Archive for the ‘Atheism’ Category

h1

From a Theologian in 1909: Stop Deceiving Children About Science

March 18, 2016

I recently found an old book in a second-hand bookshop here in Berlin, entitled Darwin: His Meaning for Our Worldview and Values. It’s a small collection of essays by scientists and academics, and was published in 1909 — 50 years after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, and 49 years after it appeared in translation in Germany. The essay that struck me most was written by a theologian called Friedrich Naumann. (Biographical details at the end of this post.)

Warenhaus A. Weiss, Schöneberg, 1907. Das Haus steht noch und ist ein lohnendes Objekt um die Verschandelung von Bauwerken zu studieren.

Schöneberg, Berlin, 1907 (source)

Naumann begins by noting that although religious people don’t usually accept evolution, they do concede that Darwin was a decent fellow who was sincerely seeking the truth. This is already a stark contrast to today where the religious frequently hold Darwin more or less to have been inspired by the devil, and evolution to be “lies straight from the pit of hell”.

Naumann then makes an interesting and rarely made point: that Darwin’s ideas were in fact no more “anti-Christian” than a great many other ideas which had already been proposed for quite some time, albeit without any complaint about them from the church. Religious leaders, he says, failed to discuss these new ideas and discoveries amongst themselves, and withheld them from parishioners.

He continues:

Through the writings of Darwin and Haeckel, what was until then the preserve of scientists erupted into public awareness. For many, “Darwinism” came as a completely unexpected “anti-religious” revelation… Those of us who experienced the years 1860 to 1890 in the company of pious Christians, remember how powerful the waves were. Even today the waters have not been stilled.

From his tone, I suspect Naumann would be quite surprised if he knew that the shock waves would still be felt in many countries more than 100 years later.

Next, he makes an important and I think undeniable point — undeniable even from a Christian perspective:

Darwinism would have come as less of a shock to the pious if they had already been speaking more openly with each other about scientific discoveries and the implications for religion. This rarely happened. Although some religious thinkers like Schleiermacher familiarized themselves with current scientific learning and “adjusted” their Christianity accordingly, those who preached in the church or taught in the schools deliberately and timidly avoided presenting these new ideas and discussing their implications.

Deliberately and timidly avoided teaching such ideas in the churches and schools. Exactly.

There follows another noteworthy passage.

Look, we’ve long known that the Bible does not place the sun at the center of the solar system; that it presents heaven as being located above the earth… Similarly, the Creation and the Great Flood were known even before Darwin to have been derived from earlier oriental myths, and cannot be taken as historical events. Had the faithful already been clearly and unreservedly informed of these facts, then Darwinism would not have arrived like a hailstorm on the field of religion.

A hailstorm on the field of religion. And how telling it is that even science teachers today avoid teaching evolution for fear of upsetting the faithful (or losing their job). It is even customary for academics to place trigger warnings and apologies prior to any mention of human origins. 

Yet in 1909 it was already clear that such pussyfooting ultimately serves no one. Those who reject science, merely find that they have to push back harder and harder in their denial as science progresses — and become proportionately stupider and stupider. Naumann would have been stunned to discover that climate change is rejected by political leaders in the US because they and the voters believe that God promised Noah that there would be no more floods. I can understand why people are shocked by the idea that we are a species of ape, but…. getting upset about Noah’s Ark being a myth????

Our theologian continues, to make a rather rhetorical argument that Jesus would have embraced Darwinism, because he was the quintessential reformer. I am in no position to comment on that (and neither was he of course, but it’s his religion not mine, so I will let it pass). The Bible, he points out is itself a historical record of reform and changes in religious thought. And he makes another excellent point when he says that by failing to teach the facts of science:

we allow people to develop false hopes. This sets them up for disappointment and confusion if they ever discover the truth.

These days, theologians are reluctant to write as boldly as this. Even the most science-friendly theologians keep one hand cautiously on the hand brake whilst discussing anything to do with science. But Naumann clearly believes that if God created the earth and its creatures, then the study of nature is a path to God. Modern theologians are far more nervous about that “if” being in there.

