The Darkening Age

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I’ve been reading Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. I highly recommend it.

Its sub-title says it all. The early church’s determination to destroy any way of life, any belief system or enterprise that it didn’t agree with was deliberate, systematic and brutal. It set out to eliminate the forms of worship, culture, learning and social norms in which it found itself. It did this initially by demonising, literally as far as it was concerned, the opposition. If it wasn’t Christian then it was demonic; ancient religious beliefs especially, but also schools of philosophy, science, education, the theatre, dancing and sexual mores.

As it grew in power, the church went from holding its ‘heathen’ neighbours’ views as suspect to actively and violently opposing them, destroying temples, toppling and mutilating statues of the old gods, razing to the ground historic buildings they considered ‘demonic’. Those they regarded as ‘pagans’ were compelled to convert to the new religion. According to the Christian propaganda of the time, these pagans turned to Jesus with joy in their hearts, once shown the error of their demonic ways. What choice did people have? It was either that or lose everything they held dear.

Once Christianity became the state religion under Constantine, religious authorities legislated against other philosophies and beliefs. As the Justinian code put it, ‘we forbid the teaching of any doctrine by those who labour under the insanity of paganism.’ Free thinkers could be arrested and have their possessions, including their homes, Blog393aconfiscated. They could be imprisoned for believing and saying things that ran contrary to Christian orthodoxy. Their works were burnt, often on public pyres, and that which survived was frequently written over with pages of scripture. Soon, however, even this wasn’t enough. It became a capital offence to subscribe to alternate beliefs, to write or teach about them. Similarly, same sex activity became outlawed and punishable by death. No wonder the philosophers of the day called Christianity ‘the tyrant’.

In 392, Christian mobs destroyed the magnificent temple of Serapis in Alexandria. The Great Library in the same city had disappeared by then too, quite possibly at the hands of Christian mobs. Hypatia, one of the Library’s greatest mathematicians, was degraded in the street and then murdered. (You may have seen the 2009 film Agora where Hypatia is played by Rachel Weisz; if not you definitely should.)

By AD500, the church had successfully and completely eradicated the opposition. The culture that had preceded it had gone; its knowledge, mythologies, philosophy together with the ability to think freely and to criticise – all consigned, if not to hell, then to oblivion. Nixey reports that 90% of classical literature is lost forever (p246), including almost all Greek writing from the ancient world. As John Chrysostom boasted, the writings of the Greeks ‘have all perished and are obliterated’ (p245). From the little that survives we know that Greek philosophers had postulated that the world was made from atoms and didn’t have a beginning as such. They had also developed a form of evolutionary theory (pp35-36). It would take the world 1500 dark years to catch up with these suppressed ideas.

The elimination of Christianity’s opponents was carried out in the name of the man who supposedly said, ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Nixey points out that the persecution of Christians was greatly exaggerated; many early believers aspired to martyrdom and the church undoubtedly meted out more persecution than it received.) It was done to bring the world into line with the way they thought God had decreed it should be:

That all superstition of pagans and heathens should be annihilated is what God wants, God commands, God proclaims! (‘Saint’ Augustine)

Thank Enlightenment we can’t, in the west at least, be executed these days for our beliefs and philosophies. And whatever became of Christians? Those who oppose anything in their culture they consider contrary to their tyrannical views, who would punish, perhaps execute, sexual non-conformists and who regard other belief systems, atheism especially, as demonic. The same believers who would eagerly take us back to the demon infested dark ages.

They’re still with us of course and have, in the UK where I am and certainly in the United States, a disproportionate amount of influence and power. We must be grateful they are moderate, reasonable people who wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Aren’t they?

Measure for measure

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I get so tired of being told how I should live my life. Christians do this quite often, either directly or indirectly. Most don’t know me but they think they have a God-given right to tell me, purely out of love of course, that I’m a sinner who lives life in such a way that it’s going to cost me my eternal existence. God has, apparently, given me over to the wickedness of my own depraved mind (Romans 1.26-29) and they just can’t stop telling me. Being judged relentlessly, and condemned, by a couple of Christian ‘friends’ a few years back was what started me writing and blogging about Christianity in the first place.

When the self-righteous tell me how I should be living my life I usually point them to Matthew 7.1-2 where Jesus is fairly clear about where he stands on the judgement issue:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

His followers today, however, as they’ve always done, have all sorts of reasons why Jesus didn’t really mean what he said. He never does when they don’t like what he’s saying. Doesn’t he elsewhere, they point out, judge people for their sins? Yes, he does, which only goes to show how inconsistent he was – or at least how inconsistent those who were inventing his stories were. It’s an own goal, but what do his modern day followers care if it gets them off the hook?

So instead, I try 1 Corinthians 5.12 where Paul says,

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?

