Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Hidden Value Our Words

jim

Jim Dells

In our world there are some words and phrases that I don’t like.  While I comprehend the pragmatic approach to creating and using words of a common understanding, there are a few words or phrases out there that are either not being correctly used or have been adopted into use in a manner inconsistent with their essence.

 

This is a simple rant about words that bother me, which you are free to disagree.  A common detractor may argue that it’s really no big deal or merely a matter of semantics.  Sure, you can go that route and simply dismiss my favor towards deliberate use of language if you wish.  But the hard truth is that our words matter.  When one opens up a conversation it is basically a waste of time to use words incorrectly, even if there is a common understanding of the definition.  Wrong words cause confusion and, more damningly, poor words leave an easily exploitable chink in one’s armor.

Without further ado, the most cringe worthy word that I hear over and over is “deconversion”.   That word is about the same as saying “dethought” or “demorph”.  In the context of religion or spirituality, transformation from an evil sinner into the clean pious person should never be considered the only “conversion” one may undertake.  To do so is to give undeserving credit to the pro-mysticism stance on religion.  In the same thread, to go from a spiritual or religious belief to agnostic or atheistic framework is simply another conversion, not an undoing of anything. In other words, once you have a thought you can still have another thought, and they most certainly may contradict.  And when you do have another thought it’s not necessary to unthink the old thought.  To say dethought or unthink is totally sloppy language.  Similarly, it is sloppy to say “deconvert” when talking about a change from one religion, political belief, viewpoint, etc., to another.

A change of attitude, emotion, or viewpoint from one of indifference, disbelief, or antagonism to one of acceptance, understanding, or enthusiastic support, especially such a change in a person’s religion is most appropriately described as a “conversion”.  There shall be no unspoken value to the word “conversion” as if it always or necessarily means converting from the naïve non-believer (most often case would be a child lacking the wherewithal to object) to one of faith in sky wizards or a miracle man.  To even imply such is self-deprecating when spoken by an atheist.  Conversion, in its most genuine form, means the act or process of change in character, form, or function.  Even if one were so inclined to define “conversion” so narrowly as only the act of going from the wicked to the righteous, I would rebut that the definition of who is wicked and who is righteous would correctly define the transition of a person from following the god of the bible to not – we were once wicked and now we are not.  In sum, the only word that truly and correctly describes the journey to atheism is conversion, not deconversion, and I am calling for the linguistic transition away from that.

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Is Profanity Necessary?

BobbyCWhen NRR began, I took great pride in having an internet based radio program/ podcast because FCC Regulations did not apply to internet based broadcasts. As the show continued to grow in popularity we continued to speak freely with the idea that if you did not like the content feel free to find another show. I kept this mentality for a long time.

Over time as the community began to expand and our listenership saw a tremendous amount of growth the thought crossed my mind that perhaps we should try to “clean up” the show and make it more “family friendly”. I need to pause here and make it perfectly clear that the decision to go PG-13 was my own. It had nothing to do with contracts or at the direction of any particular person. I had several reasons for going “family friendly”: 1) I wanted to have civil conversations with Christians and I figured most Christians would not be willing to come on a show that used a lot of profanity and 2) I wanted a show that a mom taking her children to school on Monday morning could listen to it on the way and the children be able to hear some form of rational thought before getting bombarded by all the Jesus shit from their friends and teachers. I have heard arguments that it is not my place to try to decide what is/is not appropriate for children that is the responsibility of the parents. I know that we will not say anything that children would not or does not hear in a public school setting but I felt that we should not contribute to the problem. Although these were, in my opinion, great reason’s for cleaning up the show, I failed to realize that my co-host felt her free speech was being regulated and this bothered me. I’ve always said I wanted everyone associated with our show to speak freely but how can they be expected to do so when forced to adhere to a strict PG-13 rating? So the decision was begrudgingly made to return to the old format. I say begrudgingly because I felt we may lose those listeners who enjoy the PG-13 format and the goal is to increase our listenership not decrease it and I felt by returning to an explicit show may do just that. I realize there will never be a time that we satisfy every listener and to attempt to do so would only drive me crazier than I already seem to be.

I share all of this because I recently read an article by Reverend Alex Moreschi of the Episcopal Church titled Why Profane?  His article has given me a new perspective on profanity and with his permission I am sharing it within this article.

 

Why Profane?

    In recent years I have found myself particularly interested with this question, “what does it mean to be profane?” When I was growing up, I never used profanity; long into high school, when my peers were cursing about various things, I did not “swear.” As I moved into my final year in high school, I began to make up for lost time; I guess the unspoken profanities built up over the years. At any rate, I never really stopped using profane words in my everyday speech. Perhaps my father had me listen to too much George Carlin growing up or perhaps I was just less emotionally mature than my contemporaries. At any rate, I have always found profanities to be able to express deep emotion that otherwise might not be able to be expressed.

