Nov 25, 2008

Aliens and Ghosts More Popular than God

The Vatican newspaper made news last week when it forgave John Lennon's notorious blasphemy. The world was startled when Lennon suggested that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, and that Christianity would "go." Lennon's comments were far better reasoned and considered than the Vatican's current dismissal, as the musings of young buck overwhelmed by fame, allows.

The Vatican continues to take slow, lurching steps toward modernity. In another bold move, last spring, the director of the Vatican Observatory acknowledged that the universe is very large, indeed, and that it was not a violation of faith to believe in extraterrestrial life. But, the bitterest pill for the church to swallow is that both music and aliens have much more resonance with the populace than traditional religion. Ghosts too, it appears.

More people believe in aliens and ghosts than in God, a new survey finds, according to a British newspaper.

The survey, however, was done by a marketing firm in conjunction with the release of an X-Files DVD, and details of how the poll was conducted were not reported in the Daily Mail. Survey questions, depending on how they are written, can greatly skew results, along with how subjects are sampled.

That said, the poll of 3,000 people found that 58 percent believe in the supernatural, including paranormal encounters, while 54 percent believe God exists. Women were more likely than men to believe in the supernatural and were also more likely to visit a medium.

Indeed, humans are prone to believing in things they can neither see nor find logical evidence for.

AliensPerhaps the bigger news is that neither the church, nor the tsking of scientists, can disabuse people of their belief in things that cannot generally be independently verified or consistently perceived with the five senses.

Monsters are everywhere these days, and belief in them is as strong as ever. What's harder to believe is why so many people buy into hazy evidence, shady schemes and downright false reports that perpetuate myths that often have just one ultimate truth: They put money in the pockets of their purveyors.

The bottom line, according to several interviews with people who study these things: People want to believe, and most simply can't help it.

. . .

A related question: Does belief in the paranormal have anything to do with religious belief?

The answer to that question is decidedly nuanced, but studies point to an interesting conclusion: People who practice religion are typically encouraged not to believe in the paranormal, but rather to put their faith in one deity, whereas those who aren't particularly active in religion are more free to believe in Bigfoot or consult a psychic.

Yep. Left to our own devices we'll believe just about anything, I guess. Why is that, I wonder. Education doesn't seem to help. Indeed, college graduates are more open to the paranormal than freshmen.

Church orthodoxy has a long history of quibbling over what extrasensory perceptions are "of God" and which ones aren't. One of the more famous cases of such quibbling came about when Joan of Arc was burned as a heretic and a short 24 years later named a saint. Turns out she really was hearing the voices of saints, not the pagan idols of the "fairy tree."

Great attempts were made at Joan's trial to connect her with some superstitious practices supposed to have been performed round a certain tree, popularly known as the "Fairy Tree" (l'Arbre des Dames), but the sincerity of her answers baffled her judges. She had sung and danced there with the other children, and had woven wreaths for Our Lady's statue, but since she was twelve years old she had held aloof from such diversions.

It was at the age of thirteen and a half, in the summer of 1425, that Joan first became conscious of that manifestation, whose supernatural character it would now be rash to question, which she afterwards came to call her "voices" or her "counsel." It was at first simply a voice, as if someone had spoken quite close to her, but it seems also clear that a blaze of light accompanied it, and that later on she clearly discerned in some way the appearance of those who spoke to her, recognizing them individually as St. Michael (who was accompanied by other angels), St. Margaret, St. Catherine, and others. Joan was always reluctant to speak of her voices. She said nothing about them to her confessor, and constantly refused, at her trial, to be inveigled into descriptions of the appearance of the saints and to explain how she recognized them. None the less, she told her judges: "I saw them with these very eyes, as well as I see you."

My first thought, on reading of God's dismal poll numbers, is that those paranormal experiences are actually more tangible. Many people swear that they've actually seen aliens and ghosts. God, not so much. Although, in fairness, 4% isn't that great a disparity. The real challenge for organized religion is that God doesn't seem to present in the way "he's" described in scriptures. When we encounter some vaguely anthropomorphized entity, we're more inclined to call it an angel or an alien, than presume to call it the one true "God." The challenge for skeptical scientists, however, is that many people swear that they've actually seen aliens and ghosts. Who are you gonna believe? The double-blind studies or your own lyin' eyes?

It becomes difficult to disabuse people of something that is, for many, quite experiential, even if it can't be consistently replicated in a lab. How do you stop people consulting mediums when so many, who consider themselves quite average, have had experiences around the time of deaths; received messages, seen flashes of light, felt strange, unearthly breezes, and even had clearly definable visitations from their departed loved ones.

As long as people keep unintentionally "piercing the veil," no amount of reason will dissuade them from those pesky paranormal diversions.

Earlier this month Great Britain's minister in charge of science, of all people, admitted having a "sixth sense."

Lord Drayson, the government minister in charge of science, believes he has an uncanny ability “like a sixth sense” to know and predict some events instinctively.

