RJB V: Science Fiction and the Gospels

My kingdom is not of this world. – Jesus of Nazareth

The Parable of the Weeds is one of the strangest portions of the Gospel, and in fact many believers in UFO phenomena have drawn inspiration from it, arguing that “angels” are extraterrestrial beings (“harvesters”, or sometimes “gardeners”, in the Gospel parable), that Jesus’ supposed transfiguration at Gethsemane was an alien visitation, and making many other spurious claims. It is found just after the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13, and is explained later in the same chapter.

Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

“The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

“‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

“‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

… Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”

He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

“As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.

So according to this parable, at “the end of the age” the good people will be harvested, and the evil people will be burned in the fire. It’s not difficult to speculate about the end of Earth including fire. Ragnarok, the Norse end-of-days myth, also features the demonic hordes of Surt (the “fire giants”) attacking the Earth from the south. Modern science postulates that the sun, like every star, has a life cycle and will grow and eventually consume all the inner terrestrial planets before exploding as a super nova. We won’t live to see it, however: that is scheduled to happen within at least 3 billion years. Our descendants, if they survive, will have already colonized many other worlds.

There is an interesting link between some of the parables in the Gospels and science fiction folklore. In fact, the Urantia Book seems to have been inspired by the Gospels and seems to constitute an attempt at producing a sci-fi version of the Bible. Science fiction authors have often drawn inspiration from the parables of the sower and of the weeds, and in fact in a previous blog I reviewed the book Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, whose heroine created a new religion known as Earthseed which featured a prophecy about humans populating the heavens. Earthseed has inspired a new generation of female and minority science fiction writers (most heroines in Butler’s literature are black women), and some even treat it as a religion.

Clearly, all things in nature have life cycles, and so does Earth. There are two possible attitudes we may adopt with regards to this. The parable of the weeds presumes that humans will never leave this planet and will have to wait to be harvested by aliens, or angels, or whatever we decide to call beings from other worlds. The alternative attitude, the one we see in humanism and in humanism-inspired triumphalism and science fiction folklore (as we see in Earthseed), requires that we humans become the harvesters, the gardeners, that we terraform and colonize multiple worlds rather than await the rapture.

This second attitude is the one assumed by billionaire Elon Musk, who plans to build a city and colony in Mars with one million people in this century. This is in order to make sure that it is a viable habitat for Humanity 2.0, and to make sure that there’s enough manpower for the mines and other entrepreneurial initiatives which will finance the entire project. There are at least six countries contemplating similar projects, and at least one other private Mars colony effort (the Mars One mission). The logic behind this is simple: we will eventually become the next dinosaurs if we do not tackle this moral, scientific, and humanitarian challenge. If at least a percentage of all the people who are attempting this achieve their goal, either the parable of the weeds will be obsolete, or the descendants of the post-human races that evolve elsewhere may choose to become the angels or harvesters mentioned in the Gospels. There’s something about science fiction, which is what makes is so fascinating as a genre, that produces self-fulfilling prophecies.

The key about this parable is that, if there ever IS a humanly planned rapture and if ever the more advanced portion of transplanetary humanity has to choose who on Earth gets to survive and who doesn’t, it will really be a final judgement kind of scenario. One interesting exercise is for us to look at all the human societies on Earth today and to choose whom we would save and whom we would not save, if we had limited resources and an asteroid was about to hit the planet. It’s an interesting ethical question, and one that may one day face the most advanced among us.

As for Jesus, it’s interesting to note that, time and again, he made the point to remind people that he chose harlots over his religious peers.

Further Reading:
Parable of the Sower Book Review

Elon Musk: We Must Leave Earth For One Critical Reason

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Happy Twentieth: On Passing-By

Happy 20th of September to all the Epicureans everywhere. This month I’ll be following up on my Atheism 2.1 piece, which discusses the tensions between militant atheism and ataraxia, and sharing a precept given to us by Grandfather Nietzsche which might apply specifically to contemporary atheist fanatics.