Religions of course, always face a dilemma, not only with science but with facts in general. Even St Augustine noticed it’s hard to proselytize when some doctrines are clearly false or hilariously stupid. He saw no option but to “interpret” the craziest parts of the Bible allegorically. But once that decision has been taken, it’s hard to stop reality swamping in and ruining dogmas that useful or even essential to the whole faith. Once Noah’s Ark is accepted as a myth (as Naumann conceded in 1909, and as Ken Ham doesn’t concede in 2016), then why not also concede that the “Virgin” Mary was a mistranslation that even the early Christians were informed about by the Jews? Don’t expect a coherent answer from any theologian. There’s too much riding on it. Naumann himself could have, or maybe should have known about this, but he says nothing about it. Is it too close to the bone? Did he know it and simply blend it out? 

I see no way to rescue believers from this collision of their faith with reality. But I also see no alternative to Naumann’s positive attitude to science.

——–

For the record, Friedrich Naumann (1860 – 1919) was a somewhat recognized theologian, priest, and author, who was involved in politics, (for the most part on the progressive side). A foundation named in honor of Naumann is connected to the mainstream but distinctly right-wing Freie Democratische Partei (FDP) in Germany. This Foundation, ironically, promotes climate-change denial. Unfortunately, he advocated a mild form of eugenics — a position that was opposed on ethical grounds by other writers in that book. Naumann was, however an outspoken activist for women’s rights, and other worthy causes. 

Posted by Yakaru

h1

Children’s Conception of God

February 20, 2016

I’ve often wondered what children think when they first start hearing about “god”. 

Non-physical entities like elves and gnomes are fairly easy for small children to conceptualize, but what about god? — A formless, all seeing, all-knowing invisible creature that is everywhere and nowhere; and is also somehow three beings in one. Despite being boundless and infinite, it is also a “he”, so clearly it must have genitals and go to the toilet. Whatever the case, it inspires adults to talk in serious, hushed tones and use incomprehensible but significant-sounding rhetoric.

In my case, I’d heard of this character by the time I was four, but I didn’t have any clear notion of who or what it could be. In the “book corner” at my Kindergarten, there was a slim hardcover that didn’t have any pictures. I asked the teacher what it was about, and she said in an odd tone, “It’s a book about God.” I turned the book over, and saw on the back cover a photo of a pleasant looking oldish lady with glasses. I can still remember her face. I asked the teacher, “Is that God?” and she became flustered and said “No, no, no, no…” But it was too late. The neurons had fused, and despite the words of the teacher, my little brain had imprinted the image of this sweet old dear, as God. Having had this initial image immediately invalidated, I have never been able to replace it with anything more intelligible.

Then I went to primary school. Due to a rather traditional old head master, the weekly school assembly was started by singing the national anthem. At that time in Australia (1972) the national anthem was a dreary old dirge entitled “God Save the Queen“. I’d seen a picture of the Queen, and she looked rather like that other lady who I had briefly thought to be God, so something resonated.

But the words were distinctly odd: “Send her victorious”, it droned. What exactly is this “victorious” that we are supposed to send her, I wondered. I never received any meaningful answer. But we were also supposed to send her some “happy” and some “glorious” as well. Okay, but how do you send those those things? And why is she going to “rain all over us”?

But the biggest and most fascinating mystery was the very title of the song. I had understood it as “God Saved the Queen”.

What? When did he do that? And how? ….So she was in some kind of trouble, like tied up or in a net or something, and God came and saved her? What did he look like? Who saw it happen? My teacher explained that I had got the song wrong: “We are asking God to save the Queen.” — So the Queen is still in trouble? “No no, it means if the Queen ever gets into trouble, then… oh, never mind…”

And this God character showed up in other places too. Once a week we had scripture classes with a tubby old fellow with glasses and not much hair. His name was “Canon Veril”, which the older kids in the school — who took him rather less seriously than we mystified first-graders did — turned into “Cannon Barrel”. He taught us to close our eyes when we prayed, and not to start crying or hide under the desk when he talked about the Holy Ghost. 

He also taught us The Lord’s Prayer. Its first line mystified us even more with its arcane language:

Our Father, who aren’t in heaven…

Well if he’s not in heaven, where is he? Did he have to go off and rescue the Queen again?

Hallo, what be Thy name?