The multi-millionaire businessman and Labour donor says he believes humans have strange abilities that are not widely understood. “In my life there have been some things I have known, and I don’t know why,” he said in an interview with The Sunday Times. “I think there is a lot we don’t understand about human capability.”

By way of explaining his sometimes uncanny insight, Lord Drayson cites Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink; a book one friend of mine describes "a book on intuition even men can understand."

Fairies at Play, a Toadstool Makes a Convenient Merry-Go- RoundIn Supernatural, Graham Hancock posits that the intriguing parallels between shamanic experiences, extraterrestrial encounters, and legends of the faerie folk, can be explained by psychotropes. Faeries are often depicted around fungi known for their psychadelic properties. Many shamanic cultures use various psychotropes. At issue, specifically, is DMT. DMT is a naturally occurring brain chemical. It's produced in minute, rapidly absorbed quantities by the pineal gland. It is also present in a variety of plants. But, ingesting those plants has no effect, because the stomach secretes an enzyme that immediately deactivates it. Ayahuasca is used by many native tribes, not because it has hallucinogenic properties of its own, but because it suppresses the enzyme that deactivates DMT. Mixed with plant material high in DMT, it creates a powerful hallucinogenic cocktail, that the shaman can use to access non-ordinary reality. But, it may also be, according to Hancock, that some people simply produce higher quantities of DMT in their brains. Such people could spontaneously access the hidden world, experiencing alien encounters, and who knows what else.

It's an intriguing theory, and one worthy of exploration. For myself, I don't know what makes me psychic. I just am. I've always seen and felt presences. I've always been able to feel what other people are feeling. And I fall in and out of non-ordinary reality, pretty much at will. Could that be, at least in part, due to an excess of DMT? Perhaps. Whatever it is, the one thing I'm quite certain of, and always have been, is that it is not a unique ability. It is not some special power. It's our human birthright. Everyone is psychic. Some of us are just more actively aware of it than others. For many people it only rises to consciousness in extraordinary circumstances, like during times of major transition. Or, as Gavin De Becker explains, in periods of danger, when a very basic intuition kicks in with warnings best heeded. We're all capable of perceiving beyond the five senses, and, try as they might, the best religious and scientific minds can't rob of us of that fundamental ability.

Nov 20, 2008

"Freelance Monotheist" Launches Ambitious Compassion Project

White Tara from Monastery Wall, Lhasa, Tibet

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I'm quite taken with Karen Armstrong. As I wrote here, I feel a certain kinship with her break from Christian dogma and movement towards a deeper, more empirical, spirituality. Armstrong, last week, launched a new website to advance her goal of sharing an ecumenical vision of a more compassionate world.

Karen Armstrong, author of over 20 books, former Catholic nun, and a 2008 TED Prize winner, wants to create a Charter for Compassion, to be agreed upon and signed by religious leaders all over the world.

TED (acronym for Technology, Entertainment, Design) is an ongoing conference of "talks" by various scientists, engineers, authors and artists. It is the reward for winning the TED prize that one wish will be "granted" by aiding the prize recipient in fulfilling a dream. For example, earlier this year, one TED Prize winner, photographer and filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, was permitted to organize Pangea Day, a film event which aired globally in May. Karen Armstrong felt that although most world conflicts were political, religion was a "fault line" and had been "hijacked" by extremists and abused, so her wish was clear: Encourage peace and tolerance by emphasizing the "Golden Rule" moral value that is present in some form in all religious teaching in all faiths, by creating a "Charter for Compassion" document to be globally endorsed and acknowledged.

Through the website, Armstrong has opened an invitation for the world to help envision and complete the Charter, which is to be presented on December 4, 2008.

As I wrote here, I don't think religion is required for compassion. Nor does Armstrong, for that matter. But, buried underneath all the tribalism, divisiveness, and even cruelty, of the world's religions, is the central call for unity and compassion. That is the kind of faith Armstrong seeks to have brought to the forefront of a shared spiritual vision.

Deepak Chopra wrote of the core conflict here:

Compassion is universally revered and universally ignored. The situation is primal. It has existed as far back as Buddha and Christ, and long before them. In a sense we may feel disadvantaged compared to our ancestors -- for them, drawing your hand back from an enemy meant laying down a spear or mace. For us, it means laying down a nuclear arsenal. But despite that gap in destructive power, the essential problem remains the same: whether human nature can be changed, and if so, on how large a scale.

The teaching and preaching of compassion has done some good, perhaps. Most people are happy that Christ and Buddha lived, even if they give little thought to them, much less to the age-old concept of Daya, the original Sanskrit word for sympathy that later evolved into compassion. I feel more secure starting there, because sympathy is as natural to human beings as aggression.

