Sunday, October 26, 2008

On hiatus

I'm taking a brief break from this blog. Partly because I'm not feeling especially antitheistic these days and partly because I can't be arsed.

I'm sure it'll be a brief break. Well, probably, anyway.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The universe

Whenever I have the chance to escape the city, I start to really understand where religion came from.

I lie on the ground and look at the absolute forest of stars up there. I see, like a textbook illustration, the zodiac belt that some people invented to give order to, and to explain, the 'white dots' up there. I see a deer looking timidly and curiously in my direction and can understand the urge that some had to imbue that noble species with 'supernatural' abilities.

I can understand why, devoid of any other explanation, people at one time said 'these things were all created by somebody much bigger than us'.

But scientists have shown us things infinitely more fascinating. They have shown us that each of those white dots is in itself a universe bigger than we can comprehend. They have shown us that the deer shares an enormous amount of genetic information with us and that its human-like glances in my direction are the same legacy of our common ancestor as my glances in its direction.

This gives me enormous peace. It shows me that I am but a very small cog in an incomprehensibly large machine, but it shows me that I am completely 'of' it, not 'seperate from' or 'better than' it.

That something so great and wonderful as our world and our universe could be created by someone or something who then went on to tell us what we should wear and how we should make love insults the beauty of the universe. It takes all of existence and tries to cram it into a human mind.

Two thousand years ago, I could understand it. The God concept widened our vistas and our comprehension of the universe. Today, the God concept limits it. Science has shown us that the universe is more beautiful than God. And, unlike God, it is utterly and demonstrably real.

The universe is more magnificent than the gods we have created to fill it.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Message

No, not the Grandmaster Flash song.

It's apparently the name of a Bible translation. Bible Gateway has it among its translations. I've never heard it before but it's the most bizarre thing I've ever seen... A few choice samples:

Romans 1:24-25 according to the King James Bible:

"Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own
hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: Who changed the truth
of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator,
who is blessed for ever. Amen."

Romans 1:24-25 according to "The Message":

"So God said, in effect, "If that's what you want, that's what you get." It
wasn't long before they were living in a pigpen, smeared with filth, filthy
inside and out. And all this because they traded the true God for a fake god,
and worshiped the god they made instead of the God who made them—the God we bless, the God who blesses us. Oh, yes!"

Genesis 4:6-7 according to the King James Bible:

"And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance
fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not
well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt
rule over him."

Genesis 4:6-7 according to "The Message":

"God spoke to Cain: 'Why this tantrum? Why the sulking? If you do well, won't
you be accepted? And if you don't do well, sin is lying in wait for you, ready
to pounce; it's out to get you, you've got to master it.'"

Genesis 11:6-9 according to the King James Bible:

"And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language;
and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which
they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their
language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the LORD
scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left
off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the
LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the
LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth."

Genesis 11:6-9 according to "The Message":

God took one look and said, "One people, one language; why, this is only a first
step. No telling what they'll come up with next—they'll stop at nothing! Come,
we'll go down and garble their speech so they won't understand each other." Then
God scattered them from there all over the world. And they had to quit building
the city. That's how it came to be called Babel, because there God turned their
language into "babble." From there God scattered them all over the world.

Does anybody know what this is? Is it for real or a joke? And why is it so funny?

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Love and the afterlife

I'm often surprised by how little Christianity has to do with the pop-culture religion that most North Americans are exposed to most of their lives. I mean, I got more of my knowledge of religion from Bugs Bunny than I ever did from the Bible, but i had just presumed that they were more or less the same thing: since North American culture comes largely from a Christian basis, I had generally presumed that most of the spiritual concepts floating around in the shared consciousness of North Americans had had a basis in Christianity.

To whit: the idea, amazingly common in English-language literature and art, that families are reunited in heaven after death. This idea is so prevalent in popular culture that it barely even seems worth mentioning. We comfort ourselves upon the death of a loved one by telling ourselves that one day we will be 'reunited'; the more maudlin of popular representations of death even show families embracing on clouds awash in white light. We enter into discussions about which partner a divorced or widowed person who remarries will spend eternity with.

So i was, frankly, gobsmacked the first time I was presented with a dogmatic Christian answer to the question of 'how can heaven be a reward when loved ones are in hell?'

It's a good question, as unanswerable questions about scripture go. The idea is that since heaven is supposed to be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, if you happen to have dirty heathens in your otherwise clean Christian household, and if you happen to love said dirty heathens, how beatific will your harp-and-halo afterlife be when you know (and perhaps are able on big-screen TV to visually confirm) that your beloved infidel is roasting on an open Lake of Fire?

