Archive for January, 2008

Heaven, Hell and juggling fever dreams

January 30, 2008

If there is a Hell which is torment, and some people go there, and if there is a Heaven, which is bliss, and some people go there — how can the people in Heaven be happy?

If they know that people are burning and suffering for ever and ever in Hell, how can they be happy? Since salvation is touted as an individual thing, there will be sisters, mothers, children, friends and neighbors in Hell. How can one enjoy Heaven knowing this?

God could erase the memories of the blessed, true, make them forget all about those in Hell. But is such a God of Lobotomy, Lord of Imperfect Recall, good? And if the curiosity of the blessed is so dimmed that they do not even wonder about the missing people, the nonexistent mothers and fathers, then what is left of their individual minds and souls, except a hollow shell droning unending praises to its manipulator?

If the blessed knew, God could still tell or make them not care — after all, Heaven or Hell is an individual decision. But isn’t ordering such a thing callous (“Forget your father! He is burning already!”), and isn’t forcing it even worse? (“My father? He is in Hell by his own choice. I feel no sympathy.”) Heaven would be full of misery, or full of monsters.

Then again, maybe God’s host of angels masquerades as those that are not present. That would be trickery and lying, massive betrayal, and deluded bliss. Such a lie would never be revealed if perpetrated by an all-powerful God, but it would still be a lie, and probably the worst possible betrayal of those in Heaven and those in Hell.

Maybe Hell isn’t as bad as it is made up to be. Some theologians say, I’ve heard, that Hell isn’t torment at all — just an absence of God, where the soul withers alone, filled with its selfishness and such, not happy but not able to care about or comprehend its distress. What is that but a Hell of Lobotomy, a Damnation of Neverending Alzheimer’s Disease? How is that any better, or more merciful, than a lake of fire?

Maybe there is no Hell, and those that are not blessed simply disappear, cease to exist. Then Heaven is no happier a place for that — the blessed have an eternity to contemplate people that they will never see or hear again, and an eternity to praise the mass murderer, the diabolical quietus of souls behind this device.

Maybe Hell is temporary, a few million licks of flame until the soul is pure, or maybe there is reincarnation, life after life for souls until they reach Heaven. Then, eventually, everyone gets into Heaven. But why? The argument is that life, lives, Hells, things like that, just purge and purify the soul until it’s ready for Heaven. Why is God then willing to create us imperfect and not ready for Heaven? “To give us free will” is hardly an answer if the only end to suffering is breaking down under the Dictator’s endless cycles of browbeating, screaming and suffering.

Maybe everyone gets into Heaven without cycles or detours. Then, again, why this corporeal life and existence? Why all this uncertainty, suffering, misery and misfortune? Why aren’t we then created into the eternal bliss of Heaven? I cannot think that this world would “prime us for better things” — can anyone think that a soul newly come into Heaven would say “Gee, this is so much better than starvation and rape! I’m impressed, Lord Jesus!”

And again, if everyone gets into Heaven, what unsubtle mindrape would God be forced into to keep Adolf Hitler, Ted Bundy and similar souls in harmony with those of their victims? If everyone gets into Heaven, Christianity is a cruel joke, and life a pointless and unnecessary period of suffering and doubt. Indeed, if everyone gets into Heaven, into eternal bliss and joy, aren’t murder and suicide suddenly very moral and good acts?

(And, additionally, as a solution to the harmony of souls in Heaven: Heaven could be being alone with God — forever. Brrr. Imagine eon after eon telling Him (sorry, nonsexual It) how great and merciful It is, and never seeing another living soul. That wouldn’t work unless your love of wife, parent and child was like hatred compared to your love of the Lord; not something I find a pleasant thought. I think that eventually you would be crying for release, unless you were already too high on God’s presence to care.)

If dividing souls into the blessed and the damned is wrong, and so is saving all — why, then there is logically only one thing for a Good God to do: if there is a Hell, we are all going to burn. But that is not Christianity.

Thank heavens I’m an atheist, and this is just juggling the fever dreams of others.

Various futures

January 28, 2008

(I don’t understand poetry, but I think this is something called a “prose poem”. Or then it is just me juggling Earths.)

A future.

