Umbrella Terms

“Islam” and “Christianity”, as umbrella terms, are actually not has helpful as you might imagine. Each religion has a huge variety of believers even within their many different sects. These sects (or “denominations” as Christians prefer to call them) can differ from each other so much as to make their shared name (“Christian” or “Muslim”) completely uninformative. We should not fall into this temptation of simplicity but instead, as the diagram below, remember that any given believer has a huge variety of thoughts, attachments and practices.

As a simple Christian example, compare Appalachian Christian Snake Handlers to formal urban Episcopalians. Values, expressions, economics, language and much more separate these folks from each other enough so that calling them both “Christians” or “believers in Jesus”, as telling you almost nothing important.

Likewise, as a simple Muslim example, compare lower-class Whirling Sufi Dervish Muslims in Turkey to the higher-class Wahhabi conservatives in Saudi Arabia. Sure, I can tell you they are both “Muslims”, but that tells you nothing of their real values, practices, lifestyles and/or politics.

So, as you can see in my diagram to the right, understanding the “varieties of believers” of any given religion helps us understands a religion. But ironically, it helps us also to understand that what is important about a believer is not their umbrella-term name, but the particulars about their world. I made the diagram above to illustrate how the umbrella term blocks us from understanding all these very important particulars (the rain drops).

Could a snake handling, absorbed-bouncing West Virginia snake-handling Christian have more important elements in common with a poor Turkish whirling Dervish than they do with their counterparts mentioned above? Are these types of small communities which are drawn to trance-inducing religious fervor best understood for that trait, or for their umbrella term. I contend that it is the constellation of practices, social networks, demographics and more that we need to really understand each other. Relying on broad terms like Christian or Muslim does these individuals injustice — though they may claim otherwise. But we do this because of the temptation of simplicity.

As to keep this post “short”, I supply links to supplement the above:

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The Temptation of Simplicity

The Temptation of Simplicity” is a phrase I use often to illustrate a major pitfall of human reasoning or of our non-reasoning. It is often much easier and more comfortable to believe a simple, grossly wrong explanation than a complicated, more accurate explanation. “Black and White Thinking“, also known as “splitting” in psychology, is similar. Splitting is where an individual forms extremes opposites views of a controversy: a virtuous self-preferred story and a straw man version of the opponent’s view. “Whole Package Thinking“, which I wrote about here, is also a form of the temptation of simplicity.

People often want to quickly categorize things as right or wrong. It is uncomfortable to suspend judgement. The practice of being comfortable with putting judgement on hold is what I call “Traffic Light Epistemology” (see this post). I also call it “A Nebulous Way of Knowing” (crediting David Chapman) (see this post).

But before I get too self-righteous about thinking complexly, it should be obvious that quick categorical judgement is often an adaptively adventageous skill. Sometimes it is better to judge quickly even if you risk the chance of being wrong. So for me, having both skills and discerning their use is important.

Readers: In the comments, give examples of where quick black and white thinking may be useful.

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Patterns: Islam & Christianity

This planned series of posts is primarily geared toward two audiences:

  1. Muslims who want to know a little more about Christianity
  2. Christians who want to know a little more about Islam

First, I must disclose my perspective as a non-believer in either of these religions. These posts are not meant to argue for or against either religion. Instead my goal, for both Muslims and Christians, is to illuminate the similar patterns of the human mind that created these religions.

It is my further hope that in doing so, both my Muslim and Christian audiences will soften the specialism, the exclusivism and the legalism in their religion, because I view these three traits as being the most dangerous aspects of any religion. Religion is an organizational form of thought like many others: political, economic, or social. But I am not solely critical of these forms of though. Religion, like governments, for example, can have both helpful and destructive elements. Here I am aiming at mollifying the harmful elements. I think comparative inspections can help us see our commonalities and possibly broaden our communities.

