The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

Why I am an atheist – The third bit

The story so far: Young impressionable boy attends very wacky Catholic school then moves to less wacky Catholic school but ends up deciding that just because something is less wacky doesn’t mean it isn’t wacky.

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I was walking through Sydney airport. I can’t remember the exact date, and I can’t remember where I was going, but I was definitely walking because my feet were moving alternately in a forwards direction, and it was definitely Sydney airport because it was Sydney and I had paid too much for parking and there were planes everywhere. I also remember that I decided to pop into the book shop, and a book with a bright red and white cover caught my attention. It had “The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins” plastered across the front cover, almost certainly because that was the book’s title and author.

“That looks interesting,” I thought. So I picked up a copy, opened it to a random page, and started reading.

Now, it doesn’t happen very often, but every now and then you discover something so profound, so Earth-shattering, that it shakes you to your very core. One minute you’re sitting there thinking you’ve got it all figured out, and then BAM! A feint breath of knowledge has left you breathless, or a truth has suddenly rendered everything a lie, and all of a sudden you know nothing, Jon Snow. You know what I’m talking about. It’s that feeling you had when you first saw the end of The Sixth Sense (OMG he’s the dead person!), or the opening credits of Renegade (OMG he was a cop and good at his job!), or when your parents told you that Santa Claus isn’t real (OMG they were the ones secretly judging me all year!). And as I was standing there in the airport bookshop reading those random pages, I realised I was right in the middle of one of those moments. Yes, my friends, in that one, single instant, I was struck by an immediate, sublime realisation.

“This book is crap,” I thought.

Now I know what you’re thinking. “Don’t judge a book by its cover and a few random pages you read at the airport.” And OK, fine, that’s a well-known and common expression when it comes to books. But then again, I was able to conclude that Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey were crap after reading a few random pages at the airport, and we all know how they turned out. Well I don’t because I concluded they were crap and didn’t read them. But the point is that I’m really good at deciding that a book is crap after reading a few random pages at the airport, and my brief encounter with The God Delusion hadn’t done much to make me doubt the awesomeness of my crap detecting abilities.

Perhaps that surprises you. It definitely surprised me. I mean I expected Twilight and 50 Shades to be crap, since there’s only so much quality you can muster if you’re a barely literate moron writing about emotionally-stunted haemophiles who sparkle outdoors, or nauseatingly bland soulless billionaires with mummy issues. But Dawkins was a well-respected evolutionary biologist with a fancy accent and a dozen best-selling books to his name. And he was writing about one of the oldest and most important questions mankind has ever pondered. Surely he could manage to avoid being crap while I read a few random pages at the airport.

Surely.

___

If you’re going to argue against one of the oldest and most important questions that mankind has ever pondered, you’re probably a little boring and don’t have any friends. But also, you should at least have the decency to consider the best arguments mankind has to offer. For Dawkins, this apparently amounted to something called the “five proofs of Thomas Aquinas”.

For those that don’t know, Aquinas is something of a rock star in the Catholic Church, and would definitely be lead guitarist if Jesus ever started a band, which would obviously be called Nine Inch Nailed and have hit songs like “There’s something about Virgin Mary”, “Judas is a jerk”, and “I died on the cross for you, you selfish bastards”. Anyway, while not writing hit singles with his Lord and Saviour, Thomas apparently liked to spend a bit of time thinking about some of the most important questions mankind has ever pondered. So as well as being a little boring and not having any friends, he also thought about the existence of God, and came up with what he believed were five indisputable facts that proved His existence. I say “His” existence, because if God does exist then he’s obviously a man, since, you know, childbirth. And mansplaining morality on inconveniently phallic stone tablets.

Anyway, this was all news to me while I was standing there in the airport bookshop. In 12 years of Catholic schooling I had never seen or read anyone trying to prove God’s existence before, let alone someone as revered as Thomas Aquinas. After all, what’s the point of proving something so obvious?

Aquinas attempted it anyway, apparently, and concluded that yes, there is a God. This was probably a good thing for Thomas, given the consequences for concluding otherwise at the time, but I digress. The point is that Aquinas’ arguments as presented by Dawkins seemed to be if not outright asinine, then at least very, very silly. Now don’t get me wrong. Aquinas is one of the all-time intellectual titans of the Church, and probably knew Latin and how to spell “transubstantiation” and the difference between the immaculate conception and the Virgin birth. But there was no escaping the fact that his arguments were, in a word, crap. The conclusion for me was obvious. Dawkins was a massive jerk who’d deliberately left out all the good arguments for God’s existence, and just included the crap ones.

