Myth, Science and Religion

Religion begins as science, as an attempt to make sense of the world. The birth of religion marked the dawn of humans as rational, analytical beings. This was humans moving beyond the worries of simply surviving from day to day, and reaching that point in evolution where they looked with wonder upon the world around them and asked: How did this come into existence? What is it that controls the weather and other variables? By observing the natural world around them, the cycles of day and night, the seasons, the migrations of the animals, they would have concluded that these patterns suggested a grand design and order.

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An assumption would probably be made that all this was controlled by benevolent beings, but beings who might need propitiating occasionally to keep them sweet; the odd ritual here, perhaps a sacrifice of some sort there.

And if that was so, perhaps they could be propitiated in a somewhat greater way, to grant other boons?

It would not be long before someone claimed a channel to the gods to relay their desires and instructions, and so the priestly class would be born. Self-interest? Quite likely. After all, we see that in most religions today, so why not?

Religions then, over the years, spawned new religions, the spark being reinterpretation rather than inspiration.

We think we see echoes of old religions in myths. Myths are the fragments of history we know, combined with assumptions about how our ancestors acted and thought, frequently combined with scarce written evidence, which may or may not be biased or wholly inaccurate. When our written sources include stories of monsters and miracles, we should probably be advised to treat them cautiously.

Myth-makers frequently come with an agenda, although depending upon your point of view that is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are looking for a scientific analysis of the lives of our ancestors, it’s probably best to give myth a wide berth. Or at least to be very, very, careful what you take from it. But in a way, it does provide an alternative world view that many find preferable to both the stark realities of day to day life, as well as the cold dead hand of religion. After all, if you’re using your imagination, it’s easy to plan your myth-world much the way you’d like it.

And perhaps myth does offer us a way of getting inside the heads of those people, at least superficially.

One assumption we can make is that there would be similarities in the thought processes of those people, with the thought processes of us today. It is perfectly reasonable to assume they would react in similar ways to us, to pain and fear, to pleasure, warmth and cold. Our reaction to the unknown tends to be to populate it with characters or situations based on our experiences, and they probably did the same.

Stonehenge is aligned with the solar calendar. This we know. It’s science. And we know a considerable amount about the geography of the area around Stonehenge at the time it was built, through archaeology and science.

What we don’t know is how it was used. Just because it was aligned with the rising sun at summer solstice and the setting sun at winter solstice, does not mean we know what took place at those times. We assume our ancestors worshipped or venerated the sun there, especially at the time of the solstices, but we do not know that. Were there sacrifices? Did they hold special ceremonies connected with fertility or birth or death? Was it perhaps just like a club where they turned up now and again and got drunk and held orgies? It could be, since there is no hard evidence for anything.

Believers in ley lines also claim it is at the centre of an intricate system of lines connecting natural (‘holy’) locations with important (‘holy’) sites such as churches, wells and crossroads. Pseudoscience? Coincidence?

Our assumptions, though, lead us to think that because of the immense effort required to build the structure, it must have been an incredibly important site, and we are surely justified in concluding important ceremonies were enacted there.

Whatever they were.

International Women’s Day

Today, on International Women’s Day, it seems appropriate to re-post this piece I put up several years ago. It seems that nothing has changed.

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It would be impossible to document all of the humiliations, injustices and degradations that women throughout the centuries have had to put up with in almost every part of the world. That they should continue to do so, even in the 21st century, is an absolute disgrace. The way the Taliban treat and regard women is well documented and needs little further comment. They routinely deny women education, healthcare or any freedoms. They can be bought and sold and married against their will. They have no legal rights. They can be killed with impunity. It is difficult to imagine how a society in which women are actually treated worse could ever be constructed.

However, the so-called Islamic State go one step further than this, and are happy to buy and sell captured women in slave markets as sex slaves, surely the ultimate degradation.

Yet, over a huge part of the globe, women are subject to treatment little better than this, and there is probably no country where they can be said to be genuinely equal to men. Certainly in the west, we like to think of ourselves as modern, liberal, forward looking and fair, so how can it be that such a situation still exists?

