Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A View of the "First Cause"

The "First Cause"--the question of who or what made our present universe--is cherished by religionists as the ultimate putdown argument against those whose paradigm does not include an all-knowing, all-powerful Deity. Here we offer an alternate way of thinking about that alleged First Cause. To some people it may sound as if we are only examining an age-old fallacy and criticizing fundamentalist religionists who take their paradigm as "gospel" fact; but clearly it's time for an objective look at a cultural assumption.
We are not fundamentalists, not even Wiccan fundamentalists.*1 We believe in letting the inquiring mind fly free, and we look for explanations that satisfy a rational paradigm without insulting human intelligence.
Several years ago we came across a felicitous construct in Free Inquiry magazine. For our present purpose we have expanded it :
Let's think about the rail line that runs across Australia's Nullarbor Plain, perfectly flat and perfectly straight from Watson to Coonana for over 500 miles. Let's imagine that at the western end there stands a very large domino, beautifully and intricately carved and painted. Let's imagine that this exquisite domino represents the universe*2 in all its complexity as we know it today. As we move eastward the dominos standing on the line get gradually smaller and less complex until, millions of dominos later, we arrive at the eastern end of the line with the tiniest domino imaginable. The progression from the eastern start point to the big western domino represents the passage of time and the evolution of everything from time before the questionable Big Bang to the present.
The infinitely tiny first domino, perhaps a sub-sub-atomic particle or waveform, is such a weightless speck that the merest presence of a thought will knock it down. It is so small that even if it had tried to interfere with the later dominos, it would have had no discernible or perceptible effect. It could therefore not intervene to make positive or negative changes in the later larger dominos. Yet it causes a domino cascade. Thus the First Cause may have been something so amazingly insignificant as to be immaterial to our present thoughts and life. Many may say that this is just another manifestation of the Infinite Mind that created that universe. Alternatively mathematical philosophers, noting the vagaries of time, are wondering about its cyclical nature and proposing a never-ending cycle of existence. Regrettably, that only puts the First Cause back in time.
We can see that as everything evolves, so the dominos get larger. Each domino gets more complex moving westward toward today, which is an almost infinite time after the beginning.
There are many side branches along the rail line. Some have other dominos coming in to augment the evolution of the main line; at others, dominos have branched off to go their own way. Those moved into the adjacent-possible solutions and petered out. At still others, dominos lived on and devolved back into forms less advanced. Still others went around a loop, developed, and rejoined the main line. The possibilities are endless.
What if the junctions also allowed other lines of dominos from different start points and with slightly different characteristics to join the main line? Many possible--nay, probable--solutions could have been tried until the right combination occurred.
"Aha!" the fundamentalist pounces in that triumphhant "gotcha" tone. "But you forget : the First Cause was not all that long ago! And besides that, a train coming along the line could smash all your dominos down!"
Indeed, we have seen times when many of the dominos were smashed. Haiti is just a recent small-scale example. This might explain how our particular universe--the one some call a Goldilocks universe--to come to its present fruition. We live on a Goldilocks planet, they say : not too hot, not too cold, so far just right.
Scientists tell us that six critical numbers define our whole of the universe;*3 that if any one of those numbers were different, the Universe as we know it could not exist. Of course that is not to claim that other universes do not exist where the numbers are slightly different.
Thus, although we may need a First Cause, it has certain (possibly overlooked) characteristics:
1. It could be infinitely tiny, a slight discontinuity in the void.
2. There could be several first causes.
3. There could have been many attempts that failed.
4. It has no power to change the present universe in any way. Indeed, it must surely be indifferent if it is anything.
In her girlish way Yvonne tells the story of Mother Jehovah doing the supper dishes in her kitchen while loud banging and an occasional small explosion are audible through the open basement door, along with the customary noises and smells that accompany woodwork, metalwork, and chemistry. She sniffs the air, dries her hands, and advances to the basement door to call, "Will you stop already with all your precious trial universes, for pity's sake?! You're smoking up my clean curtains! And the cat's spooked! hiding under the bed again!"
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*1. Fundamentalism is synonymous with the dominator mind-set : "Believe this or else!"
*2. We should more correctly say multiverse, for we know there are many universes. But today we'll stick with the conventional jargon.
*3. Rees, Martin, "Six Sacred Numbers"