    Since this time, I have thought much more deeply about the use of profanity and its relationship to vulgarity. The profane speaks against the sacred; such words, as George Carlin points out, these profane words can make the language of a sentence all the more powerful. Profanity, when it is used intentionally, can express our feelings and emotions in a way that normal words seem unable to describe. And so I find myself an apologist for the profane.

    Yet, there seems to be something more here. I am not an advocate for screaming profanities in front of small children, for example. Thus a distinction in my mind was created. This distinction is one that is often lost in our modern rhetoric and that is this: there is a difference between the profane and the vulgar. The profane we have discussed, but the vulgar is that which is done without thought. Vulgar speech has no intent, no positive content. While the profane can be used for positive points, to express inner desires and passions, the vulgar serves no higher purpose. We should not be afraid of the profane, nor to use it when it is appropriate for human expression.

    Beyond speech, the profane also speaks to where I find myself. While I am ordained in the Episcopal church, hence being a parson, I have found myself breaking bread more often with those whom The Church might call profane. I live and eat and drink with the unchurch, the over churched, and those who have come to reject all notions of faith or religion. I have found my place on the margins of our religious visual scope. While I worship at The Altar each Sunday, I find myself more often with atheists, agnostics, anti-theists, and those who chose not to identify. I have found that this is where I belong, in the bars, the coffee shops, the places where those who have rejected religion altogether go for community. I am an apologist, both for the Church, and particularly for those who have rejected the Church. I am not politically correct, nor am I saintly. I am a flawed human that thinks too much and does not listen enough. But I sit with those who are lost, or angry, or hurt, or apathetic, and I try to hear their stories. I am learning what it means to be sacred. Found within are merely my thoughts, nothing more than the ravings and musings of a profane parson.

 

I want to thank Reverend Alex for writing such an amazing article and for allowing me to share it with everyone who reads this post. No Religion Required will continue using profanity but it is my hope that we never cross into being vulgar for that is not what this show/blog is about. If you happen across this article and have not listened to No Religion Required I hope you will consider it and hopefully you will find a community that will open their arms and welcome you into the NRR Family.

   

 

Can atheists and religious folk coexist?

Alex

Alex Moreschi

This is, perhaps, one of the most important questions I have encountered in my personal vocation over the last two years.  Religious people, it would seem, by definition have a belief system in place that (generally speaking) professes the belief in the divine and some sort of growth (whether we call this enlightenment, or salvation, or submission)1 through some sort of interaction with the divine. Atheists, by definition, have no such compulsion; it is true that many are united under the banner of humanism, but this is more or less a moral code or ethic that serves as a driving principle for praxis. It would seem, at face value, that these two groups of traditions2 are at odds with one another.  The question then arises: “can these two seemingly opposing groups of traditions coexist?” And this is such an important question because as atheism and secularism is on the rise, particularly in the United States, we must know if there is some way to coexist with one another.  To be honest with you, I am not sure I have an answer.  But I do have some thoughts that may help to clarify the question.

 

            I guess the philosopher in me says that the first thing we should do is define our terms. In this case, what exactly does it mean to “coexist?” On a basic level, coexisting means living in the same general area and not killing each other. Now, as long as we still have a legal system that does not allow for the murder of people based on their belief or lack thereof simply for that fact and without any repercussion, I think that we are OK on this front. However, given many potential laws raised throughout the United States and the particular political climate, this may be a very real issue to address in the future. That said, I think there is more implied in the term “coexist” then simply not killing each other. To coexist as humans, for my part at least, means can we respect each other in spite of our difference of opinion or worldview? Can we come together on particular issues and fronts for the betterment of humankind? Can we live our lives without wounding or hurting or attacking each other (physically and psychologically)? Is there room in religious traditions to accept atheism as a valid and/or respectable world view? Furthermore, and perhaps more to the point, will people actually give up any thought process that leads them to hate or fear and therefore attack or persecute another individual rather than coming together in love and friendship?  My only real answer is this, “I truly, from the bottom of my heart, hope that this is the case.”

