Reburial Redux


Following Yvonne’s com­ment, I’ve uploaded the two pod­casts I recor­ded on Pagan reburial in the UK to Box​.net. You should be able to access them at:

The reburial of remains issue is live again and it’s inter­est­ing for a couple of reas­ons. One is the eth­ics of study­ing and stor­ing human remains and the claims a reli­gious com­munity can make on the rest of soci­ety. This makes good head­lines. The other requires a bit more thought. Do the concept of the Pagan (or Christian or Muslim) com­munity make sense?

The cur­rent reburial flap is centred around a fringe Pagan group. From the pod­casts you’ll see it’s not a main­stream Pagan pos­i­tion. Yet really what the pub­lic and the news media want from Pagans is simple and daffy ste­reo­type. White robes, long beards, made-up names and lin­eages. We’ll skip point­ing fin­gers at the dresses prom­in­ent Christians wear. The point is what makes a good story are people who play up to the ste­reo­type. Enter CoBDO®.

CoBDO® is/are the the Council(s) of British Druid Orders. Back in the day when they were CoBDO® they were, if I under­stand cor­rectly a minor­ity group amongst Pagans. Since then CoBDO® have split from CoBDO West fol­low­ing a fight in a pub. I don’t know if CoBDO West is a registered trade­mark or not if they leg­ally a CoBDO or not. Hence the vague­ness over whether CoBDO is sin­gu­lar or plural. Anyway it’s all a big fight and the Judean People’s Front is hop­ing to stick it to the People’s Front of Judea by grabbing bones from a museum in Avebury for burial. Even if English Heritage do say the bones can be rebur­ied, there’ll be a big fight to be had over whether it should be a CoBDO® or CoBDO West cere­mony which is performed.

This is all a con­cern to the major­ity of Pagans who don’t feel the need to get involved in a big shout­ing match to make a point. By play­ing to the worst ste­reo­types of the media a small group of people is get­ting to define what it means to be Pagan. That’s why I found the two inter­views with Yvonne Aburrow and Emma Restall-Orr inter­est­ing. You have two people from two dif­fer­ent Pagan pos­i­tions both with cri­ti­cisms of this cam­paign. It’s a micro­cosm of a pos­i­tion taken by the media for all reli­gions. Journalists and politi­cians are quite happy to talk with lead­ers of the Muslim com­munity or the Jewish com­munity, but is there a com­munity and who gets to speak for all? Does acced­ing to reli­gious requests mean that the gov­ern­ment will be endors­ing one form of a reli­gion over another?

As for the con­tent of the argu­ment that the bones should be rebur­ied, that’s an argu­ment for tomorrow.

Growing Gods?

Why would a temple in swampy ground be ded­ic­ated to Artemis?

There was an extremely inter­est­ing paper in a recent edi­tion of Antiquity, Rocks, views, soils and plants at the temples of ancient Greece by Gregory J. Retallack. He’s been look­ing at the topo­graph­ical set­ting of Greek temples, along with their ori­ent­a­tions and the local geo­logy. What he’s con­cluded is that if you want to under­stand Greek temples you need to get to grips with the local soils. Along the way he dis­misses an idea which is pretty cent­ral to my thesis, so bear in mind the com­ment­ary below may be tain­ted with my own bias.

As it hap­pens if I want to dis­miss Retallack’s work then I’ve got quite a task. He’s examined eighty-four clas­sical Greek temples, eighty-three in Greece and one in Paphos, Cyprus and examined the soils asso­ci­ated with the temples. This is an extremely good idea, and I’m sur­prised that someone hasn’t done it before. Geology might me eas­ily over­looked, but soil is essen­tial for agri­cul­ture. In the case of the devel­op­ment of farm­ing in Europe it ini­tially spread over löss soils as part of a pack­age we call the Linearbandkeramik Culture. Retallack shows that the ancient Greeks were keenly aware of vari­ous types of soil and their prop­er­ties. So look­ing for cor­rel­a­tions between cults and soils is a worth­while project.

What must then have been a large amount of work is tab­u­lated into about a page and a half of res­ults, though there are extens­ive sup­ple­ment­ary mater­i­als. Along with the deity and the loc­a­tion there’s also the geo­logy, topo­graphy, soil and veget­a­tion. He notes that there’s no real record of cli­mate change for Greece so the nat­ural veget­a­tion should be infer­able from mod­ern obser­va­tions. If you’re won­der­ing what the dif­fer­ence between geo­logy and soil is, the geo­logy refers to the bed­rock and the soil is what over­lays it. Bedrocks don’t uni­formly under­lie the same soils. From all of this he’s able to con­clude that cer­tain soils tend to be asso­ci­ated with cer­tain gods.