Yes, there is such a thing. The increased frequency of terrorist attacks and the rise in rabid, insolent homophobia after the legalization of gay marriage, understandably have the power to anger people of atheistic conviction who are already indignant. However, it is up to us to guard our minds and our characters constantly when we live in a world plagued by so many evils, both religious and secular.

We are not, as mere individuals, going to fix the world and all of its problems. We’re only going to have to live in it, and very few people attain the stamina to be able to “not give a shit”, which is what philosopher and comedian George Carlin suggests we do, but we would be wise to adjust our art of living to the nature of things, and to accept the limits of how much we can do to beautify the world so that we can still enjoy our walking on this Earth.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche beautifully provides us with medicine for this disease in the form of the Passing-by precept. He first must diagnose the disease. The sick man is a “foaming fool” who “lives in a swamp” against the backdrop of the great city, and asks Zarathustra to spit on the scum of the great city.

The following teaching is for the “apes of Zarathustra”, a specific kind of atheistic soul which is endlessly indignant at the world and has not allowed himself to create a pleasant life–always complaining about what’s wrong with society and parroting the teachings of the philosopher. Keep in mind that in the allegorical world of TSZ, the ape is something that we are called to overcome, that we must challenge ourselves in a process of constant self-betterment in order to be superior to the ape we are evolving from.

But the fool is also called a grunting pig–because he chose to settle in filth, in a swamp. But we can also read this as a reference to the members of Epicurus’ herd who are failing to live according to the teachings, who should know better.

Stop this at once! called out Zarathustra, long have your speech and  your species disgusted me!
Why didst you live so long by the swamp, that you yourself had to become a frog and a toad?
… Why did you not go into the forest? Or why didst you not till the  ground? Is the sea not full of green islands?
They call you my ape, you foaming fool: but I call you my grunting pig,  – by your grunting, you spoil even my praise of folly.
What was it that first made you grunt? Because no one sufficiently flattered you: – therefore didst you seat yourself beside this filth, that you  might have cause for much grunting,-
-That you might have cause for much vengeance! For vengeance, you  vain fool, is all your foaming; I have divined you well!
But your fools’-word injures me, even when you are right! And even if  Zarathustra’s word were a hundred times justified, you would ever – do  wrong with my word!
… This precept, however, give I to you, in parting, you fool: Where one  can no longer love, there should one – pass by!
Thus spoke Zarathustra, and passed by the fool and the great city.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra 3:7

In Epicurean teachings, the great city could be equated with the polis, the state, or the mobs: Epicurus told us to not be too concerned with the polis and instead to take refuge in our familiar communities, and that politics is not the way to happiness. Zarathustra here says that life can only be pleasant if we live in a place where we can love.

Look for opportunities in your life in which you may be able to take the advise given here: whenever you encounter a swamp, whenever you encounter the scum of the great city, do not take refuge there and do not become habituated to it like a toad. There will always be filth somewhere. You do not have to live in its immediacy. Instead, pass by.

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RJB IV: On Chosenness and the Parable of the Wedding Banquet

Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.

… “Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.

“Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

Matthew 22:1-14

Chosenness is one of the most controversial and problematic beliefs born from the Bible. One way in which religious Jews deal with the notion of chosenness is by claiming that they are choosing to be Jewish, because it is obvious that most Jews today either are atheists or live as atheists and do not choose Judaism in their daily lives. How can there be a chosen people, a people chosen by a god, if the individuals in that group persistently choose not to associate with their God?

Furthermore, few religious people stop to consider the act of violence, of spiritual colonialism, that divine chosenness represents. It is an attack on our right to choose an identity and to be individuals.

Christians take this parable, on the other hand, as a way to say that they are the new chosen … but even in the parable, the majority of those who make “the” choice may be turned away–and even tortured–if unprepared. This all seems pointless. However, there might be something in nature that is experienced as a form of chosenness. Rather than this supernatural chosenness, the closest thing to it in nature might be the various kinds of beings produced by natural selection (races, genetic types), each set “chosen” for their niche.