Finally, for religion-free folks (atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularist or whatever you call yourself), these simple posts may offer a different way of looking at religion. The classic, over-simplified way of understanding a religion is simply to think of religion as a list of beliefs. Beliefs are important, but I do not look at beliefs in terms of being simply either true or false. I instead look at the function of our beliefs — how they interact with our personality, our environment and history. The truth of religious beliefs is what most people argue and debate about, but in doing so, they hugely misunderstand the nature of the human mind and our behavior and our rhetoric. They misunderstand the nature of religion itself.

This is an ambitious goal, and like many of my other series I may end it very early, but even this introduction in itself says enough to give me a degree of satisfaction. To keep it going, however, it will help to have constructive or inspiring comments. So, let me know your thoughts, doubts and criticisms.

PS: I will explain the meanings of the header for these posts later, if you haven’t already guessed it.


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“Bone” and Beyond

Two years ago, pre-covid, my daughter and my sweetheart took me out to a Spanish restaurant. One of the items we tried was “ossobuco” which google translate tells us is “braised veal” but more specifically, it is veal (calf) shank (lower leg around the tibia) braised (the meat is seared and then cooked in a broth as you see below) with vegetables, white wine and broth. Wheew, a long explanation, but ossobuco was delicious and I had a wonderful time with my two favorite women.

Milanese Ossobuco (“bone hole”)

And, as you can see by the diagram above, that dish revved up my nerdy linguistic brain. In Italian, “ossobuco” really just means “bone [osso] with a hole [buco]” because when cut into pieces, the calf’s shin bone has a hole in the middle (for the marrow). And that marrow offers the addition flavor to the broth of this fine dish.

I decided to explore “osso” which resulted in my diagram above showing how the PIE (Proto-Indo-European) word “*ost” evolved and spread over time — ending up “osso” in Italian, “bone” in English and “astkhwan” in Persian. So in this world, many apparently-different words are simply the result of slow gradual changes from the same root word. This evolution of language reminds me of the similar interconnections of apparently disparate religions due to their common root sources.

Note: For more fun, see my post and diagram on IndoEuropean languages here.


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Hinduism’s Religious Literature

Understanding a religion is difficult. The most important place to start is to realize that there are as many types of Hinduism, Islam and Judiasm as there are types of Christianity. Believers in any given religion may tell you that there are “core beliefs” or that their version is the only true version, but the former is wrong, and the later is merely political rhetoric. Every religion comes in many flavors. And in our case today, there are many types of Hinduism with many different types of believers.

Because of all that complication, starting with religious literature may be a good beginning as many religious traditions have sacred literature. But as my diagram above illustrates, sacred literature is only a small part of that religion.

In this Mahabharata series we will use the myths discussed in the Mahabharata to explore other aspects of Hinduism, but the Mahabharata can only take us so far in understanding Hinduism, much like the Bible can only take us so far in understanding Christianity.

I made the top diagram to illustrate some of the components needed to deeply understand most religions. Of course, you can get a flavor of a religion by knowing just a few components. Indeed, probably most believers in any religion really only know a few components. To be an adherent (a follower, a believer), it is not necessary to understand one’s own religion, it is usually enough just to claim it as your own.

Below I made another diagram categorizing the major texts of Hinduism. Hopefully this image and the one above show how the Mahabharata is just one small element of Hinduism.

Finally, here is another diagram I made which gives a timeline of Hindu religious literature in comparison to other sacred literature. Remember, many ancient texts are the recording of much more ancient oral traditions. And oral traditions, in an age of no technology, meant that stories varied from area to area. The person writing it down can choose to either record differing stories or to try and homogenize them. The sad thing about the written traditions, is that these myths can then become fossilized — they stop changing and morphing and the religious specialist often try to tell us that they have been the same forever, and are accurate stories and not campfire myths.


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In chapter 1 of Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata (see other posts here), we are told “When a man dies, he can, if he has earned enough merit, enter the paradise of the gods located high above the clouds.” So what is this “merit”?

