two men, or two women. Love, in this myth, is thus each soul’s attempt to find the other half of its original whole. Although clearly drawing on the patterns of Greek myth, Aristophanes’ tale appears to have been entirely Plato’s invention.

If Plato was happy to accept the union of homosexual souls, why are certain Christian sects frequently resistant to homosexuality? After all, Plato’s work had a huge influence upon Christian theology and metaphysics (whether or not one considers Plato an influence on the Gospel of St. John, Plato's philosophy certainly influenced how this document was later interpreted).

The quick and easy answer is Leviticus, the book which records the social codes of the Israelites from roughly 2,500 years ago, which clearly takes a dim view of homosexual acts between men. But this answer only goes so far, since Leviticus also takes a dim view of men who see women menstruating, the wearing of garments made of more than one kind of fibre, and tattoos (to name just a few things). Not to mention it quite clearly endorses the ownership of slaves, something almost no-one advocates today, no matter how old school their religious beliefs. Furthermore, it is quite clear that Jesus considered the only important part of Leviticus to be 19:18 which advocates “loving they neighbour as thyself”, and indeed stops an adulterous woman from being stoned to death in John 8, despite this being the prescribed penalty in Leviticus.

The vague gesturing at Leviticus is shorthand for a very different kind of argument: we’ve always done it this way. Since marriage has traditionally been between a man and woman, and perhaps just as crucially, since marriage has traditionally been about bearing children as much as (or, in many eras, more than) love, there is a sense that allowing ‘marriage’ to mean the loving union of two men or two women must be some kind of error. In a religious tradition such as the Bahá'í Faith that accepts progressive revelation, this kind of adjustment would be comparatively easy. But in a tradition that believes revelation happened only in a particular stretch of time, this kind of change is challenging.

This is the situation facing the LDS, since it believes that God’s law doesn’t change, although mankind can certainly get it wrong and need correcting. Within this theological framework, it’s very difficult to make peace with gay marriage, as nothing in the existing canon of scripture speaks in favour the idea that God intended gay marriage after which humanity simply misunderstood the divine will. As a result, gay marriage becomes a metaphysical threat to the mythic conception that two married souls will remain together in eternity: to someone invested in this story, marriage just means a man and woman joining their souls together forever, and any other reading of the term ‘marriage’ can feel either threatening, disturbing, or at least, misguided.

This is a key part of the story behind the political action the LDS took in California to try and overturn gay marriage by supporting Proposition 8. This decision brought a lot of criticism and prejudice against Mormons (the blind eye the LDS has tended to turn towards polygamy among some of its members in Utah did not help in this regard). Some have even touted a rather strange idea that Church and State prohibited them from politically campaigning. This, however, is nonsense: nothing in the First Amendment prohibits being motivated towards political action by religious beliefs, and if it did the notion of freedom that is integral to the identity of the United States as a nation would be irreparably damaged. 

In respect of Proposition 8, the responsibility for its passing cannot be wholly levelled at its supporters, but also at the failure of opponents. One advertisement intended to rally voters against the amendment featured a pair of lesbians being harassed by teenage Mormon boys (the kind who, according to LDS practice, are encouraged to conduct door-to-door outreach). The thrust of this entire campaign was misguided: supporters of the gay community did not need persuading to vote against Proposition 8, but moderate Christians were open to be influenced. Making out that religious folk are the enemy was not an effective way to curry their favour.

Imagine the difference if the same funds had been used, not to make an ad painting the LDS as the enemy, but showing two lesbians on their wedding day, clearly in love, and overlaid with the famous words from 1 Corinthians 13: 4-7, so frequently used at weddings: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres.”

The Twilight saga is at its heart a love story in the tradition of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, about two souls who find each other, remain abstemious until marriage, and then stay together for all eternity. They are, as it happens, a man and a woman. (Well, a vampire and a woman). If conservative and moderate Christians in the United States and elsewhere are to be won over to the idea of gay marriage, it requires new stories of the love between a man and a man, and a woman and a woman. Those stories are there to be told. But instead of telling them, too many advocates for the gay community insist on making the followers of traditional religion the enemy, thus making their situation worse rather than better.

