Category Archives: Faith and Religion

A Leap from the Lion’s Head

Religious faith has always struck me as a very odd thing. I have faith in things, like democracy, the rule of law, and the basic decency of humans (though this faith has been sorely tested in recent months), but the character of this faith is very different from religious faith. There may be no atom of democracy, but history bears witness to its powerful effect; there is no quantum of law, but all civilised people agree to be bound by it (unless that law, of course, undercuts one’s fundamental and inalienable rights); there is no scale of compassion, but no matter the horrors we see on the news, we always see people willing to help (perhaps not enough people, but that is an issue for a different essay). I know these things to be true as I have seen them, I have confidence (by and large) in these relatively abstract, human inventions, even though they aren’t really real. But they still occupy a literal and semantic space far and away from religious faith.

An intense spiritual conviction in something despite the total absence of evidence is truly baffling to me. I can see why, at a stretch, people have or need faith under certain circumstances: it can be very helpful to think there is a greater plan behind your suffering, an arbiter of justice who will punish the unjust, or some great hope of a better world to assuage the natural fear of death. But this faith is, to me, inherently empty as there is no plan, no judge, and you just die in the end. And I find that comforting. I find the truth far more useful than faith. “But”, you might say, dear Reader, “you are contrasting one truth with another, what makes you so sure yours is right?” Aside from the fact that that question cuts both ways, it is, I think, fair to ask the question all the same.

I think a fundamental problem is that religious faith (and here I mean faith patrolled by organised religions within administrative structures and hierarchical systems of governance) places an ownership on Truth, that there is one ‘Truth’ and a cabal of usually white men get to decide what that ‘Truth’ is. Whomsoever contradicts this Truth is, at best, considered inherently aberrant and must be either be corrected or excised. I find this monopolisation of ‘Truth’ to be intrinsically repugnant. You might be thinking, dear Reader, that religions (or your religion, if you have one) don’t do that, that they accept their ignorance in the face of the vast and all-encompassing wisdom of God. But they don’t. They hold up specific texts and doctrines which they state give them the right to pronounce how people ought to live, usually within very strange and often discriminatory parameters, which is tragically ironic since most religions claim to be founded on love. And each religion claims that their sacred text is true, is the literal Truth, which it obviously can’t be because there are so many. Every religion is suspiciously certain that it is the right one…

So that is their Truth, as I see it. You might disagree. And I believe in your right to disagree, even though most religions wouldn’t and would probably persecute dissent given half the chance (I’m not being flippant; see all of history). I don’t claim a monopoly on Truth, nor does any reasonable atheist (I’ll not deny that there are unreasonable ones, but let’s be fair here, unreasonable people of faith are far more dangerous and insidious). I’m not speaking on behalf of the atheist community or anything like that, this is just where I stand. I find that greater truths are found in literature and comics, in TV and cinema, in music and computer games than in religious texts. The internet is littered with stories about people inspired by Hermione Granger and Star Trek ; Game of Thrones and World of Warcraft create international communities of fans where none existed before; and Superman and the Blues allow us to access and process emotions in often surprising ways (Grant Morrison tells us in Supergods of how he once received a letter from a fan saying that his comics discouraged them from committing suicide – Superman literally saved a life). Now, you might say that the Bible or Koran or whatever does all of this too, which they probably do. People have turned to these religious texts for millennia for hope and solace, to learn from the experiences of others. Indeed, all art, I feel, is about one human trying to connect with another, often across vast distances in time and space. Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ makes me happy, and his depiction in Dr Who makes me cry. Both of these are true, but make no claim to Truth. And I doubt Van Gogh would denounce me for my responses.

Religious texts as art, as literature can make the same assertions and can point to the same underlying desires and hopes as any other form of art, like Lord of the Rings (which is a far more coherent text). Art and literature are attempting to achieve the positive aspect of religious faith, the desperate need of humans to connect with one another, to find compassion and understanding, to reach out and say “I have suffered, I have loved, I have lived; have you, do you understand?”. But it does this without prejudice; all modes and manners of expression are deemed to be equally viable. And therein is the failing of religious faith: everything is mediated through one code, one doctrine, however elaborate and wide-ranging it might be. I’ll not deny that religions have inspired great works of art, but it is the art that connects us, not the religion. When I see a Pieta, I am not thinking of God made flesh and his suffering for Man, I am filled with sorrow for a mother who saw her son tortured and killed. I see more valuable meaning in the human aspect, and to attach something unreal and spiritual denigrates the suffering of both mother and son.

