How Satan Became King


Human Beings bond on shared beliefs.  Factionalist type beliefs, i.e. those that say we are the good guys, and the evil lies in the other, are particularly good at producing within group social cohesion. They are also likely to operate in such a way as to maintain within group hierarchies.  Those who oppose the powerful within their own group are more liable to find themselves outed as traitors, than to overturn the status quo.

This remains true as long as the people in power, maintain their stance in denouncing the evil of the other.  Any softening of their position towards, the teapotted group,  those evil awful people over there, leaves them vulnerable to being overthrown by more staunch defenders of the faith.

So to be the prince in a world, where this is the dominant belief system, one must be an accuser.

The in-built paranoia of this hierarchical type of social organisation, is in the best interests of none, and it can result in horrific cruelty towards those on whom the evil is projected.  Yet because it operates as a vicious circle, its clutches are difficult to escape.

The early Christian movement, as described by St Paul, can be understood as a direct attack not on the people operating it , but on the system itself.

27 For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.

29 And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Galatians 23:27-29

Those within the belief system, were to be joint co-heirs submitting to one another rather than attempting to dominate. And rather than demonising the outsider they were called to love them.

At the heart of this ancient belief system lay the truth of an innocent man brutally killed. The likely outcome of any social system driven by the notion that as the evil lies in the other, it can be overcome killing its carriers.

22 For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:

23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

24 But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.

 1 Corinthians 1:22-24

Quite quickly after Christianity originated its teachings became conformed to the wisdom of the world in which it found itself.  As Tom Wright claims I think correctly in his 2012 book, ‘How God became King – Getting to the Heart of the Gospels,’ the four gospels, which were written after Paul’s letters,  really are telling the story of how Jesus of Nazareth, was the long expected Jewish Messiah.  And all the signs that the Jews expected from their Messiah were there.

Now Tom Wright’s position is that, the Gospels tell it this way, because this is what really happened. Other theologians, such as Dominic Crossan  and John Spong, take the view that the Gospel authors understood what they were writing to be myth or parable, telling a truth beyond the literal. While New Atheists are inclined to the view that they just made it up.

Regardless of why the gospel writers recorded the story as they did, the Jesus of Nazareth story is tied to an Ancient Hebrew notion of theocracy.

Christ's Entry into Jerusalem by Hippolyte Flandrin c. 1842

Painting by Hippolyte Flandrin 1842

Jesus ride into Jerusalem, recorded as occurring just the week before his death in all four gospels, ties with a Messianic prophesy, from the Book of Zechariah.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.

10 And I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off: and he shall speak peace unto the heathen: and his dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth.

Zechariah 9:9,10

This Jewish image of theocracy has a king, who though he is triumphant and victorious, comes humbly to serve his people, not to laud it over them. A ruler who operates as a servant of the servants of God.

This is not the type of leader who emerges in the paranoid social systems that arise as a consequence of the desire of the presently powerful, to maintain their status.

In the rest of nature the hierarchies that exist are pecking orders.  They are maintained through combat, or through the use of ‘symbols’ that denote actual fitness, for instance the antlers of a deer.

In human societies one of the traditional functions of the notion of an omnipotent god, has been to shore up the position of the presently powerful.  It is the notion that whatever is, is the will of God, and therefore right.  The  view that might is right, is more appealing to those who are currently the beneficiaries of power, than those who are suffering from it.

The theology that Christendom inherited from Rome, had Christ embedded in it. It took a considerable degree of theological ingenuity to make Christ a willing servant of power. Something that St Anselm, achieved in ‘Cur Deus Homo.’ An account of the crucifixion, that explained that Christ’s death was not paid, as the majority view of the time was, to ransom us from Satan, but to satisfy God’s honour and dignity, which had been offended by our disobedience.

In his theology St Anselm recast God, as a prince of  the ancient world.  These princes had to maintain their place in the pecking order by ensuring that appropriate tribute was paid to them.  Otherwise they left themselves vulnerable to hostile takeover.

Now princes did not operate alone they had lieutenants to do the work for them. People like Pontius Pilate, who needed to look as though they were maintaining order, and collecting rightful tributes. And where looking as though one is maintaining order outweighs actually doing it, then innocent victims of what is purported to be justice are a highly probable consequence.

Thus in St Anselm’s theology, the God of heaven, was demoted to an earthly king, the Prince of this World. Someone whose powerbase was so insecure that his honour and dignity needed to be defended.

Karen Armstrong in her 2009 book, ‘The Case for God,’ argued that modern religious fundamentalism is driven by fear. And she is partly right. Fear driven factionalism is a powerful bonding tool, for creating cohesive groups.  Without an initial cause for fear it is unlikely that such groups would form.  Once formed leaders within these groups can acquire a great deal of in, and sometimes even out of, group power, by whipping up hysteria against the other.  This hysteria might reasonably be construed by the singled out group as a threat.  And defensive moves by this perceived other will be understood as offensive, by the fundamentalist group, thus further ratchetting tensions.

These fear based systems are invasive. They enforce an us and them mentality within, and encourage a similar mentality in those groups that are targeted as the evil other. As Jonathan Swift noted in his ‘Argument Against the Abolishing of Christianity,’ the problem lies in factionalism.

