Saturday, October 29, 2005

A Druid Nation

The well-known reality is that 102 Puritans from England landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts on December 21, 1620.

But instead of Puritans, imagine the same number of Buddhist monks had arrived. Or, perhaps a boatload of Druids came ashore on that cold, miserable day in December. Envision the last remaining members of that mysterious priesthood, first mentioned in Julius Caesar's diaries in 55 B.C, standing on the beaches of North America.

Would the original inhabitants of North America have been treated better? Would there have been slavery? Would the United States have become, for lack of a better word, a more eco-friendly country from the very beginning?

Alas, the arrival of Europeans, or for that matter benign Buddhist monks, probably meant the civilizations of North and South America were fated from the start, almost from the moment the conquistadors clanked ashore in their suits of armor in the fifteenth century. But it was not because of guns, or horses, or organization, or corruption of the locals--or Christianity. The unstoppable enemy was disease, unwittingly brought (at least initially) by Europeans, of which "Native-Americans" had no immunity.

Because of Jared Diamond and others, we know that geography matters--and matters a lot. Unlike the early inhabitants in the Western Hemisphere, Europeans had domesticated animals such as oxen, cows, and pigs that did not exist in North and South America. Humans contracted diseases that jumped from animals to humans and over time built up a degree of resistance to them. Columbus, Ponce de Leon, Cortez, Pizarro and other Europeans traveled with the ultimate weapon--not gunpowder--but hideous viruses like smallpox, typhus, influenza, diphtheria, and measles. It turned out to be an unimaginable "ethnic cleansing" of entire civilizations. It may have been the greatest pandemic in human history.

A number of Christian fundamentalists in the United States, in their feverish fantasy of turning the country into some nonsensical theocracy, claim that the U.S. is a "Christian" nation: Christian only among the deluded perhaps.

What we know now--because of science and a readiness to consider other possibilities--is that North America (along with Central and South America) was not an immaculate, virgin forest, inhabited by a handful of primitive savages--"noble" or otherwise.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the continent was teeming with civilization, and religion, and diverse groups of people, and yes, even wisdom ... the kind that may still have environmental relevance in our present day. Grasslands had been burned for thousands of years to prevent the encroachment of forests; farming was common; villages and towns existed throughout the continent; trade and commerce had been flourishing for hundreds of years. (For anyone interested in some fascinating--and oftentimes controversial--theories about the Americas, a worthwhile read is 1491 by Charles C. Mann.)

The what if struck me again and again as I read Mann's book. And, while the winners may write history, we humans collectively enjoy our "soothing" songs, stories, and myths. More to the point, we don't like them questioned or challenged.

About a week ago one of the leading science advisory groups in the United States said the U.S. "could soon lose" its competitive edge in science. But, if even half the numerous polls and surveys are correct, nearly three-quarters of Americans believe in and are guided by magic. What if?

Saturday, October 08, 2005

In Me Believe (2)

If religious emotions can be elicited by natural reality--and I believe that they can--then the story of Nature has the potential to serve as the cosmos for the global ethos that we need to articulate
Ursula Goodenough, biologist

Carlos Castaneda, a New Age superstar in the 1970's, had revelations while sitting with his mentor Don Juan in the Mexico desert, consuming peyote cactus and other hallucinogenic drugs. Castaneda would talk to the animals and sometimes become a crow--literally. Carlos received a doctorate in anthropology from UCLA in 1972.

Kathryn Lindskoog in her 1993 book Fakes, Frauds, and Other Marlarky said, "The next time you come close to a crow, try calling out 'Hello Carlos!' If you are high enough on peyote, you might hear the bird answer."

Rational thought, critical thinking--and science--have always held on by the slimmest of threads throughout human history. It's nothing new. Thinking, and certainly science, is hard work. Science believes knowledge of the external world can only be determined from objective investigation and, most importantly, is accessible to everyone.

