This series will delve into my thoughts on religion and its continuing relationship to our lives in a changing world. I’m sure this will lead to a very well-tempered and reasonable discussion without any controversies at all. (In all seriousness, please keep in mind that this essay is just me analyzing the logical conclusions of different religious foundation for its own sake and not meant to attack anybody’s beliefs.)
This series will not explore the nuances of all major faiths but rather serve as a thought experiment regarding which theological structure is best for a free, healthy society.
Apple of Discord
Pros and Cons of Polytheism
I think a lot of the old Greco-Roman rituals and holidays were very charming. They almost certainly fostered a sense of community in the people which we’ve since lost due to the very public nature of worship and its endorsement by the government. While this sort of forced compliance sounds horrifying to our modern sensibilities I believe there was a mitigating factor which alleviated the sense of subjugation which we do not see in our contemporary Sharia Law or Christian fundamentalist movements. This is of course, the fact that there were so many Gods to worship, each with their own separate cults as opposed to the stricter conformity which monotheism requires. There were also Gods designed to encourage a sense of fraternity among different classes in society, including the Capitoline Triad of Jove, Juna and Minerva as well as the Aventine counterpart of Liber, Libera and Ceres. (Notice how each one contains two female deities–far more progressive than the male dominated Christian Trinity.)
I found this wonderful essay online which does a good job describing the virtues and shortcomings of Greco-Roman religion. At its heart, Greek mythology was a celebration of the natural world and human attributes. It represents generations of poets and artists conjuring up countless fascinating stories to explain the unknown. The Greek pantheon represented a collection of characters, instantly recognizable to a mass audience, whom new creative individuals could utilize in their epics, sculptures and songs. They were a shared cast of characters who required no introduction, that could be used by anyone in expressing their worldview or emotions. In the telling of their glories, artists were honoring the Gods, and by aiding in the creative process, the Gods were enhancing the lives of the people. The Greco-Roman religion was therefore one of freedom to choose a favorite/patron God, freedom to use their image in your creation and freedom to interpret their personality.
The Romans took these cultural building blocks and added a few of their own innovations, mostly leftovers from their Etruscan predecessors. Some examples of these Etruscan practices include augury and divination, like examining the entrails of a slaughtered animal for omens, or which direction a group of chickens would move. While these practices are certainly interesting to read about, I don’t think there’s anyone who’d argue our modern culture would be better if we went back to that. Augury is far and away the silliest aspect of the Roman religion, but what also bothers me to a degree is the lack of enthusiasm. While on the one hand, the Romans were famously pious in their observances of festivals, sacrifices and duties, their religion lacks heart in my opinion. So much of it is quid pro quo “I sacrifice this/do that for you and you’ll bless me with success on this endeavor.” It’s more of a business transaction than genuine spiritual enlightenment you’d expect from a theology. There are even documented examples of festivals being cancelled when the gods didn’t come through on their end of the bargain.
I do find a lot to admire with regards to the festivals of pagan Rome. Holidays like Lupercalia let the people embrace their sexuality without shame or repression for a day and was just a bit of harmless, silly fun. Parentalia was like an ancient predecessor to Dia de los Muertos, another holiday I find inventive and beautiful. Saturnalia, besides the feasts and presents, included a role reversal where masters served their slaves dinner and everyone dropped their roles and titles for awhile. Instead of calling someone by their position, you greeted them with “Io, Saturnalia!” whether they were a Consul or slave. There’s a certain poetic beauty in that, a yearly reminder that at the end of the day we’re all human beings whose natural state is equality. I’d love to see an egalitarian society, but if we can’t have nice things like that, at least give us a holiday for it.
It’s also once we get into Roman times where we see lesser Gods who represent emotions and states of being–Abundantia for abundance, Victoria for victory, etc. This I have no issue with; it’s the logical conclusion of polytheism. (At least when your major Gods already largely represent human conditions like Love (Aphrodite/Venus) and Chastity (Artemis/Diana).) It’s when that divine status was further extended to human beings, namely Divus Julius (Divine Julius Caesar) and Divus Augustus (Divine Octavian) that I take issue. Either accept that all human beings are divine as the products of Creation, or reserve holy status to nature and/or emotion. To use religion as a tool for artificially embellishing one man’s power over others is deplorable and exploitative. This is where the Romans lost me; this is where Greco-Roman paganism ceased to be an eccentric if ultimately well-meaning celebration of life and became a cynical tool for control.