Slavery ended in the United States because too many Christians could no longer reconcile the practice with their belief in the essential dignity of all people. Slavery ended, despite the fact that Leviticus endorsed it. It didn’t matter. Because deep down, Christians – even many conservative Christians – have a sense of right and wrong that is rooted in their theology, and that theology is always subject to change as new aspects of the love that is, for them, the essence of God is revealed. If the goal is acceptance of gay marriage, demonizing religion is counter productive. The secret of overcoming homophobia in the United States doesn’t lie in ‘defeating’ Christianity, but in demonstrating the love between a man and a man, and a woman and a woman. And in this regard, the true story hasn’t even begun to be told.

Militant Atheists?

Charming and erudite philosopher AC Grayling declares in an interview for The Guardian:

"And besides, really... how can you be a militant atheist? How can you be militant non-stamp collector? This is really what it comes down to. You just don't collect stamps. So how can you be a fundamentalist non-stamp collector? It's like sleeping furiously. It's just wrong."

He’s wildly off the mark here. It’s very easy to be a militant non-stamp collector – you take action that interferes with people who collect stamps. There is nothing logically impenetrable in this concept. Similarly, you can be a fundamentalist non-stamp collector – nothing will shake your belief that one should not collect stamps.

To be a militant atheist is a parallel case: interfering with people who believe in God (or, I might add, casting prejudicial aspersions on them). To be a fundamentalist atheist is to be in a position whereby nothing will shake your disbelief in God. Since many atheists have a very simplistic (a)theology in mind when they dismiss God in this way, this actually does not reach the high standards of rationality that Grayling himself aspires towards. By all means choose not to play the game, but don’t then claim to be playing it better than anyone else.

There’s no reason that one shouldn’t have the faith in reason and materialism that Grayling and others have – but to hold this faith so devoutly as to be unable to see the role that belief has in its justification runs counter to Grayling’s rationalist agenda. He is deceiving himself. For someone with “an intrinsic problem about belief in falsehood”, this borders upon hypocrisy. Still, I’m not convinced Grayling is militant about his atheism, although he certainly seems to be a fundamentalist in respect to reason. But his old fashioned exaltation of rationality as the one true path already feels ‘so last century’.

Immortality Stories

cavehands Is it more implausible that Christian beliefs will lead to immortality, or that science and technology will grant eternal life? Putting aside the question of whether we should want to live forever –I for one have no interest in this appalling imaginary scenario – which kinds of immortality stories should we place our faith in?

I’ve written about immortality before, and this earlier discussion should be taken as a foundation for what I wish to explore now. Then, as now, I am agnostic about all kinds of eternal life, whether technological or spiritual, and have no desire to live forever whatever the proposed means. However, I do believe that while mystical immortality beliefs are essentially harmless and tangential to the core values of religion as a whole, technological immortality beliefs are either confused or dangerous and should be subjected to considerably greater scrutiny.

In respect of this strange impulse to believe in immortality I find myself particularly bemused by those people who, miserable and depressed in life, still hold out hope for new scientific breakthroughs that will grant them longevity or eternal life. What is it, exactly, that will make this extended life worth living if it is not so when it is finite? This is akin to finding yourself on a rollercoaster that you are not enjoying, and instead of looking forward to the end of the ride you desperately hope that the ride will go on forever. How can anyone wish this and still make a claim to sanity?

My purpose in revisiting this topic is to draw out what I see as a hypocritical contradiction that people of unfaith display when they betray their own commitment to minimising implausible beliefs by trusting in science to offer technological salvation. It begins as a simple orthodox science fiction story concerning extending the life of cells such that a treatment can be postulated that prolongs human life indefinitely. From this simple story, a ladder of increasingly improbable fantasies is projected to deal with subsequent problems, which are legion. Even if genetic problems with memory retention can be redressed, neural networks reach a point of saturation when they have absorbed all the information they can, and thus senility must inevitable occur at some point. Transferring consciousness to a new body may be offered as a fantasy to solve this. Subsequent conjectures can be deduced to address all the possible problems without stepping far outside of orthodoxy.

