Excavations recently restarted at Herculaneum. Archaeologists promised some spectacular finds when they started and they already have one. The Soprintendenza di Pompei has announced the find of a Roman period throne built in wood and ivory. Previously this type of throne was only known from wall paintings. It’s usually rare to find anything wooden on an archaeological dig. Organic materials are quickly munched away by bacteria. The reason this throne survived is due to the way everything else in Herculaneum died.
Like Pompeii, Herculaneum was in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius — but it was a lot closer. When Vesuvius erupted ash was thrown into the air. Some of this fell on Pompeii. A lot fell back on Vesuvius itself causing a pyroclastic flow. A torrent of hot gas, ash and rock tumbled down the hillside and scorched everything in its path — including the inhabitants of Herculaneum. The estimated temperature is 400°C (about 750°F). Remains have been found which suggests that this was hot enough to almost instantly boil victims brains in their skulls. The organic materials, like wood, were carbonised and dried within a couple of seconds, sterilising them. Ash continued to fall until it was almost 25 metres (90 feet) deep, ensuring the town was locked in its own time capsule. In the photo here the fragment looks blackened, which suggests that it’s one of the carbonised finds.
This is why odd things have a habit of being found in Herculaneum. This throne was found in the Villa of the Papyri, which got its name from the 1700 or more papyri found there when the site was excavated. However, this throne is very odd — not just because it’s rare or high status. It also has unusual decoration. It has imagery related to the god Attis. Attis wasn’t your typical Roman god.
This article, in my mind, has put this question to rest. It is time to speak of “Judeans”, “Judean practices”, and “Judean culture” in the same way that we would speak of the identity and practices of the many other ethnic groups or peoples that existed in antiquity. The Judeans of antiquity are not a special case.
Source: Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean » Was there such a thing as ancient “Judaism”?: Steve Mason’s recent article on “Judeans” (Ioudaioi) in antiquity (Philip A. Harland)
Philip Harland has some interesting comments on ancient ethnicity which will prove contentious in the current climate. I think if you’re genuinely interested in the peoples of the Levant around two thousand years ago, their history and their experiences then this is necessary. To be fair, as far as I can tell there are a good many scholars who have been doing that for years. Still there are also others who are looking to the past to confirm modern issues in ways that, anywhere else in the world, would be dismissed as anachronistic.
The Red Fort where faith will soon triumph over Archaeology. Photo (cc) dijitalboy
If you’ve been following my del.icio.us feed you’ll have already seen I’ve been reading the archaeological news coming out of India recently. I’ve held off commenting, because I’m not very familiar with Indian archaeology. You should bear that in mind when reading on. I’ve also spent a few days trying to pull together who believes what happened when. And today I found the post ABC of Ram Sethu at E-mc^2, which says more or less the same thing. As far as I can tell the story is this:
Around 1.75 million years ago Ravana, King of Lanka was being a pest. As a bit of foresight Ravana had ensured that he was invulnerable to the attacks of Gods, Demons and celestial folk, but left out men and animal from the list. Vishnu spotted the loophole and incarnated as the human Rama, to get round some legal paperwork. Ravana kidnapped his wife and during the ensuing rumpus Rama built a bridge to Sri Lanka.
Around 125,000 years ago geological action started to form a bar of rocks and shoals creating a string of islands or shallows between southern India and Sri Lanka.
Around 2000 years ago the poet Valmiki composed the Rāmāyaṇa, which described the events of 1.75 million. Unfortunately he neglected to state whether Rama was homo sapiens or homo erectus, which could have helped a lot.
This sets the scene for a controversy around the dredging of a channel through the Ram Sethu. In 2001 the BJP, then the ruling party in India decided a channel through the Ram Sethu might be a good thing. At moment shipping has to travel round Sri Lanka. A channel could cut out a day’s travel so they started a feasibility study.
This review has could have been written months ago, were it not for the fact that I’ve been reading it with other books like Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral and currently Boyer’s Religion Explained. I had though it had surprisingly little attention because as Smiffy said, it is potentially a lot more devastating to the status of religion than the works of Dawkins. Nonetheless there are a few people who haven’t got round to reading it who have concluded it’s bunk. The reason I don’t think these people have read what they condemn is that they seem to think it’s about religion. This is the subject of just one chapter of the thirteen in the book. The book is, as the subtitle states, about belief, and it’s far more interesting because of it.
