Posts Tagged ‘history’

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Great Divide: Nature and Human Nature in the Old World and the New” by Peter Watson

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

GREAT_DIVIDE_COVERThis is a deeply interesting book.  It is both a meditation upon — and a survey of — all that we know about the similarities and differences between the populations of humans that developed their cultures and societies in isolation from each other in the “Old” and “New” worlds.

Soon after humans migrated across the “Bering land bridge” into North America, that overland route was cut off by rising sea levels.  And so the populations of North and South America were cut off from those of Europe, Asia and Africa for some 15,000 years (until the Spanish “discovered” the Americas).  In this impressive book, Peter Watson takes the time to cast a clear eye on the ways in which the different conditions in the two worlds influenced the development of human civilizations, and the differences are dramatic.

Some of this ground has been covered by other authors, to be sure, but the value of this book lies in the synthesis of recorded history with the latest discoveries (which have been numerous, especially regarding ancient cultures such as the Incas).  In short — the Old and New worlds were very different.  The “old” had a broad east-west configuration, allowing the rapid spread of peoples, technologies, crops and ideas.  They also had the horse, and a wide range of useful domseticable animals.  The “new” world ran north and south, with a wide range of elevations, from mountains to ocean beaches, across a broad range of latitude.  Domesticated plants, therefore, were limited in their range.  They also had the llama as their only work animal — no ox or horse to pull a plow or to ride from village to village.

But added into this mix is the remarkable fact that some 80 percent of the worlds hallucinogenic plants occur in the new world.  In addition, South America, especially, was subject to much more extreme weather and geologic events during this historic period: hurricanes, El Nino events, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.  Put this all together and you have one world where the gods seemed to be perpetually angry, and another where they were somewhat benign.  The ramifications for ritual and society were dramatic.

I won’t spoil the end of the story, but it gives one a truly useful perspective on how human society has developed into the teeming, technologically astute and religious confederation we experience today.

This is a dense book — it took me some time to read it.  But it was worth the time for the knowledge it gave me.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

SERMON: “A Christmas Message” from the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 23rd, 2012

Living in the Chihuahuan desert of the American Southwest (where the arrival of Winter is not always obvious) one must look for the local signs of the holiday season’s approach.  We do have some trees with actual leaves that transition into Fall colors as the weather gets colder (though this year we were still in the 70’s past Thanksgiving).  Sometimes we get a dash of snow or rain.  Sometimes.  Christmas lights go up, of course, along with a selection of nativity scenes in yards and windows.  Around here the most unique feature may be the modernized electric version of the traditional “luminarias” (or farolitos) that are strung across the rooftops of adobe houses and shopping centers (the more traditional and temporary — and therefore more “authentic” — squat paper bags of sand and a single votive candle are mostly reserved for Christmas Eve itself).  Folks might stock up on the fresh crop of locally-harvested pecans for their holiday baking, and perhaps choose to attend one of the seasonal vocal concerts or theatrical performances that pack the local performance spaces.

This year a buddy of mine worked with a downtown business group, the city, and our local electric utility, to string up lights along the three newly-rennovated blocks of downtown.  The lights are “choreographed” to music played on a special FM station set up by the utility.  So as you drive down Main Street, you can get the full effect of the show.  It’s actually rather charming.  I’ve driven this lighted route several times now.  It has brought me pleasure.  I’ve noticed that a couple of the songs in the (rather limited) rotation have a distinctly evangelical Christian message.  One song in particular — by what sounds like a Christian “boy band” — proclaims (in a rather chastising manner) that it’s not a “Holiday”, but a celebration about Jesus!.

As I’ve listened to the lyrics in a lot of the Christmas music (in concerts and on the radio) I have thought to myself: what a shame.  What a shame that all of this accumulated output of human creativity that marks the music, the theater, the decorations and the tone of this mid-winter holiday had to be built upon this one religious story of a desert-living couple and a miraculous baby in a holy land.