What of the end of our sun? This one is simple, since orthodox science fiction prophesies the ultimate expansion of our species out into space and on to the distant stars. Even a distinguished scientist like Stephen Hawking has no hesitation in taking the role of prophet in this regard, since it is a thoroughly conventional faith to believe that this can and will happen. What of the end of all suns? Here more severe scenarios for the continuation of human consciousness must be imagined, which have been criticised in detail by Mary Midgley in Science as Salvation. But what do criticisms matter when one is imagining what might be possible? Once one has chosen to set aside the tenuous chain of absurdity such beliefs rests upon, faith in science and technology can offer eternal life, yea, even until the end of the universe.

Yet proponents of such scenarios are often extremely vehement in their criticisms towards religions that offer “false hopes” of eternal life through metaphysical salvation. Examined with an impartial eye, or as much of one as can be found, this begins to look like orthodox scientism simply behaving as any narrow-minded religious tradition will tend to do when its metaphysics are placed on a pedestal above its ethics: other faiths are wrong, my faith is right, and woe betide you for following false prophets – only my faith will lead to eternal life. Yours must end in eternal damnation. This kind of tale is nonsense however you ground your faith, and the idea that what might be possible (that is, faith in the intersection between what is imaginable and what can be authorised by the science fiction megatext) has some superior claim to truth is frankly laughable.

Consider the following thought experiment, which I will call Uptime Resurrection:

In the distant future, temporal duplication technology is developed that is capable of transcribing information from the past in high resolution at a subatomic level. Because nothing is actually transferred through time except information, none of the restrictions implied by relativity are violated. A far future culture descended from those of the Earth constructs a gigantic interstellar environment, perhaps a Dyson sphere (or shell) built around an artificially generated quasar created by supplying matter to a supermassive black hole, the accretion disc of which generates vast quantities of energy and light. The interior of the Dyson sphere thus spans light years, and after it is completed it is populated with plants and animals cloned from original Terran species, their genetic and epigenetic factors acquired by uptime duplication – even extinct species with no preserved genetic material can therefore be reproduced. The benevolent descendents of Earth then proceed to use the uptime duplicator to resurrect each and every human being that ever lived, placing them in a specially created environment within the Dyson sphere, modelled upon the historical period their data has been acquired from. With the incredible resources of their technology, the whole of the history of the planet Earth is reproduced in its new environment, but by virtue of the advances in nanotechnology and biotechnology each of the resurrected humans is immortal and indestructible.

It is clear that the addition of one additional element to this story changes the tone of the Uptime Resurrection thought experiment completely: the people who create and populate the Dyson sphere are Christians, and believe they are doing God’s work by resurrecting humanity: they have used technology to bring about the parousia. Prior to this additional clause, we have a simple science fiction scenario that no person of unfaith need have a problem with, except perhaps on technical grounds. (Most of the individual elements can be found in, for instance, Phillip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld, Walter Jon Williams Knight Moves and Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker). But the additional clause that transforms it into the Christian Uptime Resurrection thought experiment is the least fanciful aspect of this immortality story – all it requires is for a specific religion to be prevalent in the culture responsible for implementing the scenario, and given the general absurdity of this outcome it might even require this justification to make sense of their motive for doing so.

