Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Mama Weer All Crazee Now

Well this year's Ramadan has been a surprisingly trouble free affair, given the increasingly high profile of religious paramilitary urban guerrilla types in the country. I've been expecting to have my Prohibition era teacup dashed from my lips as I enjoy a little holy month holy water in some of the city's less salubrious watering holes, but thankfully nothing has transpired. It's long been a pet theory of mine that Bintang and Anker both have their own groups of thugs who don religious garb before tooling around town in flatbed trucks, smashing up each other's bars.

Most of Jakarta's boorish yobbery is currently being channeled into nationalism as opposed to religious radicalism in fact. Protesters have got all excremental on the Malaysian Embassy, seemingly oblivious to the fact that if you start throwing your own stools around like some of Ragunan Zoo's more simian charges, then the joke's kind of on you. Moreover, presumably it was Indonesians, rather than Malaysians, who had to clear the whole sorry mess up.

Religion wise, all seems to be calm however. There have hardly been any drums pounding at 3am or relentless fireworks keeping me awake all night. A couple of times however I found myself being woken up, having forgotten to insert my anti-sectarian, godless communist expanding foam earplugs (available from all good drugstores, land-of-nod fans).

The call to sahur (i.e. wake up and do some cooking) has been going off at a ludicrously early 2.30am around my neck of the woods this year. This occasionally gives me a rude awakening and finds me stumbling to the toilet through the stygian gloom of my bedroom in order to purge my bowels of Ramadan "tea" before all falls silent...for another 90 minutes and then it all kicks off again of course.

As a baby eating atheist, religious observance and the dedication and commitment that the faithful show towards religious rituals never ceases to amaze me. In fact, I almost wish I could feel some of that spirituality myself, although, as a true trencherman, I wouldn't be so keen on the actual fasting side of things. It's a scientific fact though that the religiously committed on this planet suffer significantly lower levels of stress and depression than Darwinian infidels such as myself, who know that the existential void lurks malevolently out there beyond human culture, like a freshly soiled embassy compound.

I've been reading some fascinatingly contentious academic theories about religion of late and about the mental processes and irrational behaviors that may have bought them about in the first place. We still live in an ostensibly irrational world, that's for sure. A recent opinion poll revealed that 25% of Americans believe in ghosts, that 35% of them believe in mental telepathy and that more than 50% believe that Satan influences events on Earth. These are people who can vote, serve on juries, make decisions about medical interventions and so on and one can only imagine what the figures would be like for this country. We live in a highly irrational world for sure but where does it all come from?

A psychologist called Devereux in the 1940s posited religion as organized schizophrenia and theorized that shamans and prophets were neurotic and "schizotypal" (basically, mildly schizophrenic). In other words, conditions that the secular world classifies as mental illness may have played a crucial role in the propagation of religions.

The meta-magical thinking involved in coming up with stories about talking snakes, flying horses and virgin births is commensurate with the kind of disconnection from reality seen in schizotypal patients. It's important however that this shamanic-schizotypal behavior not be too extreme for it to work as a religious catalyst.

If you’re hearing voices all the time then things won't work, however if you hear voices in the right context, at the right moments, then you can be perceived as a holy man. If you babble and speak in tongues continually then you'll be ostracized, but babble during your tribe's holiest ceremony and you've been touched by God. In other words, get it wrong and you're labeled a dangerous, freakish cult. Exhibit the schizotypal behavior in the right context however and just maybe, for the next few millennia, people won't have to go to work on your birthday.

Similarly, it's been theorized that many religious rituals may have origins in another kind of mental disturbance, mainly OCD or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Most of the world's major religious rituals involve such OCD type behavior as repeated washing, entering and leaving buildings in certain special ways and obsessive numerology. It is therefore not difficult to imagine OCD sufferers millennia ago saying to their tribes, "This is how I've been honoring the Almighty all these years, you should join me."

It's all fascinating stuff and if you wish to engage in a debate, then all letter bombs and envelopes full of anthrax should be mailed to me with a return address on the back. In the meantime, enjoy next week's holiday and I hope you have a blessed rest. Have a thoroughly rational Lebaran one and all.