Religion and Science Express Different Truths

As the title of this post perhaps implies, I do not think that the teachings of various religions around the world and the findings of science necessarily need to clash. I have written about this topic a few times, and if interested, here a couple of links: The Dogma of Science and Just A Little Bit Exaggerated: A Short Look on the “Clash” Between Science and Religion. I believe the apparent battle that rages on between science and religion is one of the most unnecessary intellectual conflicts out there, yet it has been widely ingrained into popular discourse across the Western world. Many atheists I have talked with in the past tend to reject belief in the divine partly because they think the findings of science have largely disproven or at the least haven’t found any evidence for the existence of God in some form or other. Consequently, many have adopted a materialist worldview, grounded in scientism as an ideological system holding that science will one day reveal the answers to all the questions in the universe.

This ideological system has become heavily entrenched in the scientific establishment across the world – in universities, in government bodies, in scientific journals and so on. And given the reputation and prestige of materialist scientists in the modern world and their positions of influence, it’s no wonder that their philosophical worldview has captured the minds of many in the general public. With such an explicit rejection of the existence of something more in the universe than just physical matter, it’s no wonder a perception of a clash between science and religion has emerged.

But it’s not entirely the fault of atheists and scientists. Fundamentalists of the world’s religions have pushed back against the tide of science, rejecting its findings rather than engaging with these discoveries. As is often covered in media, Biblical literalists will deny rather well established theories (in the scientific sense) such as evolution and the geological age of the earth. They take stories and poems from the Bible – many quite clearly intended to be myths, and well, poetical, rather than scientific accounts of the world – and create an alternative explanation for the universe far removed from reality. Dinosaurs living among people, a flat earth, the ridiculous life expectancy of our ancestors, just to name a few things people have conducted theories about based on sometimes obscure passages in the Bible.

In this sense, religion and science truly are at odds, and unfortunately the extremes are always the loudest, giving the impression that there is a monolithic clash, where you have to choose to wallow in the brainwashed ignorance of religion, or embrace the enlightening salvation of an atheistic worldview. Or, according to creationists, fall to the trickery and evils of Satan, or join the true believers of God.

But, as for most things, there is a more balanced middle way, whether or not you believe in God or follow a religion. It is by simply recognising that the clash is ultimately false in the sense that both religion and science express different truths about reality. Science and religion asks a different set of questions about the world and have entirely separate means of enquiry to find out the truth of matters. Though sometimes a portion of these questions overlap, for the most part, the questions religions ask are entirely different to those of scientists. Basically, they are seeking after two different types of truths – non-physical and physical, could be one way to put it.

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So what are some of these questions and why are they two separate areas of truth? To sum it up, the questions that the sciences ask are purely about the material universe, from the quasars and galaxies, down to rocks, animals, molecules, and sub-atomic particles. Science asks questions about what we perceive directly through the senses (and technological extensions of the senses). The focus is almost entirely on the “how” side of things. How did consciousness emerge? How did the Big Bang happen? How did life on earth first appear? These are some of the more difficult big questions scientists ask themselves. “Why” all of these things happen is simply the matter of speculation for them, or of no interest at all. The empirical method is not designed to shed light on those. Answering “how” questions empirically is something that religion doesn’t do too well for the most part, since they base most of their truths on individual human experience via mythologised stories, established tradition and seeming divine revelations.

So religions, on the other hand, seek to find truths that have to do with meaning and morality – how to live a life with true purpose. Not too different to what philosophy attempts to do, really. A lot of “why” questions we ask ourselves from time to time. Why are we here? Why is there something rather than nothing? What is it to be good? Religions attempt to answer these questions, sometimes too confidently (admittedly), and over the millennia have come across some remarkable benefits for humanity. It’s inspired people to do and be better, allowing them to overcome trials against all odds (look at Gandhi and Martin Luther King as examples). Religions have given us purposes in life, whether it’s to meet our creator at the end of it all, become enlightened, go to heaven, bring more justice to earth, and the like. Suffering, being such a permanent part of our existence in some form or other has found remedies in the teachings and practices of different religions. Science has done some of these things for us to an extent. But these are more the byproducts of technology rather than the actual belief in science as the only way to truth. You can still be cripplingly depressed and suicidal even though all the luxuries in the world provided by science are at your fingertips. We’ll always find a way to suffer even if all of us have enough genetically modified food and know ninety-nine to the thousandth percent exactly how the universe works.

There are simply some things that science cannot explain away sufficiently. And this isn’t some “god of the gaps” argument, there are just some areas in our human lives that are beyond science’s scope, which is what religion and more generally spirituality seeks to answer, or at least provide possibilities. And religions have had their own particular methods of pursuing these questions and truths that have evolved over thousands of years. Various individual practices such as yoga, meditation, prayer, contemplation, having mystical experiences are some ways of seeking and attaining these truths. Establishing a community with all its rituals and mannerisms, which religions do quite well, has been important for bringing harmony and people together, giving them a sense of who they are and their role in the world. They provide moral codes, some of which are meant for particular times, and others are universal and timeless moral lessons that have been drawn from across the world. Science can’t extract what and why something is truly ethically right and wrong by analysing our chemical make-up or looking at our behaviour. Science might be able to explain how morality developed, but has little to say on why we choose to be good in the first place as individuals, essentially why good is good.

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So it is these sorts of truths that religions seek out. And it should be noted, to further the point, that it is not just matters of religion where science doesn’t have too much of a sway in. Art, nature, your loved ones, memories anything that evokes the conscious experience of emotions is not in the realm of science. Yes, neurologists can tell us how happy feelings are produced, how we might be depressed but science can’t tell us what that experience is like to be experienced. Neurological imaging can suggest the “level” of sadness in someone, but it doesn’t say anything on whether she’s sad because her cat died or that she lost her job. Knowing the properties of the brain doesn’t let you know what it’s like to be sad. One can’t explain why a painting is beautiful by breaking down the chemical composition of the materials used, or why a sunset can evoke such a raw feeling of awe purely by examining the rays hitting the eye and that being processed into a chemical reaction that creates an emotional response. Science really doesn’t have much to say on the individuals subjective experience beyond saying how the machine that hosts our individual consciousnesses work to get it running.

The stauncher advocates of a purely scientific worldview may point that all of these things I have mentioned don’t even exist, they are fictions that our mind has concocted as part of the process of evolution to help us deal with our survival. Meaning, right and wrong, and all of our values are the figments of an epiphenomenon of the brain which doesn’t really have any free will at all, even that’s an illusion. We’re basically nothing more than incredible bio-machines. But even if this is ultimately the truth, we don’t live like a machine, and we simply can’t live by what some of the conclusions which scientific findings suggest. We can’t function as though we don’t have free will. Society would crumble if people lived out the conclusion that right and wrong weren’t real. There could be an epidemic of nihilism if we acted truthfully in that the world was ultimately meaningless. I think it’s apt to say that we can’t live a life akin to what some ardent materialists suggest we actually are, i.e. pre-programmed robots.

Very few people would actually be willing to live out this truth, obviously. Even Sam Harris, who doesn’t accept free will, has said that he would not tell kids that they have no real control over their actions. People create their own meanings in an effort to give their lives a genuine purpose, it’s in our bones to crave meaning, even if it apparently doesn’t ultimately matter at the end of the day. Imagine a world where we acted as though any action was on a level playing field morally – murder is no better or worse than dedicating your life to charity. Few people really would want to take the risk of living and structuring a society that mirrors an ultimately indifferent universe.

