Looking Back

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It’s not that easy to do, looking backwards. If you’re going forward at the time, you trip and fall flat on your face. If you are stationary you go around in circles, with the illusion you are going somewhere.

Looking backwards is the basis for the movements of conservatism and conservation, but it’s also a refuge for the many people who are sick of a life of constant change. Always having to adapt yourself to something new, in a culture which sees that as a kind of progress, is wearisome, and for some, frightening.

What follows is my tribute (and some censure) to all the backward lookers I could think of. There are many more, some pretending to be avant garde and progressive. They have my sympathy.

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Flat earthers

The International Flat Earth Research Society of America and Covenant People’s Church in California had 3,500 members by the year 2000. After a three year lapse, the Society was revived in 2004. It began in the 1880s as a society formed by Samuel Rowbotham, an inventor alleged to have made a fortune by selling life extending medications. His followers founded the Universal Zetetic Society on Rowbotham’s death in 1884 (aged 68).

Flat earthers are conservatives in that they believe they are propounding truths found in the Bible. In this sense they are fundamentalist Christians, though the flat earth is their main essential doctrine. The aim is to show, through (pseudo)scientific experimentation, that Galileo, Copernicus, and thinkers like Albert Einstein had all been deluded, and in turn deluded the world.

After all, we know the world is flat. Otherwise we’d all fall off it. Mind you, Columbus’ sailors feared they would sail over the edge of it. If the earth is flat, best stay put. And I wonder, if the earth is flat, wouldn’t we loose the dimension of height/depth?

This is the easy way to cope with the Theory of Relativity, the Uncertainty Principle and quantum physics. They can’t be understood: they must be wrong.

As much of the Society’s activity occurred during the height of the Cold War, with a space race and the proliferation of nuclear warheads, it should be counted as one of the Peace movements of the time. These people’s hearts are in the right place. One sympathises with those who don’t want to fall off a spinning globe.

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Menstrual prohibitions

The belief that menstruation is unclean is widespread in human societies, and is associated in Western ones with the Biblical belief that menstruating women need to be separated from the group and purified before entering the Temple to worship. Strangely enough this has led to many women becoming secretive about and shamed by this process in their bodies.

Most mammals menstruate. It’s part of the cycle of hormone variation that leads to ovulation. The trouble seems to be that menstruation is confused with bleeding, which in Judaism is thought to be offensive to YHWH. Menstrual discharge is made of uterine lining (produced to nurture the fertilised egg), other secretions, remains of the discarded egg, and an amount of blood which is less than half the total discharge.

Primitive societies, such as the Jews in Biblical times, didn’t know this. Instead of celebrating menstruation as part of the cycle that produces new life, it was thought of as a contamination requiring cleansing (perhaps YHWH should have thought of that when he created menstruation). It was the curse of Eve.

The belief that the feminine body creates new life leads to respect towards women by men, and obviates the need for feminism. But respect for an ancient tradition found in the Bible has led to discrimination that has affected women’s own attitude to their bodies. Ancient traditions often contain some truth. This one is a falsity.

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Lord Bill

The belief that Shakespeare was really a lord (perhaps Francis Bacon Viscount St Alban) dates from the mid nineteenth century and is an understandable reaction to bardic hagiography, belief that Shakespeare is the greatest writer who ever lived, the world’s greatest dramatist, or, essentially, the greatest English dramatist. This was a mid 19th century movement too. Non English people might have a different candidate, but Americans (where the alternate author belief originated) predictably preferred a lord as the real author of the plays (not so much the Sonnets or narrative poems for some reason).

Strangely enough, there is some support for this belief in Elizabethan times. We know from surviving reference to play production (and to our contemporary experience of the same) that play production is a collaborative procedure. We know that Shakespeare used others’ material, worked as part of a writing team, and helped produce his plays together with the times’ most skilled acting troupe, all of whom had creative input into what was performed. You could say Shakespeare was only partly the author of his plays. Shakespeare pointedly never made claim to any plays, only to his narrative poems. These were his written (as against performed) works.

One of the unanswered questions about the plays’ authorship is why the First Folio was produced in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, when his name was becoming unfamiliar to the public.Why did the Earl of Pembroke, the dedicatee, want to be associated with the Kings Men in 1623? Or with the Sonnets in 1609?

Instead of political analysis, the alternate author believers seek to find the real author of the plays, and don’t consider Pembroke at all. They insist the plays are literary productions (they weren’t, they were ephemera at the time of performance); that they contain autobiographical references (they may, but to which author?); that the author was highly educated (and Shakespeare wasn’t, never having got to university – which shows they hadn’t either); and that the author can be discovered through devices such as cryptography – but so can anything). The right idea, but the wrong object and the wrong method. Looking backward, but not far enough.