Clearly, these future Christians would see themselves as “doing God’s work”, and the Christians who were resurrected would see this as the fulfilment of the prophecies they had been told when they were alive for the first time. Let’s assume the future Christians are universalists and thus decide to resurrect everyone, and not just some subset of people, believing this to be God’s plan. In this case we might well imagine that the more belligerent people of unfaith so resurrected would remain incredulous that anyone could be so naive as to believe that an unknowable entity had in any way been responsible for this state of affairs. They would point to the role of technology in bringing it about, thus believing that their own faith in science was equally validated by this outcome. Which just goes to show, even if the Christian afterlife were actually to happen it would in no way change the beliefs of those opposed to Christianity or religion, which were already set in stone.

The moral of this story is not that one kind of immortality belief is more or less plausible than another, but that the availability of justifications for absurd outcomes has nothing to do with people’s belief or disbelief in their likelihood. The decision to render certain stories acceptable and others dangerous is a natural result of orthodoxy of any kind, and has nothing to do with religion, per se, since scientism and political ideology yield similar outcomes. The important question concerning immortality is not whose faith is invested wisely, but whether we should be investing in eternal life at all. If we cannot live together contentedly as mortals, what sense does it make to pin our hopes on becoming immortals?

Faith, Unfaith and Nonfaith

Seperating the waters from the land What do you value: faith in the untestable, the unfaith of knowledge or the nonfaith of discarding reality as illusion? Whatever path you choose, there is no way to approach life without some element of belief behind the attempt.

The Abrahamic faiths, the devotional worship of Bakhti in the Hindu traditions, and many other religions centred upon the numinous experience (the encounter with that which is wholly other) are all traditions built on faith. Faith, the surrender to something that can be experienced but not known, is what many people associate with the word 'religion' itself, although this is a gross simplification. Within the religious traditions of the world there are many paths (including the Buddhist schools of Theraveda, Ch'an and Zen, as well as certain Hindu philosophies) that involve a form of nonfaith: rather than believing in the unknown, it is the known which is disbelieved. The self in particular is dismissed by nonfaith, with the same kind of tranformatory result as faith – the release of compassion. It is almost as if these distinct paths share a common goal, which may explain why Mahayana Buddhism can seem like nonfaith shifting into a faith tradition.

Against the path of faith, we increasingly contrast another form of life, the path of knowledge. Science, referring to procedures of verification and explanatory theories, is believed by some to have invalidated traditional belief systems. There is something dishonest about this view when it is elevated to the status of self-evident truth, for knowledge too rests on foundations of faith, as Nietzsche so presciently observed. While knowing does not escape a necessary element of belief, it generally seems like such a small step to accept this viewpoint (at least when compared to the leap of faith associated with numinous religion) that for many people it feels like no step at all.

We might call this pursuit of knowledge unfaith: just as we talk in fiction of undead to refer to something which is not alive yet still lives in some sense, so unfaith captures the strange underlying tension in a commitment to knowledge. The way of unfaith is essentially an attempt to minimise the extent of faith in one's thinking, and thus attain to certainty (or something close). Undeniably, this approach has its merits – technology and medicine depends upon such levied constraints. However, catastrophic problems emerge when faith and unfaith collide.

When faith ignores its own nature and tries to attain to certainty, it becomes corrupted by unfaith. Creation Science is precisely this kind of muddled nonsense. Christians should be acutely aware of the role of faith in their religion, but it is all too easy to cross from belief into certainty. To know the Bible is true is to betray the role of faith in Christian life, and make an idol of a book. Similarly, when unfaith becomes contaminated by faith it can only lead to foolishness. The commitment to knowledge should oblige one to agnosticism about whatever cannot be tested, in order to minimize the degree of faith entailed. If instead a leap of unfaith is taken, the result is certainty about unknowable matters. What cannot be verified is treated as definitely false, and perhaps by implication dangerous. When this occurs, a twisted kind of faith has polluted the clarity which unfaith strives towards.

Furthermore, it is all too easy to miss the role faith plays in life outside of religion. Marriage – the promise of lifelong commitment between two souls – is a leap of faith. One does not know that love will last; it takes something of the way of faith to make a marriage work. Distorted unfaith does not openly attack this manifestation of faith in life, although corrupted faith sometimes makes an idol of what marriage 'should' be. Love, the earthly manifestation of compassion that traditions of faith and nonfaith both revere as sacred, speaks with its own voice. Its clarity rings so true that even unfaith dare not challenge its claims, despite the centrality of faith to the experience of love.

