Monday, 31 December 2012

Sunday Sermon: The Garden 2

Hello Everything. Thank you for every breath, for each one is only by your grace. Thank you for every moment of our consciousness, and for every fleeting part of you which we are able to perceive, as well as the infinitude of what we will never be able to perceive. Help us in our humble journeys along the lifespan you have allotted us, Everything. Help us to help ourselves, help us to help one another, help us to help you. Thy will be done. Amen.
Hello everyone. Last week I proposed that the Garden of Eden and other such myths of a previous Golden Age may be hinting of an actual era of prehistory, and I described in the most general terms what that era might have looked like.

It's possible that the connection simply doesn't exist, and that the myth of the Garden is just that - a myth - with no connection to any historical memory whatsoever. My main inspiration for the proposition for what I'm calling the Garden Age, immediately preceding historical time, was not the book of Genesis but a book by Bill Gammage called, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (2011).

The main thrust of Gammage's book is the extent and sophistication of the early Australian people's use of fire to manage the land. Australia's flora is uniquely fire resistant (sometimes even fire dependent) but of course all prehistoric people used fire, and we may everywhere underestimate to what extent, and to what precision, fire was used as a land management tool in all sorts of places. But what I'm interested in is the land management itself. For Gammage describes a people who are neither settled nor really 'hunter-gatherers', but mobile and conscious gardeners of their entire continental landscape. At the very least I think this fact has been under-appreciated, and it has implications in other fields of human enquiry.

Have a look at this picture of the Endeavour River (Cooktown in North Queensland), painted in July 1770. It is about the first known attempt to accurately depict an Australian landscape.
You can see the extent of the Endeavour's camp. All the rest is highly managed landscape where today there is dense forest - what we call 'wilderness'. Gammage provides dozens of these pictures, and argues convincingly that these are accurate depictions, painted by professionals who were the day's version of official photographers. He also provides innumerable written first-accounts of the landscape, with its clearings, its patched forest types and its well worn system of paths.

The 1788 country did not just look like parkland, as was often noted by early settlers and explorers, it was indeed carefully managed estate. It made moving inland very easy for the newcomers, along well established tracks, often along waterways with lovely cleared grazing areas. Macarthur didn't have to clear land to graze sheep - he just requisitioned and fenced ranges previously maintained for kangaroos. As for terra nullius, the legal basis for European possession, it is rendered an even more wicked and tragic fiction by these insights. The people were under their laws, with their territories, and they managed every foot of the land. So um, yes, the land was stolen.

The evidence Gammage presents starts with insights about sophisticated, carefully variegated burning regimes across the entire country, but it doesn't end there. There are methods of what we would unambiguously call gardening, like harvesting a portion of yams and leaving the best ones, sometimes moving roots to expand the area of 'cultivation'. There are elaborate and ingenious systems of dams and fish traps. Kit, including weapons and tools, was rarely carried far, as it was kept in stashes near the place the goods was normally used, the earliest farm sheds. There was seasonal settlement as well, and Gammage leaves us thinking not so much that the Australians might be nearly breaking into a settled agricultural mode of existence (say along the Hawkesbury River), but that they had been capable of that transition for centuries, and were even aware of this capability, choosing their continued nomadism with their eyes open, with the understanding that it was in their best interests given the needs and vicissitudes of the country that provided for them.

This isn't all new. There have been people chipping away at the idea of 'unspoiled wilderness' along with its passively harmonious hunter/gatherer denizens for a long time. But I think the enormity of the realisation is breaking through with this book, and what interests me are the obvious implications for the rest of anthropology and scholarly conceptions of prehistoric peoples all over the world, including those 10,000 years ago in, say, Mesopotamia. In short we have a new way to look at the emergence of complex human society.

For if the Fertile Crescent and the surrounding country was an extensive garden for, say, the last 25,000 or 40,000 years, we have a ground to explain the domestication of animals, the slow development of more intensive agriculture from more extensive gardens, early steady population growth itself, weirdo beehive cities with no apparent agriculture like Catal Huyuk, and perhaps much else. We need find no big break, no sudden revolution of thinking or practice, just a continued relationship with country.