So no one even knows who he is, even though they keep asking him every day?

In second grade we were told the story of Jesus being stuck in a cave and lying there for a few days and then getting up again or something. It was all quite weird. We had to draw a scene from the story on the cards that Cannon Barrel handed out. I drew Jesus’ body in the tomb, and then for some reason decided to draw a combine harvester in there as well, driving over him. The Canon didn’t like this at all, and as a punishment, snootily refused to collect the drawing like he did all the others. He was a strange person. Both authoritarian and oddly impotent. Not a nasty man, but given to regular bouts of choleric but strangely passive anger.

One little girl, who was very smart because she had glasses, was made to sit in the corridor and do other work of some kind, because her parents didn’t want her to go to scripture classes. Sitting alone in the corridor was usually a punishment, so we were confused about why she was sitting there if she wasn’t in trouble. But she sat there alone for an hour once a week for the whole six years. (As the top student in 6th grade, she was awarded what is known in Australia and the UK as the “Dux of the School” award — another term that had mystified us first-graders when we first heard it, and left us disappointed when no ducks came waddling out to collect their award.)

Posted by Yakaru

Coming soon: a post on religious instruction in schools 

h1

There is No “Western Paradigm”

October 4, 2015

The argument that there is an inherently exploitive “Western” way of perceiving the world, reflects justifiable concerns about neo-colonialist oppression and bigotry. But while it is perfectly valid to criticize lazy or demeaning assumptions about other cultures, the term “Western paradigm” can also be used in a similarly lazy manner, to discredit a particular line of inquiry.

There are other problems with the use of such terminology, too. Often, characteristics that are labeled “Western” are in fact universal. Racism, greed, and colonialism are not exclusively Western; nor, on the positive side, are curiosity and reason. 

It’s neither Western, nor inherently oppressive, to ask straight forward questions about matters of fact. Yet, as we shall see below, such questioning is often dismissed as part of the Western paradigm that tries to subjugate everything to the standard of reason.

The historian Tom Holland made a documentary film a few years ago. in which he asked whether or not the early accounts of the Prophet Mohammed’s life and the development of Islam are really true.

Holland, of course, was aware that the questions he was asking (as well as the evidence he found) were likely to upset some people. He was not merely concerned for his own safety, but also aware that he occupied a privileged position of some academic power, far removed from the people whose history and traditions he was studying. Of course he also comes from a culture that has often exploited and oppressed many predominantly Muslim countries.  

At one point in the film, Holland asked a professor of Islamic Studies if he thought that this line of inquiry was “complicit with the brute fact of Western imperialism”. The professor, Seyyed Hossein Nasr responded:

No, not necessarily, as long as you remain aware of what you are doing. If you come as a western scholar or historian and in all honesty present what your world view is, and say, “When I look at the Islamic world from this paradigm, this is what I see”, and bring out why this is different from how Muslims see themselves, then I think it’s a very honest effort…

This is an intelligent and reasonable answer — an invitation for Holland to do his research and present his results. It is a stark contrast to those who screamed abuse and Holland and made death threats. But Nasr also makes some highly questionable assumptions.

He continues:

Gradually in the West, for the intellectual elite, the sense of the sacred was lost. A tribal person in Africa or in the Amazon has a natural sense of the sacred, whereas a graduate student at Oxford probably doesn’t….. It is from the West that this kind of history came up: that reason is the ultimate decider and judge of the truth…

But “this kind of history” — checking stated facts against available evidence — did not arise “in the West”. It arises pretty much all by itself from human nature. To ascribe it purely to “the West” does a disservice to everyone who has ever asked the simple question, “Is that really true?”

In the 9th Century in Persia, the celebrated physician Al-Razi considered the scriptures of his own culture and started a discussion for which he clearly was not celebrated. He noted that the various prophets contradicted each other and therefore cannot possibly all be right; nor can revelation — varying so wildly between the divine authorities — be trusted as reliable.

Al-Razi:

Prophets are impostors, at best misled by demonic shades of restless and envious spirits. But ordinary folk are fully capable of thinking for themselves and in no need of guidance from another….

How can anyone think philosophically while committed to these old fairy tales founded on contradictions, obdurate ignorance and dogmatism?

