Religion and the Imagination – Cue a John Lennon Song

According to an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, the very process that John Lennon suggested we use to put religion and other human institutions out our minds might very well be the reason we have religion to begin with.

Imagination, says Maurice Bloch [New Scientist], is what sets humans apart from other animal species. Unlike even our closest relatives, chimpanzees, humans have the unique ability to imagine things that do not exist.

It seems like common sense when you think about it: art, theater, cinema, music, and language it self are each derived from the human imagination. The suggestion that religion is a product of human imagination isn’t necessarily a new one. Modern popularizers of the atheist movement have suggested as links to religion and imagination, though perhaps not as explicit as Bloch.

Daniel Dennett, in Breaking The Spell, tells us that language makes it possible for us to, “remind ourselves of things not currently present to our senses, to dwell on topics that would otherwise be elusive” as we consider our ancestors or other absent and dead people. This is what Bloch refers to as the “transcendental social,” comprised of a group with members one may have never met (clan members, ancestors, gods, deities, etc.).

Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, writes, “[c]onstructing models is something the human brain is very good at. When we are asleep it is called dreaming; when we are awake we call it imagination […]”

V.S. Rmachandran, a prominent neuroscientist, describes many ways in which the human brain uses imagination to cope with damage to cognitive abilities of the brain after traumas or injuries. He includes an entire chapter on a syndrome known as anasognosia in which patients who suffer from strokes or  brain injuries that result in paralysis of a limb construct elaborate and imaginative denials of their paralysis to the point that they actually believe an otherwise paralyzed arm is perfectly normal and sometimes even stronger than the non-paralyzed arm!

Perhaps the same neurological and cognitive functions that inspired the pages of Rama’s Phantoms in the Brain are related to the neural architecture Bloch believes was developed in humans some 40-50,000 years ago. This is the period of the Upper Palaeological Revolution in which lithic technologies and art “suddenly exploded in sophistication” and where funerary artifacts, rock and cave paintings begin, and stone tools take on new styles that allow for more advanced and diverse uses.

In my studies of the Neanderthal to human switch in Europe, where the dominant species of residence changed from Neanderthals to humans, I’ve often considered that it may have been the willingness of humans to believe and imagine which gave them a competitive edge over Neanderthals. If Neanderthals had a diminished capacity to utilize their imaginations, they would have been less likely to develop or adapt to changing climates or environments. They would have been less likely to migrate and spread out except to put space between rival clans or groups. Humans, on the other hand, are naturally curious and imagine every sort of possibility, giving rise to in-groups and out-groups and a natural drive to explore and migrate, perhaps seeking “the good life” in the next valley, and quickly adapting to conditions ranging from desert to arctic using their imaginaitions.

Given that humanity has had thousands of gods and religions in recorded history alone, it isn’t hard at all to imagine that they are each the result of, well, imagination.

Books mentioned:

Dawkins, Richard (2006). The God Delusion. London: Bantam.

Dennett, D. C. (2006). Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. London: Viking.

Ramachandran, V., and Sandra Blakeslee, (1998). Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind. New York: Morrow

Video: Dawkins vs. McGrath

I reviewed Alister McGrath’s book, Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life over a year ago and have been waiting ever since for Dawkins and McGrath to square of and hash out their disagreements.

John Loftus at, Debunking Christianity, has posted a link to the Google Video of their recent debate. I’m in the middle of watching it now, but, at just over an hour in length, I’m finding it to be a fascinating and the comments following the post are interesting.

Richard Dawkins Interviews Alister McGrath [Debunking Christianity]

Review- Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life [Hot Cup of Joe]

The Emergence of the Israelites: an Archaeological Perspective

In a previous post, I discussed the Exodus myth and the archaeological evidences (and lack thereof) associated with the period. I recall a comment on the post on another blog somewhere that noted my use of the phrase “[t]he same progenitor peoples of the modern day Israelites and Palestinians” with regard to the Canaanites. The commenter remarked how this was becoming more and more accepted and the reason is because of the work of archaeologists like Israel Finkelstein, who are objectively weighing the evidence and letting their conclusions arise after going where the evidence takes them.