“Screw you, Dawkins,” I thought. “I’ll read the in-flight magazine instead.”

And I did. It had an article about two Instagram influencers from the Gold Coast who tried cupping in Canggu. It was called “Two Girls One Cupping”, and it was not crap.

___

Several years later, the red and white book that I had disgustedly discarded in an airport bookshop had sold three million copies, spawned a multitude of books in reply, and kick-started the New Atheist movement. The in-flight magazine I had chosen instead had achieved none of those things. It was time, then, to give “The God Delusion” another go.

Perhaps it was the intervening years of ever-dwindling faith, or the fact that I wasn’t reading a random chapter at the airport, but upon reading it properly for the first time, it didn’t immediately strike me as crap. In fact, it was so not crap that by the time I was a few chapters in I was actually starting to think that maybe Dawkins kind of had a point.

Books being what they are, I was of course destined to eventually reach the bit about the five proofs of Thomas Aquinas. You know, the bit that I had read at the airport and decided was crap. And by turning the pages in a sequential fashion, which is how my mum taught me to read books, I did indeed reach that bit. Here they are, paraphrased by me, in all their glory:

  1. Stuff moves, but can only move if moved by something else. So, like an awkward first date, someone had to make the first move.
  2. Stuff is caused, but nothing can cause itself. So there must be someone to blame for all this shït.
  3. Stuff exists, but nothing can bring about its own existence. So all this shït had to come from somewhere.
  4. Stuff can be good, but goodness is relative, so there must be something reeeeeeeeally supremely good against which we measure stuff’s goodness.
  5. Everything looks designed, including us. So there must be a designer.

So there you go.

The good news is that they appeared to be pretty much as I remembered them, which admittedly doesn’t happen very often, what with my memory being a bit rubbish. The good news, however, was that… oh wait, I’ve said the good news already, dammit. The bad news was that they still appeared to be crap. Proofs 1 to 3 are basically the same, and just scream intellectual laziness. “I can’t think of any other way this might have happened, so… God!”. Proof 4 is one of the most ridiculously see-through non sequiturs in the history of mankind. Goodness is relative so there must be something that is infinitely good? On what planet does that make sense? The only one that maybe had a chance was Proof 5. But that was hardly decisive, especially given the idiocy of the other four.

I read them again, slowly, and then I read them once more. And try as I might I just couldn’t shake the feeling that something had to be missing. Surely the ultimate question of life the universe and everything didn’t boil down to three identical platitudes, a play on words, and ignorance of evolution.

Surely.

Luckily for me, I was at home and had access to Google. So I googled “the fuve proobes of thomas aquians”, and after Google helpfully corrected my typing I soon discovered something incredible. Dawkins had, in fact, fairly and accurately presented the five proofs of Thomas Aquinas, and these were, in fact, the best arguments for God going around. People were still using them today, some 800 years later. Needless to say, this came as quite a shock. And so instead of wondering whether Dawkins was a massive jerk, I found myself wondering something else.

“Hang on… is this all we’ve got?”

And so began a big personal voyage of discovery. But you’ll have to wait for Part 4, so there.

– Tim

Why I am an atheist – The first bit

It’s a sin to kiss girls for pleasure.

Or at least, that’s what the Catholic religious studies teacher said to his class of impressionable 13-year-old boys, on an otherwise uneventful day, at an otherwise unremarkable school, in Sydney’s north west. While most of the boys nodded their heads in solemn approval, and a few struggled to stifle their sniggers, one of the boys did neither. For that boy, something about the teacher’s pronouncement just didn’t make sense. So he sat for a moment in ponderous silence, until he was struck by a sudden realisation.

“Oh my god!” he blasphemed internally. “That means it’s OK to kiss them as punishment! And it’s OK to kiss boys for pleasure.”

Needless to say, Thomas went on to become a Catholic priest, and an expert in Canon Law. Funnily enough, I also happened to be in that class, but I was struck by a different thought.

Why else would you kiss girls?
_____

Now that I am an atheist, it’s easy to look back at events like that and say, in a Wonder Years voice, that that’s when I knew. That was the moment. That was the first, small tug on the thread of my religious belief, that led to the unraveling of my entire Catholic cardigan. It’s also easy to say that it was the reason I didn’t kiss a girl until I was 19, but if I’m being honest, it had little to do with either at the time. The truth is that I was an insufferable little holy child, up to my holy little eyeballs in Jesus. And my teacher’s idiotic pronouncement on kissing, while slightly puzzling when I was 13, didn’t announce itself as completely idiotic until much later.

