Sunday, March 22, 2015

What I Like (Art) And Dislike (Theology) About Religions (Plural)

Generally speaking, I dislike the religions least with which I am least familiar. I'm not saying there are no differences between religions, because there certainly are, but the more I learn about a religion, the more depressingly obvious its similarities with other religions become. The religion I disrespect the least at the moment is Sikhism. I know almost nothing about it. Almost everything I do know about it comes from one TV show hosted by Anthony Bourdain and another one hosted by Michael Palin, in which they take part in a festival held at Sikhism's Golden Palace. Looked pretty cool on TV.

I can often enjoy religious art if there isn't anybody in my face pushing theological nonsense on me. (And for the bazillionth time, you Buddhists: Buddhism is a religion, your nonsense is religious, and please keep it outta my face! Thank you, namaste!) I love Byzantine mosaics. If you're ever in Venice, you should step inside St Mark's, and if you're ever in Ravenna you should step inside St Vitale's, and look at the mosaics. Probably you'll love the mosaics, cause probably you're not dead inside. I guarantee that going to those churches and looking at the mosaics will not be a waste of your time, because probably you'll love the mosaics, which are made of glass, not stone, and are lit from sunlight shining through them. If you don't like either the 12th-century mosaics in St Mark's or the 6th-century mosaics in St Vitale's, if you really are that dead inside, then you'll know that you don't like any mosaics anywhere and never will, and you'll never have to waste one more moment of your life looking at or thinking about mosaics.

You're welcome. It's a pleasure and an honor for me to educate the public like this. And it will be even more of an honor and privilege, and I will be able to do it even more effectively, if you can imagine such a thing -- I know right?! -- when I win the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature, so, c'mon now, talk me up! Let's do this! Thank you.

I am somewhat familiar with ancient Greek and Roman literature, which constantly makes reference to the Graeco-Roman pagan religion, but I don't know if I can honestly say that I'm familiar with that religion. Ancient Greek and Latin are inaccurately referred to as dead languages, because many people still read and even write them. They're not dead, and they're not going to die soon. Besides those fluent in those languages, millions of people, maybe hundreds of millions, are familiar enough with stories from Classical Greek and Latin that they could name half a dozen Graeco-Roman deities off the top of their heads. Hollywood keeps making blockbuster movies based on those ancient stories. You know why? Because they're great stories, that's why!

Still, I think it's fair to say that Graeco-Roman pagan religion is dead. We still have stories from that religion all around us. What we do not have is active adherents of that religion telling us in all seriousness that we must practice that religion for our own good. I don't know how seriously that religion was taken by most Greeks and Romans before Christianity killed it. Certainly, some people took it all very seriously and literally. But I suspect that even in the ancient Graeco-Roman world, many people didn't take it seriously, and that as time went by it was taken less and less seriously, and that this made it much easier to enjoy. Yes, animals were sacrificed to numerous Graeco-Roman deities, including many deceased and living Roman Emperors, right up until the time when the Christians forbad it, and tore down the temples where the sacrifices were many and the deities praised. But how many of the people attending these pagan festivities took it all literally, and for how many of them was it primarily a good time and a chance to meet people?

We can say at the very least that the pagans allowed people to say that they thought there was nothing at all supernatural going on and that nothing in religion could be taken literally by any serious person. People said and wrote such things and weren't punished for it. When the Christians took over people were killed for casting doubt on Christian teachings, doubts which often were to do with very minor differences in doctrine and didn't come anywhere close to open atheism -- and they continued to be killed for such dissent until the early 19th century. This killing for religious dissent was one of the things Napoleon wanted to erase from Europe, and actually did erase. Napoleon wasn't anything like the thoroughly, shallowly egotistical monster which traditional monarchist propaganda somehow still very often succeeds in portraying him to have been.

Before Christianity took over, there surely were a few pagan zealots who could be as tiresome as the zealots of any other religion. And in long-remote times (and occasionally not as remote as the Greeks and Romans themselves liked to believe, see Frazer's Golden Bough),

say, earlier than 500 BC in Rome and 700 BC in Greece, the zealous believers and priests had wielded gruesome power and it was all very, very serious indeed. But by 400 BC some Greek philosophers were openly doubting the existence of any and all supernatural things, and by AD 0 Greeks and Romans were joking about such things, and if anybody was upset enough to want to kill such mockers, they certainly didn't have the power to do so. Mocking Rome's political authority was a different matter altogether, of course, but religion, all religion, religion per se and any and all belief in the supernatural, could be openly doubted without Rome feeling that it besmirched her political authority. Supposedly the Emperor Vespasian joked as he was dying in AD 79, "“Vae, puto deus fio” ("Uh-oh, I think I'm becoming a god.") The point is not whether or not Vespasian actually said something like that, and also not whether any Popes ever said similarly blasphemous things -- I suspect that a few of them have -- but that an anecdote indicating that an Emperor who was worshiped as a deity had thought that religion was nonsense became public in the ancient Graeco-Roman world without anyone at all appearing to have gone all to pieces upon hearing it, whereas a similar anecdote about an irreligious Pope would have caused quite an uproar indeed.

To me, this seems to indicate that the ancient Romans took religion much less seriously, and to me, that's close to saying that very many of them didn't believe in religion or the supernatural at all. Of course, here as always and everywhere, we can only guess what others truly believe. We can only infer from their actions and statements as to their beliefs.

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