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Saturday, November 19, 2016

Cherry Pie

I might not literally have sprayed my coffee over my keyboard, but my reaction was as near as doing so. The 2016 American presidential election campaign was still in full swing, and I was listening to a reporter on the BBC World Service gather public opinions on the candidates. A woman in Colorado Springs was quizzed about her reaction to Donald Trump’s now-notorious ‘locker room’ tape in which he allegedly bragged about his sexual groping activities. An ardent Trump supporter, she breezily admitted with a laugh that she “tended to quickly forget about such things”.

Now Colorado Springs, I know, is regarded as a bastion of good Christian values, but here was someone who in a moment was entirely prepared to betray both her own gender and what she presumably regarded as her God-given sense of moral worth. This woman simply turned a blind eye to what by any yardstick were gloatingly smutty and demeaning sexual remarks made by her favoured candidate. Since the woman already had declared both her political and her religious allegiance to the reporter, I was left scratching my head. How could she possibly reconcile her political stance with her religious one? Clearly she did not form her political opinion on what was morally right, but on what was expedient. And if this was so, then by extension this presumably also applied to her religious beliefs. And then the penny dropped.

‘Cherry picking’ is a term used, usually in the context of a debate, to describe the glossing-over or outright omission of facts which you know would weaken the case that you are presenting. It is a form of deliberate self-censorship designed to bolster your beliefs or world view, and its effect is one of self-deceit. [1]Cherry picking keeps you in your comfort zone, and although the practice can apply generally, it is often found in the sphere of religious beliefs. I would even suggest that a religious belief might not actually survive were it not subjected to cherry picking, however overtly or subtly the practice is deployed.

If we need to hear that God is love, then we prefer not to be reminded that this same God intends to force us to suffer terrible and agonizing torments without hope of reprieve forever merely for [2]blaspheming against Him. The two concepts are directly contradictory, for love – and certainly the magnanimity of deific love – can surely have nothing to do with the eternal torturing of the souls which are its own creation? Such an act, or even just the stipulation of it, would make God, not a god of love, but a god who would take all the prizes for sheer unbridled sadism: a god whom anyone with even a stroke of moral decency would reject out-of-hand.

We are rescued from this impasse by cherry picking. We might gloss over this darker side of God (and it is a very dark side indeed) to instead concentrate our thoughts upon the love and redemption aspects of our beliefs, and thus reassured, move swiftly on. We might even attempt to excuse it by claiming that this simply proves that God is a ‘just’ god, which is the apologist’s stance. But if this is justice, then it is the ruthless justice of the lynch mob, of the kangaroo court – or of the Inquisition. It is justice devoid of compassion. It is as if religion, by its very nature, contains paradoxes which overwhelm us. And perhaps they do.

The paradoxes in scripture are indeed overwhelming. I have read many passages which give every indication of positively reveling in the slaughter of ‘God’s enemies’, and demand the grimmest of [3]punishments, such as the stoning to death of your own son for mere wayward disobedience. How about making a human sacrifice of your daughter? Absolutely, if you have vowed to God to do just that. Since this is Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age tribalism, such rough justice need not surprise us. What should rightly appall us is that we still regard such writings as ‘holy scripture’ right here in our own 21st-century.

Ah, but that’s the problem with scripture: it’s all in, or all out. If you want love and redemption, you also have to have stoning to death, slavery, forcing a rape victim to marry her rapist, and other horrors sanctioned by its assorted texts. Redaction of these texts already has taken place, so if you want to change something to which you might object then you’re already too late. Which is what makes cherry picking a near-indispensable activity. If you cannot discretely edit out the less palatable passages, then just brush over them, because no man of the cloth is going to mount his pulpit to deliver an uplifting sermon on how Moses ordered the massacre of the women and children who already had surrendered to his soldiery.

And this, as I finally understood, is what presumably prompted my good Christian citizen of Colorado Springs to react as she did to [4]Donald Trump’s unsavory and uncouth remarks. Her religious beliefs already had put her in cherry picking mode. It must have been an easy switch to apply that same activity to her political affiliations. Moral or not, cherry picking is an entrenched and much-used practice, and when it comes to religious beliefs, cherries, apparently, are always in season.

[1] The term apparently derives from the idea that if someone sees a basket of freshly-picked and delicious-looking cherries, they might assume that all the cherries still on the tree are just as good, whereas the fruit that is left on the tree might actually be too inferior to harvest.

[2] This is specifically stated in Mark 3:29 – “But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.” Good luck to anyone who has ever muttered “Jesus Christ!” as an expletive.

[3] It is usual for me to give chapter-and-verse citations in any post where they apply, but as the citations for the various scriptural incidents mentioned in this post already are given in full on previous posts, I’ll link to those posts here. For misdeeds by Moses, and ‘cruel and unusual’ punishments in scripture, please see my post Frontier Justice in the Promised Land. For the full story of the sacrifice of his daughter to God, please see my post Jephthar's Daughter: Darkness in Gilead. For the God of scripture’s own dubious morality, please see my post Profiling a Psychopath. For scriptural approval of the wholesale massacre of ‘God’s enemies’, please see my post The Butcher of Canaan.

