… and we’re back

Alright, I’m a week late with my vow (to attempt) to return to regular blogging.

A brief innaugural post riffing off this on “The power of religion.”

(I’ve got nothin’ on Kaparot chicken waving so if anyone wants to chime in on it in the spirit of the rest of this post feel free.)

The brief text here, the second photo and its story, and the commentary (multiplying as I write) evoke for me a series of issues I’ve being thinking about, and chatting about within the guild and with my civilian friends.

First the pic “- a priest blesses manhole covers:”*

Next, the text:

Town Hall officials have asked priests to bless all the manhole covers in their town to stop them being stolen by scrap metal thieves. Councillors in Lodz, Poland, replaced all 4,000 of the town’s manhole covers after the new ones had been blessed at a church service to keep them safe.

I guess I can’t fault the contemporary atheist on the street for a big eye roll here and subsequent frothing at the mouth about superstition, woo-woo, and the damned Catholic Church.

‘Cept, of course, I have to contend that our atheist friends lack the kind of expansive and imaginative understanding of religion and culture that might actually tell them something about events such as this.

On to the text:

I’m not going to offer commentary except to emphasize that I’m not mocking (and I’ll delete disrespectful commentary).  Events like these, which elicit derision from nonbelievers, serve to demonstrate how powerful religion can be in the minds of those who are committed to their faith.

I hope Minnesotastan will endulge me as I liberally read much into this (or perhaps just pivot off it).

I’ll set aside the question, “religion,” what is it? but it is implied here with intimations of pieces of an answer.

Let us consider the other operative terms: powerful, minds, committed, and faith.

What’s the power here?  Which minds?  Commitment to what? What’s faith and where is it here?

The observations here express some wonder at the event and try to be neutral: “I’m not mocking (and I’ll delete disrespectful commentary).”  But, there’s really nothing neutral here, and far beyond the obvious fact that the author does not accept the woo-woo he assumes is fundamentally at work here.

Why, in the mind of the author (write I ironically), is the first (and virtually only) thing this representation demonstrates is the power of religion / faith, whatever those are? ‘Cause the first thing manhole cover anointing demonstrates to me is that Lodz has a problem with manhole cover theft that it has failed to solve thus far.  The tricky question then becomes, how will blessing the manhole covers fix this problem?

Not for a minute will I deny that someone somewhere, maybe even the whole population of Lodz, will believe that the success of this strategy is the result of supernatural forces. But so what? (Not merely a rhetorical question and I’ll return to it in a bit.)

And that’s to say that I don’t think that the provisional explanation I’ll offer is reductionistic.

Let’s assume the strategy is successful.  Off the cuff I’d conclude that one (the only?) reason for this is that the power, sanctity and authority of the Polish Catholic Church, at the behest of the civic authorities, and implicitly or explicitly in the name of the whole community, has signaled to the thieves, ‘seriously, stop fucking stealing our manhole covers’! and the thieves have taken this commandment seriously (for whatever reason – again, more about such things in a bit).

I’ve got a boodle of stories in this wheelhouse.  A short one (and sorry, citation and specific details unavailable ATM).

Once upon a time, in an urban centre in the Chinese world, the municipality planned to build some kind of hunk of freeway through a certain neighbourhood, in proximity to the local cemetary.  Many families, great and small, rose up in opposition.  As one they cried, don’t! your road will eff with our feng shui!** This was enough to force city hall to change its plans.

Were there citizens who genuinely believed that their family fortunes would be adversely affected by changes to the geography around their loved ones graves? To be sure, but again, so what?  I think we all can concede a couple of worldly facts. One, no one anywhere in the world is ok with a hunk of freeway running by their homes, nor by the place where their loved ones have been interred with great care and expense. Two, I bet virtually every language in the world includes some version of the cliché, you can’t fight City Hall. It is unnecessary, in the first intance,  to evaluate the metaphysical commitments behind how exactly people express their protest, and the terms in which they stand up to authority.

Of course, the matter of the beliefs of those believers hasn’t gone away with my argument. But, as may be inferred, I want to be hermeneutically parsimonious on this front.  Minnesotastan, his commenters, and I, these and all others must acknowledge, have assumed the contents of those believers’ beliefs. I contend that there’s no data we could gather that would tell us unequivocally what the actors here believe, at least with respect to the wooish aspects. Anthropological or sample survey interrogation? No, for that’s a different order of investigation, outside of the theatre of the blessing of manhole covers or protesting urban development. Any such technique is only asking participants what they think about what happened, reflections I find it hard to believe were present before the mind in the moment, or at first blush.***

When it comes to ritual – which is really what we’re talking about here – contemporary skeptics are the ones who are living in the past.**** (K, I’m admittedly, threatening to talk through my hat here, and I really wish I was on top of ritual studies, but I like to believe I’m about to offer a couple of thoughtful things now.)