To be fair, there were deified Romans before the time of Julius Caesar, like Romulus, but there’s a credible argument to be made that the Roman Kings as we know them never existed in the first place. It’s as likely as not they, or just Romulus at least, existed in the way Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty exist to us. That is to say, a fictional embodiment of the state for the purposes of having a figurehead to rally the populace. This would not be so unusual today, where the British have Britannia and the French have Marianne to personify their nationalities. And it certainly wouldn’t be uncommon in the ancient world either, where nearly all the great city-states had semi-mythical founders and/or patron Gods or Goddesses. So, in short, there was a shaky precedent for the Imperial Cult of Rome, but it still represented an egregious development in terms of tailoring theology to control people rather than sincerely explain the world, or inspire human creative arts. You didn’t see worthy men, nobler than Caesar–like Brutus (founder of the Republic) or Cincinnatus (Dictator who willingly relinquished absolute power) getting deified during the Republican Era.
Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil
Pros and Cons of Monotheism
I’ll just say upfront that I don’t like the idea of Monotheism in general. I think it inevitably leads to a more conformist society, and a greater pressure to force “the one true way” on others. In a polytheistic society, it’s not a big deal whether someone devotes most of their time to Quirinus or Apollo. If some Easterners show up with a new God like Sol Invictus, it’s no problem to include them in a pantheon which already houses hundreds of deities. In a monotheistic society, the very existence of any other belief system, or source of divinity, is an existential threat that must be stamped out. From a cynical POV, one cannot allow their Church’s adherents to see those of another religion prosper or it might encourage skepticism and resentment. From a benevolent POV, it wouldn’t be just to allow the heathens to suffer in the afterlife for worshiping the “wrong” God. In this sense, Monotheism is an authoritarian menace and a plague to human diversity, creativity and individualism.
In my own personal experience, the particular character of the Abrahamic/Christian mythos is one that’s very self-abasing to humans, rather than empowering. It essentially beats into your head that you’re naturally inferior, unclean, unworthy and your natural inclinations towards sex or curiosity are sinful. It preaches that all mankind is born with a debt to be paid–original sin–and in order to work our way out from under it, we must devote ourselves fully to an all-controlling God. I think that’s very damaging to individuals on a psychological level and to society by discouraging healthy recreational or scientific outlets. One of the supposed benefits of Monotheism over paganism is that the religion actually instills some kind of “knowledge” into its followers. I see it instead as a misguided ethos at best, a cynical tool for control and shaming at worst.
It’s disgusting that women should be shamed because of what “Eve” supposedly did a thousand lifetimes ago. It’s inhumane that LGBT people should be discriminated against or killed because of one offhand mention in a book written thousands of years ago from a Bronze Age sense of morality. It’s ridiculous that this same book also tells us we can’t eat shellfish, pigs or wear two different types of fabric at the same time. And, finally, it’s hypocritical that “good Christians” are happy to ignore those passages, and any others they personally dislike. They’re happy to look down their noses at gays, liberated women or other “sinners” while a moment later breaking some other arcane rule in the Bible they’ve decided isn’t relevant to themselves. Despite their own chosen one telling them not to judge, to forgive transgressors, they advocate for taking away the rights and dignity of people whose lifestyles they find distasteful. Mention their own sins to them and they’ll spin a yarn about how they went to Church, how Jesus died for them specifically but not the transgender woman down the street, so their sins (and their sins alone) are covered.
Another supposed benefit to Monotheism is in its uniformity and focus. However, while monotheists are united in their acceptance of just one God, their dogma is often just as convoluted and subject to continuous change. A lot of what people hold as true regarding the Christian cosmology actually came from later sources, like Paradise Lost fleshing out the character of the Devil and Dante describing the Afterlife in any kind of satisfying detail in his Divine Comedy. Major contradictions of fact and doctrine exist between different books and Gospels; the petty and hurtful God of Job is nowhere close to the same personality in the New Testament for example. There’s a compelling argument to be had that even the Trinity itself, hallmark of Christian doctrine, isn’t even in the Bible. Most significantly, there have been two Great Schisms in Christianity’s history; first there was the division between Roman Catholicism and East Orthodox, and then centuries later the Protestant Reformation, which itself splintered into dozens of movements. But even before these developments, there were multiple sects of Christianity since the early days. You had the Arians, Gnostics, Adoptionism and Doceticism to name only a few.