Are party and faction rooted in men’s hearts no deeper than phrases borrowed from religion, or founded upon no firmer principles? And is our language so poor that we cannot find other terms to express them? Are _envy, pride, avarice_ and_ambition_ such ill nomenclators, that they cannot furnish appellations for their owners? Will not_heydukes_ and _mamalukes, mandarins_ and patshaws_, or any other words formed at pleasure, serve to distinguish those who are in the ministry from others who would be in it if they could? …………………. And therefore I think, there is little force in this objection against Christianity, or prospect of so great an advantage as is proposed in the abolishing of it.

 Jonathan Swift  An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity  1708

Jonathan Swift was a satirist, and the case that he was making , was that there was no point abolishing nominal Christianity*, because it wasn’t making the slightest bit of difference. All the world’s evils would exist even without it.  The same being true for any belief system. Get rid of one and a vacancy is left.  Any random difference can be used to justify a faction. The problem isn’t the belief, but the way of the world.

Christendom was not distinguished by its lack of barbarity. It too followed the Prince of this World.  The desire and respect for power and status  is a  cancer . Use power to speak peace and you end up with more violence.

This is the way that makes Satan the King of the World.


*Jonathan Swift at the start of his essay made the claim that he wasn’t arguing against the abolition of real Christianity, which it was once claimed had the power to change human behaviour.






Shakespeare’s Lad

Eros bow Musei Capitolini MC410.jpg

Eros bow Musei Capitolini   wiki

William Shakespeare’s appeal in his own time was not just to an educated elite, but across the board.  He had the common touch, picking up on basic human realities, even when he referenced high culture.  The human reality he alludes too in Sonnet 153 is very basic.

But at my mistress’ eye Love’s brand new-fired,
The boy for trial needs would touch my breast;

William Shakespeare Sonnet 153

The cubit long Cupid, the boy from Sonnet !53, who,when awakened, could touch Shakespeare’s breast, is a masterpiece, of a very common type of male banter; the impulse to exaggerate the size, and staying power of the aroused penis.

Shakespeare follows up his claim that the boy had touched his breast, with a claim about his boy’s staying power. A  bath could not cure his discomfort. He then makes the claim that only his mistress can cure his problem.

I, sick withal, the help of bath desired,
And thither hied, a sad distempered guest,
But found no cure, the bath for my help lies
Where Cupid got new fire; my mistress’ eyes.

William Shakespeare Sonnet 153

I think it unlikely that the first audiences for this poem, unaware, as they were, of listening to the words of the immortal bard, would have interpreted his cure literally, unless of course his mistress was there.  Then the joke might be that a dirty look from her could cure his ardour, and that he despite his allegedly very large penis was well and truly henpecked.

It is sometimes claimed that the size of the human penis, is involved in the formation of male dominance hierarchies, i.e. pecking order, and that this effect continues to the modern day.  The features that are boasted about in Shakespeare’s poem, the length and staying power of the erection, are features that would indicate a high level of health in the person displaying them.

Attacking an opponent able to hold such an erection would be contraindicated, and this fact should be useful in reducing aggressive behaviour.  Even better is the fact that the perspective from which the male of the species observes his own penis, means that it appears shorter in comparison to one seen from a different angle. (For men a glance in the mirror, should show that their reflection is relatively better endowed than they are – an optical illusion.)

But Shakespeare isn’t doing show and tell, and his audience would have been well aware that his claims were false.

The type of banter that Shakespeare is using enables the forming of social bonds, and the reduction of within group aggression. His unbelievable claims of cock supremacy, and his joke admission of being under female control, means that without admitting or accepting a low position in the pecking order, he has presented himself as no threat.

The laughter inducing capability of the virtual penis is more effective than the actual, in conflict reduction.

A large penis may be indicative of good health, and may initially discourage challenges to its possessor’s position in the social hierarchy.  But human beings are capable of using more than one gauge of fitness. And while Shakespeare may or may not have had a large penis,he certainly had a large wit.

The  penis isn’t the problem. In it’s symbolic role in male group dynamics, it may be a fairly effective agent for aggression reduction.

What Shakespeare was doing is related to, but opposite in nature to what is, within British and Irish culture anyway, described as willy waving.

Willy waving is a metaphor describing the behaviour of those who try to gain and keep status within their own social group, not by direct intra-group competition, but by proving their superiority against  those not in their group. Those doing so can pick any symbol that applies to their group, but not to the other, and use this as evidence of the inferiority of the other.  Status is then gained within the group by those making the most zealous attempts to remind the other of their inferior status, in a metaphorical or sometimes actual display of the symbol of authority.

Who knows, the symbol might even be an actual penis.

This waving of the group penis, can lead to inter-community  violence.  

This cartoon from Steve Bell of the Guardian links penis waving with the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris, and is making the point that the killers were impotent to stop the voices of the murdered men.

At a literal level it is horrifically false.  The Kouachi brothers shot straight, and the cartoonists are dead. What they have already said is all they will ever say, and they are interpreted through the manner of their death, as though the most important part of their life was that which in the eyes of the gunmen made them legitimate targets.

The murders were  interpreted not as an attack on human life, but ona defining symbol of our Western culture, free speech.

The human reality of the  marginalized socially disadvantaged Kouachi brothers, was ignored, as too unimportant a target for the outpouring of grief and anger that followed these killings.  On the 11th January 2015, four days after the attack, and two days after the murderers had been killed by French police, millions of people including world leaders marched through Paris against terrorism and in support of free speech.

