A view of the world from my own unique perspective

Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

He Never Reigns In Southern California

OK, perhaps “never” may be overstating things a bit – rarely or seldom might be better choices – but I couldn’t resist making a musical reference.

A few weeks ago, I was in San Diego for a conference. After I retired to my hotel room for the evening, and was getting ready for bed, I thought to myself “In this increasingly secular age, do the Gideons still place Bibles in hotel rooms?” There was only one way to find out… I pulled open the drawer of the bedside table, and there it was!

Bible

Not only was there a Bible, it was an actual Gideon’s Bible!

I’m not a particularly religious person, and I’m certainly not someone who is likely to spend an evening reading the Bible. In fact, to paraphrase A.J. Jacobs (the author of The Year Of Living Biblically) “I consider myself a devout Catholic in the same way that The Olive Garden is considered an ‘authentic’ Italian restaurant” :o)

However, I do have an active imagination and an insatiable curiosity for just about everything. As I stared at the good book, I began to wonder… “How many previous hotel guests have read that Bible? Which passages did they choose? Which words contained within these covers offered comfort, solace, hope and inspiration to those who were here before me?” While I don’t possess any extrasensory abilities, I did remember one trick I learned many years ago: if you want to know which pages of a book have been read the most, place the book on a flat surface, balance it carefully on its spine, and then slowly let go. After a couple of seconds, the book pages will separate at the most-read spot(s).

This trick would be my pre-Internet retro cookie – a low-tech way to surreptitiously track the Bible browsing habits of others. That’s not a sin, is it? I hope not…

It was time to conduct a little experiment! I removed the Bible from the drawer, walked over to a table on the other side of the room, balanced it on its spine very gingerly, and then slowly moved my hands away. This is what it looked like:

Bible On Spine

It remained like this for about 8-9 seconds, before listing to the left, and then finally keeling over. I tried it again, making sure that it was perfectly balanced and perpendicular to the table. I waited expectantly, but witnessed the same disappointing result. Finally I opened the Bible slightly, and (being careful not to bend the spine) gently riffled through the pages, to loosen them a bit. Maybe a little coaxing was needed in order to get them to reveal their secrets. After placing the Bible on the table a third time, the same thing happened. After a few seconds, the entire book simply tipped over.

While my experiment was clearly unscientific, the conclusion seemed obvious: apparently I was the first person to actually open this book. My initial, and decidedly sanctimonious thought was “I can’t believe this! California must be overrun with heathens!

However, the next morning, as I pulled back the curtains, and gazed out the window at the blue skies, sunshine, palm trees, joggers and dog-walkers, my attitude changed. I now thought “Actually, this is starting to make sense. I don’t need to read about the paradise described in this book… I’m already in paradise!

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We Are Worshipping The Wrong God

The top news story across the country this week is the raging wildfire that was encroaching upon and is now consuming Fort McMurray, Alberta. The video footage of the fire and of those affected is both horrific and heartbreaking. Thousands of people have been evacuated and may have nothing to return to. Hundreds have already lost their homes and as of this writing the fire is still spreading; more than 200,000 hectares have already been destroyed.

Fire 1

Television reporters have described the devastation as hellish and even apocalyptic, with the burned-out areas compared to a war zone. This fire is now so enormous that it can be seen from space.

Fire From Space

As I was watching the news coverage on television, it seemed as though I was staring right into the very bowels of hell itself. At that moment, I had a religious (or more accurately, a secular) epiphany. If I may quote Leonard Bernstein, it “all came together in one luminous revelation”: we are worshipping the wrong God.

There is another god who has been in the vicinity for just as long – one whom we should be worshipping – but we’ve been so pre-occupied with our God v1.0 that we’ve failed to notice what was right in front of us. Therefore, I’d like to propose that we elevate Mother Nature to a similar God-like status and then start worshipping her as our new deity.

I admit this sounds like a bizarre thing to think while watching the news, but keep in mind that I am looking at the world from The Bob Angle. Allow me to detail my thought process as I contrast our current God with Mother Nature, and then explain why we need to start paying close attention to her.

For 2,000 years, many of us have believed that God first created the universe, and then created the Earth and everything in it for our benefit. In fact, in Genesis 1:28 (KJV), God said that we humans “Have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth… Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree“. It seems reasonable to assume that the more literally you interpret the Bible, the more likely you are to feel that everything around you has been created with you in mind, and that the planet is yours to exploit. To be fair, God didn’t tell us to plunder the Earth’s resources, but one could make the following counter-argument: since the oil beneath the ground used to be animal protoplasm and organic matter, we can do what we like with it, since Genesis 1:28-29 gave us dominion over every animal and every tree.

The problem with this world view is that it’s self-centred, self-serving and ultimately destructive. We are not (in my opinion, anyway) the masters of our domain. We are a decidedly small part of a vast and intricate ecosystem. The reason we are able to exist on this planet is due to the establishment and maintenance of a delicate equilibrium with a relatively narrow temperature range, an abundance of sunlight, oxygen, water, food, and arable land on which to grow food. If we disrupt this equilibrium – much like an asteroid did 66 million years ago – then the Earth will simply establish a new equilibrium which may or may not include Homo sapiens.

The second problem with our current God is His empty threats. He and His son try to keep us with line by threatening us with eternal damnation, but this is really more bombast and posturing than anything else. First of all, this will scare only those who actually believe that hell exists. Secondly, the punishment doesn’t even remotely fit the crime. I will admit that the “eternal” part may initially give one pause, but if you look at it objectively, you’ll realize that it’s utter nonsense. How can one legitimately deserve an infinite punishment for a finite transgression? Thirdly, the punishment doesn’t even begin until after we die. In the meantime, you can live a full, rich life and are still free to behave any way you like until then. With a lag time that could often be more than half a century, we may not always make the connection between hell and the specific behaviour that brought us there. Finally, no one has ever returned from hell (or even purgatory) to tell us what is was like. There are no eyewitnesses and no proof that such a place even exists. As a behavioural modification technique, I think it’s pretty ineffectual.

The third difficulty we’re facing is that our current God is a passive deity. Some of my outwardly religious friends believe that God is hovering over their shoulder, 24/7, and giving them continual guidance. However, I disagree; I think that God is following His own version of Star Trek’s Prime Directive. We’re all pretty much free to do whatever we like without any divine intervention, including polluting our planet until it becomes uninhabitable. Unfortunately, as a species, we’re not quite mature enough to govern ourselves yet – we’re still too inward-looking. What we need is a no-nonsense, hands-on deity; one that won’t hesitate to let us know when we’re engaging in self-destructive behaviour or otherwise behaving foolishly.

Interestingly, we’ve already touched upon this “deifying nature” idea a couple of times already with Gaia in Greek mythology and Terra in Roman mythology, but there wasn’t really much traction with either of them.

Mother Nature has always been characterized as a friendly and benevolent personification of nature: a kind lady who created for us, a beautiful planet with an abundance of resources – full of everything we need to live, eat, drink, and flourish. In fact, the only fleeting glimpse we’ve seen of her malevolent side was during a commercial for Chiffon margarine, when she warned us “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature”.