The soil type which should come as least sur­prise to any­one is that Hades isn’t asso­ci­ated with a soil at all, but rather rock. Hades is god of the under­world, and his sanc­tu­ary at Cape Tainaron, Laconia, is in a sea cave while his sanc­tu­ary at the bril­liantly named Necromanteion, Epirus, is on a rocky hill-top. What you want from Hades site is a con­nec­tion with the under­world, so rocky crevices which plunge into the bowels of the earth are just the sort of thing you’re look­ing for. As I recall there’s a Plutonium (another bril­liant name) in Hierapolis, Turkey, built over a geo­lo­gical fault which emits nox­ious gases, so that seems per­fectly sound. He also attrib­utes Persephone to rock crevices, and this is some­thing I’m a bit more wary of.

From the table, the attri­bu­tion makes sense. It also makes myth­o­lo­gical sense. Hades abduc­ted Persephone and took her to the under­world to be his wife. So the queen of the under­world should be asso­ci­ated with rock crevices. However, Persephone isn’t just asso­ci­ated with Hades. She was also the daugh­ter of Demeter and with her she was a veget­a­tion fer­til­ity god­dess. She was only said to spend a third of the year with Hades. This was acknow­ledged by the Greeks who didn’t just make temples to Demeter but also to Demeter and Persephone. None of the temples lis­ted by Retallack have this shared attrib­ute in the main paper, which seems a bit odd. On the other hand there is a men­tion of a sac­red grove of Demeter and Kore (another name for Persephone) at Cabirion, Boeotia. This might mat­ter because often the report­ing of the ded­ic­a­tions of temples can be quite poor. I recently read a paper which attrib­uted Temple F in Agrigento to Juno Lacinia, even though it’s been known for a cen­tury that this attri­bu­tion is wrong. Names have a tend­ency of stick­ing. I don’t think this is a ser­i­ous prob­lem, but it does sug­gest where more research could be done.

The other factor I find prob­lem­atic is that Retallack says that the idea that Greek temples faced sun­rise on the feast day of their god is fals­i­fied by the data he’s col­lec­ted. I can’t recall Scully say­ing that this was uni­ver­sal, though I’ll con­cede Richer may have. The reason I think Retallack is wrong comes from the same data in the table. Where he can dis­cern an ori­ent­a­tion, he divides the temples into eight cat­egor­ies for the eight major com­pass dir­ec­tions. If there was a ran­dom scat­ter then, of the forty-two temples he has dir­ec­tions for, you’d expect around six to face east, as opposed to any of the other seven dir­ec­tions. There might be a few more or less, but the chances of get­ting more than ten facing east by ran­dom chance are around 100–1. In fact from that sample set over half, twenty-six, face east. That doesn’t mean that an astro­nom­ical ori­ent­a­tion was essen­tial for a temple, but it does indic­ate a strong bias. Again, rather than under­min­ing Retallack’s case, I think it poten­tially makes it more interesting.

If we do have a bias to point temples towards the range of sun­rise, then we can start ask­ing what’s spe­cial about the temples where there isn’t this bias. In the case of the temples in the north-east and south-east cat­egor­ies they may still be facing the extremes of sun­rise. The temples of Apollo at Ptoon, Boeotia and Dionysos, Eretria, Euboea, the two temples from the sur­vey which can def­in­itely be said to face west, clearly can­not be facing sun­rise. In the case of the temple of Dionysos at Eretria, the temple is on a creek flood­plain, in Xeroll. If, like me you haven’t a clue was xer­oll is, it’s the sort of soil asso­ci­ated with pas­tures. Retallack explains that because it’s stable and fer­tile with a mix of acid and alkaline earths. It’s the sort of soil you’d want for grain, asso­ci­ated with Demeter or the sort of grapes which the ancient Greeks used to make wine, beloved of Dionysos. Knowing that, we can see one reason why the temple was built where it was, but can also start ask­ing other ques­tions? Was there no suit­able land in Eretria to use that would have allowed an east­erly align­ment? There may have been, the temple of Apollo there faced south-east. So what was the temple of Dionysos look­ing towards? Why wasn’t the temple ded­ic­ated to Demeter, who is asso­ci­ated with xer­olls too? Retallack isn’t shut­ting down dis­cus­sion but instead open­ing up new opportunities.