When we look at 1788 Australia we are not looking at a 'timeless' situation. This level of complexity does not just appear, but takes time to evolve. A lot of time. Although we cannot narrate it in any detail, the complexity speaks of a long and involved history. Tens of thousands of years of it, with notable events and innovations almost every generation (plausibly anyway); a long, winding story of discovery, invention, crisis, innovation, leadership and, in short, cultural development.

Unfortunately the Garden Era is not an archaeological era, neatly delineated by a specific stone tool kit or something. The tool kit may not change significantly as the Garden develops or indeed even once agriculture is intensified. It is a social era, a dialectical era. It is also a distinctive religious era. If anyone is wondering why archaeology is not describing the Garden era to us, we should note that after just two centuries the evidence of the Australian garden is all but gone. (Not entirely, as Gammage carefully illustrates.)

One objection to the idea of highly complex socio-ecological development in Mesopotamia might be that warfare would prevent relationships from lasting long enough. I would love to say that warfare might not exist, but there is plenty of both archaeological and anthropological evidence to say that it most likely did exist. But if we take the range of peoples through Australia and Papua as a broad model (whilst not a universal sample, this covers a lot of cultural territory), an observed feature is that warfare is very rarely about taking territory, but mostly small scale and somewhat ritualised. This may be precisely because, a) the new territory is not understood as deeply and, b) territory requires management so more is more work so best stick to the territory you already manage. I'll note here that land management is also a deep religious motivation, but I'm leaving that 'till next week.

In short the intimacy of the ecological relationships in every territory - the capacity for which being the very advantage that Homo sapiens have (this is an important point tucked away here) - is its own gravity against major disturbance by war, even when seasonal, ritualised minor warfare plays an ongoing role in maintaining the necessary sustainable population. We'll also note that although stone age weaponry was pretty lethal, horses had not been domesticated, military units beyond a clan group had not developed, storage and supply were um... undeveloped and, well, war is hard work. There is land to manage and place-based ritual responsibilities to perform.

I have purposely avoided some of the most compelling material, about the inextricable religious motivations of the Aboriginal people, most notably in Gammage's chapter entitled, "Heaven on Earth", evocatively enough. Next week I intend to write about the religion of the Garden which at the most popular level (ie Shamanism aside) is basically the religion of totemic relationships, or totemism.

As I said last week, the myth tells us we can not return to the Garden, and in a deep historic sense I think the myth gets this right. There is a continuing tradition of wanting to return however, and following is an iconic appeal for a return, an appeal to romanticism. I don't agree with Joni, but I can empathise with the sentiment deeply, as I know many others do also. Here she is, that the argument be at least put perhaps, and because it is a beautiful song regardless:

Everything, thank you for the expanding text of Genesis. Bless our critical faculties as we attempt to comprehend the big history of your blue jewel and its creatures, that we not be deceived by any false teaching, especially if it be mine. Thy will be done. So be it.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Sunday Sermon: The Garden 1

Hello Everything. Thank you for another week in your body and in your service. Forgive us our mistakes and foibles, Everything, but only as we forgive the mistakes and foibles of our brothers and sisters, your people all. For we know that it is as we clothe others with judgement that we wear our own guilt. Humbly I ask that you bless our thoughts, our words, our relationships and our actions, that by them the universal, ecological republic of peace on Earth may come closer to being. Amen.
Hello everyone. Today I'm returning to Big History and times before developments of agriculture, husbandry and sedentism, in which many humans lived in "The Garden". I am proposing that the Garden is not a place necessarily but a particular pre-historical state of human society, mythopoeically remembered in various ancient myths. What I am not meaning by "The Garden" is "nature" or even "all pre-civilised human society", as for 99% of human experience there was no garden but rather continued struggle - dislocated and unpredictable - for survival.

The Garden really was, in its own context, seen as an ideal time. The myth is that it was a time when death and disease were defeated. Now I don't think this was true either by supernatural standards or by standards of modern society. People died and pathogens - or at least the distant ancestors of modern pathogens - must have existed. But in the context of pre-technological humans, for it to seem like death and disease had been defeated, to such an extent that people may observe, "Gee, we have defeated disease and death", it would merely have to be defeated to a large extent.