A tortured ball of mud, with bacteria and viruses covering the black seas and the brown-gray land. Here and there rotting piles of concrete and steel hint at something greater, but there is nothing left — piles of concrete and steel, some rusting in coastal waters, some bordering circles of nuclear glass where something greater stood in earlier days — and after the floods and the wars and the weapon-master’s final mistake there is nothing left in the hot desolation except viruses and bacteria.

A future.

A rat screams in a hole dug into the black ash piled against a cracked wall of plastic. It is a female of its species, blind in one eye because of some accident of inheritance. It screams and gives birth, in vain because all the baby-rats are born hairless, headless, and dead the moment their umbilical cords snap, stiff and fragile. In more distant places healthier animals live and breed, incapable of thinking what poison tainted their genes, or where the poisoner has gone, having finally perfected his skill.

A future.

A human child asks its mother why the storms come, but the mother refuses to answer. Nervous, the child fingers mother’s tattered and dirty red skirt, wondering what animal had a pelt so bright and fine. After a while, the master, owner of both the woman and the child, comes back from his hunting, having found nothing but a glittering disk with a hole in the middle, with one side reading ‘Iron Maiden’. The child asks what those scratches mean, and the master grunts that deciphering God’s magic signs is a lost art, and a sin, too.

A future.

A woman weeps on a grave. The headstone has a dozen names, all her children. She is weary, but still knows she has but minutes until she must leave. Her eyes have been troubling her lately, and apparently her sins are heavy for the God of her Fathers has not seen it fit to heal them. Soon she must leave for, being the oldest of her husband’s wives, cooking a meal for him is her responsibility. The youngest wife will serve it, of course, but it is her duty to serve her master in this small way, in atonement for the sins of the First Mother. She sighs, gets up, and walks away, a steel choker chafing against her neck.

A future.

Under a stone and a dome of plastic, people throng and mutter. Someone is donning a thick suit of black and white to go outside, to take measurements, still hoping for an impossible miracle. Someone else sighs, throws his suit down, and walks outside, alone and without protection. Dust clings to his feet until he gets to the edge of the forest — then his feet are ripped bloody-clean by the thorns there. He doesn’t care. Finally he stumbles and slumps down, back against a tree. He coughs, rubs his aching eyes and looks up. The sun is a malevolent ball of fire in the sky. He lowers his eyes, closes them, and thinks how silly it is that going out to see the sun will fatally poison him.

A future.

A girl looks down and sees a blue jewel hanging in a star-studded sky. She inclines her head and comments at her tutor that the planet seems fine. The tutor sighs and comments that storms and clouds of viruses are hardly visible; and really, that shade of blue-green in the oceans isn’t a fine color. The girl nods absentmindedly and continues to stare at the view, intrigued by the dying planet. She’s never been there, and neither has her tutor. In the other end of the immense orbital refuge, a scientist is calculating if, during the millennium of the detoxification, various bone problems and other space ailments will make a return to Earth… well, not worthwhile.

A future.

For a moment, a cluster of stars burns bright in the cool, fragrant night sky. Then, moving like no natural star ever does, they accelerate and move away. The night is quiet, except for the hoots of an owl and the howl of a wolf somewhere far away. Here and there between the oaks there are still crumbles of concrete, and a lone wayward piece of plastic flutters in the faint wind, caught on a branch. In the middle of the forest, a transmitter buried in the great rock there beeps, informing each electric ear that might happen near of the direction where the planet’s inhabitants have gone. Meanwhile, the owl hoots and the wolf howls, in a world left to nature.

A future.

A beacon sings its signal from the Moon, welcoming visitors. In distant star systems and between stars weird fires burn, propelling miniature worlds, while others hang in the emptiness, merely scooping up a ton of matter now and then to transmute into whatever the inhabitants want. Under the Moon, however, a small flare sinks downwards, and lands on a white beach between a clean sea and a wild forest. A being steps out, neither a man or a woman, thousands of years old and yet undiminished in mind and body both. It looks around and then laughs, now finally agreeing that the thrill of actually being somewhere is a tiny bit stronger than even the best simulation. It steps down, kneels, lets the sand run through its fingers, and thinks that this visit will give it subjects for thinking and poetry for many millennia to come.

The future. Who knows?

