Posts Tagged ‘God’

Atheism

Even as someone convinced of god’s existence, I understand this challenge, I really do. I would simply insert “Agnostic” instead of “Atheist”. What do you think?

As one does, I got involved in a bruising little debate between “Lili”  and “Mike” on Facebook today.

Lili, a feisty and opinionated mid-teens schoolgirl was being taken to task by Mike for posting one of those silly greetings cards that pop up all over the Net.

This one had a 1950s family of Dad, Mom and two kids leaving an old-style church with the headline: “Well, that was a bunch of bullshit.”

She repeatedly challenged Mike to “prove” God’s existence. Mike repeatedly ignored her. This was my response: I’d be interested to know what you think.

“I think, respectfully, Mike, that you are not providing answers to Lili’s challenge. Because the only possible answer to “Prove to me that God exists” is surely “I can’t.”

But not because, in my considered opinion, that he/she/it doesn’t exist.

But rather because if we could prove God exists then there would be no point in faith, and faith is what makes life meaningful. Jesus makes this point himself with the Doubting Thomas episode … it is one of the most significant passages in the Bible.

Lili, I applaud your scepticism. I would simply suggest you keep an open mind, not a closed one. To me, as a believer, the appropriate response for someone who is not convinced that God exists is agnosticism, not atheism. Atheism is a very hard row to plough. It means you have to dismiss the vast literature and experience of God throughout human history.

Please note, I say God, not religion.

Plenty of skeptical, liberal people, plenty of scientists, for example, in all different cultures around the world, nevertheless report having experienced something so other-worldly as to be both beyond coincidence and inexplicable.

To be an atheist is to accuse ALL those people, every single one, of being either deluded or stupid. Big call.

I believe that no one ever reaches a knowledge of God through study, or even through the remonstrations of others. Jesus said “I stand at the door knocking, if you open it, I will come in.”

agnostic-cemetaryIt is my life experience that many people answer that challenge at some stage of their life, and become, through it, convinced that God exists.

Not that they understand “It”, or that, even, they are particularly comforted by the experience.

Simply that they experience something they cannot otherwise explain.

I would therefore urge you, simply, to leave enough of the door ajar to consider that all those people are not idiots.

Agnostic I can definitely understand. Atheist? That seems much more problematical for me.

Oh, and by the way? I think God enjoys your questioning, and your intelligence, and your compassion. Go for it.”

Does my argument have any value? I’d like to know what you think. If you disagree with me please be as blunt as you like, but keep it nice :-)

Image

I am often to be heard murmuring, and more than usual round about this time of year, that wonderful phrase “first world problem”.

“The oven doesn’t cook fast enough.” Well, no it doesn’t, but it does just come on at the turn of a switch, and you don’t have to gather wood before you can eat every day.

“The supermarket is out of my favourite bread.” Yes, but there are 47 other types of loaves within an arm’s reach.

“God, there’s nothing on the TV.” True, but you also have your laptop, the internet, your playstation, musical instruments, hobbies, or you can even go for a walk without someone sniping at you from a nearby rooftop. As you stroll down the street, if you’re lucky, people will actually smile at you. They may even say “Good evening.”

And most of all. “I can’t think of anything to give so-and-so this year.” Well, turn on the tap then, and give them a glass of water. Clean, pure, uninfected water. Then give a gift of clean water tor someone who needs it, on behalf of your friend or family member.

I don’t consider myself an especially holy or even particularly good human being. Like most people, I have my good bits and bad bits. I can be as thoughtless and as selfish as the next person. And while I always try to find a few bob for those less well off than myself, I know I can and should always do more. And every year, round about this time, I hear my old Mum saying “Count your blessings, Son”.

She came from another era, to be sure. An era when there wasn’t enough medicine or doctors, when children died of vitamin deficiencies in “advanced” countries, countries that were periodically locked in titanic death struggles with the forces of evil, when food was hard to come by, when fuel was in short supply, when tens of millions of workers were unemployed and it seemed like no-one cared. As she turned out Depression-era meals onto the dining table long after the need to be so careful with our pennies had passed, she quietly inculcated in me a profound respect for what we have, instead of an envy for what we don’t. What that woman could do with a chicken that was years past the moment it should have been popped in an oven was a small miracle.

So as you struggle with your first world problems this Christmas, please, give what you can to those with nothing. This is how I do it. It’s even fun, too. Who said doing good has to be boring? Not the ‘Beests.

http://www.generositymag.com.au/meet-the-wildebeests/

(This is why you cant get any sense out of me after noon on the first Friday of every month. Well, you can try … new ‘Beests always welcome. Spread the conspiracy.)

A fresco depicting Guru Nanak

A fresco depicting Guru Nanak

Today, President Obama tweeted that he hoped Sikhs would have a happy time celebrating the birth of their religion’s founder, Guru Nanak.

Over here at the impeccably Christian Wellthisiswhatithink chapel, it reminded us that we don’t have a clue what the Sikh religion is all about, apart from their very groovy turbans which we have always sneakily been rather jealous about, so we wandered over to Wikipedia to have a look. What we read there was fascinating, so we decided to share. A little understanding goes a long way, we think, in reducing world tensions. Or just tensions in one’s own street.

Guru Nanak  pronunciation (Punjabi: ਗੁਰੂ ਨਾਨਕ; Hindi: गुरु नानक,Urdu: گرونانک, [ˈɡʊɾu ˈnɑnək] Gurū Nānak) (15 April 1469 – 22 September 1539) was the founder of the religion of Sikhism and is the first of the ten Sikh Gurus, the eleventh guru being the living Guru, Guru Granth Sahib. His birth is celebrated world-wide on Kartik Puranmashi, the full-moon day which falls on different dates each year in the month of Katak, October–November.

Guru Nanak travelled far and wide teaching people the message of one God who dwells in every one of God’s creations and constitutes the eternal Truth. He setup a unique spiritual, social, and political platform based on equality, fraternity love, goodness, and virtue.

It is part of Sikh religious belief that the spirit of Guru Nanak’s sanctity, divinity and religious authority descended upon each of the nine subsequent Gurus when the Guruship was devolved on to them

 Family and early life

Nanak was born on 15 April 1469, now celebrated as Guru Nanak Gurpurab, at Rāi Bhoi Kī Talvaṇḍī, now called Nankana Sahib, near Lahore, in present day Pakistan.

Today, his birthplace is marked by Gurdwara Janam Asthan. His parents were Kalyan Chand Das Bedi, popularly shortened to Mehta Kalu, and Mata Tripta. His father was a patwari (accountant) for crop revenue in the village of Talwandi, employed by a Muslim landlord of that area, Rai Bular Bhatti.

He had one sister, Bibi Nanaki, who was five years older than him and became a spiritual figure in her own right. In 1475 she married Jai Ram and went to his town of Sultanpur, where he was the steward (modi) to Daulat Khan Lodi, the eventual governor of Lahore during the Afghan Lodhi dynasty.

Nanak was attached to his older sister, and, in traditional Indian fashion, he followed her to Sultanpur to live with her and her husband. Nanak also found work with Daulat Khan, when he was around 16 years old. This was a formative time for Nanak, as the Puratan (traditional) Janam Sakhi suggests, and in his numerous allusions to governmental structure in his hymns, most likely gained at this time.

Commentaries on his life give details of his blossoming awareness from a young age. At the age of five, Nanak is said to have voiced interest in divine subjects. At age seven, his father enrolled him at the village school as was the custom. Notable lore recounts that as a child Nanak astonished his teacher by describing the implicit symbolism of the first letter of the alphabet, which is an almost straight stroke in Persian or Arabic, resembling the mathematical version of one, as denoting the unity or oneness of God. Other childhood accounts refer to strange and miraculous events about Nanak, such as one witnessed by Rai Bular, in which the sleeping child’s head was shaded from the harsh sunlight, in one account, by the stationary shadow of a tree or, in another, by a poisonous cobra.

On 24 September 1487 Nanak married Mata Sulakkhani, daughter of Mūl Chand and Chando Rāṇī, in the town of Batala. The couple had two sons, Sri Chand (8 September 1494 – 13 January 1629) and Lakhmi Chand (12 February 1497 – 9 April 1555).

Biographies

The earliest biographical sources on Nanak’s life recognised today are the Janamsākhīs (life accounts) and the vārs (expounding verses) of the scribe Bhai Gurdas. The most popular Janamsākhī were allegedly written by a close companion of the Guru, Bhai Bala. However, the writing style and language employed have left scholars, such as Max Arthur Macauliffe, certain that they were composed after his death.