Compared with critical thinking, the prophetic voice and "divine" inspiration is positively enchanting, and easy. Above all, it promises personal salvation or eternal bliss. Science only points out what is: It's ice cream versus spinach.

Some of our religious tales would sound like a lunatic's rant if uttered by a lone person at, for example, my fictitious encounter in the Little Rock airport in the previous article. But collectively we are quite willing to suspend disbelief, no matter how absurd the story might be. One of the silliest yarns, right up there with Jack and the Beanstalk, is the "communion host" during a Catholic mass magically turning into the living body of Jesus Christ.

A collection of old men in the thirteenth century formally established this cock-and-bull belief. At this same meeting these wise Christian clerics agreed on the "rules" of torture and further prohibitions against the evil Jews. While Islam at the present time has a tenuous hold on first place for sheer benightedness, many Christians, especially in the United States, are confident they can once again achieve the top spot they held for so long.

What remains to be said about Islam at this point? One apologia after another appears almost weekly informing us "this doesn't represent Islam." But it really does though; time to stop pretending otherwise. The description of the Islamic paradise conjures up an upper class Victorian brothel, where the rich and wellborn would vanish for a night of "otherworldly" pleasure. But in an Islamic society, where sex is so firmly repressed, all those virgins waiting beside the unpolluted brook in the afterlife sound deliciously compelling.

For a couple of weeks on the nightly news I watched Israeli settlers in the Gaza strip being dragged off by clearly uncomfortable Israeli soldiers. The settlers were being forcibly removed from these illegal communities. Many glass-eyed and enraged settlers screamed into the television cameras that "God" had given them this land. I assume God is the Bronze Age sociopath called Yahweh. The same god that killed Moses' two nephews with lightning bolts. This was also the weapon of choice for Zeus. Apparently some humans didn't mix the incense correctly. All in all I prefer the Greek god; he simply had far more panache.

More than ever, I believe, our traditional religions have outlived their usefulness and have become positively dangerous to our well-being. If we can only get through another century--a big if--we might have a chance. But for the first time in human history we have begun to learn how the human mind functions, how it thinks, and how it creates stories, myths, and religions. We're starting to understand just how our brains are designed to find and hold onto the most "rewarding" view of things.

What we need to do in the meantime is not bemoan the existence of the assorted temple priests or complain about the "gullibility" of their followers, but start articulating alternatives that are equally compelling and that provide the same spiritual ( or mystical, or sacred, or divine, or new consciousness ) comfort. The first step is considering something else. After that we may be able to grasp that we are not separate and apart from all the rest of life.

Ultimately, all religions have to resort to a "magical entity." Even the Dalai Lama, the epitome of the enlightened religious leader, reverts back to gobbledygook when there is no scientific explanation. He explains it in terms of the Buddhist karma. It just is. But this is really no different from the views of the Intelligent Design crowd. Of course--as always--what happens when science comes up with a description that explains what was previously thought to be the work of some god? Religion tweaks the story: Maybe Santa doesn't exist, but your grandfather's ghost really does live in the attic.

Leonardo da Vinci is arguably one of the most extraordinary men in human history. While widely known for his famous painting the Mona Lisa, Da Vinci was also a proficient engineer and technical illustrator. His anatomical drawings, because of their accuracy, are still used today.

But what is of particular interest, I believe, and pointed out in a recent television program, was his astounding powers of observation and critical thinking. He discovered the closing mechanism of the aortic heart valve some 500 years before we in the modern world knew virtually anything about the heart mechanism.

In a recent experiment engineers in England built a "plane" based on a Da Vinci design, using only material that were available in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. Not only did this machine fly, but it also stayed in the air longer than the Wright Brothers' original flight in the twentieth century.

Leonardo throughout his life was obsessed by flight. His minute studies of birds and bats as well as the currents of water that fish swam in gave him the theoretical knowledge for his numerous designs and ideas.

