Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Reason for the Season

I watch the Discovery channel a lot--if I watch tv at all. About a month or so ago they had a program on about the historical basis of the book Angels and Demons. The premise for the book is that old rivalry between religion and science. According to the book, Galileo, tired of the persecution of scientists, founds the Illuminati, a group of scientists who decide to spend the next couple centuries devising a plan to blow up the Vatican with science. Pretty silly, but it got me thinking about the rivalry.

Galileo didn't, in fact, discover that the Sun--not the Earth--was the center of the solar system. Others discovered this before him. He was just the first person to write his findings down in a way that non scientists could read and understand it. Think of him as the Carl Sagan of his day. Of course, no where in the Bible does it say that the Earth is the center of the universe, but the church did. And that was enough to get him in a lot of trouble. Although the truth eventually got out and is now widely accepted, the church certainly slowed it down.

And it's far from the only time. It still happens today. Of course I have a different perspective on evolution having a BA in Anthropology. The thought that there are still people today that reject evolution is... well, just plain mind boggling. Of course, it's no coincidence that the people that do, are overwhelmingly deeply religious and completely ignorant of even the most basic concepts about evolution. In fact, the Pope(the last one) came out and said the evidence for evolution is overwhelming and that it does not contradict the Bible but rather was a long process guided by God. Genesis took place over millions of human years, but only 7 of God's days. So in this case, it's not the church suppressing knowledge, but rather a bunch of close minded Christians. Unfortunately, these close minded Christians can vote. About 10 years ago, the teaching of evolution was banned in the state of Kansas. It was only banned for less than 2 years, but the implications were certainly terrifying.

No one really believes we have separation between church and state in this country. We are certainly closer to it that most countries in the world, but it's far from absolute. I don't really care what people believe, but when people can use the law to impose their religion on the rest of us, then I have to say that's not only wrong, but it's un-American.

And again, it's not only that, but the issue of gay marriage. I cannot, for the life of me, understand how two gay people getting married can possibly harm anything. The only argument I've heard with any validity is that a gay couple can sue churches that refuse to marry them. Well, a lot of people didn't believe in interracial couples being allowed to get married. I don't know how many interracial couples sued churches that refused to marry them, but we got through that ok once it was legalized. Like the evolution issue, ask people that want to "protect marriage," and overwhelmingly they're religious. In this case, I can't say "Christian," because all the major religions but Buddhism have a problem with homosexuality. India recently decriminalized homosexuality. I'm not really sure, however, what Christians in our country hope to accomplish by banning gay marriage. Even put aside the fact that using the law to impose your religious beliefs on others to deny them some fairly basic civil rights, which quite honestly, is pretty darn messed up, but what do Christians really think will happen? If you ban gay marriage long enough, gay people will go away? No, seriously. What does banning gay marriage accomplish? And since when do we vote on civil rights? Since we out number gay people, can we vote that they can't have pudding, so we get all their pudding too? I mean really, since we out number them, we get to push them around and decide what civil rights they can have and what we'd rather they not have because their life style offends our religion. It's embarrassing to be a Californian knowing that Prop 8 passed. But hey, I voted against it. I did my part.

First off, I don't understand homosexuality myself. It makes no sense from an evolutionary stand point--which is strange since just about every part of the human experience can be explained through evolution. And homosexuality has been around for a pretty long time. I recently finally got around to watching 300. I love history, but I heard it had a lot of historical inaccuracies, so I had a feeling I wouldn't like it. I was right. I had to laugh when the Spartan King guy referred to the Athenians as "boy lovers." The Spartans were a lot more well known for being homosexuals than the Athenians were. the Spartans encouraged all their soldiers to be romantically involved with each other. After all, if a woman I loved was in danger on the battle field, I would certainly fight a lot harder to keep her alive.

I'm reluctant to talk about another "religion" that actively suppresses a field of science due to conflicts. Ironically, it's the one that has "Science" right in its name. I'm partially reluctant to mention it, for one, I know that people that bash it on the internet get hopelessly and obsessively harassed by its members(so I'm going to avoid using goggle search words here). I never back down from fights, which is a big reason why I try less and less to pick them. But this is not a religion. It's a giant pyramid scam that bilks people out of their life savings and destroys families. They're glorified snake oil salesmen that offer to use super natural powers to remove the spirits of dead aliens stuck in your body that make you sick. Their biggest competition? Real doctors.

You've probably heard about Tom Cruise and how he knows the terrible secret of the Psychology field and how it's a big scam. They're barbaric, he says, and still give people electroshock therapy, subscribe a near unlimited supply of drugs to kids in the ADHD epidemic scare, and prosaic to millions that only get worse. Well, if you look at the history of medicine in general, it's pretty frightening. Up until about a hundred years ago, doctors still believed in the theory of the 4 humors. These were the fluids of the body--one of which was blood. They believed that sickness was generally caused by an imbalance. Generally, this imbalance was too much of one of the humors--blood. Ironically, sick patients that would have eventually recovered on their own, were often killed by otherwise well meaning doctors trying to save them by draining out their blood. A big reason why Christian doctors knew so little about human anatomy during this period of time is because the church decreed it was immoral to cut cadavers up and study them. Really, how advance a people would we be today without religion hampering science?

