Sunday, May 25, 2008

Confounding their language

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And in the land of Shinar, they started building a tower to the heavens. Seeing this, God got worried that "now nothing will be restrained from them". So, he vowed to stop it. And these were his words:

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. (Genesis 11:7)

Or, at least, those were his words as recorded in 1611 in the confounded language of England. 216 years previous to that, that same confounded language, then a peasant tongue under Norman French control, would have read:

And scheende we there the tunge of hem, that ech man here not the voys of his neiybore.

And, furthermore, 362 years after the first one, this particular product of God's judgement had been confounded (or scheended) enough as it had spread around the world in waves of destruction to the point where it would come out as:

Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.

And confounded and confused we remain. On the other hand, how can we, confounded as we are, know these exact 'words of God'? Perhaps what God said was this:

הָבָה, נֵרְדָה, וְנָבְלָה שָׁם, שְׂפָתָם--אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ, אִישׁ שְׂפַת רֵעֵהוּ

After all, in the plateaux of the Middle East, in captivity in Babylon (that same city!) the early Israelites would have kept God's words alive in repetition of these words (approximately), in a certain variety of the language that all but confounded itself out of existence for more than a thousand years until being revived in the mid-19th century.

Of course, perhaps not. Jesus would have recounted these words approximately like this:

ܬܘ ܢܚܘܬ ܘܢ̇ܦܠܓ ܬܡ̇ܢ ܠܫ̈ܢܐ. ܕܠܐ ܢܫܡܥܘܢ ܓܒܪ ܠܫܢ ܚܒܪܗ

If Jesus was either God himself or the Son of God, perhaps this is the actual language of God, the one that he used in order to say "Let there be light" to no-one in particular. Interesting that we, confounded as we are by God's judgement, have allowed this particular tongue to fade almost completely off the earth, surviving only in a few small Near East villages where the locals in any case probably speak it only as a second language, if at all.

Alternately, there's a good chance that God might have said this:

هَيَّا نَنْزِلْ إِلَيْهِمْ وَنُبَلْبِلْ لِسَانَهُمْ، حَتَّى لاَ يَفْهَمَ بَعْضُهُمْ كَلامَ بَعْضٍ

As over a billion people today believe this to be the language of God. Perhaps it is. Did God predict that this particular confounding of languages would, thousands of years later, lead to the creation of a country called Sudan, where speakers of this confounded tongue would use their government and militias to oppress and kill speakers of other confounded tongues? Did God predict Lebanon, wherein different speakers of this same confounded tongue would kill each other based on their interpretation of God?

Maybe not. On a tiny little island in the Irish Sea called 'Man', the locals once would have repeated God's words to each other like this:

Tar-jee, lhig dooin goll sheese, as ayns shen coyrt shaghrynys er y ghlare oc, nagh vod yn derrey-yeh toiggal glare yn jeh-elley.

Since 1974, however, the residents of that island quote God only in the confounded language at the top of this article. Manx, now studied only in universities, is but one of the many confounded tongues that the English language has wiped off the face of the planet. And the English language is not the only criminal. Some report God's words this way:

Laten Wij afdalen en hun verschillende talen geven, zodat zij elkaar niet meer begrijpen!

Many of them moved far from their homeland to the southern tip of Africa, where they further confounded their speech until it arrived at this:

Kom, laat Ons neerdaal en hulle taal daar verwar, sodat die een die taal van die ander nie kan verstaan nie.

Thereafter, they (together with speakers of the topmost confounded language in this article) used that confounded language as a weapon - using their skin colour to keep down and subjugate other people - to force their specific interpretation of God onto the locals, to the point that they themselves, struggling until recently under an oppressive Apartheid régime, might well report God's words this way:

Yizani, sihle, sidube khona apho intetho yabo, ngokokuze bangevani ngentetho.

Meanwhile, neighbours to the English and Dutch had confounded their variety of Latin to the point where they reported God's words like this:

Allons! descendons, et là confondons leur langage, afin qu'ils n'entendent plus la langue, les uns des autres.