There are three basic reasons why men have always been able to regard and treat women as inferiors:

1) They have controlled and governed communities and societies through their greater physical strength. This, in turn, has led to their creation and codifying of the rules surrounding and governing these societies, and, in turn, the creation of their religious books that gave an even greater authority for the subjugation of women. This strength also effectively prevents any ‘rebellion’ by women.

2) Men’s stronger sexual urges. This (the ‘testosterone effect’ in male teenagers, for example), coupled with their greater strength, has allowed men to both physically dominate women and also to subject them to almost constant pregnancy and motherhood.

3) Women bear children. Neither pregnancy nor motherhood are helpful in resisting men’s dominance.

In the west, centuries of brainwashing have led to a situation where, although women no longer daily face a physically perilous existence, inequality lives on in other, often demeaning, ways. Although no longer in danger of being burnt as witches, being sold into servitude or (generally) forced into marriage, they are still way behind men when it comes to the labour market. It is comparatively recently that they have been allowed to train as front line troops in the army or join the clergy in the Church of England, and still encounter stiff resistance if they wish to do so. The Catholic Church still forbids them to hold any post and so we see an exodus of many ‘traditional’ members of the Church of England to the Catholic fold, which has enterprisingly created a ‘special’ niche for those who cannot bear to see women treated as equals.

There are still comparatively few women in high-powered jobs, and those who are still struggle to earn pay similar to a man in a comparable job. Interestingly, the reason often given for that is that ‘market forces’ dictate these pay scales. This is, naturally, a male-dominated market. Women are vastly over-represented, however, in low-paid and part time jobs.

Centuries of brainwashing have also trained them for a role as mannequins, or Barbie dolls; putting on make-up is essential before they go to work, attend meetings, go on a date or almost anything else. Their natural selves are not fit to show men. And if there is anyone who might be in any doubt about this, they need only take a glance at the blizzard of adverts on television or in magazines. And high heels are the obvious descendants of oriental foot-binding; a painful, dangerous and degrading practice designed solely to appeal to men and make running away impossible. I do not understand why any woman still falls for it. And those magazines; the ones aimed at women still manage to create the impression that life is all about make-up and home-making.

In many other parts of the world, though, life as a woman is not only demeaning but can still be ‘nasty, brutish and short’. One of the most common ways to control women, is to deny them the right to work. This might be justified as being degrading for the woman and her husband, or that she must be kept away from other men (because she will ‘stray’), or that she needs to be at home to raise children. This effectively means that she is then working full-time at home, but obviously without any financial reward or freedom. Along with refusing females education, this is another way to force them to remain at home in a state of virtual slavery. Commonly, they will have to work on any land that the family have – weeding and planting, looking after animals, etc – yet will be denied the chance to earn a wage.

This segregation is invariably justified on the grounds that women are sexually provocative and evil. They are temptresses that must be kept away from the eyes of all men except the husband. Hence they are dressed from head to toe in all-enveloping clothing, they are not allowed to speak to any males except close relatives, they are locked up in Zenana – women’s quarters, where they have to peer out at the world through heavily carved screens, whilst men are free to go around at will. Even in more humble dwellings, they are largely confined to the house, having to hide when male visitors come. Hence they cannot go out and work within the society. And this attitude, that women are naturally evil, tempting men against their will, is reflected in the punishments that many societies mete out to those that break their taboos.

The most extreme example is that where, in one or two societies, if a man is accused of rape, the woman is commonly held to be culpable since she must have tempted the man concerned, otherwise the incident would not have happened. The woman then is sometimes executed, although being the victim, whilst the perpetrator is either set free or given a minimal sentence. Rape, also, is frequently used in war situations to ‘control’ a population. Another medieval survival is the practice of confining women to their quarters during menstruation, on the grounds that they are ‘unclean’. Although the ‘punishment’ is not particularly onerous, the insult is that it further demeans women for simply being women. And then, while it tends to be perfectly permissible for men to walk around with bare arms and head, and frequently torso and legs, women that do not cover up from head to foot will feel the full rigour of society’s displeasure – usually physical punishments such as lashing or incarceration.