What I am suggesting is that the Garden was a time when death by violence from wild animals and other humans was reduced from 'really quite likely' (for a given person born) to 'not half as likely', and that through a relatively predictable and diverse diet along with a developed knowledge of the local pharmacopeia, disease was also vastly, albeit only relatively, minimised. On average, people who got through childbirth could expect to live a decently long life. That wasn't everyone's experience in antiquity, and it was appreciated and noted by the myth makers.

The observation need not be based on generational memory entirely as the myth makers would have knowledge of and be able to observe contemporary groups of humans who had reached this state, or approximated aspects of this state. The Greek story of a comparatively recent 'Arcadia' as well as the pastoral tradition of poetry in general appear to idealise approximations of this space-time which existed simultaneously with both peoples in tooth-and-claw mode and peoples in the toil of agricultural and sedentary life. So the myth makers were not completely guessing, or that's what I'm proposing as plausible, anyway.

The Garden is a state that requires a high level of intimacy with the environment, including with all its species and their habits, as well as with the local geography and long- term climatic likelihoods. According to the Biblical Garden all the creatures were named by Adam, which might be taken to mean they were all known intimately at this time. So the situation must have had to be relatively stable for an extended period of time, uninterrupted by major invasion or climatic upheaval. Also humans had "dominion over" all other creatures in the Garden. In modern terms we were on top of the food chain, with few predators and predating upon every conceivably useful species.

In the mythic garden we didn't have to work because all the fruits of nature were freely available - a mythic exaggeration again. We apparently didn't have to plant anything, but we did have to "dress it and keep it" (Genesis 2:15). We were gardeners, and compared to either the uncertainty of constantly seeking our next meal, which was the experience of many prehistoric humans, or of the days of backbreaking agricultural work which was the lot of the early historical humans to come, it was pretty easy going. In context once again it would have seemed like you didn't have to work much for survival. And a lot of the work would have been healthy, fun and without danger. Good times. Golden times. Perhaps.

It was an era of a lot of free time for music, religion and story telling. It can not be said to be where religion, art, music, narratives and cultural creativity in general got going, but it was an explosive, defining era for all of these things. It was the cradle of all ideography, in fact.

There is a partial illusion in Garden societies, held by both outsiders and insiders, that there is no domination of nature in these societies, and that the people are in eternal harmony with the cycles of the ages. Context is important once again and when we compare these societies to any that came afterwards then the observation of natural harmony holds emphatically. But these societies cannot come about just by humans moving in and 'acting naturally'. They come about with many centuries of human engagement, human's intimate learning, knowledge and indeed totemic identity with all the creatures and places, deep generational knowledge of cycles of seasons and creatures and, in actual fact, total control. The landscape has, over time with innumerable micro-engagements, been moulded for the use of the people. They are gardeners.

It's what makes Garden societies so vulnerable. If the people are detached from the land the people die spiritually and the garden is overgrown and ruined. They are old-growth ecological systems, with all the implied complexity and productivity but also sensitivity to impact from outside.

Apart from such major impact, of invasion or climate change, the main limitation of such a state of humanity is the carrying capacity of the country - that is, population. There are many theories about human emergence into the historical era, but all of them have increasing population as part of the equation pressuring sedentism and innovation.

Placing the Garden in the Modern Archaeological Scheme

According to the Jewish calendar we are currently in the year 5773, denoting that many years after Adam and Eve. If this is supposed to be the age of the Earth then it is of course an absurdly small number, but in terms of the archaeology of the first real break from the Garden, as in the development of sedentary agricultural civilisation in Mesopotamia, it's not too bad. That would make the time of the Garden a period before 3761BC.

For when we go back to archaeology, we're told that the first Sumerian city states came about at about this time. Uncannily the Jewish date is only 39 years off Wikipedia's end of the Ubaid Period (6500-3800BC). It really isn't a bad moment from which to date the entire human journey, a journey from the Garden to another place we haven't quite found yet. It's also about the time writing, and hence history in the formal sense, begins.

But in terms of the Middle East, and hence the Garden culture referred to by the Eden myth, we are more likely going back to the Natufian and Harifian cultures, seven or eight thousand years earlier. An intimately managed estate-type landscape continued to exist from then throughout the entire Fertile Crescent for millennia after that, sometimes falling into disrepair before being revived or partially revived again but nevertheless existing alongside developing urban society and, even as agriculture and husbandry developed, remaining an important source of resource.