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Devolution of Spirituality

We can imagine that when our remote ancestors explored their universe in the distant past, they recognized the beauty and (if you like) the spirituality of certain places. Other places grew to be perceived as dangerous. They learned that edible plants grew better in certain areas than in other areas. They learned that water from a specific spring was better for their health than any other water. Thus both positive ("sacred") and negative ("tabu") places developed in the clan's shared heritage. It was but a short step, then, to the appointment of someone to tend such areas. Whatever the criteria for selection, gradually that person(s) became the shamans of the site and of the tribe. *1
Many abrahamic religionists deride the ancient ways and the spirituality of the older cultures. Fashionable moderns tend to think of the older cultures as deprived; indeed, early folk lived without many of the attributes (both positive and negative) of a modern technology-driven society that has lost most of its humanistic sensibilities. We often refer people to Sir Arthur Evans and his description of the Mycenaean civilization he found in the eastern Mediterranean:
"It represents a civilized refinement that has not been equaled since : which I would like to fix firmly in place, by way of a challenge to the high claims of those proudly phallic moral orders, whether circumcised or uncircumcised, that were to follow ... There were no walled cities in Crete before the coming of the Greeks. There is little evidence of weapons. Battle scenes of kingly conquest play no role in the setting of the style. The tone is of general luxury and delight, a broad participation by all classes in a genial atmosphere of well-being, and the vast development of a profitable commerce by sea, to every port of the archaic world and even--boldly--to regions far beyond."
Personally we think that the world he uncovered sounds a lot better than our present world.
From various studies of early cultures such as that at Catal Huyuk (in present-day Turkey) and the Vinca culture in what Gimbutas calls Old Europe*2 and even the later Cretan studies, it is clear that many of the shamans were women. Then came the axial age, when the nomadic horse herders of the steppes, with their male-dominance paradigm and their sky gods, overran those benign cultures. Shamanic power became vested solely in the male; male deities forcibly replaced the earlier female forms. The power of the shaman was dramatically increased, and the old spiritual site became the center for the new religion. The very word religion comes from binding, and we see how people were bound into obedience.
Those male gods seem to have been associated mainly with negative sites where the local god had to be appeased with various kinds of sacrifices or offerings. We see this most clearly in the continuity of the volcano god Jehovah. Unfortunately he retained aspects of his origin, becoming the master negative juju of the gods. Jehovah is well summarized by Richard Dawkins, Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University :
"The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction : jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sado-masochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."*3
It is an interesting mind-exercise to speculate why the ladies gave up their power. The transition didn't happen easily. But when agriculture and settled farms became the norm, the stronger males controlled the distribution of food; to protect their children and to gain access to that food, the women became subservient. The loudest and meanest (males) overran everything peacable that had gone before. Even today that status quo exists--although there are encouraging signs that in countries with a high standard of living and, would you believe, state-run health care, the women are beginning to look to the more gentle males for a mate.*4

This very brief story of how we got to where we are shows how spirituality devolves into religion, which then devolves into a controlling threat system. In Wicca we reject that devolution. We prefer to go looking for the spiritual and for the sites where we feel at one with the universe. We recognize that named gods and goddesses are generally either the names of tribal leaders or of ancient tenders of shrines, human beings who have posthumously grown legends and through campfire retellings have become heroes and then gods.
These are all constructs of the human mind and have only human types of energy. Divine they ain't.
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*1 It is unfortunate that the earlier word shama has become shaman. The -man ending is not masculine; it's just, shall we say, a dialect form of the earlier word. Nonetheless English-speakers may have a natural tendency to think of a shaman as a male and of the plural form as shamen. Wrong. Shaman is not gender-specific, and the plural form is shamans. Take it from Yvonne, the obsessive word-freak.
*2 Gimbutas, Marija "Language of the Goddess", Thames and Hudson, New York 1989
*3 Dawkins, Richard "The God Delusion", Bantam, New York 2006
*4 Wall Street Journal March 27, 2010 "The Masculine Mystique"