Now, I’m quoting out of context. Paul is, in any case, speaking rhetorically/metaphorically/symbolically/out of his arse. (Actually they don’t suggest the last of these even though it’s the closest to the truth.) Christians demand the right to judge. From prominent Christians like Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson to common or garden evangelicals, they are commissioned to tell you the good news of Jesus, an integral part of which is to judge you for the louse they think you are. Conveniently, they ignore the fact that Jesus is emphatic that they themselves can expect to be judged in exactly the same way they judge others. Should you object to their sanctimonious condemnation, or worse still, if they have to face the consequences of judging those outside the church, they claim they’re being persecuted, denied their freedom of speech and are having their religious ‘rights’ trampled on.

I grow increasingly intolerant of their intolerance, which I’d say is the sort of measure-for-measure Jesus says can be expected. As far as I’m concerned, they can all take their ‘good news’ and shove it where the son don’t shine.

Why it’s never a good idea to throw stones from inside your glass house

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I added the comment below to Bruce Gerencser’s blog yesterday. Bruce had been writing about one reason people don’t like Evangelical Christians, that being their attitude towards LGBT folk. It’s a good post and well worth your time (though not, of course, till you’ve finished here.) This is what I wrote:

It never ceases to amaze me that people who claim to possess the key to salvation, know the secret of eternal life, have a relationship with the creator of the universe and think their sins are all forgiven, have nothing better to do than spend their time slagging off LGBT folk.

A quick, admittedly non-scientific, survey of Christian blog and web-sites suggests that at least a third are attacks on those fortunate enough to be gay.

Maybe all that other stuff just isn’t as marvellous as they like to think it is.

Genuinely, I cannot understand how, when they think they’re tapped into the First Cause/the Power of the Universe/God, the Father Almighty, that the best evangelicals can do is to make repeated snipes at gay people. I had a look this morning at the Christian Research Network site to find three articles had recently been posted doing precisely that: one called ‘Which should be illegal: Christianity or Sodomy?’, about how religious rights are soon to be negated by gay rights (they won’t be, specially not in America); one criticising popular preacher Beth Moore for supporting a small number of gay-affirming pastors and another attacking clergy who might be gay but who remain celibate.  Obviously these matters are of great concern to the Lord of Hosts, the Judge of Mankind, who is, nonetheless, demonstrably impotent when it comes to doing anything about them. Or maybe, given his non-existence, they matter only to his small-minded sycophants here on Earth.

Bruce writes in another post that he doesn’t comment on Christian web-sites because ultimately it makes no difference; evangelicals don’t listen and don’t want to know what others think. They regard even the mildest criticism as the persecution the Bible promises they will face, particularly in these ‘last days’ (that we’ve been enjoying now for two millennia.) Bruce is right, of course. All the same, when I’ve time, I can’t help but comment on their anti-gay rhetoric, their judgement and condemnation of a relatively powerless minority. They can take it how they like; their casting of the first stone just can’t go unopposed.

I think it’s always pertinent to ask Christians why they’re not living according to Jesus’ commands – by not judging others, giving to all who ask, loving their enemies, and the rest, because as sure as eggs is eggs, the majority don’t. As if this matters to today’s evangelicals. Being a Christian is really about being part of a glee club that first and foremost benefits its members, no one else. Sometimes the party bubble needs a little puncturing. Of course, believers don’t like it; they tell you Jesus was only speaking ‘metaphorically’, which he always is when he says things they don’t like. They become aggressive and unpleasant because, presumably, that’s what he would want. Nonetheless, they sometimes need to see that when they condemn others, they can expect to be judged in return. That’s just how it works. Jesus says so.

Oh, and Dolly Parton too:

If you live in a glass house, don’t throw stones,
Don’t shatter my image till you look at your own,
Look at your reflection in your house of glass,
Don’t open my closet if your own’s full of trash,
Stay out of my closet if your own’s full of trash.

Amen to that, Dolly.

 

The Kingdom Comes

This guy they think is going to save the world – or at least make his country great again – is one smug bastard. An egotistical megalomaniac who carries on as if he’s God Almighty.

He expects to be obeyed at all times, issuing orders he demands everyone follow, regardless of how reckless or impractical they are, and making promises he can’t possibly keep. He’ll countenance no dissent, argument or protest, lambasting those who challenge him with petty name calling and abuse. Being hyper-sensitive and childishly petulant, he takes offence easily, abandoning any semblance of rationality and becoming malicious and spiteful in his condemnation – damnation, even – of those he regards as his enemies. Despite this obnoxiousness, he can’t understand why he isn’t universally loved. That he isn’t, is, he tantrums, the fault of those who wilfully, stubbornly, refuse to recognise his magnanimity.