I’ve had thoughts similar to this before.  Once, after reading a good book about the history of Norse mythology (including its eventual replacement by Middle-Eastern monotheism), it occurred to me that the Norse gods were much more interesting (and relatable) personalities than the distant monotheistic Yahweh of the Bible.  But the fact is that our Christmas is Christian because of the vagaries of history.  For whatever reasons, the Bible story was the one that “stuck”, and then it stuck around long enough to become a cultural artifact around which human artistic production naturally attached itself, until we had the accretion that is our modern Christmas.

Of course, there are counter-celebrations: The Winter Solstice and Kwanza, for example (Hanukah I don’t think would qualify in this instance, for obvious reasons).  But that’s about it.  Unless you count the commercial and secular sects of “Christmasianity” (what I’m calling the entirety of this central cultural event).  These more secular facets always stir up a certain segment of Christianity that is annually miffed about these perceived free-riders on THEIR celebration of the God-made-man-in-a-manger celebration.  But, then, the pagans (the few, the hardy that remain) are miffed that THEIR mid-winter celebration was co-opted by the Roman church all those years ago!

A lobe-finned fish -- an example of the type we evolved our upright bodies from.

A lobe-finned fish — an example of the type we evolved our upright bodies from.

For years I have taken a certain piquant pleasure in the handful of surviving pre-Christian symbols that are embedded in the Jesus birthday party.  I find it a rather bracing testament to the persistence of our most basic human impulses toward celebration and community that even a religion as aggressive as monotheism has had to accommodate the practices of the pagan peoples it absorbed.  In this way, culture is like natural selection in that it (at least under ideal circumstances) retains the best products of evolution even as it continues to select new (and beneficial) innovations.

(I say “under ideal circumstances” because natural selection can only build upon what already exists, which in practical terms means that not all traits that are reserved are optimal.  In short, in evolution “good enough” is the functional equivalent of “perfect”.  And so we upright humans retain the marks of our bacterial past, or the body-plan that helped our ancient lobe-finned great-great-grandfishes locomote, or a hairy primate cling to her branch-y bed).

And so Christianity — having not so much displaced the earlier belief systems as subsumed them — becomes the newly grown tree around which the vines of art then grow.

This does not mean — by any stretch — that this one religion was the best possible one, or even the most inspiring, but by a certain point Christianity (and Islam, it’s paternal twin, as well as Buddhism and Hinduism) had become widespread enough to provide a common narrative vocabulary upon which artists could build.  In this way it’s not unlike the way in which Facebook has become the dominant social media platform.  This doesn’t mean that Facebook is necessarily — again — the best possible solution to this need for human sociability to find expression in a digital domain (it certainly has its dark and bothersome aspects), but it has become so dominant — in a field that requires dominance to exist — that Facebook has become THE platform around which we gather.  For now.

Art, being a form of communication, relies for its effectiveness on a shared set of reference points (to which the creative human can add novelty and surprise).  And so the familiar story of the baby Jesus is told and retold, abstracted, refracted, secularized, commercialized and even defiled, but the nativity narrative itself — through such use — becomes even more firmly entrenched in the culture.  It becomes “locked” in the same way that the first technological innovation to dominate becomes “locked”, and all subsequent developments must be built upon what came before, warts and all (technology, like nature, is constrained from spontaneously creating completely novel enterprises).  So when it comes to the many overtly religious threads that have been woven into our Christmas tapestry, one question becomes: how would we replace all of the songs and traditions with new (less religious) ones, without have to “un-weave the rug” as it were, and start from scratch?

And so the Christian part of Christmas is, for all practical purposes, a permanent fixture of my society.  But to be clear — this is not because it necessarily deserves to be so.  On that score, Christians could afford a touch of humility, and keep their complaints that “Jesus is the reason for the season” a bit more to themselves.  For what they fail to see is that even the Christian themes of Christmas are built upon earlier myths and celebrations so that we all are part owners of these celebrations in the deep, dark, mid-Winter, be we Pagan or Jew, Evangelical or Humanist.  And I, for one, think it is a good thing that Christmas (as we tend to celebrate it) has so many angles from which it can be viewed and enjoyed!

