Religion vs. Reality

We face today one of the great challenges of modern civilization. We stand at a crossroad of social evolution, with half of humanity pulling us back the road of belief, while the other half, marginalized by their disbelief, struggle to push us toward a new way of seeing the world. We are faced squarely over an issue that, for all the thought I pour into it, doesn't seem to offer any real means of resolving itself.

I would like to think that the rapture is soon coming, so that the believers will be carted away to their pie in the sky and leave the rest of us here to finally get around to the business of making this world a livable one. But, as I don't believe in the Judeo-Christian god, I think that scenario is unlikely. All humor aside, humans today are facing a deeply serious threat of religious fundamentalism. While this isn't entirely a modern problem, it has become critical today because of the increasing boldness of non-believers, and the subsequent threat believers feel when faced with the rules of logic and science.

Jonathon Miller, producer of the recently aired A Brief History of Disbelief, gives a brilliant historical account of atheism, trying to make sense of why it has taken so long for non-believers to aggregate into a cohesive movement. The 3 hour documentary aired across the country on PBS, yet some of the affiliate stations refused to broadcast it because of its sensitive nature. While I don't agree with the stations who refused to run Miller's piece, I do understand how some might be challenged by it. But then, if belief is so solid, why would believers reject a serious, historically critical look into the history of non-belief.

Without asking serious (and sometimes dangerous) questions, we'll continually reject any such effort to modernize our morality. This rejection will invariably come from those whose beliefs dictate their reason, their action. True belief stands directly opposed to reform, because it states that laws written down in sacred texts are eternal and unchanging, and any attempt to modernize them is the work of some devil. In that light, all free thinkers are minions of the fallen one, put here to test their faith. The great British Philosopher Bertrand Russell said:
"You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world."
Perhaps that is why our moral progress is today so antiquated. Religion disallows advancement in morality, primarily because of this unchanging principle. In an online debate between Theologian Douglas Wilson and Atheist Christopher Hitchens, the latter gives a telling example of this continuing question of whether our morality derives itself from Christianity, or something else...
Although Christianity is often credited (or credits itself) with spreading moral precepts such as "Love thy neighbor", I know of no evidence that such precepts derive from Christianity. To take one instance from each Testament, I cannot believe that the followers of Moses had been indifferent to murder and theft and perjury until they arrived at Sinai, and I notice that the parable of the good Samaritan is told of someone who by definition cannot have been a Christian.

To these obvious points, I add that the "Golden Rule" is much older than any monotheism, and that no human society would have been possible or even thinkable without elementary solidarity (which also allows for self-interest) between its members. Though it is not strictly relevant to the ethical dimension, I would further say that neither the fable of Moses nor the wildly discrepant Gospel accounts of Jesus of Nazareth may claim the virtue of being historically true. I am aware that many Christians also doubt the literal truth of the tales but this seems to me to be a problem for them rather than a difficulty for me. Even if I accepted that Jesus—like almost every other prophet on record—was born of a virgin, I cannot think that this proves the divinity of his father or the truth of his teachings. The same would be true if I accepted that he had been resurrected. There are too many resurrections in the New Testament for me to put my trust in any one of them, let alone to employ them as a basis for something as integral to me as my morality.
Hitchens doesn't necessarily disagree with basic moral codes like The Golden Rule, only to those codes being the direct product of Christianity. Common sense allows us to understand that if we treat our friends terribly, we'll in turn be treated this way. It's obvious, and we don't need verbose scripture to get that point across. Hitchens finishes his short essay be observing the following...
I cannot, of course, prove that there is no supervising deity who invigilates my every moment and who will pursue me even after I am dead. (I can only be happy that there is no evidence for such a ghastly idea, which would resemble a celestial North Korea in which liberty was not just impossible but inconceivable.) But nor has any theologian ever demonstrated the contrary. This would perhaps make the believer and the doubter equal—except that the believer claims to know, not just that God exists, but that his most detailed wishes are not merely knowable but actually known. Since religion drew its first breath when the species lived in utter ignorance and considerable fear, I hope I may be forgiven for declining to believe that another human being can tell me what to do, in the most intimate details of my life and mind, and to further dictate these terms as if acting as proxy for a supernatural entity. This tyrannical idea is very much older than Christianity, of course, but I do sometimes think that Christians have less excuse for believing, let alone wishing, that such a horrible thing could be true.
Thought provoking, to say the least. It is impossible to prove the non-existence of Yahweh, but then it is also impossible to disprove unicorns, or Zeus. I find it telling that Wilson opens his rebuttal with this:
P. G. Wodehouse once said that some minds are like soup in a poor restaurant—better left unstirred. I am afraid that I find myself sympathizing with him as I consider atheism.
Now why would that be? Why is it better to not ask the difficult questions? I remember my own experience of leaving the religion of my parents, when, one Sunday I stood up and asked a question that the speaker thought couldn't be answered, and his response that "such questions shouldn't be asked" basically booted my believing ass out the door. It is not enough to say we shouldn't stir the mind, because that's the tool that the universe has given us. Frankly, we slap nature in the face when we refuse to look at things rationally and logically, because those are our gifts. Faith proves nothing, and as we have seen in recent years, can be hijacked by those with inhumane intentions. Suicide bombings are done in faith that one is dying for a 'higher cause', but in the end one is just acting out of selfishness.

