An Atheist’s Easter Sermon: Why REALITY Matters More Than Ooga-Booga

Christmas is a pagan holiday redirected.  For all its “holiness”, all its fanciful storytelling about Wise Men from the East and stars that shine above spots on a planet light years away from them, Christmas still celebrates something; it’s a happy holiday.  Easter, on the other hand, is about Christianity’s core message: “Jesus died (but then rose from the dead – as YOU can, in essence, IF you agree to accept the story we’re pitching you as ‘gospel’ truth.”

Jesus being born and having a life is all well and good.  He can preach all he likes.  But it’s dying that gives the Jesus character purpose.  If Jesus never dies the way he dies (if, say, the NT celebrated his living a long life, dying in his bed surrounded by loved ones), there’s no Christianity.  It doesn’t happen.  But it wasn’t Jesus who told his own story.  Most of what we call “The New Testament” was written by Paul.  13 of the canonical texts are ascribed to Paul though only 8 can really be ascribed to him.

In 1985, the bible scholar Robert Funk created a group of 150 similar scholars.  The Jesus Seminar wanted to coax a historical Jesus from the NT texts.  They discerned a Jew whose core message (they found a dozen-and-a-half sayings that Jesus could have said — that weren’t clearly PUT IN HIS MOUTH BY OTHERS (like, say, PAUL).  What they also saw clearly — “According to the Seminar, Jesus was a mortal man born of two human parents, who did not perform nature miracles nor die as a substitute for sinners nor rise bodily from the dead.  Sightings of a risen Jesus represented the visionary experiences of some of his disciples rather than physical encounters.”

The historian A N Wilson wrote a biography of Paul that I highly recommend — if only to create the proper context in which to understand Christianity’s creation.  The bottom line is simply this: Jesus did not “invent” Christianity.  Paul did.

Paul took the notion of Jesus as a messiah — threw out Jesus’ core “Do Unto Others” message and focused his proselytizing instead on making Jesus The Messiah the basis for a whole new religion that he sold to non-Jews for whom Jewish tradition was meaningless.  But, to prove, HIS invention’s “truthfulness” (maybe “truthiness” is more warranted), Paul based his mythology on Jewish mythology.  Paul needed Jesus being prophesied as part of his branding.  To make the “prophecy” part of Jesus’ story stand up, Paul had invent a story for Jesus because Jesus’ actual story just didn’t fit.

Paul didn’t worry himself with his story’s lack of authenticity.  He wasn’t selling real.  He was selling magic.

But part of Paul’s mythology involved making Jesus’ death important — more important than his life, really.  Jesus needs to rise from the dead to garner the star power needed to front Paul’s new religion.  To rise from the dead, Jesus needs to die spectacularly — even more spectacularly than mere crucifixion. And, because Paul was now committed to selling his story to non-Jews, it mattered nothing to him if Jews became the villain in the STORY he was inventing.

The early church fathers who bought & then themselves began selling Paul’s story loved having a villain.

As a member of the “villain” tribe — I have issues with this.

Jesus preached a simple message.  Even a humble atheist can easily (and happily) “Do Unto Others”.  Most do, actually because, humans are social creatures.  We recognize that behaving one way versus the other makes your life better.  There’s no reason to muck that message up.  It doesn’t cry out for explanation.

It requires no magic.

It stands — resolutely — without any need for Ooga-Booga to justify it.

So here’s the deal.  Believe whatever you like, Christians — it’s your “god-given right”.  But what you do with that faith — how you manifest its teachings out here beyond the walls of your church — it matters.  When your pervert “Do Unto Others” into “Kill The Jews” — you’re doing it wrong.

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The ‘Good News’ Is The Bad News: We’re ALL Making It Up As We Go Along…

What “is”?

Maybe the better question is: “What ISN’T?”

What isn’t TRUE?

Every single one of us faces that question multiple times every single day.  We base the success of a day on how well we navigate that question.  “What should I wear today?  The weather forecast said rain but they’re wrong so often…?”  In our home lives and our business lives, we need to feel as connected as possible to what we think is so — the concrete of existence: what “is”.  That leaves our “spiritual lives”.  How do we approach the question of “is” in this less certain realm?

