Moral Bankruptcy

Last Thursday, apart from being the day after the plumber came, Tropical Storm Ida dumped on us, and the first day of September, the New York Times headlines were disturbing.  I don’t have time to read many news stories in depth, but I glance at the headlines to inject just enough worry into my day.  After discussing the flooding, Afghanistan, and a few other stories a particular quote caught my eye and kicked my gut: “Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, threatened to retaliate against technology companies that comply with the inquiry into the Capitol attack.”  This was a bit much after reading how much suffering is going on in the world.  Republicans threatening retaliation to keep the truth hidden in plain sight.  Is there any term for this but moral bankruptcy?

I simply can’t understand how any moral Republican can hold their head up proud.  I grew up Republican.  I was conservative most of my way through college.  I would never have stood up for a politician of either party that said “I’ll get you back if you tell the truth.”  Lies are the most insidious of acts.  How can you ever believe someone after they establish a reputation of being untruthful?  How can you believe he actually does support your cause?  How can you believe anything he says?  Not only that, but threatening his own fellow Americans for wanting to find out what his party supported on January 6.  There’s a reason the day is known as Epiphany—“the manifestation.”  When truth becomes clear.

A political party that has nothing to offer but lies and violence has become an organ of organized crime.  Perhaps our legislators should be given a dictionary open to the entry titled “perjury.”  We now have Republicans who lie under oath to become Supreme Court justices.  Who try to start rebellions with mobs ready to murder their colleagues and who then sit back and claim the rectitude of God Almighty when it’s over.  What have we come to here?  People were drowning in basement apartments and people were suffering loss of power and damaged homes.  Republicans meanwhile were working up threats of retaliation against people for simply trying to get at the truth.  The plumber did the job he said he would.  Those who projected and tracked Ida told the truth to try to save lives and property.  In the sewers of Washington, however, those loyal to the party vowed to keep their secrets safe. 


Moral Compass

Where have all the morals gone?  Well, not exactly song-worthy, but it is a question I think about a lot.  You see, I work in publishing.  Publishing, above all, is a business.  People make their livelihood at it, and so they have to find a market that pays.  Money and morals don’t mix well.  A recent New York Times story pointed out that the political polarization that’s tearing America apart is reflected in bestsellers.  Political nonfiction bestsellers have topped the charts since Trump was unfortunately elected.  Books both pro and con have flooded the market.  What’s this got to do with morals?  Well, I believe publishing should be in the business of educating.  If you’re going to publish nonfiction, it should be material that doesn’t cause more problems than it helps solve.

When I look at a book, after checking the title and author, I next look at the publisher.  Some publishers are conservative, and that’s fine.  That’s what they do.  Most, however, consist of highly educated professionals who realize the severe, and continuing damage that Trump caused.  These publishers, however, will produce pro-Trump books if the numbers look good.  There’s gold in them thar hills!  I often have these scruples working for an academic press.  Some ideas are clearly distorted.  I’m no elitist—I’m still pretty much working-class all the way down to the bones—but education reveals when something very bad (fascism) is happening.  Others see it too.  Still, the temptation of all those dollars… it’s a real pressure, almost like being at the bottom of the ocean.  There’s money pressing on us and we want it.

The gray lady story bothered me.  Instead of publishers looking out their windows and seeing the political grand canyon of this nation, they see profits.  This is business, after all.  Just business.  Is there any such thing?  Morality informs the way you live, the choices you make.  Do I promote education, reflection, and sound reasoning or do I promote a very real 2024 threat of a man who leads by refusing to lead?  After elected Trump immediately began campaigning for his next term, loving the rallies, the cheers, the adulation.  Who doesn’t want to be worshiped?  But is that what we want to see three Novembers from now?  I remember the shock the morning after election day 2016 in New York City.  I see the damage four years of environmental degradation caused just when the effects of global warming were becoming obvious.  I see women demeaned.  I see voting rights quashed.  And now I look at the bestseller list and wonder where the morals have gone.


