The Very First Friday the 13th

The Knights Templar were an unusual order in that they were not merely knights but monks as well. Founded by Hugh de Paynes in 1118 as a charitable order, the Knights took up residence in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, and dedicated themselves to protecting pilgrims who ventured to the Holy land during the Crusades. They became wealthy, which made them envied, and branched out into the money lending business, which made them powerful, so much so that Pope Innocent II granted them immunity from excommunication. But with power comes politics. When they started to build their own castles in Europe and cart around their treasure in a private fleet of ships, to and from secret ports, they became more than envied by the kings of Europe. They became feared. Especially by King Philip “The Fair” of France.

On Friday the 13th 1307, 123 members of the Knights of the Temple of Solomon, including Grand master Jacque de Molay, were arrested and subjected to torture until they confessed to a number of crimes. These included: blasphemy, black magic, homosexuality, heresy, spitting on the crucifix and idolatry. Specifically, worshipping a severed head.

Some theories suggest that the head was ornamental, either brass or wood, either with two faces or just one, maybe female, maybe male, possibly with four legs. Other stories suggest that the head was none other than that of John the Baptist and, if the stars were right, would speak in an oracular voice, predicting events cosmic and miniscule. Still others suggested that it was not a head at all, that this particular story was merely Inquisitor’s mythologizing, that in fact the Templars had worshipped a small black doll that was an idol of a devil named Baphomet.*

In 1314 Jacque de Molay renounced his confession, declaring that the various charges were erroneous and extracted under duress of torture, especially the charges of Black Magic. For his honesty, he was burned at the stake and the Order of the Knights Templar were disbanded. As the flames licked his boots, Jacque de Molay cursed the Pope and the King of France, inviting them to join him in death within the year. Pope Clement V died one month later and King Philip IV, seven months after that.

Most historians regard the allegations of Satanism and idolatry as trumped up charges by a jealous royalty in order to seize the wealth of the Templars. Very few have anything to say on the happenstance of the predicted deaths of the Pope and king of France, other than vague allusions and nervous jokes.

Baphomet may actually be a name for Sophia, used in the Atbash CipherSophia, in Gnosticism, is the Godess of Wisdom, often seen as the female counterpart to either God or the companion of Christ.

I’m Still Here, How About You?

So the rapture came and went and no one flew off to Heaven. At least, no one out of the ordinary. And by “Flew off to Heaven” I mean “died.” because really, that’s what we’re talking about when we say “Rapture”. It’s people dieing, en mass. Or not dying en mass, as the case may be. other than 89 people who died in a series of tornado strikes in Missouri and really, if God has sub-contracted the Rapture out to the Great and Powerful Oz, well, is that really the sort of God you want to spend all eternity worshiping? Not me.

But here we are (most of us anyway) still on Earth, shouting into the void and hoping to hear back the echo of an answer. Wonder what kooky religious belief we’ll get to spend a weekend mocking on Twitter and Facebook? I vote for circumcision but then I think that’s a bullshit practice anyway, worthy of mocking until it goes away. Maybe next month we can all make fun of Transubstantiation, thought hat takes up an awful lot of our 140 characters so maybe we need something with fewer syllables.

We all got a good laugh making fun of the Rapture believers and their desire to be beamed up to heaven so they don’t have to deal with the indignities of the slow, wasting death that awaits most of us. But really, the Rapture isn’t objectively any less silly than any other religious belief, up to and including the belief held by millions that there’s a benevolent man in the sky who watches everything and gets really irate when you masturbate.

My hope is, one day soon, we’ll just mock belief in God for an afternoon, and afterwards, most of the people who professed to believe in such a silly superstition will quietly update their Facebook status to agnostic and pretend they never really did go in for all that medieval fairy tale nonsense. Then we can all get back to the important stuff, like watching super hero movies.

Updated to add: If you couldn’t fit this end of the world scenario into your busy schedule, there are plenty of other dates to choose from.

Then on Sunday, The Most Awkward Church Service Ever

So apparently tomorrow is the rapture. Except that of course it’s not. The world is no more likely to end tomorrow than it was on any of the few hundred previous times it was predicted.

The thing that pisses me off about all this Rapture nonsense isn’t the theology. I really don’t care about how good or bad the theological arguments are for the Rapture. Theology is just another brand of fantasy. Arguing the good or bad of it is like arguing over which version of the D&D players Handbook is more accurate (4th Edition, bitches!).