If you keep in perspective the scary history of medicine in Christian culture, electroshock therapy doesn't look so bad. Psychologists are also doctors, only understanding the human brain is a lot more difficult. There's nothing to cut up and see. In time, the field of Psychology will get better. It has a lot of catching up to do. Another interesting thing about this "religion" is that it denies that medication actually helps people with mental issues. When their founder Ron H. died he had a sedative type prescription medication in his blood stream. How can you not laugh at that? A science fiction author invents a religion where, if you're sick, instead of taking medication, you give him lots of money so he can wave a magic stick over you to remove spirit aliens from your body, and he, himself is taking medication for his own anxiety issues. That's hysterical.

Anyways, I wanted to talk about more than just about science vs religion. Franz Boas established that the purpose of culture is to solve social problems that are unique to a people's environment. This perspective is incredibly useful in the understanding of culture, especially if you lump religion in with it. Religions always reflect the people and environments that create them. Like culture, religions change with environments and people, as their social needs change.

Consider Babylon. The most famous religious figure from the very ancient world from the oldest known writing ever produced by man--Gilgamesh. I think most of us read the Epic of Gilgamesh in high school. If high school was a long time for you, or you weren't so lucky to read it, the story is about a king that seeks immortality. In his search, he finds a couple that was granted immortality by the Gods because they built a giant Arc and put two of every animal inside to protect them against a giant flood. And Christians thought Noah was original? Anyway, the reason why Gilgamesh sought immortality is because the after life was a miserable existence. As I remember from my high school days, you sat around in dark caves eating clay as your bread. Why create such a dreary religion? You see, ancient Babylon(modern day Iraq) has two really big rivers flowing through it. Big rivers means water, and large amounts of water is something that was hard for large ancient armies to carry. What I'm getting at is that Babylon had a very long history of being invaded over and over.

Religious leaders wanted to create a religion where the after life was dismal, because they needed their people focused on the hard realities of this life. They needed people that would train to fight and survive against tough realities. They needed defensive walls built, vigilant citizens, etc. What they didn't want is people spending a lot of time praying instead of working or neglecting their responsibilities in this life.

Take an extreme opposite--Egypt. Egypt has certainly been conquered a few times, but they also had unusually long stretches of peace--highly unusual for the ancient world. A lot of this was due to buffer zones they had. In other words, if you want to attack ancient Egypt, you had to invade through other countries first. Egypt also had a really predictable and stable source of food. The Nile always flooded at the same time, the same way, with minerally rich and fertile silt and farmers spent thousands of years learning how to maximize food production. Even when Egypt was conquered by the Hixos, the Macedonians, Nubians, etc, their occupiers generally let the Egyptians continue on as is. Such a peaceful place(in context) had a massive fixation with a long and elaborate after life. Where Gilgamesh didn't want to die, the leaders of Egypt spent more time preparing to die than they did preparing to live.

Similar to the dreary religion of the Babylonians is that of the Jews. The Jews have had a tough history. I don't believe it's historically accurate to say the Jews were slaves in Egypt exactly(not all of them). It's probably more accurate to describe them as mercenaries for the Egyptian army. All was good and well until they decided to leave. Moses knew the landscape really well having lived in the area for years in exile. He knew which time of the year and day the tide of the Reed Sea went out enough so that he could pass a large group of his fellow Jews through, allowing them to escape. Hours later, the tide comes in, and by the time the Egyptian army catches up, the Jews are on the other side and the Sea of Reeds is too deep to cross. I know that silly Charlton Heston movie has Moses parting the Red Sea, but this is not the correct translation from the Bible. And yeah, I'm still amazed at how little Christians know about their own religion. Anyways, so the Jews spend 40 years in the desert training new recruits to conquer the lands of Kaanan to found Israel. Think of a homeless tribe of people, raising an army for 40 years. Of course, we don't really know if it's really 40 years. I forget why scholars assume that's the time, but the Bible isn't clear on that point. I would put it at a much shorter time span before I believed that Moses lived for over a hundred years.

Anyways, so Moses has got a problem. Thousands of homeless people in a desert, training for a long time to conquer what is now modern day Israel. How do you keep the people from revolting? Well, the Bible says at least once he caught some of the followers worshiping a golden calf. Moses ordered them killed as well as everyone in their family killed as an example. He creates the ten commandments. Four of the ten are all about not to doubt his religion or even consider "false gods." Clearly the "thou shalt not kill" is a throw away commandment that isn't really important. After all, he's raising an army to go kill the Kaananites and take their land. What part of "Thou shalt not kill," says "unless it's a bunch of people you don't know who you want to kill and take land from." The real meat of the ten commandments are the "you must obey me and not question me," parts.

He tells them about God being a hateful, vengeful God that hates humans for being imperfect. He implores them to be obedient and fearful and to constantly strive for perfection so that God might forgive them and allow them an after life of eternal bliss. He scares them with the idea of hell and eternal damnation.