Thy Sting

“It’s hard to imagine a more alarming sign of a society’s well-being than an inability to keep its citizens alive.”  This quote is from the New York Times’ The Morning team yesterday.  Life expectancy in the US has been dropping.  Not coincidentally, the article notes, so has the wealth disparity in the country been rising.  And guess whose lives are shorter.  Isn’t it often the same people who vote for those whose wealth keeps them (the candidate) alive longer, and in luxury?  This story struck me as poignant.  Have we lost our national will to live?  We see politicians who give no mind to what the people want getting themselves elected to further their own means.  People know they’re not being cared for.  That they’re being lied to.  Perhaps it’s working its way into our national mortality rates.

I think quite a bit about mortality.  Death is a natural part of life and we seem to have bought into the capitalistic idea that more is always better.  The debates in ethics classes were always about such issues of quantity versus quality.  Is a good life better, even if it’s shorter?  Improving the lot of others increases, we hope, the number of good lives.  Not everyone wants to be rich.  Part of the problem with our current system is that we’re narrowing it down to one way of existing—the way of earning more money.  Those occupations suffused with meaning are disappearing because they’re not profitable.  Does the will to keep on living grow when money is substituted for meaning?

Books on “the good life” sell well.  Whether it’s stoicism, Buddhism, or feel-good Christianity, people want to read the answers.  In a capitalistic system only so many can be rich.  They accumulate power to themselves and many have nothing beyond this for which to strive.  How many classes are available for finding meaning in life?  As universities continue their march towards the status of business schools, the philosophy and religion departments struggle.  They don’t bring in money, but they do, I suspect, discuss the systems that give meaning to people.  That could instill the will to press on.  The article makes the point that although Covid-19 has led to a good part of the decline, it isn’t the only factor involved.  We’re all so busy that we don’t have time to think about it and yet, finding a reason to continue to improve might give us what we need.  Maybe slowing down a little and pondering things would help.

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker; Wikimedia Commons

One, two, three

The danger of statistics is that they turn an individual into a number.  A few days ago an article in the New York Times addressed the rare blood clots that some women develop after receiving the Johnson and Johnson covid vaccine.  The response of the cited physicians was telling.  Many praised the decision to halt use of the J&J vaccine immediately.  Others, however, point to the numbers.  If a vaccine is halted many more could be exposed to and contract Covid-19.  It is better, they aver, to take the statically smaller risk and use the vaccine.  While I understand the logic here, I do wonder if the side effects occurring primarily in women has anything to do with the reasoning.  Why not save this vaccine for the men instead?

This raises once again the specter of consciousness.  Statistically the odds are small that a woman will develop a clot.  What if you are the woman who does?  This dilemma always bothered me while camping in the woods.  Statistically black bear attacks are rare.  How does that help you if your tent is one that looks like a candy wrapper to a bear of little brain?  You become a statistic instead of a living, breathing, feeling, blogging person.  Statistics.  There’s a reason some of us identify with the humanities, I guess.  I can imagine what it would be like to have your doctor say to you, “Sorry, this is rare, but look at the bright side—you now become a statistic!”

Photo credit: HB, via Wikimedia commons

The fact is we’re all statistics to strangers anyway, the government above all.  We are vote-bearing numbers to be gerrymandered and prevented from voting.  Beyond that we’re merely annoying.  This pandemic has introduced Stalin’s accounting with a vengeance.  542,000 is a big number.  Unless you know one or more of them personally.  Then the statistics seem to melt.  Life is full of risk, of course.  We’ve barricaded ourselves in our homes for over a year now, eating things that are likely more dangerous for us than a rare complication.  The virus, and perhaps some vaccines, are among various killers on the loose.  Nobody can declare with any certainty the correct course of action.  Actually doing something about the virus when it was first a known threat would’ve helped, of course.  We find ourselves on the brink, it seems, of getting Trump’s disease under control.  Would that we all could do so, without having to worry about lying down to be counted.


Who’s Upstairs?

The other day the New York Times ran yet another article on UFOs.  This topic, which has been maligned since the 1940s, is now being discussed without mockery in the mainstream media.  Perhaps following the Trump presidency nothing’s impossible to believe.  There are, interestingly enough, many writers who connect UFOs with religion.  And these aren’t all writing about UFO religions, of which there are many.  Exploring the Outer Edges of Society and Mind ran a piece on biblical UFOs earlier this month.  The topic was taboo, of course, when I was teaching (I remember a colleague laughing when I told him I covered it in a course called Myth and Mystery) but it too is now becoming mainstream.  I don’t need to summarize the Outer Edges piece here since it’s easy enough to follow the link and read, but I would point out that a longstanding connection exists between UFOs and religion.

