Flying out to the Phils a while ago I watched an excellent show presented by the late Professor Stephen Hawking about time travel. This has fascinated us for over a century, leading to all sorts of speculation about time machines. HG Wells’ eponymous book is perhaps the first and defining of the many books about this and, of course, the beloved Doctor Who is dependent on the notion.
Time and Space
Wells’ vision, however entertaining, overlooked one major problem with time travel: even if you could move to a different when, establishing where that would be is staggeringly complex. The Earth is not stationary, indeed nothing in the Universe is. You would need to calculate precisely where in space you wanted to be at the time you wanted to be there. Suppose you just want to go back a week. It’s not just a matter of going back a week where you are now, because last week, where you are now was 11.25 million miles away.
We generally agree, as humans, that human life is sacrosanct. It is one of the greatest cultural condemnations we can deliver, that ‘human life has no value’. Yet abortion does precisely that: it places the value of human life at zero.
I spent much of my life as a classical liberal who would have agreed that, within the precinct of one’s own body, the right of self-determination is absolute. And in general, I still hold this to be true. Across a swathe of issues from transsexualism to tattooing to more extreme forms of ‘body art’, as long as it harms no other, then the individual does indeed have sovereignty over his or her own body. Yes there is a responsibility towards whatever collective that nurtured the child and made the adult, be that family, city or State; but we repay these in our love for those who raised us, in our love for those we in turn raise and, should that not be enough to persuade the most flinty-hearted, in the taxes and services we render. Within our own bodies and minds, we are sovereign.
In an oral culture — one that is not written down — mythology evolves as it is passed from storyteller to storyteller. The Jesus myth was created in exactly this way, pasted together from earlier sources. This process is called ‘syncretisation.’
There is no fixed record of an oral tradition, by definition. In an oral culture or tradition, myths grow and develop to reflect the lived experiences and cultures of the people telling them. It was only when writing was invented that these traditions could be codified and by that time, they had been evolving for thousands of years. This means that there are many versions of the same myth, as different peoples carried it forward.
So we cannot say that, because detail differences exist between two similar myths, they are different or have different origins.
The name of King Jan III Sobieski of Poland is one that every European should know and speak with pride.
In September 1683, the city of Vienna was near to collapse. For months, it had been under siege by the Islamic hordes of the Islamic Ottoman army. Every day now, starvation and surrender grew closer. The city had long since run out of horses and pets to eat and even rats were few and far between now.
Worse, the Viennese knew that other Europeans had been the instruments of their doom. Swiss Calvinists had begged the Turks to attack, so that they could sweep away Catholicism. It beggars belief that Christians could call down the hounds of Islamic hell on their fellow Europeans, but that they had, hoping, no doubt, to negotiate some deal, a reward for their treachery, that might spare them the scimitar or a lifetime of submission to the foul creed of Islam.
The city’s defenders, listening in its basements, could hear the scrape-scrap of pick and shovel as the enemy’s sappers undermined them. Soon they would plant another huge mine and blow up a section of the city’s curtain wall, breaching it and allowing the enemy in. Nobody in Vienna was under any illusion as to what would happen then: the men would be tortured and killed or enslaved, the women would be raped and killed or enslaved and the children slaughtered. The behaviour of triumphant Islamic armies was well known.
Today, the Twelfth of September, was the last. The government of the city knew it. The people knew it and worse, the enemy knew it. They were ready: their final attack was to come on the twelfth of the month. There was nothing left. Vienna would fall. Without a miracle, Vienna must fall, and with it, Europe.
The New Atheists, like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens and many others, purported to offer a sane, secular attempt to roll back religiosity for the betterment of society. Instead, their efforts have begat the mother of all calamities.
How did this come to pass?
Scientific atheism, as promoted by the New Atheists, lacks any unifying central structure or code. Essentially it is based on a negative — not believing in God. So it can’t have a defining structure. Richard Dawkins, one of the most prominent New Atheists, tried to answer this with his ‘brights’ — which was an embarrassment. (Since at least 2014, Dawkins has self-identified as a ‘secular Christian’ anyway.)
After the Enlightenment and especially the French Revolution, European secularism based itself around Reason as the core methodology that would replace, in the minds of those who were atheist, religious belief. This reflected a rejection of hierarchical religious authority, which had begun in the Reformation. The works of philosophers like Descartes, Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant and Paine promoted the idea of the free-thinking individual whose intellectual scalpel was Reason. Both of these were exported to the US.
Being a European, of course, I had no direct experience of Southern Baptism or any of the other so called ‘Evangelical’ cults until about five years ago, and even then it seemed relatively harmless. They were just a bunch of crackpot fringe-dwellers, somewhat like the Moonies or the Baha’i. Still, I was beginning to see pattern, as I read the writings of Baptist seminarians and ‘thinkers’. Was there any substance to this cult at all, or was it just anything anyone wanted it to be? Was it, indeed, actually dangerous?
I am proud to be a European. Our culture has many faults, yet at the same time it has given the world so much. Science and democracy, equality under law and social inclusion simply would not exist without it. And across culture, art, science, engineering and technology, our culture remains a brilliant star, without which light, we would still be in the Dark Ages. I am very proud and lucky to be a part of that.
Despite this, I believed, for many years, that other cultures were equal.
But I was wrong. Culture is not a level playing field. The very qualities that define Western culture represent a system of morality, which allow us to judge other cultures. And we definitely should judge them.
Ley-lines were invented by an Englishman called Alfred Watkins, who had spent much time cycling around the countryside near his home. In 1925, he wrote a book called “The Old Straight Track”, in which he described a revelation he’d had while looking at a map of Herefordshire four years earlier. He had suddenly seen a network of straight lines that connected points of human activity, such as
“Mounds, Long-barrows, Cairns, Cursus, Dolmens, Standing stones, mark-stones, Stone circles, Henges, Water-markers (moats, ponds, springs, fords, wells), Castle, Beacon-hills, Churches, Cross-roads, Notches in hills,”
The god proposition is supported not by fact, but by faith. At the end of the day, the final word that the religiously-disposed have is to say that “It is so because I believe it to be so,” before covering their ears. For them, this trumps everything.
This is the hook that caught Descartes when he confronted the issue, and then backed off very quickly. “I think,” he said, “Therefore I am.” This is fine. He is self-aware therefore he is sure he exists. He cannot be entirely sure that he exists as he perceives himself or that anything that is around him is as he perceives it, but he does make a very convincing argument, based on the progression of rational logic, that it is so (and thus takes several hundred pages to confirm what any pragmatist already knows. But that’s an aside.) However, when confronted by the idea of God, God must exist, he says “Because he cannot imagine a world in which he does not.” Oops.