In a twist of irony, the many years pass, the army is ready, and Moses reaches a mountain top where he can see the lands of Kaanan, the future Israel, but God does not permit him to set foot upon it. If I remember correctly, Moses offended God by striking a stone with his staff in anger. So Moses dies and David takes his place. I think it's more likely David was sick of Moses' crap, had him assassinated. The Jews had to be on the verge of revolt. That's a long time to listen to Moses about the promise land while they're sitting around in a desert training. If David did indeed assassinate Moses and tell the Jews that they were leaving the desert to go attack, he would have been massively popular. But in either case, the addition of "See? Even Moses messed up and offended God. You don't want to do the same, so you'd better obey," makes a nice touch.

Let's fast forward to about a hundred or two years after Jesus. Marcus Aurelius dies. He was the last of the great Roman Kings. He tried to make Russel Crow the next king right before he died, but Russel Crow became a Gladiator instead... ok, just seeing if anyone's still paying attention. Anyway, this was a confusing time for the Roman empire, especially for religion. Picture it. A crumbling empire. Nothing but bad leaders for the next couple centuries. Constant attacks by Germans from the north, the Huns from the east, and eventually by the Persians from the south east. The Romans were starting to lose faith in the classic Gods like Mars and Venus. They had a lot of religions to choose from. There were dozens of popular mystery cults. There was this one guy in particular. His followers believed he rose form the dead. He could turn water into wine. Of course I'm talking about Apollonius. Yeah, I know, there were a bunch of prophets at the time all claiming to be the son of God and performing miracles. Jesus certainly wasn't the first or last person whose followers believed performed the same miracles.

But the official religion of the time was for the god Sol Invictus. Sol Invictus was born on December 25th. Like Mithras, a similar God Romans believed in at the time, Sol Invictus was the god of brotherhood. I've heard a lot of conflicting information about if Mithras was also born on Dec 25th. But I think it's very interesting to know how extremely close we came to having to say "Merry Mithrasmas," every year. Try saying that out loud. It doesn't sound good at all.

A small group of Jews calling themselves Christians decided to work towards making their religion the official religion of Rome. They did two things right. One, they went to the German barbarians to the north who were constantly attacking Rome, and converted them(well, it took a long time). They also had an incredibly ingenious idea for converting the Romans. Now, clearly the Bible never mentions anywhere of any exact date that Jesus was born. In fact, most scholars point towards the Spring as the most likely general time. But the Christians decided to start telling the Romans that their God Jesus was also born on December 25th. Now why would they do that? Simple. They managed to convince followers of Sol Invictus that he and Jesus Christ were, in fact, the same person. Christianity eventually moved from being illegal, to legal, to the official religion of Rome. And to think, if Apollonius' followers had come up with the idea of claiming he was born on Dec 25th, I'd be yelling out "Apollonius, that hurt!" when I stub my toe.

The founders of Christianity did make one really big mistake. They used Judaism as not only an influence of Christianity, but as it's foundation. They really didn't have to do that. They could have easily said that Christianity was a fresh religion, with a clean slate. That Jesus was the first and only prophet of the one true God and avoided a lot of head ache. They didn't do that. I would say that the Old Testament is the number one reason that hurts the credibility of Christianity to this day.

Instead, they create a religion where God is a loving God. He accepts people for their imperfections as long as they believe in him and confess any wrong doings. Jesus is famously forgiving. At one point during Jesus' crucifixion, a criminal beside him who was a murderer and a thief confessed to Jesus right before dying and was absolved of all sin and went to heaven.

This is a very, very different God from the hateful, vengeful God of the Jews. Moses' ten commandments and The Torah / Old Testament was made for a very different time and environment. It should not have been used as the foundation of Christianity. The Old Testament and New are completely incompatible. This is a pretty serious hurdle that Christians today struggle with as they try and reconcile this impossible combination.

In either case, the Germans, now Christians, of course conquer the Roman Empire in 476 thus beginning the Dark Ages(this date is my personal opinion on what started this period)--the darkest time in European history as well as the height of Christian power. Literacy is nearly wiped out. Europeans forget their poems, stories, music, and history. Amazingly, this is also the start of the Persian Renaissance where Muslims learn European poems, stories, music, and history. Ironically, a thousand years later when the Dark Ages end and Europeans are reading and writing again, many would have to learn their own culture back from the Muslims.

It's also interesting to think about the iconic image of Jesus we see today. There's a reason why he's a pale skinned, straight haired, blued eyed German. The Germans controlled the birth place of Christianity, and spread their re-interpretation of Christianity throughout the rest of Europe.

Hmm, now that I think about it, it would be really interesting to know what other religions Europeans were practicing before they were conquered by the Germans and converted to Christianity. Possibly future research project? After all, we could have very well been doing a vast array of other possible things on Dec 25th instead had any number of events in history been slightly different. The act of putting dead trees in our home or painting eggs are, in fact, remains of other old, non Christian religions celebrating the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox.

Anyways, what exactly is the Reason for the Season? I have no idea. I do really like pie and Egg Nog though.

No comments:

Post a Comment