Suddenly, a nuclear penguin explosion

January 25, 2008

If I was a supervillain, my special power would be disguising nuclear doomsday missiles as Antarctic penguins.

Imagine that.

A herd (flock?) of penguins tottering on ice. Suddenly, one of them blinks, and its eyes glow bright electric red. Stiffly it raises its wings, and they freeze into position like some rocket’s fins. And then the penguin shoots into the sky, carried up by a horrendous gout of chemical flame from its backside.

The sooty flock of remaining penguins looks around, puzzled and a bit ruffled.

And meanwhile, in a plane high above, the Sidekick screams: “Captain! Incoming! A penguin at three o’clock!”

“Evasive action!”

* * *

Then again, if one has a huge bomb disguised as a small penguin, why bother with moving it anywhere?

* * *

A snow-covered ridge of ice. Some penguins are walking around, looking like the Gentleman Butlers’ Walking School on a winter outing. In the valley below, some more strut and preen.

Suddenly there is a light from the valley. One can, just for a moment, see one of the penguins there turn into an incadescent point of painful brilliance, and then a flash of light melts the ice and snow, and turns the penguins into clouds of ash.

Some kilometers away, a single penguin is pecking on a wall of ice, wondering whether the wall’d move if annoyed some more. A sudden sound makes the penguin turn — a faint rushing of wind. Turning around, it sees a wall of ash, dust and superheated air rushing towards it. There is just time for a very surprised “Caw?” before the pressure front comes.

A pair of parka-clad and scarf-covered scientists, standing on a sheet of ice at the cold ocean’s edge, are quite concerned. One asks the other where all the penguins went. The other can only repeat what they both saw: Suddenly the animals froze, glanced at the hills, and scrambled to the sea, diving underwater.

“As if they had escaped something”, the first scientist muses.

“Bhah!” the second mutters. “Tain’t nothing I know that’d faze a pengwin.”

By this time the first one has looked up and is pointing, slack-jawed, at the mushroom cloud and the onrushing wall of snow and deadly needles of ice.

“Well, like the Frenchies say, bugre moi.”

* * *

Ah, this happy speculation rose because I am happy, and I am partly happy because there is finally snow on the ground. Now, if there only were penguins in Finland…

The old inanity

January 25, 2008

There are some unthinking platitudes I hate. This is one: “I have enormous respect for people who have religious faith.”

Bollocks.

I have no respect for people who have religious faith.

I might respect faith-people if they are bright, or kind, or imaginative, but not just because they have faith. Being able to believe something without a reason is not a praiseworthy quality, okay? Faith is not a universal up-word, okay? Every moment of solace and every generous deed that faith has caused has been balanced and overturned by moments of agony and deeds of hatred, censorship and murder, all because of faith, because of believing a thing without a reason.

“I have enormous respect for people who hold pretty much unquestioning positions without or despite of proof and evidence. That’s kewl!

Yeah, right.

* * *

PS. Imagine this conversation:

“God told me Martians used my genitals as a broccoli to broadcast lesbian meatloaf recipes to Vanuatu, so I cut them away and ate them with angels.”

“I have enormous respect for you!”

“It burns! Take it away!”

Finally a header image

January 25, 2008

After only a few days over five months of writing this thing I managed to edit a sufficiently pretty header image for it, instead of that digital fade from black to red. Unless something utterly weird has happened, the title above (Masks of Eris and all that) should be superimposed on a view of the sky and the sun through some dark trees.

The picture, if it interests you, was taken some weeks ago in typical Finnish countryside. Now, since I’ve hauled one picture already, I might do two more.Sunset on a hill in Finnish countryside

This is a hill rising beyond a little valley, illuminated by the wan sun setting behind my back, in the deepest and darkest reaches of cold Finland. I think pretty is a pretty good word for this.

Oh, and click to see a bigger picture.

This, for contrast, is an autumn sunset in a Finnish city — incidentally, the very view I get from the window of my apartment if I am lucky. Sunset against trees in a Finnish citySometimes it is something beautiful like this; sometimes a fractal of black tree-shapes against a sky glowing reddish-gray with the lights of the city center. Ah well, I won’t gripe about varieties as long as I get something pretty for a moment or two.

