Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Won't Get Fooled Again: Oh Really?

Last Monday was April Fool’s Day, I think it may be my favourite day of the year. Why you may well ask? Well because we all fall for them, no matter how clever we may think we are; we all get suckered into believing the nonsense from time to time, no matter how clever or rational we may think we are. I love April Fools Day because it brings us down to right size, to our fully human level, it reminds us that we are not as clever as we may think we are, it keeps us humble, it reminds us that we are fully human.

My favourite one this year was not actually an April Fool by design and actually occurred before the official date, in fact it was launched just a few days before Easter (I'm sure that someone will argue that it wasn't one as it did not occur on the official date, well who cares? It certainly worked like one). It was a meme about Ishtar, a Babylonian fertility God who the poster claimed Easter was named after. Now this went viral within a few days and was all over the internet. I received several postings myself and those of an anti-religious bent really went to town on it. Stephen Fry and his followers spread it all over twitter. Some 70,000 facebook followers of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science shared it with anyone in their circles. People just went crazy over it and seemed to use it as a launching pad to attack Christianity, during its most important week of the year. The meme itself read:

“This is Ishtar”, pronounced “Easter”: Easter was originally the celebration of Ishtar, the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility and sex. Her symbols (like the egg and the bunny) were and still are fertility and sex symbols (or did you actually think eggs and bunnies had anything to do with the resurrection?). After Constantine decided to Christianize the Empire, Easter was changed to represent Jesus. But at its roots, Easter (which is how you pronounce Ishtar) is all about celebrating fertility and sex.”

(I wonder if anyone reading this blog fell for this one) 

The fact is that very little of this is true. While very few people doubt that Easter is a blend of both pagan and Christian traditions it has absolutely nothing to do with this Assyrian and Babylonian goddess. There have been several rebuttles of this over the last few days, showing that just a little bit of research into the subject would have revealed the utter nonsense that was being claimed. It was eventually removed from The Dawkins Foundation site and others too. I do hope that in the future Stephen Fry brings this up on his excellent quiz show OI, it would be a wonderful act of humilty on his part if he did.

This is a link to my favourite critique. I take issue with a couple of points, but it is more or less accurate, the writer certainly did not disable her rational faculties while writing it.

Now what really made me think about all this was the frenzy of excitement that it brought about in so many people who seemingly cast aside all reason and sense just to attack a religion and those who follow it in its many guises. Some of the comments I read were so hate filled it was disturbing, especially from people who claim reason and understanding, there was no sign of any of it. As a couple of friends of mine who are themselves atheists have said they were appalled by it, adding further that they really dislike the kind of anti-religious zealotry espoused by Professor Dawkins and his brand of atheism.

Now while all this was going on Lord Carey, the former Arch Bishop of Canterbury was also all over the news claiming that Christians were being marginalised in this country. He has been roundly criticised for this in many quarters. Certainly it seems difficult for a man who has a seat in the House of Lord, just because of his former position, to claim that he is a marginalised member of society. That said there does appear to be an increase in anti-religious feeling both in this country and around the world. It has impacted my own Unitarian tradition too, we who claim to be a free religion. Only a few weeks ago the Wayside pulpit at Altrincham was defaced. It had originally read “You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist”, nothing offensive in that you would think. This had been covered up another poster that read instead “Religion Is A Lie: Now Stop Worrying And Go Enjoy Your Life”. No doubt this was inspired by the British Humanist Association Campaign, fronted by professor Dawkins, of a couple of years ago. If you remember the campaign placed posters on buses up and down the country reading “There’s Probably No God: Now Stop Worrying And Go Enjoy Your Life”. Now I’m all for people stopping worrying and enjoying their lives and people are entitled to put whatever posters they like on buses. That said I’m not sure it’s ok to deface others open and loving messages or to maliciously and aggressively attack them in other ways. This is especially so when you haven’t even got your facts straight and your unreasoning prejudice just leads to hatred. How can anyone justify that?

Anyway back to the original subject...

What I really love about April Fools Day is that it saves us from our greatest danger “Hubris”

Hubris is the Ancient Greek word for over stretching ourselves; it translates as arrogance or overwhelming pride. The ancient Greeks saw Hubris as the very root of tragedy. Their tragic dramas, played out at their religious festivals centred on human beings, often rulers who forgot their human limitations. In these tragedies the audiences were reminded of the dangers of acting like immortals or Gods. They taught the value of knowing themselves, who they really are and to know what it is to be truly human.