            I think that there is room in most religious traditions for the other3.  Whether inherently in the doctrines of the particular tradition or added by philosophers/theologians after the fact, the traditions of the world today have had to deal with the reality of plurality4. Yet I am probably in the minority on this front. Many in any given tradition see only room for them and their own beliefs. They seem to be uninterested in trying to see the world through another’s eyes and only interested in trying to convert or proselytize, even if this is done covertly.  Many people believe that in order for “us” to be right, “they” have to be wrong. And perhaps this is the case. Perhaps there is something about us as human beings that we need to create groups of “us” and “them” in order to make ourselves feel better or, more simply, to categorize the world around us so as to have a simple narrative of life. If there is one thing I have learned about human beings, it is that we often take the easy road simply because it is easier.  We like the easy answers because the alternative is that we have to really look hard at ourselves and our thoughts/beliefs and at the end of the day that is terrifying. Change is terrifying5.

            The trouble with that is that we lose so much. The wonderful, beautiful and, dare I say, sexy thing about the other is that they are different from us. They give us perspective and open our eyes to new and wonderful ways of thinking. Not in a hostile or proselytizing way, but through joy. I really believe that perhaps the best part of life is to experience joy. That looks like so many things to different people, but I think that Aristotle was right when he said that the good (or rather The Good) of human existence is happiness6.  I also think that Plato was right when he said that it is the job of those who are acquainted with joy/happiness/The Good to share that experience with others (or in this case the other)7. If we cannot find some way to coexist with those who think differently, then we lose this. For some that is an acceptable loss at the expense of thinking we are right or have life all figured out in a dogmatic sense; keep in mind that I think that this applies to all human beings regardless of belief or lack thereof.

            I do not want the reader to misunderstand me here. I do not want you to think that I am a relativist or just promoting what is derogatorily referred to as “hippy” ideology. I think we should have beliefs. I have my own beliefs about God and religion and epistemology. And we should know what we think and why we think it. I am not suggesting we should merely “hold hands, shut up, and all just get along.” I am saying that there is an experiential joy that comes about with being open to the other’s experience of reality as one that is different from one’s own. I am not saying to be wishy-washy in one’s own belief or lack thereof, quite the contrary – think it firmly and talk about that perspective. But at the same time, listen to others and learn, and never keep the other from experiencing joy, so long as that does not directly impede your own pursuit of happiness.

            And that’s the rub isn’t it? Most of us can’t help not only to profess what we think, but try to change the minds of others so that they agree with us. Even now, I am attempting to persuade the reader of something: that there is more to life then one’s own thoughts and convincing others of those thoughts. Ironic isn’t it? “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am both wide and contain multitudes.”8 And perhaps there is no way around that impulse.

            If you came to this article looking for an answer to the question above then I am afraid I must apologize. I hope, however, that I have not failed you. My answer is this: can we coexist? I know that some of us cannot, but I think that some of us can. I hope that more of us can then not. Can we coexist with the other? I don’t know, but damn it, I am going to try.

 

                        ~Alex Moreschi, The Profane Parson

         

1.     There are many other vernacular terms that could be used here as well. These terms mean different things and often have very different contexts, but I think that the concept that unifies them is that there is some goal or other, that through practice or belief one is able to obtain. Usually this goal involves the betterment of the self in some way, whether in this life or the next, whatever that does or does not look like. 

2.     I use the term “traditions” here which some readers might take issue with. I consider Atheism to not be a religion because there are no binding doctrines or dogmas, as well as no ritual practices or profession of belief. Yet, I would consider it to be a tradition (though possible multiple traditions) because it conceptually comes out of a variety of thinkers and authors through the course of history. There are leaders in the atheist communities and have been for quite some time. I feel as though the term “tradition” then is appropriate when attempting to categorize both groups of religions that have deities, atheism, practices which are often considered philosophies such as Buddhism, as well as other schools of philosophical thought. I do this more for the usefulness of having a term or category rather than to make an ontological claim.

3.     I like to use the term “the other” to represent an individual or group that is not like the subject or those in one particular group/tradition. I think that it is a catch-all sort of term that concisely outlines that we as human beings often have an “us v. them” mentality and the term recognizes that and is shorthand for that idea. “The other,” quite simply, is them.

4.     Plurality is simply a term that points to the existence of many different kinds of traditions that believe, at times radically, different things from one another. It contains no judgment regarding this fact or what one does with it, but merely states that it is the case.

5.     I have often had the thought that it would be good to be a tree. No decisions or stress or adulting. Just growth, soaking in the sunshine, and blowing in the breeze. Good to be a tree.

6.     This comes from Nichomachean Ethics among other texts. Keep in mind here that happiness and pleasure are not the same thing.

7.     See The Allegory of the Cave out of The Republic.

8.     Walt Whitman

In God Do You Really Trust?

bor

by J. Rutger Madison

 

The motto of the United States violates either the First Amendment or the Third Commandment.  Which is it?