I have Christian friends who think I am missing something because I don’t have faith. I’ve explained that there is nothing missing, but they don’t seem to understand. I used to say, “I’m not the one missing something, you are, you fill your emptiness with this story about God you think is real”. I don’t say that anymore, because I now think the space they fill with their story about God I fill with comics and movies and novels and cartoons and comedies and satire and history and art and architecture and friends and family. And they say, so do we, but I can’t help but feel that there is a paucity in their world, a myopic vision.

To me, it’s like religious people really like the colour blue, every shade and hue, and they think blue is the best thing ever. Which is fine, they are totally entitled to that opinion. You can do great things with blue. But they seem to think all of reality should be understood in terms of blue. They say other people are wrong for not thinking blue is awesome beyond compare, that I am somehow lacking for not being utterly devoted to blue, that there must be something missing in me…

Whereas I’m saying, “Have you heard of red and green, and all the colours in between? They’ll blow your fucking mind”.

Stranger Things: The Life of Saint Brigit and Her Astonishing Miracles

A Traditional Irish Upbringing
Growing up in Ireland, you tend to imbibe many tales about Saint Patrick and Saint Brigit, and the odd local favourite like Brendan or Columba. As a kid, I always found Saint Patrick more exciting – after all, he killed druids with magic. Yes, there is a miracle where Saint Patrick gets a druid’s brains dashed out all over the ground. The character of Saint Patrick, as one eminent historian once described, was basically a medieval Dirty Harry. Saint Brigit, well, she was a bit lacklustre by comparison. Her miracles involved taunting kings with tame foxes, making implausible amounts of cheese (which, unless you are a fan of the Elder Scrolls, is not the most enthralling thing), hanging a cloak on a beam of light, and making some ducks change their direction of flight. Hardly thrill a minute stuff. Oh sure, we used to kill a few hours in school on the first day of February making crosses from reeds, but even that lost its escaping-schoolwork glamour after a certain age. It wasn’t until years later, during the course of my PhD, that I discovered that the stories of Brigit are awesome.

The Many Lives of Brigit
This is where things get a bit complicated, dear Reader, but you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t like complicated things. First off, there is some debate about whether or not Brigit was a real person. Some scholars have suggested that the figure we know as Saint Brigit was a Christian appropriation of a pre-Christian Irish goddess of the same name, pointing out that Brigit performs many of the duties of a fertility goddess (remember the cheese?). The contrary argument points to situation of her stories in the real world, the numerous named and identifiable characters she meets, and the unlikely fact that a Christian cult could be founded on top of a pagan one and no rival church exploited such a scandalous origin. I fall broadly into the latter camp (as I think most modern scholars do), while accepting the possibility that some aspects of the goddess were indeed appropriated by later generations and merged with a Christian holy woman called Brigit who lived during the late fifth to early sixth century.

Secondly, the textual tradition is debated. The earliest writings about Brigit are recorded in three saints’ Lives or Vitae. A Life is a genre of medieval religious literature designed to record the miracles of a given saint and extol their virtue, often to suit the political aims of those who control the cult of the saint – this latter point is important, so keep it in mind. Saints often have many Lives written about them, but I shall be concentrating on the earliest Lives of Brigit, of which there are three: two in Latin and one in Old Irish. And here is where we try to avoid the rabbit hole of the great debate on the priority of the Brigitine Lives. In short, it seems that there were three Latin Lives of Brigit written in the mid- to late seventh century, a good century and a half after Brigit would have died. One of these is known as Cogitosus’ Life of Brigit because a chap called Cogitosus wrote it. Now, sometime in the eighth century, someone gathered together these three Latin texts; basically, they made a collected or omnibus edition of the miracles of Brigit. This is known as the Vita Prima, not because it is the first Life written, but because it is the first of the Brigitine Lives in a collection of books called the Acta Sanctorum ‘The Acts of the Saints’. Then, at some later point again, somebody made an Old Irish translation of one of the anonymous Latin texts, except it has stories not found the Vita Prima, which mean someone was leaving things out or adding things in. Sadly, the two anonymous Latin texts have been lost to time, so we have a situation where we have a old text, a newer text which seems to have older material, and a newer text which should have the same material as the second, but doesn’t. And I’ll leave it there, dear Reader, because much ink has been spilled trying to explain the relationship between these texts and I want to get to the good stuff.