[4] Making America great again? It is interesting that, in addition to his cavalier dismissal of the importance of climate change issues during his campaign (as witnessed by his ‘climate is just weather’ remark: apparently he does not even understand the vital difference between the two), Donald Trump chose for his campaign slogan the phrase: “Make America great again!” which itself is an example of presupposition. Presupposition, like cherry picking, is a debating ploy in which a statement ‘pre-supposes’ that something is true without providing further evidence to support that statement. To say ‘make America great again’ is to presuppose that America is not great now. You can agree or disagree that it might not be great anymore, but such sleight-of-hand word trickery can so easily go unnoticed and unchallenged.

What is neo-Fascism? The 'Make America great again' slogan expresses core neo-Fascist sentiments: that of a preoccupation with the perceived or actual regeneration of a nation, the running of a country as if it were a business venture, repression by bullying or intimidation in some form of any opposing voices, the encouragement of a personality cult towards the leader, and the promotion of go-it-alone xenophobic isolationism.

Attacking the person: A third debating ploy was self-evident during the campaign: that of ad hominem attacks. That is: you attack the person, rather than the issues or principles for which that person stands.

Pro-life? I will not sit on my hands on the issue supported by born-again Christian Mike Pence, soon to be the new vice president, when it comes to ‘pro-life’, or as it is less coyly and more realistically called: anti-abortion. Outlawing abortion does little to wholly prevent the practice (as we know from the example of Ireland). All it really does is drive women either over a border to a country with different legislation, or into back alleys where other women are waiting for them with one hand outstretched for cash and with a metal knitting needle clutched in the other. In practice, outlawing abortion at best makes having an abortion a medically unsupervised and traumatic experience, and at worst can endanger young women's lives. Taking this stance does not make me a rabid pro-abortion liberal; it just makes me a realist, and I for one would question whether faith-driven pro-life protesters who voice their righteous indignation have even seriously thought through such practical considerations.

A recent actual Russian billboard.
Are Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin really such strange bedfellows? I have written these notes in the time before Donald Trump is sworn in as president, and the following year inevitably will bring more clarity as to which way the wind is really blowing. 'Fascist' is a term that tends to be loosely slung around in a pejorative sense, which is why I tend to be careful about using it. But I do find that in considering whether Donald Trump's views really are 'Fascist' that it's possible to tick all the boxes. It's worth repeating here that one of the central tenets of Fascism is the perceived regeneration of a nation. The slogan 'Make America great again' fits this tenet like a glove.

A kindred spirit? The man himself, I am sure, does not see himself in this way, but calling a duck an eagle doesn't mean that it stops being a duck. Trump's views are essentially Fascist, and the ultra-right wing stance of Fascism (witness the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party, both of whom firmly endorsed Trump's candidacy) have previously in history made bedfellows of the ultra-left wing ideology of communism. Hence Trump's apparent perception of Vladimir Putin as a kindred spirit.

The chink in America's armour? My own view is that in reality Putin, the ex-KGB master of manipulation, is already playing Trump like a violin. Trump's Achilles' heel is his vast vanity, so that is what Putin plays on, and it's working. Trump's political world stage naivety and inexperience has him thinking that Putin is, after all, a pretty okay guy, but history might well record that Trump was the chink in America's armour through which Putin managed to wriggle, and America will be left anything but 'great again'.

Living in hope? As someone who can remember all the presidents (and their election campaigns) as far back as Eisenhower, I can never recall feeling so apprehensive about a coming presidency, both for my friends in America and on the global stage. All we can really do now is hope and trust that 'President Trump' will turn out to be a more civilized person than the uncouth, obnoxious, racist, misogynist, xenophobic, disability-mocking bully so shockingly visible on the campaign trail.

Stop press: Make China great again! Today, 22 November, carries the news that on his first day in office Donald Trump will pull America out of the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership). Since the partnership of Pacific nations allowed America to have an influence in the region at the expense of China, it doesn't take rocket science to predict that China will now rush in to fill the vacuum left by the U.S. and expand its influence in the region. My own comfortable prediction based on this one myopic decision is that the coming Trump presidency will see a considerable weakening and even a reduction in America's power as a player on the world stage.

All photos have been adapted from uncredited sources. The vision of Hell is adapted from a painting by Hans Memling. The sacrifice of Jephthar’s daughter is adapted from a painting by Edwin Longsden Long.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Moby Dick: When a Man Shakes his Fist at God

When my tenth birthday arrived a favourite aunt presented me with a book. It was an abridged version for young readers of Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick. The thrills and adventures and the parade of vivid characters which I encountered among its pages were what then impressed themselves upon me. The more profound themes omitted from this young readers’ edition I would encounter much later.

When as an adult I read Melville’s massive unabridged narrative it swiftly became clear just how much had been left out of the slim children’s version which had introduced me to the story. The actual plot line – the vengeance-driven pursuit of the white whale known as Moby Dick by Ahab, the captain of the whaling vessel Pequod, takes up only about half of the six hundred-odd pages. The rest are devoted to any and every conceivable aspect of whaling, life at sea in the 19th-century, and discourses and musings on any number of subjects both spiritual, practical and philosophical, including an entire chapter which struggles to define the exact nature of ‘the whiteness of the whale’.

Melville even devotes a chapter to discussing his own concerns about the sustainability of whale populations faced with such slaughter, concluding from his 19th-century perspective that it always will be kept within reasonable limits – and ironically though understandably unable to predict the later horrors of an explosive-tipped harpoon fired from the safety of a ship’s deck. In Melville’s age whaling was still an extraordinarily dangerous business which could – and did – take the lives and limbs of many who pursued it.