So there is actually no “missing” Christ to be “put back into Christmas” (he is there to stay).  The “battle for Christmas” is just a silly idea rooted in a hubristic ignorance of the realities of a history that moves on with what it’s got to work with (just like the path of evolution that re-worked the body plan of an ancient fish to give us these upright bodies that we can drape with ugly Christmas sweaters)!

I might just as well start a campaign to put the “Fisch” back in Fischmas.  Hey.  That’s not a bad idea!

One final thought: as I listened to a rendition of the “Hallelujah Chorus” on the radio today, I realized that our faculties of inspiration seems to require a belief in something greater — much greater — than our “selves”.  We humans appear to need some things to be sacred, or magical, or hopeful, so much so that we are capable of leaving our old gods behind to embrace the newest ones (or ONE).  If we look at it that way, it turns out to be the gods that change, not the festivals.  So perhaps we can take comfort from the realization that though the sign (or symbol) over the door might change, the “human church” never will.

So I wish you a lovely Solstice. I hope you have wonderful memories of a warm Hanukah, or that you enjoyed a festive Kwanza.  And of course I wish you a Merry Christmas (whether you love the story of the baby Jesus or just enjoy all of the lights and the friends and the food).  This is a festival that belongs to all of us, because, well, evolution has made us all members of the church of the human being.  And whichever denomination of that church you happen to identify with, we are all still bound together in this  great adventure of existence.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II” by Keith Lowe

Sunday, October 28th, 2012

“Revenge or forgiveness.  Remembrance or oblivion.  These postwar challenges are never carried out according to heavenly justice: there will be more unjust vengeance and undeserved forgiveness.  Already the policies of remembrance and oblivion are not pursued in a way that will serve peace and stability.  The Serbs would like to forget exactly those things that the Croats or Bosniaks would like to remember, and vice versa.  If by chance any of the sides remember the same event, it is a crime for one and a heroic deed for the other”  — (Column in the Serbian newspaper Vreme, quoted in Savage Continent, P. 373)

This is a really good book, and it is just awful to read.

Keith Lowe takes on an heroic task: to cut through all of the self-serving exaggeration of every party to World War II (including the innocent victims) in order to reveal just what all these humans were really doing to each other in the months that followed the end of the war in Europe.

It turns out that many parts of that war didn’t really end when we think they did.  There is, of course, the familiar story of Communist Russia’s clamping down on the nations of Eastern Europe.  But lesser known are the political purges and ethnic cleansing of places like Poland, Greece and Italy.  Basically, any place where large concentrations of Allied troops were not present, a terrible chaos reigned.

But even in the zones of, say, U.S. protection, there was a sort of short-term liberty for reprisals against Nazis, Fascists and even civilians.  Such “revenge” is a major theme of this fine book, and it is explored with a clear-eyed understanding that manages to walk a fine line between justification and denial.  But denial is also a theme of this tale, as nation after nation faced the post-war reality of rebuilding their compromised identities in a new world.  And to this end, the myth-making and exaggeration (or denial) of wartime atrocities became a sort of national industry.  To the end that in many countries today the truth remains nearly impossible to find.

I respect this book for its bravery and commitment to evidence, but also for its humanity, even as it reveals to us the horrors we humans are able to inflict upon each other, be it foreigner or next-door neighbor.  Well written, this book is both easy, and difficult, to read.

I highly recommend it.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

SERMON: “The Big Answers” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 28th, 2012

The not-so-reverend bob…pondering.

Today I’m pondering a rather fundamental question: what has the spread of scientific knowledge meant to religious faith?  In some ways, this is the central question I keep returning to with this blog.  To me the answer is rather simple: an increase in scientific knowledge will decrease the space available for irrational religious belief.

Of course there are two basic assumptions underlying this notion, the first being that religious explanations for phenomenon occupy the same mental space that scientific, evidence-based explanations would occupy.  And therefore it becomes a rather straightforward process of replacing old, incorrect information with newer, better knowledge. The second assumption is that all humans are reasonable and rational.   As the proverb says, “Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you.” (Proverbs 9:8, New International Version, © 1984).  The formulation, then, is simple: a wise man will respond positively to new information (and even thank you for the correction)!