Chopra goes on to discuss the differences between the brain function between violent felons and Tibetan monks. Not surprisingly, very different. But, as I've already discussed here, religion alone is not enough to deter the felonious. There are much larger questions of nature and nurture. The study of prison inmates Chopra cites brings to mind the work of Lonnie Athens -- the criminologist who set out to determine the causes of violence. In numerous detailed interviews with violent felons, he isolated a four stage process of violentization. According to Athens, anyone who completes all four stages -- presumably, even a Tibetan monk -- will become irredeemably, pathologically violent. Athens work is revolutionary because he demonstrates a sociological, rather than psychological, underpinning for the cultivation of violence. His assertion is that the violence is a learned, acculturated behavior.

We all have darkness and light within us. The question seems to be how to foster our "better angels," rather than our demons. This seems to become more complicated when taken out of a face to face context. Empathy, if not damaged through abuse and neglect, does seem to be an innate part of our development.

My husband and I were discussing this last night, when we were watching the news. It seems the chief executives of the big three flew into Washington to beg for taxpayer dollars in private jets, displaying the remarkable tone-deafness that seems to have overtaken the highest levels of corporate culture. It raises an interesting question. What happens to the moral compass in a consequence-free environment? Why does power corrupt and absolute power corrupt absolutely, as Lord Acton observed. Neither a "healthy sense of shame," nor the "enlightened self-interest" Alan Greenspan was counting on, seem to have deterred the financial excesses that have sent our economy careening off the rails. My husband conjectures that it is for the same reason that bomber pilots don't get PTSD; insulation and distance from the consequences of one's actions.

Empathy challenges us when we have to look people in the eye, like when we have to kill them in hand to hand combat, or fire them in a face to face meeting, instead of a pink slip. One thing I remember well from my days in corporate America is that department heads hate telling people they'll be laid off, but the people who really make the decision to cut a department by 10% never have to face that 10%. If they did, I doubt dumb-sizing would have become the preferred method for pleasing stockholders. Depersonalization is a powerful thing.

How then does one instill a global vision of compassion? It will be interesting to see what Armstrong, in collaboration with such spiritual luminaries as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp, Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, and others, come up with.

In this interview, Armstrong explains her central premise of a religion of actions rather than beliefs, as a vehicle for "the golden rule." (She also takes on the question of whether atheism provides a more peaceful vision than theism.)

Nov 19, 2008

Damn Your Eyes Harry Potter

Or, perhaps I should say, Warner Bros. After postponing the release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince from November 21 -- otherwise known as "this weekend" -- to July of next year, they've taken to taunting and teasing, with a trickle of trailers. Here are two and three, respectively. For the first go here.

Nov 17, 2008

Seven Wonders Reborn

Two of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World will be getting new life. The gods to be so honored: Artemis and Helios.

Temple of Artemis at Ephesus by Maerten Van Heemskerck One of the Seven Ancient Wonders of World

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Plans are being drawn up to rebuild the Temple of Artemis in Selçuk.

Dr. Atılay İleri, the founder of the Selçuk Artemis Culture, Arts and Education Foundation, met with Dr. Anton Bammer of the archaeology institute at the University of Vienna, Austria, a decade ago while Dr Bammer was leading a series of excavations in the area. During this period, experts searched for the techniques on how to rebuild Artemis.

It was at this meeting that the two began to realize the reconstruction of the once magnificent Temple of Artemis. With support from Austrian scientists, İleri had Swiss architects prepare a plan for the reconstruction of the temple.

İleri, who has dreamed of reconstructing the temple for 10 years, said: “When completed, the temple will not be a copy or an imitation of the original Artemis but the Artemis itself. And its sisters of the past will set their eyes on it with pride and emulation.”

Colossus of Rhodes, One of Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, by Maerten Van Heemskerck

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The massive re-envisioning of Helios, known as the Collosus, will, appropriately for a sun god, be made of light.

Like the original, erected in homage to the sun god Helios by the master sculptor Chares of Lindos, the new Colossus will adorn an outer pier in the harbour area of Rhodes, and be visible to passing ships.

And like its ancient namesake, the modern-day wonder will be dedicated to celebrating peace and built, at least in part, out of melted-down weapons from around the world.

But unlike the ancient Colossus, which stood 34 metres high before an earthquake toppled it in 226BC, the groundbreaking work of art is slated to be much taller and bigger. And unlike previous reconstruction efforts, officials say the Cologne-based design team is determined to avoid recreating a replica.

. . .

Instead, in the spirit of the 21st century the new Colossus has been conceived as a highly innovative light sculpture, a work of art that will allow visitors to physically inspect it by day as well as enjoy - through light shows - a variety of stories it will "tell" by night.

No word yet on the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the giant statue of Zeus. Developing...

Nov 14, 2008

Fifty Tortoises and a 12,000 Year Old Shaman

A stone age shaman was buried with numerous parts of animals, that were apparently significant to her.

The grave contained body parts of several animals that rarely occur in Natufian assemblages. These include fifty tortoises, the near-compete pelvis of a leopard, the wing tip of a golden eagle, tail of a cow, two marten skulls and the forearm of a wild boar which was directly aligned with the woman's left humerus.