Gurdas, a purported scribe of the Gurū Granth Sahib, also wrote about Nanak’s life in his vārs. Although these too were compiled some time after Nanak’s time, they are less detailed than the Janamsākhīs. The Janamsākhīs recount in minute detail the circumstances of the birth of the guru.

Sikhism

Rai Bular, the local landlord and Nanak’s sister Bibi Nanaki were the first people who recognised divine qualities in the boy.

Happy Gurpurab

Happy Gurpurab

They encouraged and supported him to study and travel. Sikh tradition states that at around 1499, at the age of 30, he had a vision.

After he failed to return from his ablutions, his clothes were found on the bank of a local stream called the Kali Bein.

The townspeople assumed he had drowned in the river; Daulat Khan had the river dragged, but no body was found.

Three days after disappearing, Nanak reappeared, staying silent. The next day, he spoke to pronounce:

“There is neither Hindu nor Mussulman (Muslim) so whose path shall I follow? I shall follow God’s path. God is neither Hindu nor Mussulman and the path which I follow is God’s.”

Nanak said that he had been taken to God’s court. There, he was offered a cup filled with amrita (nectar) and given the command,

“This is the cup of the adoration of God’s name. Drink it. I am with you. I bless you and raise you up. Whoever remembers you will enjoy my favour. Go, rejoice of my name and teach others to do so. I have bestowed the gift of my name upon you. Let this be your calling.”

From this point onwards, Nanak is described in accounts as a Guru, and Sikhism was born.

Teachings

Guru Nanak’s teachings can be found in the Sikh scripture Guru Granth Sahib, as a vast collection of revelatory verses.

From these some common principles seem discernible. Firstly a supreme Godhead who although incomprehensible, manifests in all major religions, the Singular “Doer” and formless. It is described as the indestructible (undying) form.

Nanak describes the dangers of egotism (haumai- “I am”) and calls upon devotees to engage in worship through the word of God – Naam – which implies God, the Reality, mystical word or formula to recite or meditate upon (shabad in Gurbani), divine order (hukam) as well as listening to the words of gurus and to engage in the singing of God’s qualities, discarding doubt in the process. However, such worship must be selfless (sewa).

The word of God cleanses the individual to make such worship possible. This is related to the revelation that God is the Doer and without God there is no other. Nanak warned against hypocrisy and falsehood saying that these are pervasive in humanity and that religious actions can also be in vain. It may also be said that ascetic practices are not favoured by Nanak, who suggests remaining inwardly detached whilst living as a householder.

Through popular tradition, Nanak’s teaching is understood to be practised in three ways:

  • Vaṇḍ Chakkō: Sharing with others, helping those with less who are in need
  • Kirat Karō: Earning/making a living honestly, without exploitation or fraud
  • Naam Japna: Meditating on God’s name to control your five evils to eliminate suffering and live a happy life.

Nanak put the greatest emphasis on the worship of the Word of God (Naam Japna). One should follow the direction of awakened individuals (Gurmukh or God-willed) rather than the mind (state of Manmukh – being led by self will) – the latter being perilous and leading only to frustration.

Guru Nanak’s Divine Journeys

Although the exact account of his itinerary is disputed, he is widely acknowledged to have made four major journeys, spanning thousands of kilometres, the first tour being east towards Bengal and Assam, the second south towards Sri Lanka, the third north towards Kashmir, Ladakh, and Tibet, and the final tour west towards Baghdad, Mecca and Medina on the Arabian Peninsula.

Nanak was moved by the plight of the people of world and wanted to tell them about the “real message of God”. The people of the world were confused by the conflicting message given by priests, pundits, qazis, mullahs, etc. He was determined to bring his message to the masses; so in 1499, he decided to set out on his sacred mission to spread the holy message of peace and compassion to all of mankind.

Most of his journeys were made on foot with his companion Bhai Mardana, a minstrel. He travelled in all four directions – North, East, West and South. He is believed to have travelled more than 28,000 km in five major tours of the world during the period from 1499 to 1524.

Nanak saw the world suffering out of hatred, fanaticism, falsehood and hypocrisy. The world had sunk into wickedness and sin. So he decided that he had to travel and educate people, pressing home the message of Almighty Lord. So he set out on his mission for the regeneration of humanity on this earth. He carried the torch of truth, heavenly love, peace and joy for mankind.

He visited various centers of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jainis, Sufis, Yogis and Sidhas. He met people of different religions, tribes, cultures and races.

His travels are called Udasis. In his first Udasi, Nanak covered east of India and returned home after spending about 6 years. He started from Sultanpur in 1499 and went to his village Talwandi to meet and inform his parents about his long journey. His parents wanted their young son to provide comfort and protection for them in their old age and so they told him they would prefer it if he did not go. But he told them that the world was burning in the fire of Kalyug and that thousands and thousands were waiting for the Divine message of the Almighty for comfort, love and salvation. The Guru, therefore, told his parents, “There is a call from Heaven, I must go whither He directs me to go.” Upon hearing these words, his parents agreed and gave their blessings. So Nanak started his mission.

The five journeys

Below is a brief summary of the confirmed places visited by Nanak:

  • First Udasi: (1499-1506 AD) Lasted about 7 years and covered the following towns and regions: Sultanpur, Tulamba (modern Makhdumpur, zila Multan), Panipat, Delhi, Banaras (Varanasi), Nanakmata (zila Nainital, Uttranchal), Tanda Vanjara (zila Rampur), Kamrup (Assam), Asa Desh (Assam), Saidpur (modern Eminabad, Pakistan), Pasrur (Pakistan), Sialkot (Pakistan).
  • Second Udasi: (1506-1513 AD) Lasted about 7 years and covered the Dhanasri Valley and Sangladip (Ceylon).
  • Third Udasi: (1514-1518 AD) Lasted about 5 years and covered Kashmir, Sumer Parbat, Nepal, Tashkand, Sikkim, Tibet.
  • Fourth Udasi: (1519-1521 AD) Lasted about 3 years and covered Mecca and the Arab countries.
  • Fifth Udasi: (1523-1524 AD) Lasted about 2 years and covered places within the Punjab.

Nanak appointed Bhai Lehna as the successor Guru, renaming him as Guru Angad, meaning “one’s very own” or “part of you”. Shortly after proclaiming Bhai Lehna as his successor, Guru Nanak died on 22 September 1539 in Kartarpur, at the age of 70.

So there ya go, everything you ever wanted to know about Guru Nanak, but were afraid to ask!

What is goodness, for you? Focus on that.

What is goodness, for you? Well: focus on that.

Well, now and again, those internet homilies are gold: this one really struck me as both true, and helpful.

I know people generally read my blog for wacky news, hard news, poetry and politics – and not for philosophising – but I really liked this – it talked to me – so just this once, indulge me, eh?

Let goodness flow

The past is over, so let yourself be at peace with it.
Free your energy to be used in making the most of right now.

The future has not yet been determined, so don’t waste your
thoughts worrying about what might or might not happen. Fill
your heart and your thoughts with sincere gratitude, and tap
into the enormous abundance of this day.

Move quickly beyond regret, resentment and anger. Choose instead to
point the power of your feelings in positive, life-enriching directions.

The quality of your life and the welfare of your world
depend on the direction in which your awareness is focused.
So make it your choice to focus on the most positive and
meaningful possibilities.

What you hold in your heart has a significant influence on
what you experience in your life. Open yourself to love,
peace, beauty, truth and caring, and let them continually
fill you.

Let life’s goodness flow in, and then let it flow out from
you with your own special goodness added to it. Feel the
goodness, live the goodness, and make more of it
with each passing day.

I love that image of life’s goodness flowing in, to which we add a dash of our own goodness, and then let it flow out again. Like the ebb and flow of waves on the beach that is our life.

Sometimes, when things are very dark, or frightening, it can be almost impossible to perceive those waves of goodness breaking on our shore, or to find the spark of goodness inside us to pass on to others.

Let goodness wash over you ...

Let goodness wash over you …

Yet the goodness is always there – it exists just beyond the borders of what we are thinking about when we are down, waiting to be discovered, longing for us to notice its existence, and for us to add our own unique essence to it.

We overwhelm it with our worries, and we shut it out with our fears. But I have never met a person in my entire life who did not have goodness in them, somewhere. Even people who were deeply depressed or lost.

And universally, I have seen that when we open our hearts and minds to the possibility of goodness, it manifests itself, as sure as day follows night.