Morality is in need of modernization. But, as Emile Zola notes...
Civilization will not attain to its perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest!
I think there may be some truth here. Religion is a weight that keeps our ship anchored in the port of the past. It defies social evolution, it marginalizes unbelievers, and it is based (almost entirely) on things that are not independently verifiable. In this age of science and reason, we would be well served by understanding that it is not religion that keeps us good humans, but it is ourselves, our innate desire to be good humans. Call it enlightened self interest, call it common sense, call it what you will, just don't attribute it to texts that were written thousands of years ago. Because, after all, those texts have also been used to propagate some of the most horrific atrocities in human history.

I've yet to meet a scientist who wants to die for his equations. Science, it must be understood, is disprovable and verifiable, the very opposite of religion. So what is to be done? I don't know, but it appears the dialogue is heating up, and the unbelievers are finally finding their tongues.


Hildegard of Bingen

There are few women of the late Middle Ages that ignite the fascination of modern historians like Hildegard von Bingen. While the dust of Asia Minor was settling upon the victors of the first crusade, twelfth-century Europe was undergoing in its own transformation. Peter Abelard, the progenitor of the Theologic, fought as any crusader against the tyranny of systems that had come to represent the Catholic Church. Bernard of Clairvaux, a fierce dogmatist and Cistercian, became self-assigned taskmaster to the inertia that had become Christianity. He polished, as an artist his stone, the imperfections that had appeared over the darkest days of Europe. It was a renaissance balanced by war, a thing often done in the west.

Unlike the crusades, those fighting of the front lines of Europe were engaged in a personal battle; reclaiming Jerusalem became akin to the rediscovery of ones self, ones relationship to divinity. Hildegard of Bingen represented this perfectly. Born into a world dominated by patriarchy, Hildegard defied convention by rising above the standard tariff imposed upon most women of her age. She was confidant to Kings and Popes, a prodigious letter writer and orator; yet more importantly Hildegard was the darling of her Deity.

Until very recently, Hildegard of Bingen was nothing more than a footnote in the great Christian book, yet as Donald Logan points out in his seminal work The History of the Church in the Middle Ages, “one neglects an examination of her accomplishments at the risk of gaining only a limited and incomplete view of the twelfth-century.” (1) And why is it important that we gain a more complete view of this period of Christianity? The twelfth-century was, according to many historians, the period in which the Catholic Church shed its old skin--the dense shadows of medieval Europe were receding and it was incumbent upon the clergy to embody this progression into a new era, to open doors leading out of centuries of darkness. As Hildegard was female, and therefore not of the clergy, it is all the more fascinating that it is she who would come to most perfectly embody this great shift.