There were dozens of Gospels that did not make the final cut into Biblical canon, pertaining to these various early subsets. The Church had to undergo centuries of councils to hash out the exact tenets of their belief–was Jesus born the Christ or adopted, was he fully human, fully divine, did he suffer on the cross…what a mess. I recall learning about all this wasted time and energy devoted to quibbling over these details as opposed to actually organizing some kind of charity in keeping with Jesus’ actual teachings. I imagine if the historical Jesus could have seen these people he would have cursed them out the same way he did the Sanhedrin: “Are you guys serious? Who cares! There are people suffering all over the world and this is what you spend your time arguing about?” You didn’t see the pagans getting in heated arguments over Ares’ weapon of choice, or Hercules exact ratio of divine to humane and any nonsense like that. They were too busy writing wonderful epics, chiseling fabulous statues and having fun at Saturnalia to worry about policing other peoples’ minds over exact interpretation of scripture.
And all this bickering over petty details still can’t explain away the fundamental gaps in the logic of Christian doctrine. There’s that classic Epicurus quote: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” These issues don’t exist as prominently in a polytheistic foundation, as unpleasant actions could be explained away by some other God (Eris starting the Trojan War) or some other mythical events (Phaethon driving the Sun chariot and making natural disasters.) However, when you have only one omniscient and omnipotent God, the suffering of the world and wrath of nature cannot be explained away so easily. Either he’s wrathful and vindictive, careless and inattentive or else weak and imperfect.
Nor can the convoluted story of sacrificing his Son (who was also himself) to Himself (as the Father) in repayment of a cruel debt (original sin) the Father arbitrarily inflicted on his own Creation (which comes with a sentence of ETERNAL DAMNATION) ever make sense no matter how hard you try to spin it. Society likes to laugh at the Xenu story of Scientology yet this gibberish is held up as sacred and unquestionable. There’s also the fact that Jesus deliberately told his disciples that the End of the World/Kingdom of Heaven would come within their lifetimes, but we don’t like to acknowledge that either. Now, to be clear, I could care less if every prediction of Jesus came true or not. I think a lot of his sayings and deeds in the Gospels are wise and admirable. There’s nothing wrong with looking to Jesus as a role model, or source of inspiration. The problem comes when you try to take the Bible literally, when you hold it up as some divinely inspired prophecy and infallible guidebook. That’s what’s dangerous, logically indefensible and bound to hurt people.
To make matters worse, money and greed have now corrupted that same convoluted story we wasted so many centuries hashing out in the first place. The faith was already diminished almost from the beginning–what with the whole divine right of Kings nonsense. Or the selling of indulgences. Or the centralized Church sitting on a fortune, living in Castles while the masses lived in dismal squalor. Or the religious wars and inquisition. Or the Church-sanctioned Crusades and all the bloodshed that came with it. Or the burning of innocent women at the stake as witches. But I’m specifically referring to post-industrial Christianity’s perversion here; how does a selfless, poor-loving religion justify its own existence in a society bound to Crony Capitalism? The same way it justifies itself in a Roman Imperialist society–by binding itself to the powerful as a tool against the vulnerable. Somehow, someway, the powers that be have convinced the plebeian masses to hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time:
- The first of which is worship of a selfless, suffering God who healed the sick, forgave sinners, fed the masses, chased money lenders out of the temple, socialized with outcasts and said it was easier for a camel to enter the head of a pin than a rich man enter Heaven.
- The second of which is Capitalism, the cold embrace of man’s greed, the excuse to exploit nature and other humans for profit, the privatization of essential public services like healthcare and enslaving the masses with debt while profits are siphoned to the 1%.