He says he’s pro-God, but what really matters to him is his own legend. His first love is himself. He’s self-focused and self-promoting, racist and xenophobic, divisive and irritable, obsessed with his own status and what he sees as his God-given mission to revitalise his nation and return it to those he regards as his own. To this end, he’s surrounded himself with acolytes, cranks like himself, who will serve as his yes-men and women, who’ll do whatever he tells them. In return, he offers them a share in the power he’s assumed, together with the privilege of enjoying a little of the glory he’s convinced is his. Naturally, these sycophants do his bidding; they know that if they don’t, they’ll be out, ejected from the inner circle as energetically as Porky Pig from a bar Mitzvah.

But enough of Jesus.

If only there were some sort of parallel in the world today that would help me convey what a delusional, controlling, self-aggrandising individual he really was. Sadly, I can’t think of any.

bannon

 

 

Imagine… no religion

Jimenez2People say, like, you know, “Aren’t you sad that 50 superstitious nut-jobs died?” Here’s the problem with that. It’s like the equivalent of asking me, you know, what if you asked me, “Hey, are you sad that 50 Christians were killed today?” Um, no, I think that’s great! I think that helps society! You know, I think the world is a little safer tonight!…

The tragedy is that more of them didn’t die… because these people are predators! They are abusers! They take advantage of people! And look, as Rationalists, we need to take the stand that it is not our job to sit there and say, “Oh, this is a tragedy” or “Oh, this is something we mourn.” Look, everything tells us these are deluded, wicked people. These are evil people.

… People sometimes will say, “You guys are advocating violence!” We’re not advocating violence! We’re not saying we should go do this! But we’re just saying this: If we lived in a rational nation with a rational government, then the government should be taking them… I wish the government would round them all up, put them up against a firing wall, put a firing squad in front of them, and blow their brains out. If we lived under a truly secular government that loved rationality and loved children, and wanted to protect them, that’s what we’d do.

Hate speech? Certainly. But not mine. The original, which you can find here, is about the Orlando shootings a few weeks ago, and is directed at gay people. I’ve simply replaced gentle ‘Pastor’ Jimenez’s use of ‘sodomite’ and ‘paedophile’, which he disingenuously uses interchangeably, with ‘Christians’ and ‘religious nut-jobs’, and his use of ‘God’ and ‘righteous’ with ‘superstition’ and ‘rational’. Jimenez, emissary of a religion of love (Matthew 5.44 etc), would like to see his government exterminate LGBT people.

But, you know, maybe there’s also a case to be made for eliminating the superstitious and irrational from among us. Those of us who have adopted a rational basis for our lives would be happy to see the end of religion and superstition, the removal from the Earth of the religious and the superstitious (I use the terms interchangeably). After all, what do believers in mumbo-jumbo add to the world that is any way positive? What can those who are unable to engage with reality without the crutch of make-believe possibly have to give? On top of their general uselessness, they’re also dangerous and predatory.

Maybe there is a case to be made. But I’m not making it. Any philosophy, ideology or religion that preaches the extermination of other people is wrong, debased, corrupt (you’d think, wouldn’t you, that we’d have learnt that by now.) If you subscribe to such a view – be it from a Christian, Islamic or Jewish perspective – you are wrong. No-one, whatever magic books may say about them, merits death simply because those magic books say so (ratified, of course, by the dim-witted prejudices of those who subscribe to them). Rationality and a secular perspective, on the other hand, eschew hatred and are philosophically opposed to harming those who might not agree with them. Yes, even the religious.

In this way it is vastly superior to religion – your religion, whatever that happens to be.

Angels with anuses

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Of the many tawdry stories in the Bible, the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19.1-29) is one of the most sordid and ludicrous.

In case you don’t know it, two angels visit Lot in the first of these ‘two cities of the plain’ where the local men express a desire to rape the pair. Unbelievable, right? All the men (19.4) wanted to rape two other men? It would appear so, but only because the story, designed to explain the demise of the two cities, is a fabrication by a rabidly homophobic scribe, intent on expressing his own prejudices and sexual fantasies. There is little evidence the cities really existed.

Anyway, Lot offers them his daughters instead, telling the local rapist mob that the gals are virgins, though in fact they have husbands (19.12 & 14). Lot’s rampaging neighbours don’t seem to know this but all the same decline his generous offer. So, to cut a long story short, God destroys both Sodom and Gomorrah allowing only Lot and his family to survive. Then, for no plausible reason, his nameless wife dies as they flee and Lot has drunken sex with his not-so-virginal daughters (19.33-38). As a result of the incest, the two of them give birth to genetically compromised offspring.

So this Lot – I’m tempted to say ‘this Bad Lot’ – who lies, offers his daughters to hormonally charged thugs, fucks the gals himself and has children by them, is declared by God to be a ‘righteous’ man (Genesis 18 and 2 Peter 2.7-8). The bar was set very low in them good Old Testament days.

