Friday 24 July 2009

Pig Ignorant?

I don’t generally post beer reviews on this blog. I can’t be bothered. Had ratebeer been around in the mid to late nineties when my appetite for new beer experiences was at its most voracious I think I may well have become an uber ratebeer nerd, not a ticker mind you, flavour was always the big thing for me, not the list. Although I’d been introduced to good beer in my teens it was until my late twenties that I became a fully-fledged beer geek – buying beer books, traipsing around obscure beer shops and planning jaunts around local beer availability.

Anyway, I’ve started this post with a digression. What I really wanted to talk about was ongoing, all-consuming quest to understand the psychology, economics, anthropology, sociology and a whole host of other ologies – pertaining to beer: who drinks what, where they do it and why they do it. At this point I'd like to work in a gag about "what makes people tick" but I'm not sure how.

And so it was when I had a week in Egypt back in April. After a couple of days on the tourist trail I realised I was rarely weeing, and when I did it was almost like passing honey (OK, too much information). I was very dehydrated. I was turning into a human prune. 35C and 12% humidity had got to me. Mad dogs looked on in admiration.

I got to thinking about alcohol’s role in desert societies. Islam – often described as “the religion of the desert” ­– prohibits the consumption of alcohol. Also, alcohol is a diuretic: it makes you wee more than you put in at the other end. Water is scarce in the desert (that’s what defines it as desert of course). Could there be a link between Islam’s prohibition and alcohol being a diuretic?

I’m a life-long atheist (I even had to leave cubs because I refused to go to church parade). Nonetheless I’m utterly fascinated by the phenomena of religions – in the same way I’m a-CAMRA-ist but fascinated by it. I think a lot about things like this.

Islam and Judaism share a prohibition on the consumption of pig meat. This isn’t coincidence. For a large part of human history, any many parts of the world pigs have been hosts to fluke (I’m more than willing to be corrected on this). Getting fluke from eating infected meat is not a good idea. Simply attempting to spread the word (“psst, don’t eat pig, pass it on”) to hungry, illiterate peasants wasn’t good enough. “How do we make the message more forceful?” thought some enterprising Rabbis and Imams. “I know!” they chorused “we’ll call it a commandment from god or the teaching of a prophet or summat.” “Yes that’s it – if you eat pig, god won’t be happy with you and he may arrange something nasty for you in the afterlife. That’ll do the trick.”

And so it came to pass that the prohibition on pig consumption gained its status as religious dogma. Being religion though, rationality is discouraged. Fluke has long been eliminated in most of the world so Middle-Easterners can now tuck into pork with impunity. They don’t. The rule has stuck. Religion’s like that.

So, back to Egypt. I had a thought. Could Islam’s prohibition on alcohol have occurred in the same way – leaders wondering how to deter people from drinking booze in order to prevent dehydration and preserve water supplies? I reckon so. I’m not sure how Judaism escaped the same prohibition though. Perhaps it was because of early migration into Europe where there was lots of water.

I’ll leave you to ponder. I’m off to the pub.


Whorst said...

Jeff, Christ wants to share his love, but your heart has turned to Stone and I'm not talkin' Arrogant Bastard!!

I am very much in the NON-THEIST camp. Glad to see a fellow beer enthusiast's disdain for the stupid.

Alistair Reece said...

CAMRA likened to a religion, with an in-built fear and distaste for rationality? And yet I am only the second commentator on this? Interesting.....

Unknown said...

Velky Al, difficult to argue against, perhaps?

Interesting though, I was brought up a Catholic, much to Jeff's disgust, but am probably now a healthy questioner.

Many people these days make the link; Religion makes bad people do really bad things therefore religion is bad.

I like to think there is still some good stuff to be had from religion, if we can be allowed to question dogma and institutionalism, oh and blind faith. The same is true of CAMRA.

I do not class myself as atheist nor anti-CAMRA, but like to question and be allowed to do so.

The Beer Nut said...

Hi Jeff,

Just came to this via Mr Dave's link and thought I'd throw in my oar as a sometime theologian and biblicist.

Subscribers don't like the fluke thing. They don't like any theories which, as my old Hebrew professor used to say, "turn Moses into an exalted public health inspector". The fluke argument doesn't stand up when the question "Why pigs?" is applied to it. You may as well add that shellfish was banned because, well, we've all had dodgy oysters now and again. It doesn't make sense to turn it into a universal rule.

So why pigs? The best explanation I've ever seen is by Marxist-materialist biblicist Marvin Harris. He said it was because pigs were not suited to the climate. They were inefficient to farm and the ban on farming them developed into the taboo on eating them. It's the same with India's sacred cows: sparse vegetation made domesticated cows practical in India for every usual purpose except killing and eating them. Let that notion mature for a couple of generations and you get sacred cows.

I'd say Islam's frowning on alcohol stems from the same place as Christianity's and Judaism's frowning on drunkenness, just tightened slightly.

See you down the pub.

Jeff Pickthall said...

Thanks Beer Nut. I was hoping someone could add to my non-expert ramble. I'll give that a good read later on. I'd been mulling over the significance of Kosher recently after researching Dancing Camel Brewery in Tel Aviv for a book I'm contributing to.

This is the book that really aided my understanding of how real-world concerns become religious lore or dogma and gain their metaphysical status:

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

I thought it was something to do with a battle that was lost because the warriors had been on the pop so it was prohibited. A similar thing happened to the Welsh against the Saxons and a poem was written about it but as far as I know this didn’t influence the Welsh temperance movement a thousand years later.

StringersBeer said...

Mary Douglas wrote about the "Abominations of Leviticus", she was the boss on this kind of stuff.

Steve, Jeff's brother said...

Everyone knows eating oysters was banned because they look like fannies, and we can't have that.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff - Was trolling and came across your post.

Even as an Jew who follows the Torah, I'm wide open to the idea that many "commandments" grew rather organically from what started as just plain good advice given the time and circumstance. I do not think that the reasoning about the inefficiency of pig farming being the catalyst for disallowing pork is viable since the bible, in the same paragraph also bans camels which were already indigenous to the region. Indeed, the prohibition isn't directed exclusively at pigs but rather at all animals that do not both have split hooves and chew their cud. I don't know of any diseases that are specific to animals in this category.

On another note, I think beer and religion have quite a lot in common. One might even see beer as a religion with its own well-entrenched dogmas such as CAMRA and Reinheitsgebot.

My 2 shekels.

Dancing Camel Brewing Co., Ltd.
Tel Aviv

The Beer Nut said...

Well the camels bit is the same as the sacred cows: they were too damn useful to kill and eat. In fact me ol' mate Mr Harris is cited on the subject here. But you're right that this does help rule out the disease theory.

The cloven hoof cud-chewing taxonomy seems like a later attempt to systematise the prohibitions: let's look at what we're allowed eat and see if there's anything they have in common to make the whole thing easier to remember.