It’s this sinister masterpiece of doublethink which hinders our progress today. This is what allows one Party in America to claim to be the upholders of Christian values while at the same time perverting everything their messiah stood for in life. The masses are too indoctrinated, or too happy to have their cake and eat it too for them to notice or care about this blatant contradiction. Anyone who criticizes Laissez Faire Capitalism is considered a weirdo misguided hippy at best, dangerous disturbing delinquent at worst.
ASIDE: The funny thing is, the Catholic Church itself advocates for a leftist (leftism meaning “egalitarian,” see my Political Atlas) economic model that is remarkably similar to Mutualism. It’s called Distributism, and its founding documents include two Papal bulls from Pope Leo XIII: Rerum novarum & Quadragesimo anno. Yet I’ll bet 95% of “Christians” in America…perhaps the world at large…have ever heard of it, or would care even if they did.
Nowhere is this mockery more apparent than Christmas, the birth of our supposed savior, which we celebrate by buying countless material possessions. In America, the hypocrisy is magnified by the abomination that is Black Friday, which has now spilled over into Thanksgiving (a holiday about, y’know, being thankful for what you already have.) Everyone who participates in Black Friday/Thursday sales, insuring that those poor retail workers can’t spend a nice holiday with their families, all of you should be ashamed of yourselves. And to the rest of you, I don’t hold it against anyone for wanting to buy things and get gifts. Just don’t tell me that’s the best way to celebrate the birth of God’s son. It’s a cynical merger of Christianity with Capitalism-Consumerism, a manufactured holiday to line the pockets of big business. We don’t even get the thought-provoking egalitarianism of Saturnalia to go with it anymore–that’s too morally repugnant for our modern pure Judeo-Christian sensibilities.
Rooted in Rationality
Morals Without Militancy in Atheism
Personally, I think a great disservice is done to the teachings and life story ascribed to Jesus. So many religious people get sanctimonious about it, organized religion has exploited him for money and power throughout history, if you don’t believe in the supernatural aspect then you’re considered a heathen sinner, etc. So many modern evangelicals act as though faith excuses their faults towards other human beings, either outright supporting discriminatory social practices or harassing irreligious people into joining their Church.
At the same time, a significant number of non-religious people can get pretty obnoxious about these things too. Just because you don’t believe in the whole “son of God,”/“come back to life,” supernatural element of it all doesn’t mean you’re some woke enlightened guru of depth. Bashing people for having something in their life which gives them meaning isn’t cool, it’s just another flavor being sanctimonious. If you’re an atheist, you have a moral responsibility to find your own way, your own foundation of emotional strength in this crazy world to keep you going. You have to treat your fellow man with respect, rather than spend all your time schooling Christians or circle-jerking about how much smarter you are than the religious crowd. You can’t be Rick reveling in the nihilism of a Godless existence and hurting people because you don’t think anything matters if there are no consequences. Otherwise, militant atheism is little better than Christian dogmatism. There has to be a middle path between the two extremes.
My own personal beliefs on the matter are as follows:
The Old Testament is something I hold in the same regard as, say, the Norse myths or Odyssey. That is to say, it’s an interesting window into an ancient culture and their outlook, but no more and no less. Basing your actions and perspectives on such a thing is, frankly, bullocks. There are some very messed up passages in those stories, some very hurtful attitudes towards women and condoning both slavery and playing with people’s lives for fun (poor Job.) I’m not going to go into more detail on that here.
I think the morals in the New Testament gospels are mostly very good and applicable to today. I’m not a fan of Paul, Augustine or the majority of Church-founders who came after Jesus. This is mostly because of their sexism and the position that humanity is somehow inherently gross, sinful and shameful. Original sin is nonsense, as is the idea that we needed to be saved, or that faith alone justifies a higher place in some afterlife. Why should a jerk who stiffs servers on a tip, harasses a victim of rape on the way to Planned Parenthood, or treats LGBT people like dirt get rewarded for worshiping the “right” God? Why should noble people who came before Christ, or who came after Christ but in a distant corner of the world, or who devote their lives to intrinsic knowledge and empirical study be damned forever? I’m sorry, but if this is really the will of God, I don’t think his goal is to foster a smarter, kinder, better world for us all.
