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?

How It Explains The Rise Of New Atheism.

We all know the story of President George. W. Bush implementing measures in 2001 which essentially ended U.S. Stem Cell research and put American medical science a decade behind the rest of the world for no other reason than his religion got in the way of the public good. Alone this is a standout example of why this thing called New Atheism (a vocal, rational rebuttal to unjustified religious interference in secular societies) exists, but there is a better, much lesser known Bush story which paints an even clearer picture, and to get there we must first go through this unlikely chap:

Meet Elwood P. Dowd; a softly spoken, gently mannered, entirely likeable man who had – he said – an invisible six-foot, three-and-one-half-inch tall rabbit friend named, Harvey. Granted, it’s an odd admission for a grown man but in forty-seven year old Elwood’s defence Harvey was in fact a Púca, the Gaelic word for Goblin, who just so happened to resemble a very tall rabbit.

In Mary Chase’s 1944 play, Harvey, the goodhearted bachelor Elwood is regarded as a harmless eccentric in the small town in which he lives. He buys tickets in two’s, always carry’s a spare hat and coat for Harvey, and is forever seen chatting away with nothing at all as if it were the most natural thing to do. When his sister and niece arrive to live with him things inevitably change. Fearing for his mental health his sister, Veta, attempts to have Elwood committed to Chumley’s Rest, a mental hospital whose staff accidently have her committed instead and only after the mistake is recognised does a mad, comedy-prone search ensue for her brother and his invisible companion. As the story unfolds Elwood’s delusion has a peculiarly warming influence on the sanitariums employees including the strict Dr. Chumley, and only just before Elwood is to be given an injection of the ominously named Formula 977 that will make him into a “perfectly normal human being” does Veta realise she’d rather have Elwood the same as he’s always been – carefree and kind – even if it meant living with Harvey.

“One of the delights of the season,” wrote New York Times critic, Louis Nichols, at the time. An interesting choice of words and clearly so ‘delightful’ that the play won the 1944 Pulitzer for Drama. It was awarded this accolade not because Chase bravely tore open the fabric of our elaborate belief systems and challenged our collective and consecrated delusions but rather because it was a ‘delightful’ departure from the harsh realities of a world at war.

Now, regretfully, Mary Chase died in 1981 so I cannot ask her if she was attempting something more detailed or even mischievous with her work, but I think I already know the answer. If she had been she certainly never spoke of it in any public forum that I’m aware of. She was a Catholic, a devout Irish Catholic to be more accurate, with a love of Celtic myth and folklore: one in the same thing to an atheist but to an ardent theist belonging to two completely different desert carts travelling in two completely different directions at entirely different speeds. Still, accidents do occur, be they genetic or of the mind, and Mary Chases Harvey appears to be just that: a magnificent, truthful accident.

Is Elwood delusional? Of course he is. Should we challenge him? Not on your fucking life! That would mean challenging ourselves, and that’s a bridge few people are willing to cross. It’s easier not to. The perception is that Elwood’s delusion is harmless, and just as long as it is we can ignore it because it offends no one. It’s a paper tiger, non-toxic, and the message presented is that the world is just better with the delusion running. Formula 977 – rationalism, logic, and common sense – has no place in this world. Guiltless things are, after all, perfectly innocent.

That, quite obviously, is an outrageous falsehood.

There was nothing at all harmless or innocent about Dena Schlosser who while listening to church hymns in 2004 cut off the arms of her 11 month year old baby girl because she claimed God had wanted her to do it as “an offering” before the apocalypse. There was nothing guiltless about Deanna Lajune LeNay who in 2003 bludgeoned her two boys to death because “God was testing her faith.” There was nothing inoffensive about Andrea Yates who in 2001 drowned her five children because “Satan had possessed her” and she wanted to “save them from Hell.” There was nothing savoury, excuse the pun, about Otty Sanchez who in May, 2012, beheaded her three week old son and ate part of his brain because Satan told her to. And there was nothing at all childlike about Julia Lovemore who in June, 2012, killed her 6 week old daughter by shoving pages of the bible down the child’s throat because she wanted her to ‘absorb’ the books message of love.

As repulsive as each of these religiously-inspired behavioural malfunctions are they are not the example which I choose to make my point here. Recent history has been furnished by another even more grotesquely malformed Elwood P. Dowd incident, and that story is told by this man:

Meet Thomas Römer; professor at the University of Lausanne who in the winter of 2003
found himself on the end of what was conceivably one of the most bizarre series of calls ever made in the history of telephony.

The inbound caller identified herself as the head of Biblical Services for the Protestant Federation of France and had what seemed at first to be a mildly odd but otherwise perfectly innocuous question: who the hell are Gog and Magog?

Unfortunately for Römer, an authority on the Old Testament, there was no straightforward answer. He explained that depending on different translations of the Bible one can read, “Gog and Magog,” “Gog from Magog,” “Gog, in the land of Magog,” or even “Gog, prince of Magog.” The short answer was however that Gog and Magog were two creatures, Römer said, that appear in the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis and in two ferociously obscure chapters in the Book of Ezekiel where the author saw in a vision these embodiments of evil – perhaps lands, perhaps kings, perhaps demons – bringing total war to Israel. Complicating matters even more, in the New Testaments’ Book of Revelations Gog and Magog resurface and are seen as being rallied by Satan to battle in the prophesized ‘end times.’