Of all the accomplishments afforded Hildegard, perhaps most stunning are the strange and colorful visions that attended her (often as migrainous fits, it has been said) through most of her adult life. She summarizes the genesis of these visions in her preface to Scivias.
When I was 42 years and 7 months old, in the year 1141, the heavens opened to me and my brain was flooded by an exceedingly brilliant light. It warmed my whole heart and being in the same way that sun gives warmth. (2)
And continues by noting how the vision also coalesced her understanding of the scriptures, not their “grammar and syntax” but their meaning, a kind of divine exegesis. At a time when clericalism dominated the hierarchy of the Church, tugging at it like dead weight, Hildegard’s illuminations infused the Catholic system with a much-needed buoyancy.

The process leading to Hildegard’s recognition of these visions was made critical when, after one such experience, she fell ill. In her own words she illustrates how it was “not in stubbornness but in humility…I refused to write for so long that I felt pressed down under the whip of God into a bed of sickness." (3)

One can sympathize with Hildegard’s reticence when pressed with a situation that has often led to heresy. To accept her visions as divinely originated would be tantamount to reopening an old Christian wound, the same that were made sore by the great heretic Montanus. But there was little choice for Hildegard, as her pen, once dipped, seemed to be the natural remedy she was seeking:
Beaten down by many kinds of illnesses, I put my hand to writing. Once I did this, a deep and profound exposition of books came over me. I received the strength to rise up from my sick bed, and under that power I continued to carry out the work to the end, using all of ten years to do it. (4)
The work she refers to, Scivias (Know the Ways), contained the bulk of her visions and was made popular by Pope Eugenius III at the council of Trier, where he read from a section of her work. This move by Eugenius was critical in sanctioning Hildegard’s visions, and one can only assume the kind of self-confidence it infused in its author.

Soon after completing Scivias, Hildegard found herself suddenly facing an entirely new situation; the reading by Eugenius had formally sanctioned her work, and she was fast becoming a household name throughout Christendom. The following decade found Hildegard writing a voluminous collection of letters, correspondences that not only solidified her role as ambassador and teacher, but also made her prophetess to her theological community. In a letter to Frederick Barbarossa, she chastened the emperor to quit acting “like a little boy, like one that has lost his mind.” Letters to Bernard of Clairvaux and Eugenius’ successor Pope Anastasius IV (1153-54) also figured strongly in her ever-widening circle of acquaintances.

Far from being the culmination in what could already be seen as a staggering achievement, Hildegard forged along an unmarked path in a forest of patriarchy to achieve a kind of success rarely seen, by any man or woman. Barbara Newman, in an essay entitled Sibyl of the Rhine, extrapolates the exact nature of Hildegard’s influence:
Among countless “firsts" and “onlies” to her credit, Hildegard was the only women of her age to be accepted as an authoritative voice on Christian doctrine: the first woman who received express permission from a pope to write theological books; the only medieval woman who preached openly, before mixed audiences of clergy and laity, with the full approval of church authorities; the author of the first known morality play and the only twelfth-century playwright who is not anonymous; the only composer of her era (not to mention the only medieval woman) known both by name and by a large corpus of surviving music; the first scientific writer to discuss sexuality and gynecology from a female perspective; and the first saint whose official biography includes a first-person memoir. (5)
The list is overwhelming, to be sure, and is included here to offer the reader a greater understanding of her role, not just as author and visionary, but icon. Because Hildegard was unable to become educated in the traditional manner, her insights and accomplishments can only be understood by taking seriously her connection to what she termed lux vivens (the living light). She describes this active force in much the same way early Christian disciples did, as the energy and presence of the Holy Spirit, but diverges from the clerical tendency “to employ more static notions of supreme being or goodness"(6) to the Divine. In this Hildegard “shifts attention away from an unchanging truth beyond creation to a light that is alive.”

