Sunday, May 17, 2009

President Obama's Notre Dame Commencement Speech

President Obama's Notre Dame commencement speech represents a watershed moment in American politics, an extraordinary contribution to the greatest challenge that America faces at this moment in history.
At one level, we face challenges involving the economy, environment, matters of war and peace, and health. But at a higher level, our nation has long faced a greater problem: the challenge of dealing with difference, whether in terms of race, ethnicity, economic class, religion, politics, even worldview.
I do not exaggerate when I say this is our greatest national problem. It is our lack of skill at dealing with difference that has impaired our ability to work in and with what is called 'the Muslim world.' Our lack of skill here, in part, resulted in an attack on my hometown--I live in Manhattan--resulting in thousands of fatalities. It is our lack of skill at dealing with differences that, I fear, targets my town and my country for terrorist activities, from suitcase nukes to bioweapons. It is our lack of skill in this area that makes the environment for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan so dangerous, in multiple ways.
Even aside from the apocalyptic, our problems in dealing with difference contaminate our personal lives. I myself have been beaten bloody by people who took issue with me, either as a Puerto Rican, or a White man. I have been ridiculed for my religion (by some of those who agreed with my politics), as well as for my politics (by some thoughtless members of my church). We need a better way to deal with differences than many of us have been taught to use.
For nearly thirty years, since the election of Ronald Reagan as U.S. president in 1980, American political and social discourse has increasingly invoked the rhetoric of division, the demonizing of one's opponents, the winner-take-all approach to politics. As our society has become more obviously multicultural, as America has become more diverse on every possible dimension, overall we have shown ourselves to be poorly equipped to deal with difference.
In contrast, at Notre Dame, President Obama elaborated a vision of civility and fairness in dealing with differences of opinion. He called for people to hold fast to their faith and their values, yes, but he also called for them to show respect to those with different faiths and values, always holding the presumption that one's opponents are people of good will. Obama exhorted us all to appeal to reason, to universal and not parochial principles. One of his phrases will stay with me for a very long time: "Open hearts; open minds; fair-minded words."
Although not delivered in the high style or dramatic setting of Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, President Obama's remarks may ultimately be seen as just as important in redefining American political and social life. Thank you, Notre Dame, for giving him this platform. Both President Obama and Notre Dame are most definitely On The Mark.
I posted an earlier version of this in response to a news article at The Huffington Post (THP). I invite you to visit my profile at THP, see my other comments that are indexed there, comment on them--even become an official "fan" of my writing at THP, if you like. (And, if any reader of this blog is the person identified as "viewfromuphere," who became my first 'fan' at THP: Thank you for your support.)

Friday, May 15, 2009

On Angels and Demons and the Illuminati

With today's nationwide release of the movie version of Dan Brown's book, Angels and Demons, many people will be exposed to Brown's fictional version of those boogeymen of the conspiracy community, the Illuminati (cue creepy trumpet music: DAH Dah dah dahhhhhhh). Here, then, is a brief guide to help you discern Illuminati fact from fiction.

Two warnings: (1) I base my comments on Brown's depiction of the Illuminati in the book version; the movie may deviate from the book. (2) Although I do not reveal any plot twists, by necessity I will convey information about the Illuminati that appears in Brown's novel.

The Illuminati Really Existed

There have been several movements throughout history whose adherents were known by the name (translated into English) of "Illuminated Ones," or (in its Latin version) Illuminati. The movement to which Dan Brown is referring is the Bavarian Illuminati, founded on May 1, 1776, by Adam Weishaupt, a Jesuit-educated but anticlerical university professor who taught at the University of Ingolstadt, in upper Bavaria (the southeastern part of what is now Germany). The Bavarian Illuminati (hereafter just Illuminati, for short) were a revolutionary group that proposed to overthrow the absolute powers of the day, the Church and the Monarchy. Their plan was to replace these with a reverence for Reason, and a sort of primitive Democracy.

For the most part, the Illuminati were high on revolutionary talk, and low on action. However, what they were talking about was truly revolutionary. Had the Illuminist agenda been carried out, it would have meant a thoroughgoing reorganization of society.