Traditions of faith, nonfaith and unfaith all rest upon particular beliefs. Even if the enlightened soul of nonfaith is liberated from both faith and knowledge, they cannot reach this state without adopting certain transforming beliefs, as the butterfly must pass through the chrysalis. Belief is thus the inescapable condition of life. To attempt to monopolize its infinite possibilities – whether by faith or unfaith – necessarily betrays one's chosen path. In our diverse societies, perhaps we should accept a role for all three attitudes.

The opening image is Seperating the water from the land from, and is copyright Shoshanna Bauer (All Rights Reserved).

Imagine There's No 'Imagine'

John_lennon_imagine I have always disliked John Lennon's song Imagine, which for me is the worst kind of muddle-headed fantasy. It proclaims a desire for “the world to be as one” by the method of abolishing religion, nations and property. It's a good thing we have the Beatles song Revolution as counterpoint to make it clear it's only the Marxist ends Lennon supported and not the horrific means deployed under that ideology in the twentieth century. This aside, I have indeed taken the time to imagine what is prescribed in the song – and it's not a pretty thought.

I have imagined what would have happened to the dream of Martin Luther King, who died three years before this song was written, had he not been inspired by his religion to fight injustice while Lennon was “wandering the corridors of his mind”, whacked-out on LSD. I have imagined a world without nations (sometimes even with wistfully naïve optimism) and in particular I have wondered if this alleged utopia would be closer to Brave New World's totalitarian World State or Max Max's violent anarchy. I have imagined how one would have any kind of security at all in a world without property unless some kind of religion-like or nation-like belief system could sustain amicable relations.

On the whole, I would rather imagine a world with better religions, nations and property rights than a dystopia without any of these things.

Salmon Rushdie, drawing on Lennon's twisted vision, urges the six billionth child to “put aside childish things”, by which he means religion. Given the story of his life, I can understand Mr. Rushdie's hatred of traditional belief systems, but this asinine linking of religion to childhood grows tiresome. Blind rebellion against tradition is quintessentially teenage; it scarcely counts as adult behaviour. Paul, whom Rushdie quotes, at least had the maturity to admit in the next verse that he could only see “in a mirror, darkly.” Mr. Rushdie, like most teens, clearly knows better.

Imagine there's no heaven? It's easy if you try, apparently. Frankly, those tedious door-to-door evangelists are more subtle with their pleadings for metaphysical conversion. I prefer instead to imagine there's no attempt to enforce any single belief system, religious or non-religious; no bigotry between people of differing identities; no judgement based upon a person's presumed beliefs rather than their actual sentiments and actions. And that, Mr. Lennon and Mr. Rushdie, is not easy, no matter how hard you try.

10 Common Mistakes About Religion

There are all manner of things people believe about religion that at root are confusions of one kind or another. Here are ten typical examples:

1. Science has superseded religion

Modern science is an empirical research programme. Religions are traditional beliefs and stories concerning metaphysics and ethics. So to say science has superseded religion is rather like saying the space shuttle has superseded sausages.

2. Religions are founded upon immutable dogmas

Anyone trying to make this claim has to explain how it can be that the beliefs and practices of Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and so forth have changed so radically over the past few millennia. The relationship between static dogmas and the religions they have accreted from are like fossil creatures compared to their living animal relatives. No tradition begins set in stone (the Ten Commandments not withstanding!).

3. Either one or zero religions are true

While there is clearly an orthodox belief that implies this proposition, it is by no means the only perspective – both Sufi Islam and Hinduism have touted religious plurality for millennia, for instance. Also, consider that in science the incompatibility between relativity and quantum mechanics is not taken to mean that either one or neither model is true, rather it is assumed future theory will reconcile them – similarly, no-one can rule out the possibility that multiple religions might contain key elements of the truth.