Brigit, Wonderworker.
So, Brigit has some amazing miracles. Once a man came to ask for her hand in marriage; she wasn’t keen. After asking God to aid her, one of her eyes burst and liquefied in the socket. Liquefied her eye. The young man was less keen, and God helpfully restored her eye. Or how about the time she met some men who had sworn to kill a guy but Brigit caused them to hallucinate hacking him to bits, proudly displaying the gore on their swords to their kinsmen (this type of miracle seems to have been a favourite, as there are three different versions of it recorded in the Lives). On another occasion, some thieves dared to steal Brigit’s cattle, but as they drove the herd across a stream, the river rose up against them, washing them away, because Nature itself wouldn’t allow such a misdeed.

There is a very interesting miracle where Brigit asks a favour of the King of Leinster, and he asks what he will get in return: she offers him eternal life (in heaven) and that his descendents would be kings forever. The king replies that he has no need of a life he can’t see and his sons should make their own way in life (how… pragmatic). No, he wants his current life to be a long one, and he wants to be ever-victorious against his hated enemy: the Uí Néill. She grants him this boon and the king becomes invincible, winning thirty battles and waging nine campaigns in Britain. The moment he dies, the Uí Néill try to take advantage and invade, the Leinstermen tie the body of the king to a chariot ride into battle, routing the attackers like El Cid, but a good few hundred years earlier.

Brigit also performed an abortion. Did that get your attention, dear Reader? Yes indeed, Cogitosus wrote that a pregnant woman came to Brigit and the saint ‘cured’ the woman, miraculously reversing the pregnancy (a version of this miracle is also found in the Vita Prima). I want to underline the significance of this: an Irish Catholic saint, in a text written by a devoutly religious man who was operating at the behest of his brethren and who belonged to one of the most important and influential Irish churches, terminates a pregnancy. The women is not interrogated or condemned, she is not degraded or denounced. She has a problem and it is resolved. One can’t help but wonder if this was an allusion to a service that Kildare offered; medieval handbooks of medicinal recipes suggest that monks were well aware of methods to terminate pregnancies. Or perhaps Cogitosus was, through this tale, extending compassion to women in difficult situations; there is no mention of forgiveness, no sin has occurred. What makes this more surprising is that several other Irish saints performed similar miracles, all of whom were men. We may never know what lies behind these stories, and, in all fairness, I should point out that the medieval religious mind had a very different understanding of when the soul supposedly entered the body, but it is remarkable how popular this miracle was.


I have wondered, ever since I learned of this greater corpus of Brigitine miracles, why we were never told them in school. Actually, no I haven’t, it is pretty obvious why. Tales of a saint who goes around the country making cheese, curing the sick, and feeding the poor is one thing, but a woman equal in status to a bishop giving men violent visions of gory murder, aiding kings to bloody victory, and performing miraculous terminations? Yeah, that is not going to make it into the weekly sermon. Even if none of it ever happened, these were stories that inspired and entertained, gave solace and hope. Who knows what a different world we would have lived in if we celebrated St Brigit the Humble Badass instead of the saint that is hidden in the shadow of Patrick?

Still, I get a kick out the idea that, every first of February, kids all around Ireland are making crosses to St Brigit of the Miraculous Termination.

My Problem with Your God 6 – The Afterlife

Rosa Celeste: Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the...

Image via Wikipedia

I find the whole notion of an afterlife puzzling. We live, and then we die.  Unless, of course, you believe in magic and fairytales, in which case, we might either get a second chance at things, some kind of reward, or even punishment. I do understand the appeal of an ‘afterlife’; it would be nice if all the good deeds we had done in life, great and small, were recognised by some all-knowing judge who smiled upon us benevolently, gave us a pat on the back, said “well done, here, you deserve some bliss”. And, of course, the corollary, that all bad people, and those who had done us wrong in life, are punished. I mean, it’s only fair, right? Life isn’t fair, but the afterlife is? Is that the way it works?