Reason, he argued, unlike revelation, is available to all.

Persian_Scholar_pavilion_in_Viena_UN_(Rhazes)Muhammad Zakariyā Rāzī (Al-Razi/Rhazes)

Al-Razi’s genius and importance as a physician no doubt protected him from serious persecution. (His heretical writings, however, were destroyed and are known only from quotations by those who argued against him.) Obviously, anyone daring to speak like that in Iran today would be in grave danger. 

Moreover, if someone speaks like that today in the West, they will probably be accused of letting their imperialist Western paradigm get the better of them. Or, that label’s big brother would be applied and they’d be called an Islamophobe. And, of course, the accusers would remain baffled by the issues raised, and meekly capitulate before their own ignorance for a few centuries more.

Naturally, bigots find it easy enough to doubt the religions of others too — but never their own. (One You-tube user who uploaded a copy of Holland’s documentary used the name martyr4Jesus!)

If there is a peculiarly “Western paradigm”, it would involve the use of the term paradigm.

This idea of a paradigm is quintessentially Western. Of course, the complete package includes the notion of a paradigm shift — which for some reason is only ever predicted to be awaiting those who supposedly hold a “Western” or “materialistic” paradigm. I can’t imagine Professor Nasr predicting that the Amazonian natives will have a revelation and drop their supposed “sense of the sacred” in favor of a materialistic paradigm.

Similarly, the “sense of the sacred” is a vague notion whose only clearly defined quality is a fence that divides it from the “materialistic West”.  The whole of Western scholarship is deemed to be an inherently exploitive paradigm that ethnocentrically distorts and demeans its subject matter, simply to avoid the uncomfortable truth that some stories are myths rather than factual history.

One non-Western academic who took issue with this over-simplification is Ibn Warraq. His book Defending the West identified three aspects of Western culture that are overlooked by those who see Western scholarship as inherently colonialist.

Here is Warraq’s list:

1. Universalism, i.e. recognition that the rights granted to oneself must be granted equally to others.
2. Curiosity and learning for learning’s
sake. (Edward Said had claimed that all knowledge of the Orient was acquired merely to enable colonialist exploitation. Warraq refuted this by pointing to the vast German scholarship of the 19th Century that was carried out in countries where Germany had no colonial interests.)
3. Self criticism.
(I would place the awareness of various paradigms in this category!)

To sum up, it is certainly easier to practice free inquiry in the West. But this should make us want to try to spread this freedom to non-Western countries, not do the opposite: to hinder and devalue it with pejorative labels and lazy judgments. It is ironic, and potentially disastrous, that the only truly Western idea that might ever spread to the Orient is that reason is not a universal quality, but part of an exploitive Western paradigm.

Posted by Yakaru

h1

How Aspects of “moderate” religion morph into dangerous politics

August 11, 2015

Religious leaders are routinely invited to participate in the running of the state, and to enter public discourse on matters about which they haven’t a clue. Their ideas are often totally absurd and transparently self-interested, yet it is widely considered impolite to remark on the worthlessness of their contributions.

Curiously, it is not just religious types who enforce this blanket of politeness. It is often non-believers (especially those inhabiting the “liberal left“) who are quick to tell critics of religion to shut up. “Religion”, they feel, must not be treated as a single category. We must distinguish, they say, between religious “moderates” (who can be indulged as harmless or as potential allies), and extremists (about whom it is frequently asserted are not even religious at all).

Society gains little or nothing from this meek politeness. But worse,  extremists — whether “truly religious” or not — use this welcoming and non-judgmental climate, as a context for gaining access to the hearts and minds of the young.

Below, I outline numerous elements of “moderate” religion that are routinely indulged by democratic societies. These elements themselves may be more or less harmless, but refusing to contest their obvious (if at times trivial) flaws, we are effectively abandoning our first line of defense against extremists.

Problematic Aspects of “Moderate” Religion

Divisiveness

While religion does build communities, it also inevitably creates outsiders and heretics. Due to the arbitrary nature of religious beliefs and practices, there is no way to engage rationally with others about doctrinal matters. Agreeing to disagree is the only peaceful option. But there can be no resolution. The differences will remain, ticking away like a time bomb for generations. They can at any time be invoked as a means to divide people for political ends. (Mussolini cited the monophysite heresy of the Abyssinians, dating back to the 5th Century, as a justification for his invasion of Ethiopia in 1936!)