I do not say this in a religious way, although I know many people will interpret it religiously. Whether you personally call it God, the Universe, Life, a meeting of a universal mind, the connectivity inherent in our humanity, or just happy coincidence, when we make ourselves available to the goodness, no matter how difficult or overwhelming it appears our life is at that moment, then the goodness seems to somehow enter us and lift us.

I also love that phrase: “Move quickly beyond regret, resentment and anger.”

“Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention” as Paul Anka wrote in the most recorded song in history. (There must be a reason for that, right? It must, if you will forgive the pun, “hit a chord.”)

If we do something truly terrible with our lives then some remorse is healthy, of course, if only to square the situation with others, or to set ourselves on a better course with our future actions.

But see what the writer of this homily says. “Move quickly beyond.”

Endless dwelling on the mistakes of the past pushes the goodness away, and makes it impossible to share our own.

Similarly, anger is a deeply destructive emotion which might be useful in very limited circumstances, (as part of a fight or flight response, for example), but when it dominates our thinking it is as destructive of ourselves as it is of anyone else.

Ask yourself: how often are we actually hating ourselves when we are arguing bitterly with someone, when all we really want is to reconnect with them, and have them connect with us?

And resentment? Resentment has to be the emotion most obviously associated either with failing to resolve an issue, or of hanging onto an issue when it is supposed to have been resolved, as some perverse form of self punishment. In either case, it is self-destructive to the nth degree: it has no effect on what or who we resent, it merely hurts ourselves.

None of us gets these things right all the time, or even, very often. But experts – whether they be psychological or spiritual – agree that all of us can “do better”. I firmly believed we are wired to do so.

So once again: “The past is over, so let yourself be at peace with it.  Free your energy to be used in making the most of right now.”

Make the most of right now, hmmm? Time for a swim in the sunshine, I think …

Surrounded by blackness on all sides, in utter impenetrable silence, and for a very, very, very long time, it did nothing.

There was nothing to see, so it did not see. Nothing to hear, so it did not hear. Nothing to feel, so it did not feel.

There were simply vast, unconscionable amounts of entirely nothing.

So – most importantly for our story – it thought nothing, either. With no external stimuli to provoke it, it simply did not concern itself with anything; it merely peacefully existed.

And incredible as it might seem in light of what happened later, for some handfuls of millions of years it did not even notice itself.

Then, during one instant which it would remember – well, forever, actually – a small, shiny proton appeared momentarily.

Over there. In what it would later come to know as “left”. And also “down a bit”.

Later – much, much later – it would come to understand that the lonely proton had flared into being for a few hundredths of a second as the result of a random and unpredictable thermo-dynamic fluctuation in the void in which it itself floated.

Like the last dying ripple of a stone cast into a pond uncountably many leagues away, space and time had broken upon the shores of its awareness in the form of one of the smallest building blocks of the Universe. And then it had immediately ceased, for with nothing around it to cling to the proton instantly had broken down into its components and they had dissipated into the nothingness almost too quickly to be observed.

Except the brief, evanescent burst of the proton was seen by the being – which, without even realizing it was doing it, had been peacefully observing nothing, and everything, with absolute and immediate accuracy.  And that was why, despite its apparent slumber, it could not miss the arrival, and near-simultaneous departure, of the pretty little particle.

The glittering sub-atomic appearance, brief and unthreatening though it was, nevertheless troubled it greatly.

Contradictions and nervousness rippled through it. It shook with excitement. Seething with speculation, for untold millennia it considered one critical and shocking question.

Not, as one might have imagined, wondering “What Was That?” No, no. What first occupied its attention was a much more pressing problem than the transitory proton.

What nagged away at it insistently was the question: “What am I?”

“What am I?” it wondered. “What am I?”

With no previous consciousness, and with no terms of reference whatsoever, it marveled at itself, and at this new sensation of existence, without, in truth, the slightest understanding of what was going on.

Casting frantically this way and that to work out what it was, it looked about itself, systematically, but in utter confusion.

Up and Down. Side to Side. In and Out. Backwards and Forwards. Along every plane and from every angle. Indeed, from many different perspectives simultaneously.

(If it did but know it, it actually looked for all the world like a large mahogany gentleman’s desk inlaid with a rather dinky line of shell marquetry around its edges and its drawers. Lots of drawers, in fact, with little pressed-metal knobs, that held promise of all sorts of treasures hidden away inside, and a couple of attractive glass paperweights adorned its leather-inlaid heart. But it wouldn’t understand all this until much later.)

Time passed. Lots of it. Loads and loads and loads of time.

Soon enough, and in a neat twist of reasoning that we can ascribe to what it actually was – which for want of a better term we could describe as “a really, really, really clever thing” – it soon realized that its own sudden and shocking existence was perhaps most easily understood by reference to what it was not. And in a miraculously short time after that, (for its powers of perception were, indeed, remarkably unconstrained), it had consequently separated the Universe into two orderly halves.

One half of everything it perceived to be it fittingly called “Me”.

The other half, it called “Not Me”.

The Me was pleased and much relieved by this development. Its jarringly unexpected coming-into-being seemed much less troublesome now that everything was neatly broken down into itself and … something else.

Thus reassured, it settled down to make a full and patient examination of itself.

Driven by insatiable curiosity, it first tried to work out why it had suddenly become conscious of its inherent Me-ness in the first place.

Time passes. Listen. Time passes. - Dylan Thomas

By dint of absence of any other observable data at all, it almost immediately decided that the sheer,ineffable thrill of the proton’s appearance had awoken its knowledge of itself. It could remember nothing before that, and so it seemed perfectly practical to place this sudden awareness of itself and its surroundings to that startlingly incandescent moment.

Next it spent a few million years pondering the proton. Was the Me somehow related to it? Connected to it in some way? Should it search for it? Was it coming back? Was it important? Indeed, as the only thing it had ever experienced, were the Me and the proton all there was to consider?

For what seemed like a very long time indeed, but in the scheme of things was merely a blink of the Me’s eye, the Me looked around and wondered why no other protons had appeared to disturb it, before or since.

But after an æon or two of this, it happened on a thought that occupied it even more deeply.

Surely, it reasoned to itself, what the proton was could not be nearly as important as another question that bothered it constantly – like the buzzer on a motel clock radio after too many drinks the night before – and that question, of course, was why, for goodness sake, had the Me not been aware of anything before the proton?

Beyond the awful, inky nothing that surrounded the Me, (which was, in fact, only three billionths of an inch thick, but being so thoroughly enmeshed in its musings it hadn’t actually noticed that yet), the Not Me pressed inwards. It edged silently towards the Me, as if holding its breath for the answer to this one. Not Me quaked and tightened around the Me, just by a fraction, and whispered silently to itself, listening, wondering, waiting.

And then – perhaps somehow alerted by the new-found excitement in the Not Me – the Me saw to its wonderment that far from being empty as it had assumed, the Not Me that was near it was actually jam-packed with innumerable billions and billions of particles crowding nearby, just beyond the layer of darkness, vibrating slowly – so slowly, in fact, and in such tiny increments of space – that the Me hadn’t even realised that the Not Me was moving at all!

Gazing in amused wonderment, the now insatiably inquisitive Me was straight way tempted to investigate further the gentle quadrille of the miniscule particles that swirled around it.

But without an answer to the nub of its problem, to wit: why it had not perceived its ownself at some point before what it had recently decided to call “Now” – or indeed, why it had not noticed the crowded, quivering Not Me earlier, which after all was only just over there outside the Me, so close at hand – the Me was frankly too troubled to do so.

So after trying and failing to find any concrete answers by simply looking about a bit, and drawing on hitherto unsuspected intellectual resources that spontaneously delighted it, the Me resolved – for it was nothing if not a very practical being, as we shall see – that it would simply have to run with what would eventually become known in another place as an assumption.

In short: the Me decided that in the absence of observable empiric data, it made good sense to “make up something that fits, until you can prove it’s wrong”.

(And thus it brought into being that delightful hobby for people with staring eyes and strange haircuts who listen to Laurie Anderson CDs on repeat known as Theoretical Physics, but of course it didn’t know that then.)

In this wise, the Me plumped for the conclusion that – before what it now called “the Me moment” – it had simply not been necessary for it to be self-aware.

For want of a better explanation, it assumed that although it had existed, it had not needed to know of its existence – and so, post hoc ergo propter hoc, as it were, it did not know.

The Me patiently examined this conclusion from all possible angles, and could not fault it.