What qualifies Melville’s story to become a post on this blog is not so much the pursuit of the white whale, but the narrative’s preoccupation with what we might call the Christian-heathen interface. Is it really by chance that Melville’s three harpooners, upon whose skills and daring the entire economic fortunes of the [1]voyage rests, are in turn the African Dagoo, the Native American Tashtego, and the South Pacific islander Queeqweg, who is himself the son of a chief? Can it be simple coincidence that the names of several of the other characters, including Ishmael, Ahab and the prophet Elijah have such a stirring Biblical ring to them?

The straight-laced Nantucket puritanism of the time is self-evident, but what gives the story such an edge is that Melville wilfully sets up this God-fearing righteousness against the bravery of Dagoo and Tashtego, and the clear moral dignity of Queeqweg, who more than once in the story puts himself in harm’s way for the common good – once, indeed, to save the life of a young ferry passenger who had fallen overboard. This selfless act of risking his own life to save a complete stranger is done without a moment’s hesitation while others only look on in anguish. For Melville there is no doubt here who carries the moral high ground, and the heathen-hearted and radically tattooed Queeqweg emerges as one of the most sympathetic characters in the entire narrative.

Why does Ahab pursue the whale? Revenge, plain and simple. Having years before lost a leg to the white whale, Ahab is now looking to even the score. And this is where things get several shades darker. The entreaties to his captain by the first mate [2]Starbuck, who is the lone voice of reason among the crew and the book’s moral compass, fall on deaf ears. The ego-driven Ahab is entirely prepared to abandon the economic reasons for the long voyage, and thus risk ruin for the ship’s owners who have placed their trust in his captaincy, to throw all of his available resources – his crew and the ship itself – into following his own self-serving agenda.

The stage-by-chilling-stage of winning over the Pequod’s crew to abandon both their commissions and their own hard-working good natures to follow him in his egocentric desires is something which Ahab accomplishes in the way of all demagogues: with charismatic displays of dramatic gesture and gung-ho speeches full of ringing soundbites which offer simplistic solutions to what in fact are complex and irresolvable issues. At various times Ishmael the narrator actually refers to his captain as a megalomaniac, even though he finds himself as swept along by the force of his captain’s will as his fellows.

Ahab, outwardly a Christian, masks a heart darker than any heathen in the narrative. He is certainly blasphemous, and on several occasions voices his defiance both of the natural world and of God. His stance at times actually has him going toe-to-toe with the Deity – a face-off which he clearly both relishes and welcomes. For Ahab, God is not his superior but his equal, even his rival. In contemporary psychological terms Ahab is a true narcissist: he thinks that everything is about him, and interprets the events which happen around him in that light. And in typical narcissistic fashion those events become a self-fulfilling prophesy: he is the master of his world – in this case, that world is his ship and crew – because he has ordered things to be that way.

As much as any revenge narrative can, Melville’s story describes, not the indulgent fantasy revenge of so many [3]film plot lines, but the real emotional consequences of the way in which the desire for revenge eats away at the soul. Revenge, like black magic, is ultimately destructive in a way that eventually consumes the one who practices it. And so it is in Moby Dick, with Ahab’s senseless ego-driven vengeance spelling the doom both of the whale, himself, and his ship and crew. [4]All are dragged to the same watery destruction, and it is not the unreasoning white whale, but the ship’s master, who ultimately seals the fate of this doom-laden voyage.

In the end, and in spite of his rounding on the Pequod, we must conclude that the whale is no more a conscious agent of destruction than the sea itself. Moby Dick, like the sea in which he swims, simply exists: a force of nature neither good nor bad, but merely indifferent. It is Ahab, and the [5]Ahabs of this world, who we need to worry about.

[1] A whaling voyage of that time could last as long as two years, and for all the hardships and dangers was essentially viewed as an economic enterprise. For a whaler to return to its home port without its quota of whale oil to light the lamps of America and Europe would have meant financial loss and even possible ruin for the whaler’s owners.

[2] In case you were wondering: yes, the coffee house franchise did purloin the name of the character in Melville’s narrative.

[3] A revenge-themed film such as Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill can entertain us, but it is to Denis Villeneuve’s excellent Sicario that we must look for a realistic – and chilling – treatment of a revenge which leaves its character bereft of his own humanity.

[4] Not quite all, as Ishmael becomes the lone survivor who is rescued by another whaler to live on and relate the terrible events of the last voyage of the Pequod.

[5] I’m not going to pretend for a moment that I didn’t have Donald Trump’s recent election to office in mind when I wrote these lines. And neither am I going to pretend that I don’t have Ahab in mind when I watch Donald Trump in action. The Pequod can be both a 19th-century whaler and an entire nation, and Trump’s “charismatic displays of dramatic gesture and gung-ho speeches full of ringing soundbites which offer simplistic solutions to what in fact are complex and irresolvable issues” are wholly Ahab’s. Time will tell whether such Machiavellian demagoguery will indeed drag the States – and even the world at large – into danger, but I must hope for my friends in America that it might not be so.