Hubris of course manifests itself in many forms. The one place it appears where you’d think it ought not to is in religion. Yet it’s probably more obvious there than in any other area of life. Those who believe they have a direct link to God and know not only what God’s will for themselves is, but what it is for everyone else do appear to be suffering from the worst form of hubris. My response to such thinking is usually “Come off it who do you think you are?” By trying to convert a person to your way of believing seems like the worst kind of Hubris to me. Although of course if I’m honest I’ve suffered from it myself from time to time. I could be accused of it now, while writing this blog. I do hope that when I am critical of other people's beliefs I do so in a loving way and I do not lose my rational faculties. I'm sure I fail from time to time, but then I am far from perfect. What do I know?
Sceptics also fall into the trap of hubris too. To belittle someone’s genuine faith by calling it a superstition or merely a crutch is deeply disrespectful. It certainly does not honour or respect their humanity. No one can ever truly know what is to have walked in another’s shoes and to have lived their lives. To be smug about one’s personal so called rationalism seems like the worst kind of arrogance to me. The question I’d like to ask is why we need to spend our time proving what someone else genuinely believes as wrong or false or immature, wherever we find ourselves on the faith spectrum? That said, once again, I have to hold up my hand and admit that it’s not something I’m immune from. As I heard someone say many years ago “To be right you don’t have to make anybody else wrong” 
I need to remember that one more often. “To be right you don’t have to make anybody else wrong.”

Sadly so many of us spend our time attempting to do so...We do not "have" to, but so often we do.

Hubris is an insidious beast. We often fail to see it in ourselves. Because Hubris is so well hidden in ourselves it can have a nasty habit of sneaking up on us. Why you may well ask? Well because it is neatly packaged as the virtue of truthfulness and righteousness.
Fortunately there exists a healthy antidote to hubris, humility!
Humility may well be humanities greatest virtue. It is essentially about accepting our human limitations. By doing so we become teachable, we learn from others, which leads not only to us improving our own lives but the world that we inhabit but do not own;  which in turn leads us to nurture and develop healthy relationships with other people. By recognising that we are not, nor do we speak for God we will open ourselves up to voice of transcendence as it speaks to us in life. In doing so we will be honouring life itself as sacred, which will hopefully lead to us taking care of what is our responsibility; our own lives mind, body and soul, our families, our homes, our friendships, our communities, our planet.

Hubris for me can be the most inhibiting and potentially dangerous delusion a human being can suffer from. In the end it actually stops us living the best life we can. Humility on the other hand helps us to see the truth about ourselves “Warts and all and beauty spots too”. From here we can honestly improve our own lives and those who we share this spinning planet with. It achieves more than that though. It draws us closer together not only to one another but to this amazing universe that we play a small but vital role in. The dangers stem from losing sight of this and believing that this universe and rest of humanity revolves around us and is there to do our bidding.
We all know so little and we can all easily be hoodwinked into believing almost anything, no matter how clever and rational we think we are. As the Ishtar meme seemed to prove as it went viral last week. So many people who claimed to live by reason and science loved it as it allowed them to pour scorn on those folk they believed were irrational and stupid, well in the end it is they who ended up with egg on their faces and looked both irrational and hate filled.

Oh well it can happen to us all. I think that’s why I love April Fool’s Day so much, because it reminds me we aren’t as clever as we think we are, we are still fully human and truth be told we know so very little about most things. By the way that’s a good thing, because it leaves us open to experiences way beyond our imaginations.

I’m going to end this little chip of a blog with some words from my old favourite. Good old Forrest Church, words on humility and openness...oh and then a fantastic clip of a fabulous song...

“In every field of human inquiry, ignorance increases as knowledge grows. The Greek philosopher Socrates once said, “I am the most ignorant man in Athens.” He wasn’t indulging in false modesty. He was pointing out that others, knowing far less, had no idea how ignorant they were. Socrate’s ignorance, the knowledge of how much remained for him to learn, expanded in direct proportion to his learning. Of both belief and knowledge, the same is true for us. When reflecting on several years of contemplation on the origins of the cosmos, one cosmologist sighed, “It’s not only queerer than we imagined; it’s queerer than can be imagined.”

“Whether informed by religion or by science, our minds cannot unwrap life’s mystery. This is why, in offering evidence to corroborate religious truth, true believers may more honestly be accused of being too rational than too irrational. They are not alone. We all use our minds to figure out things that can’t be deciphered by anything as small as our minds. On the one hand, the attempt is a noble one. Trying to decode life’s mystery is what makes us human.”

“Balancing these two apparent contradictions. I base my own theology on contrasting principles: openness and humility. No ceiling limits the expansion of the human heart. Yet, humility teaches that when death visits, we will have attained only a flickering notion of what life and death are all about. The light we discover will be framed by darkness. But, when we ponder the nature of our shared mortality, meaning may begin to emerge. Not unlike when we leave a warm, brightly lit room, go outdoors, and contemplate a dark winter sky: one by one the stars come out.”

1 comment:

  1. .

    Regards Easter = Ishtar.

    Actually, Easter and the Easter-egg came from the Egyptian Isis.

    In Egyptian Isis was called Ast or Est, from which we derive Ester or Easter (referring to a star or the heavens). And remember that Isis-Est was a fertility goddess, as much as she was the Queen of Heaven.

    And the Easter-egg came from the spelling, because Est was spelt with the easter-egg glyph. So yes, there are associations with fertility in the symbology of Est (Isis). Oh, and Ishtar (Isht-ar) came from the Egyptian Est (Isis), and not the other way around.

    (See: Cleopatra to Christ)