Freedom of faith and feet

Walking composition

Zombie baby? Virus godling? Zoom in on that photo above and tell me that that angry infant in a surgical mask is not one of the scarier things you’ve seen.

In last week’s essay on faith, I mentioned wanting to write about religious freedom and how America fails to honor it when it comes to any tradition that isn’t Judeo-Christian. What I really wanted to talk about was the neglect of Blackfeet traditions when it comes to conversations of delisting (from the endangered species list) and possible hunting of grizzly bears; it’s something I’ve wondered about ever since delisting was proposed. Last week I started reading Robert Chaney’s book The Grizzly in the Driveway, recommended by a friend, and he has a whole chapter on the religious conversation surrounding grizzly bears, far more comprehensive than my own wonderings. There are so many conflicting interests and points of view—only a few of which I’d heard before—that it would be hard to distill it all into a single explanation. The point he starts from, though, is stated with refreshing clarity:

“I don’t believe that a people’s tradition can be dismissed as inferior just because its culture doesn’t have a legacy of universities, courts, and libraries recording its opinions. I would not want to be the person claiming the Creator gives preferences to supplicants with scribes over those without.”

I would add that the existence of buildings to worship in, not just writings, shouldn’t be a deciding factor for whether a faith is respected or not. (Aside from the fact that the “building to worship in” aspect has a weird effect on tax policy that, for example, made a local chain of burger joints where I live wildly profitable and tax-free because they were associated with a Christian ministry.)

Fundamentally, Chaney manages to tease out a core issue, which is that the “freedom of religion” clause in the U.S. Constitution has almost always assumed an anthropocentric religion divorced from the rest of nature. To apply it to life-centric faiths is something that a large portion of American society finds threatening. I would hazard that this is because anything that limits the pursuit of profit is threatening. Add that to the Christian basis of the Doctrine of Discovery and it’s going to create conflict. You can worship whatever you want as long as it doesn’t impinge on others’ ability to make a living—or a fortune.

That’s a negative perspective on the freedom of religion, but the clause “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” like faith itself, could theoretically carry enormous potential for good.

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I can’t get over this study about excess mortality during Covid (caveat: not yet peer-reviewed), which looked at mortality rates in different professions in California starting in March 2020. The highest rate of increase was among line cooks. Food and agriculture workers overall saw a 39% increase in mortality from March through October of last year.

The argument for supporting local businesses by buying take-out isn’t a bad one, but if we really lived in a society that cared about one another we’d be taking an entirely different approach that didn’t send people into kitchens full of sizzle and steam for hours a day during a pandemic. See also: previous post on why is my kid’s swim team still practicing and competing, but my family has a choice about participating in a swim team, whereas if you’re dependent on hourly wages from your cooking job, you really don’t. (I know, we all know, the problems are systemic and cannot be solved by individuals or even the most resilient of communities.)

I’ll just wave up at that virus godling in the photo that someone stuck on top of their car. (Seriously, is it not creepy? I suppose it should be.)

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A colleague posted a submission call from a publication looking for essays on our ideas of “wild” as opposed to “civilization” in a small forum we’re in together. I was thinking about how many times this question has revolved through the literary and philosophical worlds over the past decades and centuries, and wondering if there’s anything new to say, and all I could come up with was that a world I want to live in is one where children can run barefoot.

And then I was rereading Willa Cather’s novel O Pioneers! over the weekend and came across these lines from old Ivar, in answer to a question about why he always goes barefoot:

“The feet, as I understand it, are free members. There is no divine prohibition for them in the Ten Commandments. The hands, the tongue, the eyes, the heart, all the bodily desires we are commanded to subdue; but the feet are free members.”

Both of which have served to remind me that the prospect of spring leaves me feeling depressed, revealing as it will the gazillions of vicious thistles in our yard and garden that I’m going to have to deal with.

I spent much of my childhood running around without shoes in the summer. Maybe the ideal of being able to run barefoot is neither wild nor civilized, but free.

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Some stuff to read or listen to, or watch:

  • Some eerie history of the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo, dating back to the 7th century, at Sapiens, by Martin Carver, director of England’s Sutton Hoo dig.

  • Another cool science tidbit from Sarah Boon’s blog, this time about snow worms and how little scientists know about them. They only seem to exist within an extremely narrow band of temperatures (possibly from 0 to 2 degrees Celsius). What happens to them before and after they emerge on top of the snow?

  • I thought this essay on the Greek rhetorical tradition and speaking in public (by speech consultant John Bowe in Psyche) would be interesting and possibly useful, but the ending opened out into something more thought-provoking: “When we’re unable to advocate for our point of view, it’s far too easy to become sidelined, alienated and angry, to whine that ‘people are selfish’ (for not understanding us) and that ‘public discourse sucks’. A citizenry trained to speak up is a citizenry far less likely to suffer from bad politics or mass alienation.”

  • (This is a listen or read. As mentioned before, I use the Curio app, which is where I meet a lot of articles and essays. But you can listen to Curio-enabled Aeon essay without subscribing to the app. There’s a “listen on Curio” button at the top of any applicable essay, of which this is one.) Psychologist Rubin Naiman’s piece in Aeon about the loss of dream connection in a wake centric culture wasn’t, perhaps, totally new, but he had a few lines that deepened my understanding on the mind-body disconnection during dream states: “The body gets a break from the supervision of the authoritative, waking ego-driven mind, and the mind is liberated from the physical constraints of occupying a body.” I don’t know why this awakened my thinking a bit, but it did. It really made me step back and wonder what the mind is doing while the body is paralyzed at night. I loved this in particular: “Mentally, dreaming is like taking off a pair of tight shoes at the end of the day: the liberated mind is no longer constrained by somatic sensory and motor processes.”

  • Paleoanthropologist Jerry DeSilva edited a book about Darwin that will be coming out soon and sounds really interesting. We chatted a bit about Darwin’s racism and sexism and how he did actually know better. I’m really looking forward to the book because I always appreciate Dr. DeSilva’s clear-eyed perspectives. In the meantime, JSTOR Daily has a good review of it, titled A Most Interesting Problem: What Darwin Got Right and Wrong About Human Evolution.

  • A recent episode of the Frontiers of Commoning podcast introduced me to German philosopher and theoretical biologist Andreas Weber and his ideas of “enlivenment” and “biopoetics.” Reality, he says, is a commons, a statement that I am somewhat in love with now. Also: “There are some principles at work in those cultures which we have broken in the western cognitive empire, and this is costing us our existence.”

  • A short video with British Museum curator Sue Brunning on the reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo helmet and the nuances and thrill of history. “Not all of those battles were fought on the battlefield.” (Why two Sutton Hoo notifications in one week? I have no idea, they just arrived in my inbox.)