Suttee – who would still believe that the practice still exists? Yet there have been cases comparatively recently of women being forced onto the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands, possibly due more to the family not wanting an inconvenient daughter in law in the house, than to any religious urges. There are also still cases of bride murders, when the dowry has not been up to the expectations of the groom’s family. That the dowry system still exists at all is an insult; the bride’s family having to pay the groom’s family for taking an ‘unproductive’ woman into the household.

Then there is the lack of healthcare, education or voting rights, the forced marriages, the child brides purchased by the old men, the genital mutilation, the sexual trafficking…the list seems depressingly endless. 1975 was designated International Women’s Year by the United Nations – 44 years ago. Not much seems to have changed since then.

Why?

I swear we are becoming more and more intolerant at the moment. Not just in this country, but in many countries right across the globe.

I’m not going to single any one person or society out – no, not even He Who Shall Remain Nameless – but it feels at times as though we are surrounded by hatred and bigotry.

And so, in despair…

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Why?

 

Why?

Because a woman’s place is in the home

That’s what God created her for.

Men are in charge.

 

Why?

Because this is our country

And we don’t want no people of colour here

Go back to your own place.

 

Why?

Because it’s not our fault your country’s a hole.

It was okay when we gave it back.

Bugger off home.

 

Why?

Because we didn’t have any of this climate change nonsense

When we were children.

Load of old bullshit.

 

Why?

Because this is a Christian country,

Even if we never go to church,

Or practise what it says.

 

Why?

Just because!

We don’t need to justify it.

And we don’t need no liberal lefties interfering,

Either.

 

That’s why.

Wood Carving

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I’ve shared this picture of one of my wood carvings before, but never with any detail. But now I’ve shoved it into my online shop, I thought I’d say a little about it.

My piece is 13 inches tall by 7 inches wide, and just under an inch deep. I carved it out of oak and it took me about a week to do.

It’s a copy of a Fourteenth Century French carving of a crucifixion scene in ivory, that would have been intended for use in a private shrine.

I’m not a religious person, but I do enjoy looking at some of the wonderful carvings that were produced, especially in later Medieval times, for use in churches. In fact, virtually all art in the western World at that time was probably intended for religious use. Even that which ended up in private hands – i.e. Royalty or others of the ruling classes – almost invariably depicted religious subjects.

My shop can be found here.

Review – The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

 

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Late in the year 1327 Brother William of Baskerville, a Franciscan monk, and Adso, a Benedictine novice, arrive at a monastery in Northern Italy. Winter is rapidly approaching, and so is both a legation led by a notorious inquisitor and another that contains that inquisitor’s implacable enemies. William is to speak in intercession between them.

But once they arrive at the monastery, a series of brutal murders begins, and, at the request of the Abbot, William and Adso are drawn into the investigation.

Every detective story needs a detective, and in The Name of the Rose it is William of Baskerville, who indeed uses logic and observation to make deductions, much like a medieval Sherlock Holmes.

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As the plot develops, there are long theological debates centred around both the poverty of Christ and the question of whether Christ laughed. Questions I have little knowledge of, but which read as authentic to me. But these debates are central to the plot. On the interpretation of Christ’s poverty alone, men and women are accused of heresy and burnt at the stake.

But everything is centred upon the monastery’s library. This library is the greatest library of its time in Europe, containing innumerable rare, important and beautiful volumes. At the centre of the story lies a mysterious and forbidden book, and this book lies at the centre of the labyrinthine library where only the Librarian and his assistant are permitted. But are the murders being committed to get hold of this book or is there another reason? Could they, in fact, be connected with the predictions in the Book of Revelations?

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This is such a well-known book that I found I forgot it was a translation from the original I was reading. Much like the Bible, of course, which point is salient to the monks, and certainly in medieval times this interpretation was a matter of life or death to thousands.

But the translation of  prose does not pose the same problems as the translation of verse, and I don’t suppose the English translation is any different from the Italian original. But the potentials made me smile

As a long book, it provides a canvas for long descriptions, both of the abbey and the associated buildings – essentially a castle – and of the long debates between the monks and the other players. At times there is undoubtedly a temptation to skip some of these, but the reader is adequately rewarded for persevering in that the descriptions paint a powerful picture of the place and time, while the debates tell much about the importance of religion and the ridiculous interpretations of every word of the Bible that quite literally governed the lives and deaths of everyone at that time.

