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!

Losing faith

If which religion you follow is a matter of choice, then having any religion at all is also a matter of choice. You don’t have to have one.

It's just a choice

Breaking free – it’s just a choice

What you choose to believe will be based on a combination of reason and emotion. There’s nothing wrong with that. It should a) make rational sense to you and it should b) feel good.  If you don’t have high levels of both of those at present, put your world-view on hold and look for something more satisfying. My suggestion: start with a book on comparative religion that deals with the history of religious development, and follow it up with a simple book on the history of science. (For a new non-fiction subject, try starting with a grade school book with lots of illustrations. That way you can see how other people pray, and what the first machines looked like when they were working, etc.)

Those who lose their faith (whether or not they choose a new one) don’t end in despair. When you live within a world-view that you’re comfortable with, it makes you less conflicted, less stressed, more relaxed, more able to give your attention and energy to family and friends.

There can be a troubling loss of investment in the former faith, and a natural disruption within your circle of friends. But it’s no worse than getting married, or divorced, or changing careers or countries. If you think your current situation is wrong for you, you’ll almost certainly end up happier if you actively seek to change it.

An excellent resource for anyone (of any age or stage of life) thinking about these issues is the Reddit atheism sub-group. (Warning: this is one of those places where you can easily lose several hours, though your mind will be richer for it.)

Enjoy your life. The right choice is always the one that feels most satisfying on the deepest level.

No one (well, almost no one) wants to die

The human desire to avoid death is instinctive, genetically programmed, and can only be overcome with great difficulty. People don’t think of actual “immortality”, of living “forever”, but they don’t want to die quite yet. Not this year. And if they are offered the option of somehow continuing to live on after death, in a nice place, and made young and healthy again, they will choose to believe it’s possible, unlikely though it might seem.

Rumors were always out there, inspired by hopes and dreams and visions, that there was a place on Earth where you could live forever. Maybe Dilmun (now Bahrain) where Gilgamesh sought out Utnapishtim the Faraway, survivor of the Flood… Maybe in the West, where the sun goes, beyond the Gates of Hercules, the Isle of Avalon, you can get there from the Grey Havens…

And others (more primitive in their thinking, or more advanced) say No, when you die you get put in a hole in the ground or your body is burned and that’s the end. In the time of Jesus, that was the Sadducees’ position. As wealthy and influential collaborators with the Romans, they didn’t like the idea of any Egyptian-style afterlife and assessment of their morals. But the Pharisees expected a resurrection of the body, so that God could manifest his essential justice and reward the good and punish the evil, and balance out their otherwise unfair lives.

Religious Jews of Jesus’ time certainly thought resurrection of the dead was possible. There are three stories in 1 and 2 Kings of people being restored to life: one an intervention by God after Elijah prayed; one a raising from the dead by Elisha; and the third being a dead man who was thrown into a tomb and came back to life when his body touched Elisha’s bones.

Raising the dead was therefore a good indicator of a prophet. Jesus not only claimed to have brought back the daughter of Jairus, and a young man in his own funeral procession, and his friend Lazarus, but he commanded his disciples to raise the dead (as well as heal the sick). Peter and Paul were each said to have raised a dead person on different occasions, as recorded in Acts.

And at the moment that Jesus died, Matthew records that the earth shook and tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people were restored to life. (They were a little slower than Lazarus, because Matthew also says that they didn’t come out of their tombs until Jesus’ own resurrection, a day and a half later, when they went into Jerusalem and appeared to many people.)

So not all these stories are coherent, let alone credible, but that’s not the point. The point is that humans want to believe that they aren’t going to die. In fact when you offer a belief in the afterlife to someone for the first time, they rarely assess it on grounds of logic, but they choose what to believe regardless.

Modern thinking about an ancient problem

A classic example is the story of Radbod, ruler of Frisia from about 680 to 719. He was nearly baptized a Christian, but then refused when he was told that he wouldn’t find any of his ancestors in Heaven after his death, because they hadn’t been baptized. He said he would rather spend eternity in Hell with his pagan ancestors, than in Heaven with his enemies – especially the Franks. He chose not to be a Christian because he preferred the idea of the Germanic afterlife to the Christian one. Or because his family loyalties were more important than the wishes of God. Or because he couldn’t really tell the afterlife ideas apart, and feasting with Woden is more fun than sitting around on a cloud singing hymns of praise.

The pagan afterlife party (until it all ends in Ragnarok) is one version; the Muslim paradise for believers is another; Hindus and Buddhists see you coming back to life in a different way; Taoists and others let you keep on living as long as your descendants keep on looking after you – buying and burning the things the priests sell, paper money, paper houses.

And as science slowly puts an end to all this wishful thinking, is it any wonder that we start looking to science for genetic intervention and rejuvenation, with the fallback of cryonics as a sort of ambulance to the future if we die before the medical miracles are fully developed?