The Miracle of the Sun

January 23, 2008

I was reading the Wikipedia article on the Miracle of the Sun when it struck me that something like a half-detached narrative would be the best way to describe my view of the event. Here you go: The place is Portugal, the time the thirteenth of October, year 1917. The exact place is in the countryside, near to Fatima, the place of the sacred three that have seen visions of the Sacred Virgin, and foretold this day.

Imagine that.

Imagine that. You have been informed in advance that on a specific day something wonderful, something outright miraculous, will happen. You are sure that is true. You wait for it with trepidation, with more than little fear. There are countless others — the whole countryside is flooded with anxiously waiting people. Many fast or punish themselves, praying and praying for the forgiveness of their sins. Many are so awed that they have trouble sleeping.

Then, one morning or the night before, with little or no sleep but full of nervous energy, you all surge forth to see the miracle. You have eaten little — perhaps nothing — drunk less, because of your nervousness, and maybe because you expect someone to miraculously feed you, as in the Holy and True Book. Tired, dazed, thirsty, fired with fearful energy, you trudge to the place by foot — you, thousands and thousands of people, more than most of those present have seen in their whole lives — and all are in that state of awe, of apprehension, of waiting for the miracle.

It rains, and the morning is cold. Some cough and shiver: many sick people have come, hoping for a cure maybe, or a divine vision before dying; some of the most feverish ones are prophesying already.

The morning passes. People settle, waiting, not knowing for what. They look around, nervous, agitated. The whole crowd ripples with alternating murmurs, gasps of excitement, snatches of hymns and drones of prayer, and explosions of silence when someone raises his hand in awe, only to lower it a moment later, having been mistaken — or maybe having seen a holy personal sign. Somehow the expectant energy that animates you all doesn’t fade, but grows stronger and stronger — you are waiting — waiting for a miracle that is sure to come.

It rains a bit. Many steal glimpses at the sun, faintly visible through the clouds. Then the clouds break — the sun is visible — ‘The sun!’ someone cries — and you all turn to look, some averting their gaze, stealing glances at the disk of fire, some staring with careless zeal. A trick of cloud or wind makes the sun appear dim for a moment, and there is a great gasp from the countless thousands. ‘A miracle!’ someone cries, and the cry is repeated in a thousand moans, ten thousand whispers, a hundred thousand minds swept up in shared ecstasy and wonder: ‘The sun! A miracle!’

Some turn their eyes away from the sun for a moment, perhaps sure that a cloud of angels is sure to descend from the skies — a disk of fire drags with their sight, and in a state of nervous exhilaration they cry: ‘The sun dances! It moves! A miracle!’

The faces of people seem suddenly strange in the light of the sun after rain, and stealing glances away from the sun-disk makes all around seem strange, colored in odd hues of red, green and blue. Others glance at the sun, then look aside — at — aside — do their eyes move, or does the sun dance in the skies?

‘The sun! A miracle!’ people cry. ‘It moves!’ they cry, and people gasp, swaying in place. The sun wavers, moves, sways — they avert their frightened eyes, and see the blackly brilliant disk of the sun following, a wheel of fire dancing in the skies, in a pattern of zig and zag, no matter how they turn their heads from side to side.

Others see a landscape of wonders and weird colors through teary eyes, and hear prophetic whispers in the air — ‘Maria! Holy! Sun! Miracle!’ The crowd is half silent in rapturous awe, half screaming with ecstatic fear-joy — the sun moves!

The sun moves!

Slowly the crowd grows quieter. The miracle, the hysteria, slowly ceases. People gasp, weep, clutch at their heads, their hearts, raise hands, close eyes, kneel. Some faint. Some have fainted already. Everyone mutters or shouts, in a tearful babble all across the crowd — ‘The sun! I saw the sun move!’ and ‘It flew across the sky, in my sight no matter where I looked!’ and ‘The shadows! For a moment, like a face! The Sacred Virgin!’ and ‘The colors! I looked at the sun — the colors! All was cast in different colors!’ and ‘I trembled and the sun trembled with me!’, and so on. Soon everyone knows what happened, whether or not they saw it clearly or not, or not at all. Many of the latter ones stay quiet, sure that something that so many saw must have really happened — or then they fear that their sinfulness caused them to miss the vision.