Another example would be Artemis. Temples of Artemis are asso­ci­ated with Xerept and Orthent soils. Xerept is a thin rocky soil and Orthent is what you get when Xerept is eroded and there’s hardly any soil at all. Retallack lim­its dis­cus­sion to the nature of the soils them­selves. That’s a shame because it is worth con­trast­ing with Cole’s recent dis­cus­sion of Artemis in her book Landscapes, gender, and ritual space. Cole says that Artemis is god­dess of bound­ary places. She’s found in the moun­tains, but in the moun­tain passes rather than at peak sanc­tu­ar­ies. In the ancient Greek world the bound­ar­ies would be in the moun­tains and where the soil was poor. If that’s the case then the asso­ci­ation between Artemis and Xerepts at peri­pher­ies could also make her the nat­ural choice for Xerepts in more cent­ral loc­a­tions. I’d accept that Brauron isn’t the most cent­ral loc­a­tion in Attica, but at the same time it’s not hugely out of the way. It’s very con­veni­ent if you travel along the coast. Despite this, Brauron was an import­ant sanc­tu­ary for Artemis. Retallack, who states that Brauron is built on Xerept, may have opened up the pos­sib­il­ity of explain­ing why the site was con­nec­ted with that par­tic­u­lar goddess.

The other way that Retallack is open­ing dis­cus­sion is that he pub­lished his paper in Antiquity. This might seem obvi­ous, but if you want to change the way archae­olo­gists think about some­thing, you have to put your ideas in a place where archae­olo­gists will read them. Not every­one does this. My favour­ite example is a paper from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, ‘Stonehenge: a view from medi­cine’ by Anthony M. Perks and Darlene Marie Bailey. Whether that paper is right or wrong is irrel­ev­ant, because any researcher look­ing for papers on Stonehenge is going to be look­ing in the archae­olo­gical lit­er­at­ure. Similarly Retallack could have chosen to place his paper in a Soil Science journal where it could be seen by his col­leagues. Instead it looks like he wants his work to make a dif­fer­ence. Kudos are due to Antiquity too, who could have simply turned down the paper as not being archae­ology. Instead they’ve pro­duced some­thing which is clearly rel­ev­ant to non-geologists and still pro­duced the mater­i­als and dia­grams of soil pro­files that people who want to more closely at the work will need.

I’m not con­vinced it’s a uni­ver­sal solu­tion for all Greek temples. In the case of some­where like Selinunte there’s temples to (prob­ably) Hera and a temple to Apollo and either Athena or Artemis within a few yards of each other. In the case of the many towns which had just the one temple in con­trast it could well explain why they ded­ic­ated their temple to one par­tic­u­lar deity, like Aphrodite at Akrai or Demeter at Eloro.

For another opin­ion on Retallack’s work, George Monbiot has beaten me by about three and a half years.

On Gods and Ghosts

A sad ghost
A sad ghost. Photo (cc) Deathwaves.

Following on from the pre­vi­ous ramble I think I may have finally dis­covered the dif­fer­ence between a God and a Ghost.

It’s con­text.

Any defin­i­tion of a ghost you come up with based on its form could be applied to a minor god. However my god­less defin­i­tion of a reli­gion may provide a key. At the moment I have three strands to a reli­gion: cos­mo­visión, mor­al­ity and power. No god is neces­sary in this defin­i­tion. However a ghost asso­ci­ated with a reli­gion becomes a god. Ghosts can serve a moral pur­pose, but it’s not usual to build a power struc­ture around them, nor to invoke them in mak­ing the world work. It’s only the reli­gious func­tion of a god which makes it dis­tin­guish­able from a ghost. Throw in con­cepts like Lares, Roman house­hold spir­its / gods and the fuzzi­ness of the bar­rier becomes explic­able. The dif­fer­ence is functional.

This will annoy some Christians because my defin­i­tion of a ghost, when I get round to it will be a super­nat­ural being cap­able of inter­act­ing with the world — which would encom­pass saints. However the reli­gious func­tion of saints in turn makes them minor gods. For instance Saint Adrian of Nicomedia, pat­ron saint of arms deal­ers is, for all prac­tical pur­poses the god of Arms Dealers. The Greeks didn’t spe­cific­ally have a god of arms deal­ers to the best of my know­ledge, but the actions to pro­pi­ti­ate Hephaistos or Ares are, from a view out­side of the reli­gions, equi­val­ent to the actions of a Christian ask­ing Adrian to cre­ate a help­ful slaughter.

Interestingly the idea of pray­ing to spe­cific saints appears very early in Christianity. I’m won­der­ing if its suc­cess is that it man­aged to take an ori­ental cult and present in an access­ible Roman poly­the­istic way.

Is lust for power a basic human attribute?


Lust for Power rather than Lust.
Photo (cc) Rachel a.k.

Ron Ferguson has been writ­ing at the Herald, For good or ill, reli­gion is a basic human need. I dis­agree with most of it. Some lines like:

The attempts to provide evol­u­tion­ary reas­ons for the wide­spread per­sist­ence of reli­gion are uncon­vin­cing. Dogmatic reduc­tion­ism — “there is noth­ing bey­ond the nat­ural, phys­ical world”, in Dawkins’s words — doesn’t sat­isfy the deep­est long­ings of the human heart.

sug­gest to me someone who hasn’t read much or per­haps any evol­u­tion­ary explan­a­tions of reli­gion, but has read what other people — who may or may not have read such art­icles — say about these explan­a­tions. I can dis­pute Ferguson’s claims on sci­entific or philo­soph­ical grounds, but theo­lo­gical grounds too.