Some of us go for all the information we can handle.  I’m a string theory guy myself — at least I think I am; I may not grasp its mathematical nuances and complexities but there’s something satisfying about its core logic — as I understand it.  It’s not necessarily a given that the Universe works in a way we can easily comprehend.  I guess that “mystery” becomes “God” in other peoples’ minds.

And that cuts right to the chase: how do you explain the nuts & bolts of the universe?  Do you choose astrophysics or faith?  Do you trust math or do you trust wonder?

Even the astrophysicist will get to a place where her equation doesn’t quite balance.  Something is missing.  Dark matter perhaps?  The astrophysicist will suggest one or two theories based on what she does know and then, if she’s any good as an astrophysicist, she’ll say: “I don’t know.  Yet.”  It’s the “yet” that really matters.  As an answer to a question, it’s a blank space.

The other path — faith — couldn’t care less about science.  It’s got its own story to tell.  A story that looks a lot like reality but isn’t bound by it.  To explain the “I don’t know yet’s” it doesn’t worry about proof or evidence, it’s perfectly happy to accept MAGIC as an explanation: “Let there be light”.

The biggest mystery that faith tries to answer — it’s the draw, really, for most people: what happens after we die?  Aside from physical rot, science offers nothing; not a jot of hope.  Faith offers nothing but HOPE.  Faith offers an “Afterlife” where you get to live a better version of your current life, surrounded by all your loved ones in a lovely place that you’ll get to be in forever!  Sounds awesome!  Sounds phony, too.

Faith can’t offer postcard views of this after life. The can’t point to all the great ratings on Yelp.  No one, as yet, has sent back any sort of verifiable communications from The Undiscovered Country.  It’s a head-scratcher, isn’t it?  But, in fairness, it’s the biggest “I don’t know” we have.  Well, it’s the one with the most emotional baggage.  It’s the one where the answer — the REAL answer — we’re not going to like it.  So we invent a better one — one that assuages the terror of knowing that the very fact of “being” is all any of us has.  When that’s taken from us — the fact of our “being” — we’re done.

Our terror is justified.  But the part where we make up a kinder, gentler story to make us feel better — that’s bullshit. We’re making it up.  Doesn’t matter why.  We’re MAKING IT UP.

Let’s zoom in a little closer to quotidian life.  Set aside, for a moment, what’s true and what isn’t.  We humans live in complex, stratified societies built on a myriad of rules, laws and habits.  Some things we’ve done a certain way for so long that we assume it’s as permanent a thing as a mountain.  A weekend, for instance.

We all look forward to our weekends, right?  We need them.  Without them, we’d go bonkers.  We’d work ourselves to death.  Good thing we invented weekends to solve that problem.  Weekends are a human fiction.  They don’t exist in time.  They’re an invention — that we made up to frame time off from work.

Work, too, is something we made up.  We do it, most of us, to afford living.  We work to get the money we need to pay rent or mortgage and all our other financial obligations (it’s complicated and expensive living in a complex society).  We need more money!  Money, of course, is a made-up thing.  Humans invented money because bartering in a complex society is hard.  How many unstopped toilets should the plumber charge to get a pound of ground meat?

Humans invented Democracy as a way for people to govern themselves (in theory) — without a king or ruler.  American humans invented a Constitution to guide that self-governance. They made it all up.  Before they did — it “wasn’t”.  Ever since this country’s founders did invent Democracy though — it’s fallen on those who’ve followed to maintain this invention — making it better (by amending it) as needed.

Law, too, is a fiction.  It’s a vital fiction — but it’s a fiction we all agree to go along with.

At least, that’s the theory — that we’ll all go along with the same fiction — follow the same rules — and agree to be constrained by the same laws.  Constrained from doing harm to other people, that is.  Experience continues to teach and re-teach us: a certain percentage of human beings are outright rat bastards.  They can’t be trusted to maintain the fiction. They think or act like the fiction doesn’t apply to them.

They’re criminals.

Right now, as we stand here today, the United States of America is in the hands of criminals.  For real.  Criminals have seized control of our Ship Of State.  But not just criminals — traitors.  The very worst kind of criminal.  Donald Trump and the Republican Party have placed themselves squarely outside the rules (made-up as they are) that the rest of us live by.

That has to stop.