A word about the pace of the book, though. Some readers may find it a little slow (although if those readers skip the debates and longer descriptions it is as fast-paced as any other), but remember it is not just a detective story, it is also a historical novel and moves at the pace one would expect of a book of that genre.

I read this a very long time ago, and although I remember it as having been a very good book, I had forgotten just how good. I will unhesitatingly give it five stars.

And the meaning behind the title? Well, you need to wait until the end to find out, and then you need to understand Latin…

Going Green

On the morning of the 26th August, 2019, every single person on earth woke up to find that their skin had turned green.

For a few hours, there were an awful lot of people trying to find a way to change it back again, to try to dye it, rub the colour off, swallow lots of strange potions, try magic spells, see doctors, priests, scientists, mystics, druids, and all sorts of other experts and so-called experts, all of whom claimed they could cure the problem.

But all of whom had green skin as well, so they didn’t come across as very convincing.

Finally, someone thought to bellow up to God ‘Oi, God! What on earth have you done?’

There was a rumble of ethereal chuckling, and then God replied: ‘I am just so totally pissed off, like, with your saying how some of you are better than the others, like, just because of the colour of the skin I gave you. It’s all pretty random, after all. So now you’re all the same, and you might as well just stop it.’

‘Yeah…but…green?’

‘Yes, green. If I make you all white, then the ones that were already white will make out that was because they were superior in the first place. Same with all the other skin colours. So…green. None of you were green before.’

‘But…’

‘Plus,’ and here God gave a little Godly snigger, ‘you all equate green skin with aliens. So now you’re all aliens. And, even if I say so myself, that’s a good one.’

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Nothing’s ever simple, though, is it? Within a couple of weeks, once everyone had realised there was no mileage in everyone claiming to be a Green Supremacist, all the major religions started working overtime to fire up extra feuds and wars and to persecute anyone within reach who thought differently to the ways they did, anyone they considered heretical, those who some thought might be a slightly different shade of green, or cut their sandwiches in a non-prescribed way.

And then the sound of the loudest ever irritated sigh filled the skies and echoed around every valley and mountain and city on earth. It rumbled across the plains and seas and everyone stopped what they were doing and muttered ‘Oh, crikey. Now what?’

And God roared out ‘I thought I was angry before, but now I’m really pissed off! What on earth makes you think you can speak for me? This is all, quite frankly, rather insulting! I made this lovely planet, and put you on it so you could enjoy it and look after it and be nice to each other! How dare you presume to say that I hate people who you disagree with? How dare you say you have authority to kill in my name? And, while you’re at it, you can stop all the servile bowing and scraping, too. I mean, what sort of an image do you have of me?

‘Oh, and I almost forgot (‘cos I’ve got a lot of gripes with you lot!). Men are not superior to women in any way whatsoever. So you men can stop paying them less, treating them differently, forcing them to hide themselves, denying them education, declaring them inferior or evil, or discriminating against them in any other way at all, or else I’m jolly well going to visit a few plagues on you that will really make your blood run cold!

‘Now, start to look after my bloody planet, treat women with respect, and stop trying to find more cowardly ways to exterminate anyone you think different to yourselves!’

Blimey. Better do as She says.

A Short Letter

To all the priests, doctors, teachers, politicians, atheists, faith healers, snake oil salesmen, dictators, rebels and rabble rousers who think they have the right to tell people what to think or to believe or to not believe: You Do Not.

To all those who think they have the right to tell a woman what she can or cannot do with her body: You Do Not.

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To all those men who think they have more rights than women: You Do Not.

To all those who think they have more rights than others of a different race or caste or religion: You Do Not.

To all those who think they have the right to tell people that they cannot change their mind about what they believe: You Do Not.

None of you.

No matter what you believe yourselves.

It’s really very simple.

The Great Sandwich Schism

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, God created the world. And he looked upon the world and said ‘Well, so far so good’.

