Thursday, December 13, 2012

Finding Noah's Flood Creates Real Problems



Noah looks for dry land.

 In keeping with the on-going, desperate attempt by religious fundamentalists to prove the Bible is factually correct, a noted explorer now claims to have proof of Noah’s flood.  That’s the one that the Bible says covered the whole world and killed all living creatures except one family.

Actually, Robert Ballard didn’t find that.  He found evidence of a massive flood in what is now Turkey.  That’s not the same thing as finding Noah's flood.

Ballard, who is credited with uncovering the Titanic in its watery grave as well as the World War II battleship the Bismarck, said his study of the Turkish shoreline turned up evidence of a civilization swept away 7,500 years by a flood. 

Despite the loud shouting, Ballard was actually building on research first announced in 1990s by geologists William Ryan and Walter Pittman. They proposed that the Mediterranean Sea rose and inundated the original shoreline of the Black Sea.  Naturally, any humans living in that area would also have been swamped.

Ballard
"We went in there to look for the flood," Ballard said. "Not just a slow moving, advancing rise of sea level, but a really big flood that then stayed... The land that went under stayed under."

His search has been spurred by the biblical account in Genesis 7:

11 In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month—on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. 12 And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights…

17 For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth, and as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the earth. 18 The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. 19 They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered.

Mt. Ararat
He’s not the only researcher drawn by that story.  Some explorers actually climbed Mt. Ararat, the supposed resting place of Noah’s Ark in hopes of finding ancient timbers.  They were serious.  Noah’s Ark isn’t just a story, but the linchpin of biblical history.  After all, Noah’s family repopulated the world. In addition, the account testifies to God’s power.  

If it didn’t happen, then one of the underlying stories behind the Christian faith turns out simply to be a myth. 

Therefore, fundamentalists have read the news of Ballard’s findings with great interest.  He may have actually pinpointed a Noah-like flood. There also may have been a tiny civilization that was inundated.  So far, so good.

However, Ballard is using “robotic technology,” according to a published account, that takes the research back 12,000 years to when the ice that covered much of the land began to melt and caused floods. 

That’s a problem.  Fundamentalist accept that the Earth is no more than 9,000 years old.  What a dilemma.  They can accept the flood and deny their own creationist nonsense.  Or disavow their cherished flood and the Bible to remain wedded to the fake history.

Then, too, this flood covered an estimated 100,000 square miles.  That’s a big flood, but not big enough.  The biblical account claims that the floor covered the entire Earth and killed every living creature except those safely living on Noah’s ark. 

22 Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. 23 Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; people and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark. (Genesis 7)

Another dilemma: accept the smaller flood, which other humans, besides Noah, survived and that the Bible is inaccurate; or deny the flood and the accompanying research.

Regardless of the answer, there’s another problem: The water can’t just disappear. Water sits on the surface of the ground only when it can’t go lower.  If the whole Earth is covered with a flood, where did the water go?  It can’t evaporate, since it would only return as rain.  It can’t go into underground caverns since they don’t exist and the ground would have been totally saturated. 

What is a poor fundamentalist to do?

How about recognizing that the story, once placed in a historical context constructed by Ballard or anyone else, can’t be accurate?  History isn’t that cut and dry.

Sure, there may have been a flood.  Why not?  After all, other cultures have histories of floods.  Such events are commonplace today.  There’s no reason they didn’t occur as frequently in the past. 

One ancient document, the Babylonian saga called the Gilgamesh, for example, has a detailed account of a huge flood.  The tale precedes the Bible by at least 1,000 years and yet contains very similar ideas: there’s one survivor who sent out a raven and a dove to test the depth of the receding waters. 

In fact, historians have long recognized that the Gilgamesh provided a framework for the Noah account.

Noah's Ark  after landing
However, that flood cannot match the biblical version.  No flood could cover the Earth so that only a mountain top – not the world’s highest mountain either – was visible.  At the same time, DNA testing has shown that humans all evolved from African ancestors, but that we contain DNA from other human species.  More than Noah and his family had to have survived.

What a problem for literalists: accept the Bible account and ignore the research which provides some support for the cherished stories; or accept the research and concede the Bible isn’t 100 percent accurate.