There has been a rash of sheriffs and police chiefs around the country putting “In God We Trust” stickers on their vehicles. Whether their intention is to pander to the religious, give a giant middle finger to non-believers, or both differs from case to case.  Each time they do so, they risk exposing their department to expensive litigation.

The sad part is there IS precedent supporting the legality of the “In God We Trust.”  In Aronow vs. The United States1 the trial court dismissed a lawsuit challenging the use of “In God We Trust” on coins for lack of standing, which in layman’s terms means that the plaintiff has no legal interest in bringing the suit. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit not only affirmed the dismissal for lack of standing, but also addressed the merits of the case.  This was unusual because courts rarely rule on constitutional matters if they don’t have to. Perhaps the Christian bias of the court at the time left them eager to defend their privilege.

The court explained their rationale for upholding the constitutionality of the phrase.

In fact, such secular uses of the motto was viewed as sacrilegious and irreverent by President Theodore Roosevelt. Yet Congress has directed such uses. While ‘ceremonial’ and ‘patriotic’ may not be particularly apt words to describe the category of the national motto, it is excluded from First Amendment significance because the motto has no theological or ritualistic impact.2

There is a more succinct way to put the court’s reasoning. “We may say ‘In God We Trust’, but we don’t really claim confidence in a divine being.” It’s just a phrase like “Have a nice day.” “How are you doing?” “Namaste.”  These are nothing more than meaningless idioms. “In God We Trust”, in the words of Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, “lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”3   

The legal term for this is “Ceremonial Deism.” I prefer to call it “intellectual dishonesty” if I am feeling charitable; “bullshit” if I am not. Andrew Seidel recently listed other examples of courts engaging in similar legalistic tap-dances.4

It seems proponents of the Ceremonial Deism doctrine have never set foot in Mississippi. People here are staunch Christians, and if they say “In God We Trust” they mean it — or at least think that they do.

Perhaps in the context of law enforcement these courts are correct.  After all, would our police need guns and Kevlar vests if they really trusted a god? Why bother patrolling dangerous areas if people could rely on the almighty to keep them safe?  Why not wander the neighborhood and pray away the burglars and meth labs, like a tribal shaman marking a perimeter with chicken blood to keep out evil spirits. Heck, Jackson, Mississippi’s police chief specifically credited prayer with a drop in crime, yet his officers use real bullets.5

However, if the Ceremonial Deist position is correct – if “In God We Trust” is just a trite expression with no religious significance – then doesn’t it violate the Third Commandment by taking the Christian god’s name in vain?

I’ll admit interpreting the Bible is even trickier than the Constitution. We at least have courts who will make binding rulings on the latter. The Christian god – either because of nonexistence or apathy – has yet to clarify anything in the former. However, some theists’ understanding of the Third Commandment support Teddy Roosevelt’s belief that the motto is blasphemous.6 Consider this explanation from Pastor Mark Driscoll.

[I]t’s using God’s name and therefore projecting and presenting God in a fashion of emptiness, falsehood, triviality, lightness, or inconsequentiality. He doesn’t even matter.7

Another Christian website phrases it this way:

The term vain is a synonym for futile; thus, the Third Commandment is warning us not to use God’s name in a futile or trivial manner.8

And another interprets the commandment thusly:

“[V]ain” means emptiness or worthlessness. So to take God’s name in vain means to empty his name of content or to make it irrelevant. Taking God’s name in vain would mean any empty, frivolous or insincere use of God’s name.9

If the motto “has no theological or ritualistic impact,” then by definition it makes the Christian god irrelevant. If Justice Brennan is correct, isn’t he acknowledging that God is inconsequential?  Is there anything more trivial than a cop slapping a Bible verse on his bumper with full knowledge he will rely on his gun and taser more than prayer and scripture for protection?  And why aren’t more Christians outraged that the courts flippantly dismiss sincere professions of faith with little more than a “Bazinga”?

Christians should no longer be allowed to have it both ways.  Either they mean it when they say “In God We Trust,” in which case the motto is a blatant government endorsement of religion. Or they don’t mean it, in which case they are committing blasphemy. Regardless, it would seem that fear of their god’s wrath, if not fear of costly legal battles, would prompt them to stop it. Their holy book threatens dire consequences to those who misuse the Christian god’s moniker.

You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.10

No doubt pandering theists will continue to plaster “In God We Trust” over every smooth surface they can reach. Reasserting Christian privilege is an easy way to score political points, and slapping a bumper sticker on a car or a sign on a wall doesn’t require any thought or effort. I’ll leave those folks with one more idiom: Have fun in court, or have fun in hell.

——

1 432 F.2d 242 (9th Cir. October 6, 1970).