The parable of the wedding banquet can be read as an indictment against chosenness, as it recognizes that there are serious problems with this notion. The need for a clear post-colonial theology has been somewhat filled by the Bahá’í Faith, which teaches that any and all tribes and nations who take refuge in God are all peoples of God, however the majority of Christians, Jews, and Muslims still believe in some form of chosenness narrative, with the false pretensions of racial and/or moral superiority inherent in the belief, that tempt even the most mediocre of souls.

As opposed to this abduction into an arbitrary identity, an individual may freely choose and will to become an Epicurean or a member of any other group, via conversion (the Philodeman oath said: “I am a follower of Epicurean philosophy, according to which it has been my CHOICE to live“). An act of conversion might facilitate inner reconciliation and moral reform, a conscious transformation of the self for the better that can be truly experienced and lived. Most importantly, it would be authentic, not imposed. People should, therefore, reject notions of chosenness and become choosing, conscious, free and willing proponents and creators of their own identities.

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The Likeness of Haile Selassie and Colin Kaepernick

I noticed this recently. When their pictures are set side by side, it’s shocking how much Colin Kaepernick looks like Ethiopian emperor Ras Tafari Makonnen, aka Haile Selassie … not to mention their anti-Babylon (anti-Western imperialism) politics are similar. Here are two sample pictures.


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God and the Atom: Book Review

Victor J Stenger, who passed away a couple of years ago, was one of the staunchest defenders of the classical model of physics, the one that remains truest to the original model invented by the Leucippus-Democritus dynamic duo and perfected by Epicurus and his friends thousands of years ago.

The book is of particular importance today against the background of “What the Bleep Do We Know” and other, similar, documentaries that use quasi-mystical misinterpretations of quantum theory (neo-Pythagorean sorcery, it seems) to advance obscure New-Agey teachings. Stenger sets the record straight: the quantum field, like all fields and everything else, is made up of particles and void. Fields are made up of points, each with its own value. They are not etheric or liquid or of some substance other than particles and void.

Like Lucretius does in his De Rerum Natura, Stenger gives us familiar observations to explain fundamental aspects of nature. For instance, while explaining how more density = less space available, he notes that the difference in atmospheric pressure in the mountains and at sea proves that a void is possible.

The title of this book, some may argue, is misleading. The book is about the achievements of atomism, and for someone uninitiated like myself, it’s mostly over my head (particularly the algebraic formulas used by particle physicists). The conclusion is the most valuable chapter, and gets closer to the point that the book is making: particle physics may be complicated but it is not, and should not be appropriated by, hocus pocus. The book simply does not delve much into theology because, frankly, there just isn’t any evidence to consider in this regard, and physics requires evidence.

One of the key blows to the God hypothesis, or any other supernatural hypothesis, is the predictability and stability that is represented not by God or any other supernatural agency (which, the author reminds us, is unnecessary in the atomic model), but by the laws of nature. These laws create a model that can be relied upon and which has no underlying intelligences or entities.

Religion peddlers have been always accused of inventing gods of the gaps. In atomism, we leave the gap as it is, without projecting our supernatural fantasies against it: we accept the existence of the void, and also of a natural measure of chaos. The swerve, which in modern physics is compared to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, introduces randomness into the nature of things. It turns out that many people have difficulty accepting randomness, chance, as a factor in nature.

The author also pays attention to the Platonic nature of the supernatural claims against science, and paraphrases my own insights into what I called the emergence paradigm in my article On Why Materialism Matters. There, I argued that the study of nature produces a universe that is organized from the bottom up, never from the top down.

Notice the sense of emergence that is presupposed in materialism.  We believe that, first, there are atoms and molecules, then progressively more complex things.  We believe that from inert matter emerges living matter, and that living things evolve by developing complex symbiotic relations with each other, and only then there emerges egoism, the self, the me versus another in struggle or cooperation, identity and consciousness.

But for the idealist, consciousness is a mysterious word that gets thrown around as if it automatically evidenced a non-natural or supernatural realm.  Worse yet, and in spite of all the evidence that can be attained from the study of nature, they believe that consciousness came first (although it is more complex than inert matter).  While it’s true that living entities have the power to influence their environment, this influence only occurs once they have emerged, once they have evolved consciousness.  But all the living entities emerged from progressively simpler forms, all the way down to the stardust at the dawn of all things.

