I had a vision that bullshit would sell very well….and other stories from this Diwali weekend

Local news from this weekend is that between 50 and 100 people continue to visit the Zachey home in Benoni, South Africa, two years after then 18-year-old, Francesca Zachey claimed to have had a vision of the Virgin Mary.

And despite advice that allegedly caused one of her mesmerized followers to be blinded after she obediently gazed into the sun, in an attempt to glimpse the Virgin Mary, Francesca maintains that she is god’s vessel who is changing people’s lives for the better. Not surprisingly, these days, the Zachey home spots a gift shop selling rosaries, prayer books and 120-Rand T-shirts. Perhaps she would have us believe that a rosary and a T-shirt make-over can work wonders for your life.

Maybe Francesca really thinks she had a supernatural vision, but the cynic in me concludes that ultimately, that vision became the realization that bullshit sells, and very well too.

In a non-related incident, Hindus celebrated (or not) Diwali, on Saturday, October 17th  this weekend. Better known as the Festival of Lights, this religious observance happened to fall on the same day as the religious month of Purtassi was ending. Purtassi is apparently observed in obeisance to the planet Saturn (which supposedly represents a trinity of Hindu gods and goddesses), and is marked by abstinence and strict fasting, while Diwali is more joyous and associated with feasting. Cynical Hindus would be inclined to believe that either the gods were playing a cruel joke on them to curb their merry-making, by causing the two religious festivals to clash, or that the Hindu priests who interpret the solar and lunar movements in the heavens, and set dates thereby, had got it a tad wrong. I’m inclined to go with the latter interpretation.

And on this particular Saturday morning which was overcast with intermittent rain, I happened to overhear my friend’s wife who is incidentally a staunch Hindu [rather forced to overhear, as she is inclined to speak rather loudly], mention that it was an unlucky day and Hindus were not permitted to do anything until midday, but all feasting must be postponed until the next day entirely. She backed up her assertion by saying that even the sun was not shining as usual. Evidently, the overcast and rainy nature of the day was merely coincidental. She then went on to proclaim that since  rain was symptomatic of the Diwali festival [not in those exact words], she was thus assured in her conviction that the timing of Diwali was right. Yet again, the seasonal rain at this time of year was merely coincidental. Apparently, she had also forgotten the many years, I can clearly remember when there was not a spot of rain about, during Diwali.

Francesca is representative of many others who apparently have supernatural visions, and the people who flock to them are symptomatic of the intense desire to believe, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. My friend’s wife is also representative of many people from various different religious persuasions who still believe that the stars and the planets somehow influence their lives and destinies.

It’s rather sad that in spite of all the information available so widely and freely, superstition and irrational thinking still plays such a dominant role in the lives of ordinary people. Perhaps that’s the problem; people are quite satisfied to remain ordinary.

A nice change from the usual religious hate e-mail I get

Normally I receive religious e-mail that threatens me with all sorts of horrible punishments for not believing in god or Jesus.  Or, they are extremely condescending sales pitches for a religion, and appear disguised as motivational prose or clever anecdotes, usually accompanied by breathtaking pictures. Yes, you’ve seen them too!

The threatening and pseudo-motivational ones are invariably from Christians, even Muslims, but the e-mails from Hindu’s are revoltingly superstitious in nature and suggest that your luck will take a turn for the worse, if you either don’t do something such as pray or fast; or more absurdly, refuse to forward the mail to x-number of persons within a certain time period. For some reason I don’t receive any religious e-mails from Jews or Buddhists (to their credit); perhaps because the former are part of an exclusive club, and the latter are not really religious.

I was therefore pleasantly surprized, when I received the following piece of poetry which is clearly from a Christian source, but which does not threaten or insult my atheist status. As a matter of fact, it seems to chide Christians, but could apply equally well to persons of all religions; even atheists. ***Note: I personally don’t think it’s the best poem in the world; it’s just titled that way in the e-mail***

Best Poem in the World

                           I was shocked, confused, bewildered
                           As I entered Heaven’s door,
                          Not by the beauty of it all,
                          Nor the lights or its decor.

                         But it was the folks in Heaven
                         Who made me sputter and gasp–
                      The thieves, the liars, the sinners,
                          The alcoholics and the trash.

                     There stood the kid from seventh grade
                        Who swiped my lunch money twice.
                         Next to him was my old neighbor
                          Who never said anything nice.

                           Herb, who I always thought
                            Was rotting away in hell,
                        Was sitting pretty on cloud nine,
                            Looking incredibly well.

                        I nudged Jesus, ‘What’s the deal?
                         I would love to hear Your take.
                      How’d all these sinners get up here?
                           God must’ve made a mistake.

                          ‘And why’s everyone so quiet,
                          So sombre – give me a clue.’
                 ‘Hush, child,’ He said, ‘they’re all in shock.
                      No one thought they’d be seeing you.’

                                   JUDGE NOT.

          Remember…Just going to church doesn’t make you a Christian
             any more than standing in your garage makes you a car .

                           Every saint has a PAST….
                           Every sinner has a FUTURE!