As I understand it, this ‘God’ fellow is the ultimate arbiter of who gets in to the exclusive club known as ‘Heaven’, or of who gets to go on a jolly journey to ‘Hell’. You have to ask then, what are the requirements of entry? I mean, aside from the whole Ten Commandments nonsense, the abstaining from some of the more fun aspects of life, and the general belief in the delusion of a sky-god and his zombie son. If you believe in a heaven you must believe you have a pretty good chance of getting in, otherwise what’s the point? So, are you a paragon of virtue, or the lowest common denominator? Would you join a club that would let someone like you in? I imagine most people who pray weekly in the relevant temple of their faith believe that they will go to heaven; do you think that they all qualify? Do they live up to your rigorous standards? Because everyone can’t get in, that’s part of they system. By the simple fact of not believing in your peculiar delusion the vast majority of people are excluded from your faith’s vision of heaven. And that’s not just those living now; think about all the people who lived and died before some semi-literate desert nomad invented your faith. The vast majority of everyone ever will not go to your heaven, and I reckon quite a good deal of them are better than you. I don’t mean that as a slight against your character, but you are up against the likes of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (who are the foundation of Western science, reason, and civilisation), the genius who came up with oral rehydration therapy (which saves millions of children dying from diarrhea  every year), and Norman Borlaug (the guy who saves millions of lives every year by designing better types of wheat). How do you compare? How many civilisations have you defined? How many millions of lives have you saved? Surely, by virtue of their astounding accomplishments, they get to go to Heaven, right? Would you give up your place to someone more worthy? Maybe God would overlook the “believe in me” red-tape, it’s all part of the plan, right?

The whole “God’s plan” thing is worrying too. People who die in accidents, of God-Pythondisease, or other such tragedies, are, in the words of clerics, taken before their time, it’s all part of God’s plan. Plus, as an added bonus, they get to go to heaven directly, because of the suffering and whatnot that they had to endure.That’s nice, comforting. It’s not really a random accident that could happen to any one at any time because Nature and the Universe are our best friends and they would never do anything to hurt us. It might even be that, if the human race is ever wiped out by a gamma ray burst from a star billions of light-years away that died billions of years before God was even invented, some religious person’s last thought will be, “it’s all part of the Plan”. The problem with ‘The Plan’ is very simple; if it’s all part of God’s plan, and you get to go to heaven for playing your little role in the plan, doesn’t everyone get to go to heaven? “Well”, you might be saying to yourself, “that certainly solves the exclusivity problem mentioned above”. Yes, it does, but it also means everyone gets in. Everyone. Including Hitler (yeah, I went there). If you believe in ‘The Plan’, you have to accept that everything is part of it, and that every player is doing God’s Will. And God is Good (I’ve been told this quite often, but remain unconvinced, especially by the use of the copula), so everything he does is good, therefore the plan is good. So bad things might happen for a good reason. If this is so, anyone who did anything evil was really just an instrument of God, and so can’t be blamed for their actions, and if they cannot be blamed, they are free from sin, and get to go to Heaven. Even Stalin. If you believe in ‘The Plan’ you kinda have to accept that you will be sharing Heaven with murderers, rapists, dictators, pedophiles (the Catholic Church lets them in already), and all kinds of other nefarious folk, like the CEOs of banks, boy-bands, and anyone who ever appeared on reality TV.

So. Let’s agree that ‘The Plan’ notion is fundamentally flawed, and that good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. I’ll give you, the believer, the benefit of doubt; you are a good and ethical person who happens to wholeheartedly believe in a worryingly transparent fantasy. According to your rules, you get to go to ‘Heaven’ when you die. While there you meet all your dead relatives, friends, and the other cool kids who got passed the bouncer, because they also abided by the rules. After a while of hanging out with the angles and their dull music you wonder where all the good music is. It’s in hell. Ah well, you still have bliss on tap. You look around and your best friend Timmy isn’t among the saved. You ask why and find out he went to hell because he didn’t believe in God. So. Your friend burns for all eternity. While you get bliss. That would really ruin my buzz, if I were you in heaven (but I wouldn’t be in heaven, because it’s not real). Knowing that perfectly decent people suffer for no other reason than they don’t believe in your brand of hysteria would really tarnish the whole good vibe thing that Heaven had going on. How could you (after-)live with yourself? Unless God wipes your memory, which is deceitful, or you are a cruel soulless person, in which case you have to wonder how you got to heaven in the first place, and what kind of sycophant are you? Sorry, that last bit is unfair, believers are not sycophants, that’s the clergy. Believers are chattel.