2 Id. at 243.

3 Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984). (Dissenting)

4 http://www.patheos.com/blogs/freethoughtnow/the-christian-hypocrisy-of-in-god-we-trust/

5 http://www.wapt.com/news/central-mississippi/jackson/jacksons-police-chief-credits-power-of-prayer-for-drop-in-crime/33552836

6  http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2012/02/12/teddy-roosevelt-in-god-we-trust-on-money-is-sacrilege/

7 http://markdriscoll.org/sermons/iii-do-not-take-gods-name-in-vain/

8 http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/third-commandment/

9 http://www.rayfowler.org/sermons/exodus/do-not-misuse-gods-name/

10 Exodus 20:7 (NIV)

 

 

Southern Based Activism

BobbyC

Bobby C.

When I started this blog in 2014 my goal was to have a place that I could vent my frustration and “practice” my writing skills. I’ve always enjoyed writing but I never seemed to be very good at it. So the blog gave me an opportunity to do both; vent and write. The decision to turn this blog into a podcast is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. I’ve said on many occasions that I’m just some southern boy who just happen to have something to say and our show started as an outlet for me to vent my frustrations. I was a baby-atheist (someone new to atheism) and still in the throes of religion struggling to break free from the last chain holding me captive; the fear of hell. I was angry, angry about being lied to for so many years, angry knowing I will never get those years back and NRR was my place to go and release my anger and frustration so that Ms. Ashley and I didn’t kill each other. Ms. Ashley at the time was a believer and struggling to understand my anger. To her it felt like I woke up one day and decided to try on this atheism thing. What she didn’t know was that I had begun listened to podcasts and started doing my research. The atheism word scared the hell out of me. For so long, atheists were the spawn of Satan, they were here to steal my soul. Pastors taught that atheists were here to seek, kill and destroy my chances of ever entering the kingdom of heaven. They were something to fear. They were the scum of the earth, hypocrites and bound for hell.  They are to be avoided at all cost!

As I began to grow in my atheism my anger fell away and my activism came to life. It was only when I was able to get past my anger that I began wondering what I could do to help others. To help those people who are new to non-belief and feeling the newly found anger that so many feel in the beginning. I began looking for opportunities to share my experiences and opportunities that allowed others to share theirs. This is where the segment for deconversion stories came to life on the radio show and where the desire to have others write for this blog and share their story. We felt it was so important that others have an opportunity to share their story with the hope that someone will be listening and/or reading and realize that they are not alone.

Eventually I had to self-actualize my anger because Ms. Ashley had grown tired of it even to the point that it placed our relationship in jeopardy. There were many nights she and I were standing in the middle of the living room floor yelling at the top of our lounges. In her struggle to understand she would ask questions that I, being pissed at the entire world, would view as an attack instead of an attempt to gain knowledge. Ninety percent of the arguments were my fault. It actually got to the point where she was telling me that I needed to find the positives in atheism. If you ever want to piss off a new atheist, tell them they need to find the positives in atheism. As it always happens, I will think about something she said for a couple of days and I have to crawl back with my tail between my legs and say the words most men hate to say, YOU ARE RIGHT! It was my search for the positive that my activism came to life and I’ve never looked back.

So what does it mean to be an activist? An activist is someone who promotes or impedes social, political, economic or environmental change. As activist we stand for what is right and just. We fight for the rights of those who can’t and we stand in opposition to those who make it their life ambition to remove the rights given by our Constitution. We stand shoulder to shoulder with our black brothers and sisters who are being judged due to the color of their skin instead of the content of their character. We stand with our gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered family and friends who still face a country who hates them. Even with the Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, state governments and Presidential candidates are still fighting to remove those rights.

We, as activists, stand in defense of our community and say we will NOT back down, we will not bow to your bigotry, and we will NOT surrender to your hatred! Like it or not we are here and we are not going anywhere, in fact, we are getting bigger and stronger. We are the fastest growing community in the country. People are waking up to the truth about religion.  They are finally seeing the harm caused by religion and are leaving in droves! The religious in our country are being put on notice! They are losing and they know it. We as activist, are getting louder and louder and we will not be silenced.

Being an atheist activist down here in the south is a totally different experience than up north or out west. Down here, in the good old bible belt, we see Jesus everywhere! He is on cars, billboards, t-shirts, hell you can’t go anywhere without seeing something that has to do with Jesus.