Ownership and Personal Identity

Religious people identify deeply with their religion or sect. This is no doubt partly a consequence of human nature, but it also involves a calculated strategy on the part of religions to effectively own people. A child is declared to “belong” to some strain of belief, before they can even speak or run away.

To illustrate the extent of this “moderate” presumptuousness, allow me to share that the Church Tax Office in Germany (where I live) is currently checking the records of the Catholic Church in Australia (where I was born) to see if I was baptized. Were they to find my name I would be legally forced to pay an 8% tax on my income for the last 15 years. 

Despite having failed to realize that Nazism is unethical, the Church in Germany is still taken seriously enough to be granted legal access to people’s earnings — on the grounds that they know the mind of God and represent His financial interests.

St Bernhard Hitler Gruß St Bernhard still gives the Nazi salute from a 1936 church tower in Berlin (author photo)

Special Status for the Priesthood

In a healthy society, any special status a person might be granted is attached to the special role that person plays, not to the person themselves. A police officer is only allowed to boss people around under strictly defined circumstances when on duty. Otherwise they have no special rights. Priests, however, claim that they are themselves special — that they belong to an elite class with divinely ordained privileges. 

Obviously, when religious fanatics start recruiting, or when crooks have seized government, this special status immediately gives them swift access to people’s private lives and instinctive submissive impulses. The hierarchical nature of this power structure conditions people, whether they are religious or not, to accept political and religious overlords as a fact of life. (Christopher Hitchens makes this point cogently in the latter chapters of God is Not Great.)

Reward and Punishment

Closely related to this is the fact that priests promise their subjects that god will reward temporal obedience with eternal life in paradise. Priestly authority is built squarely on this foundation — and they don’t have to lift a finger to reward anyone. 

They also invented hell of course, (the most repellent and immoral idea ever formulated). But while they entrust God with rewarding people, they have always happily accepted the burden of punishing sinners themselves. For some reason they don’t want to leave sinners in peace and trust God to deal with them later.

False Ideals and Denial of Human Nature

By creating impossible ideals, religions set people up for guilt, failure, and fear of punishment. It is also psychologically unhealthy to believe that some people (saints, prophets and priests) are holy and have no shadow.

priestly2

This pernicious nonsense is damaging even at its most moderate, yet it is routinely tolerated. In the hands of religious fanatics with power, it becomes perhaps the most invidious tool of oppression and misery. With barely a stricture needing to be altered, it can form an ostensibly credible basis for arbitrary persecution.

The Surrender of Reason

To steal a few lines from Christopher Hitchens, religion — moderate or extreme — involves deciding that the deepest questions about the nature of reality and of our personal existence are to be decided without recourse to rational inquiry. There is of course a long religious tradition debating the role of reason in relation to revelation, but reason has always come out second best.

How can the young be expected to see through the ravings of a religious extremist, when they have never seriously encountered the idea that God does not exist in the first place? As Al Razi pointed out in the Tenth Century, the revelations of the prophets are contradictory, irrational and divisive; but reason is equally accessible to all. (Had he said that today in Iran, he would certainly be persecuted. In the West he would no doubt be called intolerant by the left, or an Islamophobe!)

Closing Thoughts

Religious freedom is a civil and human right. In a secular society people must be free to practice their religion and identify themselves as a member of any peaceful religious group without fear of persecution or discrimination. Strangely, (or maybe not so strangely) many religious people don’t like this idea at all. Ensuring the religious freedom of others necessarily involves curtailing one’s own proselytizing ambitions. This potential loss of power is, no doubt, what religious leaders find so threatening. Public criticism of religion doesn’t “upset the moderates” as much as liberals claim, as open debate should hold no danger for sincere and sensible believers. It does however, undermine the status and influence of a privileged and useless elite.

Let us stop meekly and politely pretending that the elements listed above are useful or necessary for a productive or creative life. They are the accumulated mistakes of history, kept alive for oppressive and parasitic purposes. We need to see them for what they are, and to allow the young access to an antidote for their poisons.