Weishaupt and his associates designed a series of initiatory ceremonies, or "degrees" of initiation, by which they brought people into what was truly meant to be a secret society in the proper sense: that is, a society whose very existence was supposed to be a secret from the surrounding greater society and culture. Under Weishaupt's leadership, agents of the Illuminati infiltrated several Masonic lodges in Europe, and subverted these lodges to serve as fronts for Illuminati activities. However, Weishaupt's plans were discovered by government authorities, and several European states worked to crush the Illuminati and the revolutionary activities of its members. Within about ten years of its founding, for all practical purposes, the Illuminati were no more. Reportedly, Weishaupt himself died reconciled to the Church he had once spurned.

Until my own book on the subject is published--and, I am actively seeking representation and interested publishers!--probably the best general reference on the Illuminati, in my opinion, is the portion on the Illuminati (chapter 11) in Christopher Hodapp and Alice Von Kannon's book, Conspiracy Theories & Secret Societies for Dummies. (Yes, this is a "Dummies" book--and a pretty good one, too.) Some material from this chapter is available on the May 1, 2009 post of these authors' blog devoted to this topic.

However, the Illuminati have had a much livelier existence after their suppression, as they have formed the core of Western conspiracy theories and conspiracy-themed fiction for over two centuries (a topic explored in detail in my book). However, the Illuminati of conspiracy theory and fiction differ in major ways from the real Illuminati of history. Below, I describe some of the ways that Dan Brown's Illuminati, as depicted in Angels and Demons, differs from the Illuminati of history.

The Real Illuminati Were Not A Conspiracy of Italian Renaissance Artists and Scientists

In Angels and Demons (hereafter A&D), the Illuminati were a group that existed back in the time of Galileo, whose writings give important clues to Robert Langdon, the hero of Brown's novel (played by Tom Hanks in the movie). This is nonsense.

The real Illuminati were founded in 1776 in Bavaria. Galileo died in 1642, a full century and a half earlier. Basically, Galileo was as far from the days of the Illuminati as we are from the era of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. This is not a small discrepancy.

So, why did Dan Brown position the Illuminati in the time and place that he did? Consider this:

  • As one can tell from both A&D and its sequel, The Da Vinci Code, Brown is interested in questions of religion and faith as these intersect with the historical positions of the Roman Catholic church. In addition, as we can see from these two books, he (and his wife Blythe Newlon) have a great love of Renaissance art. To address all of this, it makes a great deal more sense to write a story involving Rome and the Vatican, the artwork commissioned by the Renaissance-era Catholic Church, and so forth. Where else could he place such a story, but Rome? Ingolstadt? I don't think so.

  • As appears to be the case based on his court testimony a couple of years ago, Dan Brown reads widely, but not necessarily with a discriminating eye. My suspicion is that Brown has dipped into the conspiracy literature more than once for inspiration. In turn, the conspiracy community has latched onto the Illuminati as the ur-conspiracy, the Mother Ship of Western conspiracies, for a long time. Some writers have connected it to revolutionary movements occurring after the Illuminati's demise (such as the French Revolution, and the rise of Communism in Russia). However, other conspiracy writers (like Jim Marrs and David Icke) have connected the Illuminati to groups and movements that date to much earlier times, even centuries and millennia earlier. From that perspective, pulling Galileo into the Illuminati isn't much of a stretch.

The Illuminati Were Not A Conspiracy of Scientists At All

Brown's Illuminati are devoted to destroying the seat of Catholic governance through the use of extremely high-tech (even science fictional) means, as a way to usher in an age of science. This is a heavy distortion of the position of the historical Illuminati, who were not men or women of science. (I say "or women" because the historical Illuminati enrolled both genders.) The real Illuminati organization was devoted to making Reason, not Faith, the guiding principle of government and life, but that Reason was really a philosophical principal. (After all, 1776 fell well within the range of the period called the Enlightenment, right?) Reason was promoted as the principle to follow in the political process, rather than either religious faith or the supposedly divine right of kings. Thus, the Illuminati appealed to some figures in the arts, such as Goethe, and to liberally minded members of the European aristocracy. Scientists, however, barely figured into the historical Illuminati at all.