For many these killings were seen as an attack on free speech and the freedom of the West. A threat sufficient to demand penis rattling displays of defiance, in many cases long after the young men who had carried out the murders were in any position to be offended by their actions.

Marc Randazza who blogs at The Legal Satyricon, in the title of his post  from the day of the murder makes his penis waving explicit; issuing the cry of the impotent would be rapist, and the man in the dirty mac, against the killers, who clearly would have had nothing more urgent to do than read his blog. Then posting, among others, some sexually degrading images, images. reminiscent of some of the  photographs that came out of American held Abu Ghraib prison, cartoons of a man of Middle-Eastern appearance wearing a turban,  taken from back copies of Charlie Hebdo.

He makes the assumption that the goal of the Kouachi brothers was to force we freedom loving Westerners to give up our right to insult the culture and religion of the other, with the cartoonists  being collateral damage in the struggle of international Islam to deny him this most important facet of  free speech.

I am inclined to the assumption that the killers succeeded in what they intended to do.  Their objective was to kill, not deny the cartoonists free speech. That these disadvantaged young men, at the bottom of the pecking order, not just within French society but within their own community, had decided to go out in a blaze of glory.  And in this they succeeded, dying like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, in suicide by gendarme.

These young men were far down the pecking order of their community.  Those Muslims calling for death to those who disrespect the Prophet, are  further up in the social hierarchy. And it is likely that such a call, and the subsequent media attention, increases their profile within their own community.

To think that their main aim in this is to stop infidels drawing pictures of the Prophet is to fail to understand factionalism.

Community leaders acquire power through the amount of influence they have within their own faction.   As we in Northern Ireland have good reason to know verbal attacks on people, not of their community, by wannabe somebodies, are more likely to be driven by a desire to foster the hive mentality within their own community, than by the behaviour of the other.

We wave our flag, they respond to the threat by waving theirs.  Demonstrations ensue followed by rioting, as those  low down in the pecking order of their own communities assert themselves against the other.

The people within the factions experience a greater sense of solidarity as they work together to oppose the other, and community leaders acquire a great deal more power than they would have, if their followers, instead of focusing  on the evil of the opposing faction, were scrutinizing the leaders.The main threat to the position of  the leader comes from those, who are even more vitriolic in their condemnation of the other..  So the hate rhetoric spirals on both sides.  And where there is hate rhetoric, violence follows.

Atheist blogger J.T. Eberhard had not a approved of  the American Freedom Defense Initiative’s recent draw Muhammad competition, understanding it  to be pointless offending for the sake of offending, rather than a defence of free speech..

He however approved of the actual winner of the competition,: a cartoon of an Uncle Abanazar/genie of the lamp type figure meant presumably to represent Muhammad, with a speech bubble saying, “You can’t draw me,” being drawn by a hand, with a speech bubble saying,”That’s why I draw you.”

He thinks it sends the message to those issuing fatwas, that if they want free speech advocates to stop drawing Muhammad, then they should stop threatening violence.

These people  are acquiring power by complaining about the perfidy of the infidel.  Why would they want you to stop?  The presence of an external focus for dissatisfaction binds their followers together, and distracts them from questioning their leaders’ dictates. And the power-seeking complainants are not the ones  doing the dying.

The irony of the situation is that those proponents of free speech,such as Marc Randazza, who insist on producing or reproducing images of Muhammad to demonstrate that they cannot be intimidated, are by their own account, letting their actions be controlled by  Muslim extremists. They are only producing or reproducing pictures because they have been told not to.

The American Freedom Defense Initiative’s winning cartoon, tells a different and I think more accurate story.  This cartoon is subtly off message. It is the hand drawing the Uncle Abanazar/genie figure that is in control of the situation.  It has drawn the man and put the words into his mouth, ‘You can’t draw me.’

The anti-Islamists are bonding on the perfidy of the other. The actual reality of Islam is irrelevant. They are being driven by the Islam of their imagination, and like Scientific Creationists explaining the Grand Canyon, all facts will fit the conspiracy theory on which they have bonded.

The type of confirmation bias that  they are exhibiting is also a feature of religion, and it is a temptation to refer to them as religious nutters.  But the behaviour, they are exhibiting,factionalism, also exists in the secular world, and in the interests of clarity, it would be more accurate to refer to them as factionalist nutters.

The real penis may have had a function in limiting within group conflict, in our evolutionary past and even now.  The masturbatory fantasy of the factionalist, may also serve to limit within group conflict, by focusing on the evil of the other, and may have done little harm, when the world was big enough, and we were nomadic enough  to avoid the other. It may even have been a causal factor in our survival, when all the other species of upright ape became extinct; the adaptation that ensured that our species was well spread out and that all our eggs were not in one basket.

In our increasingly crowded world it is a dangerous luxury, and one that as Jonathan Swift pointed out in, An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity  1708,  will not be obliterated by abolishing religion.   

Factionalism has the power to make Charlies of us all.  It is the driving force that calls us to take sides, and hand out white feathers to those who do not join in, in displaying our naked contempt of the other.

It is the driving force that can make the destruction of human life appear a virtuous act, providing that it is the life of the other that is taken.

It is why Wendy Dackson who blogs at Past Christian was, although I agreed with her at the time, wrong when she proclaimed, “Je ne suis pas Charlie.”