A spate of books on UFOs came out in the seventies and eighties.  Some of those more or less overlooked by the media focused on religion—often the Bible—and how UFOs play into it.  Quite often the biblicist writers identified these unknown objects in the skies as either angels or demons.  This continues to this day with some congressional leaders (many of whom are too religious for the good of the nation) averring that UFOs are “demonic.”  Frankly, if demons are incorporeal, I wonder why they need to fly around in saucers.  Perhaps they too grew up eating too much Quisp for breakfast.  In any case, the connection was made early and it remains.  When we see something in the sky we used to give it a religious explanation.  Now we chant “drones.”

In his article David Metcalfe begins by noting the forthcoming publication of Alan Steinfeld’s Making Contact: Preparing for the New Realities of Extraterrestrial Contact with the mainstream publisher St. Martin’s Press.  The difference between yesteryear with its Quisp and its flying saucer houses, and today is that people are starting to be serious about the topic.  This, I expect, is one of the benefits of increasing technology.  People are seldom without a camera in their pocket these days and although there are plenty of drones and other strange things flying around, the classic UFO hasn’t gone away.  A generation of people endured ridicule and scorn for being gullible.  Now the gray lady herself is asking questions with nary a smile.  Perhaps we’re becoming more tolerant and perhaps we’re more willing to believe we’re not alone in the universe.  Some would claim that even the Bible got in on the act millennia ago.

Image credit: George Stock, via Wikimedia Commons

The End of Snow Days

It’s a chilling thought.  An article in the New York Times said it, but we were all thinking it.  Snow days may well have become another victim of Covid-19.  No, it’s not snowing yet (but give climate change a chance!), but New York City schools have figured out that if students can learn from home then one of the truly treasured memories of our youth may no longer be necessary.  In fact, snow days ended for me when I began working remotely.  My supervisor had suggested, even before that, that I take my company laptop home daily, in case of inclement weather.  The idea of awaking, wonder-eyed, at the world covered in white—that cozy feeling of knowing you had no obligations for the day but to enjoy the pristine world out your window—is a thing of the past.

Technology has changed our lives, and some of it is even for the better.  It hasn’t made work easier for some of us, but has made it longer.  We used to talk about kids and their continuous partial attention, but now work is always at home with you and that time signature on your email says something about your work habits.  As the days are now shorter than the nights, as they will be for six more months, finding the time to do what you must outdoors (it may be cooler, but lawns still insist on growing) is always a bit more of a challenge.  And when the snow does fall you’ll still have to shovel the walk.  All time has become company time for a truly linked-in world.

The real victim here, it seems to me, is childhood.  Snow days were a reminder that no matter how strict, how Calvinistic our administrators wanted to be, the weather could still give us a smile now and then.  A legitimate excuse not to have to go to school and, if parents couldn’t get you to daycare, a day off for everyone.  The strict number of limited holidays allotted by HR had limited power in those days.  Although we all know that well-rested, happy workers tend to do better jobs than those who are constantly stressed out and who have trouble sleeping, we’ve now got the means to make the sameness of pandemic life the ennui of everyday life, in saecula saeculorum.  Thanks, internet.  At least now we work where we have a window and can look out on nature and can see what we’re missing.


The Parable of the Dates

Speaking of resurrection, a news story I saw on Agade, apparently originating in the New York Times, tells of dates.  The kind you eat.  These dates were newsworthy because they were grown from seeds two millennia old, found in an archaeological dig in Israel.  The story shows just how tenacious life can be.  Seeds dead for centuries came back to life and bore fruit.  Things like this fill me with an optimism about this thing we call life.  Two thousand years is a long time to be buried.  These seeds nevertheless came back when the conditions were right.  There’s a parable here.  The parable of the dates.