Below the fold, I’ve presented a summary of some of their findings, which, as far as I can tell, haven’t been successfully refuted by those that have an agenda rooted in Biblical mythology.

Several hypotheses exist to explain the emergence of the Israelites in Canaan, among them are:

1) The Biblical hypothesis: after their escape from Egypt and having wondered the desert, the Jewish people began a campaign of conquest led by Joshua at around 1230 – 1220 BCE.

2) The Peaceful Immigrant hypothesis: the suggestion that Israel conquered Canaan through gradual immigration into the region rather than abrupt and violent military conquest.

3) Peasant Revolt hypothesis: which provides an explanation that the Israelites emerged as peasants who overthrew their Canaanite masters through a religious revolution in which they developed a monotheistic religion that provided an egalitarian set of laws regarding social conduct, replacing the complex pantheon of Canaanite religious belief.

The Biblical account is very often the one taken at face-value and without question. Indeed, many archaeologists have proceeded in both the past and the present with the assumption that Israel was conquered by force as the Israelites took Canaan from its inhabitants. This conquest is preceded by the story of Exodus, in which the Israelites are chased out of Egypt as by the Pharaoh’s army as they escaped across the Red Sea and into the Sinai Peninsula. It is natural, perhaps, to associate this story with the Egyptian story of the Hyksos, since they, like the Israelites, are of Semitic origin and were “chased” out of Lower Egypt by the Pharaoh. From about 1668 – 1565 BCE, Canaanites occupied the Delta and ruled Lower Egypt. Manethos referred to them as heku-shoswet, and, Hellenized, it became “Hyksos,” which means rulers of a foreign land. This later became a general Egyptian term for Asiatic foreigners.

The Hyksos had a distinctive Canaanite pottery and architecture, which is present in the archaeological record and, according to the Turin Papyrus, they ruled Lower Egypt for 108 years. One of the most prominent of their rulers was Apophis and their capital was Avaris, known today as the archaeological site Tell Daba’a.

Pharaoh Ahmose I (18th Dynasty) sacked Avaris and chased the Hyksos to southern Canaan to their fortress, Sharuhen near modern day Gaza. Ahmose laid siege to the fortress for three years before he stormed it. From that point, the Egyptians maintained tight control of the border between Eastern Egypt and Canaan. The Hyksos story, however, takes place 119 years before Exodus is alleged to have occurred, so it either isn’t the same group of people or the story survived as an echo of its original, degraded through time and embellished to retell the episode as a story of success rather than failure.

This is the first of Two parts (it ended up being too lengthy to toss out all at once) and, in the second/final part, I’ll discuss the Merneptah Stele, the alleged military campaign of Joshua at Jericho, Ai, etc., and the archaeological evidences of settlement patterns in the Levant, particularly the highlands of Canaan.

The Archaeology of Exodus

According to the Biblical account, Passover commemorates the Exodus of the Israelites who gained their freedom by escaping their enslavement by the Pharaoh of Egypt. For most Christians, this weekend is significant for Easter, which marks the death and resurrection of Jesus. I suppose I could write a whole blog post on just the pagan origins of Easter and the non-Christian aspects of celebrating spring festivals involving the goddess Eostre or Ishtar, but I’ll abstain from anthropological discussion and stick to archaeology.

Passover and Easter coincide and are different holidays, but its the source of Passover that I’m interested in today. Passover and Seder, which follows, are fascinating and, as religious holidays go, among my favorite even though I’m neither Jewish nor a believer. Regardless of whether or not these holidays and their rituals are based in factual events, to me, is irrelevant to the fact that they provide a very valid and purposeful reason to bring family and close friends together. To me, this is rarely a bad thing.

Having said that, however, I’ve long been fascinated by the story that inspired Passover. A story that has been integral to Judeo-Christian mythology and often taken literally by fundamentalists. Moreover, its a story, alleged to have occurred nearly 4,000 years ago, that has probably contributed greatly to the current crises in the Middle East, specifically the Palestine/Israel conflict.

Below the fold is my discussion on Exodus and what can be said archaeologically about it, based mostly on the work of Finklestein and Silberman, cited below.