What is a demagogue? A demagogue can be anyone who in the field of politics appeals to the emotions and prejudices of the public, rather than presenting reasoned and consistent argument. So rather than seeking the common ground, a demagogue will feed the flames of any racial, religious, xenophobic or other divisive prejudices. The social and political landscape created by a demagogue will therefore be one of schism, of sharpened divisions within a community, rather than one which binds a community together. To a demagogue, divisiveness is more useful than unity because this broadens the possibilities for manipulation.

When does a demagogue become Machiavellian? The term Machiavellian comes from Niccolo Machiavelli, the 15th-century author who portrayed such a character in his book The Prince. A demagogue becomes Machiavellian when that person places political expediency above moral values. Ironically, Donald Trump's election campaign supplies us with a textbook example of Machiavellianism, in that he remained silent while white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups across America declared their allegiance to him. For Trump, votes - any votes - apparently were more important than asserting correct moral values and 'doing the right thing'.

Note added 23 November 2016: President-elect Trump has now disavowed the support given to him by extreme far-right groups, but this is of course after they already had given him their vote. To have disavowed them at the time they announced their support for him would have claimed the moral high ground big-time. To do so after the election is truly Machiavellian.

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, or The Whale, was first published in 1851. Sales were modest, and it was out of print for the last four years of Melville’s life. During his lifetime it earned the author little more than a total of $1,200. It was republished a year after Melville’s death, and interest and literary acclaim gradually increased. Many editions are now available.

The top image is an untraced source. The other images are from John Huston’s 1956 film version of Moby Dick, from the 1998 TV mini-series Moby Dick, and from Ron Howard’s 2016 film In the Heart of the Sea, which relates the true story of the sinking of the whaler Essex by a whale, and which tragic incident in part inspired Melville to write his own narrative. The last image is the 1889 painting The Wave by Ivan Aivazovsky, in the Russian Museum, Leningrad.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Ark Encounter: The Boat Don’t Float

To say that it would have been a rough voyage is an understatement. The weather on our planet owes all of its fluctuating patterns, its calms and its storms, to the variations in barometric pressure which its land masses produce. So what would happen to the Earth’s weather if we were to submerge these great continents, these many islands large and small, and cover the planet with water?

The reality of weather conditions during the Flood. My painting of the Ark Encounter’s ark bravely riding the monster waves is a fantasy. In reality, engineering principles for such an enormous wooden hull dictate that the vessel would inevitably have broken its back before even the first wave struck.
We do not need to speculate, because we can see the results by studying the other planets in our own solar system. Dry Venus and Mars have no surface water, and while both are certainly subject to [1]storms, to find a closer model to weather on our hypothetical water-covered Earth we need to look at such planets as Jupiter and Neptune. With lower cloud levels compressed by atmospheric pressure to a fluid-like [2]turbulence, massive storm systems rage unrelentingly around these planets. Why? Simply because there are no continental land masses to stop them. Once a wind picks up it is free to tear its way around every line of longitude a planet possesses – and with a planet’s rotation as its power source, it does.

Belts of storms rage around Jupiter. Removing Earth’s land masses from the equation to create a flooded world would generate such proportionally powerful and long-lived storms as these, and would have been the dismaying weather forecast for the ark’s seven-month voyage. 
This frightening weather scenario is the factor which seems to be most often overlooked – perhaps at times conveniently – when considering the feasibility of the story of Noah’s Ark. I was drawn back to this topic after learning that the Creation Museum in Kentucky has now opened its Ark Encounter theme park with its full-sized ark to the public. When I first discussed the feasibility of Noah’s Ark in my [3]previous post, plans by the [4]‘Museum’ to build a full-sized ark as a theme park attraction had just been made public. Now the ark is there, as large as life – or at least, as large as the dimensions provided by scripture.

The organizers of the Ark Encounter attraction claim their ark to be the most accurate ‘reconstruction’ ever. So let’s see what sort of description the Book of Genesis provides as a working blueprint. It is, in fact, so brief that I can quote it here in full. In Genesis 6 God instructs Noah as follows: “14: Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. 15: And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits. 16: A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof; with lower, second, and third stories shalt thou make it."

This version of the Ark Encounter’s ark at sea from the creationist website Answers in Genesis promises calm seas and a prosperous voyage. Apart from the fact that the vessel is sitting far too high in the water for the combined weight of its live cargo and the vessel itself, the difference between their version and mine is clearly in the weather conditions. But let’s face it: creationists never were that big on the science.
That’s all there is. Unless I have missed something, there is nothing whatever in this description about the [5]ark being like a boat, or even like a sea-going vessel of any kind. And although precise dimensions are given, the fact is that we simply do not know exactly how long a ‘cubit’ was. It is usually thought of as being the length of the human forearm, but it turns out that different [6]cultures all had their own ‘cubits’, with each one differing from another.

The interior of the Ark Encounter’s ark. Imagine this scene, not well-lit and filled with curious visitors, but rolling and pitching in semi-darkness at sea in storm conditions. The lateral stress on all those massive beams, the combined  cacophony of noise produced by the groaning timbers and the cries of hundreds of frightened animals fouling their cages with fear, and Shem, Ham and Japheth frantically trying to stuff rags into ever-more-serious leaks presents a rather less cosy picture than is suggested here.
And what is ‘gopher wood’? The term is virtually unique to this single verse of scripture – and unknown anywhere else. We are left to speculate. It might have been cedar wood, or cypress, or even reeds. Or it might simply refer to wood which has been treated in some way: either planed smooth or treated with pitch. We simply do not know. So if we cannot exactly calculate its dimensions, and if we do not know the type of wood from which it was constructed, and if we are not even told what form or shape it took… on what basis can we assert that any given reconstruction of the ark is ‘the most accurate’?

