On Freedom from Pain


Chorus of Theban Elders: ‘Therefore, while our eyes wait to see the destined final day, we must call no one happy who is of mortal race, until he hath crossed life’s border, free from pain.’

– Sophocles, Oedipus Rex


Taken from Oedipus the King, lines 1529-1530; as published in The Tragedies of Sophocles (1917), translated by Richard Claverhouse Jebb.

Conversations: Impotent or Evil?


Lysandra
We should note that people of all faiths regularly assure us that God is not responsible for human suffering.

Helena
This belief undermines the claim that God is both omniscient and omnipotent. Now, this is the age-old problem of theodicy, and we should consider it solved. If God exists, either He can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities, or He does not care to. God, therefore, is either impotent or evil.

Lysandra
Even though your reasoning is correct, it might be rendered null and void by the belief that any omniscient being cannot be judged by human standards of morality.

Helena
Caution, that is a pirouette. Continue reading

Christmas and Mithras


Christmas is celebrated on 25 December because it is the birthday of the Roman sun god Mithras, whose stories bear a striking resemblance to the basic mythology of Christianity. Characteristics of the Mithras cult included:

  • Mithras being a saviour sent to Earth to live a mortal whom it was possible for sinners to be reborn into immortal life.
  • He died for human sins but came back the following Sunday.
  • He was born of a virgin on 25 December in a manger (or perhaps a cave), attended by shepherds and became known as the light of the world.
  • He had 12 disciples whom he shared a last meal before dying.
  • His devotees symbolically consume the flesh and blood of him.
  • Because he was a sun god he was worshipped on Sundays.
  • He is often depicted with a halo around his head.
  • Worshippers of Mithras gave each other gifts on 25 December.
  • The leader of the religion was called a “Papa”, and their headquarters was Vatican Hill in Rome.

As for December 25 being Jesus’ birthday, no-one is certain on what date Jesus was born – that is, should he indeed have existed. According to Islam, Jesus was born in the summer, while Jehovah’s Witnesses claim he born on the 1st of October. Speaking of which, according to the Irish comedian Dara Ó Briain, the Jehovah’s Witnesses must be right since presumably they were there.

“Oh look, yet another Christmas TV special! How touching to have the meaning of Christmas brought to us by cola, fast food, and beer…. Who’d have ever guessed that product consumption, popular entertainment, and spirituality would mix so harmoniously? ” ― Bill Watterson, The Essential Calvin and Hobbes

Kotodama


In Japan, there is a common myth of the spirit of language called kotodama; a belief that some divine power resides in the Japanese language.

The term kotodama literally means ‘the spirit of language’. It is a belief based on the idea of Shintoism, the indigenous religion of Japan which worships divinity in all natural creation and phenomena.

In ancient Japan, language was believed to have a spirit, which gives positive power to positive words, negative power to negative words, and impacts a person’s life when his or her name is pronounced out loud. Wishes or curses were thus spelled out in a particular manner in order to communicate with the divine powers. According to this ancient belief, the spirit of language only resides in ‘pure’ Japanese that is unique and free from foreign influence.

“What a strange thing!
to be alive
beneath cherry blossoms.”
― Kobayashi Issa, Poems

Today we can observe that the diversity of Japanese society goes hand in hand with the diversity of its vocabulary, which we can see from the rapid increase of loanwords in Japanese. However, at the same time, this increases a sense of insecurity in relation to the linguistic and cultural identity of Japan.

As a result, the ancient myth of kotodama has been reinvented as a way to manifest Japanese linguistic identity through the idea of a ‘pure’ language. Kotodama has no fixed definition, and continues to transform as Japanese society undergoes changes. It is questionable if the Japanese still really believe in the spiritual power of language – however, the myth of linguistic purity persists in the mind of the Japanese through the word kotodama.

Limbo and Poseidon


‘Consider the recent deliberations of the Roman Catholic Church on the doctrine of limbo. Thirty top theologians from around the world recently met at the Vatican to discuss the question of what happens to babies who die without having undergone the sacred rite of baptism. Since the Middle Ages, Catholics have believed that such babies go to a state of limbo, where they enjoy what St. Thomas Aquinas termed “natural happiness” forever. This was in contrast to the opinion of St. Augustine, who believed that these unlucky infant souls would spend eternity in hell.