I have been asked “why don’t you move somewhere more liberal where you no longer have to deal with the religious bullshit of the south”. My answer is simple, because I’m needed here. Now I know there will be those who disagree with this answer and to be honest I really don’t give a shit. What good am I in New York, or in California? The battle ground is right here in the south. This is our ground zero. If we don’t fight for equality down here, who will? As activists we take on the responsibility of speaking out while others remain silent. Using our voices does not make us popular but we stand and fight with the hope that those generations who follow us will live in a society that is not ruled by hypocrisy and bigotry. This is OUR battle and I intend to fight and stand for the rights of all people. We can never expect to win the war against religiosity if we do not stand up and let our voices be heard.

So how can you become an activist? Listed below are three ways that you can become an activist in the secular community without bringing any unwanted attention to yourself. If you are interested in activism you can do one or all three of them but it is my hope that you do at least one.

  • Home-based Activism – I’ve heard this called “arm chair activism” but I don’t like the way that sounds. It implies that activists are lazy, so I renamed it. “Home-based activists” are those people who are perfectly happy staying out of the spot light. They are the people sending letters and emails to representatives, senators, and congressmen. They are the foundation of our movement. You can join organizations like FFRF, Recovering from Religion and the Secular Coalition for America.
  • Podcasts– These are the folks who have a voice and aren’t afraid to use it. The great thing about podcasts are that you can still remain anonymous while being heard. Podcasts were my intro in to atheism. They were the one place I could go learn in secret. There is little to no upfront cost and you can reach an international audience.
  • Meetup Groups – These are the folks that have a desire to create a community within their community. In small towns all across this nation there are people who are walking through life thinking they are the only one. They feel alone and they are scared. They feel as though they are the black sheep in the family. No one will understand what they are going through. Meetup groups are the best way for those people to connect with other like-minded people.  If your community does not have a secular group, start one! It’s like the movie Field of Dreams – Build it and they will come.

The time to become an activist is NOW! We have the opportunity to make a positive change in the world and I hope you are willing to take the challenge and join us as we fight to move this community forward. Your action is needed. You can make a difference today that will last for years to come.

 

 

Marco Polo: The Explorer’s Jesus

Deb

Deborah McTaggert

Many of you know that I’m a history nerd.  If it’s old, musty and cobwebbed, I’m probably interested.  So, I love watching documentaries on historical figures, cultures and events.   I recently watched one put out by the Smithsonian on Marco Polo.  I had not actually read much of anything about Polo, but Netflix recently released a new series called “Marco Polo” that I had just watched and thoroughly enjoyed, so the documentary piqued my interest.

 

What I learned was surprising and presented me with a fascinating parallel.  Marco Polo is the explorer’s Jesus.   What the fuck does that mean you say?  Well as it turns out, there is about as much proof of who Marco Polo was and accomplished as there is for Jesus.

I would hope that anyone who keeps abreast of current academic writings  in the Atheist community will be familiar with Mythicists, those who have examined the evidence for a historical Jesus and determined the evidence is either woefully lacking or just not there. Richard Carrier and David Fitzgerald are two of the most recent people to write on the subject.  I’m not going to get into the evidential issues for Jesus here, but suffice to say, I am firmly in the camp that Jesus was purely a myth cobbled together over centuries into the figure people revere today.

As I was watching the Marco Polo documentary, it struck me just how the historicity of Polo paralleled that of Jesus.  Granted, I’d never studied the story of Polo before, but I also accepted that the little bit I did know must have happened.  Boy was I mistaken!

So what do we know for sure about Marco Polo?  Well a guy named Marco Polo lived in Venice in the 14th century, died in 1366, left a will and a list of possessions.  That’s it.  So where did this fanciful tale of him being a great merchant who travelled all over China and Mongolia come from?  Well in the words of Ken Ham, “we have this book…”

Starting c.1400, a book detailing the adventures of Marco Polo appeared, charting his journeys through Asia and all the amazing exploits he lived through before returning to Venice.  The book is purported to have been written by Polo himself, but there is no actual evidence of this.  The earliest known copy is c.1400, a minimum of 34 years after the only verifiable Marco Polo died.  So we know *he* didn’t write it.

From there, the book runs into the exact same issues that plague the Bible.  In the 14th century, the only way to copy a book was by hand.  This meant scribes would spend weeks writing out the book with quill and ink, often illustrating it with beautiful paintings and illuminations.  The other thing that scribes were known for doing is embellishing the text.  Few, if any others would have ever seen the original text aside from whatever scribe of scribes were tasked to copy it, so there’s no way to know if anything was added or subtracted from the original.

Yet we absolutely know that things were added to the original, since there are now over 100 versions of the book, and the newer ones are often vastly larger than the earlier versions.  The documentary showed an early version who described a key Chinese city in one paragraph, and by the 1930’s version that same description had expanded to three typed pages.  There’s no way integrity has been maintained.