In a world where factionalism, with its ultimate disrespect for the human, is rooted deep in our nature, anyone of us could suffer the fate of the murdered men and woman, of Charlie Hebdo.

It is factionalism: not religion nor any other belief system, that is the enemy. This part of our nature, as the history of Christianity should tell us, has the power to corrupt any belief system, no matter how peaceable its origins are.

We are all potentially Charlie, just as we are all potentially the Kouachi brothers.  The victims of a human nature, that  has the power to consign us all to hell.

Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” was composed in the 1950s by Noam Chomsky, as an example of a sentence which was grammatically correct, and yet unlikely ever to have been spoken.

This is not as is sometimes claimed a sentence that has no meaning. It has no inherent meaning, but It is capable according to context of being understood in many different ways.  A fact more than adequately demonstrated by a competition hosted by Stanford University in 1985, where entrants were asked to create contexts in less than one hundred words which made the sentence meaningful.

Some of the entries can be read here.

The different interpretations are possible because words such as colorless and green have more than one meaning, and because metaphor is a recognized way of communicating ideas.

Because green is sometimes used as a synonym for Irish, this inherently meaningless sentence can be linked to the myth that St Patrick drove all the snakes in Ireland into the sea, where the  mythical beasts became the currents around our shores. Colourless green memes sleeping, sometimes furiously.

The story of St Patrick and the snakes is a metaphorical account of the ancient Celtic religious beliefs of Ireland being driven out by Christian beliefs. It is obviously not literally true, and it isn’t metaphorically true either.  The ancient memes weren’t driven out, some of them were incorporated into the new belief system, others remained as myths and legends, part of a system that enabled people to derive meaning from the world around.

The world is like Chomsky’s sentence, all syntax and no obvious semantics, structure without meaning.  It is the stories we know, the memes we bear, that determine how we understand reality. And what new stories we tell about it.

A True Metaphor

Richard Dawkins has argued that memes (ideas) should be regarded as lifeforms whose natural habitat is the human mind.

This strikes me as a rather good way of describing what is happening. Just as the world provides a range of different habitats, so does the mind. The lifeforms that evolved in Australia are different to those that evolved in Africa, or South America.  The Life forms of the Jurassic are different from those that evolved later.  But where there were niches to fill, organisms evolved to fill them.

So it is with culturally transmitted memes, there are niches to fill in the habitat of the mind. Within different cultures these niches are filled in different ways.

But by far the most important variable determining your religion is the accident of birth. The convictions that you so passionately believe, would  have been a completely different, and largely contradictory, set of convictions, if only you had happened to be born in a different place.

Richard Dawkins  Viruses of the Mind 1993

Richard Dawkins is of course right that the religion you hold is pretty much an accident of birth, or at least the society you find yourself in. The same is true for any other culturally transmitted view.

Belief is not a choice. It creeps in unannounced, as does unbelief.

Richard Dawkins was not the first to note that ideas spread by epidemiology. A very similar point was made by Mark Twain in an essay, which he wrote in 1901, although it wasn’t published until 1923, after Twain was dead.

 Morals, religions, politics, get their following from surrounding influences and atmospheres, almost entirely; not from study, not from thinking. A man must and will have his own approval first of all, in each and every moment and circumstance of his life — even if he must repent of a self-approved act the moment after its commission, in order to get his self-approval again: but, speaking in general terms, a man’s self-approval in the large concerns of life has its source in the approval of the peoples about him, and not in a searching personal examination of the matter. Mohammedans are Mohammedans because they are born and reared among that sect, not because they have thought it out and can furnish sound reasons for being Mohammedans; we know why Catholics are Catholics; why Presbyterians are Presbyterians; why Baptists are Baptists; why Mormons are Mormons; why thieves are thieves; why monarchists are monarchists; why Republicans are Republicans and Democrats, Democrats. We know it is a matter of association and sympathy, not reasoning and examination; that hardly a man in the world has an opinion upon morals, politics, or religion which he got otherwise than through his associations and sympathies.

Mark Twain Corn-Pone Opinions  1901

Mark Twain argued that the epidemiology was being driven by an instinct for social conformity.

Richard Dawkins and his friend the philosopher Daniel Dennett, both argue that memes have been liberated from their biological substrate, and it is the meme and not human instinct, that is in control of the relationship. As is illustrated by the following sentence, part of a passage from Daniel Dennett, that provides the introduction to Viruses of the Mind.

The haven all memes depend on reaching is the human mind, but a human mind is itself an artifact created when memes restructure a human brain in order to make it a better habitat for memes.  

Daniel Dennett  Consciousness Explained in Richard Dawkins  Viruses of the Mind 1993

Mark Twain’s theory is simpler. We already know that instincts control the behaviour of other animals and there is no reason to believe that memes have the creative powers being attributed to them.

It is Mark Twain’s theory and not Richard Dawkins’ that satisfies the demands of scientific method.

The Serpents of the Mind

Scientific ideas, like all memes are subject to a kind of natural selection, and this might look superficially virus-like. But the selective forces that scrutinize scientific ideas are not arbitrary and capricious. They are exacting well-honed rules, and they do not favor pointless self-serving behavior. …….

Richard Dawkins  Viruses of the Mind 1993

(Note that in the above passage the entities being exonerated, because of the intercession of Scientific Method, from exhibiting, ‘self-serving behavior,’ are the memes not people. Note also  that the adjectives, pointless and self-serving, which he uses to describe the behaviours, are mutually exclusive.)