The rapture isn’t theology at all. It’s folklore, invented by Evangelicals in the 19th century. It didn’t even enter mainstream Christianity as a concept until the 1970s and then only because of the rise of Christian-themed entertainment. It could be argued that the only reason the Rapture as a concept is known at all by anybody buy historians of obscure American religious sects is because of Hal Lindsey’s book, the Late Great Planet Earth, in which he predicted that the Rapture would happen in… 1988.

No. What really irritates me about all this Rapture talk is that it is a cognitive brake. If you believe in the Rapture, than you don’t have to worry about the mortgage or how your kids are going to afford college or what will happen if you loose your job and can’t find another one right away. It means you don’t have to waste brain space fretting over global warming or the revolution in Libya or the Fukashima Exclusion Zone or the rising price of gas, the GOP trying to take away your health care, or the hundred and one other things you could and should be thinking about. If the Rapture happens, then none of those things matter. So you think about the rapture and hope and pray about that and you ignore all the real problems that need your attention.

Believing int he rapture makes you lazy. It’s a distraction. And we’ve got enough of those without having to invent new ones. And this one has the potential to embaress a lot of people. As Tom Tomorrow put it,

Remember, anyone left on Earth after Saturday is by definition a godless sinner, no matter what they may claim.

Tomorrow is Saturday, and by all likelihood, it will be a nice day out. So enjoy your weekend because on Monday, it’s back to work. We’ve got a world to save and we need every able bodied mind working on the problem.

The Power of Faith

I’d never heard of the Rajneeshee Commune. Turns out, there’s a reason for that:

In a nearly unbelievable chapter of Oregon history, a guru from India gathered 2,000 followers to live on a remote eastern Oregon ranch. The dream collapsed 25 years ago amid attempted murders, criminal charges and deportations.

But the whole story was never made public. With first-ever access to government files, and some participants willing to talk for the first time, it’s clear things were far worse than we realized.

What follows is an inside look — based on witness statements, grand jury transcripts, police reports, court records and fresh interviews — at how Rajneesh leaders tried to skirt land-use and immigration laws only to have their schemes collapse to the point they decided killing Oregonians was the only way to save their religious utopia.

It’s a chronicle of madness, religion and death. Good morning!

Part 1 of 5.

Link via Warren Ellis.

Just a Theory

I woke up this morning thinking about the Bible. People ask why I don’t sleep well. The bags under my eyes? it’s because my brain is trying to kill me so it can slip off and find a new host, one that will feed it beer more often, expanding waistline be damned.

Anyway. The Bible. More specifically, it’s publishing/marketing department, i.e. organized religion, hereafter referred to simply as The Church, because I like to pretend it’s the 15th century sometimes and there aren’t 8000 churches, most of them occupying dilapidated storefronts, as if spiritual enlightenment were something you could find as easily as orange juice.

Every other year or so, the media retreads a story about some godly scientist who has just discovered the Religion Gene or the God Chromosome for the umpteenth time, and so now we have proof that humans have an innate need for religion and therefore, God exists, so take that, all you smug atheist bastards. My thought, as I staggered out of bed and wandered naked towards the toilet was that, as per anything having to do with religion or the numinous, unquantifiable experiences we humans have as a byproduct of our giant buzzing brains, is that this argument has it backwards.

It’s not religion that people like, it’s the Bible, specifically the emotionally gratifying (if completely effed-up) story it tells. The Bible tells the so-called greatest story EVAR!!1!1!eleven!111! A debatable point we can arguer at length later. Of course, the only reason the Bible is considered the Greatest Story EVAR told is because for about 1000 years, the Church, that publishing house in charge of marketing this First Among Bestsellers, went to great lengths to ensure it had no competition. Imagine Stephen King’s publisher setting fire to Dan Brown using copies of The Davinci Code as fire starters. The warm flames, the screams of panic and desperation as that fat-headed cretin is eaten alive by a ravenous flame beast fed on his own drivel…

The Church cornered the market on storytelling for  a large chunk of written history, and quite a bit before that, since most stories that survived antiquity were framed up with the same basic structure of fall and redemption. because hay, it’s a tidy little arc and makes sense, right? At least, emotional sense.