Though limbo had no real foundation in scripture, and was never official Church doctrine, it has been a major part of the Catholic tradition for centuries. In 1905, Pope Pius X appeared to fully endorse it: “Children who die without baptism go into limbo, where they do not enjoy God, but they do not suffer either.” Now the great minds of the Church have convened to reconsider the matter.

Can we even conceive of a project more intellectually forlorn than this? Just imagine what these deliberations must be like. Is there the slightest possibility that someone will present evidence indicating the eternal fate of unbaptized children after death? How can any educated person think this anything but a hilarious, terrifying, and unconscionable waste of time? When one considers the fact that this is the very institution that has produced and sheltered an elite army of child molesters, the whole enterprise begins to exude a truly diabolical aura of misspent human energy.

The conflict between science and religion is reducible to a simple fact of human cognition and discourse: either a person has good reasons for what he believes, or he does not. If there were good reasons to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse, these beliefs would necessarily form part of our rational description of the universe. Everyone recognizes that to rely upon “faith” to decide specific questions of historical fact is ridiculous—that is, until the conversation turns to the origin of books like the Bible and the Koran, to the resurrection of Jesus, to Muhammad’s conversation with the archangel Gabriel, or to any other religious dogma. It is time that we admitted that faith is nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail.

While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in God still holds immense prestige in our society. Religion is the one area of our discourse where it is considered noble to pretend to be certain about things no human being could possibly be certain about. It is telling that this aura of nobility extends only to those faiths that still have many subscribers. Anyone caught worshipping Poseidon, even at sea, will be thought insane.'[4]

[4] Truth be told, I now receive e-mails of protest from people who claim, in all apparent earnestness, to believe that Poseidon and the other gods of Greek mythology are real.

Harris. S. 2006. Letter To A Christian Nation p. 21-22

Impotent or Evil?


‘Of course, people of all faiths regularly assure one another that God is not responsible for human suffering. But how else can we understand the claim that God is both omniscient and omnipotent? This is the age-old problem of theodicy, of course, and we should consider it solved. If God exists, either He can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities, or He does not care to. God, therefore, is either impotent or evil. You may now be tempted to execute the following pirouette: God cannot be judged by human standards of morality. But we have seen that human standards of morality are precisely what you use to establish God’s goodness in the first place. And any God who could concern Himself with something as trivial as gay marriage, or the name by which He is addressed in prayer, is not as inscrutable as all that.

There is another possibility, of course, and it is both the most reasonable and least odious: the biblical God is a fiction, like Zeus and the thousands of other dead gods whom most sane human beings now ignore. Can you prove that Zeus does not exist? Of course not. And yet, just imagine if we lived in a society where people spent tens of billions of dollars of their personal income each year propitiating the gods of Mount Olympus, where the government spent billions more in tax dollars to support institutions devoted to these gods, where untold billions more in tax subsidies were given to pagan temples, where elected officials did their best to impede medical research out of deference to The Iliad and The Odyssey, and where every debate about public policy was subverted to the whims of ancient authors who wrote well, but who didn’t know enough about the nature of reality to keep their excrement out of their food. This would be a horrific misappropriation of our material, moral, and intellectual resources. And yet that is exactly the society we are living in. This is the woefully irrational world that you and your fellow Christians are working so tirelessly to create.

It is terrible that we all die and lose everything we love; it is doubly terrible that so many human beings suffer needlessly while alive. That so much of this suffering can be directly attributed to religion—to religious hatreds, religious wars, religious taboos, and religious diversions of scarce resources—is what makes the honest criticism of religious faith a moral and intellectual necessity. Unfortunately, expressing such criticism places the nonbeliever at the margins of society. By merely being in touch with reality, he appears shamefully out of touch with the fantasy life of his neighbors.’

Harris. S. 2006. Letter To A Christian Nation p. 18-19