The book gives us some perspective on how the rejection of Epicurus’ atomic theory halted the progress of scientific thought for an entire millennium, and how Aristotle (who denied the theory of the atom) was revered throughout the Middle Ages by Christians who thought that he vindicated their religious worldview. To this day, the excessive reverence of Aristotle and Plato, together with the demotion of the philosophers who DID describe reality accurately (Democritus, Epicurus) still dominates academic philosophy, as Michel Onfray argues when calling for a Counter-history of Philosophy.

There are many other ways in which Stenger vindicates Epicurus: for instance, he posits that there are primary and secondary properties. Epicurus labeled these secondary properties as “relational”, and they are central to the theories he expounds in his Epistle to Herodotus.

The book God and the Atom is about the many achievements of atomism, focusing more on the scientific ones than in the philosophical, religious or ethical ones–but these other achievements, argued Epicurus, were just as important!

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RJB III: By Their Fruits You Will Know Them

The blog series RJB is based on my reading of the Jefferson Bible for the 21st Century, published by Humanist Press. By extension, it is a secular re-reading and reinterpretation of the Gospels.

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them. – Matthew 7:15-20

The above Gospel passage contains one of the most enduring, common-sense pieces of advise ever given. It is a warning against false Gurus, but might also apply to politicians, good or bad friends, good or bad workers/employers, and so on.

It is true that the best and most legitimate way to judge a person, a religion, a philosophy, etc. is by its fruits. If we see violence being constantly produced by a certain political philosophy or religious worldview, then it is entirely appropriate to say that it produces violence, because that is what our senses and faculties are reporting to us. If we see them producing joy, or anger, or unhappiness, or discontent, then we can say those things. If a person is constantly frustrated, or disloyal, or always arguing with others, we should take heed before we engage them in association and experience their disloyalty and belligerence directly. This is just a matter of common sense.

Bearing fruits is also a metaphor for what we do with our existential condition. “By their fruits you will know them” is an eternally applicable existential truth related to self-creation, to how we define ourselves in relation to our society and our natural context, and it related to the existential and Sartrean adage “existence precedes essence”. That is, we are what we do with what life gives us: as free people, we have no choice but to engage in a process of self-definition. We first exist, and then within our context we are free to determine how we identify by our works and habits.

Each one must have a great work in order to be magnanimous, great existential projects that create meaning and, perhaps, make a better society. And by our fruits we define ourselves.

Further Reading:

A Materialist Conception of Identity

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From Raif Badawi’s Blog, concerning September 11

Coinciding with the painful terrorist September eleventh events, which killed more than three thousand innocent people, the Muslims in that stricken city are demanding to build an Islamic center containing a mosque and community center in the same area where World Trade Center collapsed over the heads of those who died that painful day.

What hurts me most as a citizen of the area which exported those terrorists, is the audacity of Muslims in New York that reaches the limits of insolence, not taking any regard of the thousands of victims who perished on that fateful day or their families.

What increases my pain is this (Islamist) chauvinist arrogance which claims that the innocent blood, which was shed by barbarian, brutal minds under the slogan ‘Allah Akbar’, means nothing when compared with the act of building an Islamic mosque whose mission will be to re-spawn new terrorists and demanding even that the mosque be constructed near the same area. This is a blatant affront to the memory of American Society in particular and humanity in general, none of whom accept in any way that scene of mass murder.

… Suppose that we put ourselves a little in the place of American citizens. Would we accept that a Christian or Jew assaults us in our own house and then build a church or synagogue in the same area of the attack???? I doubt it.

We reject the building of churches in Saudi Arabia not having been assaulted by anyone. Then what would you think if those who wanted to build a church are the same people who stormed the sanctity of our land?

Whether we like it or not, we, being a part of humanity, have the same duties that others have as well as the same rights.

Raif Badawi, imprisoned Saudi secular blogger

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