The important question about this story from Lodz is not, what are people thinking (or believing)? but, what’s happening?  I’ve answered that in part; I’ve interpreted some of the plot and some of the mise-en-scène. And I’ve said something about the cast of characters, but let me add something about it as a whole. Centre stage are priests, stage left we have civic officials (I presume, in their suits and some in regalia); off stage are the thieves; the presumed Chorus are all the citizens of Lodz, or some segment which speaks on their behalf.

What kinds of actors are all these? Well, most may be of a classically trained Shakespearean sort, aware of the theatre they are acting, knowing that they are projecting an idea: manhole covers shouldn’t be fucking stolen!  Cynic that I am, I tend to believe that the actors on stage are just this.

Some may be method actors (they just don’t know it; they simply live their parts, not merely inhabit them in the moment and in preparation for them), or they are simply Classical, believing that they are enacting events and producing results.  The Chorus may act this way; the remainder, the audience, may believe this.  And nothing says that the stage actors aren’t performing this way.

Now, I want a way to go beyond, so what? (though, I want to to keep that question alive). Well, I don’t have much to say in that regard, and I’m already way past the tl;dr boundary. Plus, I think I’ve already said enough to move any number of discussions forward. More, I guess, is the stuff of other posts, so this will form this conspicuous abesnce of a conclusion.

Addendum: let’s pick on a few commenters.


May 12, 2012 11:05 AM

Interesting how people feel the need to protect religion. Heaven forfend we might be “disrespectful”. I wouldn’t deride the ceremonies, but rather the sensitivity of those involved when their ideas are challenged/criticised.



May 12, 2012 5:48 PM

Exactly! Respect is all religion calls for. After all, religious folks tend to be highly respectful of those who do not share their beliefs. :-S

Despite Minnesotastan’s endeavours to keep judgments bracketed of course the first comments look like this. Fine, but what does any of this to do with the actual data presented? And, Arbie’s taking ceremony as neutral, but claming the prerogative to deal in ideas (w/o regard to the effect of its agonistic form) as fair game, well, I think I dealt with that at least implicitly. It’s nonsense.

Saint Anarchist

May 12, 2012 11:51 AM

It is not about religion. It is about spirituality. The world needs lots of wisdom now, specially now that we are abundant in knowledge, information and data. Unfortunately because of the left, we do not have any institution that provides us spirit and spirituality other than religion, we need it.



May 12, 2012 3:24 PM

I’m not sure I follow you. Are you suggesting that the left has in some way destroyed some alternative to religion that was there before? And “wisdom” – how does this differ from making informed choices based on adequate data? What sources of guidance would you prefer – and what if someone disagreed with them?

More nonsense, but of the sort which has zero to do with matters at hand.

Stan B.

May 12, 2012 4:04 PM

I agree with “the world needs lots of wisdom now.” Your statement about “the left” demonstrates just how badly we do need it- particularly in a time when so many actually believe that Adam and Eve roamed the planet 6,000 years ago together with the dinosaurs. It is organized religion itself that has replaced true spirituality, replaced it with the rituals and superstitions pictured above, and the bigoted, closed minded dogma that has kept us at each other’s throats for millenia.

Yet, the above nonsense prompted this polemical conflation of what I tried to make clear needs careful separation. Note again, Stan Stan the Preacher Man, if the religious here want at any throats, it’s the throats of those who’d steal manhole covers to make a few bucks.


May 12, 2012 12:20 PM

The manhole cover thing is probably a worker safety ritual. The transfer of sin to the chicken is really interesting though! Reminds me of Afro-Caribbean religions a bit. Might go a long way back. Thanks for posting this!

And thank you, bastard spawn of Malinowski.

James Comins

May 12, 2012 3:18 PM

As a Jew who takes the Three Holy Weeks and the commandments surrounding them pretty seriously, I tend to perform a similar ritual: Every Rosh Hashanah (the week before Yom Kippur) I take a loaf of bread to the Platte River, put my sins into the bread through meditation, then toss pieces of bread into the river. Some of my sins probably wind up inside the pelicans and Canadian geese, but more simply float away.