(You might imagine that it would also have paused to wonder how it could so instinctively express its cogitation in obscure Latin phrases, a language that had not been used anywhere in existence yet, but that was just one of innumerable trifling considerations that would have to wait until more important questions had been answered.)

Ploughing remorselessly on now, the Me then painstakingly worried away at another thought that had occurred to it, from amongst the untold trillions of thoughts that it had every second. And this one was a real biggie.

That not just “it” but “Everything” must have some purpose, if only to take its natural place in the scheme of things.

This first and most painful bout of existential angst was very intense, but quickly resolved. Yes, yes! It must surely be true! Even if the purpose of a thing was merely to lie passively next to some other Me-ness, like a compliant jigsaw piece fitting neatly into another, purpose there had to be. Pointlessness was surely pointless.

And just as it now observed that the endless particles around it in the Not Me were somehow interlaced seamlessly with one another, and that to remove even one from its place would cause a cataclysmic rent and collapse, so therefore it, too, the Me, must be where (and when) it was for a reason. For if the Me held no inherent purpose, no relationship with something, even if it did not yet know what that something was, then why would it exist? But it did exist, so therefore it must have some role to play. “I exist, therefore I should exist” it trilled.

The next thought arrived a nano-second later. “So what am I for?” it demanded of itself. “What am I for?”

Breathlessly rushing on for a few million years, the Me rifled through the arguments available to it like an over-excited burglar happening on a fortuitously open bank vault.

It reasoned that it must have begun at a particular point, and at some stage it had become needed by … well, something, or because of something … and so – of course! – before that moment self-knowledge would have served no purpose, because – and the Me raced effortlessly forward to its conclusion! – to be aware, but purposeless, would indisputably have no point at all, as mere awareness, it was sure, affected nothing else, either positively or negatively. And, indeed, might be intolerably boring.

(Thrilled with this reasoning, it made itself a mental note: ““Quod erat demonstrandum: we all do what we can.” It was not sure why this thought was important, but felt convinced it was, and promised itself that it would return to nut it out, one day.)

So. Conclusion: the Me fitted in somehow as well. Because it must!

It rippled and rang with the sheer orgiastic delight of its logic. Very well, it mused, it didn’t yet know what the reason for its own existence was, but it felt distinctly less alarmed now it had deduced that a reason must exist, and soon enough, if it continued to concentrate, it was confident it would work out what it was.

Having now been on the job for what seemed to it, suddenly, as an awfully long time, the Me paused for a well-earned rest. Happy with where it had got to so far, it rather liked the sensation of not doing much thinking for a while.

It added another note to its rapidly growing list of things to remember. “Take a break from thinking now and then. Maybe about 14.2857 recurring percent of the time,” it advised itself portentously, along the way inventing Sunday, the decimal system and a few other useful concepts without even noticing. Meanwhile, the Not Me crept ever closer, and waited anxiously for the whole complex tangle to be sorted out on the Me’s mental blackboard.

Lolling around in the dark, approvingly noticing the inlay around the edges of its drawers for the first time, the Me now began to dimly recognise the awesome deductive capacity it could marshal with such little effort.

It was as if it already knew anything it needed to know; all it had to do was turn its attention to a problem and the resolution would eventually become clear, like mist clearing on a beautiful, still lake of knowledge. And with this awareness, the tensions within it settled somewhat. There was a reason why. Because there had to be. So now, the Big One. What could that reason possibly be?

Here, the being’s deductive process – which was rigorous and invariably accurate, if for no other reason than it had an innate ability to consider all probabilities simultaneously and ascribe correct values to them – nevertheless slowed down just a little, because the number of possible reasons why it existed were so vast as to tax even its own seemingly inexhaustible computational capacity.

It spent some time, for example, wondering whether it was supposed to be a forty-seven inch flat-screen hi-definition television, an item with whose innate angular beauty it was instantly infatuated, and which was tremendously thrilling and desirable and perfect for viewing something it decided to call “sports”, and it would have been really quite content to be a television forever were it not, obviously, for the complete absence of anything to be watched on itself, at least until about a trillion years from then.

It thus followed, the Me reasoned carefully, that whilst it might become just such an item at some stage in the future, it was highly unlikely that it was supposed to be a flat-screen TV just yet. It similarly rejected being a “V8 Supercar”, “Designer Fragrance”, or “Hollywood Red Carpet Interviewer” for the same reason.

Poo-poopy-do.

For a long time it was quite taken with the idea of being a conveniently-sized ball of dung, stationed outside the home of every industrious little dung beetle, so that their existence would not be so miserably dominated by scouring the desert for poo of all shapes and sizes and then spending hours in the hot sun uncomplainingly prodding it into an easily-maneuverable shape and size.

The Me felt very compassionate towards the tireless little beetle. He reasoned that even as he extended compassion to the Least so he extended it, by proxy to the All. The idea amused the Me, and it made a point to remember it.

Not entirely au fait, as yet, with the niceties of mass marketing, the Me even nevertheless drafted a quick advertising jingle to promote the idea that went something like this.

“Poo, poo, just made for you,

 yes, do do do, choose ezy-poo

 delivered to you, you’ll be glad too

 with A-may-zing easy-roll Poo-poopy-doo!”

Being a ball of poo would, it felt sure, would be a selfless and meaningful reason to exist.

But sadly, once again, the fact that no dung beetles would be around for quite some time stymied that line of enquiry, too. Then in quick succession, it considered and rejected, for various reasons, the proposition that it was a field of daffodils enlivening the surface of a small rocky planet in the Lamda Quadrant, a very obvious cure for Malaria merely waiting to be discovered, or whether it was a rather nasty virus that caused the four-winged, Greater Blue Flerterbee to fall out of the sky unexpectedly and in alarming numbers on a rather nice globe circling two twin suns in a galaxy with a rather curious Coke-bottle shape, thus leading to the extinction of all life-forms on that planet within a couple of generations.

None fitted.

Last, but by no means least, and with an aesthetic sense that it found delightfully unexpected and artistic, it wondered whether or not it was merely supposed to fill the space around it with floating three-dimensional pyramids made of delicately scented orange seaweed and sparkling Tarl Tree blossoms.

(And that one nearly won, actually. Which would have been interesting.)

Yes, able, now, to roam its growing understanding in all directions at one and the same time, the Me patiently examined of all these intriguing options, and more.

It considered alternative reasons for its own existence to the value of 10 x 10²°. Which really was an awful lot of reasons. And sooner or later, as a direct result of its nascent omniscience, and with a rather annoyed snort of surprise – in light of its previous lack of wakefulness – it was very soon after additionally confronted by a growing certainty that it had always existed. Putting it at its most simple, the Me realised it had always been there.

Always, and forever.

This was an unexpectedly Big Thought. In fact, to be frank, it was a Big Thought And A Half.

Wandering up and down the timeline now, watching itself, it very quickly also correctly surmised that it always would exist, too. Right up until, well … forever, really. And once it had occurred, this new Thought seemed entirely appropriate and natural and comfortable.

Until, that was: until it observed – with some further distress – that all around it other things were coming into being and then moving into non-being with astonishing regularity.

Indeed, it rapidly deduced that moving into non-existence was much more common than moving peacefully through existence with no apparent end, and, indeed, after a few more millennia, it observed that it could find no other beings that shared its own notable, distinguishing, essential never-endingness.

This latest discovery intrigued it mightily. In fact, so mightily was the Me intrigued that it stopped worrying about what it was for a moment, and started looking around with more interest.

It was simply fascinated by the sheer … dyingness … of all it saw around it.

The Me wasn’t sure where it had got that word from, and there was something about it that it didn’t like all that much, but it didn’t have time to worry about trivia. Not when it observed that unlike itself, everything around it seemed to be in the process of discharging tiny amounts of energy, and in doing so, declining to entirely predictable, unavoidable nothingness.

There was an alarmingly vast amount of this decline going on. All around it, apparently spontaneous changes were going on all the time to smooth out differences in temperature, pressure, density, and chemical potential. In fact, the more it went on, the more it went on. Yes! There was no denying it. The process was accelerating.

Still somewhat uncomfortable with “dyingness”, the Me hastily coined the term “entropy” to describe this apparently calamitous force that it observed in the Not Me all around him.

The Me took a step back, and thought for a while.

It took a step back, and carefully considering all the observable phenomena, it came up with something rather like this to define what it was seeing:

Quantitatively, entropy is defined by the differential quantity dS = δQ / T, where δQ is the amount of heat absorbed in an isothermal and reversible process in which the system goes from one state to another, and T is the absolute temperature at which the process is occurring.