That is, until now… as I was watching the graphic news coverage of the Fort McMurray wildfire, I realized that Mother Nature has a darker side – a side that is revealed to us only when her life-giving gifts are being squandered and destroyed.

Unlike God, Mother Nature doesn’t make empty threats. After seeing the extent to which we’ve been polluting and poisoning our home – her gift to us – she makes her wrath known in a more immediate and pragmatic way: she creates an actual fire & brimstone version of hell, and places it right on our planet. God merely threatens to send us to hell after we die; Mother Nature brings hell right to our doorstep… and if that wasn’t enough, she then proceeds to consume our homes and destroy all of our material possessions with the hellfire she spawned. Memories accumulated over a lifetime, items of immense sentimental value – all reduced to ashes. This isn’t some ethereal theoretical concept – this is real, immediate and devastating.

Fire Aftermath

As I was watching the news, one reporter said “It was the perfect storm. Global climate change is creating conditions that will spawn intense, unstoppable wildfires like these more frequently in the future“. This is our wake-up call. We have pillaged the land and polluted the seas. We have extracted organic resources from the ground and then polluted the air as we burned them. Now Mother Nature is saying “You are destroying the home I created for you, and acting as if you’re the only ones who live here. I tried to give you a gentle warning by raising the global temperatures, but not enough of you were paying attention. In fact a large number of you were even in denial. Now it’s time to dial things up a bit and tap into your collective fear of hell and eternal damnation. Rather than simply reading about it, perhaps it’s time for you to see hell up close.”

One news source stated that only the weather can stop this inferno; extinguishing it is now beyond our collective firefighting capability. This is a truly horrifying statement because Mother Nature is essentially humbling us by explaining “This isn’t a run-of-the-mill forest fire – I have conjured up hell itself and brought it to Earth. There is nothing you can do to extinguish these flames. Only I possess enough power to call it off.”

I think it behooves us all to make a perceptual shift in our ecclesiastical world view and consider the deification of Mother Nature – a hands-on, no-nonsense taskmistress who will not hesitate to give us the biggest smack-down of our lives. It’s a discomfiting hypothesis, but it may be the observational adjustment that we all need in order to continue living our pleasant life on this planet.

Tonight, turn on your television, watch the news and then stare into the very pit of hell itself. Mother Nature is our new god, and she is badass…

Fire 2

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The Utility Of Humility

I remember reading a comic strip a number of years ago. Two people were waiting patiently at the gates of heaven, while St. Peter was leafing through his large book. Finally, St. Peter looked up and said “I’m afraid that we have space for only one more person, so to help me decide who gets in, I would like you to answer this question: Which of you two is the most humble?”.

This Catch-22 scenario reminded me of the utter confusion I had often experienced during my Catholic elementary school religion classes. In my blog post The Generosity Coefficient, I lamented that my while my religion teachers used to recite a plethora of Bible verses, they didn’t do a particularly good job of explaining what they meant or how they might apply to us. This comic strip reminded me of another one of their pronouncements – Matthew 5:5 “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” As a child, this one also didn’t make much sense to me. It was actually counter-intuitive because this was the 1970s – a time when schoolyard bullying meant more than mere verbal taunting or name-calling – there were also threats of physical violence. Being meek was not a wise strategy for me or for any of my classmates, and it certainly wouldn’t get one very far in my world.

Another related verse that I heard in church quite regularly was “He who is humbled shall be exalted”. Our priest never elaborated on this one, which frustrated me. In hindsight, I should have approached him afterwards and asked him to clarify what it meant. Everyone else in the congregation seemed quite content, as if they understood all of its nuances.

Exalted

I decided that it was time to revisit this verse and find out exactly what was being promised to us. After Googling some online Bibles and doing a few text searches, I discovered that this verse appears many times, in slightly different ways. Here are some examples:

Matthew 23:12: And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled: and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.
James 4:10: Be humbled in the sight of the Lord, and He will exalt you.
Peter 5:6: Be you humbled therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in the time of visitation.

To me, these verses all seem to be counter-intuitive. First of all, if you are a genuinely humble person, then why would you want to be exalted? This advice appeals only to those who are narcissistic or otherwise ego-driven in their behaviour. In another one of the many ironies I’ve discovered in the Bible, the above verses seem to be directed toward those who suffer from hubris. Hubris is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and according to Wikipedia, it’s the the original and most serious of them all. In my opinion, genuine humility requires no ulterior motive; people should be humble because it’s simply a good way to conduct oneself.

Secondly, as we age, we become wiser and more mature (well, most of us, anyway). In general, we become less inward-looking and more outward-looking. We focus less on ourselves, our social position, the accumulation of material goods or what other people think of us, and we concentrate more on helping others and giving back to society. I think it’s safe to say that those nearing the end of their lives probably don’t care much about being exalted.

When can we expect to be exalted? The first two quotes don’t give a timeline, but the last one says “in the time of visitation”. What could that mean? I decided to look up Peter 5:6 on the Bible Study Tools web site, which provides dozens of interpretations and translations of this verse, and it was very vague. That phrase was interpreted as “at the right time”, “in due time”, “at the proper time” or “in His own good time”. Not particularly helpful…

Personally, I envision two possibilities: God will either exalt you while you’re here on Earth, or after you get to heaven (I assume that those who are on their way to hell are on their own). As far as I know, no human (other than Jesus) has ever been exalted by God – if so, then the media would have been all over this story. Therefore, it’s unlikely that we will receive our reward while we’re still here on Earth. I also asked a few of my friends what they thought these verses meant to them, and their answers were fairly uniform: “Be humble now, and God will exalt you when you get to heaven”. Given the lack of any exalted people here on Earth, this seems like a reasonable interpretation.

It sounds like someone wants to ensure that we remain humble during our entire lives, by promising us a reward – at an unspecified time, but more than likely after we die – that appeals to our ego. Yet another intangible dangling carrot…

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And now, The Bob Angle… these verses do not deliver the right message. Yes, humility is a noble character trait, but one mustn’t say “be humble and you’ll be exalted after you die”. Not all of us are able to embrace the concept of delayed gratification. If you want proof, then just look at the popularity of scratch-off lottery tickets – there is a segment of the population that can’t even wait until Saturday night’s lottery draw for their reward. What Matthew, James and Peter should have said instead was “be humble, and you’ll be rewarded immediately and often”. Not only will more people respond to it, that’s also how society actually works, and I can prove it with these examples:

It’s no secret why Pope Francis is the most popular and beloved popes in recent memory. Despite his ascribed status, he is a genuinely humble man who remains unaffected by his new station in life. Immediately after the papal conclave, he went back to his hotel to pay his bill. Afterwards, Francis declined to live in the papal apartments, and chose to live at a residence for visiting clergy, the decidedly more modest Casa Santa Marta, and eat in the communal dining room.

Pope Washing Feet

One the the things I admire most about Popes is the ceremony in which they wash their parishoners’ feet. They may lead a rarefied existence, but this act of humility brings them back down to earth, and raises their profile immensely for me.

