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.

What’s this blog all about, anyway?

This blog is a marmalade – sweet and sour boiled together, both rind and juicy bits.

Jesus was not a pacifist.

  • It’s a blog for the ideas of my novel. The novel looks at Jesus in the context of the constant uprisings against the Roman Occupation that began 100 years before his preaching, and went on for 100 years afterwards… until the Romans finally leveled Jerusalem, and killed or enslaved and deported all the Jews, and banned them from the replacement city of Aelia Capitolina.
  • It lets you read Jesus’ words and actions with the awareness that his “greatest commandment” is to recite the Shema, the fundamental Jewish prayer (“Hear, O Israel,”) – and practicing Jews do it multiple times a day. It’s Judaism 101. Jesus wanted Israel to turn back to the Covenant with God, and get rid of the idolatrous, beard-shaving, pig-eating Westerners who were marching around the country without bothering to learn the language.
  • Yes, it makes comparisons with modern Western invasions and occupations.
  • So it carries all my grudges against the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz/Blair destruction of Iraq in the hope of oil money and imperial glory. 100 million of us around the world had protested and pointed out that it was going to lead to nothing but death, destruction and economic catastrophe at home and abroad. And here we are.
  • It also carries the ironies of the current Westernized Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the cynical and heavy-handed Israeli destruction of the people who have been indigenous there for the past 2,000 years… a repetition of how the Jews slaughtered all the Canaanites and others who had been living in the area before Moses came along.
  • So I think Moses was a genocidal barbarian (Deuteronomy 20: 16-18).
  • And Jesus was a Jew, and more in tune with Osama bin Laden than anyone else.
  • And St. Paul was an epileptic visionary who created Christianity out of a mishmash of Judaism, Mithraism, and bits of Egyptian and Roman mythologies and practices.
  • And I have no respect for any monotheist who believes the earth was created in the past 10,000 years, or thinks the tribal legends of illiterate herdsmen have relevance for government policy today.
  • Does anyone really believe the first chapter of Genesis, when it says that God created day and night on the first day… and then made the sun and moon on the fourth day? What I believe is that we live in a universe of a billion galaxies, each with a billion suns – and someone who can’t even figure out the relationship between daylight and sunshine is to be treated seriously?
  • As for what the creative force behind a billion galaxies looks like, who knows. Call it God if you want… but where did it come from? Why is there anything at all?
  • And I love polytheist mythologies, and they speak to the soul’s images and poetry and inner health – but they’re not literally true.
  • And I loathe people who use religion as nothing but a way to make money, or to grab power. And I loathe people who use politics in that way, too. So I doubly loathe hypocritical politicians who mouth religious crap.
  • But oh how I love it all, at the same time! What a planet! Unbelievable natural beauty and works of art, and the most appalling destruction and massacres, planet-wide pollution, and greed and ignorance. But what can you expect of a planet of 7 billion heavily-armed apes? Humans are simply mind-boggling, stumbling through the dark like reckless two-year-olds.

By the way, it’s also a blog for the novel itself. With links to the trade paperback and to the Kindle edition. But don’t expect to find all the blog’s ideas in the novel – it’s just a contrarian (realistic, commonsense) retelling of an old story from the point of view of, yes, the Western occupation. And yes, Jesus was crucified. No, he didn’t come back from the dead. So, do you want to see how he did all those miracles?

Polytheism – pure mythology

Polytheism isn’t bad. Joseph Campbell can explain a lot of the benefits of seeing it as a natural part of your inner life. And the nice thing about polytheism is that you can worship your gods without believing in them. You don’t have to deal with them as facts, and disagreement about their details or their logic is no problem. They are fairy tales, but they speak to something real inside us.

ganesha

Ganesha, Remover of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings, patron of arts and sciences, and god of intellect and wisdom

Take Hinduism’s Ganesha. He was born with a strange head, or he was created directly from Shiva’s laughter, or a mean god burned his head off, or Shiva cut it off…  Anyway, the usual story is that Shiva cut off an elephant’s head as a quick replacement to save the boy’s life.