Friday, April 9, 2010

Our Job Here Is Not Done

Yvonne and I come from two entirely different family backgrounds : she from a fundamentalist Baptist family, and I from what might best be called a default agnostic family. Our childhoods were very different : her family was poor, whereas Gavin's was what might be described as upper middle-class--certainly what the French call confortable or aisi. She was expected to go to the Baptist church regularly for her dose of piety and guilt; he went, though rarely, to the handiest Anglican franchise for marryin's, buryin's, and harvest festivals. In fact Gavin's Welsh grandfather was so anti-Christian that he didn't want his descendants walking down a street with a church of any denomination in it.
When we two came together in the 1960s, we found a common ground of understanding : the civilization we lived in was broken and was getting worse. Yes, we are of an older generation than many of you; and many of you seem to think that we don't understand that good Christian homes can be friendly and nurturing. We deny that we are carrying scars that Christianity inflicted on us in childhood. In fact, a child of today gets more scars than we were ever likely to experience. We decided that a new religion--a new spiritual path--was sorely needed--a path of freedom and of spirituality but one that recognized the possibilities inherent in belief structures encompassing both (a) an unknowable Ultimate Deity and (b) what the Welsh called hearth gods and goddesses (Latin lares and penates). The key was freedom from rigid fundamentalism of any stripe. In our minds, fundamentalism means a group (affiliated with one of a variety of conventional religions) with a set of rigid dominator rules that are enforced through peer pressure or through actual physical punishment and through guilt, shame, and fear.
We know many of you were raised in happy, supportive homes--but many others were not. For those scarred souls who are still in pain and don't know why they hurt, we articulate these thoughts.
To paraphrase Richard Dawkins, we two sought Evidence for spiritual belief, declining to base our ideas on Authority, Revelation, or Tradition. (Thank you, St. Richard!)
Unfortunately, some people assumed that Wicca and Witchcraft traditions were inherently fundamentalist. Thus in Wicca today we have a giant split. When people think they have left conventional paths behind--but carry over the dominator mindset into their "new" beliefs without examining their assumptions, they make Witchcraft into just one more package of rigidity. A big thumbs-down to that!
The only way this split can be healed is through honest debate, through honest, objective examination of "tenets" and "principles". The way to heal that split is to join forces with other like-minded people to battle the fundamentalist rape of the world and soon of the universe. And healing is what we need, if the Craft and the Community are to survive the relentless, pervasive, well-funded, creative 24/7 water torture of conventional fundamentalists.
Let us quote from Thomas Flynn, editor of the magazine Free Inquiry (800) 458-1366) :
"You and I are currently under an attempted psychological siege by fundamentalist religious control fanatics. The world is under assault today--more than at any time in the last 70 years--by religious extremists who invoke their particular notion of God to try controlling how we think, what we read, what our kids are taught in every class from civics to science, how we vote, and even when and with whom our nation goes to war.
"The rise of hatred-encouraging, fear-inducing propaganda in best-selling 'Christian literature.' Fundamentalist leaders like preacher/novelist Tim LaHaye are preparing readers for the emergence of 'the Anti-Christ,' preparatory to the eventual destruction of the world. Nor is fundamentalist-encouraged hatred limited to Christian fundamentalists. Muslim clerics have issued a fatwa against one of our contributing editors, a genuinely ominous event in southern Asia, where this editor then lived."
We are going to risk Bertrand Russell one more time with his immortal words :
"Religion prevents our children from having a rational education; religion prevents us from removing the fundamental causes of war; religion prevents us from teaching the ethic of scientific cooperation in place of the old fierce doctrines of sin and punishment. It is possible that mankind is on the threshold of a golden age; but, if so, it will be necessary first to slay the dragon that guards the door, and this dragon is religion."
Please, please, Gentle Readers, wake up and smell the outhouse! We are in the hands of, and at the mercy of, fundamentalists who care little for human pain and suffering, and apparently could not care less for the fate of this planet.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Salvation ?

This recent Easter, we have been inundated by presentations on something that people call salvation. In Europe such topics are called the "lollipop" gift. The lollipop in question is the sweetie given to children who behave in a tidy manner. Early on, "Church" rulers must have realized that continuous threat systems didn't work, so they needed some sucker--some lollipop--as a reward for "good" behavior; that is, for marching in lock step. Good behavior here means acceptance of the paradigm decreed from On High to keep everybody accountable for every gesture, every thought, and every moment of their time--no unauthorized thoughts, no unauthorized deeds.
Then they came up with a brilliant scheme : "We'll sell you indulgences that give you automatic salvation." Boy! Any snake-oil salesman would have loved it. Hold the huge threat of hell over the masses, then tell them, "For a few dollars you can get this patent medicine that will get you out of it." Of course those untidy ones among us who don't believe in a place called hell naturally don't need indulgences--and of course that meant less income to the Church. Such skeptical thoughts had to be stamped or burned out.
Eastern religions didn't sell indulgences as such, but they had an equivalent threat system. In that version, you would come back as a loathly beast if you didn't toe the mark. By the way, you could buy candles, give food, or even buy little birds that would be set free ; you could go on pilgrimages, and do a thousand and one other things that would let you step outside the boundaries at will and still be reincarnated at a respectable level, maybe even as a prince or a shah.
It is interesting to look up the original derivation of hell . It comes from "to hide or cover up". Maybe the grave was intended here--but the grave is no inferno ; so the grave on its own would not do as a threat system. It had to be ratcheted up with fires and tortures.
Another threat in some of today's thinking on reincarnation is that hell is actually living on the earthplane in the totally screwed up culture with which we are all so familiar. So if you don't complete your assignments in this incarnation, you will have to come back and live here--in hell--again.

By the way, one and all, we are going to Tampa on April 24 and will be at the Tampa Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship to attend Sunday service on April 25. Too, we will address the CUUPS* group through that same fellowship on Monday April 26. From there we go on to FPG (Florida Pagan Gathering).
See and
Blessed be those who investigate options. Gavin and Yvonne
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*Covenant of Unitarian-Universalist Pagan ... somethings (Services?)