Prince William Cleaning Toilet

Prince William seems to be one of the most popular members of the royal family. While it may be his good looks, I think it’s because he doesn’t exist in a proverbial ivory tower. He seems to be more in touch with ordinary people. In 2009, William spent a night on the streets, living as a homeless person would, in order to experience first-hand, how indigent people live. In 2000 during a charity expedition to Chile, the prince was treated like everyone else in his group, which meant physical labour and even cleaning toilets.

Root Beer MugTom Hanks was a guest on The Tonight Show a few years ago, and told Jay Leno about a particularly enjoyable Friday night – he and his wife stayed in and watched movies. This A-list celebrity explained this very ordinary evening in great detail. He and his wife love to drink root beer while watching movies; they like to drink it out of large glass mugs (like the ones used at A&W) and they always put the mugs in the freezer first so that they are frosted. While many celebrities enjoy showing off their ostentation lifestyle, Tom Hanks brings himself down to the lifestyle of his audience by describing something completely ordinary and easily attainable.

Add Friend ButtonFacebook has two classes of user accounts: Standard and Public Figure. You can follow a public figure and see their posts on your news feed, but you can’t send them a friend request or (in most cases) send them a private message or post anything on their wall. Science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer and former Ontario Premier Bob Rae are two people who impress me with their humility. Both are very well-known in their field, have illustrious careers and are most certainly public figures, yet they each have standard Facebook accounts. If you look at their Facebook home pages, you’ll see a green “Add Friend” button. I like this, because it demonstrates that they don’t feel above anyone else, despite their fame and success. Of course, this might also be because people called Robert (or Bob) are just naturally humble, decent and down-to-earth… :o)

Twitter - Dalai Lama

A few years ago, I decided to follow the Dalai Lama’s Twitter account. A few minutes after I did, the following e-mail appeared in my Inbox “The Dalai Lama is now following you on Twitter!”. This is one of my favourite e-mail messages, and I still can’t bring myself to delete it. Yes, I know that it was probably sent by an automated script, and I doubt that his Holiness is actually reading my tweets, but the sentiment is significant: if I am interested in what the Dalai Lama has to say, then he is willing to return the favour and listen to me. Years later, I still remember this humble gesture.

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You’re probably thinking “These examples are fine if you’re a famous person, but I’m just an ordinary guy (or gal). What could I possibly do to demonstrate humility?”

Be respectful toward others. Politeness and common courtesy are really acts of humility. I’m sure that you, while driving, have often encountered kids and teenagers on skateboards who simply roll through intersections without any consideration for the other vehicles. This also applies to cyclists who seem to think that stop signs don’t apply to them; there are even pedestrians who simply walk right across a busy four-way intersection without breaking their stride. As a pedestrian, I watch the other cars carefully and always wait my turn before crossing the road. However, what I’ve often noticed is that drivers will often wave me through, even if I’ve arrived at the intersection a couple of seconds before they did. Even if I’m not waved through, the other drivers often give me “the wave” as they make their turn or drive across the intersection. When I show respect for the driver by waiting to cross, I am often rewarded by that driver who either gives a wave of appreciation, or often allows me to cross first.

In my blog post Keep Looking Up, I suggested that we should all start associating with people who are smarter than we are. We will initially feel a sense of humility or even inadequacy, but we will eventually be rewarded with an abundance of new ideas, points of view, information, knowledge and wisdom that we wouldn’t otherwise have acquired from our current circle of friends.

Chores 1

Chores 2

Men – help out around the house. Offer to do less-than-glamourous chores, such as cleaning the bathroom, washing the dishes, vacuuming, or the laundry. You may think that these are thankless tasks, but on more than one occasion, I’ve read Facebook posts by several women who said that the sexiest thing their husband or boyfriend can do is wash the dishes.

HTML CodeIf you’re a programmer, then embrace your bugs and compiler errors. Yes, they are frustrating, time-consuming and often confounding, but they force us to dig deeper into the code and do additional research. Personally, I learn a great deal when I am faced with an error or some unexpected behaviour in my programs. At first I’m a little disappointed that my programming skills weren’t what I thought, but as I work through the code, I learn much more about the language, and the idiosyncrasies of the operating system and the computer than I did before. My humility makes me a (slightly) better programmer.

There you have it – be modest and unassuming now, and enjoy the adulation immediately. If you don’t expect to be exalted until “the time of visitation”, then it is more likely that you won’t notice or appreciate the way people are treating you right now, in their reactions to your humble behaviour.

What God Said To Stephen Fry (Long Version)

On February 1, 2015, Stephen Fry was a guest on Ireland’s RTÉ One television program, The Meaning of Life. The show’s host, Gay Byrne, asked Fry (who is an atheist) “Suppose it’s all true, and you walk up to the Pearly Gates and you are confronted by God. What would Stephen Fry say to Him, Her or It?”.

Stephen Fry Interview

Stephen Fry: “I think I’ll say ‘bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain? That’s what I’d say.”

Gay Byrne: “And you think you’re going to get in, like that?”

Stephen Fry: “No, but I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t want to get in on His terms. They’re wrong. Now, if I died and it was Pluto, Hades, and if it was the 12 Greek gods, then I would have more truckles because the Greeks were… they didn’t pretend not to be human in their appetites, and in their capriciousness and in their unreasonableness. They didn’t present themselves as being all-seeing, all-wise all-kind, all-beneficent. Because the god who created this universe, if it was created by a god, is quite clearly a maniac; utter maniac; totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking Him? What kind of god would do that?”

“Yes, the world is very splendid, but it also has in it, insects whose whole life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. That eats outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable. It’s not just about not believing that there is a God, but on the assumption that there is one, what kind of God is it? It’s perfectly apparent that He is monstrous; utterly monstrous, and deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish Him, your life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living in my opinion.”

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In this creative writing exercise, God attempts to answer Stephen Fry’s questions.

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Stephen, my boy – it’s so good to meet you! Just about everyone else who arrives here falls to their knees as soon as they see me, and they quickly become a quivering, snivelling, incoherent mess. It’s almost impossible to carry on a meaningful conversation. However, I can tell that you’re going to be different. Yes, I already know that you are an ardent atheist, and I can see from your expression that this obviously wasn’t what you were expecting. Don’t worry – I know what you’re thinking, and you didn’t pick the wrong side. Actually, there is no wrong side, but I’ll explain that in more detail a bit later.

Pearly Gates

Let me explain these Pearly Gates. They’re just a prop; they help put our newly-arrived souls at ease, since it’s what many of them expect to see. Of course, they can also be a bit disconcerting for atheists, who assumed that there was nothing beyond their mortal coil. Your friend Stephen Hawking said “An expanding universe does not preclude a creator, but it does place limits on when He might have carried out his job”. That’s actually a pretty good hypothesis.

OK, first things first. I just happened to catch the RTÉ One interview you had with Gay Byrne back in February, 2015. It seems that you have a few things that you wanted to say to me. Don’t worry, I’m not the least bit offended by any of them. You’ve clearly given a lot of serious thought to ecclesiastical topics – much more than most people – and I’ll be glad to address all of your comments.

Let’s start with this one “Because the god who created this universe, if it was created by a god, is quite clearly a maniac; utter maniac; totally selfish.”