But obviously this is not always the case.  Perhaps all that this process of the spread of scientific knowledge is really doing is separating out the “mockers” from the “wise men”.  But for “mockers” I would substitute those that are anti-science in the face of ever mounting evidence that contradicts their beliefs, and “wise men” would be those who have successfully internalized scientific knowledge.  (In this second group, I would venture that there are many who have been able to remain both religious and reasonable, at least to the degree that their religious beliefs are of a nature as to be able to coexist with an evolutionary view of the biological world.  In these cases, science has, indeed, occupied the ground once held by religiously-inspired explanations of the physical world, but a corner has been reserved for “spirituality”, an area thought to remain off-limits to the scientific method — not because science shouldn’t investigate the spirit realm, but because science is not believed to be equipped to investigate it).

But there are those (such as myself), that see a bit more writing on the wall, as it were, and feel that scientific knowledge does not simply replace some religious knowledge, but, in fact, points out the fallacious basis of all religious knowledge.  This is materialism (which is not a deep love of buying material things, but an understanding that there are no non-physical phenomenon, and that any seemingly non-physical phenomenon is far more likely to appear mysterious only because it is presently misunderstood).  There are a lot of us out there, to be sure (a great proportion of scientists are materialists compared to the general population, but even here the majority is not complete).  But those who come right out and call themselves atheists or materialists remain a small proportion of the general population.

The huge, honking, obvious, maddening question, then, becomes this:  how in the world can that be in this modern world whose very health and economies depend on the products of science?  A world where many of us are alive only because we were administered a vaccine as a child, or were able to be treated with medicine for an infection or disease that (in an earlier time) could easily have cost us a limb or our life?  We obviously believe in science when we refrigerate our food or take an aspirin or antibiotic, or when we drive our car or fly somewhere on a jet.  And yet there is this persistent dependence on religious belief that produces the rather astounding phenomenon of half of our population still disbelieving in Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Considering the evidence for evolution, the implications of this state of affairs is enormous.  It means that over half of our population is woefully or willfully ignorant of one of the most basic truths about their own existence: many of these think that they were created as human beings some six or eight or ten thousand years ago.  They don’t know (or simply refuse to accept) that their ancestors were once small, furry mammals about the size of a shrew, or — long eons before — lobe-finned fish.

Think about this for a moment.  Has not one of the primary reason’s for religion’s existence been the story it tells us about our origins?  Isn’t it always the questions of where we came from, where we are going, and why we are here that have been considered the most fundamental to our happiness?  Religion is loved, revered, followed, fed and supported (in part) out of sheer gratitude for the answers it has provided to these questions.

But it turns out that the answers from religion to these fundamental questions have been wrong.  Perhaps not intentionally, but wrong none the less.  And not just a little wrong on the details, but off by a magnitude that makes the word “magnitude” seem insufficient as a descriptor!  We were not formed out of mud and spit by an actual, physical God in an actual, physical Garden of Eden.  We evolved from the earliest forms of “life” on an ancient planet formed out of cosmic dust and elements born in dying stars — not on a world created in seven days.  Mental illness is not caused by the possession of individuals by demons, but by genetic defects that occur in the copying of our DNA through sexual reproduction.  Diseases are not caused by the sins of the father or of the son, but by bacteria and viruses that invades our very physical bodies.  More than half the cellular weight of your body is bacteria.  We basically have the iron-rich seawater in which we first evolved running in our veins.  We still have tailbones, for crying out loud.  We now know that we share almost all of our DNA with chimpanzees, who we must regard as our distant cousins.  All of this we know, now.  And there is no telling how much more we will know by the time my short life is over.

And yet…religious belief persists.  Science is denied.  And yet we consider ourselves rational beings.  But if we were truly rational beings, and not so bounded about with wariness and distrust of those outside of our particular tribe (be that a blood family, political party or nation), we would simply weigh the evidence for the question at hand, and accept the good as a ready replacement for the old.  But we don’t always do that.  And even when we do, we do not always do it easily.

