All the dreams of all the ages

Throughout history, as far as we can tell from ancient literatures and from more recent preliterature societies, humans have dreamed of many of the same magical powers:

Icarus

  • to fly
  • specifically, to fly to the moon
  • to talk with animals and birds and fish
  • to be able to live and breathe underwater
  • to have a magic mirror that lets you see what is happening in distant lands
  • to know the future
  • to go back in time
  • to shrink to the size of a mouse, or grow to a giant
  • to change into a different creature
  • to turn a common substance into gold
  • to turn a large number of small common objects (ants, seeds, teeth) into an army of warriors
  • to heal sickness with a word or a touch
  • to come back from the dead
  • to live forever
  • to climb up and live on the clouds
  • to live in a palace in the sky forever, doing whatever you most enjoy doing.

Some people were said by storytellers to have done these things. Some people claimed to be able to do them. Followers of Jesus thought he rose from the dead, followers of Muhammad thought he went up to Heaven one night, followers of Odin thought that his ravens told him all the doings of the world – and of course many, many religious authorities promise you unverifiable after-death benefits in exchange for a cash contribution in the here-and-now.

But let’s face it: the dreams are cool! We wanted to do these things as kids, and we want to do them still. And better yet: we ARE doing them. Flying, in various ways. Walking on the moon. Looking at distant lands with our “magic mirrors”, whether phones or big-screen TVs.

And we keep working on the rest: trying to talk with dolphins; bringing people back from clinical death; planning for permanent colonies in the sky; and – the big one – trying to figure out how to live forever.

The dreams are the same as the dreams of those old religions. But now we know what we have to do, to make them become reality. (P.S. It involves work, not prayer.)

Wishing for eternal life, then and now

Humans have always (as far as we can tell) resisted the idea of their mortality. Many people simply refuse to think about it, and others refuse to believe it. In the face of all the evidence of creatures that die and rot or get eaten, and don’t come back to life, humans will confidently state that we are different.

True, some groups have accepted that even if we have a “soul”, our body rots in the grave and our “soul” gradually fades away underground. This was one of differences between the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the time of Jesus. The former believed in a resurrection of the body and a divine rebalancing to reward the virtuous and punish the evildoer. The latter felt that life ended at death, and there was no reckoning in an afterlife. Therefore the Pharisees tended to be morally upright and religious puritans, while the Sadducees were generally more venal and collaborated with the Roman Occupation. Fair enough.

Jesus surrounded himself with Jews of all types in his attempt to bring all of Israel to repentance and purity. Of the four philosophies of his time, he was close to the Pharisees, Zealots and Essenes, less close to the Sadducees.

The promise of a physical resurrection of the body, together with the promise of an eternity in paradise if you are a believer or an eternity in hell if you are an unbeliever, is basic to Christian and Muslim belief. It has been a very powerful meme for persuading people to donate their time and cash to the promulgators of the religion. The Mormons have upped the ante by promising their adherents that they can become gods of their own planets… at least, if they are men; the status of women in all these religions is less than equal.

The religious afterlife may be an increasingly laughable idea, but the desire to avoid death is as strong as ever. Last year Google launched a new company, Calico, to focus on health and aging in particular. It is run by Arthur Levinson, former CEO of Genentech and currently Chairman of the Board of Directors at both Genentech and Apple. This is a serious attempt at life extension, backed by Google and its $54 billion in cash.

Image

In Google, Larry Page and his cohorts Sergey Brin, Eric Schmidt and Astro Teller have created a company that is known for two things: crunching data phenomenally well, and going after data-heavy speculative ideas (officially identified as “Moonshots”) that – even if they work out – will take many years of development to pay off. The original Google search engine was the product of vision and a data-heavy opportunity. Currently under development are a raft of others, including Google Glass and self-driving cars. Looked at in this way, medicine is just another information science with vast amounts of data – seven billion case histories walking around on the planet… data to be assembled and crunched for a path to understanding everything about our life processes. Google’s Calico should then be able to cure disease – eliminate all cancer (which would add some three years to average life expectancy) – and presumably tinker with our cellular and genetic structures any way we can imagine. To me, that suggests an indefinite lifespan in a body that would gradually move away from current human norms.

Timeframe for this? The only hint is from Larry Page: “In some industries it takes 10 to 20 years to go from an idea to something being real. Health care is certainly one of those areas. We should shoot for the things that are really, really important, so 10 or 20 years from now we have those things done.”

