Mormons show Joseph Smith’s “Seer Stone”

The Church of Latter-Day Saints – the Mormons – published photos of the “seer stone” that allegedly helped Joseph Smith translate sacred scriptures that now form the basis of that church.

LDS seer stone

“Seer stone” used by Joseph Smith

As a teenager, Joseph Smith made various attempts to develop his religion. A talking salamander didn’t prove a popular explanation for the origin of his writings… an angel showed him gold plates with Ancient Egyptian writing… he used his Seer Stone to help him translate works into English…

However, as summarized in Wikipedia, some of these translations such as The Book of Abraham have failed the test of time: “The Book of Abraham papyri were thought lost in the 1871 Great Chicago Fire. However, in 1966 several fragments of the papyri were found in the archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and in the LDS Church archives. They are now referred to as the Joseph Smith Papyri. Upon examination by professional Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists, these fragments were found to bear no resemblance to Smith’s interpretation, and were identified as common Egyptian funerary texts, dating to about the first century BC. As a result, the Book of Abraham has been the source of significant controversy, with Mormon apologists having presented a number of theories in defense of the authenticity of the Book of Abraham.”

Oh well.

To teenage Joseph Smith
An angel showed gold plates
On which he read ‘Jesus Was Here’ –
It got him lots of dates.

Rome Thrived on Profits from War

It is important when reading about the life of Jesus to remember that he lived under the rule of an occupying force whose motives for the occupation were profit from pillage, and profit from exploitation, and profit from trade. There was no respect for (or understanding of) the Jewish religion.

In Taken at the Flood by Robin Waterfield, Republican Rome (i.e. the culture of the 500 years immediately prior to the time of Jesus) is clearly shown as a warrior society. Warfare was one of the principle sources of income for both the country and the generals and soldiers that fought those wars:

“Republican Rome was a warrior society, then, from the aristocracy downwards (except that the very poorest citizens were not allowed, yet, to serve in the army). Every year between 10 and 15 percent of the adult male population was under arms, and in times of crisis more: an incredible 29 percent at the height of the Hannibalic War in 213. And everyone benefited, not just from the booty and spoils, but from the intangible benefits of security and the city’s increasingly formidable reputation. Over time Rome became adorned with visible reminders of military victories: temples built in fulfillment of a vow taken in wartime; elaborate statues of conquerors, inscribed with blunt reminders of their victories. ‘I killed or captured 80,000 Sardinians,’ boasted one general on a prominently displayed inscription, and this was not untypical. Most monumental inscriptions dating from the middle Republic — and by the end of the second century the city was crowded with them — focused largely or wholly on military achievements. The qualities the Romans most admired in a man were best developed and displayed in warfare.
Altar Domitius Ahenobarbus — detail showing the equipment of a soldier in the manipular Roman legion (left). Note mail armour, oval shield and helmet with plume (probably horsehair). 

“In short, a state of war was not only considered ‘business as usual’ in Rome by the entire population, but was not considered undesirable, especially by Rome’s aristocratic leaders. It is far harder to recover the motives of the ordinary soldier, but several of Plautus’s plays (third/second centuries) suggest that the attraction of warfare for them too was profit. It was bound, then, to be relatively easy for the Romans to go to war; and it was equally easy to present the wars as justified self-defense or protection of weaker neighbors. Slight pretexts could be taken as serious provocation. This is not to say that Rome was the aggressor in every war it fought, but the facts remain: Rome was almost continuously at war in the early and middle Republic (500-150 BCE, in round numbers), every opportunity for war that the Senate offered was accepted by the people of Rome, and the benefits were recognized by all.”

As a religious Jew, Jesus naturally rejected this attitude of the idolatrous pig-eating Westerners who had invaded and occupied Palestine.

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.

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

Scientology – a peculiarly unpleasant organization

A case against Scientology is finally coming to trial after years of obstruction by the Church.

 

Laura DeCrescenzo in 1996

Laura DeCrescenzo in 1996

Laura DeCrescenzo has filed suit, claiming that she was 17 when she was forced by the Church of Scientology to have an abortion against her will. At that time, according to information coming out for the October 2013 court case, she was working 112-hour weeks under a billion-year contract that she had entered when her parents were members of the Church.

The stupidity of the ideas behind Scientology is one thing, and I can live with people believing all that, even if it was created by a science fiction writer as a way of making a lot of money. But the vicious exploitation of children under its control is something else, and makes Scientology into a peculiarly unpleasant organization.

Religious opposition to the table fork

Back in Biblical times people ate with their fingers, typically from a shared pot. Jesus states during his Last Passover Supper that he thinks one of the Twelve disciples has betrayed him to the Romans. He only says it’s someone dipping into the pot with him, which they were all doing. In retrospect, Judas is identified and blamed.

eat with the right hand

Eat with the right hand, if sharing food

Still today in the Arab world people eat with their fingers and share food from a common pot. This is why Arabs are so much more scrupulous than Westerners about washing their hands before they eat. It’s also why they have the convention a clean (right) hand for writing, shaking hands and eating, and the left hand for, you know, wiping.

Which also increases the punishment of having a hand cut off for theft. Then what? Would you want to have someone share a meal with you, if they’ve only got one hand – for everything?

So the medieval invention of the small fork for use at the table would seem like a good idea. (Industrial-size ones for cooking had been used by the Romans and others for centuries.) But you know what religious people are like when someone wants to introduce any sort of change – “It’s not sanctioned by Scripture! It’s the work of the Devil!”

Here’s an excerpt from an interesting article, “The Uncommon Origins of the Common Fork“:

Forks for dining only started to appear in the noble courts of the Middle East and the Byzantine Empire in about the 7th century and became common among wealthy families of the regions by the 10th century. Elsewhere, including Europe, where the favored implements were the knife and the hand, the fork was conspicuously absent.

Imagine the astonishment then when in 1004 Maria Argyropoulina, Greek niece of Byzantine Emperor Basil II, showed up in Venice for her marriage to Giovanni, son of the Pietro Orseolo II, the Doge of Venice, with a case of golden forks—and then proceeded to use them at the wedding feast. They weren’t exactly a hit. She was roundly condemned by the local clergy for her decadence, with one going so far as to say, “God in His wisdom has provided man with natural forks—his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metal forks for them when eating.”

When Argyropoulina died of the plague two years later, Saint Peter Damian, with ill-concealed satisfaction, suggested that it was God’s punishment for her lavish ways. “Nor did she deign to touch her food with her fingers, but would command her eunuchs to cut it up into small pieces, which she would impale on a certain golden instrument with two prongs and thus carry to her mouth. . . . this woman’s vanity was hateful to Almighty God; and so, unmistakably, did He take his revenge. For He raised over her the sword of His divine justice, so that her whole body did putrefy and all her limbs began to wither.”

And still today Christian fundamentalists think that gay marriage is causing hurricanes in the US, and Muslim fundamentalists think that women’s clothing is causing earthquakes in Iran, and it’s all caused by the Devil.
And do you ever see the Devil with a hurricane or an earthquake? No! (But you see him with a fork…)

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?

Justifying false expectations

Every successful religion evolves its statements of belief into greater complexity and self-contradiction, so that no matter what is under discussion, any position can be advocated, any outcome can be forecast, any alternative outcome can be explained, and any change of position can be justified – all from the same collection of text.

End-of-the-world predictions from Jesus (“This generation shall not pass away until all these things be fulfilled”) to the Millerites to Harold Camping are the best-known examples. But every unheralded event or result has to be justified as God’s Will, part of the Divine Plan, and a further reason to give more money to the Church.

And that’s how religions develop and grow.

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