Here’s the facts, then.  Science has answered the most basic questions of our existence.  The big existential quest to find out why the hell we are even on this planet has been successful.  You and I live in the first generation of humans ever to know what we know about our natural origins.  Others have suspected it, Darwin theorized it, but we live in the age of proof of their theories.  We know.

We know, and yet…we still believe.

Make what you will of that fact, it remains a most telling trait of we human animals.  We sent scientists to find the answers to life, but we didn’t like the answers they found.  Instead of being the “wise man” thanking the scientist for his or her labor, all too many “mock” them.

My hope is that, over time, the implications of scientific knowledge will continue to penetrate our consciousness in ways that produce clearer thinking about social and political issues, instead of the kind of atavistic denial that marks most religious fundamentalism.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, From Stardust to Living Planet” by Robert M. Hazen.

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

This has to be about the most coherent and readable book about the formation of our planet that I have read.  It made the processes that formed Earth make sense in ways that no other book has (and I’ve read some good ones).  But it also reads like a family album, or the biography of a beloved friend.  For those reasons alone I recommend it.

The bonus of the book (and the area most likely up for debate) is the fresh viewpoint that the author brings to the symbiotic connection between biological life and geology.  We all understand that without the basic elements that were gathered from the cosmos by the Earth, life could not have begun.  But it also appears that it was life itself that then began to alter “lifeless” geology, mainly in the form of minerals that then became the further building blocks of ever-evolving life forms.

Life exists in many forms and in many places on and in the earth.  We tend to think of the things that live and crawl on the surface, or swim in the sea, but the roots of living plants facilitate chemical reactions in rocks and soil to a degree that their actions must be considered a significant shaper of landscape — more so than erosion by wind and rain.

It is a way to see our planet that has an elegant and fascinating complexity to it.  Our life story is not one of life simply springing up on a watery planet that just happened to be the right distance from an energy-supplying sun, but of an interplay between chemistry, environment, time and chance that has played out over and over and over again through extinctions and near extinctions, changes in atmosphere and the chemical composition of the oceans as well as the surface of the planet to arrive at the biologically-rich world that we know today.

As one might expect, there is a final-chapter discussion of our current climate issue, but it is set firmly within a recognition of the dynamic nature of our planet:

“In the midst of these forces, our species has proved to be resilient, clever, and adaptable.  We have learned technological tricks to shape our world to our will: we mine and refine its metals, fertilize and cultivate its soils, divert and exploit its rivers, extract and burn its fossil fuels.  Our actions are not without consequences.  Every day, if we are attuned to the dynamic process of our planetary home, we can experience every facet of its intertwined creative forces.  And we can then understand how devastatingly changeable the world can be, and how utterly indifferent it is to our fleeting aspirations.”

I highly recommend this book both as a fine tale of our home planet, and as a reminder of how many important scientific discoveries about it have come in our lifetimes.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Some of My Best Friends Are Black” by Tanner Colby.

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

“But God’s Holy Bible is a funny thing.  For a supposedly sacred, infallible text, it reads a lot like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel.  Just flip through and pick whichever story line suits your needs.  While the slaveholders built their economy on Leviticus, the slaves found hope in Exodus.”  p. 227

This is a book I didn’t know I needed to read, but I did.  While watching hotel-room t.v. last month, I stumbled upon an interview with the author.  I made a mental note to look for his book when I got home, and last week there it was, looking right at me on the “New Non-Fiction” shelf at the library.

The author’s story is not mine: he’s younger than I am and was raised in the deep South.  And yet, his story is mine or, I should say, he is telling our story as a nation with a deep and historic racial divide.  It would seem that I have spent so much time reading about our natural history (or our political history) that I have failed to find out just what it is we’ve been doing about racial equality in America.  Well, thanks to this remarkable book, I now know.

Listening to the author being interviewed, I thought this book would be more a chronicle of his own journey of discovery as he cultivated new friends who were black.  It is not (though I think it was good to know that the author embarked on such a journey while I was reading the book).  Instead, it is a clear-eyed chronicle of the ways we have used legislation to first marginalize blacks and then (at least in theory) integrate them into white society.