Even if we could accept the story at face value, there are other problems with the account given.  There are descriptions of people and creatures that are obviously fantastical, such as headless people whose faces protruded from their chests, a creature that was part human, part unicorn and illustrated with a bluish-purple fur, and of course dragons.  Seems legit right?

So what if we just look at the earlier, purer versions? Those stories should be more believable right?  You might think so, except that there is absolutely no evidence that any of Polo’s adventures ever happened.  We have no reason to believe the Polo we know existed ever left Venice.  Some have pointed to goods listed in his possessions that must have come from Asia like silks and more pointedly a quantity of rhubarb, but it is pointed out in the documentary that people did not have to actually go to China to obtain these items.

In fact, Venice was cosmopolitan enough that these goods could have been purchased from within the city without ever having left.  If the actual Polo did do some travelling, he still could have obtained the goods at any point along the centuries-old trade routes without having to go to China.

Then there is the problem of the Chinese records of Polo’s travels.  There are none.  Not one shred of evidence for Marco Polo or his uncle and father who supposedly traveled and did business extensively throughout the region.  Polo is said to have served the Chinese Emperor for over twenty years, yet there is no mention of this anywhere.  I would think that an Italian merchant serving in the Imperial court would garner some notice by someone, but that just isn’t the case.

The Chinese records aren’t the only one missing important things either.  If we go back to the tales that Polo supposedly wrote about his time in China, he leaves out a few key details about Chinese culture, like chopsticks, tea and foot binding, things that were prevalent in the upper echelon circles Polo was travelling in.  Yet he says nothing of these.  He can tell you in detail about the dragons and headless people but not a peep about eating your food with two sticks?  Hell, he doesn’t even mention the Great Wall, which was a technological and engineering marvel of the period.  Surely he would have at least heard of such a magnificent architectural feature?  Apparently not.  He must have been overwhelmed by all those Tibetan nymphomaniac prostitutes he wrote about.

So we are left with a book that we can be reasonably sure Polo never wrote, centuries of embellishment and changes to said book, accounts of things we know couldn’t be true, no corroborating evidence and a lot of conjecture.  Sounds a lot like Jesus, doesn’t it?  One thing that Polo has above Jesus; at least we know there was A guy named “Marco Polo”. Whether he ever left Venice or did anything of note at all, we’ll likely never know.  However, I’m quite certain he never met a dragon.

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The documentary is called “Mystery Files: Marco Polo” produced by the Smithsonian in 2011.  It’s currently available on Netflix.

An illustration from an early version of the Marco Polo story, depicting the unicorn-man.marco polo 1

Want to stop fools on social media? Click here to find out how!

kyle hutton

Kyle Hutton

In the wilds of YouTube, Reddit, Twitter and other social media worlds, at some point you will come across a person asking what appears to be a simple question, or a video with a colourful thumbnail and intriguing title.

“Want to find out why the horizon is flat?”, “Watch the Secret History of the World!,” or “You won’t believe this crazy NASA footage!” are common clickbait templates, prodding at your curious mind and appearing ever so often thanks to feed algorithms and paid advertising. As a skeptic, you may believe yourself immune, but sometimes the very intrigue of whatever nonsense is behind that link can force you to check it out.

Nonsense, of course, is what it often turns out to be. Flat Earthers, New Age woo peddlers, and evangelical conspiracy mongers all infect social media with their various ideas and proposals that only a few years ago could never have made it into the mainstream. Such ideas were left to small cliques with e-mail chains, underground newsletters or free forums, not in our everyday where it is to be mocked as an amusing end piece to the nightly news.

The problem of course is that social media and the internet have amplified these alternative ideas to reality to such a point that it can become inescapable. Its no longer your grandmother forwarding you an occasional e-mail from Peter Popoff, but his Google ads appearing in your browser. Facebook arguments drift off into unrelated tangents involving 9/11 conspiracies or men’s rights advocacy. Simply using a hashtag like #FlatEarth, even ironically, will get you added onto a list by a fervent believer. Its all nonsense, we know this, but it is everywhere.

While you and I may have the good sense to train a skeptical eye towards this stuff, the problem is that many do not. Along with raising the volume of the voices of a tiny minority of true believers comes the inevitable rush of the more mainstream but non-critical thinking masses. The absolutely insane numerologists who claimed the Rapture was coming with the tetrad of Blood Moons last year caused major news outlets to write up commentaries on it. A New York Post article claimed the recently discovered Planet Nine could send asteroids hurtling towards Earth, causing NASA to be flooded with panicked people concerned about this far-off, little understood and possibly non-existent solar body. Little things like inane photos of angels walking on rainbows make the news constantly, and get voted up on /r/Christianity.