This drone view of the ark under construction shows a row of thirty skylight windows per side. That’s fifty-nine more than are specified in scripture. Even for creationists the answers, apparently, are not all in Genesis.
The Genesis description specifies that the ark had one door and one window. But look at the Ark Encounter ark in the scale diagram below. It certainly has one door – but that door has been placed below the waterline. Draw your conclusions. And it certainly does not have ‘one window’. In fact, it has a whole row of skylight windows running almost full length on either side of the roof (or deck, if you’re of a seafaring nature). I have counted thirty windows on each side, making sixty in all. They’re certainly not mentioned in scripture, so where did they all come from?

The two largest historically documented wooden vessels ever built were the U.S.S. Dunderberg, renamed the Rochambeau, and the schooner Wyoming. The Rochambeau saw only brief service before being decommissioned due to constant serious leakage. The Wyoming sank in sheltered waters with the loss of all hands, also due to serious leakage. The Ark Encounter ark shown here is half again as large as these two ill-fated vessels – and the door is below the waterline!
Now consider the Ark Encounter hull shape. The forward-raking bow is clearly modelled, not upon any [7]vessel of the time, but upon the hull of a contemporary cargo ship. Why? And those wooden planks are clearly laid upon some sort of synthetic (insulation?) cladding. Rather than being structural to the vessel, they literally are a mere veneer. You might argue that the ark, which additionally rests upon concrete piles, was never actually intended as a serious Bronze Age reconstruction of a possible vessel. You might indeed, but then you should not make any claims for its ‘accuracy’. Still, creationist claims have time and again proven, both in their [8]‘Museum’ and with the Ark Encounter exhibit, that showmanship is prized above intellectual honesty. For all its size, this particular ark is a mere theme park attraction, and any pretence at Biblical ‘accuracy’ is exactly that: a pretence, and a dishonest one at that.

The Ark Encounter ark under construction. The hull planking is laid over a synthetic cladding. Bronze Age construction methods these are not. And where is the coating of pitch so specifically mentioned in scripture? A black ark, apparently, was deemed to be not such an aesthetic crowd-puller, and even this brief passage in Genesis was cherry-picked in the name of showmanship. 
My previous post on this subject covers in detail exactly why a wooden hull with the proportions of a contemporary steel cargo vessel (that is: the ark’s dimensions as specified in Genesis) would lead to inevitable disaster. To sum things up in a single sentence: the inescapable engineering rule states that the larger a wooden vessel is, the weaker its structural integrity becomes. With its keel of necessity being made from several individual trunks of timber the vessel would break its back under its own weight and the combined weight of its biomass cargo (all those dinosaurs sure won’t help) as soon as it became waterborne. Why are these points important? Because of the other claim about the Ark Encounter ark: as stated on its [9]website, it is claimed to be ‘amazingly seaworthy’.

Dinosaurs in their enclosures on board the Ark Encounter ark. There is much that I could say about this, but I think I’ll just sit on my hands and refer you to my extended ‘caption’ about it here.
There is one relevant factor which I did not mention in my previous post, and that is the dangerous phenomenon known as ‘freewater’. It was [10]freewater which caused the Herald of Free Enterprise tragedy in 1987. It was freewater which caused the sudden sinking of Henry VIII’s flagship Mary Rose in 1545, and which sealed the fate of the newly-launched magnificent Swedish warship Vasa in 1628. Freewater is a shallow layer of water (it need not be deeper than a few inches at most) which can enter through any opening and fatally compromise a vessel’s equilibrium. Wave action will cause an ever more severe side-to-side rocking motion until the vessel inevitably rolls over. The frightening thing about the phenomenon is just how little water in a vessel it takes to cause disaster.

Creationists seem to labour under the delusion that saying something loud enough somehow makes it more true. The irony which seems to escape them is that this billboard’s statement actually is true: you cannot sink a ship which has never been launched in the first place. And apparently they encourage their own siege mentality by branding all who disagree with them as ‘intolerant liberals’. Basically, that means anyone who uses their common-sense, whether they believe that faculty is God-given or not.
I trust the point has been made: it is the very size of the Ark Encounter’s ark (and we’ll assume that it is at least within a reasonable margin of Biblical accuracy) which so counts against it as a credible seaworthy vessel. We tend to equate large size with security and a greater degree of safety, but with a [11]wooden hull the opposite is true. Maybe half the size and the ark just might have been a going concern. But half the size is not Biblical size, and in Biblical literalism scripture has to be adhered to, even if that means that all credibility is jettisoned. Great size, then, does not equal greater safety and stability. In fact, it fatally compromises both if the vessel is made, not of steel, but of wood.

And what of those huge storm systems that would have swept around the planet during the Biblical Flood? They would have created an unrelenting series of perfect storms through which the Ark would have had to struggle, and my painting of the Ark Encounter ark battling monster waves which heads this post is anything but overdramatised. And with the weight of immutable engineering principles to back me up, and with professional experience in the field of marine archaeology, I figure I’d be just as likely to survive in a rusty bathtub.