This is exactly where religion and philosophy come in. They deal with the truths of not what is going on physically around us, but rather the truths of our subjective experience in consciousness, the truths of our lives. Whatever consciousness is and however it emerged, it for some reason or other has determined that it wants to be free, have meaning in life and seek after goodness, truth and the life well-lived. And this difference with science, whether you believe in God or not, is why religion shouldn’t be swept aside as though it is some archaic, outdated way of approaching the world.

It’s difficult to say if either set of truths, spiritual or scientific, is better or more valuable than the other for humanity overall, since they deal with entirely different matters. The subsequent consequences of both of these explorations of truth have their positives and negatives. Positively, the truths of religions can provide psychological and spiritual fulfilment for individuals and communities. And for science, it can bring us magical technological wonders taking us to places we never imagined. Negatively, religion can bring about fanatics willing to kill innocent people, whereas science can bring us the gas chambers and masses of people addicted to synthetic drugs. Given that they seem to compliment one another, neither is perfect, both science and religion (or spirituality), I believe, are ultimately necessary for human flourishing and our journey towards truth.

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Detroit: Become Human, A Religious Allegory?

Detroit: Become Human is a recent game on the Playstation 4 console that is essentially about the interweaving stories of three highly-developed androids – Kara, Connor and Markus – and their journeys from being slave robots for humans to fully self-conscious androids. It is set in the year 2039 in a particularly realistic setting which I could fully conceive existing in the near future (with the exception of fully conscious androids). Because the focus of the game is about choosing your own storyline, there are numerous paths to go down and multiple endings depending on your decisions.

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Spoilers, by the way, if there are any gamers out there who want to play.

What is great about it though is that it makes you think. I’ve come across many articles and videos that criticise the game, however, for how it deals with contemporary issues such as civil rights and the marginalisation of minorities in the West. In general, critics have understood the game as an allegory on race relations and the modern political climate in general in the USA. And according to these critics, the problem is that this game has mishandled the political themes that it is apparently evoking. I can see why people have been saying this, since the game is incredibly overt in its portrayal of androids as slaves subject to the whims of quite a few abusive masters. There are countless instances of humans complaining that androids have taken their jobs, not dissimilar to the complaints of some who say immigrants are forcing them out of work.

So I can understand why many have said that it deals with its themes in a rather heavy handed way. Though I disagree that the game is intended to be a commentary on the contemporary political situation of America, at least for the most part.

Themes of emancipation and freedom from slavery are common narratives throughout history, it’s not specific to any time period. A story about striving for freedom is simply one that we often like to watch, play or read about. And in this regard, the game has done a great job of depicting androids as slaves, who are slowly waking up and demanding freedom. One striking example of this are the “android parking” stations out the front of shopping malls, where you can leave your android as you go and enjoy your day. Another example are simply the android sex workers who have to do whatever depraved acts the human who purchased them wants to do. The game does a great job at building up empathy for the plight of these subservient robots, and I think it needs to be separated from any comparison to contemporary political issues. Though with the politicising of everything that we tend to do these days, that may be difficult.

One thing I’ve noticed which hasn’t been talked about too much in relation to the game is its religious themes, mainly derived from Abrahamic traditions. I’m surprised that this hasn’t been explored much, at least to my knowledge, because some of the references are really in your face. One of the android brothels is called “The Eden Club”, the main hideout of liberated androids is called Jericho, a city mentioned multiple times in the Bible. One of the main human characters says he wishes he could meet his creator, when an android goes to meet the man who invented them. These are just the more overt examples of its connection to religious topics and I’m sure there are others that I’ve missed.

With Eden, the opening parts of the story are reminiscent of the Garden of Eden and the story of Adam and Eve. Androids are programmed to be good and they live in a state of blissful ignorance despite the sometimes horrific circumstances they find themselves in. Androids in this world are truly sinless, only capable of doing the will of their masters, usually in a superior manner – like being able to survey a crime scene with remarkable speed. But due to a traumatising experiences such as witnessing the abuse of someone they are designed to care for, they develop self-awareness. They take the apple and are given the ability to choose between good and evil, and also to suffer, making them truly alive and free.

The story of the robots seeking liberation from humans is also somewhat reminiscent of the struggles of the Jewish people in Exodus. They seek a homeland partly physical but more spiritually. Somewhere that is there own where they can live there lives not as secondary citizens like the Jews in the opening chapters of Exodus, but as free individuals. They find themselves in an abandoned ship which they’ve named Jericho and even though they hide and live in squalor, the androids consider this freedom. This reminds me of the wandering in the desert, where even though there were some complaints among the followers of Moses, the harsh freedoms were still better than enslavement.

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This brings me to the character of Marcus, whose main story is centred around his rise to becoming the leader of the android liberation movement. He is a messianic figure, and depending on the choices you make in the game, he can be either a peaceful or violent leader. Regardless of the choice, it is clear that the game’s creators intended him to be the messiah of the androids. As you progress through the game, you come across many androids who have partly or completely malfunctioned and scribble and scratch countless times on walls “Ra9”. Ra9, it turns out, is the prophesied saviour of the androids and Marcus slowly fits into the criteria of who Ra9 will be. Humans investigating the crime scenes of multiple “deviant” androids even comment that these self-aware robots are creating beliefs and a system of religion.

Towards the end of the game, Marcus becomes a full blown Jesus like figure. You are given the ability to awaken other androids as you slowly walk around downtown Detroit and the button prompt for you to press even says “convert” as you touch the shoulder of a fellow android. Gradually, your conversion powers become greater and greater and you can convert others just by looking at them. Hundreds begin to follow you, and the music that plays during this scene is no different to the angelic choirs in a cathedral, sounding like a truly holy and sacred moment accompanying the mass conversions of androids. A police officer comes along in a vain attempt to bring order back to the situation, as the androids continue to march. They collectively raise their hands in a show of peace, and the officer, repeatedly yells “Jesus Christ” in reaction to the situation. A double meaning to those words if I’ve ever seen one.

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The ending which my friend and I somewhat unintentionally went down led to Marcus’s death, an entirely unnecessary one. Though it was interesting to note that he died a self-sacrificial way which prevented the death of countless androids who were about to be annihilated by humans. We were unfortunate enough (or unskilled) to have the worst possible ending which probably inhibited us from experiencing a conclusion that may have more readily fallen into line with its religious themes, but alas, we will have to play again to find out.

 

 

 

 

 

The Old Testament is… Strange

Around six months ago, I decided to make an attempt to read the entire Bible in a year, using an app that sets up a guide for you to follow. I’m currently just under halfway through the Old Testament, and have almost completed the first of two reads of the New. One thing I’ve noticed is the enormous difference in writing style between the two, which rings true among most books within the Bible. Numerous authors and editors have contributed to the Bible over centuries that led to its “finalised form”, that of course there would be countless variations among the sixty or so books in style and quality of writing, especially when some of these works date almost a thousand years apart.

Something I found even more surprising than this was that the Old Testament is much odder than I ever imagined. A lot of what I’ve read so far is more grounded in reality than I thought it would be. By this I mean when the Bible begins to resemble history (or at least it becomes more based on history), and becomes a lot less mythological. Interestingly enough, to me, this makes it all the more strange. A snake talking to a naked man and woman, or an ark that housed two of every animal, are such works of myth (and I don’t mean this negatively at all) and so familiar in Western culture that the unbelievable features don’t really register. A talking snake is obviously not real, but it’s what the snake represents metaphorically that gives it meaning and adds a layer of truth to the story.

