Religions

Judaism
Genocide in Canaan
Gave God’s land to the Jews;
But genocides in other lands
Are Yahweh’s big taboos.
Buddhism
All life is suffering,
Yes, all our life is pain;
Then I must be a masochist –
I’d love to live again.
Norse religion
The first gods killed a giant,
From his skull to make
The sky, and mountains from his bones –
What lies! No talking snake?!
Christianity
Jesus wasn’t Jewish
And his killers weren’t from Caesar;
At least, so Paul said after
An epileptic seizure.
Islam
There is no God but One,
Perfect in every way;
All creatures do His unknown will –
So there’s no need to pray.
Mormonism
To teenage Joseph Smith
An angel showed gold plates
On which he read ‘Jesus Was Here’ –
It got him lots of dates.
Modern Paganism
Pretentious modern pagans
Without a sense of spoof
Have got no clue what Stonehenge was
When it had walls and roof.
Atheism
I don’t see gods on clouds,
I don’t hear angels sing;
There’s just one question bothers me –
How come there’s anything?

(Published online in Snakeskin, August 2016)

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.)

It’s not Hamza Kashgari who is blasphemous – it’s his accusers!

On the occasion of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, 23-year-old poet and journalist Hamza Kashgari sent out three tweets:

Hamza Kashgari calls it like he sees it

  • On your birthday, I will say that I have loved the rebel in you, that you’ve always been a source of inspiration to me, and that I do not like the halos of divinity around you. I shall not pray for you.
  • On your birthday, I find you wherever I turn. I will say that I have loved aspects of you, hated others, and could not understand many more.
  • On your birthday, I shall not bow to you. I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me. I shall speak to you as a friend, no more.

This ignited a firestorm of indignation, with tens of thousands of his fellow Saudis calling for him to be tried for blasphemy and atheism, and executed. For some of the worst acting from a cleric, watch this short video.

Hamza flew to Malaysia, heading for asylum in New Zealand, but was arrested in the airport at Kuala Lumpur.

The irony is that his tweets are perfectly in line with the attitude that Muhammad himself tried to cultivate: that humans should never be deified, that neither Jesus nor Muhammad was anything but an ordinary man (though favored with prophetic gifts), and that, as he himself tried to prove, Muhammad could not perform miracles.

By the way, that’s the source of the story that ends “Well, if the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, Muhammad must go to the mountain.” Very much like King Canute shutting his flattering courtiers up by setting his chair up on the beach and telling the waves to go back, which they wouldn’t.

But the followers and the religious organizers always take over after the great man is dead, and turn him into a god to be worshiped. It happened with Buddha, with Odin, with Jesus. Muhammad put as many firewalls in the way as he could, but all too many Muslims treat Muhammad the way Christians treat Jesus, and impute outlandish miracles to him such as splitting and rejoining the moon.

Realistically, therefore, it’s the fanatical and superstitious accusers of Hamza Kashgari who are the blasphemers. The young poet should be praised for trying to keep Islam true to the wishes of its Prophet.

In Praise of Ignorance

“All men, by their nature, desire to know,” Aristotle wrote. Knowing that we lack knowledge, we seek it. In seeking knowledge we discover things which often make our lives more dangerous, but overall better. We have longer, healthier and more richly diverse lives than our neolithic ancestors, and it is thanks to our search for knowledge.

The search for knowledge stops, in the individual and in society, when there is a sense that all the answers are known. While the Greeks questioned everything, knowledge (and speculation, even if it didn’t lead to proof, certainty or fact) expanded rapidly. Coupled with Roman organization and engineering, there were enormous innovations in everything from underfloor heating, to urban water and sewer systems for cities of a million inhabitants, to the use of anesthetics in surgery, to the invention of the safety pin.

Ancient Roman engineering was superior to Britain's until the 19th century

The Greeks and Romans allowed for a diversity of religions, or for none at all, all of which promoted free inquiry. Then monotheism got a strangle hold on the Empire; Christianity provided Certainty and The Truth; scientific inquiry was crushed; and (not coincidentally, according to historians in the line of Gibbon) the Roman Empire collapsed. Western Europe had 700 years of the Dark Ages.

Meanwhile Islam came out of nowhere in the 7th century and expanded into different areas and cross-fertilized Greek and Indian learning. “Seek knowledge,” the Prophet Muhammad advised, “though it be in China” – which was the ends of the earth to him. As it turned out, China indeed had a wealth of knowledge to add to the mix. Islam was in the forefront of science for a thousand years. Western Europe came into contact through the Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries, and Arabic culture and scientific texts kicked off the Renaissance. You can see it in the Arabic words that entered European languages as fresh concepts in the Middle Ages: admiral, alchemy, algebra… calipers, candy, chemistry, cipher, cotton… magazine, mattress, muslin… all the way to zenith and zero.

Arabic scientific advances led to the European Renaissance

And then Islam, being the most advanced, decided everything essential was known from the Qur’an… it provided Certainty and The Truth; scientific inquiry was crushed; and, not coincidentally, the various Islamic empires stagnated and were overrun.