Posted by Yakaru

h1

Are Anti-Popes Real?

April 5, 2015

I’ve always been rather dismayed at the idea of the Catholic Pope. I don’t know how Catholics can take it seriously. God speaks directly to the pope, and only to the pope… except when he dies, in which case God suddenly starts speaking to a committee, telling them who the next pope should be. No one can possibly take such a stupid idea seriously. Yet people, even non-Catholics, treat the Pope as if he’s somehow special, regardless of how much of a degenerate weasel he shows himself to be.

Yet not only are there popes, but also antipopes too! Out of chaos, antipopes are born. Here is an example where two antipopes were created at pretty much the same time.

In the 14th Century, the Church was in turmoil and popery was so unpopular in Italy that the seat of the pope had been moved to France. The French and Roman factions of the College of Cardinals (the committee that elects the pope) couldn’t agree on anything. Upon the death of Pope Gregory XI, the committee was too busy squabbling to hear God’s orders clearly. Each faction wound up electing a pope of their own.

So there were two popes, Pope Urban VI (elected by the Roman cardinals), and Pope Clement VII (elected by the French). This state of affairs continued for about 40 years until a French theologian hit upon the theory of conciliarism. This holds that yet another committee can be formed which is higher than the popes and the College of Cardinals. So God, it turns out, is also prepared to speak directly to this alternative council, if everyone else has been fooling about too much.

Bertrand Russell takes up the story:

At last in 1409 a council was summoned and met in Pisa. It failed, however, in a ridiculous manner. It declared both popes deposed for heresy and schism, and elected a third, who promptly died; but his cardinals elected as his successor an ex-pirate named Baldassare Cossa, who took the name John XXIII. Thus the net result was that there were three popes instead of two, the conciliar pope being a notorious ruffian.

It is exactly for problems like this that the church invented the concept of the antipope. This is a pope who dresses like a pope, acts like a pope, and is believed by many during his lifetime to be a pope, but who in fact isn’t a pope at all, because someone else is and it’s theologically impossible for two popes to exist at once.

Thus, at some later point, poor Clement VII and John XXIII were declared not really to have been popes after all, but rather, antipopes.

Things really start to get complicated when you get down to the subantipopery level. Here we hit some of the higher functions of advanced theology. A pope is allowed to appoint cardinals, but if it is later discovered that this pope was in fact an antipope, then all the cardinals he appointed suddenly — through a spooky “action-at-a-distance” — simultaneously turn into pseudocardinals. And of course, if such a cardinal has appointed cardinal nephews (a cardinal related to the pope), these instantaneously become quasicardinal nephews.

The last of the antipopes was Antipope Felix V, who fulfilled the role from 1439 to 1449.

Thanks to the advent of quantum physics, however, we now know that two popes can indeed appear to exist simultaneously. This has been spectacularly proven in our own time by the “retired” ex-pope Ratzinger and Pope Ingracious XV or what ever his name is.

Footnote: A commenter, “John”, has clarified/corrected the statement in the first paragraph about God talking to the committee. The correction is most welcome, though I would suggest that the clarifications underscore rather than refute the point I was attempting to make!

Posted by Yakaru

h1

Easter Post: Random Thoughts on Religious Literalism

April 3, 2015

I appreciate the idea that Jesus’ crucifixion is a symbol for how we all “have a cross to bear”. And that those in an unbearable situation can take some solace from the thought that a higher being shares their suffering. That’s what myths are for. We all need fictions, because life is unbearable without them.

And I can understand that sometimes we even need to consciously let ourselves believe that our fictions are true… However, if you do this openly or in public, you risk looking silly. It also destroys the initial feelings behind it, because you have to become bullish enough to withstand ridicule or your own fears and self-judgments. This destroys one’s sensibilities and turns the original feelings into parodies of themselves.

I don’t know exactly where the image below comes from — it’s from an Australian newspaper. It’s one of the few occasions when Jesus and the Easter Bunny have been photographed together in the same habitat.

easter bunny jesus

Some guy has tipped ketchup all over himself, imagined that despite the hideous thrashings and beatings that a crucifee would have gone through, he would still have been able to keep his loincloth (or diapers?) neatly in place, and then stood on a post and pretended to be miserable….