4. Religions dictate hatred for other religions

The distrust or contempt of outgroups is a part of human psychology independent of religion. Hatred between nations, ethnicities and even rival sporting allegiances show that this runs far deeper than traditional belief systems. And of course, the contempt certain non-religious individuals feel for religious people underlines this point.

5. The First Amendment mandates the exclusion of religion

The point of the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment to the constitution of the United States was to prevent government from interfering with individual liberty in the practice of religion. It was intended to protect religious rights, not to quash religious expression.

6. Karma is good

In the oldest Dharmic traditions, there was no conception of 'good karma' – karma was understood as a negative consequence of human action. In the image of the Wheel of Karma, evil deeds caused a giant stone wheel to turn thus crushing humanity beneath it, and the only way to stop its destruction was for everyone to avoid causing evil, thus preventing the wheel from turning. This can be interpreted metaphorically rather than metaphysically – the idea that evil deeds in turn cause further evil to occur can be grasped intuitively as part of the nature of human interaction, and is a common theme in global religion (see Galatians 6:7 for the Christian version).

7. Jihad means holy war

This is only one meaning of the word, and not even the most relevant to the Muslim faiths. In fact, 'jihad' literally means “struggle”, and in the Arabic language peacefully-conducted campaigns such as Gandhi's fight for Indian independence and the women's liberation movement are considered 'jihad'. Even when jihad is taken to mean physical warfare, it's objective according to the Qu'ran must be to uproot persecution, and the murder of innocents is expressly excluded (see the Qur'an, 5:32).

8. Hinduism is polytheistic

'Polytheistic' is a term that Christian scholars used to describe traditional Indian beliefs that, frankly, they did not fully comprehend. In fact, Hindu beliefs are predominantly monotheistic or panentheistic (i.e. the divine interpenetrates all of nature, and extends timelessly beyond it), but there are also pantheistic, polytheistic and indeed atheistic interpretations. It is a truly diverse collection of beliefs.

9. The Pope cannot make mistakes

Papal infallibility does not mean the Pope of the Catholic Church is incapable of mistakes. It simply means that there is no possibility of error when the Pope declares new dogma for Catholics. In fact, this tenet is rather trivial and many Catholic scholars doubt it was necessary to declare it at all. A gainful comparison can be made with the situation facing the referee of a sporting match, who is the ultimate authority in interpreting the rules and could be said to enjoy “umpire infallibility” (although the umpire, unlike the Pope, cannot declare new rules).

10. The time of religion has passed

Some post-modernists proclaim that the age of grand narratives is over, saying that once we believed in such stories, but now we have moved beyond these primitive practices. Yet clearly this is also a grand narrative – once upon a time there was religion, then we lived happily ever after. Human culture and identity is inextricably intertwined with its stories, making it highly likely that religion will be part of human life for as long as our species is around – although what forms our future religions might take is anyone's guess.


Contains discussion of religious traditions.

Lights descent_0Few aspects of religious practice are as frequently misunderstood as prayer. Perhaps the most common misconception is that prayer is equivalent to making a wish when one blows out the candles on a birthday cake – but this is, at best, a child's conception of prayer, equivalent to the child's conception of God as “an old man in the clouds”. In this piece, I look at prayer in both the Dharmic and Abrahamic traditions, and ask the question: is the goal of prayer to entreat the divine to act in specific ways, or to commune with the divine in order that we should live a certain way?

The child's conception of prayer has a long history, and indeed the practice of sacrificial offerings to appease the Gods in ancient Greece and elsewhere has more in common with this perspective than the practice of prayer in most modern religions. Similar rituals can be found in tribal religious practices – ceremonies intended to entreat certain outcomes. This form of prayer borders on magic – the attempt to influence reality with thought – and indeed Kabbalah (a form of Jewish mysticism popular among non-Jewish celebrities) retains this aspect. All such practices can reasonably be considered forms of prayer, and modern religious observers of various traditions do indulge in prayers of petition, but to consider the totality of prayer to be encapsulated in this idea is both narrow-minded and naïve.