Tardigrades are remarkable.  Sometimes known as “water bears” or “moss piglets,” they are actually microscopic animals.  Google them and take a look.  The amazing thing about tardigrades is their ability to survive.  Although they are animals, they can go three decades without food or water.  (Not quite the same as two millennia, but trees have their own remarkable abilities.)  Tardigrades can survive temperatures as low as absolute zero and higher than boiling.  Scientists study what makes these little critters so sturdy, but the takeaway for me is that life is remarkably resilient.  Given that Republicans and their ilk seem set on destroying the planet, it is comforting to know that life will continue, even if without our particular species to appreciate it.

The idea has been expressed in many ways over the years.  Doctor Malcolm in Jurassic Park says “Life will find a way.”  Stephen Jay Gould wrote in Bully for Brontosaurus that when we talk of the destruction of the earth what we really mean is the end of our own survival.  The planet—life—can and will persist.  The funny thing is that we don’t really have an accurate understanding of what life is.  If a tardigrade can be revived after thirty years without water, isn’t this an exuberant expression of what life can do?  And what about the Galapagos Tortoise, surviving a century-and-a-half?  If we leave them alone, sea creatures can live even longer.  Bowhead whales last two hundred years while at least one Greenland shark doubled that.  And the news story about dates raised from two-thousand-year-old seeds indicates something wondrous about life.  It persists.  These dates are from the time of Jesus and the Roman Empire.  Some trees, such as the bristlecone pine, have been continuously alive for double that span.  We should be in awe of life.  And we should act like it, for it will outlive us by a long stretch.


Sticks and Stones

So much has been happening that I have trouble keeping up.  This past month a border skirmish erupted between the planet’s two most populous nations, China and India.  The skirmish took place in the Himalayas, around a disputed border line.  About twenty died in a scuffle that the New York Times reported as involving clubs and stones.  This image stuck with me.  As kids we used to chant “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me.”  Quite apart from the incorrect message in this saying, it struck me how childish border skirmishes are.  Like race, national boundaries are mere human constructs.  We’re obsessed with ownership.  Territoriality.  This land belongs to me, not you.  If you disagree we can club and stone each other to death to prove it.  

I mailed a package to someone in Canada recently.  Not only did I have to fill out a customs form, I also had to fork over quite a hefty sum, amounting to half the price of the item sent.  The reason for the high cost was that this was international mail.  Now, I can understand Canada wanting to distance itself from its southern neighbor, but why do we feel that we need to have strict borders?  We’ve been peaceful for centuries.  Being who I am, my thoughts tend toward the breaking down of religious ideals of unity.  Believe me, I know these are only ideals that we never realized in practice, but the concept haa been there from the beginning.  Religion tends to divide rather than to bring people together, no matter what the founders of various traditions taught.  Now even that is breaking down.

As the New York Times points out, both India and China are nuclear powers.  During this time of social distancing I had secretly hoped national aggressions might fade.  With some eight million people infected worldwide, you might think we could all work together, put down our sticks and stones, and see the human face before us.  We wear masks, I guess, for more than one reason.  The primitive nature of that skirmish bothers me.  People beating one another to death with rocks and clubs over a location difficult to reach just so both sides can lay claim to it.  In my mind’s eye I envision a gray-black monolith appearing in their midst.  A message of progress being beamed into their heads.  We’re two decades beyond that benchmark, and we still don’t get the message.

A better use for sticks and stones


Droning On

According to the New York Times (I don’t have a link, but Google will bring it up), nighttime drone formations have been reported by law enforcement in the Midwest.  These obviously precision formations fly over small towns and prairies in Nebraska and Colorado.  Now, I write what I consider to be horror fiction, but this is downright scary.  We know our government is keeping tabs on us using all kinds of technology, and this could be a government program.  It could also, as the article points out, be the mapping project of some corporation (which can be scarier even than the government), seeking natural resources to exploit.  Twice this past year I’ve spotted mapping cars with their camera-stalks protruding from their roofs, multiple spider-eyes recording roads and their surroundings.  Smile—you’re on candid camera!

At least you could see this kind.

Please don’t think that I suppose myself important enough to be spied upon.  Heck, I can’t even get job interviews and my books don’t sell.  Still, I am concerned about surveillance.  I’ve seen articles suggesting that facial recognition software is now being used by some governments (notably China’s) for keeping track of “people of interest.”  I’m more a person of disinterest, but I thought nothing of pausing long enough for the camera at Heathrow customs to record my face and scan my passport as I entered the UK in June.  Coming back the same thing happened in Newark.  And people wonder why I won’t go into the full body scanners at the airport.  Some bits of personal information, particularly those down south, I’d like to keep out of government hands.