Ballard intends to keep searching for the flood.  Everyone else will just have to keep searching for answers to questions raised by his findings.




This is my last post for 2012.  I’ll be away until the New Year.  I have enjoyed writing these articles on religious history and hope anyone reading them does, too.


Happy New Year!

Bill

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.net.  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at http://www.udemy.com/comparative-religion-for-dummies/?promote=1

Monday, December 10, 2012

Take Christmas out of December


There’s something about Christmas that seems to bring out the worst some people, even as most folks seem happier, bathed in the positive spirit of the month.  Their counterparts see this as a time to impose their religious beliefs on everyone else in a most-un-Christian-like manner.

They shrilly complain that people are attacking Christmas because businesses increasingly require their employees to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”  There was anger because Rhode Island labeled its state tree a “holiday” tree rather a Christmas tree – as if any other religion decorates trees this time of year.

They are furious that atheists objected when public school classes were taken to see the traditional Charlie Brown Christmas show.  Cities have been forced to remove a creche, take down other decorations and stop Christmas festivals.

Buchanan
Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan (left) has protested these sporadic efforts: "What we are witnessing here [with the secularization of Christmas] are hate crimes against Christianity -- the manifestations, the symptoms of a sickness of the soul, a disease a Vatican diplomat correctly calls Christianophobia," the fear and loathing of all things Christian, coupled with a fanatic will to expunge from the public life of the West all reminders that ours was once a Christian civilization and America once a Christian country."

The late Rev. Jerry Falwell added:  “... spiritual Grinches in our nation are accelerating their war against Christmas as never before."

Emperor Augustus
That’s, of course, nonsense.  What’s happening is a burst of common courtesy.

Not everyone believes in or cares about a holiday based on the birth of a baby about 2,000 years ago.  Not even early Christian leaders did.  Lay people wanted the holiday, just as they celebrated the birth of a Roman emperor.  That is why Church leaders opposed it.  They noted there were (and still aren’t) any birthday celebrations for Abraham or Moses.  In their day, only the birthdays of Roman emperors were turned into public festivals, but not birthdays of religious icons.

The Christian forefather eventually lost out to public opinion.  Except for a brief effort by Puritans in the mid-1600s, we’ve been inundated with Christmas ever since.

Judah Maccabee
However, there are other holidays this time of year, including the Jewish Hanukkah and the African-American Kwanzaa.  Hanukkah celebrates a military victory by a ragtag Jewish army initially led Judah Maccabee against the more professional Syrians in 165 BCE and the capture of the Temple.  Kwanzaa was created by an American professor hoping to “reaffirm the communitarian vision and values of African culture and to contribute to its restoration among African peoples in the Diaspora, beginning with Africans in America and expanding to include the world African community, “ according to the holiday’s official website.

Neither resemble Christmas in anyway.  Neither gets the same attention.  In fact, Hanukkah probably would have vanished from the calendar if Christmas hadn’t started up.  How long would anyone celebrate a military victory, especially when it involves the Temple, which disappeared in 70 CE?

Interest in Kwanzaa is fading, especially in recent years as African-Americans increasingly merge with the larger society.

Nevertheless, followers of both holidays shouldn’t have to feel suffocated by Christmas.  No one should, especially in a society where Christianity is increasing losing its grip.  Recently surveys indicate that Americans who are professed Christians has dropped to 72 percent in 2012.  A decade ago, the number was closer to 90 percent.

At the same time, the number of people with no religious affiliation or who are atheists has risen dramatically and now tops 20 percent of the population. 

“Happy No Holidays” would probably work for them.  But, even “Happy Holidays” is better than the religion-oriented “Merry Christmas.”

Sharon Prudhomme
Still, people like Sharon Prudhomme, who owns a Pennsylvania restaurant, don’t get it.  She offers a discount to church-goers who bring in a flyer or bulletin from their church.  She was successfully sued by the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), an atheist group founded by a once-fundamentalist Christian.  FFRF wants everyone eligible for the discount.

Prudhomme considers the whole dispute ridiculous.  In fact, she insisted, any bulletin from any church would do, even one from a non-Christian facility.