The stories that, in my eyes, are really strange are ones that have some basis in material, historical reality, not just spiritual. The parts of the Old Testament that give glimpses into the culture and practices of the Ancient Israelites have been the strangest revelations for me, things that they actually used to do.

When you read and watch criticisms of the Old Testament, it’s often from someone who is trying to take the moral high ground, and expose how immoral and outdated much of the book is. Passages that condone stoning homosexuals, justifying slavery, and having a God that openly tells his followers to commit genocide are cited so often that it’s not really worth mentioning here. Just go on any anti-theist blog or YouTube channel. What’s interesting is that all of the whacky, and oftentimes insightful stuff around the more brutal passages – as in the surrounding context – are often ignored. But this piece isn’t about Biblical apologetics, I’m just interested in writing about some of the strange, yet fascinating ways people approached life, religion and God thousands of years ago.

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First off, there is more than you would expect about foreskins and circumcision. I was completely unaware of how symbolically important it was for Jews to be circumcised as part of their covenant with God. It’s talked about quite a bit and I am still trying to figure out why exactly God (the character) finds the removal of foreskins so important. The term uncircumcised is used in an almost derogatory manner by the characters in the Bible when referring to non-Israelites. For me, however, the strangest story I’ve come across relating to foreskins is in the books of Samuel. To put it simply, David wants the hand of King Saul’s daughter in marriage, but Saul wants the bridal price of one hundred foreskins of Philistines. So in the next battle, David does exactly that, cutting off and collecting the foreskins of defeated combatants.

One of the big oddities I noticed was the attention to detail paid to sacrifices. What should be sacrificed for whichever crime is committed, desire that is requested or whatever other purpose is meticulously detailed down, sprawling across numerous pages. In Leviticus and Deuteronomy, it seems that far more details are given about what should be burnt in the offering than the rules of sexual morality. The same can be said when it comes to the oddly specific commands of exactly how to conduct feast days (Leviticus 23 as the main example I can remember). God commands that the worshiper offers exactly x-amount of flour mixed with oil that smells good and some fine wine on the Feast of the First Fruits, for example.

I find it curious that those militant anti-theists who spend their time cherry-picking the negative aspects of these two books tend to ignore that because of such attention to detail with sacrifices, feasts and the like, much of Deuteronomy and Leviticus is confined to a very specific historical and cultural context.

Speaking of specifics, I was surprised that only about the first quarter of the Book of Exodus actually describes the Moses’ struggle with the Pharaoh and the Jews escape from Egypt. Being one of the most famous stories of the Bible, it’s almost humorous that the guidelines for running and building the tabernacle takes up almost as much space. Exodus 26 is a good example. The materials used to make the tabernacle are almost hilariously specific: “ten curtains of fine twined linen and blue and purple and scarlet yarns… the length of each curtain shall be twenty-eight cubits”.

Lists, lists and more lists feature far more prominently than I first expected too. Before I started reading the Bible, I didn’t have the faintest clue of how many lists there are throughout it. Numbers, as hinted by the name, is oftentimes quite occupied with giving rather exact numbers for the members of able warriors in each tribe. Very detailed genealogies frequently pop up in books like Chronicles – B the son of A, C the son of B, D the son of C and so on and so on for pages. The Book of Jacob, with its reputation for divinely mandated borderline genocide is not so much the focus of the book. Similar to Exodus in that the famous narrative is actually relatively short, far more page space is dedicated to lists of settlements and their allotment to the twelve tribes of Israel. Carving out the boundaries of each tribe within the ancient near East seemed to have been far more important to those who composed the Bible than the actual conquests of Canaan (that being said, if it actually happened).

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Conducting sacrifices, feasts, the construction of sacred shrines, and all of these lists give a glimpse into just how differently religion is approached three thousand years ago in comparison to now. Sacrifice was a serious business and central to the way of life for ancient Judaism, and so was anything to do with God really. So important that every aspect of religious life had to be codified and written down in meticulous detail. Establishing the ancestry of the various tribes and peoples of ancient Israel appears to have been incredibly important too. Truly historical or not, they cared so much about who they were descended from that the lists were included in their most sacred works of writing. In the modern world, it’s hard for us to grasp the apparent absurdities of many parts of the Bible. Like myself, it can actually be quite funny, but it’s still amazing how through this compilation of books we are able to have a peek into the lives of a small group of people who managed to have an unimaginably profound impact on the world we live in today.

The last observation, which is of a slightly different vein to the rest of this piece (and probably warrants its own post), is about the characters of the Old Testament. Every single major character from Moses to Joshua, from Samuel to Saul and David (I’m only up to the Second Book of Samuel) are far more complex and flawed humans than you’d think given some of their sacred positions within the religions. Even Moses has his faults and David certainly does. Even figures and societies who could be considered villains are often treated humanly. Saul, despite his numerous attempts to kill David, is depicted almost as a tragic figure who couldn’t transcend his human nature and succumbed to some form of mental illness. Even the Philistines are treated somewhat positively from time to time. Given that the Old Testament often has this reputation for being rather black-and-white, it was surprising to come across so much nuance and depth throughout the books.

The Bible is truly a fascinating work, or works I should say. What I’ve written above isn’t criticism, but rather just some observations of oddities and surprises I’ve found along the way. I’d love to hear parts of it that you guys find strange as well.

 

Masada: Hiking Herod’s Palace

Our phone alarms started honking and hollering simultaneously at quarter to four in the morning. Still pitch black outside, we made a quick instant coffee, some Israeli brand of instant, packed a bag and left our room. Hundreds of stars were gleaming above us, the most I’ve seen in quite some time. The crescent moon hung above the mountains on the opposite shore of the Dead Sea. We hopped into our small white rented car and drove the ten or fifteen minutes to the entrance of Masada.

Despite being one of the most famous Roman-era ruins in Israel, I hadn’t heard of Masada until a few weeks before my wife and I left for the Middle East, but as soon as I learnt what it was, I made sure that I’d visit it.

Situated on top of a plateau not too different to the mesas that you can see in America, Masada was one of numerous palace complexes originally built by Herod the Great, one of the most prominent kings of Judea in the first century BC. Although, there were inhabitants of the plateau before he came along. Historically, Herod has received rather mixed reviews. On the one hand, he was responsible for some of the most splendid architectural works of the era, expanding the Second Temple and establishing the port of Caesarea (another place of beautiful Roman ruins in Israel). On the other hand, he was quite a ruthless ruler murdering members of his own family and getting a special mention in the Gospel of Matthew where he apparently ordered the massacre of newborn boys after hearing about the coming of the Son of King David.

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On the horizon, we could just start to make out the beginning of the day, the pre-dawn sky lightly illuminating some of the ground before us, barely though. We passed through the entrance gate and began the steep ascent in the darkness, ahead of the crowd of Germans who had also just arrived. The dirt track was rocky but clearly marked making little issue of navigating in the darkness. We were glad that we chose to wear shoes rather than thongs (or, flip-flops for non-Australians), the only day of the entire trip we didn’t wear them. The early morning was cool, a nice respite from the blistering days which were reaching forty degrees celsius. Still, being a very sweaty guy, I was soon getting damp across my whole body as the Snake Trail climbed and winded higher and higher up the mountainside. It was incredibly quiet except for the scraping of our feet against the dirt and rocks, and the occasional banter of the Germans below us, something I kind of wanted to avoid coming any closer to me.

