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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Greatest Blasphemy

What is blasphemy, and what would you consider to be blasphemous? When considering such a question, most of us might first think about the old adage of ‘taking the Lord’s name in vain’, that is: using the Deity or the forms of that Deity as an oath. But such oaths have become so common that they have passed into the language. Even an atheist will mutter ‘My God!’ or ‘Jesus Christ!’ in a moment of exasperation. No, the real blasphemies are to be found elsewhere. The blasphemies considered here are far more insidious, because they probably would not even be thought of as blasphemies by those who practice them, and because such blasphemies are committed within the context of, and in the guise of, religious practices.

A Muslim woman wearing a niqab. I have yet to find a single instance in which it can conclusively be demonstrated that such a religious dress code was instituted by a woman. In patriarchal societies it is patriarchal religions, patriarchal traditions and patriarchal values which predominate, it is men who decide on God’s behalf what either is correct or unacceptable to wear, and it is men who therefore grant themselves the greater freedoms of dress.
It is a human conceit to imagine that we know the preferences of God. And yet such a conceit is practiced on a daily basis in religious communities. We decide on God’s behalf what God either would or would not approve of. The hate mongering of the now notorious Westboro Baptist Church with their infamous slogan ‘God hates fags’ is such an instance. How do they know? Do they have God’s private cell phone number? From a standpoint of simple logic one could equally argue that God actually likes gays, because so many good and decent and loving [1]people on this planet are gay. And it serves little purpose to point out that such ‘ungodly’ practices are forbidden by scripture, because that only counts for something if those specific scriptural texts are universally accepted as being the actual word of God, and that is far, very far, from being the case.

I have not been able to identify the church where this notice appears, but it does incongruously seem to suggest that the request for silence potentially applies to only two of these six items. In reality, of course, all six are prohibited for the congregation. But who’s to know if God doesn’t actually like smoking, has a cell phone, keeps a dog, and smiles benignly upon sassy dresses, baseball caps and hamburgers with milkshakes?
Another field rich in human assumptions about God’s preferences is religious dress codes. Perhaps a distinction should be made here between those styles of dress which are intended as outward expressions of religious adherence and community, such as the turbans worn by Sikhs, and those which we presume actually have God’s nod of approval, or even meet God’s demands. We now know that the dress codes for women as prescribed by Paul in his first letter to Timothy (1 Timothy, 2:9-14) are not actually by Paul at all, but were [2]appended under Paul’s name much later by an unknown hand. Even though this passage of scripture is now known to be an anonymous appendage, it still goes on serving the Church’s needs enough to keep it in scripture, and in turn to cite scriptural precedent for keeping women in a subservient role.

A Sikh girl wearing the distinctive turban or dastaar. One of the younger world religions, Sikhism is in its outlook and conduct altruistic and egalitarian, does not seek to convert others, believes that no one religion has a monopoly on the truth, and shuns religious rites and rituals including all forms of circumcision and cutting, believing such rituals to be ‘blind spirituality’.
Here two streams of assumptions come together: The assumption that God requires us to dress in a specific way, and the assumption that God approves of dress codes which undermine gender equality. God wants you to cover your head in a place of worship. God thinks that you should conceal your hair/face/body in public. The list goes on. But such statements say more about us and the ways in which we seek to control others in subtle and in not-so-subtle ways. In a patriarchal society it is patriarchal beliefs which hold sway, and those in power will do what they can to make sure things stay that way.

When such gender-directed religious dress codes are taken to their most extreme expression, women are cyphered away to the point of being non-entities, and the burka becomes the order of the day. And when congregations in a place of worship are segregated according to gender it is as if we are sending a clear signal to God, not only that those men present cannot trust themselves to keep their lustful thoughts in check, but that those same men seek to please God by banishing half of the congregation to an inferior, non-visible status while they themselves maintain an all-too-visible centre-stage profile. ‘Look at me, God, I’m worshipping you!’ Male ego, apparently, demands God’s attention as much as anyone else’s.