If we accept that reli­gious insight is needed to under­stand reli­gion, then the fact that at most one reli­gion is true becomes a prob­lem. How do we explain all these false reli­gions? Are they the product of a trick­ster god? If they are products of a trick­ster god then there’s no way to know that your deeply cher­ished beliefs are not a cos­mic jape. If they’re not the product of a super­nat­ural force then they are nat­ural and poten­tially explic­able. This means that people like David Sloan Wilson, Walter Burkert, Pascal Boyer, people actu­ally work­ing on explan­a­tions of reli­gion have some­thing say on the subject.

It’s a very basic error and I think it high­lights a prob­lem with the study of the evol­u­tion of reli­gion. A lot of people pro­fess­ing to be talk­ing about the ori­gins of reli­gion really aren’t inter­ested in the debate. Instead it’s about con­tem­por­ary polit­ics. Ron Ferguson, former min­is­ter at Saint Magnus Cathedral, Orkney, is say­ing ‘don’t listen to Dawkins’ because of what Dawkins means for the author­ity of the church now. Lest you think this is spe­cific­ally a prob­lem with the­ists I should add I’m not con­vinced that Dawkins is that bothered about the ori­gins of reli­gion either. If he were then he would have con­duc­ted his ‘Chinese junk’ thought exper­i­ment which he intro­duced in 1998 in his fore­word to ‘The Meme Machine’ and then returned to in ‘The God Delusion’. Again I’d argue that Dawkins is far more con­cerned at the polit­ical influ­ence reli­gion has today.

So how do you explain reli­gion? I was going to say that you have to adopt a judge­ment­ally neut­ral view. When zoolo­gists exam­ine lions they don’t load moral judge­ments of their inhu­mane method of slaughter into their work. Similarly the social bene­fits or det­ri­ments of reli­gion shouldn’t be an issue when examin­ing the facts of ori­gin and growth of reli­gion. However this is where the sep­ar­ate mages­teria model pro­posed by Steven Jay Gould breaks down. It is a view of many reli­gions that the reason why their reli­gion exis­ted and grew is that a super­nat­ural being made it so. So, for example, David Sloan Wilson who is extremely care­ful to try and avoid offend­ing believ­ers non­ethe­less still does so when he pro­poses an explan­a­tion for Calvinism which doesn’t include a God, as explained by ardent Protestant kfeich at LibraryThing:

Why would we want to spend time dis­cuss­ing a book by an athe­ist whose basic pre­sup­pos­i­tion about real­ity (There is a God) is faulty? Most, if not all, sub­sequent pro­pos­i­tions and con­clu­sions would there­fore be estranged from the truth.

Most Christians I’ve met wouldn’t be so dog­matic in their refusal to accept there can be non-religious explan­a­tions for things. I’ve yet to see ser­i­ous agit­a­tion that many pop­u­lar cook­books refuse to say that the dish will be deli­cious only if it is part of God’s plan.

I’d be sur­prised if Ron Ferguson were that dog­matic because of how he sees his place in rela­tion to the longer his­tory of Orkney. In his art­icle he con­nec­ted the Middle Eastern mys­tery cult he fol­lows with the pre­his­toric rituals of peoples thou­sands of years before then. This only works if you sense of con­tinu­ity of people and place. For Ferguson the Orkneys weren’t ori­ent­al­ised, it was Christianity which became Orcadian. This makes cur­rent Christianity the latest phase in a long tra­di­tion of intro­spect­ive meth­ods to under­stand the uni­verse. It also clearly requires a spe­cific view of real­ity, and it’s not one I can share. I’m really not sure to what extent if any mod­ern reli­gion is analgous to ancient reli­gion. Modern Christianity is strik­ingly dif­fer­ent to ancient Christianity. In Catholicism the mar­tyrs who gave their lives to keep their faith in the Roman Empire, were wast­ing their time accord­ing to the cur­rent Pope who refused to do the same in Nazi Germany. Protestants seem to veer­ing towards ven­er­a­tion of the Bible as an author­ity, an author­ity which the earli­est Christians lacked. The Greeks them­selves didn’t have a word for reli­gion, so in some ways the study of it in its earlier stages is an ana­chron­ism. Continuity of belief is an art­icle of faith for most reli­gions. We believe now what they believed then because the truths of reli­gion are time­less. But that’s a huge assump­tion which doesn’t hold for reli­gion in his­tor­ical peri­ods. I can’t see how that assump­tion could be jus­ti­fied when look­ing at earlier beliefs.

So if mod­ern reli­gion does not map eas­ily onto past beliefs, how do I cur­rently see reli­gion evolving? I think it grows from the per­sonal exper­i­ence of intent.