What does this tell? If you’re ready for a miracle, you will very often see one. Even more so if everyone around you shares your expectation. Human brains are very good in seeing what they expect to see. Nothing miraculous in that. That’s my view of the so-called Miracle of the Sun. (I may have trampled on some details; sorry. I only tried to illustrate the mind-state of those that were present then.)

Apologetics is fan stuff

January 23, 2008

Here’s something that struck me some time ago. (No, not a clump of guano.)

The explanations of religious apologists about the details of their religion are a lot like those of fans about the details of their fan-stuff.

Namely: Fans of a book, movie or TV show commonly, when faced with an error in their fascination, go to great lengths to explain it away.

For example, rather than accepting that “there’s no sound in space! Those booms are a physics mistake, or then a dumb aesthetic choice!”, they go on to speculate about “experience-enhancing sound effect systems in battler spaceships”, or the like.

Mistakes can be explained away — often not very elegantly, but still maintaining the illusion of truth, that old suspension of disbelief.

One can nitpick and extrapolate events not seen (“It’s not a mistake! It’s rhetorical!”, “They never said he didn’t do that, so I think he did!”) and gesticulate about technical details that explain seeming flubs (“Well, maybe they have a census method like that. All censuses need not be the same. Why not? Huh?”, “No, it must have been a different centurion named Gaius!”).

And of course one can interweave differing accounts and retcons into one lumpy whole. (“Sure he met just ‘one man’ in there — male Glup-Vogs don’t count as men, and he never noticed Danforth!” or “Well, ‘in the end’ he cried that, but his last words were those… and, uh, he screamed this so it doesn’t count as words, right? Except as ‘last words’.”)

All in all, good play and a nice way to pass time. Still, some won’t engage in this, and maybe gain a little bit less amusement from the fantasy.

Well, the obvious point of this all is that though these speculations might amuse and entertain, they’re just that: fan fun to gloss over the fact that the revered storyteller cut corners and made mistakes; extraordinary explanations for ordinary faults.

And of course those fans get monstrously irritated when one doesn’t treat their mania with sufficient respect.

Religious apologetics is a lot like fan speculation, right?

Grumble-mumble, thermonuclear giant penguins…

January 18, 2008

Finland, the land of supposedly terrible winter, and of never-ceasing gloom.

Well, the gloom never ceases, but the winter just isn’t here. With this global warming and all, the temperature is currently floating on the warmer side of zero degrees Celsius (+32 F), and rather than snow there are just patches of sludge and sheets of tricksy and thinning ice.

Where’s the winter?

Could someone take a dozen thermonuclear devices and detonate them high up in the atmosphere, please? (I do realize this is a rather unusual request.) Even nuclear winter starts to seem pleasant compared to this season of sleet.

It’s the middle of January. There should be drifts of snow — white dunes of cold — biting gales of ice-needles — icicles hanging from the eaves of every sauna and house — patches of yellow snow along dog-outing routes — people tottering around red-faced and wrapped in layers of wool and crinkly heat-preservers, breath condensing in the clean, clear air, mumbling incoherent expressions of awe and wonder through numb lips and shrunken tongues — there should be winter.

But no, here in Finland there is no winter. There was a short cold spell in the beginning of November, but all of that snow melted away. There was another around the turn of the year, but it too is fast disappearing.

Where’s the cold? Where the austere and deadly beauty of snow and ice? Where the clearness of icy air, the fury of a blinding snowstorm? Where the breath frozen on one’s beard, the hand stilled in one’s glove (and turning black, much to the amusement of one’s unsympathetic neighbor)?

I am starting to wonder whether (a) there are any universities in Greenland and (b) if so, whether they need a lazy graduate student of mathematics there.

Or maybe Antarctica instead — I’d much prefer penguins over polar bears. (I’ve calculated that there needs to be only 2 bears to bring me down, but to do the same a whopping 69 penguins are necessary.) Ah, if the two tiny problems of food and warmth were solved (and eventually they will be), Antarctica would be a nice place for an International Institute of Mathematics Done Without Irritating Outside Interference.