A human foot belonging to an adult individual who was substantially larger than the interred woman was also found in the grave.

Dr. Grosman believes this burial is consistent with expectations for a shaman's grave. Burials of shamans often reflect their role in life (i.e., remains of particular animals and contents of healing kits). It seems that the woman was perceived as being in close relationship with these animal spirits.

The wild boar bone, being aligned with her own, is particularly interesting. It seems to suggest therianthropy. As Graham Hancock explains in Supernatural, there are depictions of shamans transforming into various animals, in cave paintings, going back to the paleolithic era.

Although it's hard to say where the tortoises fit into the belief system of a prehistoric culture, the apparent importance that led these people to collect 50 of the solitary creatures for a burial is intriguing. I find it particularly fascinating, because I seem to be encountering turtle mythos everywhere I look, lately. And, we know that, in many documented indigenous beliefs, turtle and tortoise medicine are seminal, as I wrote here.

According to Dr. Grosman, the burial of the woman is unlike any burial found in the Natufian or the preceding Paleolithic periods. "Clearly a great amount of time and energy was invested in the preparation, arrangement, and sealing of the grave." This was coupled with the special treatment of the buried body.

Shamans are universally recorded cross-culturally in hunter-gatherer groups and small-scale agricultural societies. Nevertheless, they have rarely been documented in the archaeological record and none have been reported from the Paleolithic of Southwest Asia.

There are some other intriguing questions raised by the Natufian culture. According to Wikipedia:

It was a Mesolithic culture, but unusual in that it built stone architecture before the introduction of agriculture. The Natufian communities are possibly the ancestors of the builders of the first Neolithic settlements of the region, which may have been the earliest in the world. There is no evidence for the deliberate cultivation of cereals, but people at the time certainly made use of wild grasses.

What I find striking, in that, is that it's another instance of a rather highly developed and settled group of hunter-gatherers. Like the discovery of Gobekli Tepe, it challenges ideas about the progression of stone age peoples, suggesting the introduction of architecture before the domestication of grains. Likewise, the recovery of the elaborate burial site for the shaman would seem to indicate a very central role of spiritual practice in the evolving culture.

This discovery also provides further proof that religious leadership was not the sole province of men, in prehistory. Not only was this woman a shaman, she was an important enough figure to require a very involved burial. The idea of women as key figures in prehistoric civilizations has challenged more traditional archaeological views, for some time. Whether these were matriarchal cultures, or simply more gender neutral, continues to be debated, but there is increasing evidence that women held leadership roles in prehistory. In the prologue of Motherpeace, Vicki Noble explains the archaeological finds that inspired much of the artwork in the tarot deck of the same name.

Scholars are coming to acknowledge that the Goddess was alive in the prehistoric imagination and that her images represented a human commitment to "fertility" and "nature." Early religion revolved around "fertility cults" in which the Great Mother was worshiped and women acted as her priestesses. Found in many parts of the ancient world, these fertility religions extended as far back into the prehistoric Ice Age, reflecting the abundance of the Earth Mother and the biological mysteries of the female group. The characteristic features of a "fertility figure" are pendulus breasts, a fat, generally pregnant belly, and well-marked you (female genitalia). Probably the best-known example is the "Venus of Willendorf"...The Venus of Willendorf, Side View of Female Figurine, Gravettian Culture, Upper Paleolithic Period

In contrast to fertility cults is another form of ancient religion, known as shamanism, generally regarded as a predominantly male religious calling. Shamanism is a religion of ecstasy, associated most often with the ability of the spirit-body to detach from the physical body and fly like a bird to the spirit realms. The object of shaman "journeys" is usually a healing of the physical body or the human spirit, of the individual or the community at large.

A shaman's ability to leave the physical body is often represented in art by a bird, a human with the head of a bird, or a figure without a head (suggesting death of the ego). Similarly, a potential shaman may dream of losing his head or, in many cases, of total dismemberment and rebirth as a new being. Through trance journeys into the cosmos, the shaman learns to live in both worlds -- material and spiritual -- saving lost souls and dealing directly with the supernatural. Shamans always have animal "helpers" or "allies," just as witches have their "familiars." The shaman journeys to the other side and communes with the animals in order to take on some of their power and to learn things out of reach of ordinary human consciousness. [emphasis added]

Historically, the largely masculine field of archaeology has been baffled by the prevalence of female representation in prehistoric art and iconography.

Today, in a largely patriarchal world, these prehistoric and "primitive" Goddess images of dignity and quiet religious power challenge existing paradigms of our culture and open the way for spiritual transformation. Yet even in the case of these Goddess images, some contemporary scholars blandly assume that the artists were men. Until recently scholars could get away with asking, "When were there ever great women artists?" Their next step is the assumption that prehistoric man painted what "turned him on," and the conclusion that he must have liked his women fat -- such as the broad-hipped, full-breasted, pregnant "Venus" figurines. Perhaps, as in the age of Rubens, cave men did appreciate a full figure -- how will we ever know? But to reduce the Goddess images to Paleolithic pin-ups is wholly to miss their numinous power, as well as the likelihood that they were created by the female "in her own image."