[1] In the case of these waterless planets, it is principally the variations in land contours which provide the weather. Any planet with an atmosphere will generate weather of some description.

[2] That is: the compressed lower atmospheric levels of these gas planets become analogous to a water-covered planet.

[3] Please see my post: The Lost Ark of Noah.

[4] As I always relish pointing out: in an apparent attempt to imbue their institution with an aura of respectability, the very Christian creationists have named their building after a pagan temple. The original Museum was actually the temple of the Muse in Ancient Greece.

[5] The translated word ‘ark’ in the original Hebrew text is ‘tebah’, which implies any sort of protective container whose contents are precious. Thus: the Ark of the Covenant. The basket in which the baby Moses was found is also referred to as a ‘tebah’.

[6] The Biblical cubit is generally thought to have been almost 46 centimetres or around 18 inches, but clearly the greater the distance measured, the wider the margin of error becomes – and over the length of the Ark that is clearly considerable.

[7] The only vessels of the time which had such a water-cleaving prow were modestly-sized Bronze Age Greek ships. Such a hull design did not reappear on ships until comparatively late in the modern era.

A side-by-side comparison between these three hulls clearly shows the influence upon the Ark Encounter’s ark of modern supertanker design. There is no mention whatever in scripture of such a forward-raking prow for the ark, or even that the vessel was boat-shaped as such, so where did these ideas come from?
[8] Please see my post: How do Creationists know what Dinosaurs looked like? for a particularly dubious  example of creationist hypocrisy.

[9] Ark Encounter. Bring a life vest.

[10] In the tragic case of the Herald, the loading ramp of the car ferry apparently had not been fully closed before the ferry cast off, and the vessel sank in calm weather within sight of the harbour which it had just left. With the Mary Rose and the Vasa, water appears to have entered through the open lower gun ports, although the Vasa already was a flawed top-heavy design. In all cases, witnesses report the shocking speed at which such a freewater-endangered vessel will roll over and sink – literally within minutes.

[11] What makes the ark so vulnerable? To clarify this point for any reader who is still wondering (or who might doubt what I say here!): steel can be welded to itself. Once a weld is made, two sheets of steel effectively become one large sheet, and so on over a whole hull. Wood is wood, and the size of the continuity of construction is limited by the plank or beam from the original tree. You cannot weld wood to itself. You can only join it using carpenter's joinery methods.

Rolling and pitching: So the larger the wooden hull, the more such joints it will contain. Every single joint represents a potential stress point which at sea is subject to wave action, and this action comes from multiple directions: both from the roll (side-to-side rocking) movement of lateral wave action, and from the pitch (up-and-down) bow to stern movement when the vessel is directly facing a wave. In rough weather these forces come from various directions at once, placing each and every joint under greater stress.

Why more joints equals greater risk: In heavy or even moderate seas most of the joints in the whole vessel will be subject to the added stress of water pressure from the sea itself, and every joint, no matter how perfectly-fitted it might be to its adjoining beam or plank, will move, and leakage is inevitable. The larger the hull size the more this factor is multiplied. For the ark, the factor is not so much how large it is overall, but how many joints its many timbers contain. So the engineering formula is:

The larger the wooden hull, the more joints there are, and the more joints there are the weaker and more vulnerable the overall structure becomes in waterborne conditions.

What is broaching? The ark has no steering means whatever. It would be completely at the mercy of the prevailing wind direction, and an unsteerable vessel is subject to a phenomenon known as 'broaching'. That is: it will tend to turn beam-on (side-on) to the weather. This means that the waves will be hitting it from the side - and with the hull proportions of the ark, that really matters. The longer a hull is, and the more narrow in the beam (width), the more vulnerable it becomes to a rollover in a broaching situation. Far from being the ideal proportions for seaworthiness claimed for it by the Ark Encounter exhibit, the ark's supertanker proportions combined with its wooden construction would have sealed its fate in even moderate seas.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Prophet and the Goddess

I enjoy my own language, and when I come across a word which might not be so familiar to me, I like to check its meaning. So when in a written phrase I came across the word ‘tilth’, I reached for my [1]Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and discovered that tilth is “labour, work or effort, directed to useful or profitable ends.” It is derived from the term tillage, meaning soil that is tilled or ploughed before seed is sown, and comes (as you probably can guess) from farming methods of the Middle Ages.

A field is tilled, the seed is sown, and the crop can later be harvested. But if the field is instead used as a metaphor, can we be so certain that what we have sown is what we also shall reap?
The phrase which contains this term is: “Your women are a tilth for you, so go to your tilth as you will.” This is startling enough. It is not an implication, but a statement, and this statement plainly declares that women are to be viewed – and treated – by men as ploughed fields in which they can ‘sow their seed’ – a metaphor so obvious that it becomes literal –  ‘as you will’: as they want to, and whenever they feel like it. There is no arguing with this phrase, no ‘but it really means...’ type of protest possible. It says what it says, and what it says would seem to be a particularly crude example of arrogant male chauvinism.