And speaking of Outside Interference, I am reminded that Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness is set on Antarctica, too. Ah, if only… I would prefer frozen Elder Things and malevolent giant penguins so much over this depressing January rain. Even mind-numbing terror is a coldness better than this dull and wet gloom.

You can trust a Finn to miss even frostbite when it’s not around. Ah well, a wistful tekeli-li! to you all, and I hope the weather’s to your liking over there, wherever that might be.

A Wish

January 16, 2008

I wish for many things: being a professor of pure mathematics and a world-famous weird tale-writer and having heaps of money to give to unsuspecting worthy causes would be nice. So would be a harem of young, lithe — well, so would be winning a Fields medal.

And maybe I wish for bigger, stronger, better things than that, too.

Maybe for school courses and parents that, from the very first grade, taught children to think instead of memorizing — think critically, skeptically, accurately, impersonally and coldly.

Also classes that were balanced in some ineffable way — all sides given their fair share, with Intelligent Design getting as big a share of Biology as \sqrt{x+y} = \sqrt{x}+\sqrt{y} gets of Mathematics.

Also classes that told children of all different religions and mythologies, and of atheism as well, and of phlogiston and aether, of all the theories of the world that ever were, and of the fact that people indeed, really, grown-up really, believed in those things and still do, so very firmly no matter whether the theories ended up being right or wrong.

Raising the young ones as atheists would be as wrong as raising them as Thor-worshippers, but given all the evidence, enough training in skepticism, and an opportunity to draw their own conclusions, I think that atheism would be the inevitable result.

A reasonable education, based on best facts, inquiry and doubt — within a century, most of the things wrong with human societies would be mending. We wouldn’t be just children tottering on the brink of adulthood, but a true conglomeration of sensible minds, willing to let go of old lies and ancient illusions.

Then, after a few centuries, all talk of gods would be redelegated to madhouses, fantasy novels and museums, the places where it belongs.

I wish, I wish. Sadly just wishing doesn’t make it so. Oh well, I’ll just add a link to Lennon’s Imagine and be done with it.

“And no religion, too.”

Azathoth and the Beginning

January 13, 2008

Some religious people argue like this: The Universe had a beginning. Since that was a beginning of all time, matter, space and whatnot, it had to be caused by something Other, and that is capital-g God.

That’s faulty in many ways — what begat God, and if God is eternal, then why not an eternal Universe? and so on — but even if you accepted most of it, it still strikes me strange that people think that the First Cause has to be an eternal, intelligent, all-powerful and so-on God.

Maybe I just have too much imagination.

  • Why an eternal creator?

    Why not some astral being, its dying corpse materializing as a Big Bang?

    Even if there was a Creator, why shouldn’t It be now dead, departed, asleep, bored, tired or just engaged in something more interesting? I don’t see how present omnipresence, or even common presence, follow from being the Big Creator.

    • Why an intelligent creator?

    Why not some Azathoth, a mindless spasming thing piping moans “whose chance combining gives each frail cosmos its eternal law“?

    (By the way, the Lovecraftian vision of men as inconsequential gnats at the feet of cosmic intelligences and urges like gods to us, and towards us wholly indifferent rather than malign — well, that vision is to me a lot better than one of us as a fearful choir for some sadomasochistic dictator of Heaven and Earth, which I understand to be the standard Christian position.)

    • Why a powerful creator?

    Why not just a ripple in some eternal astral pond?

    Hey, if God can be claimed to be eternal, why couldn’t a pond of spirit-stuff be?

    And the astral pond could be just a ripple in a superastral other-otherworldly world-ocean, contained in a drop of water in Morris, Minnesota, thus being a ring of three Beings — hey, this wah-wah stuff is easier than I thought.

    Why not say this universe was symmetrically born from the death of its child/parent universe that happens to exist backwards in time?

    Maybe I should start a cult?

    Or how about some astral Thing whose only way of touching the material world was creating it, and that now sadly (or madly) and impotently gazes at us from beyond the veil of space and time?

    Ah, I’d better stop before these theatrics come too o’erwhelming. I’m not a loon but an atheist, and the ideas above are just empty talk, like all talk of astral spirits and Gods is. And saying First Cause and claiming some Yahweh from that seems to me like saying that hamburgers have to come from somewhere, and hence Ronald McDonald exists.