An active relationship with Divinity is often the first casualty of religion, as the tendency of organizations is to lean toward solidity in effort to preserve the original intention. Heresy (unaccepted revelation) is ever struggling to spark movement in the system, to challenge it lethargy. Hildegard’s use of the phrase lux vivens offered the same challenge, but as she was not proposing radical shifts in theology her message was never opposed. Rather, it could be seen that her revelations were a gentle reminder to an aged system, prompting her spiritual community to reconstitute the original relationship to spirit so enjoyed by the early disciples.

For all Hildegard’s accomplishments, it could be argued that this period of Christianity did in fact find its purest expression in her visions. It is perhaps symbolic of her life that she published The Book of Divine Works—a study that explored relationships between microcosm and macrocosm—as it is Hildegard who most perfectly embodied the external repossession of Jerusalem by reclaiming its metaphoric corollary, the human heart.

  1. Donald Logan, The History of the Church in the Middle Ages (New York, 2002), p. 174.
  2. Ibid, p. 174.
  3. Matthew Fox, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen (Santa Fe, 1985), p. 27.
  4. Ibid, p. 27.
  5. Barbara Newman, Voice of the Living Light, ed. Barbara Newman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 1.
  6. Constant Mews, Voice of the Living Light, ed. Barbara Newman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 55.
Reese Zollinger
(Fair use of above material)

Edit to add:

This essay was written just over a year ago for a university class - The History of Christianity. Since that time I have grown steadily more critical of all religious organizations, but reserve some deep respect for certain historical members of the various faiths - like Bede and Hildegard of Bingen in Christianity, Rumi of Sufism, or the now mythical sixth-century Buddhist monk Bodhidharma. The brilliance of these individuals though is not the exact product of their religion, but merely gained expression under that particular moral system. Hildegard's Lux Vivens could be the very same thing as the Buddhist Samadhi, or the drunkenly poetic love of Rumi.


The Ouroboros Dispatch

Photo via wikicommons.
  • BBC, producer of the documentary, has a disbelief quiz for all you atheists.
  • A 4,200-year-old temple in Peru is home to the New World's Oldest Calender. Great article by the Smithsonian magazine.
  • Continuing coverage of the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder of Bee's worldwide.
  • Via truthdig. Scott Ritter: Calling Out Idiot America. The website also has a great interview of Gore Vidal by Robert Scheer.
  • An older article on sunspots, but still relevant.


The Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry illustrates one of the most decisive points in western civilization: the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The video above shows a bit of it in animated form. The tapestry itself is an incredible 230 ft. long by 20 in. high; an embroidering of wool thread on a linen background. As you can see from the video, it is divided into three seperate bands, with the middle containing the story while the upper and lower bands being used mostly for decoration. It is an incredible piece of artistry and history, and our best source for understanding how the Normans justified their attack on England.

In the Anglo-Saxons and the Pirates of Vin post, I tried to give a brief history of the Viking invasions of England, and how the stage and characters were set leading up to the Norman conquests (remember the Normans were also Vikings who had come to settle in France). In this post, my aim is to look at the Bayeux Tapestry and its historical importance in understanding this event.

It's a complex story, to be sure. So to simplify it, I'll just give you the basic details of the Tapestry itself, and a brief overview of the situation leading up to William's conquest.

Edward the Confessor died on January 5, 1066, just over 9 months before William the Conqueror invaded England. Edward, like his father Æthelred the Unready, was given an honorific to define his role in the breakdown of Anglo-Saxon rule in England. Unlike Æthered, Edward's title was not disparaging, and seems more like a religious coronation (his confessor status comes from this refusal to have sex with his wife). In Christian parlance, this title is just below martyr, meaning he stood for his religious principles almost unto death.