Over on National Catholic Register’s blog, Thomas L. McDonald tries to explain what this seedy little story really means. (Steve Wells responds to his desultory efforts here). Central to it, are the so-called angels. What sort of beings are these? The term means ‘messengers’ and this pair at least are very mundane; they are incapable of defending themselves against rape threats (Lot has to defend them) and while they claim they are about to destroy the two cities (19.13), it is in fact God who does so (19.24). Later angels are more like the X-Men; they have grown increasingly grotesque (Daniel 10.5-6) and have developed superpowers like flight (Isaiah 6.2) and invisibility (2 Kings 6.17). The Sodom pair though are mere prototypes. There is nothing supernatural about them because the concept of the angel as a supernatural emissary of the divine was in its infancy when this story was written. They are simply human messengers.

Which is how they are capable of being raped. If they were the ‘evolved’ angels of later fantasy it would be inconceivable that they could be overcome and abused in this way. That these two can be potentially is because they are human males with human male anatomy. The bottom line is, if you’ll forgive the pun, they have anuses, without which they could not be anally raped. The story blithely assumes this to be the case even though all subsequent exegesis consistently ignores it.

This ugly, homophobic, semi-pornographic story has led to untold damage to innumerable people throughout the ages. It has given us the disparaging terms ‘sodomy’ and ‘sodomite’, even though no ‘sodomy’ takes place in the story and isn’t, in any case, routinely practised by same-sex couples. It has served as the prototype for the blaming of LGBT people for (always unrelated) natural and man-made disasters, from earthquakes to tsunamis and 9/11. The moral usually taken from it – even though it lacks any morals at all – that being gay is evil, has led to, and provided ‘justification’ for, the persecution and destruction of gay people right up to the present day. Perhaps, given the same story is referenced in the Qur’an, its influence can even be seen in last week’s massacre in Orlando. 

That the prejudiced and ignorant today continue to be influenced by this unimaginative, tawdry little tale is the lasting legacy, the real tragedy, of Sodom and Gomorrah.


Religion poisons the well. Again.

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The shooting in Orlando of people in a gay night club (50 dead, 53 wounded) is yet another example of religion as the antithesis of human flourishing. Not Christianity this time, of course, but that other ‘great’ religion, Islam, the religion of peace. But Christians cannot distance themselves from atrocities like this, carried out in the name of God, when the influence of even moderate religion is a pervasive, unhealthy presence in our society.

It’s true that Christians don’t, as rule, rampage in the streets or fly planes into buildings but they do contribute to the medium in which more extreme forms of religion grow:

Westboro Baptist Church, for example, with its own peculiar brand of Bible-based homophobia – ‘God hates fags’ and all the rest – is, like it or not, an expression of Christianity;

Right-wing evangelicals who interfere in the churches and governments of Africa and South America, actively encouraging them to take a homophobic stance and to pass anti-LGBT laws, are equally culpable; Scott Lively, Pat Robertson, Sharon Slater, you too are people filled with hate;

Likewise, those Catholic bishops who use their influence to denounce gay and transgendered folk as ‘mentally disordered’;

Christian bloggers who trot out the old, ‘Woe to those who call evil good and good evil’ (Isaiah 5.20) and misapply it to homosexuality, together with those who quote Leviticus 18.22 (‘abominations!’) and Romans 1.26-27 (‘unnatural and indecent!’)…

All of these contribute to the animus directed towards fellow human beings whose ‘sin’ is merely to be different. Religions, or more specifically their adherents, contribute significantly to the levels of misery in the world today, though Christians will cry ‘foul’ here (or ‘persecution’ even, because how they love claiming they’re being persecuted when asked to demonstrate some empathy and a little love.) After all, it wasn’t a Christian who gunned down the people in the Pulse nightclub this weekend. No it wasn’t. But every time religious bigots –

tell others what despicable sinners they are,

misrepresent and denigrate minorities,

promote ‘gay cures’,

attack same-sex marriage,

add quotation marks around the words gay and gay marriage, as if they’re somehow not real,

assert homosexuality and transgenderism are synonymous with ‘moral decay’,

claim natural disasters are God’s response to gay people’s very existence,

boycott businesses that support equality,

‘take a stand’ against transgendered people using the appropriate restroom and

refuse to serve gay couples –

every time, in short, they say LGBT people are evil, sick or worthless, the self-righteous prepare the ground for individuals like Omar Mateen to do what he did in Florida on Sunday. Religious leaders condemning such atrocities after the event is too little, too late, when they’ve failed to take charge of their acolytes and  do nothing to stem the tide of hatred flowing from their churches, mosques and temples. 

To those of us on the outside, religions are all of a kind; harmful superstitions. If a ‘faith’ entails belief in supernatural beings and puts allegiance to such imaginary figures above fellow human beings, it is without merit. It is the evil among us.