People are sometimes just too busy to even think about such things, so click “Like” and forget. What’s worse is that religion, which already asks people to suspend disbelief on supernatural events, often makes people gullible and prone to relying on ‘common sense’ – as in, of course Jesus existed, its common sense!, or, the Earth is flat, look at the horizon! – despite the complex reality of the world around us. This wouldn’t really be an issue, except these people vote and become elected officials.

Right now, especially across the American south, there are legislators listening to the ramblings of senile and bigoted preachers, and justify discrimination based on faulty logic, bad statistics, and the “will of the people”.

Whether or not they believe these excuses is besides the point – they’re doing it for the votes, to secure their jobs by relying on a tiny but vocal and passionate minority who are stuck in a feedback loop on social media. A bubble mentality is encouraged, where ideas, however faulty, receive positive reinforcement for attacking the “debunkers” or “libtards” and currying favour, especially for politicians. Nothing gets challenged because any challenge is a threat to be ostracized, made fun of, or overwhelmed – anything but welcomed. See Trump, Donald, for an example of this.

Put it all together – the amplification of tiny minority views, the gullibility of a info-gluttonous society, and an insular world where your crazy idea cannot be disputed – and social media has been the cause of some of the worst woes we face today. Yes, progress continues apace in most cases, but holdouts find solace on social media, where they can rant about the “gay agenda,” lament the Muslim refugees coming over, or demand action on Obama’s plan to destroy Christianity. Their voices are heard by those in power who only see votes to add to their majorities. Reality does not matter when its opposite is just as useful.

Now that I’ve depressed you, where am I going with all of this?

Social media has, in a way, brought out some of the worst in modern society. Yet the same tools used by those who reject a positive reality work just as well for us.

Immediately after the horrid ascension of North Carolina’s HB-2, hundreds of thousands got on social media to protest and businesses, even more sensitive to popular opinion than politicians, listened. On YouTube there exists a bevy of personalities who make science and skepticism fun, and you have not experienced true awe until you’ve listened to Aron Ra beat down creationism, or listened to the siren call of a planet’s magnetosphere from probes sent out from Earth decades ago. And on podcasts such as NRR, you get to sit and listen to a bunch of friends discuss seriously issues surrounding religious bigotry and nonsense, while having a laugh all at the same time.

This is all well and good, but we also sometimes fall prey to the same insularity that conspiracy mongers enter into. Listening to podcasts and following Redditers who agree with you is great and makes you feel welcome, part of a community, but it can also cut you off from the world around you. Some people need that due to their situation, which is absolutely fine – for someone like me, who does not need that separation, its a danger, and in some ways irresponsible.

Most of you reading are people who likely know someone whose religious views cause them to vote against others, or believes Monsanto will kill us all, or something bizarre and dangerous. Some of you have backgrounds or experiences that go against a narrative promoted by small circles of bigots. The vast majority of you are voters with views and opinions on issues but feel ignored by politicians and media, especially if you’re an American.

If you are such a person, and I know all of you are, and your situation allows you to be open without serious consequence, I implore you to do so.

Get on social media, create a YouTube account, start a podcast or simply offer your opinion to whoever asks for it or gives the opportunity. That means comment sections, city meetings, podcasts that ask people to write something up, whatever – your voice should be heard just as much as the fool next to you.

Why, you may ask? Simple. The biggest danger to the religious mind, the conspiracy theorist, or the homophobe is having their views challenged. Not necessarily to change their minds, but those who may listen in, read the argument or stumble upon a video proclaiming the Apocalypse. Let people know there is something those offering this idea to you are not seeing or mentioning, sometimes for a reason – and, crucially, invite them to learn more.

The fence sitters also need attention, of course. Remember that South Dakota was spared a similar bill to HB-2 not because of a popular majority against, but because Governor Daugaard, a Republican, met with and listened to the stories of transgender individuals who would be hurt by the proposed legislation, and acted upon his personal convictions to veto the bill – plus some threats by businesses, of course! Still, a positive result that came about despite the odds against it, all because someone committed to helping another open their mind.

It requires activism on your part, at whatever level you choose, but simply challenging the crazy will go a long way to helping people get out or avoid the woo feedback loop. You can be aggressive or passive as you please – sometimes you need a soft touch, sometimes people need to be called out on their shit. Something as simple as writing to your legislator that your vote is lost if they decide to listen to a bigot or science denier can be the most effective action you can take.

Its up to you, but do something – don’t let the crazies have the final say. You have something to contribute to the fight. Reality will thank you for it.

 

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