For the angry scores of commentators I’ve just provoked, I do find myself inspired by some ideals in the Gospels in my own way for whatever that’s worth. For starters, I think the crucifixion story has a significance even if we assume for a moment that the coming-back-to-life part didn’t happen. That a government would kill someone who just preached forgiveness, love thy neighbor, and called out the political leaders for their hypocrisy is very significant. It’s also just as relevant today as it ever was then. That they would be so threatened by one man spreading love and charity, it just proves how much more scared the authoritarian elites are of us than we are of them. Look at how things are today with all the surveillance and police brutality. These are the desperate measures of a corrupt establishment.
The idea that humanity had allowed these big governments and institutions to get so powerful and brazen where they could torture and kill an individual in the worst way possible is horrifying. It’s evidence that mankind lost sight of what was really important–the individual life and its potential–in favor of authoritarian dominance by fear and conformity. I don’t believe in the resurrection or water into wine stuff, but the passion narrative in itself is profound for these reasons. If the obnoxious Christians and equally self-righteous atheists could agree on that one simple principle, we would be a lot better off as a society. And again, the lesson applies today with the abuses of the major world governments and so many other nations which came before us and will follow after we’ve gone.
Jesus didn’t need to be the “Son of God” for that atrocity against an innocent individual to serve as a call to arms for us all. We didn’t need to add that supernatural aspect for the life and death of Jesus to be significant. What’s important is that society was so fucked up that we created this great empire which spanned the known world, brought trade and prosperity to most people, the Pax Romana, and we still did these horrible barbaric things like flogging and crucifixion. Our priorities were skewed and all our progress was for naught if we allowed such a crime to occur. And when the world was united in the knowledge that what happened to Jesus was unjustified of any man, united in the revelation that for all our developments we were still mired in unparalleled abuses, there was hope Man could move past such depravity.
But we humans ironically missed that golden opportunity for self-reflection which we should have heeded 2,020 years ago. Even after uniting the Western world under the banner of Christianity, all our new nations and institutions committed similar atrocities thereafter. Like the visual of the scarlet whore straddling a beast, the Christian faith sold out and aligned with the very government who had tortured its founder and countless others. Forever more, the Christian Church would be used as opium for the masses, a tool for sedating and rallying them at the autocrat’s whim. Is what happened to Jesus really so different than the medieval tortures against supposed heathens, or drawing and quartering freedom fighters, public humiliation for petty offenses? Have we really moved passed the days of crucifixion and flogging when we still practice capital punishment or indefinite solitary confinement in the US? What’s really changed since the West adopted Christianity, besides building Churches to Yahweh as opposed to Zeus? Besides the specific dogma we pray to, how have our actions and values really changed?
Perhaps the new, more tolerant and gentle society of tomorrow will emerge in a different manner. The aggressive, conquering Age of Aries revealed its leader through a series of violent plagues and holy wars. (If you believe that sort of thing.) The peaceful, sacrificial Age of Pisces revealed its leader through a martyr who inspired people not to fear death. This overwhelmed and converted the oppressive state at the time (Rome) as opposed to directly fighting against it (Egypt.) It stands to reason the Age of Aquarius will emerge in a unique situation too. I believe the advancements in science will empower humanity to achieve feats previously reserved for Gods, blurring the line between the mortal and divine entirely. Maybe automation and the singularity will bring about a society without states, hierarchies and oppressive forces…
Let’s think about this song posted below for a moment. It’s about the birth of Jesus and ensuing fanfare. Now, supernatural Messiah or not, can we just appreciate the idea of a bunch of random people coming together to witness the birth of a child? Even if there was no big star, no angels, and the baby wasn’t a god but just an ordinary human like the rest of us. What if the lesson is that we ought to be celebrating every child’s birth like this? That we ought to all come together as a society, be happy for each child, charitable to them, reverent of their potential, and supportive of their future? I’d like that; that’s a value I could live by.
Seeds of a New Covenant
Freedom and Chaos of Pantheism
I wear my heart on my sleeve a lot on here, and I have a confession to make. The nerdiest thing I’ve ever done was in 11th grade, I was going thru a phase where I watched a lot of Super Metroid ROM hacks on YouTube, because it was interesting background noise while I worked, I wanted to see how people altered such an already perfect game. I was absolutely fascinated by them from the start. I mean, breaking the game’s code down to its fundamental building blocks allowed us complete mastery of it, to where countless people could make whole new worlds out of the original. How is that not mind-blowing?