To answer the first part of this comment, yes, I am the creator of your universe, or more accurately, I created the initial conditions that allowed a universe to emerge, and then develop. You can think of it as a science experiment… actually, it was more of a proof-of-concept than anything else. In fact, here it is – this is your universe!

Universe

You can rotate it and see things from all angles. I have the ability to zoom in and see not only individual galaxies but individual solar systems, planets and much of the activity on the surface of each planet. To be honest, this universe still needs a bit of tweaking, but I’m pleased with the progress so far. It’s been quite stable, and hasn’t collapsed yet.

Your friend Hawking noted, quite correctly “If the rate of expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have re-collapsed before it ever reached its present size”. I must admit that quite a few of my previous models failed and collapsed almost immediately, but I’ve finally fine-tuned the laws of physics well enough to prevent that from happening. Of course, there are still a few problems with this one, but I’ll go into more detail a bit later. Hawking was also right about multiverses. I often have several universes on the go at any given time. Each one is an entirely self-contained plane of existence, and its inhabitants are blissfully unaware of anything outside it.

You’re probably wondering what to call me. I don’t actually have a name. Humans and other being scattered around the various galaxies have given me quite a number of names, but you can call me whatever you like. If calling me “God” makes you feel at ease, then that’s fine with me.

As for being an utter maniac and totally selfish, I need to explain something that I thought would be obvious to you humans by now. After I created your universe, I simply let it unfold and then watched what happened. I abided by my own version of your Star Trek Prime Directive – non-interference. However, for some unfathomable reason, this is something that so many of you presumably enlightened beings – including hard-core atheists like yourself – have never entertained, or perhaps refuse to acknowledge. Your holy books state that I created you in my own image, and I suppose that did indirectly – I created an environment that eventually allowed humans to emerge – but I didn’t model humans after myself. Besides, humans are still evolving. While you humans were busy proclaiming that they were made in my image, they also created a multitude of gods in their own image; unfortunately, none of them is anything like me, which is why everyone is so utterly astonished when they arrive here for the debriefing.

The reason for this disparity is that your God – the one created and promulgated by many of your Christian religions – is not merely an omnipresent and omniscient god, but one that functions as a proverbial “third parent” to all adherents – one who watches over every individual continually and who guides them through life, as a parent would. I admit it’s a comforting thought – that one is never alone because there is an ethereal guardian present at all times. It’s also a decidedly ego-gratifying thought – being the proverbial apple of the creator’s eye, and assuming that the creator of the universe is taking a personal interest in details of one’s life – but I’m afraid that it’s just not true. I do not “micromanage” your lives; I simple watch everything unfold. You can call it maniacal or selfish if you like, but I call it being completely neutral.

Interestingly, one person who came close to understanding how everything worked was not even a religious leader. It was the American comedian George Carlin. He described the creator of the universe as The Big Electron “It doesn’t punish, doesn’t reward, it doesn’t judge at all. It just is, and so are we… for a little while.”. It’s a great hypothesis: simple, elegant and accurate.

Let’s examine your next comment “We have to spend our life on our knees thanking Him? What kind of god would do that?”

An excellent question! Let me assure you, Stephen, that no thanks is, or ever was, necessary. You’re absolutely right – what kind of god would do that? The notion of a god who is that insecure is ridiculous. Your religious leaders have told you to worship their version of a creator, because they live in fear, and spend their lives under the proverbial Sword of Damocles. I’m sure that they genuinely believe that they are doing everyone a favour by preaching this subservience, but ask yourself this: why would a god be substantially less secure than his creations?

Let me reveal something that almost everyone finds surprising. While watching your universe unfold, one of my pleasures was noting all of the different gods and religions that the various species have created – on your planet and on many others. Over the millennia, you’ve created an impressive number of gods – some more enduring than others, but all very interesting, complex and nuanced characters. There are so many fascinating and disparate points of view – atheism among them – that have been formed in your collective quest to make sense of your surroundings. This bowing down in my presence is just nonsense. Do you really think that I’m going to give preferential treatment to annoying little sycophants? Do you think I can’t see right through that rubbish? In broader terms, is it reasonable to assume that one’s opinion on a single subject – how the universe was formed – is going to determine the ultimate destination of one’s soul? That’s utterly preposterous!

I embrace the multitude of opinions, and I couldn’t care less who spends time worshipping me. In fact, It’s always amusing to meet someone who was ultra-religious or pious back on Earth. They think they have it made, until I tell them “I don’t care how many times you went to your place of worship or how much you prayed during your life – talk is cheap. The only thing that matters to me is what you did, how much you helped others, and how you used your talents to try and make your world a better place”. Then I give them a piercing stare and say “Every hour you spent praying in church is one hour that you could have spent helping others”. They certainly weren’t expecting that…

I’ve noticed that your Bible. despite all the talk about unconditional love, often portrays me as a vengeful god, who won’t hesitate to destroy all life on Earth if people aren’t behaving well. I’m sure this is meant to keep the followers in line, but it doesn’t place me in a very flattering light. It makes me out to be a frustrated child who will break a toy or overturn a board game in frustration if things aren’t going his way. Surely you can give me a little more credit than that.

Noah's Ark

Which brings me to the story of Noah’s Ark. I am astounded that, despite your global literacy levels and technological advances, some people still believe this tale in your 21st century. My non-interference policy should make it obvious that it never happened, but let me state categorically that I didn’t flood the Earth and drown everyone except Noah and his wife – do you realize how shallow that would have made the human gene pool? It would have resulted in a planet full of drooling imbeciles! Secondly, the oceans and other bodies of water cover about 70-71% of your planet’s surface. Weather systems move this water around a bit, but the planet-wide percentage is always the same. How is it possible to achieve 100% coverage in only 150 days, simply by making it rain? Where would all that extra water come from? Furthermore, how could the percentage drop back down to 70% again simply by stopping the rain? That water has to go somewhere, and the Earth is a closed system. For such a technologically advanced species, your critical thinking skills are simply dreadful! Don’t believe everything you read – even if it is written in a leather-bound book with gilt-edged pages.

While I’m on the subject, what is this rubbish in Genesis about a rainbow after the flood being a covenant between me and Mankind? Imagine the following scenario: the global flood did actually occur, and all land masses are completely submerged. Suddenly the rain stops and the sun breaks through the clouds. After non-stop rain for 150 days, the humidity level will be 100% and the air will be completely saturated with moisture. When the sun appears under those conditions, try *not* seeing a rainbow!

When Ken Ham arrives at these Pearly Gates, he and I are going to have quite the discussion… in fact, you may want to sit in on that one, because I think you’ll find it quite entertaining!

You also said “bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil”.

If I had deliberately introduced cancer into otherwise healthy children, then yes, those actions could be described quite fairly as “utterly utterly evil”. However, as you’ve probably guessed by now, I am a “hands-off” creator who lets the evolutionary chips fall where they may. I have no direct involvement with bone cancer in children, or with any other disease.

As you can see, the relationship between Man and God is entirely one-sided. People pray incessantly, and when they experience the desired outcome, they genuinely believe that I have intervened on their behalf, and then declare that their prayers have been answered or that a miracle has occurred. When the outcome is unfavourable, people merely shrug their shoulders and say “God works in mysterious ways” or “This is all part of God’s plan – it is not for us to understand”. Bone cancer in children is not part of my plan – it simply emerged – so one mustn’t assume that everything that exists is something that I implicitly endorse.