But how?  How do you stop someone operating outside the rules while you’re constrained by them?

The quickest way — We admit to ourselves that we’re living inside made-up rules.  We agree that we want to continue living under these rules.  If that’s so then we agree to reconsider the rules in the context of criminal behavior bent on destroying those rules. We don’t have to be led to our own political slaughter just cos the rules we invented say we have to.

That is utter bullshit. And all we have to do is “confess”: we’re making it all up as we go along.

True Fact: I’m An Atheist Who Loves Churches

I’m always fond of saying (or selling t-shirts that say) “I am grateful to Hebrew School for making me the atheist I am today” (the t-shirts also have “…grateful to Sunday School…” & “…grateful to Sunday School…” versions because I’m all about being inclusive).

I have always been grateful to Hebrew School

I suspect I was born an atheist but whatever lingering doubts I might have had as to atheism’s core truths were quickly tidied up by my religious education.  I attended Hebrew School in one form or another for 8 years.  I was bar mitzvah-ed.  In fact, I was so good at doing the “bar mitzvah song & dance” that the synagogue my family belonged to invited me — at age 14 — to recite torah portions several times.  I was fully immersed in my religion’s ooga-booga — the “conservative” (as opposed to reform or orthodox) version that held onto traditions like the orthodox but didn’t quite turn the synagogue service into a  wannabe church service like the reform temples did.

Mind you, I don’t view my religious education with any animosity.  At all.  I mean what I say: I am grateful for that education.  I consider myself a cultural Jew.  I am damned proud of my tribe’s culture.  I have no use for its religion however.  To a large degree, I have Hebrew School to thank for that.

My fascination with Christianity began with being hated by it.  It seemed a natural question for a curious kid to ask: “Ummm, I get that you hate me, but why?  What did I ever do?”  When you get down into the “why”, if you’re honest about the history you’re reading (as opposed to the religious text — one of my Hebrew School teachers, Mr. Hymen, was very clear on that; the Pentateuch is a religious book, not a history book), the whole reason that Christians hate Jews — the “Jews killed Jesus” story — is absolute rubbish.

Quick diversion… It’s a fact: none of texts of the Old or New Testaments magically wrote themselves. People — men most likely — wrote them. Call their inspiration divine, call it gas. Call it whatever. A person thought it up and wrote it down — inspired in whatever way you like.  Jesus did not write a word of the New Testament.  Paul (the former Saul of Tarsus) however did.  The bulk of the NT is Paul — writing to the new, far-flung churches he was creating and instructing on the just-invented rules and mythology of Christianity.  That HE was inventing.

Back in the 1985, American biblical scholar Robert Funk put together a group called The Jesus Seminar. The Seminar’s 150 members focused on the New Testament’s historicity — and what, if any, of a historical Jesus could be drawn from the texts. The Seminar settled on about a dozen-and-a-half of Jesus’ sayings that all the gospels agree on — that Jesus said (versus things the gospel writers — or Paul — put into Jesus’ mouth).

The Jesus that emerged from the Seminar’s work was big into doing unto others. He wasn’t into forming churches.  Why would he be? He was a lifelong Jew who, actually, hated the institution of the Temple because, to Jesus, no one needed a go-between.  The believe could/should go directly to the god character.

Churches exist for the sake of their own existence — like any institution.  Whatever its founding principles, once you get past the abstract, it all comes down to survival.  Churches need money and believers to remain in the church business.  They are motivated first and foremost by the need to continue “being”.

The Catholic church was brilliant — once it created its message — at selling its message.  One of the ways they sold their message was in the way they ultimately imagined their own sanctuaries.  If money permitted, they imagined them BIG.  Big was the point.

These are from inside Notre Dame de Paris — before the fire.  See how enormous the cathedral is vs how small each individual human is?  That’s the point.  To put a single human in his or her place relative to the power and awesome size of the institution and its church.  It’s a not-so-subtle kind of psyche war the church launches against its own believers.

But, I love it.  I adore the use of architecture to create a visceral feeling.  Churches are all about that, of course.  To put you in the right frame of mind to approach the divine.