Paul the apostle, as portrayed in the 17th-century by Rembrandt. Passages in Paul’s pastoral letters appearing in scripture give the impression that Paul was almost contemptuous of women, but these letters are now known to be anonymous later additions.
I wonder what you might now be thinking? Are you uncomfortably thinking that this phrase could come from some discreetly-overlooked verse of scripture? Such rampant chauvinism in scripture is, it has to be said, hardly unknown. My posts here already have dealt with the notorious verses in Paul’s [2]pastoral letters which, we now know, are not actually by Paul at all. These particular verses read like a rule book of women’s dos and don’ts as prescribed by the Church, even though they were written by an unknown hand several decades after Paul lived, presumably as an ecclesiastical way of keeping women in their place.

But this phrase does not appear in Christian scripture. It can in fact be read in [3]Surah 2:223, the second Surah of the Quran titled Al-Baqarah (The Cow), which is where I came across it. But perhaps this phrase is just an isolated exception among these Surahs? I read on for a few verses more. At the end of verse 2:228 comes this statement: “And women have rights similar to those of men in a just manner…” Well (I think) this is more reassuring. But then comes the twist at the end: “…and men are a degree above them.” This is again unequivocal. Men, according to the Quran, are a rather more superior class of creation than women.

Men, according to the Quran, are above women in status, and need to be obeyed. But how different would things be if such texts were not written by a male prophet claiming revelation from a male angel who in turn was the representative of a male deity?
Surah 4 of the Quran is titled An-Nisa’ (The Women) and prescribes various guidelines for family, relationship and inheritance issues not dissimilar to such Old Testament lawgiving passages. In verse 4:34 we read: [4]“Men are in charge of women, because God has made them excel the other, and because they spend their property (for the support of women). …As for those (women) from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them…”. If there were any doubts before about how women should be viewed and treated, this verse definitively dispels them. A woman who is kept by a man is at the behest of that man. Any woman who objects to her allotted status is to be scourged. My above dictionary defines this variously as being flogged, whipped or beaten.

The familiar star and crescent of Islam. It is a strange irony that a religion which brands even the idea of goddesses as a grave sin has chosen for its emblem two powerful goddess symbols: the lunar crescent is widely recognized as being associated with goddesses from Hecate to Selene, and because the planet Venus appears to trace out a five-pointed pathway in the heavens, the five-pointed star is sacred to the great goddess Ishtar. 
There are other such examples among the Surahs, but I shall briefly quote one from Surah 4:117-121. These verses are about the error and folly of following other beliefs, and having in the previous verses been assured that whomever [5]opposes the Messenger (Muhammad) shall be ‘exposed to Hell’, we read: “They invoke in His (God’s) stead only females (female deities); they pray to none else than Satan…” In short: other gods are bad enough, but goddesses are beyond the pale, and any respect due to them amounts to Satanism, with ‘they’ in this instance referring to virtually anyone not following Islam. But the goddess manifests through every young girl, every woman, and certainly through every mother, and every last Islamic terrorist owes the gift of his life, his very existence, to the mother who bore him and brought him into the world.

This photo complete with its caption I found on the Web. The caption is a grim nonsense, as perhaps whoever wrote it might have been aware. Why? Under Islamic law the penalty for apostasy – for leaving Islam – is death. The caption therefore ironically verifies what it sets out to deny.
I undertook the writing of this particular post, not as a specific protest against what would seem to be the Quran’s advocating of gender inequality (although that arises of itself out of the material quoted here), but to try and come to terms with, and even to attempt to find reasons for, a news item which I happened to read. The incident, I warn you, is disturbing, and involved a young recruit of [6]Islamic State who dragged his mother out into the street and executed her in public with a single shot. Her crime? She attempted to persuade her son to leave IS. This incident is so many different kinds of wrong that we might struggle to take them in. What is left of our own humanity when we are driven to such an act? What does it say about the beliefs which we profess, both religious and ideological?

Some of the two hundred Christian schoolgirls who have been abducted by the Nigerian Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram. Schoolgirls in particular are targeted because such terrorists oppose any form of education for women. In this sense such Islamic terrorist actions follow the classic pattern of a cult: cut your subjects off from their families, keep them ignorant and make them dependent upon you for their needs.
Barack Obama among others has protested that such inhuman atrocities have nothing to do with the religion which their members profess to follow. I disagree. Were that so, then the followers of IS would be a mere brigandage, bereft of religious adherence. But terrorism in these early years of our century means Islamic terrorism, and the mass rapings of women and young girls by IS are documented. The Nigerian Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram has forced the two hundred Christian schoolgirls it abducted two years ago to convert to Islam and take Islamic [7]’husbands’. In reality, girls kidnapped by this Islamic terrorist group and also by IS either are used for domestic labour, or are themselves forced to commit atrocities, or are used as [8]sex slaves.

Maybe Islamic terrorism is Islamic for a reason. And maybe Muslim [9]attitudes towards women exist for a reason, and the words from the Quran quoted here are as they are: men are superior to women, men have rights over women, and domestic violence towards women is both sanctioned and condoned. When the Prophet Muhammad consummated his marriage to his third wife [10]Aisha he was already into his fifties. She was nine.

The Prophet said that women totally dominate men of intellect and are possessors of hearts.
But ignorant men dominate women, for they are shackled by the ferocity of animals.
- Rumi

[1] The term ‘Shorter’ in the title is perhaps ironic: the dictionary is necessarily split into two large format volumes totalling almost eight thousand pages.

[2] Please see my post "Behold This Woman".

[3] The chapters of the Quran are known as Surahs (or Suras), with 114 Surahs of various lengths. The verses of each Surah are known as ayahs.