The book is a sobering testimony to the persistence of racial distrust on both sides of the black/white divide, and the terrible cost of unintended (well, some of the time) consequences of legislated “equality”.  I struggle to find the right description to get you to read this book.  I can say that my eyes were opened in a rather remarkable way.  This is a very humane book that pulls no punches, but neither does it recycle any of the standard catchphrases or accusations, except to unpack them in the clear light of day.

I feel like my own part in all of this has also been made clear to me in a way that offers me the opportunity to change it.  That is no small feat for an author.  The book is also written with a sure hand, good humor and just enough bite to make it stick.

I can’t recommend it enough.  It’ll make you a better American.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

SERMON: “Where Have All the Gays Come From?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

I’m recalling one of those random conversations in a lobby after a show.  In this case, I was talking with a Christian friend of my mother’s after a performance of my one-man show (about the American painter John Singer Sargent).  I was talking about one theory put forth by a writer that Sargent was actually a “closeted Victorian homosexual”.  My mother’s friend blurted out “These homosexuals are everywhere these days”.  To which I quickly replied “No.  There’s the same number that there’s always been”.  She looked at me with blank incomprehension.

What I understood her to be saying was that there seemed to her to be a proliferation of homosexuality, as if there were now simply more homosexuals as a percentage of the population.  My point was that the occurrence of homosexuality in the population had not changed as a percentage throughout our history, but was likely a fairly reliable constant.  Of course my point had two hurdles to overcome in this conversation: 1) The woman I was talking to probably held to an anti-evolution viewpoint (seeing it is an “anti-god” view of the origins of life), and so would not be open to a scientific view of human sexuality, and; 2) She was in the thrall of the perception that there were more homosexuals when what was much more likely the case was that she was aware of more homosexuals due to their increasing visibility in our culture.

It's not just homosexuals coming out of the closet these days!

(In that same vein, another current cultural trend is an increase in the number of Americans identifying themselves as “atheists” or “non-believers”.  This fact, too, encourages some of us even as it really bothers others.  But I wonder if these trends reflect any real tectonic shift in humanity or a more pedestrian lessening of the social pressures that mitigate public behavior).

There are two issues (at least) in play here.  One involves a recognition of the natural variability within a species, and the other the purposes and effects of social “norms”.

To the first point, it is clear that homosexuality is a naturally-occuring phenomenon (we see it in other animal species beside our own).  Recent genetic discoveries have only served to confirm the biological basis of this idea.  (Therefore I have no reason to think that a propensity toward “non-belief” is any less a naturally-occuring variant of our species).  And this is where the second point comes in.

We are highly social animals, and in order to live together we have long been at work constantly refining the ways in which we coexist in ever larger and more complex communities.  We have developed what we call “social mores”, which are a sort of collective consensus on what is allowed and not allowed in society.  But these rules are ever evolving along a spectrum between what one might call “oppression” and “liberty”.

When it comes to sex, I am reminded of Reay Tannahill’s fantastic book “Sex in History” (which is a delightful overview of just how different societies have dealt with issues of sex and sexual morality).  It turns out that there is less a steady historical progression from ignorance and fear to tolerance and freedom as there have been pockets of different kinds of understandings of sexual behavior (you can find some very old civilizations with much more “advanced” views of sex than those of us modern Americans or Europeans).

But the main point I take away from this is that the human animal is going to be pretty much what it is when it comes to sex.  What changes is what freedom individuals have to express that variety within society.  And this is where the fearful conservatives get it right: when society loosens it’s control over individual sexual expression, variant behavior does appear to proliferate.  But are we really seeing anything other than an expression of what is naturally occurring, but has only been suppressed or hidden?  I don’t think so.

To get to the fine grain of the deal, I expect there is some difficult-to-quantify influence of a more sexually open society on individual behavior (as in some individuals might “try” things they would not otherwise engage in).  But I doubt very much that even the most homosexual- (or atheist) friendly society is going to actually produce any more homosexuals (or atheists) than a repressive one.  What it will do is make the no-longer-repressed variants more visible.