And the world was full of beautiful things and good things and a great bounty of useful things that humans would later ransack and destroy in the name of greed, although that is a story for another day.

But when the people whom God had created looked upon his great works, they said unto Him ‘How might we thank you, oh God? How might we show our gratitude for your benevolence?’

And God replied ‘Oh, I don’t know. I really wish you wouldn’t bother. But if you must, just make me a sandwich, or something. I’m feeling a bit peckish after all that creating.’

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And so the people made haste to slice bread and find Good Things to become a tasty and delicious filling for the sandwich they had made for their God. And there arose minor disputes such as whether ham and cheese really went together in a sandwich, or whether mayonnaise actually counted as food, but the people settled their quarrel in an amicable fashion and so the sandwich was created and placed upon a golden plate that was decorated with the names of angels and archangels, and set about with small mountains of salad and just a little dash of mustard in case God should fancy some.

And then one among them rose up and said ‘Wait, for we must cut this sandwich before we present it to our God, unless it be a bit too large for him to handle and he drop pieces of cheese from the sides or drip mayonnaise in his holy lap.’

And all at once there arose discord, for some were found who would cut the sandwich in a diagonal fashion, and yet others who declared that would be an affront to His holiness and that the only Right Way would be to cut the sandwich into equal rectangles.

And lo, the factions took up weapons and fought, yea, even in the Holy Kitchen, and they did massacre one another and each declared that the other faction was a worshipper of Satan, who was completely bemused by all this, since he had no followers (not even on Facebook), and they did create rival churches and rival nations and declared undying enmity against each other, spending the next few thousand years thinking up new and more imaginative ways to hate and kill and destroy each other.

And God groaned and held his head in his hands and said ‘Oh verily, what a cock-up this has become. I think I shall destroy the lot of them.’

Wow, What a Book #3, #4, #whatever

Well, Saturday already. Seems only yesterday it was Friday *sigh* I suppose I’d better get on with it.

I don’t think I’ll do ten of these after all, because I rather run the risk of listing books just because I like them, rather than because they have had a real and measurable influence on me. So today I present the final three.

1. Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson.

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I read this book when I was in my mid twenties, and it really did open my eyes to what we as a species were doing to the planet. Up until that point, I had not really understood the impact that we were having on the environment. Shocked, I became interested in learning more, and then even more shocked as I learned what food and drink manufacturers put in their products for us to consume. At that time, one of them was the nasty compound dropped by the Americans on Vietnam during the Vietnamese War; a defoliant that was known to be carcinogenic.

It was used as orange food colouring.

I got hold of a list of all the ‘E’ numbers that were permitted additives, and which the industry certainly didn’t want us to know about. Certain ones were very nasty indeed. It was at this point that I became very keen on reading the labels on food and drink packaging.

I became involved with various pressure groups, such as Greenpeace.

That book changed my life.

2. The Razor’s Edge by W Somerset Maugham.

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In some ways, this could lay claim to be the book that has had the greatest influence on my adult life, but in a different way to Silent Spring.

I’d always tried to be a reasonably decent human being, but reading this made me rethink the way that I wanted my life to be. It is the story of a man who returns from the first world war and begins to question his place in society. He finds the trappings of modern western life, and its values, empty and meaningless – its focus on making money, selfishness and greed. He then searches for something meaningful in his own life, through education, religion and travel, and explores his relationships to others.

The message in this book immediately resonated with me; that there is much more to life than the pursuit of money, essential though some of it it might be to my survival. Other people mattered. Helping others was important. What is called the spiritual life, whether or not you believe in a god or not, was an important part of us all.

5. The War of the Worlds by H G Wells.

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Are you serious? you ask. How could this book be an influence on your life? One of the first science fiction books, and admirable for that, but an influence?

Well, it is easily told, and the answer will probably surprise you. This book provided the initial impetus for me to become a vegetarian.

Yes, a vegetarian. There is a passage in the book where the narrator recoils with disgust as the Martians take the blood from still-living humans for their nutrition, but then comments that it was probably the same reaction as an intelligent rabbit would feel observing our own eating habits. That made me consider whether it was necessary for me to eat meat, and I came to the conclusion that no, it was not.