The point of this is not that we can all become just like Leonardo da Vinci, but we all have the power to observe and to think and, most importantly, conceive of something else. We need no gods to explain our existence. That we know we exist is miracle enough.

Two books worth reading for anyone interested in some alternatives to the "old" world are How We Believe by Michael Shermer and The End of Faith by Sam Harris.

Graffiti discovered on a wall in Rome dating back to the second century depicts a man with the head of a donkey stretched upon a cross. Standing below and to the side is a stick figure of a man and underneath a caption reads, Alexamenos worships God. Little did the street artist know that in slightly more than 200 years Romans would be subject to punishment for not worshipping God. Time to imagine something else, minus the punishment.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

In Me Believe ( 1 )

So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end; it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?
Stephen Hawkins, cosmologist

As recorded in my private journal:

My car broke down when I once traveled through rural Mexico. By chance I noticed two individuals sitting cross-legged by some cactus not far from where I stood. When I approached the two men one of them appeared to be in some sort of trance. I turned to the other man, who informed me that "Carlos is talking to the animals."

Reported in 2005
A free-lance journalist on assignment in the Gaza strip had been observing a screaming Israeli settler being dragged off by two Israeli soldiers. The journalist's Hebrew was not good but he thought the settler had mumbled something about someone "very important" had given him the land--all of it. The journalist wondered why the Israel government, the only democracy in the region, would do this to one of its citizens?

An Arab-American businessman I knew slightly had been asked to meet someone in a small coffee shop two years ago in downtown Damascus, Syria. The nondescript stranger arrived a few minutes later and told this acquaintance of mine that he had a "once in a lifetime proposition." The man handed the American businessman four sticks of dynamite and a triggering device. The startled businessman went to stand up to leave, but this stranger pleaded with him to just hear him out. He informed the American that he could guarantee for all eternity a new Ferrari or Porsche every year, between 20 to 24 of the most beautiful women to satisfy his every need, along with an unlimited supply of money, fine homes, good food, and unimaginable luxuries--forever. The American businessman would only have to enter a grocery store in a nearby country....

Several years ago I was seated at an airport bar in Little Rock, Arkansas. Unexpectedly, a man beside me introduced himself and offered me one of the crackers he was munching on. I don't like crackers so I politely said no thank you. But taking a bite of his oval-shaped cracker, this stranger told me that he was "eating the body." Before I could get some explanation, the man sipped his glass of red wine, and informed me with a pleasant smile that he was "drinking the blood."

Seven years old
No Santa Claus! To this day I remember in almost every detail when my best friend told me there was no kindly, pipe smoking, overweight, bearded white man, who dropped down from the chimney or came in the back door to deliver my Christmas presents. It was a devastating revelation when my mother, a few minutes later, who was ironing clothes in the kitchen, confirmed this truth. To this day, however, I still like reading on Christmas Eve, It was the night before Christmas and all through the house....

Derrick Harley, a good friend of mine, in 1989 was visited by a large, spotted tree frog in a dream. The frog told Derrick to "go forth" and recruit 23 disciples. This he accomplished withing six months. Derrick was also instructed to self-publish a short monograph. The monograph outlined the basic tenets of the Grean.

By 1991 the disciples were proselytizing throughout the United States, Brazil and Western Europe. By 1992 there were nearly 2,000 followers of the Grean throughout the world. Sadly, a druken motorcyclist struck and killed Derrick while he was meditating by the side of the road in upstate New York in the summer of 1992. The movement collapsed. But what if Derrick had lived?
The writer Salman Rushdie was asked, in a recent television interview, what was the most important lesson he'd learned from the Iranian fatwa issued against him, and which lasted for nearly ten years, condemning him to death because of alleged blasphemy against Islam. Rushdie replied that you can not compromise with religious fundamentalism.

The former head of Bush's Council on Environmental Quality, as we eventually learned, "modified" reports on climate change. If you don't like the science--change it.

If it were only the theater of the absurd, but it's not. It really is zero-sum.