Larry Page is only 40, but I’m 63. Let’s get a move on, guys!

And what will it cost? Google is “not a philanthropic organization. But,” says Astro Teller, “if you make the world a radically better place, the money is going to come find you, in a fair and elegant way.”

Or in other words, just like with the priests of old, the promise of eternal life will get you to give them a ton of money. The big difference is that this time around, it is grounded in scientific developments, not wishful thinking.

Even the US is now 19% openly non-religious

The latest Pew Research poll tracking Americans’ religious affiliation now has “None” up to 19%, from only 6 % in 1990.

Lou Dobbs had a piece about this on July 20 in Fox Business. Not quite sure why it’s “business”, but we can thank Lou Dobbs for pointing out how mainstream atheism is becoming.

19% of Americans now openly give their Religious Affiliation as “None”

… and no, Obama didn’t call for a Day of Prayer, regarding the latest Colorado shootings. He called for a day of “prayer” (for those who pray) “and reflection” (for those who think, of course). Atheists can reflect on things like why any civilian should be allowed a weapon more powerful than a single-shot hunting rifle. Theists can go ahead and pray for whatever they want.

The Reasons for Militant Secularism

There is nothing wrong with people speculating about the nature of the universe, their own existence, and the powerful archetypal imagery that can occur in dreams and waking visions.

Meditation

Follow your bliss. BUT DON’T IMPOSE IT!

There is nothing wrong with people following spiritual or psychological disciplines as part of their personal exploration, or as mandated by a belief system that they have chosen to adhere to – unless like Anders Breivik they use their discipline to turn themselves into psychopathic killers, or in other ways harm others.

But the problem is that there is a natural tendency to spill over from personal spirituality to social action, based on non-physical premises.

  • Then you get children being raised to believe themselves or others to be evil.
  • You get schools failing to educate children with science, but instead teaching the Iron Age myths of our tribal ancestors as fact.
  • You get miseducated adults trying to cure physical diseases by chanting incantations while swinging live chickens over their heads instead of going to a doctor.
  • You get government policies that deny harmless activities and productive relationships to groups and individuals, even if those things are accepted in other societies which are richer and happier.
  • You get scientific research held back on non-scientific grounds.
  • You even get massacres, civil wars, terrorism, international wars. As the saying goes, “Science flies you to the moon, religion flies you into buildings.”

Therefore the US needs to return to the secular origins of its Constitution. And the world’s religious nations should emulate Norway, which recently renounced its centuries-old state religion as no longer an appropriate concern of the state.

Churches are money-making concerns, and of far less social value than retirement homes, private hospitals, bookstores, coffee shops, theaters or cinemas.

Tax them.

Gay marriage is nowhere near the final step

The religious fundies are right to be worried – gay marriage is by no means the last step along the road to personal freedom.

Lea T in Vogue

Lea is the world’s first transsexual supermodel, and she is out on behalf of others

There are plenty of other people who are currently constrained by laws and social norms based on the tribal myths of our Bronze Age ancestors.

Lea, Brazilian-born as Leo, the son of a famous soccer player, struggled with identity issues throughout childhood and adolescence, but was given the personal space to explore her feminine nature through her friendship with Givenchy designer Ricardo Tisci.

He let Leo become Lea, helping explore the changed social role, and providing work opportunities as his assistant, and finally with using her striking looks as a model.

And Lea, despite embarrassments and difficulties including with her traditionalist Roman Catholic family, has made a point of using her position to raise the profile of transsexuals through her own public persona.

She sounds like a brave person, and a noble one. So fundamentalists of all religions are right to be worried that gay marriage in itself is not the end of the road to personal freedom. We are moving into the realms of choice outlined decades ago by SF writer John Varley, whose short story collection “Picnic on Nearside” (originally “The Barbie Murders”) deals with people who change sex every few years at their discretion, and modify their looks (and biology) as they please, yet still have long-term relationships, raise children, and so on.

It’s science fiction. And science fiction is an expression of the same dreams that humanity has always had, to fly, to see and talk with people anywhere in the world, to talk with animals, to go to the moon, to live forever.

Much of that was only on offer through shamans and religions and dreams… until the development of science began to make them all physically possible. Our culture has become rather like that of the Ancient Greeks, with most people following one or another cult of temple-based worship, while a growing number strike out into philosophies that are first speculative, then agnostic, then secular to the point of atheism.