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The geocentric universe

Surveys have revealed that about one fifth of the world’s population believe in a geocentric universe, and they’re not all readers of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. They are people who cling to the Ptolemaic model of the universe, of planetary and stellar spheres which circle the earth at their centre. The reason? Because that’s what it looks like from their perspective, and they never question that perspective. It also seems to be the belief of some writers of Biblical books, so conservative leaders in Judaism, Islam and Christianity also propound it to their flocks.

The Bible preserves much spiritual wisdom, but it is not reliable on history or science, including astronomy. It doesn’t contain a definite cosmogony, except in the opening of Genesis, when god creates the world in six days. As he starts when there are no days, and only gets to day and night on the fourth day, the word ‘day’ must mean something else in the Bible.

The earth centric theory was good enough for Aristotle, Ptolemy and Aquinas, and so appeals to all those wanting to stay put in the seventeenth century worldview, pre Copernicus.

It is also a human, and self, centric view of  existence, and appeals to those for whom their self is the centre of the universe. In their religion god is there to punish and reward them, and the world not inappropriately revolves around them. To me this seems rather belittling to god, and to the universe, and limiting to those who hold views like these.

However, geocentrism has the virtue of simplicity. Everything revolves around the earth, and around the self. It takes a lifetime to realise this is just a psychodrama, that the implications of the cosmos are still beyond our understanding. It must be comforting to have the cocoon of simple moral choices, as though in the Garden of Eden. I understand but can’t sympathise.

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Word of god

The literal truth of the scriptures is asserted by calling them the ‘word of god’, which calls up absurd pictures of god dictating the scriptures to an amanuensis, or writing down the holy words. A picture of a god with a voice, a hand able to use a pen, in other words a human god.

The idea is not helpful, because it levels all of scripture. The lamentations of Jeremiah or the Sermon on the Mount become of equal importance with archaic ritual concerning the stoning of adulterers or the genealogies of ancient Jewish leaders.

Moreover it is an idea that predicates an interpreter. All words are ambiguous and contain many shades of meaning. They have a history, can be used ironically or humorously, can be variously translated and so on. The more important the words the more vital there be an interpreter. This creates a power structure, with the interpreter at the top, as was the case in medieval times in Europe, when the Pope in Rome held that position.

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The whole point of Protestantism was that the individual should derive meaning from the scriptures, not have it interpreted for him. While it is desirable that religious groups constantly reform along traditional principles and have some uniformity of doctrine, it is the case that this ideal has never been reached in human history.

In Christianity for example there were at first hundreds of ways of understanding the life, and meaning of the death, of Jesus. Some groups attempted to create an orthodoxy by sanctioning some doctrines and scriptures and rejecting others, usually ones they disagreed with. After much persecution, an orthodoxy was apparently reached, only to have the dominant church in Rome attacked on political grounds by national churches elsewhere in Europe. This was the Reformation. In the early 20th century in the USA another attempt was made to get back to fundamentals.

In all cases this has been an unsuccessful process. Mainly because it is a power struggle, not a religious effort on the part of believers. Fundamentalism, and belief that the scriptures are the word of god, introduces the idea of conformity of belief to religious practice, but insists that the conformity is more important that the practice. Powerplay, not piety, it leaves me cold.

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Creationism

On the face of it there is no conflict between creationism (the account of the creation of the world in the book of Genesis) and the theory of evolution. Genesis tells of first causes (god), and evolution of how life developed. Only by assuming that a day of creation, when there was no sun and moon, is the same as it is now, when there is, can one create a conflict. There is absolutely no justification for making this assumption, so the conflict is a contrived one. Why would this happen?

It is yet another attempt to wind back the clock and return to a simpler world, this time by rejecting scientific claims in favour of religious ones. An evolutionary change suggested by science is said to be a false claim, an act of evolutionary change made by god the true explanation. We don’t know enough about evolutionary change to explain it, the reason why it is called a theory. But simply to postulate change by an act of god, whom we cannot know at all, is to refuse to understand our world, a retrograde step.

Religious groups sometimes fear scientific ones because they think scientists, by their attempt at validation through proof, erode traditional moral values. While some scientists are arrogant atheists, the majority are not. Religious groups need to guard against their own excesses, of hypocrisy and intolerance, rather than attack others.

The postulate of explaining creation, and evolution, by an act of god is really to pre-empt god, to lay claim to knowledge of god’s actions. That this is done by claiming the authority of scripture only adds to the misguided arrogance of the claims made for god as creator. Just because a man decides a book is inspired by god is insufficient reason for him to claim to know the workings of god. Religious claims have become almost atheistical. And it’s just another powerplay. So disappointing.

••

In the instances I’ve given turning back has proved to be wasteful, a throwing out of the baby with the bathwater. As a species we have thrived through our diversity, our ability to adapt to changing environments. But as change, often non essential technological change, accelerates, we tend to dig our toes in and not want to be swept away with change for change’s sake.

Stopping to take stock is one thing. Inculcating conformity and uniformity, and mere love of regression for the opportunities it gives for assuming power, is to look back and die.

©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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