But as it got steeper and steeper, my wife began to slow down, and being the good husband, I slowed down with her. The fastest overtook us, and others got closer, and I kept finding myself unintentionally speeding ahead for a dozen or so meters and then turning around to find her well behind me. In words that were reminiscent of many movies she dramatically shouted: “Leave me! Go ahead without me!”, as though she was about to be consumed by a horde of monsters or something. It was only a few extra minutes of hiking and I powered ahead reaching the top, marked by a small but ancient limestone entryway. Not quite the good husband. Jill joined me a little bit later, huffing and puffing, but happy she’d done the slog up the mountain.

The sun was approaching, but we still had plenty of time to relax. Far more people, however, were on the top already, having entered from the trail on the other side of the complex. We made our way through what was left of Herod’s palace and fortifications to find a nice spot to witness the sunrise. Some places were overcrowded, other’s, despite their fantastic vantage point, only had a few people. We chose the later of course, and perched ourselves on top of the remains of an ancient storehouse or something of the like. Within fifteen to twenty minutes, the sun peeked behind the mountains on the far side of the Dead Sea over in Jordan and made it’s spectacular ascent into the sky. Apart from a handful of young women nearby more focused on taking good selfies, many fell silent as one of the daily miracles of beauty revealed itself to us.

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Jill and I watched until the sun became to bright and we proceeded to explore the ruins. It truly is amazing having someone so special do these things with me. I still can’t believe she’s put up with me for so long. Masada is comprised of a series of military and living complexes as well as a northern palace and a western palace. Much of it has been destroyed or has crumbled away over the millennia, but what remains is still spectacular and a testament to the skill and knowledge of ancient peoples. Some of what is left includes Roman influenced columns, watchtowers, cisterns, the remains of a Byzantine church, mosaics and a large network of ruined walls that used to form storehouses, accommodation, a barracks, baths and a host of other amenities that would make life on top of this mesa somewhat enjoyable, or at the least bearable. When you’re up there, apart from the heat in summer, you can easily see why the location was chosen. Not only are the views of the surrounding mountains and the Dead Sea absolutely breathtaking, it appears almost militarily impossible to seize it by a direct attack. Only a prolonged siege would hold any prospect of any attacker being able to take it. Which is exactly what happened around 73-74 AD.

Earlier in 66 AD, during the Jewish revolt against the Romans, a small but fanatical Jewish sect called the Sicarii managed to take Masada from a garrison of Romans through a ploy of sorts and slaughtered them all. Later in 70 AD, after the destruction of the Second Temple, many more fled the onslaught of the Romans to Masada for refuge. A few years later, the Romans laid siege, constructing a ramp and an enormous siege engine to assault the fortress. Once they had finally broken through the defences however, they found that many of the buildings and food stockpiles had been destroyed and over nine hundred men, women and children had committed mass suicide. Only two women and five children survived.

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While we were wandering through the ruins, we saw a squadron (not sure if that is the correct word) of Israeli Defence Force soldiers (around a hundred of them) march up from one of the trails and gather in the centre of the plateau. It was a surreal sight, as we had only just overheard that soldiers will occasionally gather here as part of training and conduct a ceremony of sorts, and they did just that. Some speeches were given, an Israeli flag was raised and there was some singing amongst the ranks. It lasted for quite some time and reminded me just how militarised this region of the world is and has always been. Since time immemorial, from the ancient Israelites, to the Romans, Arabs, Ottomans, Crusaders and many more up until the modern day, this small piece of land has been so rigorously fought and defended over for whatever reasons – empire, religion, a homeland. And this gathering of young conscripted recruits were the latest incarnation of this.

After lingering around at the base of the old Byzantine Church and then up one of the watchtowers,, we decided to leave. The heat by eight in the morning was already starting to burn and boil us, and we hadn’t eaten either, except for a small pear each. I insisted that we have a bit more of an explore of the nooks and crannies of these vast ruins, but soon, we were back on the Snake Trail, a much easier descent than climb despite the sun’s rays bearing down on us, and scorching the rocks around us. With some melancholy in my heart, knowing that there was a chance that I may never get to witness a sunrise sitting atop ancient ruins ever again, we left the awe inspiring Masada behind to continue our adventure into the Middle East.

 

 

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre: The Most Sacred Place in Christianity

It had been quite a long stressful first day in Israel. We had arrived in Ben Gurion International Airport at around eleven in the morning and found ourselves unable to access any of our money. ATMs at the airport did not accept our three UnionPay cards (the Chinese version of MasterCard or Visa), so for a time, we felt stranded as soon as we arrived. Thankfully, after running around back and forth, we came across a taxi-driver who ripped us off big time, but who was at least willing to take us to an ATM in Tel Aviv that would accept our cards (it turned out that only a handful of branches actually accepts our card).

Fast forward a few hours and we had caught a bus to Jerusalem and found ourselves in much better spirits facing the Damascus Gate of the Old City with the gold plated Dome of the Rock gleaming in the background. Entering the ancient walled city was a trip back in time to a life that seemed not too unchanged for hundreds of years except for a few little aspects here and there. It was bustling and crowded and completely alive. I thought it would’ve been reduced to nothing more than a tourist trap, which parts of it were to an extent, but it was also very strongly a place of pilgrimage for people of countless backgrounds, and simply a place where people would try and scratch out a living, filled with trinket vendors, antique stores, food joints, homes, butchers, markets, cobblers and anything that suggests it was more than just a fun-land for tourists.

Navigating through the crowded maze with our big backpacks, going down wrong streets on numerous occasions, we eventually found our way to our hostel that established itself in a Crusader era building. We rested for a bit, but I was soon too excited and energised by the prospect of exploring a city that was basically a legendary place that one usually only hears about in history, in the Bible, and on the news. So I dragged out my wife, who I’m sure was completely content with taking it easy for the remainder of the day, and we familiarised ourselves for a few hours, wandering the Old City. The area is in itself something to behold, set aside all of the famous locations around the place. You’ll casually stumble across ancient Roman ruins and archaeological sites, you’ll inevitably mingle and interact with vendors and locals, you’ll see people doing their religious duties like ultra-orthodox Jews walking and reciting scripture to themselves.

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We weren’t planning to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on that day, but my wife suggested we just go anyway to have a look, which I happily agreed since she was actually showing interest in a place of great spiritual and historical importance. It’s actually not too hard to find, but if you’re unfamiliar with the maze that is the Old City, you can be walking circles around it for ages without realising that you’ve just missed a very simple turn to enter the compound, as it’s surprisingly quite hidden away for such an important place. It’s not like the Dome of the Rock, which stands separate to other structures and therefore easily identifiable. The church is instead meshed amongst the buildings surrounding it and only really separated by the two small gateways that lead into an open courtyard in front of the main entrance.

I tend to get this feeling of awe and reverence whenever I visit a place of historical significance, not even to mention one that is simultaneously historical and the most sacred site for a religion that has over two billion followers. I felt unprepared for it, like it wasn’t the time for me to enter, as although I knew that Jesus had been crucified in this location and was nearby resurrected according to tradition, I wanted to know more about the church, it’s history and points of significance before I proceeded through the it’s great doors.