Scientific method allows us to make increasingly accurate models of reality , which can then be used to make predictions, and suggest further avenues for research. It can never give certainty but is an excellent way of finding out about the probable structure of the world. This is not how Richard Dawkins is using it.  For him it has become a saving myth, a St Patrick driving snakes from Sacred Ground.

And just as the old Celtic myths were not driven from Ireland, but became incorporated with the new beliefs, so the old myths, including that which theologian Peter Rollins identifies with a belief in the Big Other, are incorporated within new atheism.

The Big Other:

Without getting too caught up in the specifics of what the term means in psychoanalysis, its theological significance relates to the, often unconscious, belief in some Thing that will bring wholeness and overcome anxiety.

Peter Rollins You Don’t Need to be an Atheist to be a Christian February 2015

Richard Dawkins references scientific method as the saving Big Other.  And just as the theologians of Christendom, seem to have felt free to disregard the teaching and example of Christ, when developing their theologies, so in developing his ideas on the Selfish Gene and Meme, Dr Dawkins by his own admission ignored the ‘exacting well-honed rules’ that are used to scrutinize scientific ideas.

I want to argue in favour of a particular way of looking at animals and plants, and a particular way of wondering why they do the things that they do. What I am advocating is not a new theory, not a hypothesis which can be verified or falsified, not a model which can be judged by its predictions. … Rather, I am trying to show the reader a way of seeing biological facts.

Richard Dawkins The Extended Phenotype Chapter 1 1982 

In this way Richard Dawkins has been able to accommodate within atheism people, probably himself included, who intuitively feel that the complexity of nature is such that it must be an act of intentionality.  Rather than quote them something like the following passage, and tell them to get over themselves, their intuitions have no rational justification:

The design stance and the intentional stance are useful brain mechanisms, important for speeding up the second-guessing of entities that really matter for survival, such as predators or potential mates.  But, like other brain mechanisms, these stances can misfire. Children and primitive peoples, impute intentions to the weather, to waves and currents, to falling rocks.  

Richard Dawkins The God Delusion 2006

He merely uses it to argue that the god botherers have been deceived.  And offers them the allegedly scientifically endorsed view that there really is a purpose. Everything is being driven by purposefully acting memes and genes seeking their own survival.

The old niches have been filled.  The purposeful creators, the genes and memes.  The saving myth- scientific method, saving us from our creators, and the chosen people – the intelligent.  The duty of the saved – to mock and ridicule as irrational those who fill the niches differently.

Passion’s Slave

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

David Hume  A Treatise of Human Nature 1739-40

The Scottish philosopher David Hume regarded the desire for truth as a human passion.  This is something that I wouldn’t disagree with, but there are other drives also.  There is for instance the desire to prove that you are right, and the perhaps the even more powerful one, to prove that other people are wrong.

Scientific method evolved as a way of protecting the search for truth, from the noodly many tentacled deceiver, that psychologists identify with the unpoetic label, Confirmation Bias: the instinct that makes the brain, as Voltaire remarked, a wonderful organ for enabling a man to continue believing whatever it is he wants to believe.

Science is an effective way of finding out how the world works.  It can help us produce increasingly accurate models of reality, but it cannot imbue it with either purpose or meaning.  It provides the syntax not the semantics.

Meaning and purpose are the gifts of passion not rationality.

The Meme Bonded Ape

We are social animals who bond on shared ideas.  Crazes and fashions have no depth and last only a short time, they cannot be the basis for a stable society.

One way of acquiring strong within group bonds, is to label those who hold different memes, as evil and dangerous  – those evil awful people over there. i.e. factionalism

It is possible that  factionalism was once a useful adaptation, that caused our species to spread across the world, so that when bad times came, all our eggs, so to speak were not in one basket.  And it may in part explain why our species survived, when all the other species of hominid (upright apes) became extinct.

Those of us living in Northern Ireland have good reason to understand just how dangerous such factionalism can be, in our crowded modern world.

Some atheists such as Richard Dawkins; and Lawrence Krauss, who can be seen here debating with Peter Rollins, believe that the problem lies with religion (the meme).

Lawrence Krauss argues that we don’t need religion, but should bond on the truth of science. Arguing that the wonder and awe that he feels for nature is better than anything that religion can give because it is based on truth.

And this could well be so, but this isn’t what he suggests people actually bond on.  He suggests  rock concerts or music, not science.

The activity that he acknowledges engaging in, is the ridicule of religious believers, to demonstrate how ridiculous this minority are, to the “vast middle the rational people.” Basically he is encouraging people to bond on how rational they are compared to those  ridiculous god botherers.

The laugh of this being that the most ridiculous belief of all is that we are rational animals.  There is, as real world economist Dan Ariely demonstrates scientific evidence that man is not a rational animal. The best science can tell us about the possibility that the Universe has a Conscious Creator, is that there is no reason to believe it.  Probability arguments don’t hold in infinities.

The human passion for truth is not as all compelling as the search for community.  Science is a way of finding out the truth about the world.  It can give us the world’s syntax but not its semantics. It is a very useful tool, but it is too shallow to provide the glue required to hold communities together.

Like Noam Chomsky’s sentence, reality has many possible interpretations.  We can bond in many different ways.  What Northern Ireland  theologian Peter Rollins argued in his  debate with Lawrence Krauss is that the truly dangerous beliefs are those that scapegoat others as those evil awful people, the people who have the problem, while we have the solution.

