Tag Archives: Near East

A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with Realising That There is No God.

When I was young I loved reading about the myths and legends of other peoples; I still do. I was enthralled by the pantheons of the Greeks, Romans, Indians, Norse, Irish, Aztec, Egyptians, and pretty much whoever else I could find. I did prefer the European ones, as the gods they believed in were mostly human. Snake gods and monkey gods were fun, but, even in my youth, I found them a bit unbelievable. The gods of the Europeans were clearly kings and queens, warriors and heroes, concepts I could grasp much more easily, and, with the limited understanding of history a child has, might in some fashion be based on real people and events. But, I was told, they were all myths, all made up by primitive people who didn’t understand the world as we now do. Whoever told me that really shouldn’t have…

In my mind, the gods of the Greeks were just as true as the god of the Christians; they each had complicated histories, heroes and monsters, heaven and hell. In my mind, it was simply that one religion had replaced the other in a contest of popularity, aided by men with pointy bits of steel. I never understood why one was relegated to fantasy while the other was regarded as reality. I was told it was because Hercules and Achilles were not real people, but Jesus and Moses were actual historical figures who lived and breathed, and wandered around a lot. I put aside the myths and became more interested in the Bible because its stories were real, apparently. ‘Why then are there no dinosaurs in the Bible; if it’s true they should be in there somewhere?’ The answer I received was adequate; the old parts of the Bible are made up because when people started writing it they hadn’t discovered dinosaurs yet, and they didn’t know how life began, but the stories are still important. Which appeased me somewhat at the time; I could see how the Bible began like any good polytheist myth, but then, as time moved on it became more real; Greeks, Persians, and Romans started popping up and having wars and such, the places mentioned could be easily found on a map, and people were still fighting in the region, which made the newer bits of the book far more true in my mind.

I should point out that the nation in which I grew up was almost exclusively Catholic, the schools were run by the Church, and the Church had a dominant role in society (things have change somewhat since then, but the Church still wields a great deal of power). A priest used to come to my primary school on a regular basis and quiz us; we learned loads of prayers (which I have long since forgotten), parables from the Bible, and all kinds of other nonsense. I vaguely remember being afraid at my First Confession that I wouldn’t remember all the prayers and curious incantations, which would lead to the priest getting angry at me, and then I’d have to say lots and lots of prayers. I don’t recall ever being afraid of god, just of priests; they were weird and always smelled funny (I later figured out the smell to be incense and sweat). I remember that when we were supposed to say our prayers silently I used to think about other things, and wondered if the other kids were doing the same. I’ve often wondered how many people actually pray when they bow their heads in silence.

By the time Confirmation came around (another of Catholicism’s strange rites of passage) I had serious doubts about the whole Bible thing. Not god so much, I was willing to give that the benefit of the doubt. I had become very interested in physics and history, and these disciplines, while not questioning Christianity outright, were certainly showing me an alternative perspective. Reading about evolution or the Big Bang, no mention of god was made, just of natural selection and elementary particles. Mathematically defined forces had drawn the universe, not some benign deity, and natural selection had led, quite randomly, to the improbable existence of us. Where was god in all of this? I was told all things happen “by his hand”, or some such platitude, but that was not satisfactory. Science didn’t seem to need god to explain the universe, so why did religion? And why was it made so empty? I had begun to notice some small inconsistencies in the Bible too; history books on Egypt never mentioned the flight of the Jews, the kingdom of David, which was a mighty and powerful kingdom in the Bible, was barely a blip in the history of the Near East, and Jesus was hardly noticed by the Romans until Christians started becoming a nuisance long after he died. You’d think that these great empires, and all their historians and annalists, would have noticed these apparently important people and events. The Bible was looking more and more like a myth, and not a very good one at that (also, I read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ around this time, and if one man could invent such a detailed world, well, it made me think that whoever wrote the Bible just wasn’t trying that hard). The history of the Church was also troublesome; its issues with Copernicus and Galileo, its oppression of reform, its stranglehold on education. This was looking more and more like an organisation that wanted confine the mind rather than liberate it. And who would want to be a part of that? I had not yet given up on the god thing though.

By the time I began secondary I was left with what, I learned later, is called deism. I reckoned that there might well be a god, but that it was beyond us, outside the universe, outside of understanding. So physics and history didn’t apply. I also thought that Jesus was probably a real guy, but more along the lines of Gandhi, a moral leader, rather than the son of god, and that Christianity, on the whole, was no more or less valid than any other mythology from the ancient world. I had move away from Christianity in general, and had begun to investigate Eastern faiths. I imagine many teenagers do this in some fashion or other. I became quite interested in Zen as it didn’t appear to require a belief in the divine; it was rather more an exploration of the self, and it had a far more positive attitude towards this self than Catholicism. Religion never really came up in this stage of the education system in my school; the one teacher who cared was generally regarded by students as an idiot; even other teachers seemed to shy away from her when she began talk of god and Jesus in her life. I had stopped going to Church, or rather being cajoled into going by my mother, except on special occasions (funerals, weddings, Christmas), so religion was having less and less of a real impact on my life, and I was becoming less and less interested in it. I was thoroughly agnostic. And one day something weird happened; some of my classmates and I happened to talking about something religious at lunchtime, and one of the girls in the class looked utterly baffled. I asked her why, and she said that she didn’t believe in god, and neither did her parents; she was never expected to believe. To me, this was a revelation. I had never thought of it that way; I had remained agnostic because I thought that I should believe in some kind of divine order, I hadn’t realised that simply not believing was an option available to me. Dispensing with deism, which was not difficult as it is the vaguest possible avenue of belief, in an instant I was intellectually free of this god character and the mass delusion.

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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.