To fully appreciate prayer in all its forms, it is important to recognise the relationship between prayer and meditation. While there are certainly secular forms of meditation, it was originally a religious practice and remains so for many people today. Buddhists of various sects do indeed pray, and for them prayer is considered a form of meditation, but more generally Buddhist meditations are concerned with awakening one's inner capabilities and compassion, although this too overlaps with many forms of prayer. Rita Gross and Terry Muck wrote a quite remarkable book entitled “Christians Talk About Buddhist Meditation, Buddhists Talk About Christian Prayer”, in which Buddhists express admiration of the Christian practice of prayer (viewed as a form of meditation), and Christians express similar views of Buddhist practices. The book recognises the risk of a loss of religious identity if one combines Christian and Buddhist views, but shows one of many parallels between Abrahamic and Dharmic traditions in the world today.

Among the other Dharmic traditions, a similar blurring of the lines between meditation and prayer can be found. Hinduism is so diverse that considering it to be a single religion can be a mistake; the myriad practices it contains include invocation rituals, meditations, prayer rituals and mantras – transformative sounds or words, intended to bring about an attunement with the divine (or some similar transformation of the self). The distinction here between mantra and prayer can be slight, for there are many Hindu prayer rituals which have precisely the same goals as a typical mantra, and bhakti (devotional worship) thoroughly blurs the lines between mantra, prayer and meditation. Similarly, Jain prayer salutes souls that have reached a connection with the divine, with the goal that the praying individual might do the same. As with Buddhism, the distinctions between meditations and prayers among the Dharmic traditions blur and overlap.

Among the Abrahamic traditions, prayer of petition is perhaps most explicit in Judaism, but even here it is recognised as just one of three kinds of prayer. The other forms, prayers of gratitude and prayers of praise, are arguably more fundamental to Jewish practice. Jewish tradition expects its adherents to pray three times a day, and much as with Dharmic prayer there is a hope that the prayer will transform. The intention is to pray with one's heart, not one's mind, and to connect one's soul with the divine – thus taking the praying individual into a state of being beyond everyday existence. However, Judaism is perhaps the most explicit of the Abrahamic faiths in allowing for prayer of petition, and there is certainly a common belief in what I have called the child's conception of prayer. There is still a key difference: Jews should never pray for selfish goals, thus “praying as wishing” is not a genuine aspect of Jewish faith.

The youngest of the three main Abrahamic faiths, Islam, holds prayer in high esteem (and has much in common with bhakti in Dharmic faiths). Salah is a highly formalised ritual prayer that Muslims are expected to conduct five times a day (with dispensations when this is difficult to attain). Salah means “supplication”, and this prayer is expressly centred upon submission to God (the meaning of the word “Islam”). The chief purpose of prayer for a Muslim is to be in communion with God, to exist before Allah in thanks and praise, to ask for guidance, and to submit to the will of God. Unlike many other religions, there is an aspect of fear involved – but this is not dread or anxiety, but rather something closer to awe, the recognition of the divine as something infinitely powerful and beyond comprehension. So feeling, the Muslim is expected to attain a degree of restraint in their actions in life, submitting to the will of God, as epitomised in the Arabic term “Insha'Allah”, meaning “if it is God's will”, or “God willing”.

In the case of the Baha'i Faith, it's not clear if this religion should count as an Abrahamic faith or a Dharmic tradition, since (in common with several other religions, such as Sufi Islam) the Baha'i Faith treats all religions as part of a greater whole. According to its writings, the core of faith “is that mystic feeling which unites man with God”, and prayer for those who follow this tradition has precisely this role. Abdu’l-Baha, the eldest son of the founder of the Baha'i Faith, said: “In the highest prayer, men pray only for the love of God, not because they fear Him or hell, or hope for bounty or heaven... The spiritual man finds no delight in anything save in commemoration of God.” To people of this faith, prayer is the language of love; not the love of the flesh, but of the spirit.