When I speak of a garden I mean millions of hectares over multiple landscapes. The people didn't go out 'searching for nuts', for example. They not only knew where the pistachios were, and exactly when the best harvest times were, but they had deep totemic relationships with the trees, and understandings of them and their needs. If they didn't transplant or seed young trees where they wanted them (they did eventually, obviously), they cleared them by fire and axe where they weren't wanted and protected them from competitors where they were, thus over centuries having a major impact on pistachio distribution and productivity. Every species was like this, as well as places like fishing holes, which were managed so the gardeners could basically come and collect the mature fish at the right time, and herds of animals which whilst not fenced were able to be manipulated by maintaining crop grass areas and utilising natural barriers. The entire landscape was like this, requiring constant (but relatively light) management, and meanwhile behaving like a reasonably predictable supermarket. Old growth human ecology.

Anyway, all I've really done above is outline a myth and attempt to render from it a plausible time in the human experience. I base most of the above not on archaeology or the Bible but on modern studies of totemic, aboriginal people in Australia in particular, but also in many parts of the more recent world. That I will get to in more detail next week.

For now I will conclude with some general thoughts about the garden icon. Firstly, it remains a human nostalgia, mythic or not, expressed in many ways and still sought by a portion of every generation. Arguably it is in a garden - a human landscape constructed of natural living components - that the human spirit is most at peace. It has been commented on by many people, but surely this is a cultural prejudice. 1788 Aboriginal people wouldn't feel that way would they? Wait 'till next week before being certain of your answer to the question.

Finally, and tragically, according to the myth we've been kicked out and there's no going back. We have a word for wanting to go back and that is 'romanticism', and romanticism, despite its capacity to seduce the nicest of people, has never led us anywhere very helpful. The journey, in the Jewish narrative at least, begins by leaving the Garden and it is irreversible. It is a better future we must now seek as a better past has fallen beyond our reach. At this stage, "Leaving the Garden" will be the third in this Garden Series.

Oh, and Merry Christmas everyone.

Everything, thank you for the access we have, through your prophets and scholars, through Logos, to our past. Help us to understand our human journey on Earth that we may grow and learn and one day find a new harmony. Help my readers Everything, that they may discern wisdom from dross in my words, and only seek You in their own integrity. So be it.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Sunday Sermon: "Breaking The Taboo"

Hello Everything. Thank you for the dance of life. As we face the new week bless our lives, our work, our relationships, meditations and actions, that all things may work together for the good. May thy will be done. Amen.

Hello everyone. I haven't been much of a preacher lately and don't expect to be for a while as I'm simply not finding the time to do this kind of thinking and writing justice. But I do have something to say today which is of great importance to everything on Earth.

The world's major nations are currently conducting a war - not a metaphorical war but a real war - against three of God's life forms. It's an incredibly expensive yet ineffective war, a very destructive war and a war which is holding civilisation back in a variety of important ways. It's referred to officially as "The War on Drugs" and the life forms I refer to are Cannibis (a genus of three species actually), Papaver somniferum (better known as the opium poppy) and the four species of the South American family Erythroxylaceae, better known as the coca plant.

There are dozens of other species involved as well - funguses and flowers, leaves and roots. But cannabis, opium and coca are by far the main ones. I am also leaving out the constantly expanding range of laboratory contrived substances, which are mostly the result of criminal innovations to keep their markets supplied. That is, they basically produce laboratory alternatives to drugs which grow naturally. Crack is to the coca plant what moonshine overproof rum was to booze under prohibition, to parallel effect.

All of these species of course have been around for millions of years and share in the gloriously diverse ecological flowering with which our planet is so blessed. Our own species has been interacting closely with cannabis, opium and coca from a very early time as evidenced by their cultivation at, in their respective geographical areas, the very earliest times of human settlement. It is arguable from the evidence that cannabis was the very first species that humans cultivated, or at least among the very first complex of cultivated species. We might infer by this that hominid interaction with these species (coca aside, which is a New World crop) goes back a lot further than that, perhaps millions of years.