Watching the X-Files again has reawakened my suspicion that there are too many secrets.  Yes, I know the X-Files are fiction.  Still, we know black budgets are as real as the electronic money our banks tell us we have.  And some places aren’t even accepting cash any more.  I have no idea why fleets of drones may be flying over the Midwest, but the fact that it’s happening at night raises all kinds of worries.  The X-Files had us looking for UFOs, but drones come from a far more threatening species.  Technology has no controls built in.  Kids these days can run virtual circles (and very precise ones at that) around my generation.  Listening to them talk tech makes me think English might be a foreign language after all.  Nobody requires a permit to fly over your head and take a look.  While they’re up there, I wonder if I could convince them to take some pictures of my roof.  Those on Google maps don’t give enough resolution to tell the roofers where they should focus next.


Waiting for a Miracle

A friend recently sent me a New York Times story about Marianne Williamson’s spiritual background.  Before I say anything more about this I have a confession to make.  I didn’t know who Marianne Williamson was and, consequently, I’ve never read any of her books.  I also didn’t know about her presidential bid, although she seems much more grounded than whatever it is that sits in the Oval Office these days.  In any case, it’s the spiritual background part on which I’d like to focus.  Williamson is apparently a devotee of A Course in Miracles, a book written by Helen Schucman in the 1970s.  According to the NYT article, Schucman penned the book by the dictation of a divine voice.  This aspect seems worthy of further exploration, regardless of politics.

You see, sacred books have a long history of divine dictation.  The Bible makes such claims only obliquely, but clearly there were some who believed that Moses was the recipient of narration from on high.  Mohammed heard a voice saying “Write.”  Centuries later the Book of Mormon was written out at the dictation of Joseph Smith.  The point is that such texts are often believed to have had sacred origins.  I find Schucman’s reluctance to put herself down as the author of A Course in Miracles instructive.  She didn’t believe she wrote it.  Not to devalue any of these sacred texts mentioned, I would nevertheless note that authors often feel that their words come to them.  Maybe academic books don’t count, but when I’m writing fiction, it’s like somebody’s hands are on the wheel, but I’m not sure I’m the one driving (with apologies to Jeff Daniels).

A Course in Miracles has been translated into double-digits languages, something quite rare even among many bestsellers.  What this says to me is that people still crave answers from an authoritative text.  The written word has a power that electronic publication lacks.  Who wants to point to a screen and say, “this is divinely revealed truth”?  Hefting a heavy book, printed on actual paper, has a symbolic power that outweighs that of ebooks.  Probably it’s because the Bible paved the way.  We’re already primed for a sacred text, in physical form.  The longer I study holy books the clearer it becomes that they will unlikely ever cease to be written.  Helen Schucman didn’t have the last word.  As long as people write it’s doubtful anyone ever will.


Suddenly Spring

Maybe it’s just a sign of passing years, but spring seems much more sudden to me now.  One day I’m wearing multiple layers and shivering in the mornings and the next day I need to take a machete to the lawn for its first mowing.  Those weeds along the fence, which weren’t there a day ago—I swear!—are now two feet tall and aching for an appointment with the weed whacker.  I mean, the snow shovel’s still on the porch.  When did this happen?  How did we go from brown grass to sprouting trees of heaven just overnight?  I haven’t had time to build up my calluses yet for pushing the lawn mower (we have the environmentally friendly kind, powered by naught but human effort).  Morpheus was right, I guess.

This past week was so unexpectedly busy that I haven’t had time to stop and muse over some important happenings.  My current project, Nightmares with the Bible, involves trying to sort out The Conjuring universe, and I wanted to reflect on the passing of Lorraine Warren.  Her obituary in the New York Times  by Neil Genzlinger was surprisingly respectful.  Whether or not she was really onto something, people in general seem to believe she and Ed were sincere in their convictions.  There are those who claim they were charlatans, but those who perpetrate hoaxes tend to leave telltale signs.  Those who claim they couldn’t have experienced the paranormal because there’s no supernatural to experience are entitled to their opinions, of course.  Being tolerant of those who see differently, however, has never been more important.