Humans don’t have a religion gene, we have a narrative gene. It evolved a million years ago, when we were still living in the savanna, and needed to make sense of the world around us. Back then, the world could kill you. You needed to stay one step ahead of the other animals and over time, we started to notice patterns, the shape of shadows in the tall grass, the faces of predators, the way they hunted and moved and left for seasons but always came back. That flocks of birds could swerve on a turn, like one mind guided them. Today we are still hunters and gathers, trying to find meaning and arrange it into a story, because a story is easy way to remember the important stuff, arrange facts and dreams and wishes. Story creates a structure so that we can make a laughable attempt at understanding the vast and complex world around us. Stories allow us to imagine the happy endings that reality always, always withholds.

That’s a pretty solid thesis, right? Too bad it’s bollocks. I made it up, as a way to try and understand why the gibbering half-apes I share the planet with think that a three thousand year old book of shepherd poetry is all the excuse they need to hate gay people and treat women like shit. That an anthology of fairy tales whitewashed by editors with an agenda can be used as the first last and only reason why a gang of perverts can rain fire down on foreigners and rape children to satisfy their darkest desires.

Because the alternative is that there is no reason. That the world is vast, unsympathetic and full of animals who will kill you soon as look at you, and some of them wear neckties and comb their hair. I need some way to understand this tragic sitcom we call life and since there’s no other option, I have to come up with my own explanation. That’s my story anyway, and I’m sticking to it.

Number 1: Stop Eating Patato Chips

Over at io9, Annalee Newitz has a grand little editorial taking the piss out of the Singularity:

It’s not that we couldn’t anticipate these problems, and even generate some Plan B ideas for dealing with them. But it’s hard to plan for problems when our eyes are on Heaven – that place where finally, all our problems are solved and we live happily ever after. It’s a fantasy as old as recorded history, and unlike history, it never changes. Yet we still keep mistaking it for a perfect vision of the future. Each time a Singularity-level technology comes along, we pack our bags for paradise instead of thinking sensibly about how we can prevent the worst side-effects of this new technology from biting us in our angelic asses.

The really insidious problem with belief in the Singularity/heaven is that it makes you complacent. You stop worrying about the problems of today, because they’ll all just magically disappear any minute… now! …Now! …Now?

Instead of using your brain and trying to think up ways to solve the problems we face as a society and a species, thousands, if not millions of people sit on their asses waiting for Jesus or his AI equivalent to show up and fix things the easy way.

Well it ain’t gonna happen. Now, how do we fix global warming? get off oil? cure AIDS? We can do these things, so long as we accept that they’re going to involve a lot of hard work and innovative thinking.

Papal Bull

The Pope and I have never really seen eye to eye. More specifically, none of the Popes — neither the sinister smirking creep currently ensconced on the golden throne, nor the kindly-eyed cretinous gent who preceded him — have ever spoken to me or for me. One of the perks of being not-Catholic is that I remain blissfully unburdened by the demands put upon the faithful by weirdos in fancy hats. I’m also free to eat cheeseburgers on Friday. My life is enchanted, I tell you.

Generally, I tend to regard the Vicar of Rome’s pronouncements with a mixture of sporting man’s curiosity and chagrinned disinterest. Oh look, the nonce in the skirt is putting on his little morality play. Wonder what the theme is this week? Ah, it’s the evils of homosexuality and condoms. A rerun then. Yawn.

Still and all, the Pope’s words, as feeble, defensive and garbled as they are, have an indirect affect on me. We live on the same planet you know, and for whatever reason, a good chunk of my fellow humans regard this baffling jerk as an authority figure worth listening too. Worse than that, world leaders listen to this gnarled little pederast-defending knob of a man and so I must as well.  It’d be one thing if he only had influence over the occasional garbage man or obnoxious twit at the end of the bar but for better or worse, this dick has the ear of Presidents and Queens, and so his ramblings shape world events.

This week, Pope Joey Ratz was lousing up Merry Old England, doing his best interpretation of the creepy uncle who shows up at your cousin’s wedding and ruins the festivities by muttering obscenities under his breath to your underage cousins. The Pope’s topic for this visit was how Atheists were to blame for the Holocaust:

“Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live,” he said.

“I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious people who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives.

“As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society …”

We’ll side step the irony of a former Hitler Youth member pointing fingers about the Holocaust and focus on the weird subtext here. And it’s barely subtext. Joey Ratz doesn’t have nearly as artistic a command of innuendo as his predecessor did. Old JP could damn you all to hell and make it sound like a come on.  Joey Ratz studs his pronouncements with invective the way a wino’s ramblings are punctuated by ripple-flavored belches.