These species have some specific relevance here as they are variously suspected of playing a role in the development of early religious (basically shamanistic and ecstatic) life. Cannabis and opium are the two main candidates for early references to 'soma' in Eastern texts, and may have both played the role at different times. They may also be the basis of the myth of the Tree of Knowledge, and plenty have speculated as to the role of these psycho-actives on the development of human consciousness.

Such speculations might have some substance. We do know that humans are ritualistic, metaphorical dreamers, after all. But I can't help suspecting that the main role these drugs played in the thousands of years of human existence, in a world of violence (with other creatures if not each other), infection, hazardous childbirth and minimal dental care, was as a pain killer. They would have been very useful indeed, essential even.

References and evidences for human use and/or abuse of these plants abound throughout all of studied archaeology and throughout the history of world literature right up to modern times. Use  of these substances was considered normal by many of our favourite authors and most revered figures of history and thought. Up until the 1950s they were found in all manner of over-the-counter products. Strangely however, despite this saturation of the human experience there are no scriptural edicts against the use of these substances in any scriptural tradition I am aware of. If there are any somewhere, I would very much appreciate them being brought to my attention. No one, anywhere, until very recently, saw any moral problem with any of these plants.

Scripture has no shortage of moral statutes, including laws about very specific activities like which food to eat and how. The Koran denounces alcohol, and there are biblical recommendations for 'sobriety', generally seen to be referring to booze, which upon its invention must have appeared like an unnatural interloper into the human pharmacopeia, much as we might see laboratory produced drugs today. It's fair to suggest that the reason alcohol was targeted by ancient moralists, as contrary to other drugs, is that the latter were just too normalised and too essential to question. They required no technology to produce, everyone had constant, permanent access to them and they were mind-bogglingly useful. Alcohol, on the other hand, took special knowledge, was expensive to produce, was not available to all and hence potentially elitist, and meanwhile was likely contributive to violence and social mayhem as it is today.

So far I have ignored one particular elephant in the room. The substances humans derive from cannabis, opium and coca can, like alcohol, be very dangerous. They are habit forming, have variously possible medical side effects, can greatly reduce energy and motivation and at worst (opium and coca at least) can be overdosed on (though this would have been extremely difficult to do without modern processing techniques). People have very good reasons to be concerned about drug use and it is likely that throughout the big history this essay is covering drugs were a problem among a portion of the population, even if they were broadly seen as useful and necessary, or at least inevitable. What I am not trying to say is that good people who are concerned about drug use in society should stop being so concerned. The problem is real.

For these people; these people who want to keep the young away from drugs, reduce the levels of drug dependency in society and encourage people to appreciate the greater fullness and capacity of a life without drugs, the first thing that needs to be done is stop the War on Drugs. For the War on Drugs, like alcohol prohibition in America when it had its turn, must actually take responsibility for much of the problem. Another famous example is China, where in 1729 opium was banned. Under prohibition opium consumption and the opium trade blossomed exponentially, with the British East India Company playing the role of our modern drug cartels, leading to the Opium Wars from 1839-1860. In all cases, as is well argued in the documentary, "the situation (of drug proliferation) has not caused the War, the War has created the situation."

This is not a marginal issue. In terms of importance for the overall human project, ending the Drug War is high on the list of global priorities. The human, social and economic costs are stupendous. There are tens of thousands of casualties annually (I'm just talking about the violence here), ecological areas devastated from aerial poisoning, millions of people who could be easily helped incarcerated and criminalised instead, and the ongoing beneficiaries are criminals, extremists and the corrupt among police and bureaucrats. Unlike other critical issues however such as the education of the world's women or the long-term management of the biosphere, this is a great improvement in the economy and society of the world which can be made now, with no overall cost, and actually an economic dividend to boot. Ending the War on Drugs is all win.

The War has not merely failed but produced an enormous global drug market. A lot of qualified people have been saying this for a long time. In a recent documentary funded by Richard Branson and including a number of high profile people including world leaders, these facts are laid bare. Bill Clinton, an ex-drug warrior himself, says frankly, with not a little guilt on his face, "If you try to solve the problem with more policing a lot of people will die and the problem won't be solved." The theme, indeed, is ex leaders speaking out, which points to the problem of political will. Jimmy Carter is also featured, and we can put money down that after his presidency Obama will also talk about how the Drug War is lost. We actually need current leaders facing the facts.