Encouraged by this understanding, the Me now also understood that more precisely:

In any process where the system gives up energy ΔE, and its entropy falls by ΔS, a quantity at least TR ΔS of that energy must be given up to the system’s surroundings as unusable heat (TR being the temperature of the system’s external surroundings). Otherwise the process it was observing would not go forward.

And in a rollicking fever of enthusiasm, it also realized that:

The entropy is defined as the number of microscopic configurations that result in the observed macroscopic description of the thermodynamic system, or:

where kB is something that would become known as Boltzmann’s constant 1.38066×10−23 J K−1 and   is the number of microstates corresponding to the observed thermodynamic macrostate calculated using the multiplicity function.

And that was how, after all this feverish figuring, that the Me finally came to know what its reason was.

There was no doubt. The terrible, incontrovertible fact was that – all around it, wherever it looked – the Not Me was dying.

Inexorably, undeniably, because of its own nature which it could not escape, the Not Me was destined, finally, to become perfectly smooth and calm, in a state of utter non-ness, untroubled by thermo-dynamic fluctuations, and unutterably silent and quiet. It was a fate from which there was no return, for once reached, there was nothing to rekindle the energies expended.

The Not Me would simply cease to exist.

And then, the Me mused, what would become of Me?

Would I exist alone? With nothing left to observe, perhaps, but nonetheless awake?

And in a fraction of a millisecond, it knew that this outcome was too awful to contemplate. Utter knowledge, surrounded by utter nothingness, would be unbearable to it now.

Driven back to the fundamentals by its own ruthless logic, the Me considered again the beginning of its own awareness. It saw clearly now – “How could it not have known?” it berated itself angrily – that the tiny, scintillating proton had been a desperate cry for help from the Not Me. It was so obvious! Aware of its own inherent, inexorable non-ness, it had turned to the all-knowing Me to find a solution. And perhaps, even, the Not Me had known – somehow – that the Me needed the Non-Me too. That once awoken, it would have to act, for not to act would leave it, ultimately, alone and perfectly brilliant, transfixed in horrified eternally silent and motionless despair.

And as it divined its purpose, the Me also saw that it was capable of decisive action. In an instant of perception, it was transformed. It became action personified.

Surging forward through the darkness that surrounded it, the Me spoke with a voice that resonated through the umpteen layers of reality.  For the first time in history, it spoke effortlessly and in chorus to the largest perfect number of particles of all kinds that it could see … crying out to the 232,582,656 × (232,582,657 − 1) tiny building blocks that it somehow instantly knew made up the Not Me.

“I Am!” it thundered, for the whole Not Me to hear.

The words echoed through all of existence like nothing had every done before. (Which was literally true, as it had just invented sound.) And the ever more confident Me really liked the phrase. It felt appropriate and proper, somehow. So it repeated it.

“I Am … The I Am!”

It rolled the phrase round and round, enjoying its profundity and orderliness. How it was so perfectly Beginning and End-ish. The Me made a jotting in the margin of History to use the phrase again when it felt the need to explain itself to someone.

It stretched, and stretched, pushing its boundaries outwards, tearing away at the darkness that clung stubbornly to it like wet serge shorts on a schoolboy’s leg. Yes, it knew its reason for existence now, and faced with such a cause, its course of action was as clear to it now as a shining new dawn.

It must act at once to end the dreaded entropy: for it was the Me’s job to banish this awful dyingness and save the Not Me, before it became quiet and flat and silent and the Me was left to stare at where it had been, alone and mad.

And now it also knew with perfect understanding that this task would become something of a recurring leitmotif for its own existence. A struggle – just beginning – which it could now see with terrible clarity would last until the end of Time.

“Listen! Everything!” it cried, in a voice that brooked no opposition. “Listen to me!”

The Not Me took a firm grip on itself and held on tight. It waited, hushed and expectant, for what it knew had to come, and what had come before, and what would come again, impossibly far into the future.

With a giant, convulsive gasp, the Me cried out in a great and terrible voice.

“Let … there … be … Light!”


And lo, there was Light. And man, it was good.

 rape victims

“I can’t say it’s your own fault any more, so we’ll blame it on God.”

The following article, from the excellent Emily Hauser, argues quite correctly that this Republican politician has done the world, and America voters, a great service.

From Todd Aiken to here is a straight line. Because here, for once, unambiguously, is the argument laid out for all to see. And that argument is: if you get raped, and you get pregnant, then it is what God intended, and you are honour-bound to carry that child to term and give birth. (No word yet on whether God intended you to bring the child up as well.)

This is nothing new: the recent kerfuffle in the news about Todd Akin was simply because he said out loud what he and his colleagues think but aren’t supposed to say.  Todd Akin simply said out loud what his voting record and the voting record of his conservative colleagues  showed for years.  Three weeks before he walked straight into a shit-storm 203 Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to prohibit abortions even in cases of rape or incest. And earlier this year the Republican party didn’t want to extend funding of $455 million a year for rape crisis centers that already are being funded on the books.  They felt it was excessive use of government spending and an over-reach in the size of the federal government (source); it only passed when the Republican leadership said that this would damage the GOP politically.

And in February of this year – Fox News said the Pentagon was spending too much money to defend women soldiers from rape (source) even though a woman soldier is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire (source).

Well, turning to this story, I have a degree in Theology, I am a democrat (note the small D, despite my feelings about this particular election), and I am a man.

On all three counts, I respect this man’s right to express his point of view.

But I also unalterably and completely reject his nonsense as yet another product of the Neanderthal extremist hyper-religious right in America, typified by lunatic old neo-fascists masquerading as Roman Catholic archbishops, raving “pastors” of mainly Southern extreme Protestant cliques, and all the rest of the literalistic fundamentalist Christians that America delights in nurturing.

Just let’s consider this argument carefully. ” Rape is something God intended to happen.”

Apart from how I feel that insults God, it’s only a very small step from that complete abrogation and abnegation of intellectual responsibility to argue that “Slavery is something God intended to happen.”  Or “the Holocaust is something God intended to happen.”

The inevitable result of blaming everything on God is we don’t NEED to improve the world ourselves. Well, we can try, of course, but if we happen to fail, well, fuck it – it’s God’s will that we fail, and we can all just accept the consequences.

My dear old Mother would have had a response to that. She would have said, in her delightful Welsh brogue, ” Well, Stephen, God helps those who help themselves.” Meaning, not that we are all supposed to become uber-rich by asset stripping companies, but that God does not, in fact, carefully orchestrate every lifetime moment of every human being on the planet, and he looks to us to look after not only the planet, but ourselves, and our societies.

Hell yes there’s a reason to vote for Obama in this election, and it is to keep nut-cases like this guy and his comrades out of power. And out of your bedroom, and out of your bodies.

Women of America: don’t say you weren’t warned …

Romney/Ryan, abortion, and the humanity of women. (And church and state, too).

Yesterday I had the honor of being on a panel with Daniel Ellsberg on HuffPost Live, and the good fortune to be given the opportunity to talk about how, in fact, the little matter of which party sits in the White House is hugely important to American women, because there’s one party that treats 50% of this nation’s citizens as autonomous people, and one party that doesn’t.

Then a little later in the day, this was reported:

Defending his stance that abortion should be illegal even in the case of rape, [Indiana Treasurer/candidate for US Senate Richard] Mourdock explained that pregnancy resulting from non-consensual sex is the will of God.

“I’ve struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God,” Mourdock said. “And even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

And I honestly found it refreshing. Because Richard Mourdock said, out loud and for all to hear, that which so many of these anti-choice culture warriors carry in their hearts: This is God’s will, and if you abort any pregnancy, regardless of its provenance, you are acting to thwart the Almighty Himself.

This isn’t about compassion for the poor witless woman who might not know what she’s missing out on if you don’t force her to undergo state-sanctioned rape in the form of a trans-vaginal ultrasound; this isn’t even, really, about human life. This is about the will of God, and the belief held by a great many people that humans are required to bend to that will — and that for women, there’s a lot more will to go around:

Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man…. [A man] the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. 1 Corinthians 11:3 & 7

To be clear: There are millions upon millions of Christians who have grappled with verses like those I’ve just quoted and come to an understanding of their faith and Scripture that support women’s equality and our right to bodily autonomy. (And just to be clearer still: I believe that all modern-day monotheism, including my own, requires this kind of grappling, because none of our Scriptures are without ugliness).

But the Christians standing at the head of the American right wing are not that kind of Christian, and they’re the ones we’re facing.