Baffled, the caller pressed Römer asking more specifically, how would Gog and Magog apply to an American evangelical Christian? This was a question more easily answered. Evangelicals, he outlined, believe Gog and Magog to be powerful demons who are harbingers of God’s Final Battle prophesized in apocalyptic Judaic texts.

The story of this call might have ended here had it not been that the enquiry had originated from the highest office of French politics. Then President, Jacques Chirac, had reached out to the Protestant Federation of France (who in turn had reached out to Römer who confirmed the story in a 2007 article in the University of Lausanne’s magazine, Allez savoir) so as to get some urgent clarification following one of the most bewildering calls in its own right ever placed to the Elysée Palace. That particular call had been dialled-in from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington D.C. by U.S. President George W. Bush in a failed attempt to broaden his “Coalition of the Willing” in the build up to the invasion of Iraq; the greatest strategic blunder since Lord Cardigan arrived at a less-than brilliant idea on the morning of the 25th of October, 1854, and decided to take his Light Horse Brigade out for a ride at the Battle of Balaclava.

In an interview with French journalist, Jean-Claude Maurice for his book, Si Vous le Répétez, Je Démentirai (If You Repeat it, I Will Deny it), Chirac spoke of being “boggled” at the words he was hearing, and for very good reason. “Gog and Magog are loose in the Middle East, and the biblical prophecies are being fulfilled,” Bush informed his French counterpart recounting the conversation. “This confrontation is willed by God who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins.”

This little publicized event – a story Andrew Brown of The Guardian rightly observed “we should all be ashamed of missing” – is a disturbing insight into the workings of a religiously deluded mind; a mind which belonged to a man who claimed God spoke to him on a daily basis (Sharm el-Sheikh, August, 2003) and whose decisions led to the deaths of some 5,300 American and coalition soldiers, the irreversible maiming of some 50,000 others, the killing and maiming of perhaps as many as 500,000 perfectly innocent Iraqi civilians, and the displacement of 4 million refugees. A decade of wanton carnage and destruction made possible in-part or in-whole because in the early stages of this century the President of the United States believed two wildly ambiguous demons had leapt from the pages of an Iron Age fairytale.

Such wild and frankly bizarre imaginings were however far from Bush’s alone. Influential American evangelical preachers such as John C. Hagee, Benny Hinn, George Morrison, Pat Robertson, Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell were all equally obsessed with the hobgoblins contained in the Book of Revelations and had been whipping audiences up with fiery dispensationalist sermons for years before Iraq; speeches often littered with prophetic fatalism and calls for all-out war in the Middle East so as to bring forth the apocalypse and hasten the 2nd coming of Jesus. In 2001 such talk among evangelicals had become the rule, not the exception, and after the events of the 11th of September the conditions were in place for a Christian Fundamentalist’s hoedown from hell.

Now precisely how much of this fatalistic religious longing for the destruction of the world affected George W. Bush’s thinking only he can say. What we do know with a great deal of certainty via Chirac and Römer is that such biblical end time prophecies were without doubt on his mind in the lead up to the invasion. Yes, the original justification – the public face – for the unprovoked, pre-emptive war was the ‘certain’ presence of Weapons of Mass Destruction and the imminent threat of “mushroom clouds over U.S cities;” fantastically erroneous claims which have since been blamed on a series of colossal miscalculations in Intelligence and interpretation. Unquestionably, there was a series of monumental miscalculations in Intelligence and interpretation but it wasn’t just Bush Administration officials in the centre of the delusional clusterfuck. Gog and Magog were in there too, and in this version of Mary Chase’s Harvey, Elwood P. Dowd had command of the world’s largest army.

Volumes have of course already been written on the more pragmatic geopolitical, oil-centric motivations that shaped this shameful and bloody event, but entire libraries could and should be written on what has amounted to be one of the greatest misadventures outside the bounds of rational human thought and action. I’m loath to say it but such libraries will however probably fail to materialize. It’s not in our nature at this time to challenge ourselves that way. Not at least in popular culture. It’s uncomfortable, desperately awkward, fabulously embarrassing, and in the end it’s just easier for most of our neighbours to play Veta.

Not playing Veta is however what best describes this thing called, New Atheism. It’s a noise that has grown in volume since 2001 and is at its very core a reaction to the outward manifestation of dangerous religious hogwash exerting unjustified influence on society. It’s a noise that says, “No, not anymore. We’ve had enough of this adult fantasy absurdity.” It’s a noise that says, “Evidence for your god now, or shut up.” To our neighbours it’s a noise that says, “This is Formula 977… I’m going to hurt you with the truth, not comfort you with a lie.” It’s a noise that says, “Keep your 6ft tall invisible rabbits out of our schools, our politics, our science, our military, and off our streets… and don’t try to convince me that that rabbit ordered you to kill.”