Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Secularists Playbook: Part 1, Time

Let’s be honest, without substantive action this thing called (New) Atheism is just a
fart in an elevator. Sure, it infuriates the more obnoxious of theists but it’s otherwise perfectly harmless. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m glad (New) Atheism offends religious fundamentalists. I’m glad this rationalist, deeply humanist movement exists. I’m glad it’s the proverbial snowball with an inertia I can’t see being stunted. I’m glad it openly challenges preposterous beliefs born of fairytales dreamed up by Iron Age goat herders unable to explain lightning, let alone clouds. I’m glad it calls BS on ludicrous claims that the Abrahamic religions are some sort of societal moral standard bearer. I’m glad scripture is being turned around and used against theists to demonstrate the absurdity and contradictions in their Good Books. I’m glad apologists are made to look like amateur circus clowns stumbling about on stage trying to find their god in the ever decreasing gaps of cosmology. I’m glad for all these things, but it’s a sideshow. So (New) Atheism offends bible thumping, Jihadi fundamentalist. So what? I’m offended by many things but that doesn’t give me any special powers or privileges. I’m offended by the tax exempt status of churches. I’m offended by military budgets that outweigh any and all possible threats. I’m offended teachers aren’t paid more than CEO’s. I’m offended creationist try to have their childish silliness taught in schools. I’m offended research scientists have to beg for money. I’m offended theoretical physicists aren’t given tickertape parades. I’m offended we haven’t stepped foot on Mars. I’m offended we still use glorified waterwheels to generate electricity. I’m offended by the U.S House Republican’s on the Congressional Science Committee.

Muslim Head FuckI’m offended there isn’t a five-meter high marble statue of the Vedic grammarian, Yāska, in every town square. I’m offended we celebrate the supposed birth of metafictional character on the 25th of December and not the real birth of Sir Isaac Newton. I’m offended every school doesn’t have a planetarium. I’m offended Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland ever fell out of the yearly Top Ten best seller list. I’m offended that Muslims get offended by cartoons. So fucking what! Here’s another one. I hope it offends you! It’s meant to by pointing out the arcane contradictions in your belief system. Harden up, princess.

So sure, I’m offended by all these things (and more) but my being offended means very little. Nothing is physically altered, and without substantive action (New) Atheism is likewise little more than an intellectual cocktail party. The real cultural ground fight is in secularism, and that is so important it deserves an entirely new category here: The Secularists Playbook. This category will be a To Do list of sorts; a collection of achievable secular objectives which organisations with greater resources (and youth) than I should pursue, and the opening salvo in this dance has to be redressing a mistake made 261 years ago. The opening salvo must be resetting time itself.

In 1752 the esteemed members of the Royal Society (the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence) made a colossal error. At the stroke of midnight on Wednesday the 2nd of September they adopted the Gregorian calendar and by doing so missed their 18th Century Enlightenment chance to push unjustified religious interference in secular societies back that little bit further into obscurity. Now let’s be frank, the Gregorian calendar is offensive to 5 in 7 people on the planet. It’s as offensive to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus as much as it is offensive to Agnostics, Humanists and Atheists alike. It’s offensive because it partitions human civilisation using a Christian measuring stick: B.C, Before Christ, A.D, Anno Domini (Latin: In the year of the Lord, or more commonly known today as, After Death). Granted, efforts to replace these Christian references with B.C.E (Before Current Era), and C.E (Current Era) might be a move in the right direction but I see it as little more than simple window dressing; an inadequate band aid that does nothing to rectify the root of the problem. Christianity has to be removed from the calendar, and to do this we must reset our fundamental measure of it. It’s not impossible. It’s not even difficult. We got rid of Pluto in this century so the very least organisations like the Antiquarian Horological Society and the Universal Postal Union can do is petition UNESCO to re-set calendar time to better reflect human reality. It might seem like a small thing but as Marshall McLuhan so aptly put it, “the medium is the message,” meaning the medium (the calendar itself) influences how the message (human history) is perceived. In no small way this entirely painless recalibration would fundamentally shift the very way we naked apes look at our history, and if you change that then you alter the very way we look at ourselves regardless of borders, culture or belief systems… and that, my friend, is priceless.

Now let’s get dirty. It’s patently ludicrous to even suggest the Current Era began 2,013 years ago. Nothing happened in or around this time which marks even a minor shift in human civilisation. It’s a meaningless date to the vast majority of humans and should be discarded without debate. Even the concept of Current Era should be thrown out or else our newly recalibrated calendar would begin with John Locke and Sir Isaac Newton. No, we need a commencement date for our calendar that marks the opening movements of civilisation. We need a date upon which some curious naked ape first looked up and with a measure of proto-scientific detail wrestled some order from the celestial chaos passing overhead. That is to say, our calendar should begin at the moment we clever little naked apes started measuring time.

For this purpose 5,500 year old Egyptian obelisks might be a fair starting point for any debate but it is possible the Sumerians had similar shadow casting time devises even earlier. We do know with a great deal of certainty that it was the Babylonians who truly nailed down the first accurate measure of time in their Saros Cycle, but the Nebra disk pre-dates this, and the even older Antikythera mechanism pushes that moment back even further. The extremely cool sounding Jericho tower would move the start of our new calendar to 10,000 years ago which on the face of it sounds like a ridiculously neat date to choose, but the problem here is that Göbekli Tepe in modern day Turkey pre-dates it by perhaps 2,000 years. For sure, Göbekli Tepe certainly sounds promising, particularly given its just 30km from Mount Karaca Dağ where DNA evidence shows wheat was first domesticated, but the problem with the site is the jury is still out on whether or not the structure had some dual astronomical purpose. Thaïs bone_1
No such doubt however exists about the Thaïs bone
which UNESCO credits as being “the most complex and elaborate time-factored sequence currently known within the corpus of Palaeolithic mobile art.” This inscribed rib bone (measuring 87mm × 27mm) is dated from around 15,000 years ago and the etched sequences on its faces are a record of day-by-day lunar and solar observations undertaken by some patient, magnificent son of a bitch over a 3½ year period. The Thaïs bone is evidence someone was looking up and recording what they were seeing. The Thaïs bone is evidence of science.

Now possibly even older finds like the Wurdi Youang site in Australia might push this date back even further, and there is very good cause to perhaps use art, not science, as our calendars starting point, but for my purposes here I do believe we have a winner. The Thaïs bone should mark the moment the human calendar begins (or at least this debate does), meaning today is the October 20th, 15013. Think about that for a second. Savor the date. Let it sink in. Notice how your perception of human history is instantly reformed?

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