Let’s examine your next comment “insects whose whole life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. That eats outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that to us?”

Continued existence among members of any species is an ongoing battle – viewers of nature documentaries know this intuitively. Right now, homo sapiens are enjoying their lofty perch at the top of the evolutionary ladder, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t still have adversaries. Every species, including the human botfly, fights continually for its own survival and even dominance. No one gets a free ride. For 160 million years, the dinosaurs lived in complete harmony with the planet – which is more than I can say for humans – and they were wiped out in a geological instant by the climate change resulting from a meteor strike. Had they been able to speak, their lament may have been similar to yours “Why? Why did you do that to us?”.

You also noted “You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable.”

Your Bible suggests that God has created a made-to-order world, exclusively for the benefit of humans. It’s a decidedly egocentric view, which as you now know, just isn’t the case. Humans have discovered 1.9 million species so far, and you’ve only scratched the surface. Think of it this way: if you live in a city of two million, there are bound to be in the some people whom you don’t like. Similarly, there will also be an assortment of undesirable species on the planet.

To be fair, I will say this: despite your Bible’s assumption that God is perfect, I will admit that your universe could use a bit of fine-tuning. I view tornadoes the same way you view the human botfly. What is the point of having a weather system that does nothing but destroy property and kill people? That’s a bug in the program, because tornadoes don’t need to exist. On a larger scale, black holes are a bit of a concern to me. In the same way that cancer appears in humans, black holes also appear in this universe, and they just devour everything around them. So far, there is nothing powerful enough to stop them and there is a real possibility that they may eventually consume the entire universe. I’m going to adjust a few variables in my next universe to prevent them from forming again.

Then you added “It’s perfectly apparent that He is monstrous; utterly monstrous, and deserves no respect whatsoever” and asked, somewhat rhetorically “Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”

If you don’t respect me, that’s OK – I’m not offended. In fact, it’s a perfectly understandable position for anyone who has accepted or internalized the notion of the God that their religious leaders have presented to them. Your religious leader have weaved an elaborate tale and they promised the general public quite a bit. However, being human, and not knowing any more than anyone else, they weren’t in a position to even know my nature, much less deliver a god custom-made to their specifications. They are the ones who disappointed you, Stephen, not I.

Another interesting remark you made was “The moment you banish Him, your life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living in my opinion”.

I agree, in principle, with this comment, because it shows a maturity far beyond what most people possess. This is why I have a particular fondness for atheists and agnostics, because they don’t invent spirits to fill the gaps in their knowledge. They realize that they haven’t figured out how everything in their world works, admit that there is still much to learn, and aren’t afraid to modify their models. By concentrating on empirical observations instead of ecclesiastical speculation, you stimulate an interest in learning and discovery. I’m glad that you’ve adopted a secular world view, Stephen, because it demonstrates that you have a very logical and structured mind. I’ve never interfered with the development of the universe, and this lack of divine intervention lends should lend itself to the adoption of atheism or agnosticism. Unfortunately, few humans have done that. Yours is a courageous stance, especially in your present-day world.

And finally, you asked “It’s not just about not believing that there is a God, but on the assumption that there is one, what kind of God is it?”
Now you know…

So there you have it, Stephen. There is a creator of the universe after all, just not the one you humans invented in order to comfort yourselves – the benevolent, omnipresent, omniscient third-parent figure, who will protect you from all bad things. Now that you’ve been given the proper context, I hope that your world makes a little more sense. Now if you’ll just follow me, I’d like to introduce you to someone. Oscar Wilde has been looking forward to meeting you!

What God Said To Stephen Fry

On February 1, 2015, Stephen Fry was a guest on Ireland’s RTÉ One television program, The Meaning of Life. The show’s host, Gay Byrne, asked Fry (who is an outspoken atheist) “Suppose it’s all true, and you walk up to the Pearly Gates and you are confronted by God. What would Stephen Fry say to Him, Her or It?”.

Stephen Fry Interview

Stephen Fry: “I think I’ll say ‘bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?’ That’s what I’d say.”

Gay Byrne: “And you think you’re going to get in, like that?”

Stephen Fry: “No, but I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t want to get in on His terms. They’re wrong. Now, if I died and it was Pluto, Hades, and if it was the 12 Greek gods, then I would have more truckles because the Greeks were… they didn’t pretend not to be human in their appetites, and in their capriciousness and in their unreasonableness. They didn’t present themselves as being all-seeing, all-wise, all-kind, all-beneficent. Because the god who created this universe, if it was created by a god, is quite clearly a maniac; utter maniac; totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking Him? What kind of god would do that?”

“Yes, the world is very splendid, but it also has in it, insects whose whole life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. That eats outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable. It’s not just about not believing that there is a God, but on the assumption that there is one, what kind of God is it? It’s perfectly apparent that He is monstrous; utterly monstrous, and deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish Him, your life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living in my opinion.”

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In this creative writing exercise, Stephen Fry has just arrived at the Pearly Gates, and to his astonishment, realizes that God does in fact exist, and that He also happened to watch that interview Fry had with Gay Byrne. God then responds to the questions and comments that Fry made during the interview.

———————————————————————————————————–

Stephen, my boy – it’s so good to meet you! Yes, I know that you are an ardent atheist, and I can tell that this obviously wasn’t what you were expecting. These Pearly Gates are just a prop; they help put our newly-arrived souls at ease, since it’s what many of them expect to see. Of course, they can also be a bit disconcerting for atheists and agnostics…

I just happened to catch the RTÉ One interview you had with Gay Byrne back in February, 2015. It seems that you have a few things that you wanted to say to me. Don’t worry, I’m not the least bit offended by any of them. You’ve clearly given a lot of serious thought to ecclesiastical topics – much more than most people – and I’ll be glad to address everything.

Let’s start with this one “Because the god who created this universe, if it was created by a god, is quite clearly a maniac; utter maniac; totally selfish.”

To answer the first part of this comment, yes, I am the creator of your universe, or more accurately, I created the initial conditions that allowed a universe to emerge, and then develop. You can think of it as a science experiment… actually, it was more of a proof-of-concept than anything else. To be honest, it still needs a bit of tweaking, but I’m pleased with the progress so far. It’s been quite stable, and hasn’t collapsed yet.

As for being an utter maniac and totally selfish, I need to explain something that I thought would be obvious to you humans by now. After I created your universe, I simply let it unfold and then watched what happened. I abided by my own version of your Star Trek Prime Directive – non-interference. For some unfathomable reason, this is something that so many of you presumably enlightened beings – including hard-core atheists like yourself – have never entertained, or perhaps refuse to acknowledge. Your holy books state that I created you in my own image, and I did indirectly – I created an environment that eventually allowed humans to emerge. At the same time, humans also created a multitude of gods in their own image; unfortunately, none of them is anything like the actual creator of your universe.