“To me, a mosque is a church; a [Jewish] temple is a church,” she said. “I consider the word to just mean a place where someone goes to honor their religion.”

Except, it’s not. 

The word “church” comes from Old English and means “assemble,” which is ecumenical enough.  However, it has become accepted as the term for a Christian building.  That’s why the liberal Unitarians, for example, call their place a society and shun the name "church."  The UU Church of West Volusia, based in DeLand, Florida, dropped the word "society" only after finding the children of members were being harassed for not being members of a "church."  Jews call their meeting place a synagogue, which comes from the Greek and means meeting place.  Muslims have a mosque and so on.

Calling anything a church inherently labels it Christian.

Words do matter. So do physical objects.

Wreaths were originally pagan images.
Wreaths, carols and the like are also clearly and completely Christian.  Even if they are derived from non-Christian sources, including pagan and Jewish, they are exclusive property of one belief.

Everyone has the right to express his religious views.  That’s guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.  No one, however, has the right to impose that belief on others.  Carols blaring in almost every store, tax dollars spent on Christmas decorations and other Christian-oriented activities are blatant attempts to impose one religion on everyone.


Objecting to that is not an attack on Christmas.  Instead, it represents support for freedom of religion and from religion in a country that never was and is not now Christian.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.net.  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at http://www.udemy.com/comparative-religion-for-dummies/?promote=1



Friday, December 7, 2012

Vampires, Dragons and Other illusions



Cage (left) and his 1870 counterpart

Actor Nicholas Cage recently had to defend himself against charges he was really an ageless vampire. His response followed discovery of a photograph taken in 1870 of a man who resembles Cage. 

“Personally, I believe it’s him and that he is some sort of walking undead/vampire, et cetera, who quickens/reinvents himself once every 75 years or so,” antiques dealer Jack Mord wrote in the post, which has since been removed. “150 years from now, he might be a politician, the leader of a cult, or a talk show host.”

Cage, who has starred in a movie about vampires, good naturedly dismissed the claim, pointing out that vampires don’t have reflections, and he sees his image every morning in the mirror.  Besides, he said, since vampires can’t be photographed, he can’t be the man in the aged photograph.

Question: how does Cage know vampires don’t have a reflection?

Christopher Lee as Dracula
He based that claim on a book called Dracula that author Abraham “Bram” Stoker (below right) published in 1897.  The book recounts the life of a man who drank blood, lived forever, turned into a bat when necessary and had no reflection.  Stoker created Dracula from legends augmented by visits he made to Eastern Europe.

Does that mean vampires exist?  That they have no reflection?
Stoker

Obviously not.  Simply because someone writes a fictional account doesn’t make it either accurate or true.  Nevertheless, some people still believe in vampires.  

Fiction simply has become supposed fact.

That’s hardly the first time this week.  Disney World just opened Fantasyland in Orlando and did so with characteristic flair: a dragon (below) breathing fire flew over the iconic Cinderella’s castle.  It was an amazing creature with wings and a long body.

Disney's dragon
Question: how did Disney engineers know what a dragon looks like?

They based their design on what artists through the years have decided a dragon must look like.  Actually, there never has been an animal like that.  No animal can have that giant a body and go airborne on wing-strength alone.  None can breathe fire.

The closest thing would be a pterodactyl , an ancient flying creature.  However, no human has ever seen one alive.   Based on fossils, those creatures were much smaller and by necessity did not weigh very much.  Even a  modern condor, the largest living bird, only weighs around 33 pounds.

Anthropologists suggest humans got the idea of a dragon by watching a comet.  They have long tails and seem to be fiery.  Virtually every ancient society came up with dragon images.  However, that did not make them real.

Once again, fiction had turned into supposed fact.

Kerry
We’re pretty good at doing that sort of thing.  Take the end of the world supposedly occurring on December 21.  There are people who believe it.  They are actually storing food and water for that terrible day.  They should be able to have a fine picnic on the 22nd.

That’s how propaganda works.  Say it enough times, and someone is bound to believe it.  It works for claims of vampires, invented creatures and apocalypses.  It works in politics, too, where people actually belief the absurd things said about political figures by their opponents.  That’s how we were saddled with eight years of George W. Bush after the “swift boat” assault on John Kerry.