Having driven to near extinction the spoken traditions of their neighbours, who would have rendered those same words as either

Jatsi gaitezan, ba, eta izkuntza naastu dagiegun, batak bestearen izkerea ulertu ez dagien


Yao, diskennomp war an Douar, ha taolomp ar c'hemmesk en o yezh, evit na vo mui komprenet an eil gant an egile

they proceeded to travel the world as their English and Dutch (and Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Belgian and German) neighbours had. They came to West Africa, where their missionaries taught the locals about a God who once said:

Zo mu sauka, mu dagula harshensu, domin kada su fahimci maganar juna

Having spread the Word, they then herded these people onto boats crossing the ocean, confounding not only their languages but their cultures, identities and senses of self in order to use them as mere chattel to grow sugar and coffee. Partially mollified by the language-confounding God they had been forced to adopt (yet partially encouraged by the African deities they had not fully abandoned), these children of God slowly mutated their captors' language to the point that they recited God's words to each other like this:

Bon. N'ap desann, n'ap mele lang yo. Konsa, yonn p'ap ka konprann sa lòt ap di.

And so God's European children continued to spread their confounded tongues throughout the Americas, Africa, South and South-East Asia and Oceania, bringing God's word and transforming it into a sword (or machine gun) - leaving in their wake not only the dead bodies of certain speakers of other confounded languages but also the dead bodies of the confounded languages themselves.

In committing rampant linguicide (a language dies every two weeks in our modern world), are we offending God? Recreating the Tower of Babel? Will God have to return for a second judgement? Will we wake up one morning again unable to understand each other? And have to abandon the internet?

Or perhaps one day in the future, we will build that tower and speak that common language. But perhaps it won't be this one. In the far East, God's confounding efforts have had particularly mixed results, as despite the presence of hundreds of languages there, more than a billion of God's confounded subjects (the largest number in the world) would write down God's words like this:

我 們 下 去 , 在 那 裡 變 亂 他 們 的 口 音 , 使 他 們 的 言 語 彼 此 不 通 。

All the more remarkable, in that they would say these words in any of eight different ways but write them the same way - thus sidestepping the Lord's judgement. Perhaps the modern Tower of Babel is the written word - a tower of words that reaches to the heavens. They used paper instead of stone, and ink for mortar. A tower so indestructible that not even God can eliminate it - a tower that converts itself into pulses of electronic zeroes and ones and scatters itself to every corner of the globe.

And thus the real message of Babel becomes clear - try as he may, God can never overcome the human impulse to come together. Try as he may, he can confound our languages but he cannot confound our humanity and solidarity. Our tower will be built, we will reach to the heavens. We will not be scattered over the face of the earth.

Whatever God says, whatever God does.


Note: the translations of Genesis 11:7 are as follows, in order they appear:

  1. Early Modern English (King James)
  2. Middle English (Wycliffe)
  3. Modern English (New International)
  4. Hebrew
  5. Aramaic
  6. Arabic
  7. Manx Gaelic
  8. Dutch
  9. Afrikaans
  10. Xhosa
  11. French
  12. Basque
  13. Breton
  14. Hausa
  15. Kreyòl ayisyen
  16. Chinese (traditional)

Note #2: Hausa is actually spoken by people who are primarily Muslim and were not extensively used in the slave trade. But it's one of only a few French West African languages I could find Genesis translated into.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


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So I was in an intercity bus going from one place to another when it started to rain. I was thinking about how rain is a part of a phenomenally complex weather system. I was thinking about how it was raining where I was but not yet raining where I was going - how the rain falling on our bus was just one of many 'localised events' that happen at point A while point B is completely oblivious. I thought about how little we truly know about meteorology.

Hey, I can't help it. There's not much to do on an intercity bus.

I thought about the word 'miracle'. I thought about how misleading and misunderstood the word is. How it's one of so many words that religious people have taken hostage and shamed secular people into avoiding. We fall for it too - we accept their fatwa on our usage of the word 'miracle' by bullying us into believing that 'miracle' only means 'something created by God'.

There are countless miraculous things in the world. Wikipedia tells me that the word comes from the Latin miraculum, which merely means 'something wonderful'. Perhaps what matters is not who or what you attribute miracles to but whether or not you recognise their existence. There are plenty of wonderful things in the world - ergo, plenty of miracles.

When things are exposed as frauds, we feel cheated because their mystery has been removed. Somebody claiming stigmata is shamed when his cuts are proven to be self-inflicted, because somebody cutting their own hands is banal whereas holes mysteriously appearing is interesting, unusual, unexplainable. Proof of how little we know. Piltdown Man was a disappointment, because fabricating a skull and sticking it in the ground is just to easy. It's devoid of mystery.

Most importantly, Dorothy was disappointed to see the man behind the curtain, because there's nothing special about the Wizard of Oz once you see that someone's pulling the strings.