We are to believe, as the Pope so subtly hinted at, that the world would be a better, more Holocaust-free place if there just weren’t so many damned atheists stinking up the place. Perhaps someone could organize a movement to round them up and relocate them someplace. Maybe to a farm or camp where they could perform useful work.

Nevermind the long tradition of True Believers killing Jews, gypsies, communists and atheists in the name of God, it was all those Atheists locking themselves up for being, oh, yeah the argument kind of falls apart there doesn’t it? Maybe someone should have given that a minute’s thought before adding it to the Pope’s message. Can we get a rewrite ver here?

Joey Ratz was making some half-assed ecumenical pass at our Jewish friends, to commemorate the Day of Atonement, which just passed. Given this Pope’s rather ambivalent view of Jews (and anyone else who’s not a leering pederast in holy frocks) this comes off as not just empty but resoundingly hollow. Go ahead and thump that sucker. It’s rotten to the core.

Time and again, this Pope has dodged the moral high road. Life isn’t easy and humans make mistakes, repeatedly and sometimes catastrophically. The Holocaust happened because we let it happen. And that WE is a big one. Picture it in 10,000 point type, big as the moon in the night sky. Everyone is to blame, from the Gestapo agents who rounded up innocent men, women and children, to their neighbors, true believers and secular humanists, who stood there and let it happen. And since this world is round and there’s no corners to hide behind, we’re all neighbors, every last Franklin, Delano And Roosevelt. Americans are to blame. Brits are to blame. Everyone is to blame for that stain our historical record, because millions of poorly regarded lives had to end before someone would stand up and say no. And sure, a few priests and lay folk of the church were among the few early muffled voices who did try to warn the world. But you know who didn’t listen? It wasn’t just the kings and Queens of Europe and the Presidents of benighted former colonies. Pope Pius XII did nothing. He could have but like the rest of us, chose not to until it was too late.

And now, his successor a few hats down the line goes around and points fingers at one of the popular scapegoats of the day, saying it was our fault. The unbelievers. Those same unbelievers bullied for not having the guts to kill and die for abstract causes or invisible friends. Way to cast the first stone there, padre. You read that Bible or just use it to beat people you don’t like?

So the Pope’s words ring hollow, like they always do and his calls for a return to the good old faith of our forefathers falls on deaf ears. Why did the Pope go to one of the most unchurched countries in the modern world and start laying golden turds where everyone could step in them? Who knows. One of those mysteries of the faith we hear so much about. Like all such mysteries, it’s just the result of laziness and cowardice on the part of an ancient, rigid caste of deeply neurotic and scared old men who can’t face a world where their pronouncements are laughed at and their very presence a source of mocking disdain, if it’s even acknowledged at all.

Thou Shalt Not Raise the Capitol Gains Tax

Wonkette has the updated list of sins from the Family Research Council. No real surprise that under the heading of State and National Sins, it’s basiclaly GOP talking points all the way down.

We’ve come to expect groups like the FRC to get all butthurt about the loss of White Male Privilege and the right to hate on gays,* but it’s interesting to see how many of these “sins” are a repackaging of Conservative anti-tax/anti-regulation memes. They seem to have taken Jesus’ beef with the money changers and run with it in all sorts of new and intriguing directions. He not just hung out with tax collectors but apparently beat them up and took their lunch money. “Render unto Ceasar this, Motherfucker!” How that translates into being anti-environment is just weird. They’ve internalized anti-liberal sentiment to the point where it’s a knee jerk reaction. They’ll oppose anything so long as it’s in the same gravitational pull as Obama, George Soros and hippies.

Which all goes to add more evidence to my thesis that American Christianity is not so much a religion as a package of tribal identity memes used to justify a lifestyle that is becoming more and more obviously unsustainable. Used to be, Conservatives just didn’t like paying taxes because some of their pennies would go to to help black people. despicable but at least an obvious outgrowth of their sense of lost privilege and a drift away form the Good Old Days of grandpa’s honest bigotry. But now it’s become part of a larger culture war issue, to the point where environmentalism and progressive taxation and social justice are inverted into anti-christian activities by the very nature of them being part of the liberal agenda. They hate that the world is changing, to the point that any lifestyle change, no matter how banal, is considered a spiritual threat. Once you become opposed to energy-saver light bulbs and hybrid cars on the grounds that they’re Satanic, you may want to take a step back and get a little perspective.