The world of the near future need not be that different from the best aspects of the most cultured civilizations of the past – but with our age-old dreams being increasingly realized as fact, and available to all.

Pornography for priests

Naked, smiling and being touched by curious young boys.

Dead Christ with Angels

Dead sexy

Rosso Fiorentino painted his “Dead Christ with Angels” as “a work for private devotion” for Bishop Tornabuoni around 1526 (phrase from the Courtauld’s John Shearman).

No blood, no pain, no suffering, just a relaxed body being inspected by inquisitive little angels looking like altar boys grasping enormous phallic candles. What a treat for a bishop!

And a complete disconnect from Jesus’ message of the need to purify Israel, and return to the Shema (“Hear, O Israel…”). But then again, this is Paul’s Christianity, not Jesus’ Judaism.

The logic of the painting is baffling. With Jesus dead (and his spirit having left the body and gone somewhere else?), why would angels put on clothes to look at his naked corpse? What world are we looking at, the spiritual world but with a physical corpse? Or the physical world, with physical fully-clothed angels such as we rarely see these days? And what does an angel need a candle for anyway? It is a work of deliberate fantasy, with no attempt at fact or logic.

There was a time when angels were considered to be terrifying powerful manifestations of divine power. Here they’re just something for the priesthood to salivate over, and to look and see what kind of reaction the painting gets from other viewers. “Come up to my room and let me show you my work for private devotion…”

Of course, if you want the traditional view, you can just listen to a couple of Khan Academy art critics talking about “elements that are hard to figure out” and “heightening the spirituality” and so on.

Religion, or pornography?

A lot of religious art has a pornographic quality to it. Baby Moses in the bulrushes, with various naked females. Jesus being taken down from the cross, naked and very languid. And, of course, the activities of the Greek and Roman gods…

Derek Santini's "Leda and the Swan"

Santini layers a series of still photos onto ribbed plastic sheeting that creates a hologram-like effect as the viewer passes.

Photographer Derek Santini’s studies of Leda and the Swan made news recently when a London bobby on a bus spotted obscenity inside the Scream art gallery and had the offending work taken down on the spot.

But the problem here was that the policeman wasn’t educated enough to recognize the classical religious reference. Better to stay with the stories that even the cops know.

Next up for Santini… how about that story of the Virgin Mary getting pregnant?

Right hand, left hand. At last, Romans and Jews agree!

Genetically, many more humans are right handed than left handed. When everything needs to be done the same way, therefore, there is a natural tendency to require that the procedure favor the right handed.

For example the Roman army required all foot soldiers to hold the shield with the same hand, for the sake of tight formations such as the Tortoise or the Shield.

Shield formation

The Shield formation was designed to be impenetrable by cavalry – at least from the front…

Formal Roman meals were taken reclining on one elbow. You reclined to the left, and ate with the right hand. Jews also celebrated feasts including Passover this way (as in the Last Supper, despite later European depictions). In Judaism left handedness is accepted, but only as an unfortunate imperfection along with blindness, lameness or a lisp. Any of those imperfections disqualified a priest from serving in the Temple in Jerusalem.

In the Arab world today there is still a heavy emphasis on right handedness. People often pick food from a common dish at mealtimes, and the right hand is the “clean” hand for shaking hands, for writing, and for eating with. The left hand is used for wiping yourself at the toilet. Imagine the personal embarrassment and the social stigma of the thief who has had a hand cut off, and must do everything with the same hand, and dip into the common pot with his “dirty” hand…

The left hand ends up with all kinds of negative connotations, now built directly into many languages. And so the final word has to go to the trilingual quip by Canadian socialist Tommy Douglas: “The left in Canada is more gauche than sinister.”

David and Jonathan… Jesus and John…

Hey North Carolina! (My home for 20 years, if Chapel Hill counts as part of NC…)

David and Jonathan... Jesus and John...

David and Jonathan… Jesus and John…

What about the love between David and Jonathan, “surpassing the love of women”? God still made David King of Israel, didn’t he?

What about the unmarried Jesus (not kosher for a rabbi), and John “the disciple whom Jesus loved”? Didn’t Jesus love the other disciples? But just not in the same way, right?

So you can be gay and have pride of place in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, get it?

Repeal Amendment One, for the love of God!