And I think this is a good thing when it comes to homosexuality (and atheism, for that matter).

Because I believe that we only have this one, short life.  And though I understand and support the need for societal rules, the purpose of those rules is to allow the maximum number of humans to live as well as they possibly can.  The place we draw lines in the sand is when an individuals behavior threatens the life or liberty of another.  This is where ethics and civil law begin.

But religious belief gives many of us the idea that one woman marrying another woman and setting up house, raising some kids and living a normal, open life is a threat to our own chance at happiness.  Sort of a zero-sum societal game.  This is a pernicious trait in us humans that only adds to suffering, based on a notion that this particular variant of human sexuality (or — to belabor the point — non-belief) is inherently dangerous to society, despite the evidence we now have to the contrary.

But, then, the reality of our situation may well be this: just as with the number of potential homosexuals or atheists in the population at a given time, there will (also) always be a certain percentage biologically predisposed to be hyper religious, or moralizing, or fearful of those who don’t see the world just as they do.

The question then becomes (as it has always been, in my mind): how do we all manage to live together in harmony?  This seems to be our most pressing and pragmatic goal (well, along with how do we do that while not making our planet unlivable in the near term).

To put it another way: for reasons that evolution makes clear, life varies to such a wide degree that our definitions of “normal” can only be statistical approximations of the mid-point on any bell-curve shaped spectrum of difference.  But since the extremes on any such spectrum occur with “normal” frequency, can they really be viewed as “unnatural”.

Morality and social mores have their place.  But we need to recognize that they are also variable measurements, subject to change (for good or ill).  There are extremes of animal variability that are potentially dangerous to us (psychopathy comes to mind), but we are fortunate to live in an age of science where the identification of such dangers now rests in more pragmatic, evidence-based hands, and not in the fevered mind of the witch hunter or religious zealot.

Jesus said “The poor you will always have with you”.  I think he could have included a whole lot more of humanity in that thought.

t.n.s.r. bob


Saturday, December 24th, 2011

Dinosaurs proved difficult to manage on the old ranch.

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Vikings: A History” by Robert Ferguson

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

This book took me a full two weeks to read through.  I expect that’s hardly a good beginning to a review meant to encourage a reader, but this is a book by a writer who is doing a bang-up job of wrestling a coherent historical narrative from a collection of unreliable sources about a pre-literate culture.  Unreliable because many of the stories the Vikings told about their own history were written down long after the events they describe (when they are describing actual historical events).  And many of the poets who were part of that heathen culture had their own poetic axes to grind in praise (or condemnation) of their Viking chieftains.  The other accounts were written down by non-Vikings, and a lot of folks in western Europe and the British Isles had reasons to dislike the violent heathens from the north that were raiding their monasteries.    Fortunately for us, the author Robert Ferguson has the trustworthy mix of interest, knowledge and skepticism to give us a comprehensive tale of the Viking culture.

The reason we care about the Vikings is because they had a tremendous cultural impact on Western Europe, not just as raiders, but as settlers who, over time, became a part of the lands they first set foot upon as invaders.  If you descend from a Western European or English/Irish bloodline, then Vikings of some stripe are in your family tree.

Besides painting an illuminating portrait of the culture of these northern seafaring raiders, The Vikings gives an even more profound glimpse into the centuries-long process of European Christianity displacing Viking Heathenism.  This is a powerful tale that any of us can relate to.  For it turns out that Christianity was the wave of the future, and became heavily identified with civilization and progress and as such was used as a tool of control by cagey chieftains, kings and bishops.

In this role Christianity had the advantage of central control, which naturally appealed to a leader of unruly tribespeople.  Heathenism (and Viking culture, in particular) was much more egalitarian.  Yes, there were priests and shamans and tribal chiefs, but leadership was by mutual consent of the led, and religious practice was an individual as much as a communal affair.

The Vikings, it turns out, were everything we thought them to be: violent, vain and warlike.  But they were also a people of laws, honor and rough humor.  And it turns out that the brutality that the Vikings visited upon the monks and monasteries of England and France was a response to religious violence visited upon their heathen brethren by the representatives of Christ.  The Christian religious leaders had decreed that the killing of a heathen did not count as murder, and a particularly bloody massacre of a community of Vikings became well known throughout the northern lands.  The Viking age was launched, in so small part, as a religious war.