Until that happy thought dawned on me, however, I had a religion to immerse myself in. So after being born, somewhat ironically, in the City of Churches (now known as Radelaide), I set about Catholic-ing the absolute shït out of it. I prayed. I learned my Catechism. I gave up lollies for Lent (well, sort of). I had my Reconciliation, First Communion and Confirmation. I went to confession and told a celibate old man that I was a really shït 13-year-old. I had that same celibate old man tell me that if I said three Hail Marys I’d be turned back into a not-quite-as-shït 13-year-old. I asked for, and was given, a missal for my birthday. I went to Mass. I capitalised the word “Mass”. I accepted the absolute, mind-mashing lunacy of transubstantiation. I went to Mass and believed that I was eating a thin, tasteless wafer made of actual Baby Jesus. And when I ate Baby Jesus, I made sure to have the priest put Him straight on my tongue, lest I get some Baby Jesus on my hands, and then put my hand in my pocket, and then put my pants in the washing machine, and end up drowning poor Baby Jesus in warm water and OMO (no, I’m not joking). I wore a scapula. I said the Regina Coeli every midday during Lent, and the Angelus every midday otherwise. I had a guardian angel, who I named Raphael. And when I went to bed, I prayed for my elder brother’s immortal soul – out loud – while he was trying to sleep on the bunk above me (he was very grateful for the help, and didn’t think I was an annoying, pious little shït at all).

You might wonder why I felt the need to pray for my brother’s immortal soul. I mean, let’s face it, Sydney’s North West is a long way from Sodom, even before Hillsong moved in. But chief amongst our Catholic duties was going to Mass every Sunday, so we went to Mass every Sunday, until one day my brother decided not to go to Mass every Sunday. This was, embarrassingly, quite big news at the time. “But… but… we have to go to Mass on Sunday!”, I protested. Now, you might think that, being a child, my protestations were of the “it’s not fair that I have to go and he doesn’t” variety. Looking back now, I wish they were, but the truth is much more naff.

You see, one of the Ten Commandments is to honour the Sabbath. And according to the particular brand of Catholicism that I was exposed to (Opus Dei), that meant going to Mass on Sunday. Not going to Mass on Sunday therefore constituted a mortal sin – a sin considered so heinous that, if left unforgiven, warrants an eternity in Hell. So, essentially, if my brother skipped Mass and then got hit by a bus before going to confession, he’d end up in Hell all because he hadn’t gone and pretended to listen to a celibate old man turn a cracker into a miscreant Jewish tradie. I’d then be sad because I wouldn’t get to see him for all eternity because I was definitely going to heaven on account of my weekly consumption of the aforementioned tradie. This was a problem. So I did what any little brother would do and told one of my teachers. He then suggested the one course of action that was absolutely guaranteed to not accomplish anything – prayer – and I thus found myself annoying the living shït out of my brother, by praying for his soul from the bottom bunk. He of course told me to shut the hell up. And I of course prayed that god would forgive him for telling me to shut the hell up. And if I could wish for anything right now, I would wish that none of this actually happened.

In any event, my prayers had little effect. My brother did not start going to Mass, and he did not start going to confession to confess the fact that he wasn’t going to mass. I, meanwhile, began to wonder why god would send a perfectly nice human to hell for all eternity, for the perfectly understandable crime of not spending an hour listening to a celibate old man turn a wafer into Baby Jebus and then not going to confession to pretend to be sorry about it. The whole thing seemed a little… well… silly. Not to mention mean.

It was at that point that my parents and I decided that perhaps Opus Dei wasn’t the most sensible version of Catholicism, and we thought it might be a good time to throw our luck in with the Jesuits.

So we did.

And that’s when shït got interesting. But you’ll have to wait for Part 2. So there.

Secular Understandings of the Bible – Creation and Paradise

creation and paradise

In most creation stories the same themes tend to emerge, namely: separation, categorisation and what Levi-Strauss likes to call the ‘tension between the raw and the cooked’, or, in other words, the essential conflict between sedentary civilisation and hunter/gatherer models of life.

Genesis deals fairly curtly with the first two of these (separation and categorisation), taking care of it all within a handful of verses. It’s almost as if the authors felt that this story was already known and, looking at Sumerian/Babylonian/Egyptian myth there’s good reasons to believe that this is the case. The undeniable cross-propagation of these cultures meant that there was already a template of sorts for creation. In all of these cultures there is a sort of organiser god, one who is not necessarily tied to a single idea or aspect of nature, but who resonates with the role of administrator or scribe. Generally, this god sits around in some kind of no-space/time and, for reasons which are usually obscure, goes about separating light from dark, water from earth, and so on. Hard on the heels of this sorting endeavour comes an account of the first man. And yes, it usually is a man.