 And, while the conclusion is “cute,” I prefer to think of myself as neither a saint nor sinner, but just a human being; and more importantly, I care not for the past nor the future, but the present, which I have control over.

Some Random Thoughts on Creation, Death, Re-creation, Heaven and Hell

Creation stories have been around for a long, long time, from ancient civilizations to modern man with his Monotheistic religions. Strange tales of creation abound, such as those from Greece which tells of Gaia (or Eurynome) laying a monster egg from which emerged Uranus, whose “incestuous partnership” with Gaia gave rise to the Titans, one of whom Prometheus finally created humans from clay, after two previous botched attempts by the Titan gods. And the Mesopotamian tale of the battle between Marduk and Tiamat which led to the creation of mankind from the blood of Kingu, Tiamat’s champion in battle. Persia produced its own delightful creation tale which tells of the battle between Ahura Mazda who created the first man, and Ahriman, his (Ahura’s) brother, who introduced evil to the world. These tales have long been classified as Mythology, but  for some reason, the Genesis creation myth and the Hindu “Bramha” creation myth, no less strange than the other ancient myths, are largely believed as the literal truth by the Western and Eastern religions that still teach it.

In an effort to find compelling reasons (apart from faith) why these creation myths have endured, I have rather found more reasons why they should be consigned to the “bizarre , but persistent” section of ancient mythology. Let’s suspend all credulity and for a maddening moment, imagine that these creation tales were true. I will start with the Christian creation myth, being the most incessant ideology. God “creates” you for a purpose, according to his divine plan; no problems there, but I am not so much concerned with the “beginning”, as with the “end,” that is what happens when you cease to exist, or die. Assuming you were a “good” person or a bad-egg who has been forgiven, you go to heaven. Simple, right? Well, more people than not, are bound to wind up in heaven, and only the really, really “bad guys’ (presumably this includes Atheists), go to hell.

Well, since man first appeared on earth (about 6000 years ago, if we are still suspending credulity), if you consider all the people that have expired, this means that heaven is seriously bursting at the seams by now. But wait, we still haven’t factored in all the animals that also go to heaven. I mean seriously;  how could god not allow his very own creation into heaven (bar that evil snake of course who tempted Eve, and who is now roasting very nicely in hell). But why stop there? What about all the dinosaurs (and other assorted weird creatures) that existed prior to man. By now, even the most fundamentalist Christian has got to admit that there is ample evidence for the existence of these creatures, even if it was only 6000 years ago. Surely, god has admitted these creatures into heaven as well? Okay, so heaven is a huge place, and maybe its only dead souls that are there, floating around like soap bubbles. Meanwhile, back on earth people and animals continue to be “created” only to eventually end up in heaven. What’s the point? Is earth the great holding area for man and beast, while god sorts out his space planning in heaven?

So what about the Eastern creation ideologies? Here again you are created for a purpose, but unlike the more fortunate Christians who get to go to heaven (or hell) immediately after death, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, some Gnostic Christian and Jewish sects, Native Americans and Inuits have to suffer the ignominy of being constantly reborn into different bodies, until they get their act together and prove that they are ready for heaven. Even animals are not spared this fate. And if the Jains are right, a human may be reincarnated as a lesser being (such as a fly or ant) if his transgressions were particularly bad, prior to his death. You’ve got to feel for Satan in this scenario; waiting in vain for evil souls. Here again, what’s the point? An all-knowing god would know that his “creation” would turn out bad, and apart from satisfying some sort of sadsistic desire to inflict pain, there is simply no reason to subject a man or animal to constant suffering. But, I guess even god needs to have some fun, because watching his “creation” incessantly trying to destroy each other really sucks all the enjoyment out of living for so long.

So while credulity is still suspended, I have to reasonably conclude that god favors the reincarnation model because it gives him more time to do space planning, while getting a few laughs watching puny humans, and mindless beasts squirm and suffer,  while still finding the time to have a go at the idle Satan. And yes, you really have to be a dumb-ass loser, to end up in hell, because you get a chance to pull the wool over your creator’s eyes in the Christian model, and you get to be born again and again in the reincarnation model.

But the eternal satirist that now resides in my body, concludes that god creates you to wait around on earth for a bit, die, then float up to heaven to become a sort of floating soap bubble. The alternative conclusion is that god creates you knowing full well that you’re going to screw up, so he waits for you to die, then re-ignites your motor and lets you have another bash, only to watch you blow it again, because it gives him a few giggles, each time you fail. So there you have the meaning of life, in a nutshell.

I’m Having Second Thoughts About Being An Atheist

Now don’t get me wrong; I haven’t had an epiphany or earth-shattering change in my way of thinking. And I don’t intend returning to the religious fold any time soon, or ever. I’m merely considering that maybe attaching the label, Atheist to myself is not exactly such a good thing. Allow me to explain…

Over the last month or so, I’ve been having a debate with some guy (I will just use his first name, Daniel) on Atheist Nation, over the “ideology” associated with Atheism. Atheist Nation is a closed/members only group for Atheists, but Theists and in fact anyone are welcomed as members. Our debate concerned the apparent degeneration of Atheism into just another patronising, arrogant and self-important ideology which had slowly assumed the mantle of intolerance that Religionists display so proudly. Daniel went on to assert that world-famous authors such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens were fanning the flames of intolerance and zealotry in Atheists by their “hypocritical” criticism and condemnation of religion and its followers. Daniel maintained that by insulting all Christians, Muslims, Hindus, etc. collectively we were stooping to the same level as any unthinking, uncritical, religionist. Daniel, by the way is an Atheist, but actually prefers the term skeptic which is also favored by Michael Shermer, founder of The Skeptics Society and editor of Skeptic magazine.