There’s a church in Venice – San Pantalon. Like lots of the churches in Venice, it’s beautiful. But this one has something quite special — a painting that fills the entire sanctuary ceiling. The painting depicts an opening to heaven — into which all the people and creatures in the painting are being sucked.  It’s as if a portal to heaven had opened directly above the church — and the painting was revealing that fact.

It’s a brilliant affect.

So, yeah — I’m an atheist who likes visiting churches.  I wouldn’t sit too, too still when the magical incantations began, but I do appreciate the artistry of the people who imagined the church then manifested their vision out here in reality.  For what it’s worth, I’m a big museum-goer, too.

Not A Revelation: Magical Thinking Is Stupid, Stupid, STUPID!

Everyone — myself included — is guilty, guilty, guilty of Magical Thinking. I may not have an imaginary friend like some or follow rules plucked from my imagination or my ass, but I have, when Tottenham Hotspur (my footie team) is down two goals late in a game, still thought it was possible for them not to lose.  They lost.

My magical thinking led to personal disappointment — unpleasant but survivable.

If I used that magical thinking though as the basis for a belief system — Spurs lost so therefore a whole host of other things (beyond football) must follow “logically” demanding certain actions and counter-actions — and if that belief system’s impact spread beyond my own disappointment (because my team lost a game) — out into everyone else’s lives — that would be a problem.  I would have taken something based in unrealistic nonsense-thinking out into reality — with unrealistic expectations for it.

Gosh – should I be shocked when more disappointment follows?

Today’s ludicrous Magical Thinking headlines (among others) — Trump’s military transgender ban takes effect & there are still “thoughtful” people walking around who think AG Bill Barr isn’t desperately trying to cover up a massive, explosively far-reaching scandal that will consume and destroy the entire Republican Party.

The basis for the military transgender ban, of course, is pure, unadulterated bullshit.  I would love to put all the Magical Thinkers who base their contemporary lives on the knowledge base of uneducated desert-dwellers who thought everything revolved around the earth onto an airplane large enough to accommodate them all.  Then, as we rolled toward the runway, I’d like to introduce them to their pilot.  He knows nothing about flying planes.  But he “believes” he can do it — so off they all go…

Magical Thinking comes with being a homo sapien.  Until such a time as it evolves out of our brains, it will be hard-wired into us.  It’s the first thought that burps from the miasma of our uncertainty.  Magic: the explanation for this wonder must be Magic.  It ain’t.

I could go on and on — I recommend watching this lecture that Neil deGrasse Tyson gave a few years ago.  His point: even the greatest minds in the history of science — Isaac Newton among them — surrendered to Magical Thinking when they reached the end of their knowledge base.  A little while later, some other thinker solved the problem — no more need for Magical Thinking.

The answers to all our questions are out there.  We may not get to them all in our lifetime — but they’re out there once we gain the knowledge or the knowledge to make the instruments we need to “see” the knowledge and the answers they provide.

America has always been fertile territory for Magical Thinking.  Strange, exotic religions (lots of them offshoots of Christianity) have come and gone here.  One of the first groups of Europeans to settle and (more or less) survive — the Pilgrims — were so deep into their offshoot brand of Christianity that none of the other Christians wanted them nearby.  So the Pilgrims came here.  Think about it: one of the foundational European groups to call North America home came here because their brand of ooga-booga was too ooga-booga-y for other believers of the same basic ooga-booga!

It’s not a coincidence that Mormonism and Scientology were American creations.  Jewish mythology is extensive.  By “mythology”, I mean stories that sit squarely outside the provable.  They may have some shadowy echo in the historical record but the echo has been blown up into something it never was.  As it’s the surviving word of these people and their times, we have no way to put these texts into a larger perspective.  We can use our current knowledge base — including our knowledge of germ theory — to figure a guy like Noah could not (and did not) put every animal on the planet on a boat and did not, subsequently, live to some biologically impossible age well into the hundreds.

Magical Thinking allows a person to believe that his foundational texts appeared out of nowhere — the product of divine intervention.  These tenets he lives by — they’re not his idea, their a deity’s.  Therefore they must be the Truth.  Yeah, but — the guy next to you has a whole other mythology in his head — with conflicting details — all based on the very same texts.  Either one of these two has it wrong or their deities are terrible communicators.

