All entries for Monday 13 October 2008

October 13, 2008

Prometheus Unbound

I was recently listening to a debate on whether England should introduce blasphemy laws to stop the propagation of religious hatred. This was shown to me by John Nunn about two months ago, and is consequently slightly out of date regarding the laws of England concerning blasphemy at the moment; however I bring it to your attention because of two reasons. Firstly, Sarah Palin has stated in the past that she is for "keeping America Christian", which amounts to limiting the separation between Church and State and also propounding equal education of Creationism and Evolution in schools. This is a woman who thought that Dinosaurs were alive five thousand years ago, and there is a very good chance she may become president of the largest current superpower in the world.

Let's just time out for a second here, because I want the ridiculousness of that last statement to fully sink in. Hell, the surreality of the entire situation should be enough to make everyone gawp like wide eyed fish inhabiting the body of a deer caught in the headlights of a particularly surprising truck. This stupid, contemptible, grotesque, rash, racist, violent women may well be the one holding the keys to the biggest nuclear arsenal in the world. Are we really doing this, humanity? I understand it was funny at the time, but seriously it's looking as though there may actually be a chance that her and McCain win; and if they do, McCain won't last long. The man is around 70, a loud noise or a particularly buttery potato could kill him. This leaves the Hockey Mom in charge of a country.

It's like an especially terrible Disney movie, except that instead of the end where the inexperienced but cheerful hockey mom wins the country over with her dogged determination and back-country thinking, we get the end where she's put on the spot almost immediately by a Chinese ambassador, and we get to wave goodbye to the civilised world in a cloud of regret and radioactive vapour. The woman has spent barely two years governing Alaska, which has a population of around four separate people, and we take this to be enough experience to run a country? This crosses the boundaries of the astonishingly stupid into the downright suicidal, so we can only hope that the Americans find a less harmful way to collectively top themselves.

Anyway, secondly, Stephen Fry brings up the distinction between the Greek creation myths, and the current Western ones - specifically in the format of Genesis vs. Prometheus. In Genesis, Humanity is in some senses literally finding its feet. God has just made us (essentially as decoration, as we would introduce petunias to a bare patch of garden) and pushed us into Eden; without very much knowledge of our capability. As Hitchens says in the article: the first ever joke was Adam saying to Eve "you'd best stand back, I don't know how big this thing is going to get".

Being so introduced to this new and confusing world, Humans are given very little in the way of direction, other than "Don't eat that fruit over there". I call this direction, but this is misleading, because no sooner are we told not to eat certain types of fruit a snake wanders up and goes "It's cool guys, you can eat the fruit. It's super delicious". Being given such conflicting advice, we err on the side of the adventurous - and of course we eat the fruit. Turns out, not only was it super-delicious, but it gave us knowledge of good and evil, so it was a good thing then.

God, however, has other ideas. Being apparently otherwise occupied whilst all this was going on, he comes back to find us quivering and gleaming in the new sun, now complete with fig-leaf underwear. Long story short: God flips out, original sin is born, child-bearing becomes unbearable, working becomes hard work. Because of this misdemeanour at the beginning of time, every human being is created sick and commanded to be well.

For this tiny and meaningless slight, every human being is meant to feel shame. I remember being told this story in Sunday school, and the optimistic God-fearing volunteer teacher would almost scowl at us at this point, willing us to feel guilt for these actions. We are humans, we are dirty, we are unworthy to have the Grace of God thrust upon us.

Well I'm sorry optimistic God-fearing volunteer teacher, but I couldn't then and I won't now. I refuse to be servile to the point of emancipation, and I refuse to feel any mote of emotion for any action I hadn't the slightest bearing on, nor could have. This, then, is original sin - for what we are all ostensibly to go to hell for? I will not take responsibility for what two strangers did six-thousand years ago, no matter how apparently bad it may be. If I am to share responsibility as a human, am I meant to feel shame for the atrocities of Hitler, or the Khmer Rouge? Of course not, judgement can only be given on actions that require some form of participation from the person, be it action or inaction. If neither is possible, then we do not judge. Consider five people dying in a car crash, and then a man who lived five hundred miles away being taken to prison for it. Would we consider this action a correct one? Of course not, it's morally condemnable to punish someone for something they could not have prevented; so why are we to believe that a Benevolent and Omniscient God would take joy in it?

Contrast this, then, with the Creation story from the Greeks of Prometheus Stealing the Fire from the Heavens. The story is somewhat shorter and less complicated than that of Genesis, but nonetheless impressive. Prometheus, a Titan, looks down at the breeds of mortal inhabiting the earth - and focuses on one particular forlorn species huddling around for warmth. They have everything it needs to be successful, reasons Prometheus, all they need is a way to keep warm. So, Prometheus forms a bond with us, the humans, and our resourcefulness and verve; with our kinship and endurance, and eventually decides that he will do the unthinkable for us. He will steal the sacred fire, held only for the immortals, and bring some down from Olympus to earth -- for us humans.

Prometheus is succesful in doing so, and humans flourish into the dominant species that we are now, with all our flaws and with all our successes. As reward, Prometheus is chained to a rock for the rest of eternity, to have an eagle rip out and devour his liver daily, only to have it grow back the next day. However, us humans remember our beneficiaries and the Hero Heracles returns to the site of the Titan's chains so slay the eagle, and free Prometheus. Heracles returns triumphant, and humans rule supreme.

I guess the important point I'm trying to make here, laboured though it may be, is that the main thing I don't like about modern religion is the idea that Humans are somehow unworthy. That we are to be pitied, offered help, laughed upon like idiot children running riot by a vaguely condescending God. If there is one things that the Greeks taught  us, it is that humans can be brilliant, vibrant, intelligent, inspired beings. Why on earth would we want to claim servility to a perfect dictator? The Gods of Greece were certainly no better than humans, often mean, inconsiderate, incestuous, rapine, base, animalistic, capricious beings. The Greeks understood that humans were the Paragon of greatness, and that anything else remotely interesting must be in some way human.

So feel the divine spark of being within yourself! You're as much a God as anything else can claim to be. Every success in literature and the arts, in science, in human understanding is made by and for other humans. The fact that we can talk across ends of the globe, the fact that the hubble telescope can take magnificent, awe-inspiring pictures of the boundaries of space, 'The Well Tempered Clavier', 'Catch 22' and everything fantastic about society is human built. We share in all of these monumentous occasions, they show the capability of people. They show the capability of you. Remember that the greatest of human beings is no greater than you, and that there is, in fact, no such thing as anything greater than you. Not only is it bizarre to suggest some kind of divine influence for these things, but it's also slightly insulting to us as a species. Every action to praise God is an action to degrade humans. God is dead, long live man.

So what is the point of today's post? Be proud as a human, I suppose; and certainly don't share any of that pride with anything unconsidered. Remember that Pride is one of the deadly sins for a strategic reason: anyone truly proud in themselves is without the need for a God. Certainly -- don't feel shame for actions it is not possible for you to have a say in; though if Sarah Palin does end up getting into power I admit that I truly understand where you are coming from.

I realise that such a controversial post is bound to attract criticism, which I entirely welcome. Today's comments were more to illicit emotion than to deconstruct arguments. If you think I've gone wrong on anything feel free to let me know, and remember caps lock is cruise control for awesome.

Also: the album for the week is 'CARTOOOM!' by 'Plus Tech Squeezebox'. I thought I'd get all the obscure Japanese bands out the way in one swell foop, so here you are.

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