The point, which I admittedly, at first failed to come to terms with, and which, Daniel was trying get across in often lewd terminology, was that religion itself was not the problem, but the ideological thinking behind it, more specifically the uncritical, dogmatic and irrational approach to reality by the adherents of religions. Atheists it seems, were being led to believe that religion itself was abhorrent because of the centuries-old antagonism and strife between the various religious faiths, and the despicable fundamentalist behaviour of many of its followers.

Daniel also pointed out that Dawkins equates Atheism with superior intelligence and thus relegates it to an elitist world-view, but I think this is a bit harsh on Dawkins. I am confident that Dawkins’ sincerity is beyond reproach. However, the insinuation remains and the best defense I can offer on behalf of Dawkins is that it was certainly not intentional, and he should not be held responsible for an individual’s interpretation of his work. What is important here is that this should serve as a warning to Atheists; that they, in their interactions with Theists, should be careful of giving or creating the impression of intellectual superiority, and a smug attitude.

It’s also true that Atheists and Theists face the same problems and challenges every day; we just deal with them differently. Instead of coercing Theists into adopting new “tools” for dealing with reality, we just need to make them aware of the choices and let them decide for themselves. I still however, favor the use of (respectful) dissonance to stimulate or provoke a change in thinking in Theists, but not in any way that could be construed as proselytizing. I know Daniel wont like it, but I don’t think it is that hard to do this, without succumbing to the behaviour described earlier.

I had this idea all along that Atheism was going to save the world; that we (Atheists) were going to save the religionists from themselves. But, we were going about it all the wrong way; by succumbing to near-fundamentalism ourselves. I now see how we Atheists could indeed become that which we were trying so hard to irradicate. It’s hard to believe that this could be true, but if I apply the critical, rational thinking I advocate, then I have no choice but to accept that it could be so.

So back to the label of Atheist. When accosted by a religionist, will I be able to just say “I’m just a skeptic, I lack a belief in God, the burden of proof is on you.” Or will my perverse desire to “kick some ass” come to the fore? Time will tell.

Damn! I’m Living in Religiousville

Azaadville is a small town of a few thousand inhabitants, surrounded by huge mounds of sand which point to the gold mining activity that this neck of the woods is more famous for. It is by no stretch of the imagination, a back-water town; we are not cut off from the world in any manner, and have access to all types of media and amenities. But the fervour with which religion is practised here, is disturbingly out of character for such a locality.

Within a few square kilometers we have three mosques (I cannot really say if the three mosques are divided by the two major Muslim denominations, Sunni and Shi’a, but it is highly likely), two temples (one for North Indians and one for South Indians), a kind of hall above a shop that serves as a Church, an Islamic University and a private Islamic school. With so many religious facilities confined to such a small area, one can be forgiven for thinking that Azaadville is Jerusalem without the Jews; but the Hindus with their temples make up for the missing desert dogma.

Muslim’s in their flowing robes, can be clearly seen clamouring to one of these mosques, five times a day, every day. On Fridays, the businessmen even close their shops at around lunch time to attend prayer services. Hindus, North and South Indian, throng to the temples at least once a day, every week. The Christians, to their credit attend Church services once every Sunday, or at most two or three times a week if there is a special occasion or service. It thus seems pretty obvious, that after the Moslem’s, the Hindus are most in need of their God; or perhaps their God is most in need of them.

I am boarding with a friend, whose wife, a South Indian, spends about as much time at the temple as she does at home. Even when at home, she spends quite a bit of time on the phone, dispensing religious instruction and organizing prayer events, in between the customary doses of gossip. She reminds me of airline passengers who collect frequent flyer miles; only she is clocking up “worship time” in lieu of air-miles, for that one-way ticket to heaven.

Well, at least the Hindu and Christian women are allowed to attend temple services; seems that the role of Muslim women is confined to being the home-maker. However, Hindu women cannot attend temple services when they are menstruating. I’ve heard them say that they are unclean, although why women would consider the natural act of menstruation as unclean, is strange to say the least. Perhaps it’s a belief forced on them by their religion; in which case I’m not at all surprised. I’ve also noticed that Hindu women take the lead when it comes to most religious activity, which leads me to believe that (Hindu) women are either more religious than men, or are more susceptible to the irrational allure of religion.

Having to listen to the incessant chatter about religion and gods and prayer events from my friend’s wife, and the Islamic call to prayer blaring five times a day from loudspeakers mounted on the Mosque minarets, is kinda getting to me.  However, as long as all this religious fervour is carried out peacefully and the adherents don’t bother me too much with their proselytizing, I suppose I could still tolerate it; like when birds crap on my freshly-washed car.