I like to think that there have been advances in the thinking of archaeologists since the time of that writing. The discovery of this very important female shaman should bring us still further.

Nov 13, 2008

Newly Discovered Pyramid at Saqqara

Announced on 11/11 by Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass, what remains of a 4,300 year old pyramid is being excavated in Saqqara.

The discovery is the third known subsidiary, or satellite, pyramid to the tomb of Teti. It's also the second pyramid found this year in Saqqara, an ancient royal burial complex near current-day Cairo.

. . .

"This might be the most complete subsidiary pyramid ever found at Saqqara," added Hawass, who is also a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence.

The pyramid is believed to be the tomb of Queen Sesheshet, whose son Teti was the first of King of the 6th Dynasty.

Sesheshet's son Teti might have been more motivated than the average pharaoh to pay homage to his mother. Sesheshet had come from a powerful family and probably supported his ascendancy to the throne during turmoil at the end of the 5th dynasty.

"She's one of the important ladies at that time," said Hakim Haddad, general director of excavations in Egypt.

"At the end of the 5th dynasty and the beginning of the 6th dynasty, there was a conflict between two branches of the royal families."

. . .

"You can discover a tomb or a statue, but to discover a pyramid it makes you happy. And a pyramid of a queen—queens have magic."

"Queens have magic," says the very not metaphysical Hawas. Hmm... Well, they can do some very cool things on a chess board. But, in all seriousness, this statement has me thinking. That's not an aspect of the queen archetype I've ever given a lot of thought to. Let's face it. Queens are practically superfluous in most fairy tales... unless they're wicked stepmothers. And, there are certainly many evil, magical queens. The story of Snow White comes to mind. And, of course, Susan Sarandon (Queen Narissa) in the very dear fairy tale send-up, Enchanted. She turned out to be a giant, malevolent dragon. (Shades of Melusine?) And, of course, there's the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Yes, many black magic practicing queens, I can think of. But I digress...

Nov 9, 2008

World's Oldest Temple?

Certainly, the oldest yet discovered. Predating Stonehenge by some 6,000 years Gobekli Tepe, is the first known temple to be built by stone age hunter-gatherers. Smithsonian Magazine, this month, profiles the recently discovered archaeological find, which once again, turns our conception of history on its ear.

Gobekli Tepe was first examined—and dismissed—by University of Chicago and Istanbul University anthropologists in the 1960s. As part of a sweeping survey of the region, they visited the hill, saw some broken slabs of limestone and assumed the mound was nothing more than an abandoned medieval cemetery. In 1994, Schmidt was working on his own survey of prehistoric sites in the region. After reading a brief mention of the stone-littered hilltop in the University of Chicago researchers' report, he decided to go there himself. From the moment he first saw it, he knew the place was extraordinary.

. . .

Schmidt returned a year later with five colleagues and they uncovered the first megaliths, a few buried so close to the surface they were scarred by plows. As the archaeologists dug deeper, they unearthed pillars arranged in circles. Schmidt's team, however, found none of the telltale signs of a settlement: no cooking hearths, houses or trash pits, and none of the clay fertility figurines that litter nearby sites of about the same age. The archaeologists did find evidence of tool use, including stone hammers and blades. And because those artifacts closely resemble others from nearby sites previously carbon-dated to about 9000 B.C., Schmidt and co-workers estimate that Gobekli Tepe's stone structures are the same age. Limited carbon dating undertaken by Schmidt at the site confirms this assessment.

What is truly striking about the dating of this site, is that it places its initial construction before the Neolithic Revolution; that is to say, the advent of agriculture. The Wikipedia entry on the site explains:

Göbekli Tepe can be seen as an archaeological discovery of the greatest possible importance, since it profoundly changes our understanding of a vital point in the development of human societies. Apparently, the erection of monumental complexes was within the capacities of hunter-gatherers and not only of sedentary farming communities as had been assumed hitherto. In other words, as Klaus Schmidt put it: "First came the temple, then the city". This revolutionary hypothesis will have to be supported or modified by future research.
What does it say about the role of religion in ancient cultures, that such incredibly elaborate masterpieces were painstakingly carved from stone tools, and were the very hub of their evolving community? Could this actually be a peek into the spiritual beliefs our pre-historic ancestors?

What was so important to these early people that they gathered to build (and bury) the stone rings? The gulf that separates us from Gobekli Tepe's builders is almost unimaginable. Indeed, though I stood among the looming megaliths eager to take in their meaning, they didn't speak to me. They were utterly foreign, placed there by people who saw the world in a way I will never comprehend. There are no sources to explain what the symbols might mean. Schmidt agrees. "We're 6,000 years before the invention of writing here," he says.