Orthodox icon of St Edward the Martyr

You get to hang out with people like this forever... Image via Wikipedia

But the problem really is that you already agreed to abandon ‘The Plan’. If God doesn’t run the show, what’s the point of having a God? Okay, fair enough, you can make the case for human agency, but this removes God from being a loving, caring blah blah blah, to a remote and uncaring arbiter who decides what is good and what is evil. Why is he uncaring; well, if he cared he wouldn’t let bad things happen, would he? So, God is a judge; there is no right of appeal, no other avenue open to you. He makes the rules, he enforces them, and he is the king of heaven. I’m sorry, but that’s a dictator. And dictators exist to be overthrown by popular revolt. The Democratic Republic of Heaven would be a nice thing. It’s almost a pity that there is no God to overthrow, or no Heaven to liberate. Anyway, we’ve given up ‘The Plan’, and God is just a judge. Heaven is an exclusive club of pretty much all the most boring people ever. Sure, there are some good ones in there, but let’s face it, hermits, martyrs, the chaste, and the pure can’t really have many interesting anecdotes to pass the time with. And you will have a lot of time to pass, an eternity in fact. I know it’s an old joke, but all the fun people will be in hell, along with all the evil ones, the not-so-bad-but-didn’t-make-the-cut ones, and the actually-wonderful-people-who-didn’t-believe. Which makes heaven seem really unfair and boring.

Centaur & a Lapith in battle

Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr

It wouldn’t be so bad if religion had just left heaven as an unknowable state of being. They had to go and make it a place, a thing, a kingdom with walls and subjects, of eternal peace, and limited imagination. And that’s just stupid. Even so, an unknowable heaven is only slightly less redundant. You could say “but, you admit, it’s unknowable, you don’t know that it doesn’t exist, you can’t prove its non-existence”. You got me there, that’s a humdinger. I also can’t prove the non-existence of basilisks and centaurs, but just because we can’t prove something magical doesn’t exist doesn’t mean that it does. I’ll wait here until you bring me evidence of an afterlife; evidence, mind you, not the collected ramblings desert nomads and delusional parasites, feverish hallucinations, or other such deceptions .

You didn’t exist for millions of years before just recently, and you will cease to exist again quite soon. Enjoy a moral life while you can, because you won’t get a second chance; you’ll just be dead, forever.

Ceterum autem censeo, religionem esse delendam

Stolen Holidays.

Yule Thieves.

Christmas is a funny thing; it is supposed to be a celebration of the birth of the son of the Christian god, but in reality, for most people, it is an orgy of consumerism and gluttony, which aren’t very Christian concepts. But neither is Christmas. It is, in effect, a pagan winter festival that has had Christian decorations draped upon it; a polytheist tree wrapped in monotheist tinsel. Christmas wasn’t celebrated by the first Christians, or even the second ones; not until the 4th century do we find records of the adherents of this peculiar new Jewish cult regarding the birth of their Messiah as something worth celebrating. Indeed many Christians thought that celebrating one’s birthday was a barbarous thing, particularly Origen, one of the most influential Christian theologians of Antiquity and the Middle Ages. But the time of year was already a cause for celebration before the posthumous popularity of a certain Galilean. The Romans, and many of the folk they conquered, celebrated ‘Saturnalia’ in the depths of winter, a festival of lights and feasting, where houses were covered in green-leaved branches, people were allowed time off work, and bonfires were lit. Sound familiar? Or what about the Northern Europe winter festival called Yule (or Jul), where houses were adorned with candles, animals were slaughtered, great feasts were organised, and vast quantities of beer was drunk? Jealous (possibly) of all this good clean pagan fun, the Christians jumped on the idea, and hijacked it for their own purposes.

Do you know When Jesus was born? Answers on a Postcard, Addressed to “The Pope, The Vatican, Italy”.