And in both the US and the Islamic world today, the argument in several states is over who has the right to teach (Comparative) Religion and history in general… geology and biology and science in general… should it be those secular, agnostic or downright atheistic scientific types, or should it be those for whom Religion has provided Certainty and The Truth?

Let’s have a little more acknowledgement of our ignorance. Uncertainty and free inquiry have always produced better results than Certainty and divinely-revealed Truth.

A short, simplistic history of monotheism

Three or four thousand years ago the Jews decided to only worship one god, Yahweh; and some time after that they decided that Yahweh was the only God.

Symbols of the three major monotheist religions

Two thousand years ago, under cultural pressure from Egyptian neighbors, Greek settlers and the Roman occupation, Jews were sliding in their beliefs. Jesus was one of many preachers who tried to restore the people to hardline Judaism through an emphasis on the Shema as the basic prayer: “Hear, O Israel…”

After the Romans crucified Jesus for his Messianic kingship claim, Paul came along. Paul was a Westernized Jew who wanted to spread a religion throughout the Roman Empire, and he decided to do it by blending Jewish monotheism with the polytheist rituals of Rome and Egypt and with the popular military sun-god cult of Mithras. He made Jesus into a Jewish Mithras, elevating him to a divine – or at least mythic – status, and downplaying Jesus’ physical nature.

Fourteen hundred years ago Muhammad, knowing a fair amount about some forms of Christianity as well as Judaism, preached a return to pure monotheism, and the worship of a God who is “One, and eternally sought, who neither gives birth nor is born, and there is none like Him.” Jesus is given recognition as a prophet, but fully human.

So Islam is very close to Judaism and the actual teachings of Jesus, while Paul’s “Christianity” is the odd one out. Think about it: God cannot be human; God can’t be pictured, and you shouldn’t even try; pray to God, not to any saint or any other human; oh, and don’t eat pork. Judaism and Islam agree on all those, and Christianity disagrees. That’s pretty fundamental. And clearly, Christianity isn’t really monotheism at all.

Dissing various religions

Each of the major monotheistic religions appears to have had the intent of the founder overturned by his “followers”. Judaism began as a polytheistic religion, where Abraham allied himself with Yahweh against other gods like Baal, but it evolved into monotheism. Both Buddhism and Islam began with the founder attempting to prevent the worship of a human individual, but have ended with the founder himself being given quasi-divine status. Christianity began with Jesus preaching a rejection of the Roman occupation of Palestine and a restoration of Judaic monotheism, and developed into the rejection of Judaism and the embrace of Rome, and even the worship of Jesus as God.

Beware the wrath of god(s)/goddess(es)

More recent religions appear fraudulent from the beginning. Mormonism begins with a 14-year-old con artist writing a ludicrous (and completely impossible) account of the settling of North America by the Lost Tribes of Israel. Scientology was created by science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard some time after he wrote “If you want to make a little money, write a book. If you want to make a lot of money, create a religion.” Kwanzaa has been labeled “a hoax built around fake history and pseudohistorical delusions”, and its lack of historical roots lays it open to ridicule.

The polytheistic religions look cleaner: partly because their origins are lost in the mists of time, partly because their nature allows different worship for different gods and goddesses – whether Hinduism, Santeria, Roman cults or Norse paganism, you’re free to choose an appropriate deity for whatever you’re trying to get out of worshiping them. If you feel the need to discover or invent a new god, that’s not a problem in a polytheist tradition – and if it resonates with something deep in the human psyche it may well grow in popularity. If you want to do this, stay close to nature. Worship waterfalls and storms, for example, like these chimpanzees.

“Sacrifice” – “giving away” or “making sacred”

To sacrifice something is to give it away, often to prevent a larger evil or to achieve a greater benefit. In primitive cultures where the word originated, it means you make something sacred by dedicating it to the gods for their use alone. You do this typically by preventing it ever being used by anyone else, i.e. you kill it or destroy it. It may be a young child, or a prisoner, or a prized horse or farm animal, or a sword or jewelry. You invoke the gods, then kill or break the sacrifice, or throw it somewhere irretrievable like the sea or a volcano.

God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son."

Here’s a story out of rural India, reported in the Sydney Morning Herald:

A seven-year-old Indian girl was murdered in a tribal sacrifice and her liver offered to the gods to improve crop growth, police in the central state of Chhattisgarh said on Sunday.

The body of Lalita Tati was found in October a week after her family reported her missing.

“A seven-year-old girl was sacrificed by two persons superstitiously believing that the act would give a better harvest,” Narayan Das, the police chief of Bijapur district, told AFP by telephone.

So what words come to mind? “Murder… tribal… black magic… witch doctors…”? Yes, those all show up in the rest of the story as reported. But how about “Abraham… God… sacrifice…”?
Sacrifice is nothing more than an attempt to bribe the most powerful force you can conceive of, so that it will reward you instead of punishing you. It makes ‘love of God’ into a mere manifestation of the Stockholm Syndrome.
The Roman Empire, although hosting gladiatorial contests and public executions, found human sacrifice obnoxious “to the laws of gods and men”. That the three great monotheist religions trace their common ancestry to Abraham, and to his willingness to kill his son in order to appease the voices in his head, is not something that any Jew, Christian or Muslim should be proud of.