Of course we know who “won” that war.  Ferguson’s book confirms earlier suggestions that the Norse pantheon had fallen from its earlier heights to become the subject of more coarse ridicule than serious worship.  In short, the stage was set for a change.  Not that the rank and file gave up their idols easily.  Far from it.  Throughout the Viking age, the battle raged back and forth with monasteries (and cities) burning to the ground as often as heathen temples.

In the end, this is the story of human culture and it’s evolution from a larger tribal identification into the beginnings of nationhood and national (over cultural) identification.  Though I found myself getting lost in the lists of unfamiliar names (a bit like reading parts of the Old Testament), the human stories are compelling, heartbreaking and enlightening.  The Vikings in this book are living, breathing, modern humans like you and me, living out their ethics and aspirations in their turbulent, colorful, tragic and dramatic times.

I recommend this book.  It’s a good way to get to know your heathen great-great-grandparents!

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “How Old is the Universe?” by David A. Weintraub

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

“How old is the universe?” is one of those questions that separates the creationists from everybody else.  It also turns out to be a question that we have only recently answered (and by recent I mean during my lifetime).  But between Cardinal Usher’s attempt to use all of the “begats” of the Bible to come up with an age for the earth of about 6,000 years  and the decoding of the Cosmic Microwave Background that  showed the actual age of the universe to be some 13.6 billion years, there is a tale of science, astronomy, discovery, mistakes, corrections and dogged determination that makes the closing statement of this book a reasonable one:

Click image to go to the publisher's webpage.

“The trials and errors, painstaking observations and  brilliant insights that have led to this answer amount to one of mankind’s most impressive intellectual achievements.”

And impressive it is.   Impressive and complicated.  Reading about it turned out to be, at times, challenging for my primate brain to process.

This book is written for a popular audience, and I can find no fault with the writing.  The problem of a book like this is that the author (who is clearly in command of the information) is attempting to describe some very complex and mind-bending concepts to a big-brained animal that was grunting in a cave somewhere not that long ago  (that would be us humans).  I simply had to allow myself a pass to not completely grasp every mathematical formula (the one for determining the mass of planets, for example).  (Since i was not studying for an exam, I could afford to let the occasional formula or calculation pass, and trust that I was getting the bigger picture.  And boy, is there a bigger picture here)!

If you are like me (not an astronomer) the description of the life cycle of a star will blow your ever-loving mind.  Or sections like the following, that, in an attempt to describe how it is that all of the photons left over from the “big bang” came to be pretty much the same temperature due to the conditions of the “Inflationary epoch” of our young universe, explains that:

“…the diameter of the universe expanded from a size roughly a billion times smaller than the diameter of a proton to about the size of a softball.  This increase in volume by a factor of about ten to the fiftieth power (1050) occurred when the universe was only ten to the minus thirty-five seconds old (ten billionths of one billionth of one billionth of one billionth of a second) and lasted until the universe was about ten to the minus thirty-four seconds old (one hundred billionth of billionth of one billionth of one billionth of one billionth of a second).”

So THAT’S why all those photons are the same temperature: they were all formed during a time when the universe was really, really, really small!

(And we’re not even past the first second of our universe’s life, with over 13 billion more years to describe!)

The selection quoted above should give you an idea of what you’re in for with this book.  Expect to spend some time with it (it’s not a fast read).  Having said that, however, it’s a good read: as well and clearly written as any book on this subject could be, I expect.  It’s an enjoyable journey, and worth the effort for the moments of brain-twisting, jaw-dropping awe at the realities of the formation of everything from the carbon that is the basis for life to the origins of the stars, planets and galaxies that populate our expanding universe.

The book takes us step by step from the beginning to the end of the story (literally: the answer to the titular question comes on the very last pages!).  The book does not dawdle, or mess around.  It simply has a lot of ground (space?) to cover.

I recommend this book.

t.n.s.r. bob