In understanding the parallels between this kind of god and the function and legitimacy of government in ancient civilisations, I think the etiological purpose of creation stories is pretty obvious. What’s less obvious, though, is whether or not the creators of these stories actually expected them to be believed as literal truth. This is another subject on which people much cleverer and more erudite than myself have spent years shouting at each other about, which makes me a little hesitant to add my own two cents. For what it’s worth, though, my own reading has nearly persuaded me that they did not. What we’re looking at for a great part of history is alien mentality. The world as we see it is necessarily very different from that perceived by ancient and proto-historical peoples. I think that looking at the way Classical Greeks and Romans talked about their own myths, as well as the relationship with magic and mysticism still existing amongst less developed cultures, should reveal to us that there are many ways in which to interpret and understand truth, and that the literal interpretation of myth and magic is a view more likely to be found amongst questionably sane modern Westerners than anywhere else.

A note about alien mentality: Anthropologist Nigel Barley tells an excellent story from his first field assignment in Africa. He became aware that the people he was studying simply had no concept of photography as a representation of self. He noticed that all of their ID cards had the same picture. The idea of individuality or a sense of self being transferrable or recordable in this way was completely alien to their existence. When testing this idea, he handed one person a photograph of a lion. He looked at the photo, turned it over, and then said, “I do not know this man.” His brain was either incapable or simply refused to understand representation in photographic form. If such variation in psychic landscape can exist synchronologically, then it surely follows that it must exist across time as well.

Anyway, we move from the suspiciously familiar creation story to the much abused tale of Adam and Eve. Frankly disgusting attempts to co-opt this story by fundamentalists, anti-equality groups, and other loonies are, I think, so far wide of the point they may as well stop talking about the story entirely. It’s the elements of the story, appreciated in context, which are important. Sure, on one level, this is an implausible fairy tale about God, a dysfunctional couple and talking animals in a garden, but this is really the least important level. What we’re talking about here is the advent of civilisation, and the deep problems this causes to the human psyche. The fruit of knowledge is such a widespread trope it deserves a post all to itself, but that’s not one I’m qualified to write. For the purposes of this article, however, suffice it to say that knowledge in the mythical sense is about self-awareness. It’s hard to imagine, but it’s generally agreed that self-awareness, or a sense of self, isn’t something we humans have always had. This means there must have been some point in time when humans somehow acquired it, and there’s a compelling argument to be made that most stories which contain the knowledge trope are attempts to interpret the dim memory of this. If you want to look into this idea further, Professors William Propp and Steve Tinney do a much better job than me of explaining it.

Leaving the megalithic topic of knowledge aside, though, understanding that this is what the Adam and Eve story is about tends to clarify the rest of it. What we’re left with, then, is a heavily symbolic account and exploration of the pros and cons of the advent of sedentary civilisation. Paradise is not so much a physical location as a state of being. Prior to the Neolithic revolution, humanity existed in what some call ‘a state of nature’. This is Levi-Strauss’ idea of ‘the raw’. Hunter gatherers may spend quite a bit of their day wandering around looking for things, but what they don’t really do is work. It’s not until farming, and all the other paraphernalia of civilisation that come with it (trade, disease, etc.) that humanity becomes familiar with the idea of work. If we look closely at the ‘punishments’ handed out to Adam and Eve, they’re mostly identifiable as the simple consequences of civilised agrarian life. Many scholars, in fact, like to deviate from the Augustinian narrative of crime and punishment and see this story as an account of humanity’s involuntary trade-off of awareness and surplus for freedom and the psychic immortality which comes with an ignorance of death. I’d also like to make a note about contextualising the symbols in a story this old. It’s very important that we don’t apply modern values to ancient symbols – the snake is a prime example. The erroneous association of the snake with Satan is very much a product of our own modern view of snakes. In the ancient world, all the way down to late antiquity, snakes are symbols of wisdom, knowledge and longevity/immortality, and are overwhelmingly not seen as evil. Which puts a completely different complexion on things, if you think about it.

