Huston Smith

Separating religious belief from cultural tradition. In real world it's no easy journalistic task

Separating religious belief from cultural tradition. In real world it's no easy journalistic task

Is it possible to separate out religious influences from centuries-old societal customs? And if so, just how does a journalist go about doing this?

This is not an easy task. That goes double for journalists -- perhaps most journalists -- with little exposure to the principles of group dynamics or the psychology of institutional religion.

This may sound like hubris on my part, but I believe that the wide experience gained on the religion beat prepares journalists to better understand humanity’s complex social and psychological formulations -- allowing religion writers and editors to (potentially) better parse the differences.

This recent New York Times story on the semi-isolation of menstruating women in remote western Nepal, causing the death of some, provides a platform for exploring the question.

But first, a quick return to Brazil.

You may recall that a few weeks ago I posted here on the custom of some indigenous Brazilian tribes to murder unwanted children. I tried to explain how from their tribal perspective the practice made sense.

I noted that in their rain forest environment, where food is surprisingly difficult to come by, the children -- fatherless or physically impaired -- were in the tribes’ view being sacrificed for a greater good. That's because they could not contribute to the group's food supply, which tribal leaders deemed an unacceptable burden that threatened the entire group's survival.

I also noted how outrageously obscene the practice seems when considered from a Western mindset rooted in the Abrahamic religious traditions. My point was to illustrate how difficult it is for journalists to put aside their deepest values when covering groups with a vastly different belief set.

The late Huston Smith, the renowned scholar of comparative religion, once wrote, I’m paraphrasing now, that every civilization -- and by every civilization he even included small, semi-nomadic jungle tribes -- is influenced by some spiritual vision of how life is best lived.

I take that to mean that in the Brazilian case, the tribes were following some inner sense of their own notion of right and wrong, even if they did not articulate it in spiritual or religious terms.

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Huston Smith: Farewell to a religious voyager who personified modern, progressive faith

Huston Smith: Farewell to a religious voyager who personified modern, progressive faith

Huston Smith -- to my mind an unmatched connoisseur of spiritual experimentation who was also exceptionally grounded in an extraordinary range of religious protocols -- died just prior to the new year, Dec. 30 to be exact, at age 97.

News media coverage of his death, while adequate, underplayed at least one salient point.

Which is: If any one person can be said to represent wholesale societal change, then it may be said that Smith personified the radical reevaluation of contemporary religious beliefs and practices that has profoundly divided Western culture. From the mid-20th century until today, this reevaluation continues.

Evidence of it may be seen in the ongoing culture wars dividing the United States and in parts of Europe.

As I said, the major news media provided adequate coverage of his death, given his limited fame among the general public, and even if they lingered a bit too long on Smith's brief experimentation with (then still legal) psychedelic drugs in the 1960s.

The factual and many faceted details of Smith's academic and personal biography were capably reported, as was his strong support for religious freedoms and religious and cultural pluralism.

For those who missed his death, or are unfamiliar with his life and work, click here for the New York Times obituary. Or click here for the Los Angeles Times obit.

Several outlets noted Smith's death by reposting past interviews and stories. How much easier and cheaper is that in this age of instantaneous web news and shrinking editorial budgets?

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Are traditional Christian and Jewish beliefs responsible for Brexit and survival of ISIS?

Are traditional Christian and Jewish beliefs responsible for Brexit and survival of ISIS?

Here are two examples -- one Christian, the other Jewish -- of religion's staying power and influence over the entirety of Western culture. They're presented as reminders of why journalists need a working knowledge of religious history to fully connect the dots in today's bleeding world.

I came across the first example not long after the game-changing 9/11 Al Qaeda terrorist attacks. The second's an essay I read just recently.

Let's begin with journalist and author Robert D. Kaplan's "Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos." I consider Kaplan one of the more interesting journalistic minds working today.

His book struck me as fascinating, prescient (in hindsight) and disturbing.

My fascination stemmed from its emphasis on the enormous influence that bedrock religious concepts still exert today over critical societal actions. They're there, taken for granted but subliminally directing us. This is so even if we fail to consider, as individuals or even -- tsk, tsk -- as journalists, the importance of these civilizational building blocks.

It was prescient because of what it said that relates to the quagmire we face as a nation today in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. It was disturbing because it challenged my liberal American impulses about the limits of ethical warfare.

Oh. And, yes, I agree. "Ethical warfare" may just be the ultimate oxymoron.

Kaplan concluded that to defeat non-state terror organizations that play only by their own brutal rules required a radical change in the military tactics of Western nations, by which he meant those historically and culturally Christian.

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Two Jews, three opinions: Doctrine and the Netanyahu speech firestorm

Two Jews, three opinions: Doctrine and the Netanyahu speech firestorm

Is there a more desirable photo op for an Israeli politician (excluding Israel's Arab and some of its left-wing Jewish parliamentarians) than one taken at HaKotel, which is the short-hand Hebrew term for Jerusalem's Western Wall?

Oh, never mind; silly question. And ditto for visiting dignitaries who also flock to the mostly Herodian-era stone blocks, the exposed portion of which stands 62-feet high. The resulting image screams identification with Israel's binary raison d'être -- secular contemporary Zionism and traditional religious piety.

Which is why Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu was there the Saturday night prior to his highly charged Washington address to Congress, when he implored President Barack Obama not to sign a deal with Iran that would allow the Islamic republic to retain its suspected nuclear weapon capabilities. The visit dominated the American news cycle for the better part of a week, a virtual eon in this time of 24/7 deadlines.

Yes, it was political theater of the highest order. But it was something more, because anything to do with Israel automatically takes on a religious tone. You know, Jews versus Muslims, the knee-jerk equating of all things Israeli with religious Judaism, the entire Holy Land gestalt.

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