[4] As I have abridged the verse in my post, I will give the verse here in full: “Men are in charge of women, because God has made them excel the other, and because they spend their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which God has guarded. As for those from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! God is ever High Exalted, Great!"

[5] The Quran is openly anti-Semitic, claiming in Surah 4:46 that Jews are “…distorting with their tongues and slandering religion.” This verse concludes by adamantly affirming that “God has cursed them (the Jews) for their disbelief.” The imagined sufferings which await such ‘unbelievers’ are dwelt upon in Surah 4:56 with almost lip-smacking relish: “Lo! Those who disbelieve our Revelations, We shall expose them to the Fire. As often as their skins are consumed We shall exchange them for fresh skins that they may taste the torment.” In spite of its anti-Jewish stance, the Quran apparently was still not too proud to borrow the characters of Noah, Moses, Abraham and Lot from the Torah, written some eight to nine centuries earlier.

[6] The BBC has a policy of referring in its news items to Islamic State as ‘so-called Islamic State’ to accurately reflect the fact that the group is not actually a state at all. 

[7] Like Islamic State in the Middle East, Boko Haram in Nigeria wants to establish an Islamic caliphate in their region. To this end they oppose all forms of education which are not strictly Islamic, which is why they specifically target schools, with hundreds of students being killed or abducted. Boko Haram also opposes any form of education for women, as do the Taliban in Afghanistan, which is why schoolgirls are targeted, either to be killed or kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam.

[8] Moses, who appears both in the Old Testament, the Torah and the Quran, allowed his forces to keep the young girls they captured ‘for themselves’ (please see the Old Testament's Book of Numbers 31:18 and my post Frontier Justice in the Promised Land). So even after all these centuries men are still using religion as a pretext for behaving like beasts towards womankind, and the whole premise that religion of itself makes someone inherently more morally decent and altruistic is a sham.

[9] The co-ordinated mass sexual assaults on women that occurred during the 2015-16 New Year celebrations in Cologne (below), allegedly by males of North African origin, are also relevant here. It would seem that any women who by Islamic cultural standards behave ‘provocatively’ are perceived as having loose morals and are therefore seen as fair game. There seems to have been little awareness among these men that what they did was actually a criminal offence.

[10] These are the ages of Aisha given in paragraph 66, Book 62, Volume 7 of the hadith (commentaries on the Prophet) Sahih al-Bukhari. There is some disagreement about the exact age of Aisha. She apparently was six or seven when she married Muhammed, with the marriage being consummated when she was either nine or ten years old. One commentary points out that it was normal for young girls to be married off at that time and in that culture. But what might be culturally acceptable is not by default morally right, and such an assertion directly contradicts the claim that the Quran is outside of time, and speaks to all ages and all cultures. Clearly it does not. What it reflects is a 7th-century Arabic culture, just as the Old Testament reflects a Late Bronze Age-Early Iron Age tribal culture and its attendant social values. 

DIFFERENCES IN TRANSLATIONS: It is worth noting that various online English translations of the Quran give slightly differing versions from the translation I have used for this post. Indeed, one supplies candidly specific instructions: “2:223. Your wives are a tilth for you, so go to your tilth (have sexual relations with your wives in any manner as long as it is in the vagina and not in the anus), when or how you will…” Or more agriculturally: “2:223.  Your women are cultivation for you; so approach your cultivation whenever you like...” In Surah 4 some coyly translate “scourge” as “beat (lightly)” or “chastise”. But as my dictionary defines ‘chastise’ as ‘to inflict corporal punishment’, it’s really the same difference. And beating is still laying a hand on a woman, however the term is moderated by adding ‘lightly’.

THE ARCHANGEL AND WOMEN: It is worth remembering that the Quran is purported to have been dictated to the Prophet Muhammed by the archangel Gabriel. As with any such claim by any belief, this claim clearly is unprovable, and so falls within the province of religious belief. It nevertheless is reasonable to question the validity of such a claim when this in turn means that the archangel, and therefore God, not only is okay with but actually advocates the treatment of women as quoted above in the Quran.

A MATTER OF PERSONAL HYGENE: What struck me in my reading of the Quran is that, unlike Christian scripture, it clearly addresses itself to a male readership: “your women”, "your wives" etc. To offer one final quote: Surah 4:43 concerns personal hygiene and cleanliness, and advises: “And if you be ill, or on a journey, or one of you comes from answering a call of nature, or you have touched women, and you find no water, then go to high clean soil and rub you faces and your hands (therewith). Lo! God is Benign, Forgiving.” We might trust that God also is benign enough to forgive those who compare touching women with washing your hands after going to the toilet. 

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles. Oxford University Press, revised edition 1980.

The Quran Translated: Message for Humanity. Based on the English translation of M. Marmaduke Pickthall. Revised by: International Committee for the Support of the Final Prophet. Washington, D.C., 2005. I will restate the point made previously on this blog: irrespective of my own beliefs, I treat all books in my possession which are regarded by others as religious texts with due care and equal respect.

Islamic State militant 'executes own mother' in Raqqa. BBC News website, 8 January 2016. Retrieved on 19 March 2016.

Terrorists kidnap more than 200 Nigerian girls. USA Today, April 21 2014. Retrieved on 19 March 2016.

Photos from Reuters, AFP/Getty Images, Colourbox and uncredited sources.