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.)

History as Irony

Into the land for which the Jews
A thousand years before
Had killed and burned to take,
Jesus was born.

In towns controlled by Rome –
Grafting their multicultural odd gods
Onto Rome-cleansed, Rome–straightened cities –
Jesus played.

Walking four miles from Nazareth
To Sepphoris with Joseph at age ten
To work and help his father build another
Roman Jewish palace,
Jesus toiled.

In the uprisings led by Judas of Galilee
When Joseph and two thousand Jews were killed,
Crucified by the Romans, Sepphoris burned,
Jesus escaped.

In hills and deserts outside Rome’s control,
Studying prophecies and hefting swords,
Jesus preached Israel purged of Rome.

Outside the shining city on the hill,
The Passover uprising crushed by Rome,
Flanked by two Zealots, heads of the revolt,
Jesus, King of Jews, was crucified.

Preventing further fundamentalists
Leading attacks against High Priest and Rome,
Saul hunted Jesus’ Messianic dregs.

Seeing an opportune new power base,
Mixing old Jewish myths in a fresh blend
With Mithras, Isis – a One God for all –
Saul/Paul created Christ as a new God.

Antonia Fortress

The Antonia Fortress falls to the Romans, 70 AD

Both fundamentalist and Paulist Jews
Denying the Emperor’s divinity –
Disrupting commerce, peace and government –
Nero burned Jewish Christians, and
Titus destroyed the Jewish Temple, and
Hadrian deported all the Jews
From Palestine, scattering Christians and Jews
Throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.

Jews kept their heads down. Christians evangelized,
Spread through the powerless – slaves, women, poor,
Criminals and the lowest army ranks.

Seeing an opportune new power base,
Constantine changed Rome’s faith.

Controlling now (in part) the Emperor,
Popes ruled the West from Rome, built palaces,
And persecuted Jews.

(Jesus gives no opinion, being dead.)

Published: Ambit 211, UK, January 2013

The Fish and the Parasite

Let’s talk metaphors. (“Parables”, if you’re Biblically inclined.) A person, on the basis of some intellectual analysis or subconscious revelation, starts a religion.  Think of it as a fish. The religion is successful – the fish eats and grows. All that food passing through its mouth attracts a parasite that decides to live off the fish.

Now here’s the amazing real-world example: Cymothoa exigua, the tongue-eating louse:

Cymothoa exigua

The parasite has eaten and replaced the fish’s tongue, and now does the tongue’s work for the fish.

The tongue-eating louse is a parasitic crustacean. It enters fish through the gills. The female (who grows up to an inch long) attaches herself to the base of the tongue, and the male (up to half an inch) attaches to the gill arches beneath and behind the female. The louse extracts blood through the claws on its front, causing the tongue to atrophy from lack of blood. The parasite then replaces the fish’s tongue by attaching its own body to the muscles of the tongue stub.

The fish is able to use the parasite just like a normal tongue. It seems the parasite doesn’t cause any other damage to the host fish.

Once these lice replace the tongue, some feed on the host’s blood and many others feed on fish mucus. This is the only known case of a parasite functionally replacing a host organ. There are many species of Cymothoa, but only C. exigua is known to consume and replace its host’s tongue.

So, back to the metaphor. The parasite infiltrates the fish, and makes a good life for itself by becoming the fish’s mouthpiece…

That’s how a spiritual insight evolves into an organized religion. The guy sitting on the throne may not be part of the original concept at all.

Isn’t Nature wonderful?

Church of England suggests Jesus had mental problems

The Church of England, doing its best to support World Mental Health Day in October 2011, suggested that Jesus and John the Baptist – as well as characters like King Saul, Saint Paul and Saint Francis – may all have suffered from conditions that we label mental health problems today. The Church’s points appear to be that a) God works through everyone, and b) we should be tolerant and supportive of those who have such disabilities.

The Church of England suggests Jesus had mental health problems

The theological implications of suggesting that all the key figures of Christianity were nutters are still being debated. But thank you for widening the debate, Church of England!

Here’s the latest from the Daily Express, a national British daily:

http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/341926/Jesus-Christ-may-have-suffered-from-mental-health-problems-claims-Church-of-England

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.

Atheist or agnostic?

Am I an atheist, or not? It depends on the definition of “atheist”, and on the mindset of the person asking. In Europe I label myself agnostic, because I have no understanding of why there is a Universe. But in the United States it’s easiest to say I’m an atheist, because anything short of that implies support for the idea of a personal God.

God watching TV

I find offensive the idea of a personal God who, swayed by the emotional appeal of prayers from the devout, favors one person over another. I don’t care whether they’re praying about healing an illness, or winning a ballgame, or picking the right lottery ticket – what morality is there in an omnipotent deity who would intervene in that, and not intervene in the most extreme situations of human suffering?