In many religions, building up merit can get you blessings in this life or get a better afterlife. In this life merit can help protect your health and safety, make you money or make your loved ones prosper. In the next life, you need merit to get into heaven, or in re-incarnation religions, it helps you have a more fortunate rebirth.

“Merit” is like a gold star the elementary teachers give their students when they are good. You can get religious “merit” in many ways: doing good things, following rules, by preforming rituals and more. In God-religions, god(s) determines if you get merit. In Hinduism, the cosmic-karma-machine (my term) calculates what merit you get.

In Christianity, “merit” is ostensibly ignored. Christians believe that all they have to do is believe in Jesus and invite him into their life, and that by doing so their god grants them a free ticket to heaven no matter how bad they’ve been in this life. Well, not all Christians believe that totally. For instance, Catholics feel that a “good Catholic” should do all the sacraments (rituals) like baptism, communion, confession and such in order to secure a good life in heaven. And even Protestants think that “true Christians” will naturally do good things, and that those good things (“their fruits”) are how other Christians can know if that person has truly accepted Jesus as the supposed ruler of their lives.

So as you can see, no matter how you spin it, “merit” is important in almost all religions in some form or other. In other words, religions use the idea of merit to make their believers behave proper — do what they want. And the Mahabharata will teach its listeners the perils of ignoring one’s duties and the benefits of accruing merit.

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Gutting Your Religion

CoexistWalking down the street today, we saw this all too familiar Coexist bumper sticker again.  Versions of it have been around since the very early 2000s.  But before I explain the title of this post, for those who don’t know, let me explain what each letter of this sticker means:

C: Islam’s Crescent Moon
O: Peace Sign
E: Male/Female symbol combined
X: Judaism’s Star of David
I:  Pagan, Wiccan symbol
S: Taoist Ying-Yang Symbol
T: Christian Cross

There are many fun variants of this bumper sticker, of course.  But all of them advocate for the very naive message of: “We should all just get along.”

I’d wager that the people who slap these stickers happily and proudly on their cars don’t realize the futility of this message.  Because, in order for religions to sincerely tolerate each other, those religions would have to severely gut their own theology — something no religion wants to do.

“Gut” in the sense that for a religion to survive, it must tell its believers or followers why it is better than or preferable to other religions.  For a religion to survive, it must also encourage its believers to preferentially pass on their own set of beliefs to their children and/or other people. How can these exclusive systems ever really get along with each other?  How could gutted versions of these faiths even survive for more than two generations? They couldn’t and can’t.  “Exclusivism” is an essential trait of religion. And yet, to have religions that really include each other, you would have to severely gut those religions’ theologies.

Question to readers: Your thoughts?


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Your Modular God: A stubborn abstraction

Modular God 4God” is just a word, not a person or a thing. It is a word that people pack with their hopes, fears and identity. “God” is the great abstraction. And God is a stubborn abstraction. People use the word “God” to capture many different functions for their lives, as illustrated in this diagram above.

So even though the corona virus is killing religious people as much as it is killing non-religious and thus challenging the Magical Health power of their god, religious people just expand other functions, like “identity” so as to preserve their abstraction, their “God”. That is why I called “God” the great stubborn abstraction.

Question to reader: So, what do you think?


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An All-Powerful Evil Bastard

Bad God


04/01/2020 · 9:00 am

Poetry: Billy Collins


This is an addition to my favorite poem anthology.

Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep A Gun In The House

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.
I close all the windows in the house
and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast
but I can still hear him muffled under the music,
barking, barking, barking,

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,
his head raised confidently as if Beethoven
had included a part for barking dog.

When the record finally ends he is still barking,
sitting there in the oboe section barking,
his eyes fixed on the conductor who is
entreating him with his baton

while the other musicians listen in respectful
silence to the famous barking dog solo,
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius.

— by Billy Collins


Here some more Billy Collins poems:

from: The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988)

from: Nine Horses (2002)

from: The Trouble with Poetry (2005)

from: The Rain in Portugal (2016)

Here are further links:


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