Then he became the god of new beginnings (which is reasonable), and of wisdom (which works for an elephant). Because he was too large to get about much, his vahana or “vehicle” is Mushika the rat or mouse. A vehicle is an animal companion/aspect of a god, much like the modern dæmons in Philip Pullman’s “Northern Lights” (or “Golden Compass” in the US). Mushika goes everywhere and finds everything out – like Odin’s ravens – and so Ganesh is also the god of paths, roads, gates, barriers, and of overcoming obstacles. And he’s the patron of arts and sciences, which relate to his knowledge and wisdom.

There’s enough in that one god for people to pick and choose which aspects they feel most connected to, and want to worship. The whole story is so preposterous that (at least outside India) it would be hard to believe as physical fact. It lives on only as a personally-resonating spiritual guide to life. Religion becomes active mythology, rather than a claimant to replace science, the way fundamentalist monotheism wants it to be.

So that’s all right then. Religion with all its richness, but without belief in its absurdities.

Oh, you still want to believe in it as a historical reality? Then I have a couple of questions:

Having cut the boy’s head off, why didn’t Shiva just stick it back on? Why did he have to go and cut another head off, and stick that on instead?

And more importantly, if the elephant’s head is on the boy’s body, who is alive? I’d say the elephant. But that’s because I think of the body as being the vehicle of the brain, nothing more.

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.

Best resources – Debunking myths

Humans have been very successful as a species through love of pattern-recognition activities and a broad search for cause-and-effect. This leads to a love of stories and constant search for ‘Meaning’. The easiest way to introduce a new concept to people is to connect it to a story, as Jesus did repeatedly through parables. The inherent danger is that, because people are programmed to seek a narrative, people prefer an incorrect model over an incomplete model. In the absence of a better explanation, they opt for the wrong explanation.

We all grow up at some point... if we live long enough...

So in the process of trying to debunk an incorrect idea, you have to be sure to provide a complete alternative explanation. You also have to be careful not to inadvertently reinforce the flawed idea – this ‘backfiring’ can be caused by various things: bad framing of the idea, or too many arguments and details, or threatening the listener’s worldview.

The Debunking Handbook, a guide to debunking misinformation, deals with these issues. It is now freely available to download, and offers practical guidelines on the most effective ways of reducing the influence of myths. The Debunking Handbook boils the concepts down into a short, simple summary, intended as a guide for communicators in all areas who encounter misinformation. It originated with climate researchers, but it has universal application.

I believe debunking myths of all kinds is important, because what we believe impacts how we make decisions. Bush foreign policy was informed with a lot of Messianic Christian mumbo-jumbo which contributed to the Iraq war as well as to anti-science policies on health care and stem-cell research. Science and government must be kept free of religion, or we end up with shorter and less fulfilling lives. But we can’t simply say ‘The Christian narrative is flawed; Jesus isn’t God, don’t be ridiculous.’ We have to provide a complete alternative story of who he was, and how we can understand his words and actions in a completely secular way.

That is what I have attempted in “The Gospel According to the Romans” – that Jesus was a Jew, and a fundamentalist Jew at that, who wanted to cleanse Israel by kicking the beardless, pig-eating, polytheist, idolatrous Romans out of Palestine and restoring the Torah as the source of law. He was connected to the Zealot uprisings which had been going on for 100 years before him and continued for another 100 years afterwards – his attempt to take over the Temple at Passover was a clear failure, and he was caught and crucified.

But this book is probably only half of what I need to say on the matter. Because Paul came along after Jesus and used him as the vehicle for creating the greatest syncretist religion the world has ever seen, blending Judaism and Mithraism with Egyptian and Greco-Roman practices to end up with the Christianity that we have today. In order to say that happened, and to be understood and believed, we need to tell it as a coherent and non-magical story – plausible even if we can’t know exactly what happened.

In short, we need a parable to debunk Jesus, Paul and Christianity.