The reason for this disparity is that your God, the one created and promulgated by many of your Christian religions, is not merely an omnipresent and omniscient god, but one that functions as a proverbial “third parent” to all adherents – one who watches over every individual continually and who guides them through life, as a parent would. I admit it’s a comforting thought – that one is never alone because there is an ethereal guardian present at all times. It’s also a decidedly ego-gratifying thought – being the proverbial apple of the creator’s eye, and assuming that the creator of the universe is taking a personal interest in one’s life – but I’m afraid that it’s just not true. I do not “micromanage” your lives. You can call it maniacal or selfish if you like, but I call it being completely neutral.

Let’s examine your next comment “We have to spend our life on our knees thanking Him? What kind of god would do that?

An excellent question! Let me assure you, Stephen, that no thanks is, or ever was, necessary. You’re absolutely right – what kind of god would do that? The notion of a god who is that insecure is ridiculous. Your religious leaders have told you to worship their version of a creator, because they live in fear, and spend their lives under the proverbial Sword of Damocles. I’m sure that they genuinely believe that they are doing everyone a favour by preaching this subservience, but ask yourself this: why would a god be substantially less secure than his creations?

While watching your universe unfold, one of my pleasures was noting all of the different gods and religions that the various species have created – on your planet and on many others. There are so many fascinating and disparate points of view – atheism among them – that have been formed in your collective quest to make sense of your surroundings. This bowing down in my presence is just nonsense. Do you really think that I’m going to give preferential treatment to annoying little sycophants? Do you think I can’t see right through that rubbish? In broader terms, is it reasonable to assume that one’s opinion on a single subject – how the universe was formed – is going to determine the ultimate destination of one’s soul? That’s utterly preposterous!

You also said “bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil.

If I had deliberately introduced cancer into otherwise healthy children, then yes, those actions could be described quite fairly as “utterly, utterly evil”. However, as you’ve probably guessed by now, I am a “hands-off” creator who lets the evolutionary chips fall where they may. I have no direct involvement with bone cancer in children, or with any other disease.

Let’s examine your next comment “insects whose whole life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. That eats outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that to us?

Continued existence among members of any species is an ongoing battle – viewers of nature documentaries know this intuitively. Right now, homo sapiens are enjoying their lofty perch at the top of the evolutionary ladder, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t still have adversaries. Every species, including the human botfly, fights continually for its own survival and even dominance. No one gets a free ride. For 160 million years, the dinosaurs lived in complete harmony with the planet – which is more than I can say for humans – and they were wiped out in a geological instant by the climate change resulting from a meteor strike. Had they been able to speak, their lament may have been similar to yours “Why? Why did you do that to us?”.

You also noted “You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable.

Your Bible suggests that God has created a made-to-order world, exclusively for the benefit of humans. It’s a decidedly egocentric view, which as you now know, just isn’t the case. Humans have discovered 1.9 million species so far, and you’ve only scratched the surface. Think of it this way: if you live in a city of two million, there are bound to be in the some people whom you don’t like. Similarly, there will also be an assortment of undesirable species on the planet.

Then you added “It’s perfectly apparent that He is monstrous; utterly monstrous, and deserves no respect whatsoever” and asked, somewhat rhetorically “Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?

If you don’t respect me, that’s OK – I’m not offended. In fact, it’s a perfectly understandable position for anyone who has accepted or internalized the notion of the God that their religious leaders have presented to them. Your religious leader have weaved an elaborate tale and they promised the general public quite a bit. However, being human, and not knowing any more than anyone else, they weren’t in a position to even know my nature, much less deliver a god custom-made to their specifications. They are the ones who disappointed you, Stephen, not I.

Another interesting remark you made was “The moment you banish Him, your life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living in my opinion.”

I agree, in principle, with this comment, because it shows a maturity far beyond what most people possess. This is why I have a particular fondness for atheists and agnostics, because they don’t invent spirits to fill the gaps in their knowledge. They realize that they haven’t figured out how everything in their world works, admit that there is still much to learn, and aren’t afraid to modify their models. By concentrating on empirical observations instead of ecclesiastical speculation, you stimulate an interest in learning and discovery. I’m glad that you’ve adopted a secular world view, Stephen, because it demonstrates that you have a very logical and structured mind. I’ve never interfered with the development of the universe, and this lack of divine intervention lends should lend itself to the adoption of atheism or agnosticism. Unfortunately, few humans have done that. Yours is a courageous stance, especially in your present-day world.

And finally, you asked “It’s not just about not believing that there is a God, but on the assumption that there is one, what kind of God is it?
Now you know…

So there you have it, Stephen. There is a creator of the universe after all, just not the one you humans invented in order to comfort yourselves – the benevolent, omnipresent, omniscient third-parent figure, who will protect you from all bad things. Now that you’ve been given the proper context, I hope that your world makes a little more sense. Now if you’ll just follow me, I’d like to introduce you to someone. Oscar Wilde has been looking forward to meeting you!

A Face (but not Jesus’s) has Appeared on my Bathroom Counter!

I don’t know why I didn’t notice this before, since it was clearly right in front of me every morning. A couple of months ago, I detected an image of a face in the patterns of my fake marble bathroom countertop. Like all other face-like images that appear in everyday objects, it’s fairly nebulous, but to me, it looks like a man with a prominent nose and large, droopy jowls, cradling an infant. Here it is:

Bathroom Sink Image 1

These features seem fairly obvious to me, but if you’re having trouble making them out, I’ve numbered everything. Like a savvy evangelist, I am now interpreting this image for you, and may even imbue it with a gravitas that it likely doesn’t deserve. :o)

Bathroom Sink Image Labels

This is what I see: 1) and 2) Deep-set eyes. 3) Nose 4) Large, fleshy jowl 5) Infant’s head. 6) Infant’s mouth 7) Infant’s eyes. The white horizontal line between the 7 and 3 is just the camera flash reflection.

My first thought was: maybe this is an image of Jesus. Every couple of years (or more frequently if you read the tabloids), there’s a story about someone discovering an image of Jesus in their grilled cheese sandwich, household appliance, chocolate bar or embedded in a mouldy stain on their bathroom wall.

Grilled Cheese SandwichChocolate Milk

Jesus Plate-300Kit Kat

Wall StainIron

It’s tempting to jump on the bandwagon, and even add my own twist: perhaps Jesus is the infant, and the old man holding Him is Joseph! Why should Mary always be the person holding Jesus? While my bathroom countertop image does look somewhat like a wise, old man who appears to have a mustache and beard, and who might even be wearing a robe, I don’t believe for a second that this is an image of Jesus.

Some of you may be thinking: Bob, what are you saying? That’s not how it’s supposed to work. This is the proper sequence of events:

  • You discover what looks like a face in a common household object.
  • Contact as many media outlets as possible.
  • Give numerous interviews, stressing that you and the Lord are really tight, which is why Jesus appeared on your [household object].
  • Tour the country and do the low-brow talk show and morning show circuit.
  • Explain that you hope this image will inspire others to become better people.
  • Tell the TV audiences how profoundly this discovery has impacted you, and that you will cherish this object as a symbol of the strong and inseparable bond you have with Jesus.
  • Finally, put the item up for auction on eBay before the public interest dies down, and try to collect as much money as possible.

The Golden Palace Casino paid $28,000 for some lady’s grilled cheese sandwich – and it already had a bite taken out of it. Surely I could get more than that for a section of my unmasticated bathroom countertop.