For him the function of religion, as far as I understand it, is to come to grips with the human realities, the reality that we are all broken and that none of us have the answer. And he argues that this is the ultimate reality that can be found in Christianity.

Cracking the Teapot

Yellow Dragon Teapot by ShyriaDracnoir The Celestial Teapot is frequently understood as an analogy for belief in a god or gods. This is to do Bertrand Russell an injustice.  His attack was much wider than that. Russell opposed all dogmatic beliefs, classifying any system of thought that used strongly held beliefs to justify the silencing of opposing voices as religion.

Cruel persecutions have been commoner in Christendom than anywhere else. What appears to justify persecution is dogmatic belief. Kindliness and tolerance only prevail in proportion as dogmatic belief decays. In our day, a new dogmatic religion, namely, communism, has arisen. To this, as to other systems of dogma, the agnostic is opposed.

Bertrand Russell What is an Agnostic 1953

If you accept Russell’s definition of religion then the Northern Ireland conflict is, as Richard Dawkins alleges, although not in the way he means; a religious conflict, with two similar but opposing dogmas.

There is the Unionist / Loyalist dogma – Northern Ireland is British;


The Nationalist / Republican dogma – Ireland is one nation.

These strongly held differences of opinion are heavily implicated in the recurring cycles of violence that afflict my native land.  They themselves do not provide a sufficient cause for the violence, in that they are also held in the periods of peace interspersing the violence.

I think Richard Dawkins, in the following passage, provides an insight into the driving force that ties difference of opinion to persecution and violence.

American polls suggest that atheists and agnostics far outnumber Jews, and even outnumber most other particular religious groups.  Unlike Jews, however, who are notoriously one of the most effective political lobbies in the United States, and unlike evangelical Christians, who wield even greater political power, atheists and agnostics are not organized and therefore exert almost zero influence.  Indeed organizing atheists has been compared to herding cats, because they tend to think independently and will not conform to authority.

Richard  Dawkins Preface to The God Delusion Black Swan Edition 2007 

Dogma acts as a human herding tool.  Those who direct the herd acquire a great deal of power. This they can maintain by direct persecution of opposing voices within the herd.  Or they can persuade the herd that they are under threat from malignant forces and the herd will do the work for them.

Herding People – A Fictional Example 

Our way of life is under attack by fundamentalist Teabaggians.  They have disrespected the Teapot of Rationality; revealed to us first through the wisdom of the Ancient Philosopher. They will smash our china teapots and force us to embrace their vile custom of  teabag dunking.

We must stand together, and support the chosen ones, in opposing this evil tyranny.

A real example of this kind of call can be found at the CAIN website, an  archive of materials related to conflict in Northern Ireland. dup and uup leaflet dup and uup leaflet This leaflet was distributed throughout loyalist (working class unionist)  areas of east Belfast, by the two main Unionist parties when, because they had lost their majority in Belfast City Council, they were unable to ensure that the symbolic representation of their dogma, the Union Flag  remained flying constantly above City Hall, by normal political methods.

Given the nature of this call, the distinct whiff of, “They’re coming to take us away!” and your culture is being disrespected; it should be no surprise  that the people who were targeted by the propaganda were enflamed. Nor that when the vote was taken and the Alliance Party, a  group not aligned to either of the main  political dogmas, and the holders of the balance of power, stuck to their party policy  that the union flag  should only fly on designated days, that riots ensued.

The police managed to contain the violence without any major casualties, and at present around 700 people, mainly young working class men, have been charged with  related offences. No action has been taken against those who put out the leaflet. Nor has there been any public acknowledgement by the the leaders of our main Unionist Parties, that they know that the claims made in this leaflet were untrue and that maybe there should have been a little more care taken in the exercise of free speech. (There is no reason to assume that either party leader knew about this leaflet before it was distributed.)

Bertrand Russell’s definition of  religion as any thought system that holds dogmatic opinions, and seeks to impose them, by force if necessary, means that the Northern Ireland conflict was and is  by definition a religious conflict. This definition is misleading.

Dogmatism is related to power politics, and it is therefore primarily, even if it is a traditionally religious dogma that is being enforced, a political position. And in my country in recent times it has been political dogmatists, with in many cases the full support  of religious dogmatists, that have undermined the peace. Encouraging members of our different political  and religious communities, to identify those with differing views as Those Evil Awful People Over There. T.E.A.P.O.T. 

It is this teapotting of the other that can turn ordinary decent individuals into angry and cohesive herds of people, ripe for milking by power seekers.

Belfast peace wall

Belfast’s Peace Walls – Protecting Those Evil Awful People Over There, from Ordinary Decent People since 1969.

Michael Ruse, professor of philosophy at Florida State University, in an article discussing how  Richard Dawkins’ Humanism is unlike his own humanism, in that it has ended up acting like a religion, made the following claim.

…..  rival religions tend to say awful things about each other, putting down the doctrines and the practitioners. Think of evangelicals on the subject of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, or of Northern Irish Protestants on the subject of the Pope.

Michael Ruse  Curb Your Enthusiasm  Aeon Magazine October 2012

In reality, what a Northern Ireland Protestant will tell you about the Pope, depends on which of us you ask. Some within our community for instance think that the present pope, Pope Francis, is a really decent bloke; and are therefore inclined to wonder how long before the Vatican gets round to assassinating him.