It is not my intention to outline all these facts here, and I don't want anyone to change their minds because they read this essay. I do encourage people to watch this documentary, do their own research and to consider this issue very carefully. When you do see the facts, as so many people have, share the documentary and, in its own terms, break the taboo.

For The House of Every is breaking the Taboo. It is time to end the War on Drugs and start approaching the problem of drugs with empathy and compassion, with a view to helping people, rather than an approach of judgement and condemnation, with a view to the state incarcerating all the sinners. Religion must accept a large dose of the blame for maintaining the moralistic political environment which has, despite all growing evidence of its failure, maintained the war. So any religion which is more interested in helping others than condemning them should also, in my view, break this taboo.

Here is the full documentary, narrated by Morgan Freeman. It is about an hour long so you'll want some time to watch it.

But that isn't a song, and we still need a song. Let's see...

Everything, my complaint to you is that you have not given me the infinitude of time in which to get to know you as well as I would like. Nevertheless, thank you for every moment. Bless my readers with open, clear hearts and minds, that they may consider the issues I raise carefully for themselves and come to the correct conclusions, for the overall furtherance of your will. So be it.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Just saying Hi really

Hello Everything. It is a great pleasure to be here. Thank you for the whole experience. It is in gratitude and love that I wish to only further your higher causes, whatever they may be. Please help me and guide me. Amen.

Have a wonderful week everyone.

*Psalm 137:1, 19:14

Everything, bless my readers, and guide them to something more substantial and challenging to read. So be it.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Sunday Sermon: Prayer and God

Hello Everything. Thank you for another week of wonder and becoming. Feed our souls with words and with music, Every, and bless our paths, that we may further your will on Earth. Amen.

Hello everyone.

Whatever we do, whoever we are, all of us without exception are obliged to have some sort of working relationship with reality. I use the word 'reality' here in a similar way that a rationalist may use the word 'truth' - not as something I'm pretending to understand but as a label for whatever-it-is. 'Nature', 'the universe', whatever. God, even. Whatever it is, this reality, and whatever our individual understandings and misunderstandings of it, it is a thing which we share. There is only one of them, even as we experience it with vastly different perspectives.

Wherever there is consciousness in the universe there is a relationship between that consciousness and its reality. It may be a simplistic or even hopelessly delusional relationship, but it will be a relationship nevertheless. And, at least in our case, it lives and develops in our words, in Logos.

We barely know what we're doing in a conscious sense, of course. We can think about things and make decisions, but the vast majority of our activity, including our mental activity (let alone things like breathing and metabolising food or fighting off pathogens), carries on whether we like it or not. Indeed I can think of three occasions when any one of us may involuntarily make direct verbal communication with reality itself which may even be called 'prayer' in the technical sense of the conscious microcosm appealing to the macrocosm. They are the occasions of sudden shock or disappointment ("Fuck!", "Jesus!"), awe ("Wow!") and sudden relief ("Thank Christ for that!").

If these emotional experiences are not sudden, or if we manage some decorum and self control, we may not say anything at all on these occasions, but some of us may choose to express these things anyway, in a formulation that would more commonly be called 'prayer', and normally with a bit more delicacy. "I suffer Lord; help me in my time of need", "Thanks to the Spaghetti Monster for this beautiful pasta" and "Praise be to Allah for deliverance from mine adversary" might be respective examples.

But in their involuntary forms these exclamations are often culturally taboo words, especially in the first case when we are committing what in many religions is the crime of cursing God. In that instant, when the hammer hits the thumb nail, we might in psychological fact hate reality itself. It has betrayed us. And in some psychological sense the curse does alienate us from God in that instant, and make us quite useless until we can again become reconciled with the situation. But they do not for a moment indicate that someone actually believes in the reality of any deity mentioned. They are involuntary utterances essentially, directed not to any person (they are as likely to be uttered when no one is listening), but to reality itself, quite aside from our comprehension of said reality.