I find illogical the idea of a God who creates individuals and then punishes them for acting according to the nature they were given.

I find simplistic the idea that God’s Universe is focused on Earth (let alone on one particular tribe, or sect, or individual), when the Earth is only a small planet of a small star, and there could be more stars in the Universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches of the whole world.

So I’m certain that the personal God of the average American believer doesn’t exist, and couldn’t possibly exist.

But as for exactly what force is the wellspring of the Universe, and what qualities it has, that’s where I’m a militant agnostic:

“I don’t know, and you don’t know either.”

Scientologists and Mormons in the news

On the one hand, Scientologist Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes split up. On the other, Mormon Mitt Romney heads for the Republican nomination for President. Money shows up in both stories (and as it does in all organized religions), but there are vast differences.

The Mormons have taken their beehive symbol to heart, work hard, and have a centralized bureaucratic government. They tax their people 10%. Mr Romney is in the news for hiding a lot of his fortune in tax-avoidance jurisdictions overseas (Bermuda, the Caymans, etc). Hm. I wonder if he pays his religious tax the way his church wants…?

The other ones, the Scientologists, were established by Science Fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard a couple of years after he famously said that there was no money in writing SF – the way to make money was to start your own religion. Scientologists suck their adherents dry of their entire wealth, and do it on the basis of the most preposterous “bad SF” cosmology that you can imagine, involving an evil overlord from the Andromeda Galaxy imprisoning his people in volcanoes on Earth and blowing them up with Hydrogen Bombs.

(Somewhat in connection with this, Microsoft researcher Cormac Herley has just published a paper showing that Nigerian email scammers make deliberately ludicrous propositions to their targets, as a way of quickly identifying the most stupid and gullible people.)

But the real reason that Katie Holmes is leaving Tom Cruise may have less to do with money than with the upbringing of their 6-year-old daughter Suri. Suri is now reaching the age when she starts getting “security-checked” by the Scientologists. This is their method of simultaneous indoctrination of the child and spying on her family. It is so unsavory that even that unscrupulous media mogul Rupert Murdoch is outspoken about it.

Rupert Murdoch tweets about Scientology

 

You can read some of his tweets here. And not only about Scientology. He was also asked about Mormons, and gave an answer that – from the ones I’ve met – I have to agree with:  “Mormonism a mystery to me, but Mormons certainly not evil.”

As for how much sense there is either of these religions compared with longer-established ones… or compared with a modern scientific view of the universe… well, that can be either a very long discussion, or a very short one. But many people find it endlessly fascinating.

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.

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?

Witchcraft and Magical Thinking

What is religious ritual except witchcraft? You are performing rites with no practical purpose, in an attempt to influence the future outcome of earthly events by either begging from a god (or angel, or demon, or saint, etc) – or else by symbolically replicating the outcome you want by dropping blood where you want rain or dressing up as the animal you want to kill – or else by sacrificing (“making sacred”, i.e. killing or destroying) an animal, child, or other valuable object.

Not all circumcisions are successful

So Abraham hears voices in his head. God tells him to sacrifice his son. He’s ready to do it, when he sees a ram caught in a bush, and the voices tell him to kill that instead. Lucky for the boy. Then God says he’ll make a deal with Abraham: worship Him only, and He’ll favor Abraham’s descendants as the Chosen People. (Seems like a good deal. It’s not being offered to anyone else. Except somehow every people on earth seems to think it’s more special than the others.)

And to prove they’re still committed to the deal, all Abraham’s descendants – forever – have to have their foreskins cut off. Which is a better blood-offering than actually killing yourself or one of your family. But this God is definitely one of the gods that likes to see a bit of blood.

And Abraham, being the first, circumcised himself. Nowadays we would just assume he was insane.

And then there are people like this man in British Columbia who figured things weren’t going right with the family because he hadn’t had his son circumcised. The doctors wouldn’t do it now that the boy was four. The man botched it. The son was hospitalized and is damaged for life. The father was convicted and jailed, and it was noted by the court that he had tried to circumcise himself a couple of years earlier.

So he’s just a lunatic, you say. (But not that different from Abraham.) You can’t apply that criticism to trained religious practitioners, you say.

Strictly speaking, the father is meant to do the circumcision if he’s able, but there’s always someone willing to be paid to do it for you. So there’s the Jewish practitioner, the mohel. Orthodox Judaism prescribes circumcision as a religious ritual, to be performed according to strict Talmudic laws. According to those laws, the mohel must suck the infant’s bleeding penis with his mouth. (How Abraham achieved this isn’t explained.) So when a mohel has a sexually transmitted disease like herpes, might there be a risk? Here’s a report of a two-week-old boy who died in New York, thanks to his mohel.

It’s not just uneducated people whose magical thinking leads to witchcraft and deaths. A religious education can be just as dangerous.