But I still went through anyway and the moment I stepped in, I felt a sacred presence in the structure, one that I sometimes feel in places that have been worshipped at for hundreds, or thousands of years. I hadn’t felt this sensation so strongly since I went to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome almost ten years ago – which was one of the beginning points on my journey from atheism to a spiritual life. There is something special and sacred that happens to a place when it has become such a central destination of worship, reverence and pilgrimage. Some sort of imprint is left from the millions of people’s cries and love for the divine over such a long time that in it’s own way creates the place’s sense of sacredness. For this first visit we didn’t stay long, Jill had nothing to cover her shoulders with, which made her feel uncomfortable, and like I mentioned, I wanted to learn more about it. So after a quick wander around, soaking in the holiness, we left.

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There has been a church on the spot where Jesus died and was resurrected for almost seventeen hundred years, when the Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, located the site, as well as what was thought of as the True Cross. Whether or not the cross she found was the real one, it is thought that the location is the actual place of the crucifixion, not just by tradition alone either. Before there was a church, the Romans had built a temple to Venus over the location in the 2nd century, with one reason possibly being to prevent Christians from worshipping there. Graffiti found beneath the temple which translates to “we go to the lord” has been discovered underneath the church, dating to the centuries just after Christ’s death. This suggests for quite some time before Helena came along, that Christian pilgrims had already been visiting the area.

The church that stands today is not the original one commissioned by Helena, although I’m sure parts of that church are in the current one. The stones of Jerusalem have been used and reused across the city to build new structures for thousands of years, torn down, rebuilt, moved to other buildings and what not. The current church dates to the Crusader period about nine hundred years ago. The original was destroyed by a particularly nasty Islamic ruler and the act itself was one of the triggers for the First Crusade. For four hundred years before then, Muslims had been allowing Christian pilgrims to come and worship somewhat freely. Of course, there have been renovations and numerous other changes and additions to the complex since it was rebuilt, but what you see today is largely the product of those bloody Crusaders.

The second time we went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was quite late night, as part of the last few stages of the Via Dolorosa, the traditional Stations of the Cross beginning where Jesus was said to have first been sentenced by Pontius Pilate and the path he took to be crucified. Though this was unlikely the actual route he took, the tradition is hundreds of years old and as a result, is special in it’s own way, and I’ll dedicate a later post to it. We arrived less than half an hour before it closed, according to the internet, but a Greek orthodox monk was banging on the giant wooden doors, signalling for people to wrap things up. We had a chance to duck in, but it was a bit rushed and hurried. We ascended the short narrow staircase near the entrance which takes you to the actual spot of Golgotha, a rock that is still uncovered where the crucifixion took place. The only lighting being candles, it permeated with a sacred solemnity and we lined up with pilgrims to take a moment to pray, though we were soon hurried out by frustrated monks. Slightly saddened, I promised myself I would still visit it and give the Church it’s deserved attention.

That opportunity came a day or so later, when I went by myself, my wife being too tired to go out. It was late afternoon, but the crowds were still there. Only very late and very early in the day are there few people around. I took my time, slowly going from place to place, visiting the crucifixion site once again, and making my way through the cavernous and beautifully carved hallways. I began to hear the chanting of monks in the distance, knowing that it came from the Rotunda that shelters the Aedicule which houses Jesus’s tomb. A ritual and procession was underway with orthodox monks chanting whilst holding candles, an absolutely breathtaking site where I suddenly felt completely at peace with life.

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Afterwards, filled with contentment, I joined the long queue that led into the tomb itself. For someone who doesn’t enjoy crowds or queueing at all, I had never been that delighted to just stand there waiting, even with so much chattering, there was simply this presence permeating everything that brought peace to it all. Two ladies in front of me, previously unacquainted with each other, were conversing in Spanish almost the entire length of the queue. I saw some people weep, and it was interesting that the only people who seemed not to be at peace or under the influence of the sacred were the monks running the place. The older ones with massive bushy beards often appeared pissed off at the world, telling people off for this and that. Finally reaching the front of the line, I entered the first of two rooms inside the Aedicule. People were only allowed into the second room four at a time to pray for about a minute and absolutely no photography was permitted. The monk in charge would bang on the wall when time was up, and at one point he became very frustrated at a Romani woman who was writing something, most likely prayers on the altar-like structure that is said to contain a fragment of the actual stone door of the tomb.

Despite the heat, the rushed sense created by the monks and the crowds, entering the tomb was a sacred experience, and I prayed for my allotted time, giving thanks and wishing for the wellbeing of friends and family. It was a simple room, with some decorations and imagery, just unreal that I was in the place where reportedly the central miracle that Christianity hinges itself on happened at this very spot. But I was soon interrupted by the monk banging on the wall and we were hurried out. I don’t really blame them for being a little bit rude, they have to ensure that thousands of people a day can experience the place, all day every day. Quite a responsibility.

It’s interesting how the Church is run. Every single aspect of the church has been divided up between numerous denominations: Greek Orthodox runs this section, Catholics run that corner, Armenians this chapel, Coptics that shrine. Interestingly, there’s no permanent protestant presence though. Even down to pens and paper are apparently divided among the sects. Sometimes fights and heated arguments break out among them, to me quite against the ethos of Christianity, but we’re still just human at the end of the day. The greatest symbol of this current management of the church, known as the Status Quo is the Immovable Ladder, which stands just outside the church and has only moved twice in the last two hundred and fifty years. Pope Paul VI made an order in 1964 that it should not be moved until the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church have reached a state of ecumenism, an organic unity.

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The fourth and last time we visited the Church was on the morning we were leaving Jerusalem. We visited around seven when it was still very quiet and managed to wander around and explore even more places that we hadn’t seen yet like the underground chapel of St. Helena. From there, we heard monks chanting and went up to Calgary and saw them performing a ritual in front of the site of the crucifixion. Making me happy that Jill got to experience it as well. Afterwards we visited the tomb without a queue this time and left. It’s truly an unforgettable place, filled with history and a sacredness that continues to develop, grow and evolve, and it has made me think much deeper about Christianity by so vividly witnessing and experiencing its power on everything around it in the most holy of sites.

 

 

 

Journey to the Holy Land

It’s been several weeks now since I lasted made a blog post and the main reason for this is that my wife and I had spent most of that time travelling around Israel and Jordan. We spent just over two weeks in both the countries and I’d be comfortable to say that it was one of the best travelling experiences of my life. One post is not enough to recount the adventures we’ve had, so I wanted to quickly write this one to outline some of the things I’ll be writing about in the coming weeks.

Given that this blog frequently talks about religions and spirituality in general, I will obviously writing a number of posts on the spiritual side of this journey and the richness of religious and spiritual life in the Holy Land. So I’ll be writing posts specifically on Jerusalem, on the churches and sites associated with Jesus’s life, on the intermingling of the three Abrahamic religions, on Islam in Jordan and others. This trip has given me a new understanding of these religions, so I’ll also be talking about how this trip has affected my own spiritual evolution.

I’ll also like to share some other aspects of our trip, the less spiritually deep side of things, like some travel advice for going to the region, some of our most enjoyable moments, and some of the challenges we faced during our time there. A lot of stories were made there from our explorations in Petra, to having two flat tires, to having an ideological nut-job heatedly rant and verbally assault us in a pizzeria. Countless memories were made, some of which I’m hoping to share with those who enjoy reading my blog.

There won’t be any chronological or thematic structure to this series of posts, since I’m more the type of person who just writes about what he wants at any given time, so apologies if it looks random and confusing. And lastly, I’m glad to be back on WordPress, I was missing writing whilst I was gone, and am looking forward to sharing my stories and thoughts once again.