"There's more time between Gobekli Tepe and the Sumerian clay tablets [etched in 3300 B.C.] than from Sumer to today," says Gary Rollefson, an archaeologist at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, who is familiar with Schmidt's work. "Trying to pick out symbolism from prehistoric context is an exercise in futility."

That doesn't stop Schmidt from speculating, however.

The excavator, Klaus Schmidt, has engaged in some speculation regarding the belief systems of the groups that created Göbekli Tepe, based on comparisons with other shrines and settlements. He assumes shamanic practices and suggests that the T-shaped pillars may represent mythical creatures, perhaps ancestors, whereas he sees a fully articulated belief in gods only developing later in Mesopotamia, associated with extensive temples and palaces. This corresponds well with the Sumerian tradition of an old belief that agriculture, animal husbandry and weaving had been brought to humankind from the sacred mountain Du-Ku, which was inhabited by Annuna-deities, very ancient gods without individual names. Klaus Schmidt identifies this story as an oriental primeval myth that preserves a partial memory of the Neolithic. It is also apparent that the animal and other images are peaceful in character and give no indications of organised violence.

The intricate animal carvings catch the eye immediately, of course, and suggest shamanic practices. In Supernatural, Graham Hancock makes the case that shamanic experiences led to the sudden development of art, symbolic thinking, and early civilization (pp. 29-31).

Whether we find its traces in Australia, Asia Africa, or Europe, it is simply impossible to overstate the uniqueness and peculiarity of the evolutionary event by which we were drawn into fully modern consciousness and the fully modern capacity for symbolism and culture, religion, and art. No ancestor in the human lineage had ever made use of any form of symbolism before, and needless to say, no other animal species had ever done so either. But the switching-on of humanity's symbol-making capacity between approximately 100,000 and 40,000 years ago was the change that changed everything.

. . .

What adds to the mystery of this amazing stepping-up for our effectiveness and competitiveness is that it was not accompanied or immediately preceded by any obvious anatomical change. There was, for example, no increase in human brain size between 100,000 and 40,000 years ago. On the contrary, the fossil record shows that today's average of around 1,350 cubic centimeters had already been attained by our ancestors in Africa as early as half a million years ago -- even before full anatomical modernity was reached -- and has since remained relatively stable. We are therefore obliged to ask why it was that humans with identical brains, looks, and genes to ours nevertheless behaved so very differently from us for the first 100,000 years of their existence (i.e. from roughly 200,000 to roughly 100,ooo years ago) -- so differently, in fact, that they seem almost like another species. And why did they then embark on an immense behavior metamorphosis -- that would not hit critical mass until around 40,000 years ago -- to become innovative and artistic, symbolic and cultured, religious and self-aware? What caused the momentous change of direction and destiny, hitherto unparalleled in the history of life on earth, that gave birth to modern human culture?

. . .

For Ian Tattershall of the American Museum of Natural History, the problem posed by this gap -- and what happened to our ancestors during it -- is the "question of questions in paleoanthropology. His collegue, Professor David Lewis-Williams of the Rock Art Research Institute at South Africa's Witwatersrand University, describes the same problem as "the greatest riddle of archaeology -- how we became human and in the process began to make art and practice what we call religion.

(There is more on this theory of ancient shamanism and images of paleolithic art here.)

Further insight into the spiritual underpinnings manifested here, could be hinted at by the name. Gobekli Tepe translates into "belly hill" or "hill with a belly," depending on whom you read. What immediately sprung to my mind was the possibility that the reference is to the navel. Indeed, the Wikipedia entry also refers to Gobekli Tepe as "Navel Mountain." If so, the reference puts it in line with numerous sacred sites around the world. Hancock explains in Heaven's Mirror (p. 250).

Easter Island was called 'Eyes Looking at Heaven ', but it was also called Te-Pto-O-Te-Henua, 'The Navel of the World', a name that was supposedly bestowed on it by the god-king Hotu Matua himself. What is strange, as we shall see in Part V, is that it shares his name with Cuzco -- meaning 'Navel' -- the incredible megalithic capital of the Inca empire high up in the Pervuian Andes. Moreover, the same name, or idea, was applied in ancient times to many other ritual and sacred 'places of honour in the middle'. In all cases where there is sufficient evidence to make a judgement, these turn out to have been revered as centres of geodesy and geometry and of the related art of geomancy -- a word that means literally, 'earth divination'.

Frequently such 'Navels of the Earth' also prove to have associations with meteorites -- stones fallen from heaven. Many will have their own 'navel stone', or 'sunstone', or 'foundation stone', which wil sometimes be accompanied by a tradition of a rod or pillar sunk into the earth or of an obelisk raised up. Each will additionally be depicted as a primordial centre of creation, from which all esle grows: 'The Holy One created the world like an embryo. As the embryo proceeds from the navel outwards, so God began to create the world from its navel onwards, and from there it was spread out in different directions.'