Personally I’m an epi­phen­om­en­al­ist, but while I don’t believe I have free will I cer­tainly feel as though I have free will. Indeed I feel that it was the lack of any plaus­ible mech­an­ism for free will, and the demostra­tion of com­plex and chaotic beha­viour that per­suaded me free will is, in mater­ial sense, mean­ing­less. Did I have any choice but to believe it if I had no free will? At this point your head may be spin­ning with try­ing to work out the sen­sa­tion of being an insensate auto­maton, but you’re not. This is import­ant. The sen­sa­tion of think­ing, regard­less of whether or not it’s free will, is the strongest sen­sa­tion you have. Everything you know about the uni­verse is based in the sen­sa­tion that there is a you to sense it. This is first order intentionality.

Something else you know is that other minds exist. You see it from the actions of people. You can also see it in the actions of anim­als. I don’t mean that if you get too close and most anim­als can be scared off. That could be a purely mech­an­ical rela­tion­ship. Instead I mean there are times you can recog­nise pur­pose in some­thing else’s actions. Sometimes you see the goal achieved and you can work out what the pur­pose was. Sometimes you don’t but that doesn’t mean that you always con­clude thate there was no pur­pose. This is second order inten­tion­al­ity. The thing about second order inten­tion­al­ity is that you’re often not fussy about what you give it to. Humans and anim­als seem reas­on­able but it’s also com­mon for people to yell at inan­im­ate objects. Alan Turing pro­posed that when people can­not dif­fer­en­ti­ate between a human and a com­puter inter­act­ing with them, then a machine can be con­sidered arti­fi­cially intel­li­gent. Given the abuse I’ve heard poured at Mr Clippy I’d argue the oppos­ite. The vis­ceral reac­tion, the anger and the venom aimed at a com­puter means it passes a test for Artificial Stupidity or pos­sibly Artificial Malevolence, which requires at least some form of per­ceived mind regard­less of whether or not the com­puter really has a mind. This abil­ity to assign intent where there may or may not be any can be applied to other objects. Putting inten­tion­al­ity into nature can have all sorts of side-effects. I’ll pull together three.


I wish I knew who first described reli­gion as Man’s attempt to com­mu­nic­ate with the weather. The ran­dom pat­terns could make it a can­did­ate for assigned inten­tion­al­ity. It would cer­tainly provide a puzzle which needs explain­ing. It’s likely that explain­ing ran­dom pat­terns is some­thing we’re really good at. The evid­ence comes from pigeons.

Feeding pigeons. Photo (cc) dham­mza.

Superstition in the Pigeon is a genu­ine schol­arly art­icle by B.F. Skinner. In it he recounts exper­i­ments which he believed showed pigeons were cap­able of super­ti­tious beha­viour. Basically if you put a pigeon in a cage with a but­ton which, when pressed, will oper­ate a grain dis­penser — the pigeon will learn to use it. Where it gets inter­est­ing is when you change the but­ton so that when it’s pressed it’s purely ran­dom as to whether grain is dis­pensed or not.

When you do this then the pigeon still presses the but­ton, with inter­mit­tent suc­cess. What it doesn’t know is that the suc­cess is purely ran­dom. It acts as though it thought it got action right on the occa­sions when food came out. Perhaps it cocked its head to left before press­ing the but­ton. Now the pigeon repeats that action with vari­ations, until the next ran­dom pay­out rein­forces that beha­viour and leads to fur­ther elab­or­ate actions by the pigeon. I think it’s a bit of a leap to con­clude that the pigeon is super­sti­tious, but it’s clearly respond­ing to some con­di­tion­ing. The same can be observed in humans too.

I sup­pose I could have given fruit machines as an example of con­di­tion­ing people to ran­dom rewards instead, but there’s some­thing pleas­ing about cit­ing a man who taught pigeons to dance, play table ten­nis and guide mis­siles. The pigeon guided mis­sile had only one flaw.

Our prob­lem was no one would take us seriously.

The response to ran­dom events could there­fore appear to be ran­dom and arbit­rary in humans. I’d sug­gest that arbit­rary is fair, it will not be related to suc­cess of a tech­nique, but it will not be ran­dom. It will be a learned beha­viour and so vary between eth­nic groups. If you like we’re all talk­ing to the weather, but non­ethe­less we talk to it in the local lan­guage. I like the Spanish term used by a lot of archae­oastro­nomers, cos­mo­visión, to describe the way peoples see the world. Stripped to its basic mean­ing it’s how people per­ceive the uni­verse, regard­less of whether this world-view is sci­entific or not. Different peoples have dif­fer­ent cos­mo­visións and so their world-view is an eth­nic marker.