…..While children walk by and receive chocolates from the Easter Bunny.

Folks, there’s a better way to do this metaphorical stuff.

Below are some (poor quality) pics I took inside one of the most extraordinary buildings I’ve ever seen, the Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba. It’s a huge mosque with — incredibly — a cathedral stuck in the middle of it.

The contrast between the two approaches to the “sacred” is striking. First the (Andalusian) Islamic approach — no images of humans or animals, just color and designs, forms and empty space; and then suddenly in the middle of it, we’re confronted with torture scenes and bleeding Jesus.

The site was originally a Roman style Visigoth church. Then with the rise of the Umayyad caliphate-in-exile in the 8th Century, it was turned into a stunningly beautiful mosque, using some of the remaining Roman columns; dual arches inspired by the magnificent Roman aqueducts, blended with Islamic architecture and some new innovations.

IMG_0067

Double arches on top of Roman columns, with red brick alternating with limestone — brick giving strength, limestone flexibility. It is impossible to adequately describe the visual effect of all this. The columns in this enormous area, stretching off into the darkness, give a sense of space and meditative stillness; while the red and white double arches are buzz for the senses. Really, it’s like an architectural acid trip with a vision of eternity.

The hall used to hold 20,000 people for Friday prayers. From inside an alcove (see below), the imam would preach.

IMG_0119

IMG_0118

Muslim rule eventually collapsed, due partly to in-fighitng among Muslim leaders, the rise of Christianity as a military and political force, and of course, the random cycles of history. (See Maria Rosa Menocal’s Ornament of the World for an engaging history of the period.)

King Ferdinand II destroyed the center of the hall in the 11th Century and inserted a cathedral in it. The mosque became a glorified entrance hall. (Horrendous as this was, it probably saved the building from later destruction.)

So, in the middle of that extraordinary space, we suddenly get hit with bleeding tortured Jesus. From the profoundly evocative metaphorical to the crass and literal. For my taste, the shock of this change of style is extremely jarring, and accompanied by a great sense of loss.

x

In dark alcoves all around the walls tortured and bleeding saints join with dozens of bleeding Jesuses. (It must have been fashionable at that time to emphasize how horribly chapped and grazed Jesus’ knees must have been. This one’s knees are only a bit grubby in comparison with the others in there. I think I counted about two dozen Jesuses, nearly all with horribly scraped knees. In some cases you could see the bone.)

So to Christians I say, you guys lost something when you removed old Judaic prohibition on images. It destroys all mystical or intuitive feeling. It enforces a particular way of experiencing and imagining things and inhibits others, and generally cheapens everything. Art is one thing, literalism, in my opinion, is another.

22A parrot would have been just as appropriate

Literalism is the death of spiritual feeling, in my opinion, and is always present in oppressive religious systems. There is only one way to interpret the literal, and that’s which ever way the most powerful priest says it is. For Christianity, the Inquisition followed the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Andalusia. Islam saw the triumph of the literalists over the philosophers, and a general stagnation of Islamic culture.

Posted by Yakaru

h1

Everyone has the right to question Islam and draw whatever they want

January 13, 2015

I don’t want to be told by some cartoonist at the Guardian that I should not draw any pictures of the Prophet Mohammed. And I don’t want to be told that it is — or “might be” — racist to do so.

moonNope. Racist cartoons are hate speech, not free speech. Getting firebombed or killed by fanatics does not automatically mean you’re a racist either. But assuming that a billion people will all react identically to a drawing, well that quite probably is racist.

It’s okay, I know I can avoid it by not reading the Guardian. I’m not complaining.

But I do hear this demand not to draw the Prophet from elsewhere too, including from some Muslims. Okay, I can accept it a little more easily from them, but I’m only prepared to take it seriously if I’m offered some very good reasons. And that’s where the trouble starts. No reasons are offered at all. So, of course — and this will shock some people — I have some questions.

Why was it not “offensive to Muslims” to depict Mohammed in the 15th Century?

0_01The Prophet Mohammed — not offensive in 1489

What changed? It looks to me like historically the censors won, and now they are even instructing me to comply. The order has been relayed to me through the pious pages of their craven and unwitting representatives at the Guardian, and secondly, of course, through generalized threats of violence.