While I was writing the last post defending Hekate against atheists this video came up on Pharyngula from Coffeeghost.
Clearly he’s a man unafraid of being threatened with a water pistol.
The building dedicated to Hekate, who helped the Greeks really understand
the moon. Oh, it’s not that
religion we’re talking about?
There are no experiments and tests to explain love, empathy, longing, the agony and ecstasy of the heart, the wild and wonderful creativity of the brain, that thing that happens to you when a full moon appears above the sea and is reflected in it. Sorry, but knowing the science of why the moon shines is irrelevant to the experience. Faith is the light of the moon above and that light in the sea, reality and spirituality, both making you tremblingly conscious of forces vast and beyond words. Impertinent scientists cannot know what they speak of.
If you read the opinion piece by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown then you may well, like me agree with her. Vast areas of questioning and study do seem to be irrelevant to her. As thought experiment lets try and alternative. Let’s pretend she’d spent a day reading about the Moon and went outside and looked at it.
Now as well as the moonlight she’d see the Earth’s partner in a cosmic waltz around the Sun through the inky depths of space. She may recognise that the Moon’s face was constant. The same tidal forces which raise and lower the sea have locked the Man in the Moon’s face forever upon his partner. In the face of the Moon she might see the scars of the distant past, the craters being the pockmarks of ancient impacts which reveal clues as to how our own planet formed
With a little knowledge of gravity she might know that there was no universal ‘up’ or ‘down’ and that from the perspective of someone in the antipodes she was upside down hanging over the Moon held above it by a force which remains a mystery to explore. The same gravity which pins her to the planet is a local phenomenon. If she were able to travel there she’d find that she could leap to superhuman heights and she’d weigh just a sixth of what she had weighed. She’d have to remember to pack a spacesuit, because she would find no atmosphere on the moon, shrouding it in eternal silence. She might even choose to search for the footprints of Armstrong and Aldrin. Humans may have explored many places, but these are the only footprints of the the first people on a landmass that survive. The footprints of Columbus or Cook may have washed away on their beaches, but the vacuum of space means the bootprints of the Apollo astronauts may outlive the human race. It’s a humble monument to a programme of research which started over two and a half thousand years ago when people started thinking that maybe Gods didn’t have the last word.
It doesn’t come without a cost. Assertion is not enough. Questions have to asked and authorities challenged. Things which in the past were considered unquestionable because they were divine, from the workings of the universe to the internal workings of humans had to be studied. The process continues and scientists across the world continue to work to disprove an idea which their predecessors thought right, or never even thought to question. There are uncounted hours spent on science and each one of these hours is an hour which could be spent doing something else. Every hour spent searching for the start of the universe could be an hour spent talking to the Rainbow Snake. Every hour spent creating mathematical models of storms is an hour which could have been spent propitiating the Rain Gods. Every hour someone spends trying to find a cure for a cancer is an hour that could have been spent praying for a loved one not to die.
These were the costs of science in the past, and the same costs of science in the future. The Greeks sentenced people who questioned the divine as blasphemers. Is it time to accept that we were wrong to question whether or not people get sick because they offended the Gods? Should we ask if women were created to do anything other than serve men? With hindsight isn’t it wrong, dehumanising and disrespectful to question the majesty of the moon goddess Hekate? I assume that it’s moon gods Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is talking about because she mentions ‘Faith is the light of the moon above…’ You’d look a bit daft with a column titled ‘What do these atheists understand of religion?’ if you hadn’t thought about what you meant by religion.
Of course if we do question religion then we risk diminishing human experience in much the same way that I’ve lessened the moon above.
I’ve spent far too long trying to write a blog entry before deleting it. If you want to know what it was like, imagine a more poorly written version of Denying Little While Affirming Much at Abnormal Interests. Professor Mariottini seems to believe that personal revelation has a part to play in academic study of the Bible. Unfortunately his proofs of Christianity work just as well with Islam or any other religion. As Duane Smith makes clear the problem isn’t what he knows, it his epistemology: How does he know that his revelations are reliable and other people’s aren’t?