The all-covering head-to-toe Islamic burka. Only a fabric mesh allows the wearer a limited window on her surroundings. We hide away that which we most fear, and a more graphic expression of men’s fear of women is difficult to imagine. It has been pointed out that such practices are nowhere mentioned in the Quran, although they apparently are mentioned in auxiliary texts.
It is not clear where or when circumcision originated, but we have wall reliefs from Ancient Egypt depicting the [3]practice. It is therefore likely that it was a custom exported from that country from the years of Israelite exile, and is now customary in two of the world’s religions: Judaism and Islam. There’s another assumption right there: God wants your sons and/or your daughters to be circumcised. As with any of the other above assumptions, we cannot know the mind of God. It is the crucial difference between what God thinks we should do (which we cannot know), and what we think God thinks we should do. Male [4]circumcision is practiced on infants too young to have a voice of their own, and who therefore are legal minors who have no choice in the decision to have non-reversible modifying surgery performed on their genitals. We deny our own children any say in the matter: a state of affairs that in another context would otherwise be looked upon as a particularly bizarre form of [5]child abuse.

A wall relief from Saqqara in Egypt dating from 2,400 BCE. The origins of the practice of male circumcision are uncertain, although they certainly pre-date the two world religions which practice it. Circumcision is therefore a custom inherited from a pagan past, and the scriptural assertion that it originated as a demand by God of the Israelites has no anthropological foundation.
But even male circumcision is neither as drastic nor has the same intent as female circumcision. Even to call it circumcision is misleading. If the equivalent operation were to be performed on a [6]male child, then the entire glans – the head of the penis – would be cut off. The term used by those opposing this practice – female genital mutilation, or simply FGM – is therefore an accurate one, the more so when considering the additional factor that the procedure is generally carried out using unsterilized blades and without anaesthetic on young girls who are denied a voice of their own about what is happening to them and the bodies which will carry them through the rest of their life. Such radical cruelty inflicted upon those young girls who have no [7]say of their own is not about religion. It is about [8]power and control and a misplaced sense of [9]tradition – and about the fear that is generated by male insecurity. In a society in which men fear women’s sexual autonomy, the clitoris is perceived as a threat that needs to be removed.

The girl in this photo was told by her mother (at right) that the mother was taking her to a party with her young friends. “Circumcision is a noble act to do to women. There’s nothing wrong with doing it.” This quote comes from Sheikh Mohamad Alarefe, Saudi Arabian theologian and professor at King Saud University. I would suggest that if there is ‘nothing wrong with doing it’, then the sheikh leads by example and has the same procedure performed upon himself.
This to me is the greatest blasphemy: to presume to know the mind of God. Whether that concerns dress or other religious customs, it is the subterfuge that we either seriously believe or are fooling ourselves into believing that such things are done ‘in God’s name’. Now that is taking the Lord’s name in vain, if ever anything is. And think about it: is it not a shocking blasphemy to think that we have the right to modify, that we can [10]‘improve upon’, what God already has created? And yet we do just this when we surgically modify the genitals of those who are too young to resist. Instead, we wield the knife and presume to play God, and then let ourselves off the moral hook by sanctimoniously saying that it is ‘for religious reasons’.

And when it comes to religious dress codes, maybe you see things differently, but I was always taught that God sees what is in our hearts, not what is on our heads, or what is covering our bodies. So if religious constraints require you to wear a hat in church, or to wear a skirt instead of slacks, or to hide your hair or even your face in public, then maybe it’s because your fellow man is demanding more of you than God is.

Since no one really knows anything about God, those who think they do are just troublemakers.
~ Rabia Basri, 8th-century female Sufi mystic and Muslim saint.

[1] Please see my post Sex and Trust.

[2] Please see my posts It's Real! It's Fake! and "Behold This Woman" for more about these spurious letters written in Paul's name. To save you looking them up, the verses are: “...Also that women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion. Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became the transgressor.” (Revised Standard Version)  

[3] Greek accounts by Strabo (left) from the 1st-century BCE mention that Egyptians practiced both male and female circumcision, which confirms that Islam adopted these practices from a pre-existing pagan culture. 19th-century accounts from both Europe and America document secular cases of surgical removal of the clitoris ‘to prevent hysteria and masturbation’. Young boys, apparently, could go at it like a steam hammer, but the idea that females had their own autonomous sexual identity apparently was – and in many circles still is – too much of a threat to the male ego to be tolerated.   

