Building Something New on Top of the Old

A few years back, during the Spring of 2010, I visited the island of Rhodes, located in the Eastern Aegean Sea off of the coast of Turkey. Rhodes is an interesting crossroads between cultures and geography, as the island has been used throughout history as a major port between Europe and Asia Minor. One of the oldest settlements in Rhodes is the town of Lindos located in the Southeastern portion of the island.

Lindos has a prominent acropolis and harbor around which the old city was built:

The acropolis of Lindos

The acropolis at Lindos

The harbor at Lindos

The harbor at Lindos

The word “acropolis” comes from the Greek ἄκρος (“highest/top”) and πόλις (“city”), which literally translates to “the top of the city.” Ancient acropoloi were highly important to the ancient Greek city-state, as they served as the center of the political, military, and religious activities of the community. This is not hard to see why, as the acropolis was the highest, most defensible, and greatest lookout point of the city. Accordingly, many of the finest buildings in a Greek city-state were located atop of the central acropolis of the town.

The same is true of Lindos. Many of the most ancient and best preserved buildings of the city are located on top of its acropolis. What is further interesting about the acropolis at Lindos is that we also have many different layers of expansion where new edifices were built atop the old. As history progressed, Rhodes came under the dominion of various empires and religions. Despite these outside changes, the acropolis at Lindos remained the central focus of the city, as the acropolis was the natural center of the city’s activity. Accordingly, the acropolis at Lindos has examples of Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine architecture, all built alongside and on top of each other.

Temple of Athena Lindia

The Temple of Athena Lindia

The Greek Orthodox Church of St. John

The Greek Orthodox Church of St. John

Among these structures are a number of well preserved religious sites. For example, Lindos has a Doric temple dedicated to Athena Lindia, which was constructed very early in the island’s history. Later, when the Roman Empire converted to Christianity and subsequently the Byzantine Empire came into possession of Rhodes, the acropolis at Lindos was converted to now serving the Christian purposes of the new ruling empire.

One of the changes to the acropolis was the construction of a Greek Orthodox Church dedicated to St. John, which was built alongside of the previous Pagan religious sites. Although the main religion had changed on Rhodes, the importance of the acropolis remained the same and served the same central role for the community. Rather than fully abandon the Pagan past, Christianity was instead built on top of it, where old sites that had served previous religions were not fully destroyed or abandoned, but were instead adapted and incorporated into the new religious system.

So how does all of this relate to Secular Humanism? As discussed in the previous post, Secular Humanism is a philosophy that is not dedicated to fully obliterating the memory of religion, but rather to building a new system on top of it.

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“It Belongs in a Museum!”

A month or so ago, famed evangelist Billy Graham released a video series titled My Hope America. Dubbed Graham’s “last call to this country,” the videos are each 30-minute semi-autobiographical emotional appeals calling Americans nationwide to spiritual revival. Graham describes his passion for revival in one iteration, titled “The Cross,” saying “there’ve been times I’ve wept as I’ve gone city to city and I’ve seen how far people have wandered from God.” He concludes that what America needs is a total overhaul in order to get the nation back on track.

And I, a radical atheist, completely, totally, 110% agree.

Let me tell you why parable-style. Pretend that there is this field, and hidden deep within this field there is a magnificent treasure. Say some guy comes along, and, digging in the field (for some reason), he finds the treasure. What’s the first thing he does, after burying it again and looking panickedly around to make sure no one witnessed his discovery? Dude has a garage sale, and, with the money from said sale, buys the field and ipso facto becomes the owner of aforementioned magnificent treasure (for a more eloquent telling of this tale, please see Matthew 13:44).

This was one of my favorite parables as a child: what kid doesn’t love imagining the thrill of finding hidden treasure? Sunday School teachers encouraged this enthusiasm, slipping in meaning wherever they could. “Jesus said the kingdom of God is like the treasure hidden in the field,” they’d beam. It was a beautiful thought.

As I grew into a teenager and was further embedded in Protestantism, the incredible meaning of this parable was my every reason for doing what I did. I worked hard at school and my part-time jobs, but always with the secret knowledge that my work on Earth was nothingness: I was merely mucking about in the field, inches away from a treasured kingdom that I had discovered and sworn myself to. I would imagine the beauty of this treasure-like heaven, somewhere cloudy and full of light, and suddenly all of my problems seemed so stupidly small. This parable and its original meaning were a source of great comfort to me for most of my life.

Today, as I think about Billy Graham, the modern world, and the need for spiritual revival, this parable is a continued cornerstone of my worldview, though I’ve skewed the original meaning somewhat (hang on to your seats; it’s metaphor time!).