The marker is not purely dec­or­at­ive. Once you make some arbit­rary assump­tions about how the uni­verse works, some com­bin­a­tions of actions are more coher­ent than oth­ers. Some actions by people from another eth­nic group may even be act­ively dis­rupt­ive. Cosmovisión will be used in many import­ant activ­it­ies. It is vital to sow the seeds cor­rectly, to har­vest and win­now in the same way. The pro­tec­tion of the food sur­plus must be done in the right man­ner. Failure in any of these could have fatal con­sequences. The view from within the group is that this vis­ion of reailty, and so is the same for all mem­bers of that group. Therefore we should see cos­mo­visións emerge as detect­able group char­ac­ter­ist­ics. This is old hat to archae­olo­gists and his­tor­i­ans who already know that if we were Vikings we’d build our houses this way, or com­mem­or­ate our dead that way.

Social Power

Largely unre­lated to cos­mo­visión is the devel­op­ment of power. My view of cos­mo­visión could be described as memetic, extel­li­gent or based in TXM. My view of power in con­trast owes more to struc­tur­a­tion the­ory, which I’m told is incom­pat­ible with memet­ics. The light­weight sum­mary of struc­tur­a­tion the­ory is as follows:

Social action is per­formed by agents work work within struc­tures. The struc­tures con­fine and con­strict what actions are open to the agents. At the same time agents by their actions make and main­tain these struc­tures. The rela­tion­ship between agents and struc­tures can get very com­plex, and it’s widely viewed that agents will seek to max­im­ise their pos­i­tion within struc­tures which cre­ates the longev­ity of some struc­tures. For example its the view of quite a few politi­cians that demo­cracy in the UK is broken. The power is held by people voted in by an over­whelm­ing minor­ity and so the bal­ance of power does not reflect the views of the coun­try. The Liberal Democrats and many Labour politi­cians in the 1980s were keen on a form of Proportional Representation to elect gov­ern­ments. The Liberal Democrats, who remain out of power, still are but there’s not really the same desire of PR from Labour. No-one who thinks they can win the whole game under the cur­rent struc­ture is likely to will­ingly change the struc­ture to share power. Power struc­tures should be self-reinforcing which, if you’ve read 1984, is really scary. If any power struc­ture which increases the power of individual(s) with in it will auto­mat­ic­ally self-reinforce, then it would also sug­gest that there should be a uni­ver­sal tend­ency to more from egal­it­arian soci­et­ies to socially strat­i­fied soci­et­ies. Again his­tory shows then when an eco­nomic sur­plus is pos­sible strat­i­fic­a­tion follows.


Morality is not neces­sar­ily related to either of the facets above, which might seem pre­pos­ter­ous to any­one with a mod­ern view of reli­gion. Indeed one of the reas­ons fun­da­ment­al­ists give for the import­ance of reli­gion is that it is a moral found­a­tion. Plato dis­agreed.

The doings of Cronus, and the suf­fer­ings which in turn his son inflic­ted upon him, even if they were true, ought cer­tainly not to be lightly told to young and thought­less per­sons; if pos­sible, they had bet­ter be bur­ied in silence. But if there is an abso­lute neces­sity for their men­tion, a chosen few might hear them in a mys­tery, and they should sac­ri­fice not a com­mon [Eleusinian] pig, but some huge and unpro­cur­able vic­tim; and then the num­ber of the hear­ers will be very few indeed.

…the nar­rat­ive of Hephaestus bind­ing Here his mother, or how on another occa­sion Zeus sent him fly­ing for tak­ing her part when she was being beaten, and all the battles of the gods in Homer –these tales must not be admit­ted into our State, whether they are sup­posed to have an alleg­or­ical mean­ing or not. For a young per­son can­not judge what is alleg­or­ical and what is lit­eral; any­thing that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unal­ter­able; and there­fore it is most import­ant that the tales which the young first hear should be mod­els of vir­tu­ous thoughts.

If you’re famil­iar with the Greek myths then it’s per­haps no won­der that Plato didn’t see the Gods as great moral guides. The same objec­tion can be made of other Gods. Richard Dawkins has been accused of being offens­ive when talk­ing about the actions of the Abrahamic god. Apparently the notion of drown­ing all the new­born chil­dren on the planet for the greater good is, in con­trast, per­fectly accept­able. The issue is not whether or not your god is a guide to mor­al­ity, but rather that clearly soci­et­ies lived with con­cepts of mor­al­ity which were not derived from reli­gious examples.