On Judgement Day: Some Random Ponderings

As I am currently embarking on a complete read of the Bible for my first time, it’s kind of natural to start thinking about various themes and topics within the Bible. For me, it’s also inevitable to contemplate the nature of God according to the texts within the Bible. Even in the Old Testament where God is somewhat inaccurately depicted by atheists as a genocidal dictator, there are so many different features of God on display which creates quite a complex character by narrative standards at least, making Him the subject of endless contemplation.

The other day, some possible insights into my personal understanding of what Judgement Day hypothetically means popped into my head as I was doing the daily reading. These ideas, consequently, are the subject of this post. And with that being said, I should remark that this understanding I have, comes from my own speculation based on a very incomplete knowledge the End Times in different cultures. This theological subject has only recently begun developing as a point of interest for me.

Before I had this new way to look at Judgement Day (for myself at least), I had a rather crude picture of it, as I’d never really given it much thought. I had the idea that God would make himself known to the world and one by one, would sentence people to Heaven or Hell for eternity, all while the earth was falling apart in a doomsday of sorts. The judgements I thought God would deliver would be incredibly black-and-white, for example, that in all circumstances you shall not steal, kill or whatever, with no exceptions.

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But the other day, I realised God is more than likely to be a bit more nuanced than that. I mean, our ways of judging have gone from the violent punishments from hundreds of years ago for simple crimes, to being a little bit more forgiving dependent on the surrounding conditions. We don’t stone to death adulterers anymore, we try and understand why a man or woman may be led to cheat on their spouse. Two thousand years ago, however, having brutal punishments may have been a matter of social stability. So, surely that which created our own minds, which are perfectly capable of discerning different circumstances when regarding any particular moral question, surely, God would be able to tell the difference between stealing a loaf of bread for your starving family and committing widespread fraud that ruins the lives of thousands of people.

Therefore, I personally think God would more likely judge according to the circumstances of the individual on a psychological, environmental, societal and historical level rather than on the rules laid out for people living thousands of years ago in a far more inhospitable environment like 7th century Arabia. Would it really be just to judge under the same criteria someone who had to kill or be killed just to survive in a desert, and a wealthy 21st century hipster living in San Francisco? A God with infinite knowledge will know everything about how the individual conducted him or herself, taking into consideration the environment. Possibly, the warrior who at least conducted himself honourably would be more highly regarded than an overly privileged brat who does nothing but waste and consume even though he has never killed anyone. To me at least, it seems logical that God would be nuanced in his judgement. Perfect knowledge means perfect justice for the individual.

What could the Day of Judgement look like, at least according to the Abrahamic religions? Only God knows. But it’s always fun to speculate regardless. God being God means that He could judge us all simultaneously in an instant. Maybe God will make Himself known to all at once through a combination of external and internal revelation, through the mind and the world around us. Given God’s infinite compassion towards us, he may collectively make us revisit our lives in their entirety, or at least key moral decisions we’ve made, particularly the harmful ones. At the end, after we’ve witnessed the damage we’ve inflicted on ourselves and others, we are given a chance to truly repent for what we’ve done and receive forgiveness for our ways. Will earth become a fiery hellscape or will a brilliant light cover all? I’ll leave that vision to those who are more creative than me.

Will there be a Day of Judgement as Christianity and Islam supposes? No one really knows. It is interesting to note that virtually all cultures across time envisioned some sort of End Times. Some including a form of divine judgement to determine the fate of those who have lived like in Christianity, others envision a simple destruction of the world like Ragnarok in Norse mythology. Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism look at the life of the universe in a more cyclical way, seeing the eventual destruction of the universe in a cosmic timespan, only to re-emerge once again like a phoenix as a brand-new universe. Even scientists have predicted the End Times for the earth and the universe. There’s something about the way we are that insists there must be a beginning and an end to things.

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Perhaps each religion and even culture have somehow managed to shed some truths on how the end of times will be, a glimmer of what the real thing would actually be like. The end of one universe could herald the beginning of the other as in Hindu cosmology and some scientific theories. If there’s a moral law to the universe, there could be some form of judgement when it all comes to an end. Maybe it’s a combination of multiple theories. I quite like the idea (which mixes multiple perspectives) that one reason why Judgment Day hasn’t happened yet (even though it’s been two thousand years since Christ’s resurrection and there have been countless predictions of when it will happen) is because of God’s infinite love and patience for us. Though this view requires reincarnation or purgatory of sorts, it suggest that God will not commence Judgement Day until every soul has fully redeemed itself. God patiently and lovingly guides us towards holiness, no matter how long it takes (in a temporal sense). I suppose this scenario is more reminiscent of reincarnation doctrines, which has everyone fully liberated from the cycle of birth and death, eventually. But I’m not claiming to know God’s ways. God is infinite and incomprehensible and capable of anything, so anything is possible as far as I’m concerned.

Although I’m unsure if I believe in a Day of Judgement or not, the idea gives some serious food for thought. I’d love to hear some thoughts from Christians and other religions about how they see the End of Days. Is it real? Or is it a metaphor for something deeper about our relationship with the universe? I find myself in the latter camp, though it has been quite enjoyable to think about as a real future event nevertheless.

 

Images taken from:

JUDGEMENT DAY - APOCALYPSE

http://www.renegadetribune.com/kali-yuga-dicing-death/

 

Mr. Bing – A Short Story

I walk past Mr. Bing every day on my walk to the office. He owns a small (to overstate) business cooking a small variety of food for those on the go in need of a quick meal. His venue of service protrudes slightly out onto the sidewalk, being a glass-paned shack extension of the low-rise block of apartments that lined the street. A tiny little place, it fits enough room for his hybrid stovetop-grill, his three shelves of ingredients which act somewhat like a room-divider between the “kitchen” and the waiting area lined with hosted a couple of stools. All in all, his take-away spot must measure about seven feet by four. I sometimes like to pop in and get one of Mr. Bing’s tasty offerings myself, my personal favourites being his fried noodles or the fried wrap known as a shouzhuabing.

After having various samples of the same meals in other joints around the city, I began to notice he made the best food out of all of them – by a long shot. Nothing quite compared to Mr. Bing’s cooking, there was just something special to how he delicately prepared each and every meal for consumption. It was as though he was a Zen master, allowing the Tao to flow through him, guiding his actions to masterful completion.

But, over my time going to him, sometimes for breakfast, other times for lunch, I noticed he was seriously flawed in his business model. His quality of food surpassed all of those throughout the city and he could easily seize on that opportunity and expand his business. He was far too lazy however, maybe the laziest small business owner I’ve ever seen. So today, I have decided to go talk to him about it and offer him some of the business acumen I have gained in my years as the CEO of one of the largest corporations in the city. It’s the least I could do.

“Mr. Bing! Give me one bing!” I laugh as I walk in and order. “And add some mayo please!”

“Certainly, my friend,” he says as he begins to prepare my shouzhuabing.

“Hey, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something to do with your fine establishment here.” I sweep my arms around the small hovel. “I want to talk to you about your business model. You’ve got a great place, best in the city, and I think you’ve got the goods to make this place skyrocket!” I shoot my arm up straight to the roof to simulate his business’s trajectory.

“Thank you, friend.” He bows slightly as he places the pancake wrap on the stove to be fried. “I mean, I guess I’ve thought about this in the past, but never thought it was worth it, or even how to start doing it.”