The natural cycles of the earth never fail to surprise me.  Supernatural or not, the explosion of life following one warm, wet week is nothing shy of astounding.  I walked around to the seldom visited north side of the house to find a veritable jungle that wasn’t there just the week before.  Staring at the flowers and weeds, I can’t help but think of the hackneyed phrase “pushing up daisies.”  Much happened this past week.  The mower was oiled up and played the grim reaper to the grasses and other plants of my neglected yard.  Life, as Jurassic Park (which my lawn resembles) teaches, is persistent.  I never met or in any way corresponded with the Warrens, but I feel that in some sense I have gotten to know them.  And just yesterday it still felt like winter.


Science of Compassion

It has been several years now since I’ve been directly (or indirectly) involved in robotics.  During my daughter’s high school years I was active in the FIRST Robotics program, spending some week nights and many weekends supporting the kids—far more clever than me—building and competing with the robot.  It was during this time that I came to know some of the mentors involved.  They knew I was looking for a job in a field not their own.  Instead of wringing their hands like my professorial colleagues did, they made concrete suggestions as to how to go about finding a reasonable position.  Unlike many religion professors, they were willing to go out of their way to help.  It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.  A somewhat well-known religious leader is known for having said “by their fruits you will know them.”  So it is.

One of these friends recently sent me a New York Times story about a disabled toddler.  Because of our government’s very compassion health care system, this boy was denied access to a wheelchair.  When the local high school robotics team learned about it they designed and built a motorized chair for the boy.  Again, my point couldn’t be more obvious.  This team did what was the right thing.  They didn’t stand around saying the family would be in their thoughts and prayers.  No, they did something about it.  While the story made me feel good, it also saddened me.  I’ve been part of the religious studies community for at least three decades now.  When I lift up mine eyes to the hills, however, whence cometh my help?

Please don’t get me wrong—I know probably better than most how difficult life and funding can be as a humanities academic.  I also know, however, that humanities are nothing without humanity.  How easy it is to forget that when a tenure-track position opens up!  There are creative solutions possible.  I have suggested them to those empowered to enact them from time to time.  Their response has generally been to explain why it can’t be done rather than giving it the old college try.  In robotics you try to see if it works before deciding it can’t.  Perhaps there’s a message here for those who hear.  Engineers find solutions while many academics find excuses.  There’s any number of reasons not to help the boy get a wheelchair: somebody’s going to have to pay for this, there are other things that demand the students’ time, there are government agencies who already do the work.  Or.  You can try because it’s the right thing to do.  Whose fruit tastes better, I wonder?


Giving a Hand

A friend sent me a news story that really spoke to me.  A bookstore in England, forced to move because of rent, asked for volunteers to help move their stock to a new storefront.  The response?  They had to start turning people away after 250.  A human chain was formed to pass books down by hand to their new home.  Book people, it seems to me, are like that.  I spent a recent weekend looking at downtown Easton—one of the triplet cities that make up “the Valley” (Allentown and Bethlehem being the other two).  Surprisingly, I found two used book stores within blocks of each other.  The proprietors (especially of the first) were friendly and helpful.  They were book people.

I mentioned to said first proprietor that two of the books I was buying were to replace copies ruined during our move.  The look of alarm and sympathy on her face was genuine.  Book people know that look.  They can feel each other’s pain.  They will freely give of their time to hold knowledge in their hands, if only briefly, to pass it along to others.  Now, like most bookish people, I’m aware that I’m considered odd by the average guy who enjoys sports, mechanical stuff, and money.  I’m content with a book, either reading or writing, and the occasional foray out among the more active and boisterous.  I like to think that if I lived in Southampton I’d have given up a vacation day to help out.  Saving books is saving civilization.

Book people know there’s more to life than themselves.  Ironically, such readers are often quiet and sometimes thought to be stuck up.  If you go to help move books by hand, I suspect that gives the lie to feeling above other people.  Reading is thought of as a passive activity, but it makes the mind more active.  There’s a reason our species have large brains.  It’s not that all books are for everyone—I’ve had plenty of disappointments in my reading life—but the unread book is full of potential energy.  And often that already read rewards us when we turn back to it.  Books, you see, are the ultimate givers.  Those who sell them may make a profit, but the return on investment tends to be quite high for the buyer.  If you have to move and you hire a moving company chances are they’ll complain about your books.  You’re better off asking book people for an unstinting hand.