The answer, apparently is: pretty darn beatific. Apparently the correct Christian answer to this is that in heaven we'll be too busy worshipping and loving Jesus Christ to hear the sounds of our loved ones' flesh sizzling. In fact, our love for Jesus Christ will overwhelm any other love we might have, and we will quite literally forget about any love we might have had for other humans down here on earth. This, it would seem, is the reward we get for a lifetime of good Christian living (a large part of which, dare I remind us, involves strict rules on who you can share your life with and under what circumstances you can share your life with said person).

I'm not sure whether or not you need to be an atheist to see this particular orthodoxy as shockingly insensitive. I mean, atheism doesn't offer a nicer vision of the afterlife, but frankly it doesn't offer a worse one, either. Asking people to hope for an afterlife and to adjust their behavioural patterns accordingly, but denying them the love of their loved ones in that afterlife, seems both surprisingly cruel and ultimately unsatisfying.

And since heaven is the greatest power Christianity has over wavering followers, that's particularly surprising.

No wonder they rarely talk about it...

Sunday, September 28, 2008

On foxholes and prisons

The first time I heard the phrase, 'there are no atheists in foxholes' was also the first time I'd ever heard the world 'foxhole'. Unaware of its military meaning, I was intrigued by this aphorism-cum-koan and found my thoughts turning to fables of foxes or documentary-style canine 'fun facts'.

Turns out, of course, that the underlying message here is 'there's nothing like getting shot at to put the fear of God into you'.

Atheists, particularly atheist veterans, get understandably livid by this sentence, which is among other things an affront to their service and sacrifice. I've always thought, though, that we can appreciate the trite sentiment for what it is: valuable insight into the theist mind.

"There are no atheists in foxholes." When people are safe and comfortable in their lives, they have no need to pretend there is a god. Only when they fear for their lives do they develop a need for a supreme deity. Theism: the ultimate act of desperation.

This above is not what I believe, mind you: I know it's wrong on both sides (there are atheists in foxholes and theists out of them). It is, as I see it, the underlying message of that particular canard.

And whereas it is usually presented as a triumphal 'aha!' in the face of atheists, it seems to me to carry nothing but a sad message for theism. It's the equivalent of saying 'there are no non-cannibals in a plane crash': even if that were true, it's hardly an advertisement for cannibalism, is it?

Having said that, though, there is an increasing tendency for some atheists to scream bloody murder regarding the foxhole sentiment, and then to turn around and retaliate with 'there are no atheists in prisons'.

How that particular canard works is that you quote some dubious statistic saying that while 85% of the general population believes in God, fully 98% of the prison population does. (I've just made up those statistics on the spot, of course, but you need to quote percentages if you're making an atheist argument and you need to defiantly avoid percentages if you're making a theistic argument.)

You should then not elaborate much on the stat, merely casually throwing it on the table for the perusal of others, hoping they'll understand the rather subtle implication that clearly atheists are shining examples of the goodness of humanity, whereas god-fearin' people are unstable criminals.

I exaggerate the point, but apart from considering the crazed extent to which chaplains are allowed to roam prisons engaging in extreme missionary work, I'm bothered by the assumption because it's as much of an 'ad hominem' attack on theism as the foxhole slander is on atheism. Even if it were true that, in society at large, atheists committed fewer crimes than theists, it would really tell us nothing useful about atheism or theism, because the argument that not believing in God makes you less likely to commit crimes is as patently absurd as the argument that believing in God does.

If anything, it might merely tell us that people of a criminal temperament are perhaps less likely to engage in existential thought, and in the USA (where I believe the statistics originate) there is a general tendency for people to 'default' to theism (specifically Christianity) if they've never given it much thought. All in all, not much of an argument, really.

There are plenty of great arguments to be made in the existential battle. These two are not among them, though.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A confession

It's been said before that it's not the finding in life that matters so much as the searching. By and large, I'm inclined to agree with this. For the past several thousands of years an uncountably large amount of people have gone on quests to find God. As a disbeliever I am, of course, bound to believe that not one has succeeded – at least, not succeeded on the main quest. However, I believe that there are large amounts of people out there who have set out to find God and ended up finding themselves instead. Which makes the journey worthwhile.