Think about that:  Magical Thinking can imagine a deity capable of creating the vastness of EVERYTHING — but can’t put the basics of how & why into a form two people can agree upon.  That’s a deity so flawed, illogical and goofy that only a homo sapien could dream it up.  And then believe that IT created HIM.

Here’s my problem in something larger than a nutshell… If you tell me going in that you’re a person of faith — and you believe in Magical Thinking and its Magical explanations for how and why we’re all here & how and why we need to live together as peacefully as we can — then I’m going to look at you with a shitload of doubt.  I know for a fact because you’ve told me — given a good enough story, you can be made to believe anything.

If you believe in Magical Thinking, your judgment sucks.  I’m simply going along with what you’re telling me.

Sunday Sermon: The Inexplicable Power Of OOGA-BOOGA

I consider myself an aficionado of bullshit. I don’t “like” bullshit — but I do see how pervasive bullshit is. I see (having fallen for it myself to the point of nearly offing myself because of it) — how seductive bullshit is; I see how easily every last one of us can fall under its sway — and become its slaves.

Bullshit captures us and holds us because it appeals to the lazy, irrational, can’t-be-bothered-with-the-Truth lizard brain that epitomizes conservative mind-think. It sees a mystery — and, where the “gaps” are in its knowledge, it puts ooga-booga instead of a simple “I don’t know the answer to that yet”. It assumes magic must be the answer to what it doesn’t know. Ironically — if it waited five minutes (while someone curious went at the answer), they’d LEARN — it isn’t ooga-booga, it’s biology or chemistry or physics or some other natural explanation that simply needed to be stumbled over.

There’s a reason the religions of the world love to educate children — they can break a child’s capacity to think at the get-go and replace analytical thought with acceptance of mythology and ooga-booga. Did Life-As-We-Know-It begin in a singularity — or in the mind of a physically powerful but emotionally fragile deity?

If you don’t have microscopes or telescopes or celestial navigation or calculus or any of the other human innovations that gave us the TOOLS with which to replace ooga-booga explanations with REAL ones — you’ll give in to the ooga-booga because you don’t know any better. “KNOW” is the operative word here.

On this subject — quick side note here — I recommend this remarkable lecture by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Among other things he touches on naming rights (why do so many stars have Arabic names?)

The point of “naming rights” is that it reflects “discovery”. Being the “inventors” of celestial navigation — a human innovation that put a big chunk of ooga-booga to bed — Arabs (having no competition to consider) named the stars they identified — and fixed in the heavens & their mind — in the language they spoke: Arabic. It’s a great lecture — absolutely worth the time to watch. He touches on ooga-booga, too.

As Tyson articulately explains — even the greatest minds in science have given in to that old, (apparently) hard-wired-into-us urge to give in and fill in the gaps in our knowledge with ooga-booga and its bedmate Magical Thinking.

Those of us NOT beholden to ooga-booga must call out the ooga-booga for what it is whenever we see it. Maybe we should use the term “OOGA-BOOGA” to describe it — instead of “bullshit”.

Even calling it “bullshit” gives “ooga-booga” way too much credence.

If America’s Going To Heal Itself, FIRST, It Needs To Ditch The “Magical Thinking”

Believing in Magic is fun. It’s the deus ex machina side door out of anything hard and overly challenging. Like Life.

In the theater, it’s “god from machine” — an ending that doesn’t actually add up or make sense but — it was time.

It’s why religion proliferates still — even in the face of cold, hard facts that contradict it. Cold, hard facts aren’t nice. Facts aren’t in the “nice” businesses. They couldn’t give a rat’s ass whether you “like” them or not. Hell — “You” don’t even exist to them.

Facts just are. They’re a-political. They don’t ascribe to any particular faith. To look at them, and interpret them, you don’t need a church. You need a mind. When you refuse to use your mind, a church will quickly step in and do the thinking for you. But churches don’t base THEIR worldview on the world, they base it on their foundational texts — written kajillions of years ago by well-meaning but uninformed men.

If the scribes who wrote what eventually was assembled into the Pentateuch (the Old Testament) — including Genesis — had known that microbes and pathogens exist (therefore explaining sickness and disease) or that earth was NOT at the center of creation (in fact, we’re nowhere near it’s center — if there even is one), they would NOT have written the texts they wrote. Their texts would have been informed by their knowledge. It’s kinda how knowledge is supposed to work.