There is a tendency for people, including Northern Irish people, to regard  the Protestant paranoia over Catholic intentions, found within my community, as primal. This is not so.

In the United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798, Irish Catholics and Protestants united against English colonialism, and the Anglo-Irish ascendancy.  When this rising was quashed the victors adopted a policy of divide and rule in, the area that is now, Northern Ireland. Propaganda was used to whip up paranoia in the majority Protestant community, about the intentions of the Catholic Church

The teapotting behaviour of the authorities was deliberate and rational. They were ensuring that Ulster Protestants were too afraid to rise against them, and would support the authorities against their Catholic neighbours. That is the authorities were aware of what they were doing.

Not  all of those who use teapotting to label others, as those evil awful people over there, are this self- aware.

Michael Ruse is a case in point.  In his article, Curb Your Enthusiasm, he notes similarities in the behaviour of  Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists, with the “squabbles” of the Reformation.

In the caricaturing of ‘faith’ as murderous fundamentalism, one hears echoes of the bloody and interminable Reformation squabbles between Protestants and Catholics. One also sees contempt for fellow human beings, many of whom are educated, thinking members of society. 

Michael Ruse  Curb Your Enthusiasm  Aeon Magazine October 2012

It turns out however that Professor Ruse’s objection isn’t in the teapotting of other people as inherently contemptible.  It is that they have teapotted the wrong people, decent human beings like himself, “many of whom are educated, thinking members of society.”   The professor thinks that they should be showing contempt for a different group of people.

It is also, of course, to help the real enemy, those who turn their backs fully on science as they follow their religion. Instead of making allies of those believers who hate intolerance as much as do you, everyone is at war and no proper defence is mounted against the really dangerous, the genuinely fanatical and fundamentalist.

 Michael Ruse  Curb Your Enthusiasm  Aeon Magazine October 2012

Because of course, the fanaticism that Michael Ruse has noted in what he refers to as Humanists or New Atheists cannot be real fanaticism, because they are like him; non-religious, science- respecting, educated, thinking members of society.  And as everyone knows the evil lies only in the other.

“And  the more things change the more they are the same.”

The very prescient Jonathan Swift in a satirical essay arguing, at the time unnecessarily, against the abolition of Christianity; identified what I am calling teapotting, as factionalism, and argued that it was a consequence, not  of religious belief but of human nature, i.e. instinctive. And that therefore abolishing Christianity, would not be sufficient to rid the world of factions.

Are party and faction rooted in men’s hearts no deeper than phrases borrowed from religion, or founded upon no firmer principles? And is our language so poor that we cannot find other terms to express them? Are _envy, pride, avarice_ and_ambition_ such ill nomenclators, that they cannot furnish appellations for their owners? Will not_heydukes_ and _mamalukes, mandarins_ and patshaws_, or any other words formed at pleasure, serve to distinguish those who are in the ministry* from others who would be in it if they could? …………………. And therefore I think, there is little force in this objection against Christianity, or prospect of so great an advantage as is proposed in the abolishing of it.

 Jonathan Swift  An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity  1708

N.B. The ministry* referred to above is government ministry, not religious ministry, and Jonathan Swift is making a direct link between power seeking and factionalism.

Jonathan Swift wrote this essay, more than one hundred years before the birth of Charles Darwin, and longer still before the birth of the father of genetics Gregor Mendel, and therefore was not in a position to speculate about the forces that created this drive for factionalism – the teapotic instinct.

He certainly never had the opportunity to read Richard Dawkins’  book – The Selfish Gene.  And it is the central idea in this book, gene selection, that can explain the teapotic drive.

Factionalism creates small ponds in which big fish can have a disproportionate amount of influence. Making people afraid means that they are easier to control.  Using  direct coercion means that the would be big fish, would have to be genuinely more powerful, than those they set out to coerce. Creating paranoia within the pond about Those Evil Awful People Over There, those not in our faction, does not require the same degree of power from the would be leaders.  It also creates  conditions favourable for paranoia in the labelled people, making them vulnerable to Teapotters within their community.

If there is a genetic component to the behaviour of the Teapotters, and if acquiring power  increased in times past, their relative reproductive fitness, then the teapotic gene would have increased  in the gene pool. This is so even if, as  doesn’t seem unlikely, the overall genetic fitness of everyone in afflicted communities was lowered.

That so many of those displaying teapotic behaviour, seem to be totally without self-awareness, believing that what they are claiming is empirical truth; is consistent with it being the result of what Richard Dawkins has referred to as the Selfish Gene.  Instinct geared  not to the good of the organism displaying the behaviour, but to promoting the behaviour that enabled the gene to become predominate in the gene pool in the first place.

Richard Dawkins’ and Michael Ruse show every sign of being the victims of a practical joke, inflicted on them by their DNA.  I would be laughing if I didn’t have an inkling just how much damage the particular bits of deoxyribonucleic acid that code for this behaviour, can influence people living in unstable political situations, to inflict on each other.(1) Or the strong suspicion that the most likely victims of this behaviour are going to be those, with the least ability to defend themselves.(2)

Related Articles

  1. Andrew Brown If religion doesn’t start wars, it’s clear it can make some conflicts harder to solve  May 2014
  2. Giles Fraser Yes, the church is bloody angry about these attacks on the poor, and rightly so February 2014



The Three Faces of Cave Hill

Two of the faces of Cave Hill

Cave Hill

Cave Hill looms over Belfast and its surrounding area like the naturally occurring idol  to an ancient three headed, Celtic god.The rocky outcrop known as Napoleon's nose.