[4] The story that circumcision might help to prevent lower prostate cancer is worth mentioning, although it turns out that this could be more a matter of simple personal hygiene. The story can be read here. The other story that intercourse with a circumcised male reduces the risk of cervical cancer in the female seems to have a number of variables, including the promiscuity of males with monogamous partners, the age at which circumcision is carried out (the younger the age, the less likely circumcision appears to be an influencing factor), and again, personal hygiene-related issues. That story can be read here.

[5] The map at left shows the global prevalence of male circumcision. Blue is above the 50% threshold: the lighter the blue, the more prevalent the practice. Red is below that threshold. While with a country such as the United States the prevalence might be due to social factors, in north and central Africa, the Middle East and Indonesia the predominant religion combined with societal traditions is the determining factor. I would suggest that it is only the fact that circumcision has become so widespread, also outside of religious traditions, which makes it so broadly acceptable. It is only by stepping back and considering the practice more objectively that it might be seen for the bizarre practice which it is. And my point made in this post that it is practiced on legal minors, on those too young to voice their own objections, is what tips it over the line into child abuse. It is. For a father to say ‘if it was good enough for me then it’s good enough for my son’ is the same argument as a father saying ‘I was beaten by my dad and it never did me any harm, so I beat my son too’.

[6] The map at right shows the global prevalence of female genital mutilation, with those areas of greatest prevalence shown in light blue. Egypt and Somalia have the highest rate, with 91% to 98% of all females undergoing some form of genital cutting. There are different types of FGM procedures, from excision (cutting off) of the clitoris to infibulation, the most extreme form, which also involves excision of the inner and outer labia and almost stitching shut the vaginal opening. To read and/or download a fact sheet about FGM please visit The Clarion Project

[7] When interviewed by the BBC (BBC HARDtalk, 11 January 2016) pro-FGM activist Fuambai Sia Ahmadu (left) claimed that type 1 FGM (excision of the clitoris) “is equivalent to male circumcision”. It is not. As mentioned above, the male equivalent would be to cut off the head of the penis. Ms Ahmadu said that the lack of a clitoris had not made any difference to her sex life. But with no comparision to draw upon, how could she possibly know? Ms Ahmadu also claimed that a woman feels more feminine without her clitoris because of its resemblance to the male penis: a statement which finely demonstrates my point about the human hubris of presuming to know better than God what is ‘correct’ for us. Human sexuality is a shifting thing. In early embryonic development all human genitalia are identical.

[8] The so-called Islamic State militant group has declared their intention that if (as far as they are concerned, when) they create their caliphate, then all women in Iraq between the ages of 11 and 46 will be forced to undergo FGM. I remarked in a previous post (Isis in Paris) that IS is deeply misogynist in its intentions. This news is a further confirmation of that, although IS now deny the story. A report can be read here.

[9] The Question of Tradition: Tradition is the usual defence offered by those who seek to maintain these practices: ‘It’s an important part of our tradition’ is what we hear. Anthropologically, tradition is a primitive mechanism inherited from our distant past, most probably as a survival mechanism. ‘We did such-and-such this way, and nothing bad happened to us, so we’d better do it the same way from now on, just in case.’ I recently heard a leader of a religious community expressing his concern about the possible disappearance of circumcision as a (to him) valued religious tradition. “If such an essential tradition disappears” he wondered, “what would we be left with?” Hmm... just a wild idea on my part, but maybe… God? 

[10] It is worth making the point that I am drawing a distinction between such procedures which are carried out on minors as a religious practice and those body modification procedures which are carried out in a secular context by adults who have chosen such procedures for themselves. If you choose to have a stud in your tongue (or anywhere else) that is really up to you.