For some unknown reason, Gobekli Tepe was not gradually abandoned as the civilization evolved. It was abruptly and, apparently, deliberately covered with soil around 8000 BC. While this kept it hidden for thousands of years, it has provided for a remarkably well-preserved site to be unearthed all these years later by Klaus Schmidt and his team.


Nov 7, 2008

Do We Need God to be Moral?

Facsimile Copy of Exodus 34 1-10 Moses Receives the Second Tablets with the Ten Commandments

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Some years ago, I watched an episode of "Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher," that has always stuck with me. The topic was the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal, which was erupting dramatically into the headlines. I don't remember who all was on the show, but I vividly remember a collision between Sandra Bernhard and some right wing fundamentalist. His point was that the Catholic Church was doing all these sinful things because they were not following scripture strictly enough. They were religious, but not religious enough, and needed to get right with God. It got pretty ugly from there. I was utterly struck by the absurdity. How is it, I thought, that the openly atheistic Bill Maher and a bisexual, secular Jew like Bernhard had managed to figure out that sexually abusing children is wrong, when a disturbing number of Catholic priests had not. How, then, is more religion the answer?

Sex abuse, of all things, does not really seem to be inhibited by religion or any strictly enforced moral code. Louise DeSalvo explains, for instance, that it was epidemic during the straight-laced Victorian era, in Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work. There have been several high profile cases in Amish communities, where by some measures, it is rampant. Some of the most heinous crimes do not seem to be deterred by religious piety.

This issue came to mind as I was reading an article in Slate, this morning, which addresses the question of kindness and generosity in the religious vs. the atheistic.

In a review published in Science last month, psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff discuss several experiments that lean pro-[Dr. Laura] Schlessinger. In one of their own studies, they primed half the participants with a spirituality-themed word jumble (including the words divine and God) and gave the other half the same task with nonspiritual words. Then, they gave all the participants $10 each and told them that they could either keep it or share their cash reward with another (anonymous) subject. Ultimately, the spiritual-jumble group parted with more than twice as much money as the control. Norenzayan and Shariff suggest that this lopsided outcome is the result of an evolutionary imperative to care about one's reputation. If you think about God, you believe someone is watching. This argument is bolstered by other research that they review showing that people are more generous and less likely to cheat when others are around. More surprisingly, people also behave better when exposed to posters with eyes on them.

So, it's not, so much, God, who keeps us on the straight and narrow. It's eyes. All of which seems to point to the notion that our moral compass is entirely externally imposed and motivated. If the research is accurate, that would seem to be the answer, at least in the United States. And, there's the rub. It seems that when we look beyond our own borders, this argument runs into trouble.

It is at this point that the "We need God to be good" case falls apart. Countries worthy of consideration aren't those like North Korea and China, where religion is savagely repressed, but those in which people freely choose atheism. In his new book, Society without God, Phil Zuckerman looks at the Danes and the Swedes—probably the most godless people on Earth. They don't go to church or pray in the privacy of their own homes; they don't believe in God or heaven or hell. But, by any reasonable standard, they're nice to one another. They have a famously expansive welfare and health care service. They have a strong commitment to social equality. And—even without belief in a God looming over them—they murder and rape one another significantly less frequently than Americans do.

Denmark and Sweden aren't exceptions. A 2005 study by Gregory Paul looking at 18 democracies found that the more atheist societies tended to have relatively low murder and suicide rates and relatively low incidence of abortion and teen pregnancy.

Slate's Paul Bloom postulates that it is not so much "God" or, even, religious doctrine that moderates our behavior, but a strong sense of community.

The Danes and the Swedes, despite being godless, have strong communities. In fact, Zuckerman points out that most Danes and Swedes identify themselves as Christian. They get married in church, have their babies baptized, give some of their income to the church, and feel attached to their religious community—they just don't believe in God. Zuckerman suggests that Scandinavian Christians are a lot like American Jews, who are also highly secularized in belief and practice, have strong communal feelings, and tend to be well-behaved.

American atheists, by contrast, are often left out of community life. The studies that Brooks cites in Gross National Happiness, which find that the religious are happier and more generous then the secular, do not define religious and secular in terms of belief. They define it in terms of religious attendance. It is not hard to see how being left out of one of the dominant modes of American togetherness can have a corrosive effect on morality. As P.Z. Myers, the biologist and prominent atheist, puts it, "[S]cattered individuals who are excluded from communities do not receive the benefits of community, nor do they feel willing to contribute to the communities that exclude them."

Although, even extremely cohesive community doesn't seem to prevent some of the more hideous abuses I discussed above, the idea does have a certain resonance. The key seems to be in our shared experience and empathy. And, empathy appears to be a natural part of our human development. Children who are raised in safe, nurturing environments become increasingly empathetic throughout their early development. Those who do not, develop with varying degrees of attachment disorder, with some abused and neglected children demonstrating a complete incapacity for empathy. Some of those start abusing others when they are still children. Religion seems irrelevant, when we view it through that prism. In fact, some religious constructs, such as "Spare the rod, spoil the child," would appear to run directly contrary to healthy development of an innate moral compass. If our only impediment to antisocial behavior is fear of judgment and punishment, something is just horribly wrong. It is also less likely to be consistent, inclining people towards secrecy and shame.