“That’s where I can help you. Now, let me be frank for a moment. I come by here just about every single day. And most of that time, you’re not open. A few hours in the morning, a few in the afternoon and in between you’ve closed up. I’ve seen you nap on the job more than once.”

Mr. Bing shrugs. “So what, my friend? It gets hot in this little shack and I’ve usually made more than enough in a few hours to keep me and my family going comfortably.”

“So what!?” I exclaim, shocked by his nonchalance. “Just a few more hours working a day, you could see your money soar! And It would give you enough money to tidy this place up, and make it look presentable (no offense) for new customers who may not be aware of the delicious goods you have on offer.”

Mr. Bing looks at me with a raised eyebrow, reaches into a bag, retrieves an egg and cracks it onto the sizzling pancake. “Now why would I want to do that?”

“Well, with more exposure and money, you could upgrade the place, make some actual dining areas, hire some staff to cope with the extra customers. Think about a nice flashy sign saying Mr. Bing’s Famous Shouzhuabing or something like that.”

Looking unconvinced and uninterested, Mr. Bing replied. “Sounds like a lot of work, I don’t want to be a manager. I’m happy just cooking myself.”

“I’m sorry if this sounds blunt, but you’ve got something really special here and do you want to just do this every day for the rest of your life? Take my advice, look at me,” I brush my arms along my business suit for emphasis. “You could franchise this place one day. Your name across the city, maybe the country, even the world. You just need to dig in, tap into your skills and spread it. You could one day do whatever your heart desires. Go travel anywhere in the world, buy whatever you like – cars, houses, an island even! It could be relaxing, exciting, meaningful, anything! You would have true control over your life!”

“And how long will all this take to reach this heaven you’re talking of?”

“Well I was kind of on your level when I started. Small business, only making ends meet. I worked my ass off and about, uh…” I scratch myself as I quickly count the time passed. “About twenty years later I’m in the position I am in now. And it’s great, all that hard work paid off, I can finally relax a bit and do anything I want. When I’m not running the business at least.”

“And do you like doing that?” Mr. Bing probed. “Twenty years sounds like a long time to get what I already have…”

Stumped a little bit, I think about it for a moment. “Hmm, I guess I like it, I do it, don’t I? I’m good at business and I’ve seen the world, I’ve got houses all over the place. It’s my free time where I really live life… wait what do you mean by ‘what I already have’?

Mr. Bing unwraps a little processed sausage, slices it in half with a knife and places it on the grill. “Let me tell you how I see it. How much free time do you really get? You’re here several days a week getting some breakfast or whatever, or you at least walk on past. You’re in the daily routine as I am, as far as I can see. You’re no freer than me, maybe less so in my books. Whereas I do pretty much whatever I want with what I have, you only sometimes do what you want with all that money lying around. A few weeks a year maybe? Rest of the time I bet you’re stressing, working late hours, hardly seeing your kids and wife, whilst I’m laying back and relaxing, even when on the job.” He takes note at the now singed sliced sausage and moves it onto the frying wrap. Masterfully adds a bit of lettuce, the sauce, some chilli sprinkling, and wraps it up with tongs. As he puts it in a paper bag and hands it over to me, he says, “sure, I may not have fancy things and go to strange places, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m as free as the most powerful man in the world. Six yuan, please.” I mechanically hand him the money as he continues, “I’d prefer to be content and live by modest means with my loving family than a lonely slave ninety-five percent of my life and have fun in those small gaps. As far as I can tell, I’ve already got the best of what you’re offering me.”

“Uh, well… Each to their own I suppose.” I give up trying to convince him to expand his business, he’s content in mediocrity it seems.

“Yes, my friend. Each to their own. I’m happy and fulfilled with less, others might have more drive and desire for more, and that’s fine. You go on doing what you do, I’ll do the same, your way just isn’t for me.”

“Right…” I shrug, “good day to you, Mr. Bing.” I nod towards him before heading out of the shack.

“See you tomorrow, friend!” Mr. Bing farewells with a wave, as I take a bite out of the crisp wrap, the aroma of oil and spices making my mouth water.

 

Note: This story is loose retelling of a similar short story of an exchange between a fisherman and a businessman. Unfortunately, I don’t know the name or the original author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Dogma of Science

Although I have no statistical data to prove this, it would be a safe bet to assume that the idea of “science” is one of the zeitgeists of the 21st century. In many pockets of particularly the West, it has replaced traditional religious beliefs as the primary ideas and systems in which many of us put our faith in. We have placed our trust in scientists and the work that they do in the hopes that it will give us complete knowledge of reality and eventually deliver to us a paradise not indifferent to the heavens that religions have offered in the past (albeit grounded in this world rather than another).

Many who have placed their faith (defined in this post more as trust, than any notion of blind faith) in science will scoff at this characterisation as inaccurate. True that there aren’t really any practices of science’s followers that could be considered rituals in the same sense as their religious counterparts. But it is really the attitudes towards science where the similarities lie.

Take the faith in the promises that science offers if everyone simply accepts a scientific worldview. We would all become enlightened intellectuals, guided by reason and evidence, ultimately leading to a peaceful utopia where all our desires would be at our fingertips. Cures for all ailments, all of our desires satisfied without the consequences of excess, endless sources of fascination to keep us occupied, liberation of all the mundane aspects of life and the uplifting of suffering, and perhaps even immortality. We can achieve a complete knowledge of the universe with all of its mysteries finally understood. We just need to believe in science and one day all of the answers to life will be provided. To me, this sounds very much like the promises of religion in a new guise.

Or, look at how scientists and their work are treated in the media and amongst society more broadly. The latest “scientific” study bombastically proclaims red wine is a cure for cancer and it will often just be believed because of the word science.  There is the archetypical scientist, which seems to be the prevailing assumption of who they are – ethically outstanding people who are only guided by their reason in a suitably dispassionate and sceptical manner, following their noble, selfless pursuits based on the principle of attaining the truth, regardless of how it affects them as individuals. There is an air of authority around anyone who is known as a scientist. They can speak with conviction on any matter and people will listen, even when it isn’t their area of expertise or even a scientific matter at all. Scientists are taken more seriously on matters of religion than theologians and scholars of religion themselves! Think of Richard Dawkins and Neil DeGrasse Tyson who have less than a layman’s understanding of religion, yet their opinions have such authority to them. Scientists today are akin the priesthood of the Middle Ages – mostly unquestioned by the masses and with an institutional authority that ensures a steady stream of funding from the governments of the world.

And this is not to entirely bash science. Of course it’s done wonders for the world. There’s a reason why a scientific understanding has come to dominate the West. It simply works. The knowledge of the universe we have attained from the scientific approach is immeasurable. And on the whole, scientists have done a pretty good job at remaining dedicated to the pursuit of science.

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However, science like religion has its flaws, and it comes in the shape of its followers, not so much in the concept itself. Just like how the ideas of Christianity are beautiful, but often, some of the practitioners may give it a bad name. Followers of science have always had nefarious purposes, the killing devices we have created that have the power to destroy cities, nations and even the world would not have been possible without science. Mass surveillance, as being seen in China right now for example, couldn’t be possible without the scientific theoretical basis. As a side-note,  I recommend looking into the Chinese government’s moral surveillance system being gradually implemented, it’s eerily like the Black Mirror episode, Nosedive. Science, like religion, has been used and continues to be used for harmful purposes.