Niqab photo from the Huffington Post. Photo of Sikh girl from Michael Freeman Photography. Photo of FGM being performed on a young girl from The Clarion Project. Other photos from uncredited sources. Global map of male circumcision prevalence adapted from a work by AHC300. Global map of FGM prevalence by Woman Stats Project.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Why I Write This Blog

When in the 16th-century the philosopher Giordano Bruno suggested that space is infinite, and that each star is a sun like our own with its own worlds circling around it, these shocking speculations were added to the charges of heresy which the Church brought against him. To obliterate these outrageous heresies from the world Bruno was [1]incarcerated by the Inquisition and periodically tortured for eight years before being burned at the stake in Rome, after which his ashes were swept up and dumped in the Tiber. But ideas endure, and heresies have a way of casting shadows of doubt across the comfortable worlds which we create for ourselves. This weblog is about those shadows.

The bronze statue of Giordano Bruno which stands close to the site of his execution in Rome. An enlightened free thinker centuries ahead of his time, Bruno’s daring ideas have long been vindicated by our own contemporary science. But as recently as 2000 the Papal office refused to sign an edict that would have pardoned Bruno, considering his ideas ‘too extreme to be forgiven by the Church’. The charges against Bruno stand to this day.
But this begs the question: what are heresies? In the 13th-century Pope Clement III branded the Christian Cathars in the south of France as ‘the enemies of Christ’, and their beliefs as ‘heretical’. But the firestorm of violence which he then unleashed against the [2]Cathars, and the mass genocides, burnings and tortures which resulted in the virtual extinction of the Cathars and their beliefs not only had nothing whatever to do with the teachings of Christ, they were the antithesis of all which those Christian teachings stood for. It was the pacifist Cathars who in their turn – and with every justification – regarded the papal forces as the agents of Satan, and the Catholic version of Christianity as an extreme heresy.

A Cathar defends his beliefs before a tribunal of Catholic Inquisitors. Instigated by the papacy and organized by the Dominican brotherhood, the Inquisition invested itself with Draconian powers which even included exhuming and putting on trial the corpses of the deceased: a legal ploy which allowed the Papal authorities to seize the property of the surviving next of kin.
The lesson of history is clear: whether you regard any given belief as ‘heretical’ or not is simply down to which side you are on. And if you have the power base and the organization to push through your opinions by force, then it is your beliefs that get to be called the ‘correct’ ones. But supposing that things in 13th-century France had been allowed to take their natural course, and the growing popular wave of Catharism outstripped the existing Catholicism? We now might well be referring to Catholicism as the great heresy, and Catholics would find themselves on the fringe as a minority belief – if they still existed at all.

This is not as fanciful as it might sound. Contemporary scholarship now considers that it is possible, even plausible, that the original form of Christianity had more in common with Gnosticism, the predecessor of Catharism, than that it resembled anything which we now have come to recognize as ‘Christian’. That the Gnostics and their beliefs, like the Cathars a millennium later, were crushed by the forces of Catholicism is the contributing reason which led eventually to the establishing of the Holy Roman Empire and the complete dominance of the version of Christianity that it represented. And it is a matter of history that this dominance was accomplished, not by the peaceable winning of hearts and minds, but by waves of persecutions, the [3]machineries of terror, and a force of arms.

A woman accused of heresy is ‘put to the question’ – an Inquisitor’s euphemism for torture – using the cauda. Enough weights attached to the feet, or even a short drop, would have dislocated both of the victim’s shoulders. Note the crucifix on the table. My own belief says that anyone, anywhere, at any time who causes suffering or even death in the name of Christ is himself crucifying Christ anew.
So what also drives this blog is a sense of injustice about what has taken place in the past which led to Christianity as we now recognize it. Christianity might have become the dominant world religion, but which Christianity is the correct one? It is a religion which has become deeply divided against itself into some 38,000 different and distinct versions which we call denominations. There are differences of opinion about points of doctrine (the exact nature of the Holy Trinity and the form of Holy Communion, to name but two) which run so deep that the members of one denomination probably would not even worship in the church of another denomination. Could this very un-Christian divisiveness be itself a sign that the version which became the dominant one was not actually the correct one to begin with? For if it was the correct version of Christianity, why has it caused such deep rifts of faith? Would not all Christians simply now be Catholic?

