Where's Tony Joe White when You Need Him?


A rainy night in Georgia, such a rainy night in Georgia/Lord, I believe it's rainin' all over the world - Tony Joe White

There's hardly a passing day that I don't notice a rather disturbing act. It's so seemingly mundane, such an everyday habit, that it barely warrants attention. Yet the consequences, as we will see, can be drastic. As a yoga instructor I spend much of my time in gyms, and by extension, locker rooms. It is there that I witness, day in and day out, men leaving the water on the entire time that they shave.

Groundbreaking material.

This morning, mere moments after I witnessed this simplistic exercise in facial décor, I caught site of a news story about demonstrations against Georgia governor Sonny Perdue, who is taking part in a prayer ceremony asking help for his state. Severe droughts have left the area parched. Helicopter images showed river docks with their normally underwater stilts fully exposed, as well as boats sitting on rocky and muddy soil. The newscaster segued between the sincerity of the prayers and mounting protests by local religious freedom (and freedom from religion) organizations.

In the governor's defense, the prayer service was not an exclusively Baptist, or even Christian, affair. Perdue invited Jewish, Muslim and Hindu leaders to take part. Because of this openness, his camp says that there is nothing wrong with bringing a group of people together to pray. The protestors gathered because they believe Perdue's action defies the separation of church and state. Perdue's intentions are certainly clear, if we lend an ear to his spokeswoman: "The governor recognizes that the request has got to be made to a higher power."

The protestors, led by the Atlanta Freethought Society, have no qualms about Perdue's prayers. But he held the ceremony in the capital building, hence turning it into a public, and political, event. That infuriates them. But a deeper question remains: When exactly did sympathetic magic return to vogue in the religious world – especially as part of the pseudo-religious politicking habits of American officials? Isn't this the same cause of concern they reacted against when coming into contact with pagan and "heathenistic" societies?

Galelareese hunters, who inhabit an island west of New Guinea, used to put bullets in their mouths before firing their rifles. This, they believed, would encourage the bullet to hit the target. They were literally "eating" the game by biting the bullet, much in the same way that the faithful believe the sacraments of the Eucharist really are the blood and body of Christ. Aztec priests would pierce a young maiden with an obsidian knife before shearing an entire layer of skin from her body – with her head freshly removed. The chief priest would then literally wear the skin in the belief that he was embodying Chicomecohuatl, the maize goddess. In this way, the tribe ensured a healthy crop the following season.

In the excellent, eye-opening documentary Jesus Camp, there is a scene when Pentecostal pastor Becky Fisher prepares her equipment for an upcoming summer camp session. She walks by the computers waving her hand, telling them that she knows that Satan likes to disrupt the faithful through faulty electronics. She asks for Jesus' protection over the computers, so that His troops can persevere. This, of course, is not magick, but part of God's will. Completely reasonable.

There is a huge difference between belief and faith, even though the two are often joined at the hip. Faith is global, and yet personal. It can be shared in public, and often is through ceremony. But actual realization takes part internally. Belief, however, is an abstract concept. Belief suggests a lack of experience, because once you have had an experience there is no need for belief. Until the experience takes place, the idea remains an "if" and a "when," but never an "is." Religionists have an especially hard time grasping this concept. In their certainty of God's existence, they try to prove his existence as a basis for belief. This paradox cannot be resolved, and makes no logical, or common, sense.

But the divine is beyond logic, the counter-argument goes, and prayer is part of that tenet. As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, religion is one discipline where you are rewarded for being ignorant: just believe and don't ask. Don't question God's will. It's God's way or no way. Jesus is God, and that's that. As Christian studies professor Ray Van Neste remarked about Perdue's prayer service, "It's only natural, in a way, for the public to pray for rain." It's only natural, that is, if your belief system is based on a Newtonian model of the world governed as cause-and-effect.

It's easy to be cynical about Perdue's gathering. Indeed, praying for rain does signify something so seemingly everyday for some people that it should even be discussed is odd. Praying for the storm gods is as natural as leaving the water running while shaving. Why would that be wrong? That's just how it is. And so the bridge between speculation and reality crumbles once again.

In The Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong cited the crucial difference between belief and behavior, and how the latter truly signifies one's religious practice. Again, belief is an abstract idea, but how you behave expresses what you truly hold dear. Consider Indian philosophy. The word karma comes from karman, which means "action." The belief that wearing an amulet of Ganesha would protect you from evil is not nearly as important as using the psychological imagery of protection as a sort of mental and emotional shield against that which can harm you. Intervention comes from a trained psychology. The same holds true of Siddhartha: if you use the symbol of the Buddha as a mental trigger to act compassionately, and not just talk about acting compassionately, the symbol becomes effective. The symbol is never as important as the action; it is a reminder.

A drought is unfortunate, and Perdue has been asking state leaders for assistance. He has also discussed conservation. But the fact is that conservation needs to be considered before a drought occurs. Conservation is a way of being, not a simple act triggered by a moment of need. When a society maxes out its resources, who is truly to blame for a crisis? Does the following argument sound familiar?: "If the rain comes this week, it's God will replenishing the area. But if rain does not come, it is God telling us we need to learn His will better." This is not sound logic; it's a sign of not assuming our innate responsibilities. It removes human action, compassion and duty from the picture.

We need those qualities in order to make real change – and not simply gather at a public space for a photo opportunity that displays "tolerance" for diverse religions. We need to pull God down from the heavens and put him or her to work here and now, and eradicate our habits of excess. The rain will come; the rain always comes. But whether we're prepared when it does, or during the droughts inbetween, is the question that must be answsered.

Image by Pictoscribe, used through a Creative Commons license.