Iconoclasm – The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Bamyan - Statue of Buddah *Author: Marco Bonavoglia

Bamyan – Statue of Buddah *Author: Marco Bonavoglia

Iconoclasm (noun)

(1) a challenge to or overturning of traditional beliefs, customs, and values

(2) the destruction of religious images used in worship, or opposition to their use in worship. [Encarta]

There are two sides to iconoclasm – the good and the bad, but I’m going to suggest a third characteristic – ugly, which is also bad, and should be viewed as such by all sane people.

Good Iconoclasm

Challenging established beliefs, customs, traditions and values is good. It is the act of embracing new knowledge. Scientific discovery is dependent upon confronting old ideas and beliefs and leads to technological innovation, which overall is good for the progress and advancement of the human race. Skepticism and critical thinking are the natural by-products of good iconoclasm, or is it the other way around?

The reason why we don’t have people suspected of witchcraft being regularly burned at the stake is because of good iconoclasm. But isolated incidences still occur in some parts of the world; the parts that resist change to new ideas. However things are significantly better in the modern era.

Bad Iconoclasm

The wanton destruction of religious artefacts, including those of archeological significance is barbaric, backward and symptomatic of a retarded mindset. In recent years there have been several incidences of the senseless destruction of these objects. The bombing of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban and the desecration of tombs in the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu by Islamists, come to mind. However, history is littered with the malicious destruction of places of worship and religious artefacts, by various proponents of the world’s religions.

Off course it is not only religious fundamentalists who carry out these senseless acts of devastation. Other bizarre ideological beliefs whether political or social, have also been the prime motivator for the same inane act of destruction.

Ugly Iconoclasm

I don’t suppose this category actually exists, but I’m going to stick my neck out and propose it by providing an example.

Nohmul is a Mayan archeological site in the Yucatan Peninsula near Belize. Recently a pyramid dating to around 250 BCE was found to have been almost completely destroyed by building contractors, who were using the gravel and limestone content for constructing a nearby road. The owner of the excavation equipment was revealed to be a local politician, although it has not been proved that he ordered the destruction of the pyramid.

A Boston University Professor who had worked on many archeological sites in the area commented that “bulldozing Maya mounds for road fill is an endemic problem in Belize.”

This type of iconoclasm is rooted in greed. Defacing priceless treasures of our human heritage to make a quick buck.

So there you have it; my word of the week…

Which Came First, Religion or Civilization?

Just recently I stumbled across a blog post about Gobekli Tepe, a neolithic archaeological site in southeastern Turkey currently under excavation. As more of the site became unearthed, it started posing questions about the agricultural revolution, civilization and religion.

Klaus Schmidt, from the German excavation team working the Gobekli Tepe site believes that this could be one of the oldest temples or places of worship in the world, if not the oldest.

It is commonly thought that the agricultural revolution led to civilization. However according to the blog post, the discovery of Gobekli Tepe leads one to believe that the need to gather for religious events may have led to agriculture and then to civilization.

What is civilization? Having looked up many definitions of civilization, the one that seems to convey the best meaning is:

An advanced state of intellectual, cultural, and material development in human society, marked by progress in the arts and sciences, the extensive use of record-keeping, including writing, and the appearance of complex political and social institutions.

So then, Klaus Schmidt may well be onto something here at Gobekli Tepe. I find it hard to comprehend a civilized world inventing religion, or finding a need for it. It would have to have been invented by primitive man.

Why then is religion still around? And why do supposedly civilized people still cling to it, some in utter desperation even?

I really don’t know for certain. FEAR seems to be a leading candidate, but ignorance also comes in close. However what is certain, is that religion is slowly losing its stranglehold in an increasingly sophisticated scientific world.

That is very encouraging for the evolution of civilization.