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Why Do We See Faces?

This got me thinking – why do we see faces in everyday objects anyway? What happened to our natural skepticism and critical thinking skills? Part of the answer lies in a psychological phenomenon called pareidolia, which is the ability to see patterns from randomness or nebulous shapes. An example of pareidolia is this cloud formation:

I remember that the topic of facial detection came up during one of my university psychology classes. According to our professor, babies are hard-wired to recognize faces, because a mother’s face represents comfort, nourishment and protection. During the first three months, an infant’s vision is still pretty fuzzy, so they have to be able to recognize even a vague representation of facial features. That’s why we are able to see faces in almost anything, even if the shape is askew, distorted or poorly-defined.

The proverbial Man In The Moon is a good example of a face arising from amorphous features. I’ve never been able to see the face myself – it had to be pointed out to me. Even so, I still don’t see much of a resemblance.

MIM-1MIM-2

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Why Is The Face Always Jesus?

Whenever the media reports on one of these stories, the face is invariably Jesus. Why don’t people run to the media clutching their grilled cheese sandwich and excitedly claim to see Pauly Shore, Judge Wapner, Les Nessman or Reuben Kincaid? An image of Reuben Kincaid on a reuben sandwich – now surely that’s something that will sell newspapers!

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), the author of The Chronicles Of Narnia, proposed that we see religious imagery because we live in a world that is immersed in such things. Certainly, during Lewis’s lifetime, religion was much more prominent in North American society, so his observation makes sense. My sociology professor once remarked “believing is seeing” – what we see is based, in part, on our belief system.

If believing is seeing, then why doesn’t anyone think that the nebulous Man In The Moon is actually the face of Jesus? Wikipedia lists several stories about the origins of the Man In The Moon. These include tales from Norse, Chinese and Haida mythology, but there is nothing that mentions Jesus. The Jesus connection seems obvious (at least to me) – if God is omnipresent and is watching over us from the heavens, then an ideal manifestation would be a face-like image on the moon, as both a tangible indicator of His omnipresence, and a subtle (and persistent) reminder to behave ourselves. The moon was far beyond our reach (at least until 1969), so there would no way for anyone to get a closer look and either verify or debunk this claim.

Cone Nebula

A further irony is the Cone Nebula. After the Hubble Space Telescope photographed it (above), some people believed that this was also an image of Jesus, and even quoted Matthew 24:30 to back up their assertion “And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory“. Sure, this sounds very foreboding – until you do a little research and discover one nit-picky detail: the Cone Nebula is 2,700 light years away. The light from the Cone Nebula took 2,700 years to get here, which means that the light in this image started its journey toward Earth 700 years before Jesus was even born.

I can understand that people might see Jesus in everyday objects during C.S. Lewis’s lifetime, but in today’s increasingly secular society, why is it still happening, and with (what seems to be) increasing frequency? Personally, I think the answer lies – ironically enough – in one of the Seven Deadly Sins: hubris. We want to believe that we are special, or at least that we’re better than our friends and neighbours. One way to accomplish this is by forging a connection between ourselves and the creator of the universe. We want to feel that we alone have been selected by God, from this planet’s seven billion inhabitants. Other people attend Mass at God’s house every Sunday, but now God (or His son) comes to you. It’s the ecclesiastical equivalent of a doctor making a house call, or of playing golf with your company’s president, and having him pick you up at home.

This ego trip doesn’t work as well with images of other people. Seeing a likeness of Richard Simmons in your grilled cheese sandwich, sends an entirely different, and decidedly less flattering message: put that sandwich down, and get on the treadmill! Come on, you can do it!

Penn & Teller, in a program called Signs From Heaven, offer another, similar explanation. Some people are tired of going to church and hearing about miracles happening to others, so this is a way to put themselves in the spotlight by experiencing their own miracle. It’s their turn to be the centre of attention; others now gravitate toward them. Their lives are changed instantly from monotonous to glamourous.

The “monotonous lives” observation is important. How many of these “image of Jesus” claims are made by celebrities, business tycoons, millionaires or anyone else who already leads an exciting or glamourous life? Even the Pope (to my knowledge) doesn’t run around the Vatican, waving a grilled cheese sandwich, and claiming to have experienced a miracle. If you don’t have the talent or good fortune to make a name for yourself, then you can always bask in the reflected glory of others – and who can surpass the glory of Jesus Christ Himself? It’s a brilliant strategy.

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Identifying The Bathroom Counter Image

I’m not the first person to see a face in a bathroom counter – according to this story, a woman saw something in her sink that resembled a face, was convinced that it was Jesus, and was so moved and inspired by it that she posted it on eBay with a selling price of $50,000.

I, however, have no desire to stand in the spotlight, nor do I harbour any feelings of hubris, avarice or frothing opportunism. I’m not going to go to the media and claim that this is Jesus because I have no desire to be stuck on some TV talk show, wedged between an aging Elvis impersonator and some hayseed called Gomer who insists that he was abducted and then probed by aliens. More importantly, I’d rather be known for my entertaining blog posts, instead of “that nutbar who thinks Jesus is watching him put on deodorant every morning”. I realize that the “face” on my bathroom counter is nothing more than my pareidolia trying to attribute some meaning to the nebulous patterns.

However, I also can’t resist speculating, and after staring at this image during the past few weeks, I’ve compiled a list of potential candidates: John Lennon; a late-1970s Dan Hill; Frank Zappa, cradling his newborn daughter, Moon Unit; Ted Neely (in character); a spry Dumbledore; Aragorn; a youthful Gandalf; or a young Saruman.

John LennonDan HillFrank ZappaTed NeelyAragorn

In the end, and after much contemplation, I’ve finally decided that my bathroom counter image is probably this cat, from the 1960s band The Strawbs. Now if only I can figure out what this means…

Strawbs CD

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Is The Bible Still Relevant?

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” – Pete Seeger, The Byrds and Ecclesiastes 3:1

Bible-1

I knew that church attendance had been declining during the past couple of generations, but it really hit home for me when I visited Chester, England, a number of years ago. Our tour guide pointed out the numerous magnificent churches, and told us that some of them were now being re-purposed, since far fewer people are attending church regularly. While declining church attendance could certainly be considered a symptom of an increasingly secular society, I’ve also noticed an additional change: a more polarized view of the Bible.

I’ve heard arguments from both camps, and I must say that neither side impresses me.

Many of my secular or not-particularly-religious friends have no use for the Bible at all. They’ll state that it’s merely a 2000-year-old book that is hopelessly outdated and completely out of touch with modern values. They’ll quote selected passages and ask “who thinks this way anymore? This is clearly an antiquated mindset that has no place in modern society”. However, they then suggest that these few ecclesiastical snippets invalidate the entire book. Some public figures are making similar statements. They may think that they’re being modern, progressive and in touch with today’s values, but I think that their polarized all-or-nothing attitude is regressive and damaging. In my opinion, they have adopted the same mentality as people who want to ban books. If they find something objectionable – especially passages that did not cause an uproar in previous generations – then they will try to have the book banned from high schools. By fixating on the parts that they find offensive, they are rejecting everything that is good about the book – essentially throwing the out metaphorical baby with the bathwater.