Instead of the “Book Of Genesis”, perhaps there’d be the “Book Of String Theory” or “The Book of Quantum Physics”.

If that were the case, there’d BE no Magical Thinking.

America has always been extremely friendly to Magical Thinking though. I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that a bunch of offshoot, whackadoodle religions were born here. You can think of Protestantism as an offshoot of Catholicism (and Christianity as an offshoot of Judaism), but what the hell is Scientology an offshoot of — other than Chicanery? At least Mormonism pretends to be an offshoot of Christianity (though it takes Christianity to crazy bullshit places even Paul would have called it “over the line” and “beyond anyone’s capacity to believe it”. I’m sorry — Jesus visited North America? Um, no — if he existed, he most certainly did NOT.

The reason nonsense like Mormonism & Scientology (and a host of other to-silly-to-speak-their-names beliefs) finds purchase here is that Americans have always had a “thing” for Magical Thinking. We believed, for instance, that not outlawing slavery in our foundational document — our Constitution — would work out for us. The Civil War and its aftermath says we got that wrong.

Magical Thinking starts early. We force it on every single kid. Some of it — sure, it’s endurable: fairy tales, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny… But the rest of it is just pure ignorant masquerading as something else. It’s what adults tell kids when they (the adults) don’t know the answer: it must be god. It must be ooga-booga. It must be MAGIC.

No — it’s not Magic. It’s NEVER Magic. Magic does not exist.

If a surgeon or pilot stepped out to say hello before getting down to work — and they said they had decided to forgo science today; instead they’ve placed the outcome of YOUR surgery or YOUR airplane journey in the hands of MAGIC (better hope it works!), I don’t think YOU would want them to continue.

There’s a reason.

Quick side note. I differentiate between “religion” and “spirituality”. I don’t equate spirituality with magic — though the relationship between them is fraught. Spirituality is awe. It’s wonder at what we don’t know yet. I also don’t necessarily equate magic with any religion’s core message — so long as the core message isn’t its magic. Take Jesus, for instance. One can laugh at Magical Thinking all while happily Doing Unto Others. You don’t need the magic to take a little good advice.

Slavery Sucks. All Forms Of Slavery, That Is — Including The “Subtle” Ones…

Slavery has been a thing homo sapiens do (we don’t know if any other human species did it) since we figured out we could force someone else to work for free. Slavery, in its essence, is stolen labor.

Yes, it’s a stolen life. But, from the point of view of the enslaver, the goal is to steal the labor above all. You can’t steal too much food or sleep — the slave will die. The only other cost basis for a slave is output — work. Take away the raw costs of feeding, clothing and housing the slave, the profit derived from another human (other than their raw materials) is their work. Slavery wants THAT for free.

But there are other forms of slavery where, in essence, a free person gives away their “work” to the person (or organization) who will absolutely enslave them. Employers do it with the contracts they force employees to sign. Credit card companies do it — so do time share companies and gyms. America does it with the way we handle health care (how many people stay in jobs they hate just because they need the employer-provided health care?) Religions do it especially. If you want to belong, you have to surrender your reason and free thinking. Those will only “un-enslave” you from the slaver’s point of view.

About ten seconds of listening to any Trumpanista or republican defend the indefensible tells you — this person is a slave. They have surrendered all freedom of thought to a “thing”. To a person. They are as shackled to their ignorance as any slave ever was.

Except the real slave yearns to be free.

And that’s the difference — between people who’ve been enslaved and people who actually WANT to be slaves.

Ignorance is slavery.

Blind faith is slavery.

Personality of Cult is slavery.

Political indoctrination is slavery.

Trumpism is slavery.

I’ll toss in one more — for the Media’s sake — “Both Sides Do It” is slavery (okay — a lesser variety — but it IS a distinct sub-set of Ignorance). Both Sides Do It is lazy thinking that false equivalences things that do not in fact equal each other (like climate science and climate science denial — two points of view, not at all the same in their truthfullness). “Both Sides Do It” is soft slavery for the Media but hard slavery for the American Public — who continue to be enslaved by the RESULTS of the larger ignorance.

I trust I don’t have to explain all that to free people.