Mutual rein­force­ment

It's not natural

Combine some of these fea­tures together and inter­est­ing things start to hap­pen. For instance you could derive mor­al­ity from cos­mo­visión. It might seem obvi­ous to some people if this is the way the world is then that is the way we should be. I don’t think it is obvi­ous. Many anim­als bring home injured prey for their young to play with, but I wouldn’t advoc­ate bring­ing home a rab­bit to vivi­sect for fun and edu­ca­tion. Nonetheless this is/ought fea­ture is com­mon. Homosexuality is said to be wrong because it isn’t nat­ural. Anyone who points out that if you go out and look there are plenty of homo­sexual rela­tion­ships in the animal king­dom and that actu­ally it’s not nat­ural to dress up in man­made fibres and have your own cable tel­ev­an­gel­ism chan­nel is thought to be miss­ing the point.

From mor­al­ity you can derive power. Again this does not neces­sar­ily fol­low. There are plenty of tales of people eschew­ing the trap­pings of wealth. On the other hand in the hand the idea you are doing right makes you an attract­ive per­son to fol­low, which why affairs for politi­cians are such a prob­lem, but you knew that. Nonetheless to be a power­ful per­son it is expec­ted that you are also a moral per­son. This might seem non­sensical when you look at the sort of people who get power. Nonetheless they gen­er­ally have jus­ti­fied their blood­lust on the grounds that it’s the right or neces­sary thing rather than say­ing “What’s the point of being in charge of an army if I don’t use it?”

Bizarrely you can in turn use power to show your prowess in cos­mo­visión. It gen­er­ally isn’t neces­sary to demon­strate any coher­ence with real­ity for your ideas. Your own power can jus­tify your pos­i­tion of real­ity. For instance your favour­ite reli­gious leader must be right about the uni­verse, else he wouldn’t have gained so much power would he? This isn’t a purely reli­gious per­spect­ive. The suc­cess of fin­an­cial traders in the city is very sim­ilar to what would be expec­ted by chance. Nevertheless the suc­cess­ful traders are given the big­ger bonuses because their suc­cess is used as evid­ence that they know what they’re doing rather than simply being lucky enough to occupy the upper quart­ile of a stat­ist­ical scat­ter. Failure later on isn’t due to chance either, but to Freddie los­ing his grip/hunger/focus etc.

These rela­tion­ships can all be reversed too so suc­cess in cos­mo­visión, pre­dict­ing the world’s beha­viour more accur­ately, can be used to gain power. Have enough power can you can define what is moral. As for mor­al­ity, if what you know of how the world should be is con­tra­dicted by real­ity, then you can show when real­ity is wrong. You now have a found­a­tions for a mutu­ally rein­for­cing meta-structure, bind them together in a social nar­rat­ive which explains the intent observed in nat­ural forces and you have a reli­gion. Except there is a problem.

Reality strikes back

I said above that mor­al­ity can tell you when the world has gone wrong. In a ran­dom sys­tem this will work because sooner or later things will work. The rains fail because of immoral beha­viour. This can be fixed by a return to mor­al­ity and if this doesn’t work then clearly someone isn’t behav­ing in a moral way. For thou­sands upon thou­sands of years this line of logic has been unchal­lenge­able. Science has provided a means to chal­lenge it.

The reason why Science is a potent danger to Religion is that it elim­in­ates the need for gods in its explan­a­tions. The cos­mo­visión strand can now be pro­fane. This will not elim­in­ate the need for a cos­mo­visión, nor for mor­al­ity or power struc­tures, but it will demol­ish the mater­ial which has bound these three strands into one. The social meta-narrative can­not stand. If you don’t need a god to describe what is, then no god-based mor­al­ity can be derived from a cos­mo­visión. Similarly if your cos­mo­visión and now mor­al­ity lack a god, then gods are unne­ces­sary for power. The basic needs which reli­gion con­trolled remain, Ferguson is right about that, but the ties that bind are show to be window-dressing. Religion must adapt or die.

Religion evolves

The view of people like Stewart and Cohen, or Dawkins is that Science, under­stood prop­erly, kills Religion. It is pos­sible that this will hap­pen but the rise of people like Deepak Chopra sug­gests to me that there’s a part of the brain evolved to be gull­ible. History also shows that Religion is not one static thing. It adapts. The Christianity of the USA is not the Christianity of Mexico, nor Greece. The Christianity of the early twenty-second cen­tury will not be the same as the Christianity of the twenty-first, though I’ve no doubt it will claim to be. Any other social change would be sub­ject to debate by all soci­ety, and the beha­viour of a group of people whose actions will impact us all should be placed under the same scru­tiny. Ferguson is not only ignor­ant when he says ‘Scientific mater­i­al­ism has little to say at the open grave, other than “get over it, pal”.’ but also ignores the follow-up ques­tion ‘…and what can we reli­ably know from reli­gion that isn’t just someone’s opin­ion?’ This is why reli­gious mat­ters must be scru­tin­ised just as any other social move­ments would be. Yet scru­tiny does not always have to be hostile.