At the other end of the spectrum are some of my friends and acquaintances who are particularly devout, and who follow the teachings in the Bible (for lack of a better word) religiously. I even know people who insist that everything written between its covers must be true, and who treat everything in the Bible as (for lack of a better word) gospel. This group conveniently refers to the Bible as “the word of God”, thus imbuing it with a sense of permanence and infallibility – a divine, unchangeable tome that functions as the ultimate behavioural authority for everyone. An authority that, in their estimation, is sorely needed by the entire populace. As we know, the Bible wasn’t written by God; it was written by men, so I personally don’t infer much from this lofty and grandiloquent label. Provenance is not a reason to abandon critical thinking.

Cafeteria Bible

In my opinion, this polarized view has its roots in the Church itself. Religions encourage (or even insist upon) an “all or nothing” commitment. You have to embrace their entire dogma and accept all of their teachings. You can’t adopt a “cafeteria-style” approach to religion by selecting and adopting only the components or values that resonate with you. According to this article “Cafeteria-style religion may be popular among Americans, but the New Testament indicates that we do not decide what is right and wrong, but live according to God’s standard of right and wrong. [John 14:6 passage]. This is an exclusive claim that demands full acceptance or rejection.” How can we be expected to embrace everything in the Bible, when parts of it are no longer aligned with our current societal values? Why would someone insist that you consume everything in a cafeteria when some of food has obviously spoiled? It’s therefore perfectly understandable that, when faced with this “take it or leave it” attitude, some followers will continue to accept everything and others will simply reject or even abandon it entirely.

It would be nice if we could all get along, yet many of us seem to be pushed into opposite corners of an ecclesiastical boxing ring. We view each other as opponents, rather than brothers and sisters. I obviously don’t have the ability to reconcile these two opposing and mutually-exclusive views, but perhaps I can help people find some middle ground. Therefore I’d like to propose a new way to look at the Bible… from The Bob Angle.

The Bible, in addition to telling the story of Jesus, is essentially a behavioural guide for the adherents of Christian religions. In my view, the Bible and Aesop’s Fables are very similar – a collection of allegorical fables, parables and stories that tell us how we should comport ourselves. The major difference is that the Bible purports to contain rules and regulations handed down from the creator of the universe himself – it’s difficult to trump that kind of authority, especially when it’s accompanied by the threat of an eternal punishment if we don’t follow these rules.

I’m sure that the authors of the Bible did they best they could, but there was one thing they didn’t anticipate – something that the devoutly religious people among us haven’t yet noticed: everything has a lifespan, including their best-intentioned advice.

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “the only constant in the world is change”. The world has been changing for the past two millennia, often imperceptibly when viewed from the vantage point of a single lifetime: societal values, political boundaries, even the position of the continents. As Robert DeNiro said (metaphorically) in the movie Limitless “Tectonic plates are shifting beneath our feet”. What makes the Bible challenging (and ultimately polarizing) is that there is an abundance of advice in it, and each passage has a different lifespan. Unfortunately, it takes about 2,000 years (or maybe longer) to see this.

Pyramids

Imagine that you are standing in front of the Great Pyramids of Giza on a hot summer day. Immediately in front of you are the following items: an ice cream cone, a glass of cold milk, a loaf of bread, a dog, a person, a tree, and a house (unfortunately, I’m not skilled enough with PhotoShop to place these items convincingly in a single image, so I’ll use two images for now).

Objects-1

Now take out your (Polaroid) camera, take a photograph of the scene in front of you and then compare those objects to the picture in your hand. The two images are identical. This is how I view the Bible – as a snapshot in time. Your surroundings represent your society and the Polaroid picture represents the Bible’s teachings. When it was written, the Bible was an accurate reflection of society, its values and its knowledge. The story of Creation may have been their best attempt to explain the origin of the planet.

As you stand in front of the pyramids, wait for 30 minutes, and then hold your Polaroid photograph up once again. Everything will look the same – except for the ice cream cone, which will have melted in the hot sun. Now wait a little longer and start making regular comparisons: as time passes, the milk will curdle, the bread will become mouldy, the dog, human and the tree will grow, mature, age, and die, and the house will eventually disintegrate. Everything in this world has a different lifespan, including behavioural advice. Over the years, decades and centuries, some of these lessons endured, and others did not. The pyramids probably look just like they did 2,000 years ago, and to me, they represent the timeless behavioural lessons in the Bible.

Stand-up comedians understand the concept of expiry dates intuitively. If you search Amazon.com, you won’t find any DVDs of Jay Leno or David Letterman monologues. That’s because monologues are generally made up of topical (and decidedly disposable) material. While the jokes are funny on the day of the broadcast, they don’t have a long shelf life. When comedians are recording an album or a television special, they are usually careful to avoid talking about current events or local news stories, since that material will become stale very quickly. After several years, the references to people and events will be largely forgotten and the material will no longer be funny. A comedy routine that contains more generalized observations without any local or current references will be funny for years to come, and will sell more records and videos.

I am currently reading a book called The Year of Living Biblically, by A.J. Jacobs. It’s the story of a man who spends a year trying to live his life according to the teachings in the Bible – and to follow these lessons as literally as possible, exactly as they were prescribed two millennia ago. As you can imagine – given the limited lifespans of some of its advice – hilarity and awkward social situations ensue! This book illustrates, as well as anything, the importance of critical thinking, and why one shouldn’t follow everything in the Bible without question.

Everything has a lifespan, and some lifespans are longer than others. However, unless we’re incredibly wise or exceedingly prescient, it’s difficult to determine what that lifespan will be. Who knows what will endure? Newspapers are often called “tomorrow’s fish wrap”, yet the words of Shakespeare remain relevant for centuries. I’m sure that the men who wrote the Bible did their best – no one would deliberately include ephemeral advice – and I’m sure that all of the authors assumed that everything would remain relevant forever. While their efforts did indeed reflect their society at the time, in a world in which the only constant is change, few things will stand out as timeless.

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Lifespans of Selected Passages

There are hundreds of passages that I could use as examples, but I’m going to limit myself to three: still-relevant advice, outdated advice, and one that is just now reaching its expiry date.

Outdated: Exodus 21:20-21 (New International Version) states “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property“. This one had a surprisingly long lifespan. If we, for the purposes of this blog post, say that legal slavery ended with the American Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, then its lifespan was anywhere from 2360 years to 3260-3300 years depending on your source. Today, it would not be wise to embrace this bit of religious dogma.

Still Fresh: Ecclesiastes 11:1. This one is just as fresh now as it was the day it was written. This passage is “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again“. In fact, I was so taken with this verse that I wrote a blog article about it called The Generosity Coefficient.

Approaching Its Expiry Date: Proverbs 13:24 (English Standard Version) states “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him“. The term “spare the rod” implies corporal punishment (at least to me), which I also interpret to include spanking. When I was a child, all parents spanked their children when they misbehaved. Today, the tide seems to be turning – more parents are opting for “time outs” instead of spanking. I think we’re approaching a tipping point, and I predict that spanking will be completely unacceptable within the next decade or two.

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