God is above man, and man is above woman. If you were raped, that’s not cool (in no small part because rape is equated with sex, and a woman’s sexuality belongs to the man she married/will marry), but if that rape made you pregnant? Well, that’s what God wanted. And women who attempt to thwart God’s will are not only making God really really mad, they are upsetting the natural order of things, and that cannot be allowed.

I think it’s helpful to be told flat-out that this is what we’re battling. Many anti-choice activists may honestly believe that they’re acting to protect children (though I might argue that if they really want to protect children, they might consider the needs of the fetus after it becomes a baby, but I digress), but leaders of the anti-choice movement are acting to protect what they know to be the Divine order.

But I live in a secular nation. I live in a country where the separation of church and state is written into law. I live in a place where your knowledge of the Divine order should have absolutely no legal bearing on my life.

There is one party that agrees with that notion, and one party — the vice-presidential candidate of which stands behind some of the most extreme anti-choice bills on the American scene – that does not.

One party that is working — however fitfully, however imperfectly — to protect the right of half of this country’s citizens to be legally recognized as humans with autonomy over their own bodies, and one party working to declare zygotes legal people, to require physicians to lie to patients about the established medical facts of abortion, and to allow hospitals to deny abortions to women even when their lives are in immediate danger.

This is not about the medical procedure called “abortion.” This is about the separation of church and state, and it is about allowing women to be human.

Don’t tell me the parties are the same. 

Update: Mitt Romney taped an endorsement for Mourdock on Monday, but his campaign told TPM yesterday that Mourdock’s views do not reflect Romney’s. And yet for all that, the campaign has said today that it has not asked Mourdock to pull the ad. So.

There’s that.

Adam and Eve debate the finer points of theology. By Rubens. Except they never did. No, the serpent never beguiled Eve, nor was Adam ashamed of his nakedness. Whatever next?

I have decided to republish this post for a couple of reasons.

  • It was very popular last time.
  • A Catholic Bishop in America says voting for Barack Obama will imperil your immortal soul. (But he isn’t telling his parishoners how to vote, mind you, despite the fact that this presumably only leaves them the option of supporting a billionaire cult member who thinks when he dies he gets a whole planet to himself plus forty wives to play with. Plus Anne Romney, who I can see liking that idea. Not.)
  • And just the other day the Pope also expressed the opinion that gay people were not whole human beings. (They are therefore sub human, presumably. And we know where that led us with Cardinal Ratzinger’s countrymen last time around …)

So, my question is simply this: What are the people on?

The original article begins here:

In a comment that will rock the confidence of many traditionalist or literalist Christians of all denominations, Australia’s Roman Catholic Cardinal George Pell – one of the most conservative Roman Catholics in a senior position worldwide, and a possible future Pope – has publicly described the biblical story of Adam and Eve as a sophisticated myth used to explain evil and suffering rather than a scientific truth.

Cardinal Pell appeared on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Q&A” TV chat show, where he was debating British evolutionary biologist and celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins.

Cardinal Pell said humans “probably” evolved from Neanderthals (this is not strictly true*, but at least it concedes that mankind has a long history) but it was impossible to say exactly when there was a first human. “But we have to say if there are humans, there must have been a first one,” he said.

(By the way, this is widely considered, in the case of homo sapiens, to have been a female from Africa, if the DNA sampling of the world is understood. Originally, we were all Africans.)

According to Genesis, God created Adam and Eve as the first man and woman.

Asked by journalist Tony Jones if he believed in the existence of an actual Garden of Eden with an Adam and Eve, Cardinal Pell said it was not a matter of science but rather a beautiful mythological account.

“It’s a very sophisticated mythology to try to explain the evil and the suffering in the world,” he said.

“It’s certainly not a scientific truth. And it’s a religious story told for religious purposes.”

The interesting issue is that when a senior Churchman concedes one story in the Bible is mythology – meaningful, but mythology, nevertheless – then we must ask, what else is?

Noah and the Flood is one biblical story which is clearly ludicrous, unless you think he also collected two by two of every grub, bacteria and virus on the planet.

Critical theologians have long demonstrated that some of the chronology of the Old Testament – especially concerning Moses and Joshua, is not literally true. Once you remove one brick from the wall, the edifice of the literal 100% truth of the Bible collapses – correctly, in my view – and we can start to apply a modern mind to the writings of the past.

This, of course, is why so many Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants are hysterical about not reducing the verisimilitude of the Bible by a single word. What, for example, of the argument that the Bible says nothing at all about homosexuality when it is read in the original languages, even Pauline comments in the New Testament which appear irrefutable.

Will we next see Pell refute his implacable opposition to homosexual communicants and priests?

Will we see him weaken his opposition to female celebrants? (The Catholic Church long ago quietly forgot that women were supposed to stay silent in Church, and wear hats, of course.)

Pell directly contradicts the Catholic Catechism

As others have pointed out, this commentary on Adam and Eve also violates the Catholic Church’s official attitude toward the Primal Couple.  The Catholic Catechism, for example, states:

390 The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.

397 Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of. All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness.

398 In that sin man preferred himself to God and by that very act scorned him. He chose himself over and against God, against the requirements of his creaturely status and therefore against his own good. Created in a state of holiness, man was destined to be fully “divinized” by God in glory. Seduced by the devil, he wanted to “be like God”, but “without God, before God, and not in accordance with God”.

399 Scripture portrays the tragic consequences of this first disobedience. Adam and Eve immediately lose the grace of original holiness. They become afraid of the God of whom they have conceived a distorted image – that of a God jealous of his prerogatives.

402 All men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as St. Paul affirms: “By one man’s disobedience many (that is, all men) were made sinners”: “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.” The Apostle contrasts the universality of sin and death with the universality of salvation in Christ. “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men.”

403 Following St. Paul, the Church has always taught that the overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their inclination towards evil and death cannot be understood apart from their connection with Adam’s sin and the fact that he has transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the “death of the soul”. Because of this certainty of faith, the Church baptizes for the remission of sins even tiny infants who have not committed personal sin.

As one commentator remarked: “I wonder if the good Cardinal will now be excommunicated? Don’t count on it – the Vatican tends to turn a blind eye toward these local violations of dogma.”

PS Some Days Later and more than 4,500 hits later:

This article has been criticised on some (predominantly atheist) forums because it ignores the logical argument that if Adam and Eve was bunkum then “Original Sin”  is bunkum too, and therefore the redemptive power of Christ’s sacrifice is a nonsense, so, logically the whole of Christian religion is nonsense.  (The point made in 402 and 403 above.)

To my mind this interpretation sheets home to some atheists as much obsession with literal interpretation as I criticise in some Christians. Indeed, sometimes when I see leading atheists and leading believers go at it hammer and tongs, they remind me more of each other than anything else. Anyhow: “Original Sin” – being a description of humanity’s essentially imperfect state – does not, in my opinion, need to be established by the literal truth of the Genesis story. I am quite content to assert that humanity is flawed, (just look around you), and that Christ was not (read the stories).

When, how, and why humanity became flawed and why God chose the unique nature of Jesus to correct the matter can, for me, wait until I no longer see as through a glass darkly, which I do not expect to be anytime soon, and certainly not in this life.

Meanwhile, the facts on evolution as far as our God-given brains can discern them …

*While human evolution begins with the last common ancestor of all life, it generally refers to the evolutionary history of primates and in particular the genus Homo, including the emergence of Homo sapiens as a distinct species of hominids (“great apes”). The study of human evolution involves many scientific disciplines, including physical anthropology, primatology, archaeology, linguistics, embryology and genetics.[1]
Primate evolution likely began in the late Cretaceous, 85 Ma (million years ago) by genetic studies and no later than the Paleocene by the fossil record 55 Ma.[2][3] The family Hominidae, or Great Apes, diverged from the Hylobatidae family 15-20 Ma. Around 14 Ma the Ponginae or orangutans diverged from the Hominidae family.[4] Later the gorilla and chimpanzee would diverge from the lineage leading to the genus Homo, the latter around 5-6 Ma. Modern humans evolved from the last common ancestor of the Hominini and the species Australopithecines some 2.3-2.4 million years ago in Africa.[5][6]In the Hominini tribe, several species and subspecies of Homo evolved and are now extinct or introgressed, and only one species remains. Examples include Homo erectus (which inhabited Asia, Africa, and Europe) and Neanderthals (either Homo neanderthalensis or Homo sapiens neanderthalensis) (which inhabited Europe and Asia). Archaic Homo sapiens, the forerunner of anatomically modern humans, evolved between 400,000 and 250,000 years ago. Examples of archaic humans generally include Homo heidelbergensis, Homo rhodesiensis, Homo neanderthalensis and sometimes Homo antecessor and Homo ergaster.[7] Anatomically modern humans evolved from archaic Homo sapiens in the Middle Paleolithic, about 200,000 years ago.[8] Behaviorally modern humans developed around 50,000 years ago according to many although some view modern behavior as beginning with the emergence of anatomically modern humans.[9]

Time magazine has a go at explaining, er … time. Lots and lots of time.