I was look­ing for a photo to illus­trate the concept of reli­gion evolving. What I found was a wide range of pho­tos includ­ing one of a woman in hot­pants, who I pre­sume from her pose, had answered the photographer’s pray­ers. But the one which caught my eye was the one above of someone volun­teer­ing to help out after a tor­nado. I’ll admit it doesn’t seem to be about reli­gion evolving, but the descrip­tion is com­pel­ling. Here’s a part:

If I want God, I will pick up this rake and scrape this ground. What reli­gion is that? If I want to feel God, I will get a tear­ful hug from a lady I’ve never met just because I found her spoons. Tell me, what one true reli­gion is that? It is no reli­gion. Religion is com­pletely and utterly irre­levent from my work, yet at the very same time I’m doing God’s will, get it? I’m doing all Gods’ wills.

Alas, a site I for­got to book­mark was a Christian web­log I stumbled upon a couple of years ago. The entry was about the reward that God gave Christians for doing good — and about how it was irrel­ev­ant. They argued the point about Christianity was that it taught you should do good. Not that you should do good because it it got you into heaven. That’s not a basic­ally good idea which is neg­ated by being framed in a reli­gious way. It’s simply a good idea. Equally bad ideas should not be pro­tec­ted because they’re reli­gious. Bigotry is bigotry even if it’s a bloke in a dress raging against transsexuals.

I doubt I’ll believe in a God, there simply isn’t the evid­ence, but that doesn’t pre­vent you from believ­ing that as a human you can be part of some­thing big­ger. When Ron Ferguson looks back at what con­nects him with pre­his­toric peoples I think that he could take that belief as some­thing basic to all humans. Yet that some­thing is some­thing all humans can share and can be examined sci­en­tific­ally as it has meas­ure­able con­sequences. I could also be per­suaded that a belief that ser­viced our needs rather than our lusts might be a good thing. Yet without that ele­ment of lust, the sat­ing of the desire for power, could you call that belief a Religion?

Bad news for the Christians


There’s a 1st cen­tury BC tab­let which has been found pre­dict­ing a Messiah that will rise after three days. I can’t really see this shak­ing Christianity by con­nect­ing it to Judaism. The whole concept of a Messiah is Jewish. It’s not like Judea was short of Messiahs in this period. As for proph­ecies Matthew is known to have drawn on Jewish proph­ecies for his gos­pel, hence the whole being born in Bethlehem thing. It is of his­tor­ical interest though. It seems like a mes­siah proph­ecy we didn’t know about before. That could have told us more about the devel­op­ment of Christianity.

Sadly it can’t tell us a lot, because the mater­ial is unproven­anced. Anyone who’s Christian has had inform­a­tion about tab­let of import­ance to their faith trashed and it’s inform­a­tion which can­not be replaced. It’s been com­pared to find­ing the Dead Sea Scrolls.* It’s not like find­ing the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s like burn­ing them unread and sift­ing through the ashes to see what you can make out.

However as long as there’s a mar­ket for unproven­anced and illi­cit antiquit­ies there’ll be a profit to be made from other people’s beliefs.

See also: The Boston Globe and Jim West’s web­log.

*Actually in some ways it is. An awful loot of inform­a­tion about them has been lost too due to the trade in unproven­ance antiquities.

The Burglars. Photo (cc) John Carl Johnson

…but is it the opiate of the masses?


The Choice of Heracles, Paolo di Matteis, 1712

What is it that makes a happy life? People have been ask­ing that for mil­len­nia and I have a few minutes while I wait to col­lect someone, so I might not have a com­pre­hens­ive answer. The reason I’m ask­ing is that Religion ‘linked to happy life’ is one of the most emailed stor­ies on the BBC News site today. I have to admit I’m sur­prised that there are so few responses to the story on Technorati, but maybe every­one like me is won­der­ing what a happy life is.

Or maybe I’m a bit early with the story and when this goes live that Technorati link will prove me wrong.
Continue read­ing



BBC NEWS | Pleas for con­demned Saudi ‘witch’

Words fail me so I’m reduced to cut­ting and past­ing para­graphs.

The illit­er­ate woman was detained by reli­gious police in 2005 and allegedly beaten and forced to fin­ger­print a con­fes­sion that she could not read.

Regardless of the crime that is not justice. That’s even close. It’s not a dif­fer­ent type of justice or another culture’s form way of mak­ing sense of the uni­verse. It’s thug­gery.

Among her accusers was a man who alleged she made him impotent.

I’d be temp­ted to add that another claimed he was turned into a newt, except this is so ser­i­ous. It’s a human life that’s at stake, and with it being a life of a woman in Saudi Arabia that’s no bed of roses. I hate to tar all Muslims with the action of a few psy­cho­paths, but it would be nice if the Muslim Council of Britain could con­demn this lethal idiocy. Not because it’s their fault, but because they are prob­ably the people in the UK with the best chance of get­ting some­thing close to justice for this poor woman.