The Biblical Claim
The claim is, in a nutshell, this: 600,000 “children of Israel” escaped from Egypt where they were the slaves of the pharaoh. These Israelites were chased by the pharaoh’s armies who were unable to catch them. The entire band of 600,000 former slaves “wandered” the desert, camping at various locations, encountering various peoples and kingdoms, and finally settled to form a new nation. All of this occurred, ostensibly, in the 15th century BCE. We “know” this because I Kings 6:1 tells us Solomon’s temple was constructed in the 4th year of his rule, 480 years after Exodus. 966 BCE + 480 years = 1446 BCE.

Exodus 1:11 mentions two cities of Egypt: Pi-Ramesses and Pithom as forced labor projects of the Israelites. The first pharaoh named Ramesses is the son of Seti I and reigns in the year 1320 BCE, so even the 480 years of I Kings doesn’t work. Pi-Ramesses was built in the Nile Delta during the reign of Ramesses II (1279-1213 BCE) and Egyptian records indicate Semites were used in its construction.

Who Were the Hyksos?
Often in discussions of Exodus and Israelites in Egypt, the Hyksos come into the picture. This is because the Hyksos were Semite in origin, specifically Canaanite. The same progenitor peoples of the modern day Israelites and Palestinians. The Nile Delta, a.k.a. Lower Egypt, was frequently inhabited by migrating peoples and nomads who sought to find refuge in the relatively stable delta ecology, particularly in times of drought and famine. From about 1668 – 1565 BCE, Canaanites occupied the Delta and ruled Lower Egypt. Manethos referred to the them as heku-shoswet, and, Hellenized, it became “Hyksos,” which means rulers of a foreign land. This later became a general Egyptian term for Asiatic foreigners.

The Hyksos had a distinctive Canaanite pottery and architecture, which is present in the archaeological record and, according to the Turin Papyrus, they ruled Lower Egypt for 108 years. One of the most prominent of their rulers was Apophis and their capital was Avaris, known today as the archaeological site Tell Daba’a.

Pharaoh Ahmose I (18th Dynasty) sacked Avaris and chased the Hyksos to southern Canaan to their fortress, Sharuhen near modern day Gaza. Ahmose laid siege to the fortress for three years before he stormed it.

From that point, the Egyptians maintained tight control of the border between Eastern Egypt and Canaan.

For those that are quick to pick up on the similarities of the Hyksos and the Exodus tale, it’s important to note that the dates also don’t line up with the I Kings account and the difference is more than 130 years. Moreover, there is no “Ramesses” for whom a city can be named at this point. Though, the correlation is one to not be quickly dismissed.

What if the Exodus Story Were Concocted?
What if, indeed? Why concoct such a tale and how would we know it was either concocted or true. Believers in Christianity and Judaism assign varying degrees of trust in Old Testament mythology: some willing to accept it as myth at one extreme; others taking great umbrage to the use of the term “myth” at the other.

But if we hypothesize for a moment that the Exodus narrative (I’ll stick to this term) is one that was invented by the authors of Genesis, then what might we expect to find to corroborate the hypothesis?

First, we might expect that narrative be limited to only what the authors knew. Assuming that they didn’t have Iron Age archaeologists excavating sites, we can assume that their knowledge was limited to the geography and politics of their time.

Second, if the narrative is an invented one, we would fail to see corroboration in Egyptian texts of it.

Third, if, indeed, this is a narrative invented by a much later author or set of authors, we would not expect to find archaeological evidence that supports it.

Guess What?
The sites mentioned in Exodus are real.

The problem is this: the sites mentioned were sparsely populated by a few pastoralists or otherwise completely unoccupied during the alleged period that Exodus occurred in the Late Bronze Age (13th century BCE). A few were well-known and occupied much earlier and certainly much later than the Late Bronze Age, but during the Exodus period, nada. They were unoccupied at precisely the time they were reported to be by Exodus.