And if I don’t comply, I’m a racist, and possibly a dead one. Well I’m sorry, I don’t respect people who talk to me like that.

It is entirely human to want to depict things. It’s human nature. The only reason to order people to stop being human is to get power over them. And that is what’s behind this insane and pathetic edict about not depicting the Prophet.

And are there really no Muslims today who would wish to depict Mohammed in their art, or see religious art depicting him? (And how does anyone at the Guardian know there isn’t?) Christians and Hindus do it all over the place. Every human civilization ever known does this kind of thing. Are all 1.5 billion Muslims different to the rest of humanity in this regard?

Usually people who make absurd generalizations about enormous groups of people are called racists. But here, that term is reserved specifically for those who do not talk in this stupid and ugly manner.

And what would happen to a Muslim who did just that — depicted the Prophet? For a start, they would be called culturally insensitive by the Guardian, and hounded by the same idiots on the left who call Ayaan Hirsi Ali “intolerant” and Maajid Nawaz a “neocon”. I assume I don’t need to say what would happen to such a Muslim if they lived in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.

…….But luckily absolutely no Muslim would even dream of depicting the Prophet in their art, or of wondering about the veracity of the stories about Mohammed. Of course they wouldn’t — that’s just the way those fellows tick. They’re kinda different and exotic. They don’t even notice the censor’s rules. In fact, they love having the censors there to protect them from thinking the wrong thoughts. They need it, the poor darlings. And any neo-colonialist Westerner who speaks out against the censors is endangering the blissful insularity of the 1.5 billion Muslims who flourish under their protection…….

I’m sorry, I’m not buying it. None of it. It’s not wrong to draw pictures or to ask questions. It’s human nature. I cannot believe that all 1.5 billion Muslims have en masse given up this aspect of their humanity. Not all of them. Look in the jails for a start; read Amnesty’s list of political prisoners locked up, tortured, executed for asking questions.

This isn’t religion or spirituality. This is crass, blatant and ugly politics. And remarkably stupid and unrefined politics, at that. Anyone who’s fallen for it should be ashamed of themselves.

I don’t doubt that many Muslims feel upset about those Charlie Hebdo cartoons, especially if they don’t understand them. And they have every right to complain if they wish. But they also have worse things to worry about — like the dark age that has suddenly descended upon the culture they identify with.

You say that Islam deserves respect? How can I respect something — anything — if I’m not allowed to find out what the heck it is? Asking a few polite questions about it, as historian Tom Holland found out, leads to death threats from fanatics and censure from non-Muslims.

You say that Islam has a good model for how to run a modern state, but don’t want to answer any questions or have it criticized? This is why it’s called Islamo-fascism. It’s the very definition of totalitarianism. We can stop it there. You’ve disqualified yourself from being taken seriously. And don’t switch back to saying your feelings have been hurt or that I’m a racist if I question it.

If you want to say that the killers are not the “real” Muslims, well I can understand why Muslims would feel like that, but it’s still no reason for not being allowed to ask questions. In fact it makes it even more important. These lunatics are roaming around using the Qur’an as a recruiting tool. That is where this war started — on the battleground of propaganda. Keeping publicly important ideas like Islam away from public scrutiny gifts political leaders a free hand in shaping, interpreting, and blatantly lying about those ideas to maintain power.

You idiots have no arguments at all. And you either resort to violence, or, in the case of the Guardian, to pious lectures about racism. This is damaging to human beings, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity.

The liberal left still hasn’t properly woken up to this. And on the political right, some church groups are waiting to pounce on the next opportunity to introduce their own anti-blasphemy laws. (Fine by me guys — if you like this medieval stuff, it was blasphemous to translate the Bible into English. You can start by banning that.)

I keep hearing this has nothing to do with religion, and I kinda agree in a way. Religion is being used as a political tool, and uses the cloak of piety to avoid scrutiny and avoid losing its persuasive power. So by questioning it; by pointing and laughing at it when its conceits are revealed, we are not insulting anybody’s religion, just their politics. It’s their own stupid fault if they don’t understand the distinction, not mine. And their politics in this case needs to be opposed right now with everything we’ve got.

Posted by Yakaru