Finally, Christianity is perhaps the locus of most confusion in respect of prayer, and certainly among rural congregations in the United States and elsewhere the child's conception of prayer can often be the dominant understanding. Such an attitude among adults is arguably a gross misrepresentation of what prayer should mean to a follower of Jesus, for the gospels are quite explicit as to how a Christian should pray – and prayer of petition does not form an explicit part of this guideline, except in the general sense of asking for protection from harm, and continuity of sustenance. The Lord's Prayer, part of the Sermon of the Mount, is Jesus' advice on how one should pray, and can be summarised as follows: recognise the divine as sacred; submit to the will of God; ask God to help us subsist, to protect us from harm, to forgive our wrongdoings, to help us forgive those who do us wrong; recognise the divine as eternal and infinite. This prayer encapsulates diverse attitudes that lie scattered among the devotional practices of the great religious traditions of the world.

Prayer, when understood in context, is not a magical telephone hotline but a way for the individual to attempt to move out of the mundane world and into the presence of the divine or transcendent. This may come through an emptying – as in meditation, which requires no concept of God – or through the fullness of the numinous experience of the divine; either way, the individual and their selfish needs are extinguished. This does not mean it is wrong for one to pray, for instance, for a loved one to be well, or for peace – in so doing, one is praying with one's heart, an honest attempt at connection with the spiritual. Still, the purpose of communion with the divine through prayer is not that our will be done, but that one might achieve a unity with the numinous mystery of God. And in this, the change that one is praying for is, inevitably, a transformation of the self.

The opening image is Lights Descent from, and is copyright Shoshanna Bauer (All Rights Reserved).

The Joy of Swik

Legoreindbottb Among the many Winter Festivals that are practised, none is stranger than the Discordian festival of Swik, pronounced 'swik' or 'christmas' – although not to be confused with the Christian festival with the same pronunciation and dates. An ancient Discordian tradition, dating back at least twenty years, states “the joy of Swik is Getting, Shouting, and Passing out”, but it is widely recognised that Swik is a festival to be endured rather than enjoyed (much like a Klingon rite of passage). One does not have to be a Discordian to be participating in Swik... most people are simply trapped in the festival through no fault of their own.

No-one is really sure when Swik piggybacked onto Christmas, although it happened a long time after Christmas piggybacked onto the Pagan Solstice celebrations, which also fall at this time each year. Perhaps it was the Victorians who began to ignore the religious aspect of Christmas and focus instead upon the sale and purchase of an unnecessary profusion of gifts, which has now escalated to such a violent spectacle of intense consumerism as to make the shops utterly impassible to anyone not comfortable with someone's elbow stuck in their nose. Fortunately, Swik also brings with it a spirit of alcoholism and debauchery which salves the pain of the shopping horrors, not to mention the discomfort of strained family unity that many must find a way to survive.

In recent years, Discordians in the United States have also began to use “swik” to refer to unwanted presents, and thus divvy up their swik (or loot) to interested parties in the aftermath of festivities. This builds upon the long standing tradition of Discordians giving the tackiest most unbearably awful plastic frippery as presents to one another for Swik. The Japanese produce the most incredible tat for Swik each year, and one has not lived until one has hung some bizarre talking plastic ornaments on the Swik tree.

To all those doomed to endure Swik, I wish you godspeed or, as the Klingons put it, K'plah! To everyone else, according to your traditions, Happy Kwanzaa, God be with you followers of Bahá'u'lláh, felicitations on the birth of the tenth Nanak, Happy Islamic New Year 1431 AH, Merry Christmas, Serene Buddhist New Year, Happy Hannukah, Merry Yalda, Auspicious Makara Sankranti and last but not least, Happy Solstice and rejoice for the Sun King has returned!

Only a Game will return in January.