The Bible has very little to say about the birth of Christ; only two of the Gospels even bother give an account of that oh so special event, and they provide very little detail, and even then they don’t agree on what actually transpired (if it did), except, of course, for the crucial headline event. The best part about Jesus’ birthday is that no-one knows when it really is; nothing in the Bible even hints at when it could be, which, for a work of revelation and prophecy, is a bit ironic. Before the 4th century, the different Christian factions believed Christ to have been born in March, April, or May. And even then, the year is wrong, all thanks to a monk named Dionysius Exiguus who couldn’t do his math very well; Jesus was born sometime between 6 and  4 Before Himself, not on Year 1.

One Festival to Rule Them All…

In the West, the first mention of Jesus’ birthday is in the mid-4th century in a Roman calendar of sorts, and it declares it to be the 25th of December, a date that was soon adopted throughout the Roman Empire. Which may appear to be a bit random, since Eastern Christians seemed to prefer the idea of a spring or summer birthday. Interestingly, the 25th of December was already commemorated by many pagan Romans, such as that most crucial of Christian Emperors, Constantine, as the birthday of Sol Invictus, the sun-god (where’s a Catholic priest with no understanding of history or linguistics when you need one?).  It also happens to be around the time of the winter solstice, a time venerated in many other non-Christian religions. To co-opt one was to co-opt them all. It’s only a theory, but it seems quite reasonable to suggest that Christmas was invented to appeal to Roman pagans in particular, since they ran the world in those days, and they already had a long tradition of celebration around the 25th of December. Of course theology was later tacked on, the lengthening of the days is symbolic of the light of Christ and such, but the ‘birthday’ of the Christian Messiah has always lived in the shadow of what Christmas is really about; having a good time with friends during the darkest period of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere anyway), drinking and eating, and having a party.

Bring out Your Dead.

The Christians also swiped Hallowe’en from those rascally pagans, who had a thing for equinoxes and solstices. The early Christians seem to have been equally fond of plastering their notions over pre-existing conditions, and Hallowe’en is no different. This was, and continues to be, an essentially pagan, and particularly ‘Celtic’ (not in the sense of an ethnic group, but as a linguistic family which may have shared cultural practices) celebration, probably called something akin to Samhain (‘Sow-an’ not ‘Sam-hain’ as a certain American supernatural TV series claimed), which Christians sneakily sidled up to with ‘All Saints’ Day’, followed swiftly by ‘All Souls’ Day’ and all of a sudden it’s a harmless party-time for children, drunk students, and immature adults (don’t get me wrong, certain aspects of maturity are over-rated).

Bye-bye, mister Nazarene pie.

The one major celebration the Christians didn’t steal from the pagans was Easter (just when you think you have them figured out, they go and change their game to keep you guessing). No, they stole it from the Jews, though, in fairness, the Christ-lovers do have a legitimate claim on it. Unlike his birthday, we have a better idea of when Jesus was killed, because he had become important enough to take notice of by then. He (if he existed, and I reckon he may well have, but without the magic tricks) was crucified sometime in the month of Nisan, possibly on Friday the 15th, at the beginning of, or during, Passover. Which you might think is a good deal of detail, except Jewish months move. Unlike the Roman/Gregorian/Modern calendar, which is solar, the Jewish one is lunar, so the months are not always in the same place every year. The 15th of Nisan provided the early Christians with a bit of an issue; the date of Christ’s execution wandered around a bit. Theologically, some preferred the Paschal celebration to come after the vernal equinox, the world was ‘brighter’ after the death of the Galilean, and others didn’t care, believing that they should celebrate the event on the correct date, even if it happened to fall on the wrong side of the equinox. Of course the pagans also celebrated the vernal equinox as a time of rebirth and renewal, a happy coincidence with the Christian message. The Christians didn’t steal Easter, and, to a certain degree, pagans seem to have successfully inserted their notions into the Paschal celebrations; the term ‘Easter’ comes from a pagan goddess, and bunnies, eggs, and chocolate have very little to do with the vicious scourging of a Jewish reformist.

What have we learned, then? Ignore religion and enjoy the party; life doesn’t last very long, and then you are dead.

Ceterum autem censeo, religionem esse delendam.

Temporal Inconsistency.

Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth.