It works with religion, too.

Say something loud enough and long enough, some people will believe it.  Throw in threats of eternal damnation and physical abuse in this life, and a whole lot more will join the bandwagon.

As with Cage and the rest, however, the drumbeat doesn’t turn fiction into fact.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.net.  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at http://www.udemy.com/comparative-religion-for-dummies/?promote=1


Thursday, December 6, 2012

Here We Go Acaroling


This blog is drawn from the book Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols (Halifax, 2010).  Copies are available via Amazon.com and Kindle.

Watch out!
Now that December has rolled around again, chestnuts have begun to roast on the open fire again, silver bells are tinkling everywhere and poor Grandma has to try to dodge those darn reindeer.  At least, in the popular holiday carols.  In reality, it’s tough to find roasting chestnuts anywhere these days, although bells do jangle merrily all over the place.  As for Granny, she’s a goner regardless.

Sometimes, it seems there are only 15 or so Christmas carols – which, in today’s mindset, refers to both religious and secular tunes.  Everyone knows the songs; they are impossible to avoid anyway.  Christmas music fills the malls, booms from radio stations around the country and echoes through the corridors of office buildings.  Invariably, someone shows up at work with a mechanical Santa Claus or tree that breaks into song as soon as anyone activates it by passing nearby.

These days, the most-prevalent seasonal carols are nonreligious.  The familiar hymns and religious melodies, like "Silent Night," are increasingly left for churches, continuing a tradition that dates back thousands of years. 

King David and his lyre
Religious music easily predates Jesus.  Psalms from the Bible, for example, often include musical notations.  Many are credited to David, the second Jewish king of Israel, who reportedly came to his predecessor’s attention by playing the lyre around 1040 BCE.  Ancient pagan festivals around the winter solstice, usually December 21, often included songs.  Participants occasionally indulged in orgies and other wild parties, too.  Christians picked up on the musical idea, although the licentious behavior did not win much support.  In fact, for almost 1,700 years, Christmas was typically celebrated as a solemn occasion with prayer and church services.

Christmas carols were a minor part of the holiday ceremonies until about 800 years after poet Aurelius Prudentius Clemens picked up a quill in the third century BCE and wrote the first versions.  He fasted all day and was rigid in his beliefs, so his Christmas songs were anything but light.  They were called hymns then.  The word “carol” comes from an old French word that slipped into English along with the Normans in the conquest of 1066.  No one is exactly sure of the original meaning of the word, but it may refer to a dance song or a circle dance that came with singing.  Eventually, carol has become associated totally with Christmas songs, eventually supplanting the older term, noel.
St. Francis

Carols became particularly popular in the 1200s when St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) introduced passion plays and singing as a way to tell the Christian story to his illiterate audiences.  He encouraged poets and musicians of his day to enhance prayers with music.   These songs may have started out in Latin, but were often translated into the local vernacular.  Wandering minstrels then carried the music throughout Europe.

None of these carols, or others in separate books, was frivolous.  Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer did not take flight in those days; Frosty the Snowman never danced in the town square.  These songs often dealt with the passion of Christ as well as the lives of saints, the Virgin Mary and apostles.  At times, top classical composers like Brahms and Mendelssohn produced carols, lifting them to a higher form of art.

The invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s helped make sure that popular carols reached an even wider audience.

Except for an occasional performance of ancient carols, most of these songs have vanished.  The current crop began to arrive in the mid-1800s.  They come from every conceivable source and type of music, including classical pieces, oratorios, popular tunes and rock music.

Carolers in Abilene, Texas
Today, carols are one of the basic glues of society.  They link generations.  Parents sang these songs as children with their own parents in a long line stretching back in time.  The songs also herald the start of a season built around such high ideals as peace and happiness.  Failure of humans to achieve these goals does not detract from the annual attempt to try.

In addition, the songs reflect the universal nature of this religious holiday.  The songs permeate every aspect of society and are instantly recognizable, regardless of religious affiliation.  The language may be different in other countries, but the music remains constant, instantly reminding a listener of home and family.


Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.net.  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at http://www.udemy.com/comparative-religion-for-dummies/?promote=1