So why does Brown make his Illuminati into a conspiracy devoted to the ascendancy of science? The Illuminati, as a mythic icon, is a sort of Rorschach card into which each age reads its anxieties. To the clergy of the early American Republic in the late 18th and early 19th century, uncomfortable with their lesser power in a country with no established national church, the Illuminati were wild-eyed rationalists behind the anticlerical French Revolution. To our day, when issues of the relationship of science and religion are in the headlines, the Illuminati are anticlerical scientists. Brown is just reflecting the social anxieties of early 21st century America.

American Freemasons Were Never Involved With the Illuminati

One of the annoying claims in A&D is that the world's oldest fraternal organization, Freemasonry, is actually a front for the Illuminati. This is a staple of conspiracy literature, of course, and a full-blown refutation would take a great deal of space.

Let me put it this way. I am a Freemason: a Master Mason in the Blue Lodge, literally a man who has received "the Third Degree." In addition, I am a 32nd-degree Master of the Royal Secret in the Scottish Rite, and a Knight Templar in the York Rite (the Rites being appendant organizations that only accept Master Masons). I know several 33rd-degree members of the Scottish Rite, including some of the best-informed scholars in American Freemasonry. I have never detected even a whiff of a clue that Freemasonry is controlled by some secret "inner" organization.

The historical Illuminati did infiltrate several--probably dozens--of lodges in Continental Europe. They seem never to have had influence in English Freemasonry, where Grand Lodge Freemasonry began, let alone in the United States. Thus, what Dan Brown has to say on the subject is simply nonsense.

Then again, that's just what you would expect me to say . . . .

Enjoy the movie, as the work of fiction that it is.

[The image above, showing the cover of the book version of Angels and Demons, was obtained from Wikipedia. The copyright to this image is most likely owned by either the book publisher or the artist(s) who created the book cover. Wikipedia states that the use of this low-resolution image to illustrate an article dealing with the book is fair use under U.S. copyright law.]

Friday, May 8, 2009

Are "Young Americans Losing Their Religion" ?

Over the last couple of weeks, there have been several news reports (such as one by ABC News) regarding the Pew Center study on religion, supposedly showing that "young people are losing their religion," on the basis of the fact that the number of people in America who report "None" as their religious affiliation has grown precipitously over the last few years. However, the Pew study has been widely misunderstood. A proper understanding of this study reveals a lot about American religion over the last century, and points out an important opportunity for American organized religious groups.

What the Pew Study Really Means

What the Pew study really shows is that the number of people who have no affiliation to organized religious groups (churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, meetings, circles, etc.) has grown a great deal over the last few years. However, these young people are not "losing" their religion, so much as they are showing that they never had a serious or deep affiliation to a religious group from the get-go.

This should be no surprise. For years, many organized religions in America failed to engage their members in meaningful religious education beyond adolescence. That's a problem: personal faith that is 'frozen' in development at adolescence often cannot cope with the demands of adult life. This leaves family tradition, community ties, and habit as forces that kept many people tied to the religious groups in which they were raised.

However, the influence of tradition and community waned in America, as people began to move around the country a great deal more after World War II. Some people kept a nominal religious affiliation, but did not seriously involve their own children in any particular religious group. Now their descendants have no real ties to any religious organization.

However, every situation creates opportunities.

The Opportunity for Outreach

This presents a great opportunity for religious groups to make significant outreach efforts to those who define their religion as "none of the above," the so-called "religious 'nones' " (as they are referred to in the academic fields of the sociology and psychology of religion). At best, this would mean offering spiritual education to help people face life's issues on a mature spiritual level--more mature than what adolescents usually learn in classes to prepare for Christian Confirmation, Jewish Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and so forth. But will the religious groups of America make these efforts? Only time will tell. However, my sense of the situation is that those groups that do will grow and have a greater voice in shaping our society, while those who do not will fade.

So what do you do with all this? If you happen to be involved in a religious group, I would suggest two things. If you do not happen to be involved in a religious group, I have a different suggestion.