Edward spent 28 years living with his mother, Æthelred's wife (and confusingly, the later wife of Cnut) Emma, in Normandy, France. He came of age there, and it is also there that he developed relationships that would influence his reign many years later. After the death of Harthacnut, his half brother, he returned to England and took the kingship. But, because he spent his childhood among the Normans, his loyalty and strength were highly uncertain

But that's not the end of the complexity, and the back-story is seemingly infinite, so I'll try to be concise. After the death of Edward in early 1066, Harold (son of Godwin) took the throne. Godwin was a powerful Earl of Mercia, and since Edward had left no children, the royal succession was left uncertain.

Or was it. The major theme in the Bayeux tapestry is that Edward sent Harold to the court of William in Normandy years earlier to reaffirm Edwards’s commitment that it would be William that would succeed him. Harold is shown in the tapestry affirming (on holy relics) Williams right of succession, and it was this contention that allowed William to get a papal blessing from Rome before invading England.

The Anglo-Saxon side of the story is different, and claims that neither Edward nor Harold made this oath to William. But the victors are often the authors of history, and to this day historians are uncertain what actually happened.

Nevertheless, William did invade later in the year 1066. He got news of Harold’s ascension earlier that year, but because of unfavorable winds and his need to increase the size of his navy, he waited until September to invade. On October 14 he encountered the forces of Harold at the now infamous Battle of Hastings, and was victorious. It is said that Harold died by taking an arrow in the eye, an ignominious end to the great son of Godwin.

Soon after the battle, William’s brother Odo commissioned the tapestry to be made for commemorating he and his brothers work in subduing England. It was finished around 1082 and presented at the dedication of a cathedral (Odo was a bishop). Until the 19th century, the tapestry was nearly unknown outside of Normandy, France. It escaped a few near mutilations, and was finally popularized by Napoleon, when in 1803 he used it as a kind of propaganda piece to argue that England could be conquered.

During WWII, Hitler also studied the Bayeux tapestry to see if it held secrets to invading and subduing the English. That didn’t happen, of course. Today, it is held in a special building in Bayeux, France, where visitors can enjoy its incredible artistic and historical features.

Evolution vs. the GOP

The big elephant in the room: creationism

In last nights republican presidential debates, John McCain was asked point-blank whether or not he believes in evolution. His answer, yes.

The Politico's moderator then asked for a show of hands from the ten candidates as to who didn't believe in evolution. One would have expected a no show on that one, it being the 21st century and all...

But, three of the ten candidates raised their hands, claiming they didn't believe in evolution. What??? They have got to be kidding, right? What has happened to America? Have we hit a cultural speed bump? The three candidates, for your information, are Sam Brownback, Governor Mike Huckabee, and Tom Tancredo.

Now, I just have to say, because this is really disturbing. I think we need a new rule about who can and who cannot become president of the United States. If you discount scientific theories because they go against your beliefs, you shouldn't be able to become president. Its very simple, really. We wouldn't allow believers of The Great Flying Spaghetti Monster or the tooth fairy to have high public office, so why believers in creationism? No evidence exists for it, but people believe it, regardless. It is truly perplexing.

It's fine that people believe as they want, but it isn't OK for someone holding high public office to not understand basic scientific theories, and the scientific method. After all, even the staunchest believers enjoy the fruits of the scientific method, so it is just hypocrisy when they claim to believe in creationism while standing in front of a Boeing 737. It is science, after all, that has given us these modern conveniences.

Update: Crooks and Liars has the video up, check it out.


Bill Moyers is Back

Moyers interviews John Stewart.

Because of finals consuming every ounce of my spare energy, I haven't been able to devote much time here. But, I wanted to post this Moyers interview of The Daily Show's John Stewart. Many of you have seen this already, I'm sure. For those that haven't, here is the first part of the the interview. It is of questionable digital quality. For the high-res version you should visit the site of Moyers new acclaimed PBS program Bill Moyers Journal.

I think we are privileged to have Moyers around. Sometimes, I think he is the only media personality (other than Olbermann and the party over at Comedy Central) who dares talk truth to power. If you haven't heard of his new program, it airs on PBS every week. His 90 minute documentary about the complicity of the media in the run up to the Iraq war is essential, and you can also find that on the link above.