"Oh Zeus!" was the most common Greek version of the curse. But the moment was identical, from the hitting of the thumb with a hammer to the involuntary utterance and the resultant psychological turmoil, and possible offence from anyone in earshot. It just had different words, and those words had a different cultural setting. Even atheists involuntarily reach for a taboo word to encapsulate the outburst of emotion, and may even be confused in retrospect about why they appealed to Jesus Christ.

I'm not trying to be cute. Whenever I refer to 'God' with a capital 'G', whenever I pray to God, whenever I think of God, I mean all of reality, the entire mystery of our existence, the universe itself, Everything. I am fully aware that people mean, and have meant, all sorts of things by 'God', and in their comprehension they have discussed, worshiped and prayed to those things. We may point out that someone's conception of God (or some sort of spiritual world perhaps) is very limited and archaic, even fanciful, but we have not challenged the existence of the person's relationship with God, merely its conception.

It should be no surprise to us that an answer to a question should be refined and tightened over time. It's easy to forget that humans worked out anything we do know from scratch. Questions of human nature, origins and cosmology as well as things like illness, self-improvement and identity all have a long history of archaic answers, slowly improving with time and the relentless progress of Logos, 'God's Word'. And the thing about 'God', as contrary to fantasies like Santa Claus or indeed the Spaghetti Monster, is that it is an answer to a legitimate and compelling question. "What is the highest possible conception?" was the way Aristotle asked it, but we may in a more urban way ask, "What do we cuss when we scream 'Fuck!'?

As an aside to the new atheists, who are at worst as ignorant about philosophy when it comes to the question of God as they are of anthropology when it comes to their purview of 'religion', this is the basic difference between 'God' and Santa or fairies at the bottom of the garden. Rightly or wrongly 'God' is an answer to perfectly reasonable questions like "How did we get here?", "What is the highest realm of meaning?" and "What if anything is my purpose here?" The atheists have different answers to these questions, but let's note that practically nobody is seriously arguing the existence of fairies, there are no philosophical stakes involved in fairies and polemics against the existence of fairies would not sell many books even though many people actually do believe in them. It's just not an interesting argument with any content at all, unlike arguments about the existence of God which are currently absorbing a fair portion of the intellectual efforts of humanity.

Similarly to compare a person's current belief in God to the non-existence of the same's belief in Zeus ("See, we're both atheists when it comes to Zeus! Ha ha") is so blatantly anti-dialectical and defiant of context that it beggars belief that the argument keeps getting repeated by apparent intellectual sophisticates. Needless to say both the atheists and the ancient Greek would agree that Yahweh doesn't exist, too. But atheists, Christians and ancient Greeks are all attempting answers to the same questions. It's no profound insight that their answers are mutually exclusive.

But I can not polemicise against the new atheists without pointing out that their challenges are crucial. Their charge is not merely that religious ideas are incorrect but that there are very high stakes involved - that religion does and is capable of great damage. And to be clear the charges the new atheists bring against religion are not dismissed by challenging their definitions or exposing the weakness of some of their polemics. In short the new atheists have not dismissed religion as they attempted to do, but they have challenged it greatly. Every religionist should face off these challenges given the stakes claimed and the high profile of the arguments. And few religions should remain unaffected.

So do I expect my prayers to be answered? Does the universe get upset when I tell it to go fuck itself? No, but my relationship with the universe is deeply affected and the impact upon my life is undeniable. In the latter case, regardless of my beliefs, I do have to kind of make up with the universe in order to carry on. For some reason it also seems appropriate to apologise to and reassure anyone who heard my curse as well. Even those with not a religious bone in their body need to be 'ok with things' in order to just carry on. They need a decent relationship with God, in my own terms. Their own terms might be being 'all right with themselves' or 'ok with life'. As do we all.

Religion is a human universal. It does not fade. It just transforms.

I have written a little about prayer before. For anyone's interests, here are links to Prayer 1 and Prayer 2.
Everything, thank you for this world of life and Logos. Bless those souls who read my words with keenness of mind and purity of heart, that they may do so openly yet critically, with neither prejudice nor favour, and thereby not be deceived by the words, but only grow in their own paths toward wisdom. Bless the week before you Every, and may thy will be done. So be it.