What Those With a Religious Affiliation Might Do

A fair number of the people who read this blog are members of religious organizations. (I know that this blog passes before the eyes of Catholics, Protestants, Latter-day Saints ["Mormons"], Jews of various inclinations, Muslims, members of the Society of Friends ["Quakers"], Wiccans, Gnostics, and Buddhists; I'm sure there are other groups represented as well in this blog's readership. Of course, many readers are honorable "nones.") Most of my readers who are affiliated with a group seem to be of what I would call the 'kinder' variety--less likely to burn people who differ at the stake, more likely to engage in dialogue for mutual understanding--and this variety of religion and spirituality, within any group, is something the world needs more of.

However, kinder is not necessarily better informed. I remember being shocked some years ago at the serious lack of religious and spiritual knowledge held by the students I taught at the University of Central Florida (where I taught the psychology of religion, among other courses). My impressions were confirmed by the grim findings reported in Stephen Prothero's excellent 2007 book, Religious Literacy. (For example: a significant number of American's actually believe that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. You can't make this stuff up.)

So, my first suggestion is really two-fold: (a) If your religious group offers spiritual education at the adult level--offering you a grounding in the teachings of your faith, and an adult level understanding of it--then participate in it; (b) however, if it does not, then help to institute such a spiritual education program within your congregation. Every spiritual tradition I know of has literature that can be used to create such programs. It can be done. If organized religion is to have a productive role in promoting individual and societal growth in 21st century America, it must be done.

My second suggestion: Expose your children in a serious way to your tradition. I mean the teachings, the ritual, the celebration, and discussions of spiritual issues in the home. I know that, in many cases, I am "preaching to the choir" (or coven) here, but it is still worth saying.

What Those With No Religious Affiliation Might Do

Now, to my friends the honorable "nones": Allow me, please, to invite you to an investigation of organized religious traditions. There are many good resources in this area; Huston Smith's The World's Religions is a good overview of the heart of several traditions. (This is a great book. However, it is an overview. Within every tradition he describes, there are many organized groups, and he often does not speak at the "specific group" level; for example, he says little or nothing about my people, the Latter-day Saints. He also is weak regarding neo-paganism; for which, see Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon. So, Smith is a place to start one's study, not the endpoint.)

There is a power that comes of being grounded within a lineage of teaching, a 'tradition.' Much wisdom has accumulated over the course of centuries within organized religious traditions. In my opinion, it is worth exposing oneself to these, to see what resonates with one's soul. Good fortune to you in your journey.
I posted an earlier version of this in response to an on-line article at The Huffington Post (THP). I invite you to visit my profile at THP, see my other comments that are indexed there, comment on them--even become an official "fan" of my writing on THP, if you like.
The picture, of the ruins of St. Bridget's Kirk, was taken in 2006 by Simon Johnston, who owns the copyright. The picture is made available under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 License.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

What Star Trek Meant the First Time Around

With J. J. Abrams bringing his reboot of the Star Trek franchise to the movies on Friday nationwide, I and other fans in their fifties and beyond find ourselves reminiscing about what the original Star Trek television series meant to us in the late 1960s.

We Would Have a Future

First of all, Star Trek told us that we would have a future. This was a shaky proposition at the time. The principal of my parochial elementary school interrupted my first-grade classes one day in October 1962, as the Cuban missile crisis broke into the news, to tell us that we were dangerously close to war with the Soviet Union--and to lead us all in prayer. We held drills in school for years, climbing under our desks to prepare for nuclear attack. However, with our school less than three miles from the Empire State Building--likely ground zero in any attack on New York City--we knew that, in a nuclear war, we would all be vaporized before the plaster loosened from the classroom ceiling by a bomb blast even reached our desk tops. We wondered whether we would make it alive to high school, let alone adulthood.

In the midst of all this atomic anxiety, Star Trek gave us the mythology of a future, the assurance that humanity would not immolate itself in a nuclear orgy of destruction, but rather would survive to encounter marvelous wonders and do great things: we would go to the very stars themselves.

Somehow that all translated into the idea that we, the fifth graders who watched the debut of the series on September 8, 1966, would survive--not a totally logical inference, but it worked for us. Oh, and about logic ....