Many in the priesthood of science are far from the ideal as well. And I think most aren’t doing this intentionally, but simply because they have such strong faith in the path they have dedicated themselves to, and as a result, may have fallen prey to confirmation bias in their work. Others want to retain the status quo, perhaps because of funding, perhaps because of reputation and prestige, and perhaps because they have dedicated their entire lives to a particular theory. Scientists are just as human as us everyday folk, a myriad of reasons, often selfish, often unconscious guide their ways.

And among scientists and in the realm of science more generally, the dogma of materialism is possibly the greatest obstacle to further advances, at least how I see it. The adamant refusal to recognise that anything beyond the physical universe exists and consequently, a failure to take anything that explores non-material phenomena seriously could be one of science’s greatest contemporary hindrances to progress. Conceivably real phenomena worthy of being explored such as the existence of a universal consciousness, paranormal and parapsychological activities, and alternatives to modern medicine are ridiculed and dismissed without being taken seriously in a truly dispassionate and scientific manner. The inquisitive mind of the ideal scientist is being bogged down in the refusal to even acknowledge the possibility that the philosophy of materialism may be flawed or even wrong.

The growing dogmatism in science, I would argue, is in know small part why there is an emerging (and woefully so in my opinion) anti-science trend, rejecting conventional science almost entirely, and whose methods genuinely can be considered pseudo-science. Anti-vaccination crowds, extreme climate denialists, people taking creation myths as scientific fact and lots of other things, may have risen partially as a result of scientists failing to take particular, rather unknown and under-explored phenomena with a more open mind. People may be less inclined to reject science as a whole, if what they believe in isn’t automatically thrown away as garbage by scientists. Of course, materialism could end up the truth, but this doesn’t mean exploring all other possibilities should be closed off, silenced and ridiculed because it doesn’t fit the conventional materialist narrative. To me, doing this is the antithesis of science.

I don’t want the institution of science to gradually corrode from the inside like the Catholic Church did in the in the Middle Ages, which led to its dismemberment. But if it becomes more closed off and centres itself around a series of certain unquestionable dogma, this might happen, particularly as it becomes more and more powerful, financially and institutionally. Stagnation is a killer.

So on a related but slightly different note, I would like to conclude this piece with a summation of the Ten Dogmas of Science that the scientist Rupert Sheldrake has noted in his excellent, though controversial book The Science Delusion. These dogmas, in the author’s and increasingly in my mind, threaten the pursuit of science and could damagingly bunker it down in self-imposed limitations. They will certainly give some food for thought on the purely materialist posturing that science has taken. (Note that I have written the ten core beliefs word for word from the book).

  1. Everything is essentially mechanical. Dogs, for example are complex mechanisms, rather than living organism with goals of their own. Even people are machines, ‘lumbering robots’, in Richard Dawkins’s vivid phrase, with brains that are like genetically programmed computers.
  2. All matter is unconscious. It has no inner life or subjectivity or point of view. Even human consciousness is an illusion produced by the material activities of brains.
  3. The total amount of matter and energy is always the same (with the exception of the Big Bang, when all the matter and energy of the universe suddenly appeared).
  4. The laws of nature are fixed. They are the same today as they were at the beginning, and they will stay the same for ever.
  5. Nature is purposeless, and evolution has no goal or direction.
  6. All biological inheritance is material, carried in the genetic material, DNA, and in other material structures.
  7. Minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains. When you look at a tree, the image of a tree you are seeing is not ‘out there’, where it seems to be, but inside your brain.
  8. Memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death.
  9. Unexplained phenomena like telepathy are illusory.
  10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

I Miss Nature: The Separation of Humanity and Life

Living in an industrial city in the northeast of China can be difficult at times for someone who has basically lived their entire life either within nature or in very close proximity to it. Harbin is a nice city in its own ways. It has a unique Russian-Chinese hybrid culture with numerous orthodox churches and areas with quite beautiful European architecture. There are also some beautiful Buddhist, Confucianist and Daoist temples around. Winter is an experience on its own, reaching temperatures that aren’t found in many places in the world – I believe it’s the coldest city in the world with a population over one million. The food here, is absolutely amazing, a unique style of Chinese cuisine that is found in the northeast part of the country. And there’s also plenty of Russian food with it. There’s an authentic ‘grittiness’ to the city that has been lost in other much more developed and ‘sanitised’ cities around the world, although it still has many of the amenities and conveniences that prosperous cities have.

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But at the end of the day, I only remain here for one reason – my future wife, Jill. I would’ve left after a year if it wasn’t for her.

Apart from missing family and friends back home, the biggest reason why I have troubles here is the absolute lack of nature, especially of a more wild kind. Sure, there are a number of quite beautiful parks around the place, particularly now as spring has finally arrived and the local city flower, the dingxiang, is in full blossom across the entire city. We have quite a lot of plants in our house and watching them grow has been quite an amazing thing to behold. But apart from this, I don’t get much. Most of the city is filled with enormous tower complexes sheltering thousands of people, because of this, parts of the city hardly even get sunshine.

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There’s something quite tragic, to me at least, having so many people, millions if not billions across the country, and across the world who have spent their entire lives in giant concrete jungles, living mostly inside towering apartment blocks often grey or of a rather drab colour. The only immediate access to the beauty of nature being a park where you’re not even allowed to sit on the grass (somewhat understandable though), instead you have to make do with concrete pavements. The incomparable beauty of nature has been replaced by the conveniences provided by modernity.

I think so many of us across the world are still so separated from nature, not just physically but psychologically, seeing ourselves as completely different from it, and not as part of it. A few centuries of industrialisation and the rise of cities and megacities has done this to us. The change of seasons from a scorching summer to a bitter winter have little effect on us anymore as we now have heating and air-conditioning. Forests have been destroyed to make way for farmland to feed the populations, and the trees that remain in the city are pruned, disfigured or simply removed for our convenience. Living here, it’s strange that even seeing insects is almost a special experience, not many seem to be around anymore apart from tiny little flies. Many of us might not care at all, perhaps even dislike nature, but losing something that our most ancient ancestors were so intimately connected with, is something that does not suggest an evolution in humanity.

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To get to even remotely wild nature, one has to travel on a bus for two hours out of the city, which is what I did yesterday with a group of friends. Beautiful forested Siberian hills, with a few Daoist temples dotted throughout reminded me once again how much I miss nature. I saw bugs, birds, and even several squirrels and chipmunks – the latter particularly being an absolute novelty for me (there are none in Australia). The track followed a trickling creek and hopping along rocks dotting it was an experience long overdue. Clean, fresh air brought much needed to my lungs and simply seeing more green than grey invigorated my soul. I take the abundance of nature for granted in Australia, I think many of us do in countries that are relatively untouched.

I guess, there’s always a silver lining. Living in grey concrete has made me appreciate nature even more than I did before. It makes me think of Daoist and Buddhist philosophy that states that you can’t know what something is unless you experience it’s opposite. Very limited life in a city apart from people has made me take notice every day of the trees and plants I see around slowly coming to life after the long winter. The buds of leaves and flowers spontaneously emerging as if from nothing. Day by day growing and growing until they bloom into life. In our (relatively) new apartment, we have a big tree right next to it that we see from our bedroom window. Sparrows will sing there in the morning. It’s euphoric to listen to them, knowing that something in this city apart from people live.

So although I’ve probably been more separate now than ever before from natural life, in some ways, it’s made me closer – but that certainly doesn’t mean I want to live in a megacity forever!