Not only that, but Egyptian texts don’t mention “Israelites” at all. If 600,000 slaves escaped the pharaoh, they were so stealthy they slipped past all the border stations that were put into place following the Hyksos expulsion, snuck past each of the fortifications used to supply soldiers along the “Ways of Horus,” the 250 km route between Egypt and Gaza. And they successfully eluded Egyptian soldiers that were already present in Canaan, which was controlled by Egypt from the 13th through the 7th centuries BCE. The only mention of “Israel” is on the Merneptah Stele where Merneptah (1213-1203 BCE) boasts that “Isrir lies in waste its seed no more.” The lack of a country determinative in the hieroglyphs clearly indicates Merneptah was referring to a people not a country and the depiction of the Israelites on the stele was consistent with Canaanite hair style.

Addressing the third point above, regarding archaeological evidence, it must be recognized that there has been extensive work done in archaeology in the Levant, particularly in the Sinai desert where the “children of Israel” (all 600,000 of them) were said to “wander.” Biblical stories are very much responsible for this archaeology as “biblical archaeologists,” searched -and still search- for evidence that supports their beliefs.

600,000 Wandering Jews?
Let’s put the number into perspective. Fresno and Mission Viejo, both in California have populations of 500,000. Bakersfield is only 250,000. Vancouver, Canada has a population of 600,000.

Not a single archaeological expedition, and there have been a great many, has discovered evidence of any substantial group of people subsisting off of the land in the Sinai desert or in or near any of the sites mentioned in Exodus. According to the biblical narrative, the equivalent of the population of Vancouver was moving around and camping in the desert for 40 years. Not only were they stealthy (not encountering the Egyptian armies who recorded even encounters with a few nomadic pastoralists tending their flocks); but they were frugal! Not a single pot sherd has been found!

Not a single campsite or site of occupation has been found with the exception of the well-documented coastal forts and stations of the Egyptian army for the period of Ramesses II or for any of his immediate predecessors or successors. There have been repeated archaeological excavations at the site of St. Catherine’s Monastary in the Sinai, where Moses is supposed to have spoken to a burning bush, but the results have always been negative evidence. Not a single sherd or indication that the site was occupied in the Late Bronze Age. Modern archaeological techniques can trace the remains of hunter-gather and pastoral nomads all over the world, but cannot find a population the size of that of Vancouver in a barren desert! Indeed, the activity of a small population of pastoralists is present in the 3rd millennium (2000-3000) BCE, as well as in the Hellenistic and Byzantine periods. But the evidence is NON-EXISTENT for the Late Bronze Age.

Tell Arad
East of Beersheba there is the remains of a great Early Bronze Age city that spans about 25 acres. A “tell” is a mound of past human habitation that has since eroded from mud bricks to a pile of dirt, often built upon again and again over many generations. This tell also became an Iron Age fort, but there are no remains for the Late Bronze Age when Exodus is alleged to have happened.

This directly contradicts the biblical narrative since the king of Arad “who dwelt in the Negeb” attacked the Israelites who appealed for divine intervention to destroy the Canaanite cities (Num. 21:1-3). There’s no evidence of Arad anywhere in the Beersheba valley (Negeb).

Tell Heshban
The wandering Jews supposedly did battle here with the Ammorite king, Sihon, who tried to block there passage (Num. 21:21-25). Excavations here reveal NO Bronze Age city. Not even a village.

Eddom and Ammon were alleged to be full-fledge states ruled by kings on the Transjordan plateau, yet the evidence shows that the plateau was sparsely inhabited by pastoralist populations in the Bronze Age. Not a single sedentary population is evident in the archaeological record.

Exodus was probably a story written by authors in the 7th century, or possibly as late as the 6th century, BCE. The place names mentioned above existed by the 7th century but not in the Bronze Age. Iron Age authors would have known of the many public works created by the Saite Dynasty in Egypt’s 26th Dynasty, who employed the largest numbers of foreign settlers. A large community of immigrants from Judah was present from the 7th through the 6th centuries. Pithom, mentioned in Exodus 1:11, was built in the 7th century. Migdol, mentioned in Exodus 14:2, was built in the 7th century.

Exodus apparently did not happen in the period or in the manner in which it is portrayed in biblical mythology.