I loathe historical anachronism, I really do. My disdain for it rivals that of my hatred for the pseudo-Celtic intellectual defecations which litter the shelves of many a high-street bookshop. It drives me up the wall. My particular disgruntlement concerning anachronism is based around the imposition of values. Sure, I often use modern examples to explain past events, use modern phrases to elucidate ancient concepts, and current events as mirrors to the past, but in a tongue-in-cheek, sarcastic, if not cynical, fashion. This isn’t academic scholarship, and I would hope that those (very few) who read these little works appreciated the tone and aims of my efforts, but I do my best to refrain from outright anachronism. I do not impose my values on others (though I reserve the right to not approve their inane comments on my tiny corner of the Internet), and I endeavour to not impose my values on the past.

For Example.

I have often heard and seen people balk at the more bloody exploits of the Romans, TV documentaries refer to Imperial conquests as cruel and vicious, and read comparisons of modern American exploits in the Middle East to the grand designs of those pesky centurions from Latinum. Yes, by modern standards the Romans were savage in conquest, cruel in victory, and bloodthirsty in celebration, but, by their standards, that was an exemplary mode of living. A human life was, essentially, worth less; birth and death rates were very high, slavery was ubiquitous, execution was used as a form of military discipline, diseases could strike down the healthy just as easily as the weak, and any number of random events could end a person’s life prematurely, which itself was, more often than not, limited to forty or fifty years. Yes, by modern standards, what the Romans did to large swathes of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East was ethnic cleansing or genocide, but to them, it was business as usual. This may seem callous on my part, to readily dismiss the conquest, execution, and enslavement of tens of thousands, if not millions of people, but, while I do find it reprehensible on a moral level, we cannot judge the past by the standards of the present. That was the way the world worked in those days; the Persians, Egyptians, and any other empire you care to mention did the same whenever they conquered a new territory, and don’t think that this was just a pagan eccentricity; there are several lengthy passages in the Bible where the Israelites annihilate several other peoples during the various expansions of their kingdom (under Joshua, and several of his successor judges, an under the kings Saul and David), but that was okay because ‘god said so’. The belief in implausible fantasies has allowed the commission of many fetid acts and gruesome deeds, the results, and repercussions, of which litter history, and are still apparent in the world today.

A Carpenter’s Bias.

Sometimes when I raise this issue, I must suffer the bland retort that Christianity changed all this, what with its Bee Gee charismatics, and general hippy ethos of make love not war. Yes, the early Christians were more keen on spilling their own blood than that of others, but once they realised that Jesus was not coming back, along with the fact that the Romans got on-board with the whole ‘Son of God’ thing, and that there was money to be made, the tune promptly changed. Christ was introduced to many converts by the point of a sword, or, later, the barrel of a gun, and, more recently, and in arguably a more cruel fashion, as a condition of receiving aid and charity. Christians were, and continue to be, just as good at ethnic cleansing and genocide as the pagan Romans (and I think we all know that to be a horribly true fact), and the capturing, selling, and owning of slaves by good and loving Christians only ended relatively recently in the West (though one could easily construct an argument illustrating the West’s economic enslavement of the much of the rest of the world). Society seems to have rather quickly forgotten how near atrocity is to our peaceful lives, such that we can feel safe in passing moral judgment on the past.

All too Human.

Humanism, not Christianity, is what changed the moral standards of the West. The value of a human life was found to be in life, not in the illusory everlasting nonsense of an ‘afterlife’. The drive to end slavery came not from faith (though it did eventually jump on the bandwagon) but from reason, and the greatest atrocities of our times were committed by religious or cultish autocrats. Our moral standards are a recent convention, and as such we can judge the recent past by our standards; we can be baffled by the horrors that man inflicted upon man in any age, but we only have the right to judge those who have lived since the Enlightenment (to varying degrees). It is equivalent to calling Ancient Egyptians idiots for not comprehending atomic theory, or mocking the Aztecs for not inventing the transistor.  The Roman economy was based on conquest and slavery, and their entertainment would make Abu Ghraib seem positively pleasant. The Vikings’ idea of a good time was getting drunk, eating lots, and rape and pillage, and the same was true of many Medieval peoples. These were vile deeds, but they were also vile times; a judgment on the past, admittedly, but someone like you or I, or the vast majority of people, would number among the dead, enslaved, or raped in such a world. But yet we cannot, in academic honesty, judge people who lived before Rousseau, Kant, or Paine, before the rise of Reason, before Enlightenment. They lived in a time of abject faith and mundane cruelty; if anything, they should be pitied.