Looked at in this way, and understanding the heavily symbolic nature of the story elements, this myth actually has value as a kind of mnemo-narrative of our deep, deep history. If nothing else, it tells us that ancient peoples preserved a memory, however corrupted, of a key moment in the history of human civilisation. And also that they were wont to think about it in very much the same terms we do today. Compare the anguish with which the sufferings of civilisation are recounted with our own modern fetishisation of pristine/tribal societies. In both cases we see a nostalgia for a simpler, less cultivated consciousness and mode of life, and an attempt to understand and come to terms with the bargain we made all those millennia ago.

In my next post, I’ll be talking about that favourite hobby horse of both atheists and creationists alike – The Flood.

Secular Understandings of the Bible – Genesis and Genealogy

Uruk and the Bible

INTRODUCTION

I find quite a lot of the debate surrounding the Bible a bit sterile. What it generally consists of is atheists pointing out the impossibility of literal interpretations of famous stories, or snarkily quoting passages from Leviticus or Deuteronomy while, on the other side, pie-eyed and frankly insane fundamentalists point to the handful of textual and archaeological attestations of which they’re aware, whilst simultaneously threatening the atheists with a hell in which they presumably don’t believe.

This strikes me as being about as productive as dry humping a telegraph pole. All the appearances of the thing are there, but it’s a very, very long way from the thing itself. The idea that a text can survive in oral tradition for five or six hundred years, and then roughly two and a half thousand in written form without undergoing major revisions, redactions and distortions is just laughable. Anyone capable of believing in something like this simply isn’t worth arguing with, as they’re clearly not at home to Mr Rational Thought.

What I hope to demonstrate over the next few posts is that the argument about literal truth is moot (in the American sense of the word), and that there’s quite a lot of very interesting information in the Bible, none of which has to do with God, but rather with literary truth, mnemo-narrative, and the real relationship between Christianity and the roots of Western law and culture.

I should point out at the very top that I am not a Biblical scholar, and that this is not a scholarly series of articles. This means I’m not going to bother with footnotes and references as I shamelessly steal the work of the following professors: William Propp, Richard Friedman, Aren Maeir, Eric Cline and Israel Finkelstein. To a much lesser extent I shall also be drawing on the minimalist/revisionist work of Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou. I’ve linked to some of their major works so that you can check them out for yourself, if you’re so inclined.

GENESIS – GENEALOGIES

There’s a general consensus that Paradise is somewhere in the vicinity of the ancient city of Uruk. Or somewhere in Ethiopia. Or possibly Greece, Israel or, most nuttily of all, England. It doesn’t really matter all that much, but for what it’s worth, Uruk makes sense to me. The mythologised patriarch Abraham is said to have come from Ur, which isn’t that far away, and Uruk is generally thought of as the first proper city (that’s a little bit controversial, but let’s just go with it). The reason this makes sense is because of the clear and overt purposes of Genesis. These are the recording of creation myth and the validation of a set of kings and priests via a genealogical line from the ‘first man’ through to the first patriarch (Abraham).

As a hard historical source, I don’t think there’s any real dispute that Genesis is garbage. The genealogies and timelines of Genesis form the basis for the laughably incorrect chronology of Baeda and, by extension, the Young Earth nutters. But it’s not what we’d call egregious. When compared to roughly contemporaneous documents and stories of a similar nature, it becomes clear that Genesis isn’t really much better or worse than anyone else’s account. Sumerian and Egyptian king lists contain a hodge podge of gods and people mixed together with wild abandon and, in comparison with the tens of thousands of years of life claimed for the first seven Sumerian kings, some of the biblical claims are actually quite modest.

For the purposes of a broad (rather than a minute and scholarly) understanding, we can go with the breathtaking over-simplification that the whole thing is an exercise in legitimacy – political, cultural, territorial and spiritual. Basically, tracing through to Abraham is a way of claiming legitimate ownership of Yahweh, Israel, the Torah and authority over the Jewish peoples, by the authors of the version which has come down to us today. There are a great many debates raging, far above my head, about the historicity of Abraham and whether or not he ever existed, but I’m not really sure how important this is for understanding what all this begetting/begatting nonsense is about. It’s basically the same thing as Princess Diana’s family tracing their lineage back to the mythical version of King Arthur, or the Romans claiming the equally mythical Trojan War survivor Aeneas as the founder of their culture. It’s a mixture of the political and the etiological – we come from a line of god-like heroes, therefore what we have and what we are both have absolute legitimacy.

In the next post, I intend to have a crack at the creation myth and the story of Adam and Eve, hopefully demonstrating that their dismissal as ‘Bronze Age fairy tales’, or their veneration as ‘literal truth’ are both somewhat wide of the point.