* There’s probably someone’s thesis in trying to figure out how polytheism got tangled together with multiculturalism for these nimrods. Apaprently, respecting the rights of Mexican people to exist is tantamount to worshiping Baal. though it does explain how Arizona’s new “No Walking Down the Street While Hispanic” law comes from. Well, not explains, so much as poorly rationalizes an ad hoc association of bigotry with religious dogma.

Number Three is Going up Against a Sicilian When Death Is On The Line

It doesn’t help our claims that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq aren’t modern-day Crusades when the military is using firearms inscribed with Bible verses. In the great and infinite list of bad ideas, this one is pretty much number 2 (number 1: don’t start land wars in Asia).

Why don’t we just send clerics and wizards over there and be done with it.

This Can Only End Well

PZ Myers alerts us to a new mission of sorts for those wacky kids over at Conservapedia*:

The Bible is suffused with liberal bias. A lot of the Old Testament isn’t bad, but the New Testament, when Jesus makes the scene, suddenly takes a turn into commie-land, with it’s talk of helping the poor and camels and needles and so forth. Jesus was obviously misquoted all over the place.

So what to do? When your claim of godly authority rests on your interpretation of God’s holy word, but God’s holy words contradict your desired ends, you’re in a bit of a pickle. There is a solution, though: rewrite the Bible and change the liberal bits! For this reason some of the deranged editors at Conservapædia** have launched The Conservative Bible Project, which will purge the wimpy stuff and return it to it’s authentic roots, as a book that could have been written by a dumb-as-a-stick American Republican NRA member who wants to kill communists and A-rabs.

Meanwhile, the sadlynaughts provide us a detailed lists of changes the Conservative Bible Project will make.

1. Framework against Liberal Bias: providing a strong framework that enables a thought-for-thought translation without corruption by liberal bias
2. Not Emasculated: avoiding unisex, “gender inclusive” language, and other modern emasculation of Christianity
3. Not Dumbed Down: not dumbing down the reading level, or diluting the intellectual force and logic of Christianity; the NIV is written at only the 7th grade level[3]
4. Utilize Powerful Conservative Terms: using powerful new conservative terms as they develop;[4] defective translations use the word “comrade” three times as often as “volunteer”; similarly, updating words which have a change in meaning, such as “word”, “peace”, and “miracle”.
5. Combat Harmful Addiction: combating addiction by using modern terms for it, such as “gamble” rather than “cast lots”;[5] using modern political terms, such as “register” rather than “enroll” for the census
6. Accept the Logic of Hell: applying logic with its full force and effect, as in not denying or downplaying the very real existence of Hell or the Devil.
7. Express Free Market Parables; explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning
8. Exclude Later-Inserted Liberal Passages: excluding the later-inserted liberal passages that are not authentic, such as the adulteress story
9. Credit Open-Mindedness of Disciples: crediting open-mindedness, often found in youngsters like the eyewitnesses Mark and John, the authors of two of the Gospels
10. Prefer Conciseness over Liberal Wordiness: preferring conciseness to the liberal style of high word-to-substance ratio; avoid compound negatives and unnecessary ambiguities; prefer concise, consistent use of the word “Lord” rather than “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” or “Lord God.”

As Brad at Sadly No! points out, there’s absolutely no contradiction whatsoever in wanting to simultaneously simplify the language of the Bible (no. 10) while preserving it’s robust philosophical and poetical content (no. 3). None at all. The whole thing is gorgeous, but that little bit is just breath taking. I also love the idea of re-wording Jesus’ parables to remove the wuss factor and flaming socialism. “suffer the little children” becomes a hymn to the glories of sweatshop labor while “the meek shall inherit the Earth” becomes a polemic against the Death Tax. They’ll have to add something in there about the masculine joy of shooting guns in the woods with your buddies and a lengthy explanation of how loving Jesus is totally not gay.

I’ve noticed an interesting trend of late among Right Wingers: attempting to imitate the surface detail of intellectualism while undermining it completely. It’s like they want to destroy the very notion of an ivory tower by building an even bigger one out of total bullshit and then hiring some passing dimwit to paint it white. This is the only explanation I can think of for Bob Jones University or the promotion of Ayn Rand as the bulwark of Conservative Philosophy.

* Conservapedia: it’s like Wikipedia, but without all that stringent fact checking.

**PZ uses the alternate spelling Conservapædia to avoid troll spam from Conservapedia, who in the past have wrecked his forums with racist and insulting language directed both at commentors and at Myers himself. They’re a fun gang of primates.