Blasphemy for the Day: Bokononism

A response to the BBC’s Thought for the DayYou don’t have to be a believer to enjoy a day of rest.

I can’t do any better than this concise and elegantly written introduction from Wikipedia, the bloggers’ friend:

Bokononism is a fictional religion invented by Kurt Vonnegut and practiced by many of the characters in his novel Cat’s Cradle. Many of the sacred texts of Bokononism were written in the form of calypsos.

Bokononism is based on the concept of foma, which are defined as harmless untruths. A foundation of Bokononism is that the religion, including its texts, is formed entirely of lies; however, one who believes and adheres to these lies will have peace of mind, and perhaps live a good life. The primary tenet of Bokononism is to “Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”

It’s been many years since I last read Cat’s Cradle. Bokononism has always appealed to me as the most benign and interesting of invented religions. Perhaps it has something to do with its creator being a novelist, though that’s no guarantee. L. Ron Hubbard unleashed Scientology on the gullible, with the sole intention of making money out of them. Most such religions aren’t quite so blatant.

Every religion needs a founder, and Bokonon’s life story can best be expressed with the simplest of materials, fully in keeping with the ethos of his beliefs. Russell Milton created this biopic with the aid only of Ken, lego figures, toy boats, and his own bathtub.

One of the things I find attractive about Bokononism is the explicit teaching that it’s a lie. Which of course sets up a logical feedback loop. If it’s a lie, then saying everything is a lie is also a lie. But if it’s the truth then Bokononism really is a lie. And if it’s a lie…you get the point. Bleeding from the ears yet?

Another thing is the concept of foma, a harmless untruth, which may lead you to live a better, happier life. Bokononism is a foma specifically created to achieve those ends. It encourages belief in a God, a sense of personal and group destiny, and a healthy dose of skepticism. The concept of stuppa, for example – a fogbound child or idiot – combined with duffle: the destiny of thousands, possibly millions, of people placed on one stuppa. Remember, the US elections are only 4 months away.

Then there’s granfalloon, an idea I find extremely entertaining. If a karass is a group of people working together to do God’s will, then a granfalloon is a false karass, its members labouring under the illusion that they have something equally important in common. Notoriously, that would be nation-states, though Vonnegut cited Hoosiers, inhabitants of his home state of Indiana.

On the separation of church and state, Bokonon was refreshingly explicit. He arranged for his business partner and fellow ruler in San Lorenzo, Earl McCabe, to outlaw Bokononism, while he went off into the jungle. Thus people could believe or not in their own hearts, without the peer pressure of having to publicly bother God in order to get elected to political office, as is presently the case in the US.

Here is Wikipedia’s list of Bokononian terms:

  • boko-maru – the supreme act of worship of the Bokononists, which is an intimate act consisting of prolonged physical contact between the naked soles of the feet of two persons.
  • “Busy, busy, busy” – what a Bokononist whispers whenever he thinks about how complicated and unpredictable the machinery of life really is.
  • “Calypso” – song from The Books of Bokonon. Eight such songs are cited in Cat’s Cradle, some of them are presented with a title (i.e. On Dynamic Tension or The Boko-maru Calypso) and others are presented with a number (i.e. The Hundred-and-nineteenth Calypso). The Calypsos illustrate various aspects of the teachings of Bokonon.
  • duffle – the destiny of thousands of people placed on one stuppa.
  • duprass – a karass that consists of only two people. This is one of the few kinds of karass about which one can have any reliable knowledge. The two members of a duprass live lives that revolve around each other, and are therefore often married. “A true duprass can’t be invaded, not even by children born of such a union.” The novel cites the example of “Horlick Minton, the New American Ambassador to the Republic of San Lorenzo, and his wife, Claire.” The two members of a duprass always die within a week of each other.
  • foma – harmless untruths; lies that, if used correctly, can be useful.
  • granfalloon – a false karass; i.e., a group of people who imagine they have a connection that does not really exist. An example is “Hoosiers“; Hoosiers are people from Indiana, and Hoosiers have no true spiritual destiny in common, so they really share little more than a name. Another example is a Cornellian, a student or graduate of Cornell University.
  • kan-kan – the instrument which brings a person into his or her karass.
  • karass – group of people who, often unknowingly, are working together to do God’s will. The group can be thought of as the fingers that support a cat’s cradle.
  • “Now I will destroy the whole world” – What a Bokononist says before committing suicide.
  • pool-pah – wrath of God or “shit storm.”
  • saroon – to acquiesce to a vin-dit.
  • sin-wat – a person who wants all of somebody’s love for him/herself.
  • sinookas – the tendrils of one’s life.
  • stuppa – a fogbound child (i.e. an idiot).
  • vin-dit – a sudden shove in the direction of Bokononism.
  • wampeter – the central theme or purpose of a karass. Each karass has two wampeters, one waxing and one waning.
  • wrang-wrang – someone who steers a Bokononist away from a line of speculation by reducing that line, with the example of the wrang-wrang‘s own life, to an absurdity.
  • Zah-mah-ki-bo – fate, inevitable destiny.

Lest you be concerned that I might be compromising my own atheism in so lauding Bokononism, please do not worry. Busy, busy, busy.

Finally, to see Bokononism in action, here’s a short how-to video.

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