One view among scientists concerning the origin of anatomically modern humans is the recent African origin of modern humans hypothesis (the “recent single-origin hypothesis” or “recent out-of-Africa” model),[10][11][12] which posits that Homo sapiens arose in Africa and migrated out of the continent some 50,000-100,000 years ago, replacing populations of Homo erectus in Asia and Neanderthals in Europe. An alternative multiregional hypothesis posits that Homo sapiens evolved as geographically separate but interbreeding populations stemming from the worldwide migration of Homo erectus out of Africa nearly 2.5 million years ago. Evidence suggests that several haplotypes of Neanderthal origin are present among all non-African populations, and Neanderthals and other hominids, such as Denisova hominin may have contributed up to 6% of their genome to present-day humans.[13][14][15]

Well, Dear Reader, you know I am just a teensy bit obsessed with Mr Trololo. And then I saw this, courtesy of Patti’s Facebook page. Oh joy, oh frabjous day, yet once more. How do people have time to do this stuff? No idea. Well, I am just glad they do. Enjoy.

Then on an entirely different slant – if you have time and are feeling thoughtful, have a look at Stephen Fry a few years ago talking about the Roman Catholic Church. Now, I am not an atheist, and I am not especially anti Roman Catholicism – although I disagree with many things about the Roman church to be sure – but my God this is a great piece of public polemical speaking which deserves a wide audience.

I think God loves Stephen Fry. He certainly over-endowed him with grace.

Right, YouTube is just too damned addictive. And it’s dinner time. Pip pip.

The Warren Cup, from the British Museum. Roman man anally penetrating a youth, possibly a slave. Circa 1st century AD.

Many ordinary Christians are deeply conflicted by their desire to embrace homosexual brethren in the fellowship of the church, when some of their leaders are telling them that these people are sinners.

Numbers of people feel very discomfited by the current debate.

So what is the “Biblical” teaching on gays?

Opponents of homosexuality almost always treat scripture as being “literally true” in a historical sense. Certainly, that is the case currently.

It follows, therefore, that any rebuttal of their claims should also adhere to this assumption, if it is to convince them that they are wrong.

I personally believe the early stories in the Bible are no more “literally” true than ancient Norse myths. But I am prepared to put that aside for one moment, and consider this issue under the rules that the “literalists” would apply, because many argue that the oft-trotted-out “Biblical” case against homosexuality simply doesn’t appear to “stack up”.

Genesis 19: 1-28

The ancient story of Sodom and Gomorrah has been used throughout the centuries as a condemnation of homosexuality, to the point where anal sex is referred to as “Sodomy”.

And that’s the problem. It’s become a cliché. We assume it’s true, because it’s been around so long.

The verses in this story most commonly referred to as proof that the Sodomites were homosexual are verses 4 and 5: “Before they could lie down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, surrounded the house,from boy to old man, all the people in one mob. And they kept calling out to Lot and saying to him: ‘Where are the men who came in to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may have intercourse with them.”

Examining this scripture, the first thing we see is that all the people, in one mob, demanded that Lot bring out the visitors to them. If we are to believe that the account of Sodom & Gomorrah is a condemnation of homosexuality, then we must also accept the conclusion that the entire city consisted of homosexuals.

But if we look in the previous chapter, Genesis 18: 16-33, we see an account of Abraham negotiating with God to spare the people of Sodom, with the final outcome of God promising “I shall not bring it to ruin on account of the ten” (verse 33).

God promised Abraham that Sodom would not be destroyed if only ten “righteous men” could be found I the city.

If we are to accept the previous logic, this would mean that the “righteous men” referred to were, per se, heterosexuals.

Now it is a matter of Biblical “fact” that God (or rather, his angels) didn’t find anyone at all worth saving. But at this point, we then need to ask ourselves: what would be the odds of less than ten people in the entire region of Sodom & Gomorrah being heterosexual?

The obvious answer is “impossible”, of course.

If for no other reason than to ask, “where did all the population come from?” They were all gay immigrants, presumably, begat by parents left behind in other places that were heteroesexual? I think not.

So if homosexuality was not being referred to in this passage, then what was? Looking at the scriptures in Hebrew, we find an interesting usage of a couple of different words.

When the mob cries out “Where are the men who came in to you tonight?”, the Hebrew word that is customarily translated men is actually ‘enowsh which, literally translated, means “mortal” or “human”.

This indicates that the mob knew that Lot had visitors, but were unsure of what sex they were.

We can divine this because the Hebrew word for “man” (utilized in this same passage in Genesis 19:8) is entirely different. And one really has to ask: why would homosexuals want to have sex with two strangers if they were unsure of what sex they were?

The passage translated as “Bring them out so that we may have intercourse with them” needs further examination as well.

Other Bible translations read “so that we may know them”. The Hebrew word that is commonly translated as “have intercourse”, or “know” is yada.

But this word, yada, appears in the Hebrew Scriptures a total of 943 times. And in all but ten of these usages, the word is used in the context of getting acquainted with someone.

Had the writer intended for his reading audience to believe that the mob wanted to have sexual intercourse with the strangers, he could simply have used the Hebrew word shakab, which vividly denotes sexual activity.

Many people argue, therefore, that the correct translation, should be rendered something to the effect of: “Where are the people who came in to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may get acquainted with them.”

So then, if the story of Sodom & Gomorrah was not a condemnation of homosexuality, what was it trying to convey?

Two verses in Exekiel sum up the story this way: “Look! This is what proved to be the error of Sodom your sister: Pride, sufficiency of bread and the carefreeness of keeping undisturbed were what happened to belong to her and her dependent towns, and the hand of the afflicted one and the poor one she did not strengthen. And they continued to be haughty and to carry on a detestable thing before me, and I finally removed them, just as I saw [fit]”. (Ezekiel 16: 49, 50.)

It is commonly assumed, because we’re referring to Sodom, that the “detestable thing” referred to in this passage is homosexuality.

But in fact, the Hebrew word utilized here is tow’ebah, which translated literally means “to commit idol worship”.

This can be seen in the original Genesis passage, chapter 19, verse 8: “Please, here I have two daughters who have never had intercourse with a man. Please let me bring them out to you. Then do to them as is good in your eyes.”

One has to ask: If Lot’s house was surrounded by homosexuals, which presumably he’d know as everyone in the entire region was gay apart from him and his family, why would he offer the mob women?

Note also that these women were virgins. And that the Sodomites were pagans.

Virgin sacrifices to idols were a common practice in this era. Therefore, it can easily be concluded that Lot was offering his daughters as a virgin sacrifice to appease the mob in an effort to protect the visitors.

In the Greek scriptures, the story of Sodom is summed up this way: “and by reducing the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them, setting a pattern for ungodly persons of things to come”.

This corroborates Ezekiel’s summation, once again showing that these were “ungodly persons”; in other words, idolaters, not worshippers of the true God.

If we have difficulty with the logic of 100% of any population being gay, can we rather believe in 100% of a population being adherents of a particular pagan cult? Yes, we certainly can. If for no other reason that there was no tolerance of those who didn’t share pagan beliefs in many early societies. Not to agree was to invite exclusion or execution. You were in, or you were out. The Jews themselves exercise this attitude continually throughout the Old Testament.

So the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, therefore, is almost certainly intended as a condemnation of idol worshippers, and of a greedy and inhospitable society that sought to treat visitors in a threatening manner – which was also a sin, to the early Jews, by the way.

Many people argue, therefore, that it is perfectly reasonable to propose that this key text on the judgement of this region had nothing, absolutely nothing to do with homosexuality!

Leviticus 18:22 & Leviticus 20:13

The message was clear to the ancient Israelites: semen was to be used for one purpose alone – procreation.

Spilled semen, whether by masturbation, anal penetration, or homosexuality, was not to be tolerated.

We have to place these edicts in some sort of historical context in order to understand them, if not to agree or disagree with them.