Faithism

Religion, in general, has come upon hard times. Many proponents of science and secularism point disparagingly toward what is, in all likelihood, one of religion’s strengths: its utter diversity. The fact is all people are believers. No amount of denial will change that. Whether the belief is in science or magic, we all take things as true, based on our outlook. My wife recently forwarded me a story about Faithism from the New York Times. A religion built around the Oahspe Bible, written about the same time as the Book of Mormon, Faithism very nearly went extinct before undergoing a modest revival in the present day. Instead of casting aspersions on it, a far better approach is to consider the basic, underlying human element to the movement.

Faithism was based on a book written by a dentist, a one John Ballou Newbrough. Although I’d never hear of Newbrough before, I can make a safe assumption about him—he was struggling with trying to understand a supernatural that can’t be measured or tested. This same element applies to scientists. Measurables have to leave at least a physical trace. Millennia ago, religions were already claiming that outside this mortal coil there was an entire realm that we could experience with our feelings but which would never offer any physical confirmation. There’s a pretty obvious difference between the living and the dead (at least to most people). Since nothing measurable changes at human death, it must be something incorporeal. Scientists begin to shake their heads here, but even they must face it some day.

The other takeaway from Faithism is that spiritual writings, like tiny particulate matter in clouds, can lead to the coalescence of something larger. Orally based religions, such as Zoroastrianism, seldom survive long. (Zoroastrianism, however, had very compelling ideas.) Written texts, once believed to be inspired, will naturally grow like a pearl over a grit of sand. The factuality of the text doesn’t matter, as long as it is the object of belief. When it rains, it pours. Some architects of new religious movements, such as L. Ron Hubbard, perhaps implicitly know that. While his science fiction may not have been inspired, his religious texts were. Unlike Scientology, science requires objective measures of what it considers reality. The title of Faithism, however, makes a trenchant point—it is belief in faith, like fear of fear itself, that makes religion. While historically few have believed in Faithism, even atheists have faith in what they don’t believe.


Ancient Perspectives

Around the holiday season, on social media, stories relating to the Bible tend to pop up. When my wife mentioned a New York Times story about “Gabriel’s Revelation” on the second day of Christmas, I was suspicious. The story, which was nearly a decade old—the internet keeps things in circulation far longer than those old library tomes consisting of physical newspapers bound together—describes the unprovenanced inscription as predicting a messiah will rise after being dead for three days. I assumed this meant evangelicals would be overjoyed, but it turns out that the artifact, if authentic, predates the New Testament. That means that it can’t be traditionally ascribed as a prophecy, since it’s not in the Bible, and therefore it becomes a threat because it suggests Jesus’ story isn’t unique.

Image credit: The Telegraph, from Wikimedia Commons

This is an interesting dynamic. A potentially important ancient artifact can only have value if it’s in the Bible or proves the Bible “true.” When that happens the faithful crow about how the evangelical position was right all along. If such a document implies that the gospels were borrowing from widespread cultural assumptions, however, it becomes just another unimportant bit of junk from days gone by. Confirmation bias, of course, is something in which we all indulge. Nobody likes being wrong. The difference is that the scholar is obliged to admit when the evidence overthrows his or her position. New options have to be considered.

Since I was between jobs in 2008 when the inscription was announced, it escaped my notice. Now that nine years have settled the dust a bit, there seems to be no sustained case for declaring Gabriel’s Revelation a forgery. Neither does it appear to have changed Christianity at all. The period known as that of Second Temple Judaism has shown itself to have been rich in messianic expectations. We know little, historically speaking, of Jesus of Nazareth. We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that some were expecting a messiah along the lines of what Jesus was said to have been. But those documents aren’t part of the magical book that contains the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In as far as they back the Bible up, they are celebrated. When they call the Good Book into question, they are rejected. I have no idea whether Gabriel’s Revelation is authentic or not. It seems pretty clear, however, that a faith that’s based on one unquestioned source might be more fragile than even other artifacts that have managed to survive, somehow, from ancient times.