What if we applied that same principle to our own universe? All existence is governed by some kind of code, from DNA to elemental chemistry to particle physics and plain old mathematics. As humanity increases our understanding of the code we’ve been created with through scientific advancement, we become closer to God(s). In my opinion, science and religion no longer need to consider themselves enemies in our modern society. If God(s) created us, then understanding the building blocks of how it was done means we can understand ourselves and our creator infinitely better. It also means we can blur the line between ourselves and God by simulating worlds in a computer by modelling (and potentially even refining) our universe’s code.
If we were to create a simulation of reality based on our universe’s “code” and sentient life forms within, it throws our relationship to the divine into question. Either we accept that there are God(s) who created us in similar circumstances or that we are the first to create life from nothing. Maybe our children were not sculpted from clay, but surely fully autonomous AI and/or “simulants” (sentient life forms in a simulation) count for something. That would make humanity the equal to the God(s) who came before, or the only God(s) who’ve ever existed. Either way, it makes us incredibly special.
Regardless of whether we’re the first “universe-creators” or not, I’d say the reaction must be the same. We must respect God(s), for we now know firsthand the immense body of research they undertook over generations to create us–or perhaps the incredible depth of detail imbued into the code of which they are original architects. We must respect ourselves for succeeded in an endeavor previously thought impossible. From the scientists who directly contributed, to the farmers and retail workers, all of the specialized laborers who, by shouldering the load of humanity’s survival, allowed us the freedom to reach our collective potential. We must also respect our children, the automated AI and software-bound Simulants, because we were once in their shoes. If humanity could crack the code and reach divinity, so can our children if we foster their potential. Therefore, a scientifically defined universe, giving way to a tiered-multiverse, is the bedrock of a loving ethos.
This should be how religious attitudes shift, to where we collectively realize that whatever created us is an insolvable, mostly irrelevant red herring. What is relevant is that we’re here, we can decipher our surroundings and as time goes on we will be able to manipulate the universe around us and create our own separate realities. We should celebrate what we are, regardless of the circumstances of our birth. Instead of wondering what God(s) will(s) is (are) let’s start defining morality from the perspective of how powerfully our actions can affect each other. Consider how much faster we could have reached this milestone if past thinkers we’re killed senselessly, or bullied into giving up their potential. Let’s stop wasting time contemplating the meaningless, arbitrary division of good and evil. The true duality is more complex and yet paradoxically less open to interpretation. Zero and Infinity, the two incomprehensible numbers whose existence we depend on to make the math work. Those are the larger than life forces governing our lives, not Yahweh and Satan. The binary order of reality is not yin and yang, or light and darkness, it’s the Ones and Zeroes which allow us to communicate the code.
We as a society should not encourage blind faith and conformity to dogma. Our symbol should not be an eternal reminder of a man’s martyrdom, it should be the Question Mark of our endless drive towards greater understanding. Always question authority, question the world around you and question yourself. We should encourage the scientists to break down and digest the physical world as much as possible. We should encourage the dreamers to think of creative solutions to our existential problems, fix them as best as possible. We should be living in a world where everyone has the potential to create and nurture like a god. Everyone deserves to be built up and encouraged for this principle if nothing else. Everything is God by virtue of being part of this code of creation, as well as their potential to aid in the creation of a new code (or other magnificent endeavors previously thought impossible.)
Take a toke and watch the video below. Imagine if our existence could be exploited internally like this and ended in five minutes once you spent a life time figuring out how. That scares and fascinates me. Imagine if moving some seemingly arbitrary items around, a writing desk here, a raven there, some moldy cheese in China…if it cracked the code and caused us to jump ahead 1,000 years in time? Or if we could hide a payload into our code, and through a series of hoops and obstacles, cause our universe to run new foreign program that we created, thus rewriting the laws of physics and nature to suit our own needs? Maybe achieving absolute hot temperature is the way to break free of the simulation we’re trapped in and see God firsthand! We’ll never know unless we have the freedom and wisdom to try.