In open defiance of Papal authority, Martin Luther famously nails his 95 theses to the door of the church in [4]Wittenburg, so beginning the Protestant Reformation. What is less well-known but equally a part of recorded history is that the founder of Protestantism was himself radically anti-Semitic, urging the forced expulsion of all Jews from Germany, and additionally advocating the genocide of the working classes. The ruling class took him at his word and 100,000 of his fellow-countrymen were slain.
Just about any post on this blog would have seen me marched to the stake (and also first incarcerated and tortured) even as recently as the 18th-century. But this blog exists, and that in itself is demonstration enough of the way in which the tide of history has turned. Political and civic power has slipped from the Church’s grasp. Contemporary scholarship and opinions are now freely accessible, both on the Internet and through any number of publications – including the complete translations in English of the Gnostic texts, suppressed by the Church for sixteen long centuries until their independent discovery at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. We at last can listen to the Gnostics in their own authentic voices. Those voices are now once more abroad in the world, and this particular genie is not going back in the bottle.

The first two pages of the Gospel of Thomas: one of only two copies known. All other copies were believed to have been destroyed in the purges ordered by Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria. The text is a series of sayings by Jesus in the form of ‘wisdom teachings’. Thomas is not a name, but a term meaning ‘The Twin’, which could imply that this author sought to be the perfect mirror or reflection of these teachings.
When these subjects have come up in conversation, it has frequently taken me aback just how little Christians seem to know about the background of their own faith. This is a belief and a code of ethics which for many governs their very lives, and yet how many actually know the nuts and bolts of how the Bible came into being historically, and the different processes and individuals who were involved in its at-times alarmingly arbitrary shaping? There seems to be a general acceptance that ‘things are as they are’, and that the early Church Fathers who did the shaping ‘must have known best’.

Whether Irenaeus, Athanasius, Tertullian, Augustine and others who shaped the Bible and Christian doctrine to its present form really did ‘know best’ is a question for debate. The point is to know about what they actually did, and what their motives and personal agendas were for making the choices which they made. And not just the [5]tidy versions which can be read on any number of Christian websites, but the hands-on history of the way things happened.

‘Saint’ Irenaeus. The self-styled arbiter of ‘The Truth’, his writings contain tirades of toxic invective against all things which he personally considered to be heretical. But his methods for deciding what should or should not become scripture were startlingly vague.
Thus, of all the many gospels then in circulation, Irenaeus in the 2nd-century kept only four of his own personal choosing to [6]include in scripture. Why four? Because, as he informs us himself, there are "four zones in the world and four principal winds.” Yes, that really was this man’s sketchy logic behind his decision: a decision that would affect the whole subsequent development of Christianity. Who decided that he had the necessary authority to take such far-reaching action? He did.

But heresies come in different forms, of which religious heresies are but one. There also are social heresies, such as the fact that in the tough-guy society of Ancient Sparta homosexuality was not merely encouraged: it was [7]mandatory. And there also are scientific heresies. These can go either way. It flies in the face of both science and common sense to believe that Tyrannosaurus rex, the most awesome carnivore known, was on board Noah’s Ark and ate coconuts. And yet this is an on-the-record statement by the Creationist CEO of the [8]Creation Museum in Kentucky. But other forms of scientific heresies are more challenging. Science might deny the existence of [9]ley lines, even though they can be plotted on any good map with an ordinary pencil and rule. And conventional archaeology will insist that the [10]Great Pyramid of Egypt was built as a pharaoh’s tomb, even though no evidence whatever has been found to confirm this. So these heresies as well have their place on this blog.