These days, I imagine that the field in the parable is the whole of humanity, from the earliest hominid tribes chucking rocks at each other to the moment you are reading this right now. It is a growing field, ever expanding and infinite, and impossibly stuffed with human potential.

The treasure is religion, big and vast and mind-bogglingly beautiful.

national-treasure-the-treasure-room

I know what you are thinking: “Religion is like a beautiful treasure? Are you sure you are an atheist?” I’m sure, and it is amazingly beautiful. And I’m not even talking about all the artwork religion has inspired or the incredible music it has generated. I’m talking about actual religion in all its iterations.

Religion is beautiful because it tells an extraordinary tale about the human spirit. It gives us insight into both our most definitive desires and our most unavoidable and tragic aches. As part of backbone of society in many stages of history, religion is also historically relevant and responsible for much of the sociocultural shape of the modern world. Each religion, in its own way, provides an answer to the human condition and fits into our souls like a missing puzzle piece, suddenly found. It tells us how to act, what to think about, where everything came from, and (perhaps most importantly) what will happen to us when we die. Religions allowed humans of the past to take solace in a future of guaranteed happiness and glory, a future so unlike many of their earthly lives.

I cannot express in words how much sense this made.

Religion for the people of the past filled in answers to SO MANY questions that otherwise could have never been answered then. When the early Greeks first thought of a supernatural world, they placed it on Mt. Olympus because they didn’t know what was up there. When someone climbed the mountain, the gods moved to the sky, and later religions, like the fledgling Christianity, saw heaven in the sky and God raising humans there. This makes a ton of sense because in the 100’s CE they didn’t know what was up there. When we started putting ourselves in metal cylinders and propelling them toward the sky, we soon figured out that there’s no one up here, either. I’m being facetious, but I think my point is clear: religion made sense for a really, really long time because for so much of human history we’ve lived in scientific ignorance.

Note: it made sense. Past tense.

I believe we have reached a unique point in human history, a time of extraordinary innovation that also serves as an expiration date for religion. We have covered a lot of distance since our earlier days, and with every discovery we know our world a little bit better. We find ourselves growing in a constant understanding of the world around us, and it is extremely more complex than our ancestors thought. A universe as incredible as ours cannot be explained by the model religion presents; the world cannot have been created by Billy Graham’s God. We have reached a point in human history that all of human progress has been striving towards: we are bestowing meaning and understanding on an infinite universe.

This is my own call to revival, then, to rival Graham’s. The revival my heart breaks for is a revival away from the demons of antiquity and toward the more humanistic angels of our better nature. Let us revive the whole human: the body to health, the mind towards progress, and the spirit towards adventure. Let us cast off the ancient chains of religion and instead reach weightless towards newer, actual hopes. Let us not be saddled with the inconsistencies and horrid mistakes of our past: let us learn from these things, and flee feverishly from them.

But I’ve not yet finished my metaphor. In my version of the story, the individual who finds this hidden treasure of religion does not do like his predecessor and hide it again. S/he instead digs up the whole thing, and does with it what any good archeologist would do:

66147-indiana-jones-belongs-in-a-mus-hHan

The time has come to examine the common field of humanity we all inhabit, and to dig up all the treasure of human triumph and struggle that religion symbolizes for us. But the time for using these ancient implements has passed. The Bible, the Qu’ran, the Urantia Book — what have you — all these things are relics of a past we cannot truly understand because our knowledge of the universe has so vastly surpassed that of our ancestors. Like all ancient treasures, religion belongs in a museum and not in a school, a courthouse, a legislative setting, or any other area where it could have any real effect on modern living.

In summary, religion is not a bad thing, but a beautiful artifact. It is a reflection of our common human heritage and a reminder of our intellectual destiny. But it no longer has a place as an active meme in modern society. We have finally, finally outgrown it.

This first post is meant to give you a thematic taste of what is to come. More broadly, this blog will talk about “next steps,” discussing (among other things) humanist philosophy and the role of non-theistic thinking in the present and future. It is my hope that this blog will not only encourage atheists towards social activism, but more so that this blog will help those who are still suffering from religious worldviews to overcome them. It is a hard journey, and one that I myself am still very much on. Hopefully by discussing these new ideas, this blog will help recent agnostics and others moving away from religion to find a new and better truth.

Let’s dig up the field. Let’s excavate all the priceless religions, and store them with care behind thick panes of fiberglass. And then let’s forget about those artifacts for a moment, because, as pretty as they are, they are not the most exciting part of this story. Let’s go back to that dirty old dug-out field, and let’s build something bigger and more breathtaking than our past. Let’s lay the foundation in deep, let’s weave the scaffolding in between the stars. Let’s go.

Onward and upward,

Francis Adams