Cummon haters, take James to task.

May 12, 2012 3:26 PM


As far as blessing the man hole covers I wonder what conclusion people will reach when these new ones are stolen. I suspect it won’t be that the protection didn’t work. But how the events will be rationalized is interesting to examine. Yes, I am assuming it won’t work.

Pretty sure I dealt with this adequately. But, lemme guess.  The response when the ritual ‘fails’? OFFS, what’s it gunna take to get these assholes to stop fucking stealing our manhole covers!

@ Saint Anarchist, I’m not sure how the left has done anything to remove religion or spirituality. As a non believer I don’t really care what religion you practice, or how you go about doing it, so long as it doesn’t involve trying to use it to control me. For example keeping schools from requiring prayer protects the non believers. Believers are still allowed to pray all they want (and I’m sure many do before tests). But to have a teacher require a moment to pray is an imposition on those of use who do not believe. I don’t understand how many can not see that.

Yes, whenever we talk about religion in the contemporary Western context, a discussion of secularism is implied, still, wtf does that have to do with the matters at hand?


May 12, 2012 4:11 PM

What happens to the poor chicken? Must be great being infused with evil spirits. All you can say is “Whatever, man”. Just don’t burn me alive, if you please.

I have come to the opinion that telling children that they will go to “hell eternal” after they die if they don’t follow such and such rules constitutes child abuse and should be banned as barbaric. There must be evidence of crippling mental effects on people who were effectively brainwashed with this terrifying but obviously phony concept, right? It certainly has worked over the centuries to control people. What fiendish person first invented and utilized this psychological terror device? Must have been many thousands of years ago…pre-fertile crescent? It’s time to free so many poor homo sapiens from this yoke.

Right off the rail. But I’m generous so let me try to salvage this. If eternal damnation is implied in this story (and suggesting it is on my part is simply indulgent) then its the rat bastards who steal manhole covers who are damned here!



May 12, 2012 4:38 PM

I cannot agree more with your comment on eternal damnation and its effects on the human psyche. It is obviusly phony and one of the most cruel jokes perpetrated on humanity.

Well, the idea obviously doesn’t affect everyone. Like, for instance, rat bastards who steal manhole covers!


May 12, 2012 5:48 PM

Re: Chicken and Yom Kippur:

The Bible makes many references to sacrifice.

The sacrifice of animals occurs from Genesis to the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), and then the sacrifices end.


Because, Jesus was the “lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” John 1:29

The people of the Old Testament confessed their sins over the beasts that were slain, and looked forward to the hour when Christ would sacrifice of Himself for mankind.

The people of the New Testament, and beyond (that includes you and me) look back to His sacrifice.

“For Christ suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh. 1 Peter 3:18

Sin has a price – death and separation from God. Christ bore that penalty on Himself for each one of us.

The Bible should be investigated (and I do mean investigated) in its entirety ….

2 Corinthians 5: 19 For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. 20 So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” 21 For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.

Close to the lamest evangelism I’ve ever seen, or is it the greatest overexplanation of the matters presented?.

*I admit to a long respect for manhole covers.  As a lad, near freshly initiated into the secrets of the DeMolay, I was appointed to my first office, as a Preceptor for the cardnial virtue of Reverence for Sacred Things.  Proudly announcing this to an elder in the Order I was told, “Jack, you’re about as reverent as a manhole cover.”  So, I have a long standing interest in the sanctification of that much maligned piece of civic plumbing.

**Referring to the arrangement of the features around the cemetary, the fundamental location for the practice of feng shui, not to the assortment of faux-Oriental goods y’all might have got from Pier One to qi up your living space.

***I’ll admit to taking a sort of perverse pleasure in watching hockey players get interviewed between periods, especially in the playoffs.  The team’s down 3-1 at the 2nd intermission.  Teevee talking head asks sweaty panting guy, hey, whattaya gotta do to turn this thing around in the 3rd?  Player says, finish our checks, play some solid dee, give it 110%, throw everything at the net.  Is this going through his and his teammates’ minds on the ice? I doubt it. Is this what he’s really thinking during this pause in the game, during this interview? No. He’s thinking, we have to play better and score some fucking goals, but of course not only is that not playing the required part, you can’t say that on television.

****The 19th century feel of belief 1st, action 2nd as demonstrated here, I’d argue, is an instance of what’s wrong and passé with contemporary atheist commentary on religion (I’d hardly call it analysis, but that’s just me being bitchy).


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