I am always somewhat amused when people say, "You can't legislate morality." In point of fact, we legislate morality all the time. Prohibitions against murder, theft, rape, and a litany of other crimes are based on fairly universal taboos, that seem to arise pretty naturally. We don't need the Ten Commandments to tell us that murder is wrong. I have yet to meet the atheist who disagrees.

Nov 2, 2008

That One

William Henry recently made an observation on his blog, that made me chuckle. He thinks Barack Obama looks a lot like the Akhenaten (Akhenaton, Amemhotep IV). I could see that.

When John McCain pointed to Obama and said “That One” during the debate – sending a karate chop at his opponent who had voted for an energy bill - I had to put my guitar down.

I picked up my cat Boo and said, “Tell me he didn’t just call Barackhenaton ‘That One’ (or ‘Th-At-one’ or ‘Th-Atone’), because ‘The Aton’ or ‘The Atone’ is the name of the God worshipped by Ackhenaton.”

Statue of Pharaoh Akhenaten, Also Known as Amenhotep IV, Roman Museum of AntiquitiesMcCain supporters deny he meant anything in particular by the stinging remark. Obama supporters claim a racist tone in the dehumanizing term. Apparently, to McCain, Obama is not a person, he’s a thing.

I think McCain was psychically picking up on the whole Barackhenaton vibe. “That One”, “Th-At-One” or “Th-Atone”.

I had a very similar thought when I heard McCain's "that one," slur. Particularly, when it started to gain traction as a meme. Not for the first time, I was compelled to reflect upon some of the deeper symbolism of Obama and his campaign. All celebrities and politicians take on symbolic significance that is larger than their personal identities. They represent many things to many people, and there are archetypal patterns that emerge as they become increasingly prominent. Obama symbolizes unity (one-ness), even more than he does "change." His language is inclusive, eschewing partisan rancor.

RACHEL MADDOW, HOST: Senator, you criticize the Bush administration frequently. But, you almost never criticize the Republican Party itself. Other Democrats --


MADDOW: Well, yes, actually. I mean, other Democrats, you will hear them talk about the GOP as the party that's been wrong on all the big stuff. Creating Social Security, civil rights, the War in Iraq. But, you don't really do that. Do you think there is a stark difference between the parties?

OBAMA: Well, I do think there's a difference between the parties, but here's my belief. That I'm talking to voters. And I think they're a lot of Republican voters out there, self-identified, who actually think that what the Bush administration has done, has been damaging to the country.

And, what I'm interested in, is how do we build a working majority for change? And if I start off with the premise that it's only self-identified Democrats who I'm speaking to, then I'm not going to get to where we need to go. If I can describe it as not a blanket indictment of the Republican Party, but instead describe it as the Republican Party having been kidnapped by a incompetent, highly ideological subset of the Republican Party, then that means I can still reach out to a whole bunch of Republican moderates who I think are hungry for change, as well.

He represents a union of races, bringing together not only black and white racial identities, which have been so divisive in our nation's history, but many other cultural elements. Because he has Muslim family members and an unfortunate middle name, he is misidentified as Muslim, unintentionally or otherwise. Although he, himself, is not Muslim, he brings that heritage into the mix, which has forced a dialog on the issue of Muslims in American culture and politics. While it has been used as a wedge issue, there is a great opportunity, here, for national and international healing.

I was struck, early in Obama's campaign, at the use of the letter O as a symbol in his advertising and logo. It very directly invokes invokes the sphere.

This is why I find the Akhenaten comparison so germane. It's certainly not because he was a unifier. He was known throughout history as the "heretic king" for his battle with the priests of other gods, particularly the cult of Amun. For his radical revision of Egyptian religion, much of his legacy was defaced shortly after his mysterious death. But, his greater purpose, and arguably effect, was to introduce the concept of unity consciousness. By instituting a law of one, and enforcing a worship of only one god, he brought forth that mystical construct symbolically. Like Obama, he employed the image of the sphere. His god the Aten, the noon-day sun, had no face; no anthropomorphic identity. He made worship of the solar disc, the law of the land.

The underlying point of mythical references to "the one" -- whether it be Jesus Christ, Neo, Obama, a life partner, or any other "savior" we seek -- is that the term does not really refer to a person. It is numerical code, which pervades our mythology and is hardwired into our consciousness. It represents what is, in fact, the "Christ consciousness," and that is one-ness. Our quest is to remember that there is no "other." There is only all that is. This deep mystical underpinning is played out in our democratic process and referenced in our national motto: "E pluribus unum." (Out of many, one.)

"We are the ones we have been waiting for. We are the change we seek."

-- Barack Obama, quoting either Alice Walker, June Jordan, or the Hopi Elders, depending on whom you ask