The God Delusion. Photo (cc) somefool.
I bought this a while ago when it came out in paperback because Sainsbury’s had it on special offer. I’ve read it, but haven’t commented on it for a few reasons. Partly because I seem to have bought a faulty copy. The God Delusion is a vicious angry screed against religion, or so I’m told. I wouldn’t know because my version is, in contrast, polite and reasoned. By and large that makes it a more dangerous book, because although I don’t think there’s anything particularly new in it, it is presented well and puts forward both a positive view of atheism and why Dawkins thinks religion is a problem. To the joy of theists though there are a couple of disappointing sections.
One is use of the term Neville Chamberlain Atheist. I don’t like it. It’s inelegant. It’s used describe those who would appease relgious demands by equating them with the British Prime Minister who initially appeased Hitler, but then took a stand and decided to take Britain to war, despite a large number of people in Parliament still favouring appeasement. It’s not just the equation with Neville Chamberlain that I don’t think works. There’s an unspoken implication that fundamentalists are similar to Nazis. I don’t think that works either. The Nazis were openly unpleasant people and you couldn’t be a Nazi if you belonged to certain groups. Fundamentalists are in contrast more insidious. They have room to police everyone in their belief system. Whether or not Dawkins is to blame for the term is uncertain from the book, because he also cites Michael Ruse in this section so it’s possible he got the term from him. I haven’t read Ruse’s article because it appeared in Playboy and I’m not really willing to ask for it on inter-library loan. Orac has said something similar (about Neville Chamberlain, not Playboy), and Saint Gasoline disagrees. Personally I’d argue that the term should be something more like Tony Blair Atheist after someone who respects another’s beliefs despite the lack of evidence and assists them in inflicting damage on other people because of faith and poltical expediency.
While that was inelegant another section was truly bad. I didn’t like is the bit on God as a meme at all. He describes an experiment similar to Chinese Whispers. In one experiment a group of children demonstrate how to make a Chinese junk from paper by origami to another group. This group then teaches a third generation and so on. In another experiment one group of children draw a junk and pass the drawing along to a second generation to copy and so on. He predicts that by the time you get to the tenth generation the origami method will still be transmitted with high fidelity whilst the drawing will have mutuated. Similarly because religion is an imitated series of practices rather than an end product religion too can be transmitted by a meme.
This sounds reasonable, or at least it did in 1999 when Dawkins first described the experiment in the preface to The Meme Machine. He hadn’t actually run the experiment at the time but you can’t do everything. Moving on to 2006 and the Junk appears again. Dawkins still hasn’t done the experiment but nonetheless argues from the results about how culture propagates. This bothers me deeply because I thought that one of the things about experiments is that you need to do them. I appreciate he’s a busy man and he may not have the time. But he has chosen to write on the subject. Would it be reasonable for me to talk about heredity based on my thought experiment? Would it still be reasonable for me to recycle the same thought experiment seven years later without doing it? If a creationist did this they would be mocked mercilessly. Thankfully the meme concept has absolutely no bearing on the existence or otherwise of gods, but it sticks out as a low point in what is otherwise a very good book. I suppose this would at least indicate that I’m thinking about his arguments rather than purely accepting them in his authority, which is just as well as the rest of his arguments are all sound and rational.
One of the sections I particularly liked was on the Hitler was an Atheist / Christian argument. I assumed Hitler was a Christian because he said so. This isn’t enough for Dawkins and here he goes much more deeply into Hitler’s beliefs and concludes that the evidence is shaky enough that you can’t be certain he was a Christian. He may have used Christianity as a vehicle for his beliefs, but it wasn’t necessarily a belief he shared. This is where he demonstrates that he has a right to be indignant when people refer to him as a fundamentalist. This is much more representative of the thought in the book and the two points I bring up above cover around six pages of the four hundred and twenty in the book.
I’ll be honest it’s not radically changed my view of atheism, because it expresses a lot of what I thought anyway. However if you live in a less atheist-friendly environment like Texas I can see how publishing books like this and outing yourself can help. While Dawkins is firmly anti-religion he is also pro-human and the world might be a better place if a few more people were like that.