Life in those days was a “numbers game”. One of the Bible’s earliest edicts, a theme repeated through the Old Testament, was to “be fruitful and multiply”. If your tribe was numerically stronger than those around it, then good things would flow from that dominance.

(The same argument is currently used by the British National Party to argue for white Anglo-Saxon women having more children, but that’s another story.)

It’s an undeniable fact that many strict regulations were imposed on the ancient Israelites. The “chosen ones of God” understood each of these regulations to be equally important.

In the Greek scriptures, James points this fact out by stating: “For whoever observes all the law but makes a false step in one point, he has become an offender against them all.”

Fundamentalist Christians, however, selectively cite the two scriptures in Leviticus as a condemnation of homosexuality, overlooking James’ words which state, in essence, that if you’ve broken just one of the laws, you’ve broken them all.

So why do we focus so frequently on homosexuality?

Leviticus 19:27, for example, condemns haircuts and shaving. How many long-haired, bearded males attend your local Church? Or to put it another way, do we have agonised debates about Ministers who might have short hair?

Leviticus 19:19 also condemns wearing clothing made of more than one type of thread. Anybody reading this wear clothing made of 50% cotton and 50% polyester?

Taking the Bible literally, such individuals are equally guilty as homosexuals.

This leaves aside, of course, any concerns about whether or not it is still OK for us to grab our neighbours and use them as slaves, or to go around killing anyone who works on the Sabbath.

When questioned by the Pharisees regarding these ancient laws, Jesus’ reply was “I came, not to destroy, but to fulfill”. In other words, Christianity and love of God and fellow man was a replacement for the strict ancient codes, many of which were no longer practical or relevant.

But let us forget, for a moment, putting things in an historical context, or the fundamentalists will simply argue that we’re “messing with the truth”.

Let us look at the arguments of those who believe these two passages don’t really condemn homosexuality at all.

Looking at the scriptures in Hebrew, one sees a different condemnation. Leviticus 20:13 states, in part, “When a man lies down with a male the same as one lies down with a woman”.

Had the writer intended to convey homosexuality being condemned here, he would have probably used the Hebrew word ‘iysh, which means “man”, or “male person”.

Instead, the author utilizes a much more complicated Hebrew word, zakar, which literally translated means “a person worthy of recognition”.

Zakar was used to refer to high priests of the surrounding idolatrous religions.

In ancient societies, surrounding the early Jews, it was believed that by granting sexual favours to the high priest (a fertility rite), one would be guaranteed an abundance of children and crops.

Taking Leviticus 18: 22 into proper context, then, one should also look at the preceding verse 21: “And you must not allow the devoting of any of your offspring to Molech”.

So what we almost certainly see here are warnings to the Israelites not to engage in the fertility rituals of the worshippers of Molech, which often required the granting of sexual favours to the priest.

Many believe that if this been a mere condemnation of homosexuals, the writer would undoubtedly have used clearer language.

Romans 1: 26-27, 1 Cor. 6: 9-11, 1 Tim. 1: 9-11

Greek, like Hebrew, is a much more descriptive language than English. As an example, while we have the word “love”, Greek has agape, storge, philia, and eros – each describing a different form of love.

Further, just as with English, the meanings of words can change over generations.

Ironically, “gay” is a classic example.

Some say that it is easy to understand why words in ancient Greek could be misinterpreted, as are the terms “men who lie with men”, “abusers of mankind”, “homosexual”, and “pervert” in the above referenced scriptures.

The two words in Greek used in the above scriptures that are commonly mistranslated as such are arsenokoites and malakoi.

Bible scholars now believe arsenokoites to mean “male temple prostitute”, as mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures at Deut. 23: 17-18.

The actual meaning of this word, however, has been lost in history, as it was a slang term which, literally translated, means “lift bed”.

The Greek malakoi, literally translated, means “spineless” (some linguistics scholars translate it as “limp”, or “coward”).

What is important to note here is that both of these words are nouns. In ancient Greek, there is no known noun to define homosexuality. It was always expressed as a verb.

So just as in the Hebrew scriptures examined earlier, it appears that the Greek scriptures actually make reference to those who engaged in idolatrous practices, much of which, as we know, centred around sex in return for favours.

Neither the homosexual nor the direct idea of homosexuality appears anywhere in these passages. Had the writer intended to make a clear point about condemnation of gays, surely the Greek verb for homosexual behaviour would have been utilised rather than these nouns which are directly related to cowardice and idolatry?

But last – and by no means least – what of Paul’s apparently incontrovertible statement at Romans 1 where “females changed the natural use of themselves into one contrary to nature and likewise even the males left the natural use of the female and became violently inflamed in their lust towards one another”?

This would appear to be a simple, trenchant condemnation of homosexuality.

But perhaps, yet again. the truth is more subtle than that.

A clue lies in Paul’s words in the earlier verses 22 & 23: “Although asserting they were wise, they became foolish and turned the glory of the incorruptible God into something like the image of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed creatures and creeping things.”

So obviously, again, Paul’s reference here is to worshippers drawn into the ever-present danger of idolatry, one danger of which is unbridled sexual licentiousness of the kind that a conservative Jew like Paul would have found abhorrent. Especially when seen against his mission to the Roman Empire, with its endless parade of cults and religions, and very lax sexual behaviour generally.

As mentioned above in examining the Hebrew scriptures, many pagan idol-worshipping religions of Paul’s day also taught that by granting sexual favours to priests, the one giving the favour would be rewarded with fertility of crops and offspring.

Many such cults were, in reality, little more than brothels with quasi-religious overtones.

Unfortunately, of course, we have to read Paul’s words without the benefit of knowing all the background to his letters, but it certainly seems reasonable to suppose that his attack here is on a complex set of behaviours to do with people who reject the message of Christianity and continue to adhere to older religions. It seems clear that Paul’s reference was not a dedicated attack on loving same-sex relationships, but his condemnation focused on people who were normally heterosexuals who had been prevailed upon to rebel against their own sexual nature, in the granting of sexual favours to the leaders of pagan religions, in expectation of reward by the pagan gods.

So whilst his apparent rejection of homosexual behaviour seems unambiguous, the context of the comments is much more complex.

In conclusion, nowhere in the Bible, according to many Biblical scholars, is any unambiguously negative reference made to stable, loving same-sex relationships. And after all, it is now widely agreed that anything up to 5-10% of the population identify themselves as predominantly “gay” as regards their sexual preferences. Are 5-10% of those sections of the Bible discussing relationships dedicated to condemning their choice? Undoubtedly not.

In fact, many gays argue that two positive references appear in the Hebrew scriptures of love between two people of the same sex:

2 Samuel 1:26 states: “I am distressed over you, my brother Jonathan, very pleasant you were to me. More wonderful was your love to me than the love from women.”

Ruth 1: 16, 17 states: “And Ruth proceeded to say: ‘Do not plead with me to abandon you, to turn back from accompanying you; for where you go I shall go, and where you spend the night I shall spend the night. Your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I shall die, and there is where I shall be buried. May Jehovah do so to me and add to it if anything but death should make a separation between me and you’.”

And while it must immediately be conceded that no mention is made of actual sexual activity between these people, it must also be pointed out that these couples had therefore made covenants with each other. And to the ancient Israelites, a covenant was viewed as a holy bond; a powerful uniting of two people.

We all have to wrestle with the truth of this matter in our hearts. Personally, I find it much more helpful to see what the Bible is arguing for, rather than what it is arguing against. Those who are currently affected by some Christians’ negative stance towards gays and lesbians should perhaps also seek comfort in the much greater preponderance in the Bible of messages of inclusion, acceptance, tolerance and understanding.

And the injunction, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”

Post Scriptum

A correspondent kindly reminded me of this hilarious spearing of the literal truth of the Old Testament, from 2002. The introductory quotation is from that era:

The power of logic and quiet humour - "Dr Laura's" anti-gay viewpoints - for which she later apologised - sparked a worldwide internet phenomenon which did more to mock anti-gay beliefs based on the OT than anyone could have imagined.

Dr. Laura Schlessinger is a radio personality who dispenses advice to people who call in to her radio show.

Recently, she said that, as an observant Orthodox Jew, homosexuality is an abomination according to Leviticus 18:22 and cannot be condoned under any circumstance.

The following is an open letter to Dr. Laura penned by a east coast resident, which was posted on the Internet. It’s funny, as well as informative:

Dear Dr. Laura

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can.

When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the other specific laws and how to follow them:

When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness – Lev.15:19- 24. The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?

I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination – Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this?

Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?

I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev. 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? – Lev.24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.

Your devoted fan,
Jim