Math and Science Are Cool

Second, Star Trek taught us that science and math were cool. This was certainly not anything that we learned on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where the adults with the most secure jobs worked either for the City or the Mob. (No, I'm not going there.) Science and math, beyond what was necessary to make change, or calculate the odds on the ponies, seemed irrelevant in our parents' world.

Spock however, made science cool: he had the scientific answers to the seemingly impossible challenges that the crew faced weekly. Scotty, with his lightning-quick mental calculations of what the engines could do, and how long the Starship Enterprise could endure before the stresses of that night's adventure tore her to pieces--Scotty made math cool.

Sure, the science in Star Trek was largely made up, but a fair amount of it was based in reality, however tenuously. We heard about light speed, antimatter, genetic mutations, neurosurgery, artificial intelligence, and computers--all real scientific and technological concepts, even in 1966.

Star Trek got some of us to thinking that perhaps we could do something in science and math. As I grew up, my interests shifted towards social science, but I started out as a grade-school physicist and astronaut-wannabe, who was never scared by math--and I have Star Trek to thank for that, at least in part.

(In passing, I think that Star Trek really has exerted some influence on scientific and technological progress, by provoking questioning and thinking about even the seemingly wildest of its conjectures. For example, according to a recent article at, some scientists are working on the theoretical underpinnings of a faster-than-light propulsion system.)

A Future of Racial and Ethnic Equality

Third, Star Trek gave us hope that the time would come when ethnic and racial differences would mean nothing. This was certainly not the world that I inhabited. As a Polish-Puerto Rican biethnic child on the Lower East Side during the Sixties, I was beaten up now and again by bigger kids for whom someone like me was simply a biological and moral abomination.

Racial division broke out in open conflict in the larger world, as well. During the summer between second and third grades, we watched TV reports of the July 1964 Harlem riot. In subsequent years during our elementary school career, we watched TV reports of riots in Watts (August 1965), and Newark, NJ and Detroit (July 1967). As sixth graders, we witnessed the nation convulse in rioting during the spring of 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in April. A month earlier, a U.S. presidential commission issued the Kerner report, famous for stating that "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white--separate and unequal."

But not on Star Trek. Look at that bridge crew! Sure, Captain Kirk was your standard White North American leading man-type, such as viewers would see on most TV programs of that era. However, Uhura the communications officer was African, Sulu the helmsman and tactical officer was East Asian, Chekov the navigator was Russian, Scotty the chief engineer was Scottish, and Spock the science officer wasn't even entirely human. One of the most important scientists in the Federation was an African American, Dr. Richard Daystrom, reputedly the Einstein of the 23rd century, maven of artificial intelligence. Several Starfleet officers and enlisted personnel had Hispanic names, such as Commodore Jose Mendez. Characters of multiple heritages were not uncommon on the series, the most notable being Spock himself, half-Human, half-Vulcan.

And, for the most part, the different ethnic groups and races got along, at least within the Federation. Oh, sure, there were skirmishes and even open warfare now and again between the multicultural United Federation of Planets, the Romulan Star Empire, and the Klingons, but these conflicts were primarily drawn along astro-political lines, rather than along racial or ethnic differences. Where there was racial conflict, the series bluntly condemned it. (Best example: the episode where Commander Bele--refrigerator white on the left side of his body, but coal black on the right--hunted down Lokai, who had the opposite coloring. After a long pursuit, they discover that racial hatred had utterly destroyed all life on their home planet.)

I do not know where the Star Trek franchise will go from here. I do hope, though, that in our world--where ethnic hatreds kill thousands annually, where religious conflicts threaten global peace, where American children lag behind other nations in their understanding of science and technology, even as environmental catastrophe looms--perhaps something like the original Star Trek series will help to inspire the youth of the 21st century, with new tales of possible futures. That would truly be On The Mark.

Mark Koltko-Rivera is the Director for Research at Professional Services Group, Inc., where he has responsibility for the professional futurism practice.
The picture, the official 40th anniversary logo for Star Trek, is Copyright 2007 by Paramount Pictures and CBS Studios Inc.; it is described on Wikipedia as being available for fair use.