Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I tried not to get into the church but...

A plurality must not be asserted without necessity.
William Ockham 1300 - 1348

This is usually paraphrased as “Use the simplest explanation that suffices.” And it puts those religious debates (and the ones to come later about angels and pinheads) into nice perspective. Most folks today not only don’t understand this (especially in a debate) but they couldn’t tease the meaning out of the original form of the statement to save their hides. It has to do with that adherence to a belief in OS: Original Stupidity”, a widespread belief explained in Robert Graves’ White Goddess. In this book he does an admirable job of illustrating how pernicious the belief in “OS” is and how poorly we are served by our a priori acceptance (even subconsciously) of it. This quote is a little long but it makes the point well:

"The early Welsh and Irish historians are also generally regarded as liars because their ancient records are dated to uncomfortably early times and do not square either with conventional Biblical dates or with the obstinate theory that until Roman times the inhabitants of all the British Isles were howling savages who had no native art or literature at all and painted themselves blue. The Picts and Britons certainly tattooed themselves, as the Dacians, Thracians and Mosynoechians did, with pictorial devices. That they used woad for the purpose is a proof of advanced culture, for the extraction of blue dye from the woad-plant, which the ancient Irish also practiced, is an extremely complicated process; the blue colour perhaps sanctified them to the Goddess Anu. I do not mean that these records have not undergone a great deal of careless, pious, or dishonest editing at every stage of religious development; but at least they seem to be as trustworthy as the corresponding Greek records, and rather more trustworthy than the Hebrew - if only because ancient Ireland suffered less from wars than Greece or Palestine. To dismiss the Irish and Welsh as incoherent children has one great advantage: it frees the historian of any obligation to add Old Goidelic and Old Welsh to his multifarious other duties.

In modern civilization almost the only place where a scholar can study at ease is a University. But at a University one has to be very careful indeed not to get out of step with one's colleagues and especially not to publish any heterodox theories. Orthodox opinions are in general based on a theory of political and moral expediency, originally refined under Olympianism, which is the largest single gift of Paganism to Christianity; and not only to Christianity. Twenty years ago when I [Graves, about 1928] was Professor of English Literature at the Royal Egyptian University of Cairo, my colleague the blind Professor of Arabic Literature was imprudent enough to suggest in one of his lectures that the Koran contained certain pre-Mohammedan metrical compositions. This was blasphemy and a good excuse for his examination-flunking students to go on strike. So the Rector called him to task and he was faced with the alternatives of losing his job and recantation. He recanted. In American Universities of the Bible Belt the same sort of thing often happens: some incautious junior professor suggests that perhaps the Whale didn't actually swallow Jonah and supports his view by quoting the opinions of eminent natural historians. He leaves at the end of the University year, if not before. In England the case is not quite so bad, but bad enough. Sir James Frazer was able to keep his beautiful rooms at Trinity College, Cambridge, until his death by carefully and methodically sailing all around his dangerous subject, as if charting the coastline of a forbidden island without actually committing himself to a declaration that it existed.” - Robert Graves, The White Goddess

If you’re feeling smug about freedom of speech and the rest of the Bill of Rights in America, then I encourage you to visit the record of the Scopes Trial in Dayton Tennesee. For a humorous take on those proceedings go to:


Then again more recently there is the text book ado in Kansas back in 2005. Apparently, things have gotten slightly better since. Most of the secondary biology teachers in Kansas have real degrees from real Universities where science isn’t vetted by religious fundamentalist. Maybe there needs to be an “*” appended to the diplomas of students from “Christian” schools (including some State schools). What we see is that this battle will never be won. It will be restarted every few years in different places over and over again. Some folks just don’t see what’s wrong with living in a Theocracy as long as it’s THEIR religion that’s in charge. They believe that the Bill of Rights are for them and everyone who agrees with them, not for THOSE people.

I include this next here again for another reason. Historians decry the general ignorance of history and the lack of historical perspective in modern culture, so even if we believe that:

Those who do not learn from the past are destined to repeat it.
George Santayna

Quoting this conveniently neglects to focus on the editing, censorship and downright falsification of the record that is what we call History. What little we think we know about history is only an echo of what the most powerful people wanted everybody to believe. A tremendous amount of propaganda exists, and we don’t even recognize it when we see it (try to imagine the "news" in a totalitarian state like North Korea). And the Internet is the biggest repository of bullshit that ever existed. The only good news is that most of the “editing” of its info/misinformation isn’t systematically done by the powerful with their agendas ascendant... So we go from 1348 to 1928 to 2000:

The most important tool of the future will be an active bullshit filter. Over every computer terminal should be mounted the words: data are not information, information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom.
Sherri S. Tepper

We live in an age where you can shop for “experts” that match your prejudices as easily as you order lunch. Well, choice is good, but choice among the ignorant isn’t good for much. I said that! And if you’re looking for bran flakes in the grocery aisle, it’s much harder to find them if they are mixed in with 500 different kinds of cocoa puffs all in garish boxes that tell you more about Madison Avenue than about what’s in the cereal (bells and whistles and smoke and mirrors). H. G. Wells was charitable enough to suggest that even the disputes of impossible dogma by the Trinitarians et al, served to foment debate, thought, information dissemination and educational opportunity. And it seems to be a fact that the Kansas Board of Education flap has served to energize the side of reason; they’re way ahead of Kentucky and Oklahoma. Unfortunately so much of the truth of the simple gospels was submerged that I don’t think the various “Churches” have ever recovered even a fraction of what Jesus said. I think that the Christian church started out 95% power/politics to 5% spirituality, and now it’s devolved to 99% to 1%. After all, the red letters (direct quotes of Jesus) in my Bible comprise only about 40 pages of 700 or so words each. And then the Church spin doctors stepped in... Speaking of the Church...

The Church says that the earth is flat, but I know that it is round for I have seen the shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in a shadow than in the Church.
Magellan 1480 - 1521

You certainly can’t find much of Jesus Christ in the Popes that followed. I can never decide which is my favorite hypocrisy, whether it’s Paul’s position on slavery, the selling of indulgences, burning heretics (like Giordono Bruno who had the courage to suggest that God had created an infinite universe - by the way, even though the church recognizes that Giordono was absolutely correct, the cardinal that burned Bruno, Robert Bellarmine, is now a Saint - go figure), the Pope that sold the Crusading children into slavery, or a fallible Pope declaring himself to be infallible in 1870 (Pope Pius the IX, at the First Vatican Council. Was that an ironic name for this Pope? I don’t know how venial he may have been; I don’t care, I’m tired of reading about hypocrites. At the very least, unlike the present Pope, he probably didn’t canonize very many black people (strange how things change and all those people and babies in hell or limbo get moved around a few centuries too late for their families to appreciate). He has started doing this, somehow, with no comment on the policies of the last 200 Popes. It's very popular now, but very spiritual and not political at all. Just like poaching the Anglicans.... Deep breath; I’ll see if I can get more positive here...

Hard is the heart that loveth nought in May.
Chaucer 1343 - 1400

That’s better... I know that I’ve missed most of Chaucer. Our “Advanced Academic” group in high school wasn’t assigned him. In order to get to those “advanced” things we did, a certain part of the in-basket was just skipped over. This leaves me something for my old age.

1 comment:

  1. The Robert Graves quote is long, but it contains five or six sentences that are as good as anything in Bartlett's