Useful References:

Beitak, M. (1996). Avaris the capital of the Hyksos: recent excavations of Tell el-Daba. London

Finkelstein, I. & Silberman, N.A. (2001). The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and The Origin of its Sacred Texts. New York

Oren, E.D. (1987). The “Ways of Horus” in North Sinai. In Rainey, A.F. (editor), Egypt, Israel, Sinai: Archaeological and Historical Relationships in the Biblical Period. Tel-Aviv

Redford, D.B. (1992). Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton

Redford, D.B. (1987) An Egyptological perspective on the Exodus narrative. In: Rainey, A.F. (editor), Egypt, Israel, Sinai: Archaeological and Historical Relationships in the Biblical Period. Tel-Aviv

Redford, D.B. (1973). Studies in Relations between Palestine and Egypt during the First Millennium B. C.: II. The Twenty-Second Dynasty. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 93(1), pp. 3-17.

Blog Against Theocracy: Pastafarian Suspended From School

Pastafarian, Bryan Killian, was suspended from school because of his religious attire in North Buncombe, North Carolina. Apparently the school warned him repeatedly to not wear the clothing to school, yet Killian persisted, remaining true to his faith. Read more below the fold.

Okay, for those that don’t know (can there be anyone that doesn’t?), Pastafarianism is the religion of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Its adherents believe that the world was created by a touch from his Noodly Appendage and that it is the worldwide decline in the pirate population which has directly contributed to global warming.

Pastafarianism and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster are a farce. No doubt about it. But I find the introduction of it to be hilariously problematic for the fundamentalist nutbars that demand pseudoscientific claims and religion be taught in science classes and that the fact of evolution be denigrated to something less than a hypothesis despite the overwhelming amount of evidence that supports it. If you are a fundamentalist, how can you truly deny the FSM? How can you criticize it without criticizing your own beliefs? Indeed, that is probably the very point that Bobby Henderson was making when he wrote to the Kansas School Board during their ‘intelligent’ design hearings. Henderson’s open letter demanded that the FSM version of creation via Noodly Appendage be taught alongside ID and evolution or be sued.

The obvious criticism by the religious is that the FSM is concocted and not meant to be serious, but there’s absolutely no more way to demonstrate this than there is the same criticism of Yahweh, Allah, Brahma, Elohim, Jesus, etc. In fact, I’ll quote such a criticism that I recently encountered:

If a fool can concoct something and get attract a following in the name of religion it indicates that the understanding of religion has left the public sphere – just like if I could sell gold spray painted granite on the gold market it would indicate that the knowledge of what gold is has left the public sphere (even though people might say the word “gold” quite profusely)

My response was this: each of the religions of humanity may very well be nothing more than “golden spray.” And their followers are only willing to scrape away the sprays of cults other than their own, whilst believing that their own cult is gold all the way through. To the believer, there is no reason to scrap at the surface to see if its just spray, since their doctrine tells them it isn’t.

This is the beauty of the Pastafarian movement and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It exposes the religious for what they are as they go on about how its an “invented” religion and “obviously” not real.

The North Buncombe school that suspended Killian maintains that it was his pirate outfit which was the reason for the suspension, since it was disruptive. The very outfit that Killian stated was important for his religion and in appropriately representing his religion. I wonder if the school would be willing to extend its disruption policy to yarmulkes and kippas? Probably not. But what about a dishdasha or a hijab or even a burqa? What if a student wore a t-shirt with a graphic scene from the Passion of the Christ plastered on the front? Would school officials have the courage to be seen as insensitive to other cultures? Its easy enough to argue that there are public schools where Muslim girls wear abayas and hijabs every day without disruption. But, I assure you, there are public schools in Texas where such garb would be very disruptive if for the only reason that the students there have never seen the outfits before.

I don’t think schools should be in the practice of banning religious garb they feel is disruptive. I do, however, think that there should be some limitations: hijabs are one thing, complete obscured faces and burkas are another. An Errol Flynn shirt and a tri-cornered hat are one thing, a sword and live parrot are another. But whether or not the FSM and Pastafarianism are both purely invented or not, Killians school may have opened a can of worms it might wish it hadn’t.