What's interesting to me is how this reality is lost on those who plug 'God' into all of the holes that exist in our knowledge of the universe.

'God' saying 'abracadabra' and bringing Lazarus back from the dead is not 'wonderful'. 'God' can do it, and he did. What's the big deal?

A child whose heart has stopped beating and is declared dead, only to start coughing some thirty minutes later and be resuscitated back to a healthy existence is 'something wonderful'. To show it as a sign of the marvelous complexity of human existence and the wonder of our existence is truly 'something wonderful'. To say '"God" did it' is banal. It deflates the wonder.

To understand weather patterns to be the visible result of countless individual causes and phenomena which all formed naturally over billions of years is to recognise 'miracles'.

To say '"God" makes the rain, and he decides where and when it should fall' shows no understanding of miracles, of magic, of glory and of wonder.

And yet they tell us we don't get it.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The God gene

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I've spend a lot of time recently fighting against the hypocrisy, prejudice, arrogance and illogic that often springs from god-belief. I think that this is a worthy thing to do. I've been shocked at how much of it exists (I never knew before I started reading people's thoughts on the internet), but I'm slowly coming to realise that the world is not quite the place I thought it was. I thought that most of humanity had outgrown that kind of thing...

Anyway, the thing is that I can fight against the things that result from god-belief, but I can't fight against what lies beneath them. Amongst the flamers and the morons, you can catch believers who not only are decent people but more importantly truly believe, despite all evidence to the contrary. Some are very well-educated. I realise that no one could ever make them give up that belief, just as no one could ever make me believe.

So there we stand, on opposite sides of a gulf that education, proof and rationale can't seem to breach. Why does this gulf exist?

I don't really know what 'the God Gene' means -- it's one of those Time Magazine-style 'science for dummies' terms. I know that there is a part of the brain that, when activated, creates a sense of 'something bigger than us' -- be that God, aliens or the interconnectedness of human beings. Yet there is something about the misnamed concept that gets me thinking. Gay people say that they 'were born this way' and couldn't choose to be straight any more than they could choose to fly. Like them, I truly wonder if I was 'born this way'. I wonder if some people are born with a capacity to believe in God and some are born without that capacity.

I don't like the way I've worded that -- it sounds like I view atheism as a handicap. I don't. I am proud of my beliefs, and they give me strength and hope. In fact, like sexuality, I don't view either theism or atheism as better or worse. They are what they are. (What we do with that basic belief, on the other hand, I'll judge and criticise until the day I die.)

I was probably about 13 years old when I accepted that part of myself that said 'why are you going along with this God concept?' I think that's quite young, but I was also four when I stopped believing in Santa Claus. Maybe there's a connection. I usually say that, at about that time, I 'stopped believing in God'. But upon reflection, I don't think that's true. I don't think I 'stopped' anything -- big people spoke to me about God, and so like all children I accepted it without criticism. But I certainly have never, at any time in my life, 'felt God within me'. It has baffled me that others do. I have never felt a need, even as a child, to ask 'someone up there' for something. So I've never been disappointed when it doesn't happen. But I take some people at their word when they say they have felt 'a higher presence'. Of course, I rationalise it as only in their minds, but I don't think they're lying to themselves. They've experienced a feeling that I appear to be incapable of feeling. I have never, even once, felt it in my entire life.

Behind all of the kicking and screaming that we do in theological 'debate' seems to lie this basic truth -- there are two different kinds of people in this world: those who are capable of swallowing God and those for whom God just sticks in their throats. I know which one I am, and I'm proud. But how can you speak to people who speak a fundamentally different language?

Sunday, May 4, 2008

An introduction

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Fresh from the frontlines of the so-called 'religious war'... actually, this is not a blog that aims to be belligerent, angry or unnecessarily offensive. It is, however, a blog that refuses to be put down or condemned. This is a blog that is proud to be secular. This is not a blog that chooses its enemies based on their theism; it is a blog that welcomes and accepts open-minded non-judgemental theists. This is a blog that explores the benefits of non-theistic thought. It is a place for atheists, agnostics, non-theists, ignostics, apatheists, freethinkers, secularists, laicists, sceptics, naturalists, humanists, deists and anyone else free of the yoke of conventional religion to feel comfortable and to share ideas. A weekly congregation, if you will... one that does not, however, attempt to pull the wool over your eyes, but one that hopes to eliminate anything that obscures your vision. A place to be truly free and to celebrate that freedom...