In the caves of Afghanistan lie the remnants of the Taliban organisation, a school of militants who once controlled the whole country (and still control parts of it). One of the tenets of the Taliban was that all music except the melodic recitation of the Qur'an beforbidden. And it was something they took quite seriously, even to the extent of jamming radio airwaves. Certain Christian sects have also spoken about the complete abolition of non-hymnal music.

This I can never understand. Although it's worded in a rather clumsy way, Peter Buck of R.E.M. has the following to say: "I'm an atheist, but I'd probably be Christian if I was black, because the gospel music is so exciting I would never have got through that."

Stevie Wonder once sang: "Music is a world within itself with a language we all understand." I see exactly what he means. Whatever it is, there is something about (the best) music that makes it universal and makes it operate somehow on a plane higher than that of mundane day-to-day reality. Whatever the hell the 'soul' or 'spirit' might happen to be, in the best music somehow I feel that we have greater access to it. They use the word 'transportative', and I must say that I quite like the coining. Certain musics truly can take you on a journey – a quest, if you will.

Vodun practitioners frantically chant and play drums. What then happens they interpret as a spirit entering the body of one member or some members of the congregation. Black American Baptists 'lift their hearts in song' in their churches and some people report being able to 'see the light'. Dervishes point one hand to the sky and one hand to the earth and then twirl around until they enter a kind of ecstatic trance wherein, they will tell you, they approach God.

Is that really what's happening? Well, again – I can't believe it. But what others may call God may just be a special place in our own minds – or souls, if you prefer. A place we can rarely access. Music seems able to take us there. Why it can is, in my opinion, one of the rapidly-diminishing numbers of true mysteries out there. But it can.

So does it really matter whether or not the people who make the music believe that they are communicating with God? No, it doesn't. After all, when you strip away the intent, all you're left with is music of the soul, music by the soul and music for the soul. Whatever that is.

Which brings me to my great confession: I like religious music. Not all of it, or even most of it - but much of it. In the grips of heroin addiction, John Coltrane once recorded what he called a 'hymn to God'. It resulted in A Love Supreme, possibly the greatest composition ever. Do I find God when I listen to it? Of course no. Do I find my own soul? Well, maybe... Not every mystery demands explanation.

When I was in university, I used to drive my flatmates completely insane with repeated plays of the music which I present below. It's one of who knows how many performances the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan recorded. I'm no expert - he recorded hundreds of albums and I've heard maybe ten maximum. It might test your patience a little, but if you have ten minutes to spare today, I'd recommend turning off the lights, sitting still, closing your eyes and just listening. Who knows when, on a stage who knows where, a Sufi ustad sat down in front of a mic surrounded by a harmonium player and a group of backup singers and... went somewhere. During that time, where did he go? What did he find when he arrived?

And, more importantly, listening to it played back to you, where do you go? And what do you find there?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Death contradicts thee, babe

I wrote this a while ago, when I was playing around with the subtle are of anagramming and had found a webpage devoted to it. I just liked the random 'meaning' that anagrams provide: it's no Kabbalah-style belief in hidden messages or meaning or anything, just an appreciation for randomness. What I did was to take each line of the first verse of the Tao Te Ching and anagram it into a new form. The end result resembles poetry, but make no mistake - it isn't. It's just a string of sentences that I now present for your contemplation. I'd like to put them side-by-side for your contemplation, but the margins aren't quite wide enough here to allow it comfortably. So the first line of my 'poem' is the first line of the Tao anagrammed, and the second is the second, and so on.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1

The tao that can be described
Is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be spoken
Is not the eternal Name.

The nameless is the boundary of Heaven and Earth.
The named is the mother of creation.

Freed from desire, you can see the hidden mystery.
By having desire, you can only see what is visibly real.

Yet mystery and reality
Emerge from the same source.
This source is called darkness.
Darkness born from darkness.
The beginning of all understanding.


Death Contradicts Thee, Babe

Death contradicts thee, babe.
As intolerant to thee
As the conman kept beneath -
Relent to innate shame.

He hesitated, ashamed; he fears an unborn novelty.
Fatherhood: some cretin men hate it.

Her eyes, my chosen duty, seem dead if fed in terror.
Sadly, solitary heaven is easy by new civil neighbour.

Many a dry eye lets it try -
Mother's mere gruesome face;
Sister's silence has dark cloud.
Rankness forms dank borders.
Hung intent: no bad feelings, darling?

I do realise, of course, that this is a sign of insanity. Nobody in their right mind would, of course, undertake such an endeavour. However, I've never claimed to be in my right mind!