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.)

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.

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.

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.

Militant agnostic: “I don’t know, and you don’t either.”

Bertrand Russell, in his 1947 “Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic?”, wrote:

“Not to be absolutely certain is, I think, one of the essential things in rationality. (…)

Militant agnosticism in action

“When one admits that nothing is certain one must, I think, also admit that some things are much more nearly certain than others. (…) Complete skepticism would, of course, be totally barren and completely useless. (…)

“As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which to prove that there is not a God. On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think that I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because, when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.”

And hence to his flying or cosmic Teapot, of course.

Russell’s contemporary, the British geneticist and evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane, did not believe he understood the structure of the universe, or that such understanding was even with human power. As he wrote in “Possible Worlds and other papers” (1927): “the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

That admission of ignorance would qualify him as an agnostic. But, as he also wrote, “My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.”

The farther we gaze and the closer we focus, the more we find that the Universe just keeps on going. From stars to galaxies to hypothetical multiverses in the one direction, from atoms to quarks to hypothetical strings in the other, there is no final limit to either vastness or foundational substance. More importantly, there is nothing to explain the existence of the Universe.

How can there possibly be anything? How can the Universe come from nothing? To say “God made it” just leads to asking where God came from. To say “It was born from the collapse of a previous Universe” or “It is automatically generated from the multiverse” just leads to questions of their origin, too.

A “First Cause” is as nonsensical a concept as “Before Time Began”. There are (fortunately) concepts that simply do not compute, questions that are fundamental to the nature of existence and yet are not capable of clear framing, let alone an answer. This is not new to us. They have stimulated and challenged human thought since reason began.

So it is perfectly in keeping with both today and the Greco-Roman time of Jesus to give “The Gospel According to the Romans” a skeptical protagonist with the personal creed of “Nescio et tu quoque” – “I don’t know, and you don’t either.”

“Teach both theories”

Half a dozen US states currently have legislation in process to allow the teaching of religious ideas as scientific theories, to be equally weighted against actual science. Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas have all been in the news recently with their popular attempts to turn education back to the Dark Ages when the only formal education was religion-based.

"Teach both theories", say the religious fundamentalists

Their cry is “Evolution is only a theory”. And they claim that equal weight should be given to the theories of illiterate herdsmen who thought that the earth was flat, that snakes could talk, and that every species on the planet, from polar bear to platypus, lived within walking distance of Noah’s Ark.

Very democratic of them. And, if the laws of the entire Universe were based on the opinions of the least-educated of humans, very reasonable.

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.