Social Warfare and Religious Genocide

From Gombe’s chimps to interstellar space
We will have war. Sanctioned by the Divine,
Moses first led the Jews to Palestine
Telling his tribesmen not just to displace
But to kill all, and wipe out without trace
Each adult, child, animal, tree, vine.
Genocide’s justified, cleansed ethics fine,
To get resources for your tribe and race.

Believers justify war’s bloody courses:
We’re right, they’re wrong, so therefore they’re to blame.
Conquer through war to grab and keep resources,
Aztecs or Spaniards, everyone’s the same –
Victory to the best guns, swords or horses,
And put defeated scriptures in the flame.

I’m pessimistic about the chances of humans being able to stop warfare. It seems built into the nature of social creatures – when you define your group, you are defining everyone else as not in your group. Then, when it’s a question of who gets limited resources, groups compete and the most ruthless groups tend to do the best.

The sonnet highlights one of my personal religious irritations, that people can walk into a neighbouring territory, wipe out the inhabitants, and create a justifying fairytale of how the destroyers are the persecuted victims. Think of the Pilgrims and other British immigrants in America… think of the Jewish tribes coming into the Promised Land: when they captured a city outside the core area,

“when the Lord thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword:
But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the Lord thy God hath given thee.” (Deuteronomy 20:13-14)

But when they captured a city in the heart of the Promised Land,

“of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth:
But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee:
That they teach you not to do after all their abominations.” (Deuteronomy 20:16-18)

It is hard to see a future without warfare, when even the most revered “holy books” teach genocide and justify it as doing God’s will.

Chapter 2, Notes

Chapter 2 was originally called ‘Dinner with the Camp Commander’. But on learning more about the structure of the Roman Legion, I have renamed it ‘Dinner with the First File’. First File was the designation of the longest-serving Commander, although as a career officer he was of lower rank than the young noblemen who did a year or two of military service on their way to careers in politics. The First File was the man who actually ran the Legion. (Tinkering with a completed novel is easier to do when it is self-published rather than in the hands of publisher, but it creates its own confusions…)

In this chapter, Matthew has dinner with the main characters from the Roman side of the novel (apart from Pilate): his old friend Longus, now the de facto head of the Tenth Legion Fretensis; two other senior career officers, Caninus and Purpureo; two enlisted men, Buteo and Bibaculus; and the excitable young Jewish civilian, Paulus.

Apart from introducing key characters, the purpose of the chapter is to begin the depiction of the cultural gulf between Rome and Israel, a gulf that was unbridgeable between the military might on one side and the religious conviction on the other. About the only thing the societies had in common was the unthinking male chauvinism that was the worldwide norm.

The dinner menu itself shows the gulf: the Romans basically ate everything they came across, and to eat at their table was to renounce Jewish purity.

The process of serving wine is included as being interesting in itself – and it also suggests how easily Jesus’ first “miracle” could have been worked at the marriage feast in Cana, an event that is remembered but not shown in the novel.

The common interest of the dinner party (all men) is Mithraism, the mystery religion popular in the army. Even today not a lot is known of Mithraism, but enough to see that it was the origin of a lot of the imagery that St. Paul used in creating Christianity. For Paul to have invoked that imagery, he must have been familiar with it, which implies association with the Roman army. It is easy to introduce him here. But this is a work of fiction – there is no historical reason for thinking that he and Matthew ever met.

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.

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.