Two principal European ley lines intersect at Avebury: a major Megalithic sacred site which existed long before any church was built, and which still exists today. Numerous other sites not shown here are also found along these leys. It was a common practice to build churches upon the foundations of the pagan sites which the new faith destroyed. The Christianization of Europe was not a peaceable process, but cost hundreds of thousands of the lives of pagans who, like the Cathars and the Gnostics, refused forced conversion and died as martyrs for their faith.
It is a big deal for me that others can rely on the accuracy of the material which I present here. I take time to get things right, which also is why I list my sources for each post where that is appropriate: the option is there for readers independently to check things for themselves should they wish to. And when discussing actual passages of scripture I will cite chapter and verse for the same reason. To be frank, the Bible does at times say some very weird, contradictory and shocking things. If I myself find it hard to believe that those things are actually there in scripture (and they are), then I assume that others might want to check for themselves for that very reason.

This timeline graphic created for my post about [11]Jesus in India seemed to be the most effective way of underscoring in visual form just how little we know about the life of Jesus. The period from his early teens until the last two years of his life is a complete unknown. This certainly invites speculation, and what I discovered is that to make a journey along the Silk Road from Galilee to the mountains of the Hindu Kush was for him not just possible, but entirely plausible.
As readers will have noticed, I also create a lot of the artwork, maps and other graphics for my posts. It all takes time, and if at times my posts do not appear as regularly as I would wish, it is simply due to the pressures of other work which needs my attention.

So the Shadows in Eden blog sets out to be a serious investigation into why we believe what we believe, who gets to decide what is ‘correct’ for us to believe, and ultimately, what ‘faith’ actually is. It is a journey which I myself am on in the hope of discovering some answers to what for me are some very fundamental questions, and I am delighted and gratified that so many are coming on that journey with me. Many, many thanks to you, my reader, whatever faith or non-belief, spirituality or interest in these subjects you might hold. 

A NOTE ABOUT COMMENTS: I review every comment before I publish it, and not all comments see the light of day. One common reason for this is that the comment in question simply has nothing specifically to do with the topic of the post on which it has been left. Sometimes such general comments can be useful, but not always. And while I am prepared to make exceptions, a comment which is simply a [12]link to someone else’s blog or website will probably not be published either. Nevertheless, comments are welcome, particularly those comments which are a constructive response to what any given post is about. And anyone is certainly free to disagree with what I have said, because that can create a meaningful exchange of different points of view.

[1] Please see my post Giordano Bruno's Infinite Space.

[2] Please see my post A Dark Crusade.

[3] Run by the Dominican brotherhood, the Inquisition was initially established as a temporary Church institution to eliminate the last of the Cathars once the military campaigns against them had ended. Instead, it lasted in various forms into the 18th-century, encouraging a social climate of paranoia through informing, even against members of one’s own family, incarceration and torture of both men, women and children, and death by being burned alive. Once sentence was passed, the condemned were handed over to the civic authorities for execution to ensure that Church records remained untainted by the blood of its victims.

[4] Please see my post Martin Luther's Final Solution.

[5] To name but one example, the online Catholic Encyclopedia manages to write an entire entry extolling the virtues of 'Saint' Helena (right, by Francesco Morandini), the mother of Emperor Constantine, without once mentioning the fact that she instigated the brutal murder of her daughter-in-law Fausta so that she could take Fausta's place at her son's side and become his consort in all but name. These dark Freudian deeds the Encyclopedia apparently saw fit to quietly brush under the carpet. Please see my post Helena and the True Cross, which also covers the bizarre Middle Ages trade in 'holy relics', which appears to have been prompted by Helena's recovery in Jerusalem of the 'True Cross'.

[6] Please see my post The Gospel According to Somebody.

[7] Please see my post Coming of Age in Sparta.

[10] Please see my post A Night Inside the Great Pyramid.

[11] Please see my post Jesus in India.

[12] Although the link will still be published in a copy/paste form, Blogger does not in any case allow live links in post comments.

The sources referenced to write this post can be found in the listed sources on the above posts, with some additional material being drawn from the sources listed on other posts on this blog. The painting of the Cathar before the tribunal is by Jean-Paul Laurens, the painting of the use of the cauda is by Nicolay Bessonov, and the painting of Martin Luther in Wittenburg is by Ferdinand Pauwels.