Three distinct faces can be seen in Cave Hill. This rocky outcrop, frequently referred to as Napoleon’s Nose, is a distinctive feature of each of them, but in only one does it form the nose.

In the top picture it is possible to see two of the faces. In the first the outcrop forms the nose, in the second it forms the hair of a high browed man seen in profile.  It is this second face that was probably the inspiration for Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver. (See below for another view of Gulliver.)

A naturally occurriing optical illusion.


The third face of Cave Hill is formed by exactly the same rock formations that cause the Gulliver optical illusion, when looked at from the other direction. In this illusion the rocky outcrop forms, not the hair, but the ridged eyebrow of a rather baboonish looking face.

The third face of Cave Hill

The Yahoo – the third face of Cave Hill

This face matches the description of the Yahoo, the enslaved, degraded and brutalised human beings, which Gulliver encounters in the last part of his travels, on the island of Houyhnhnmland.  Here is how Jonathan Swift records Gulliver as describing one of the Yahoos:

My horror and astonishment are not to be described, when I observed in this abominable animal a perfect human figure: the face of it indeed was flat and broad, the nose depressed, the lips large, and the mouth wide….

Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels 1726

If you can see the face at all, and as it exists only as an optical illusion, it is possible that you do not, you will note that the third  image does indeed have the depressed nose and large lips that Gulliver is recorded as having observed.  The fact that Gulliver and the Houyhnhnm – the intelligent horse overlords of Houyhnhnmland –  find themselves surprised by the similarities between Gulliver and the Yahoo and have to check to see that he and they are the same species, matches my experience with the second and third faces of Cave Hill.  I have travelled many times between Belfast and Carrickfergus, and seen the face of Gulliver morph into the Yahoo, and yet the apparent differences between the two faces are such that I still  find it difficult to believe that both illusions are caused by the same rock formations.  The young Jonathan Swift was rector of St Colman’s Kilroot, just outside Carrickfergus, from 1695 to 1696, and would have been able to experience this disorientating optical illusion at that time.

Jonathan Swift objected to the notion that humans exist as essentially rational beings, and his comparison between Gulliver and the Yahoos is frequently understood to demonstrate Swift’s idea of the difference between what we think we are – rational and enlightened, and what we really are – lust driven beasts. This is a mistake. All of the faces of Cave Hill are illusions. The face of Gulliver is an optical illusion, a trick of the mind, but so is the face of the Yahoo.  Both Gulliver’s opinion of his own nature, but also his opinion of the nature of the Yahoo are delusions. The comparison illustrates rather a point that Swift had already made more than twenty years before the publishing of Gulliver’s Travels.

  “partial judges that we are of our own excellencies and other men’s defaults.”

Jonathan Swift Meditations on a Broomstick 1703

What Swift is satirizing is our human capacity for seeing the good in ourselves and the evil in the other. With  the Yahoo representing the ultimate other, those seen only through the eyes of prejudice and judgementalism.

From the time he first sees the Yahoos right until the end of the book, Gulliver constantly uses only the language of disgust to describe them. He expresses nothing but admiration for the horse persons of Houyhnhnmland – the Houyhnhnm.  The Houyhnhnm, understand themselves as being rational beings and  have no word for evil, but yahoo.  Gulliver accepts this at face value, as evidence that no evil exists in the Houyhnhnm.  The Houyhnhnm have no word for lying, which makes sense because the Yahoos, who are the embodiment of evil, have no language and are therefore incapable of lying.  Gulliver  accepts this as evidence that everything that the Houyhnhnm say is true. He identifies himself so completely with the Houyhnhnm that he believes that he has taken on their perfect nature, at least to a degree.

The Houyhnhnm account for the presence of the Yahoo on their island by the following story.  Two Yahoos by a method unknown once appeared on a mountain. They reproduced and their numbers grew so quickly that the Houyhnhnm found it necessary to take action to destroy the evil infestation.  They hunted down the adult Yahoos and killed them, and they separated the young and reared them in kennels, so that they could be used as beasts of burden.

There are elements in this account which could explain why the Humans/Yahoos of Houyhnhnmland are without language, but none that justify the assertion that the evil lies only in the Yahoos.

Jonathan Swift understood himself as a champion of liberty, and he stood up for the rights of the poor and downtrodden.  Did he also understand that those who abused the rights of others, or supported those who did were frequently, like Gulliver,  or indeed the Houyhnhnms, “good!” persons:  good persons who were the victims of self-deception, able to see the evil only in the other? And hence able to their own satisfaction, to rationally justify anything, because they were the good guys.

Did he believe that this self-deception acts as an evil necromancer, causing the self-deceived to behave in ways that they would not otherwise have done, all the while believing that their actions were dictated by rational necessity? Did he see this innate deceiver as the ultimate destroyer of human liberty?

Jonathan Swift


‘Here is laid the body of
Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Divinity,
Dean of this cathedral Church,
Where fierce indignation can no longer
Rend his heart.
Go, traveller, and imitate if you can
This earnest and dedicated
Champion of Liberty’
Jonathan Swifts epitaph to himself translated from the original Latin.
The original can be seen in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.