Atheism vs. Theism in Recent News

Afarensis recently posted a short review of the Newsweek article, The New Naysayers . A bit later, PZ Myers posted a more in depth discussion at Pharyngula.

The discussions at these two blogs are well-done and the comments are interesting, so I won’t attempt to duplicate what they’ve already accomplished here. Anything I could say would pale in comparison to either of these gentlemen and I highly recommend both of the links above.

I’d first like to list some videos that can be found on YouTube that have a fair amount of Richard Dawkins’ The Root of All Evil? There may be more, but these are the ones I’ve found and I’ve tried to list them in order: (Pt 1) (Teapot Atheists) (Pt 2.1) (Pt 2.2) (Pt 2.3) (Pt 2.4) (Pt 2.5) (Pt 2.6)

Dawkins was one of several figures that was discussed in the Newsweek article as issuing “bone-rattling attacks on what they regard as a pernicious and outdated superstition.” Other atheistic luminaries mentioned were Daniel C. Dennett and Samuel Harris, authors of Breaking the Spell and The End of Faith, respectively. Dawkins’ The God Delusion is due out in October.

The question (sometimes the accusation) arises in many discussions with atheists, particularly on the Internet, is religion evil? Certainly the very title of Dawkins’ recent BBC series is suggestive of the question, though it should also be noted that Dawkins was against the title, The Root of All Evil? and protested. BBC won, but the inclusion of the question mark was their consolation to Dawkins. As an anthropologist, I find religion a fascinating topic. Clearly, humanity is hardwired to “believe” and to engage in magical thinking. The evidence is abundant to support this hypothesis and found in neurology, biology, and anthropology. That there are so many religions in human culture, both geographically and temporally, is suggestive that there are none which are genuine in their claims of supernatural agency.

But to answer the question of whether or not religion is evil would require two definitions: one of religion and another of evil. To define religion, I agree with Daniel Dennett’s assessment: “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.” I won’t attempt to define evil, I think we can all come to some mutual agreement that evil means bad for you and others. But I’m afraid I cannot agree that religion, in the broad term of the word is “evil.” Certainly, there are those within specific religions that are evil and, certainly, there are those religious sects and cults that are evil in their deeds (most cults of Christianity and Islam come to mind). But religion on the whole is a social system and is not capable of being either good or evil.

Weinberg suggested that for man to be truly evil, religion is required, but I think this also gives too much credit to a social system. I do, however, think that religion enables the worst in humanity to come out and religion has traditionally been one of the main points of contention in wars and the justification for the persecution of “others.” Religion inspired civilizations of prehistory to build monumental architecture and develop agriculture. For that, ancient religion should be praised. But, in modern times, that same ancient religion is obsolete and getting in the way of the progress it once inspired. In the United States, the most religious nation in the so-called Developed World, those that consider themselves religious have all the problems they say are immoral: abortion, addiction, crime, adultery, etc. Moreover, religious superstition threatens the advancement of science and world peace. Crime in the United States exceeds that of the rest of the industrialized West -the secular states of Scandinavia, France, Japan and the like.

Sure. This correlation is casual. I admit it. But wouldn’t the religious have more ground to stand on if they were actually able to show that religion works? Instead, the religious act as though science and atheists are actually out to eliminate them and that atheists are organizing into some “movement” that will actively seek to destroy God and his believers. A recent study in the American Sociological Review (vol 71, April 2006) reveals that atheists are America’s least trusted group:

[t]hose surveyed tended to view people who don’t believe in a god as the “ultimate self-interested actor who doesn’t care about anyone but themselves.”

Yes, atheists are self-interested. Einstein gave nothing to the world; Susan B. Anthony’s efforts were only for herself; Carl Sagan made no attempt to share his knowledge; and Abraham Lincoln was obviously only thinking of himself with the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address. The religious of the nation don’t care that atheists aren’t out to get them and refuse to accept that atheism is only about not accepting a god based on critical thought and reason. They want a dichotomy. I’m with PZ, who closed his post linked above with:

Yes, let us choose sides. I’m on the side of enlightenment and knowledge and critical thinking and the rejection of dogma. Which side are you going to be on?