Dream a Little Dream


I’ve spent part of this weekend and last weekend living one of my dreams. That’s a lot more mundane than it sounds, which is kind of the point.

For years I’ve been whistling in the shower and wondering what it would take to feed this into some electronics and get some interesting sounds out of the other end.

I figure that if you dream of a thing often enough you should just go and do it. So last weekend I went to the excellent Eric Lindsey shop of loud and interesting devices in Catford, where a helpful and knowledgeable chap set me up with all the bits and pieces I needed to get started.

So… it turns out a dynamic mic is a bit less forgiving than a bathroom wall. There are some great and interesting things you can do with a whistling sound – it’s basically a pure-ish sine wave (for non techies – that’s a pure tone of music). So a lot of the guitar effects don’t work, or do terrible things (you really really don’t want to press a wah pedal while whistling, believe me). Other effects – mainly chorus, flange (whatever that is), alongside delays and reverb, can be added up in various orders to get some neat sounds. There’s a lot still to explore, and it’s fun.

And that’s the thing about living a dream, even a little one like this. It’s like when you visit for the first time, a city that has been in your thoughts a lot (e.g. from movies or books): it is at one and the same time both larger than your mind can comprehend, and easier to get around; grander and more ordinary. In that way, living a dream is a kind of pilgrimage for the mind – you set aside the fantasy, the ideal, and in its place is something ordinary and real, nothing like your imaginings and yet with more promise than you might have thought. Something that neither matches the dream nor disappoints, but is a third thing, its own thing entirely.

That’s very different to what people usually think you mean when you talk about living your dreams, and that’s kind of the point.

So stay tuned, as it were. I just remembered that one of the songs I like to whistle is “Dream a Little Dream of Me”. Coincidence?

Post Script

The first time I decided to live one of my dreams was when I was about 20, working on the Railways in Bulawayo. I had a couple of ideas for inventions in my head, and had always wanted to be an inventor. Always dreamed of it. So one day I went to the shops and bought a little notebook in which to start writing them down. As I momentarily stepped aside from the things I would normally do that day it felt strange, almost no-pants dream strange. It was the first time I had done something that wasn’t expected or required of me by God or country or career or the expectations of others. It was a small thing to do, but a strange new step. Needless to say I’ve lived that way ever since – as I’m sure most of us do to some degree.

And entry #2 in that little book: “Whistling Instrument”.

Here’s a little effort. Very patchy – you can see I’m still learning a lot and its a bit patchy.


The Canonisation of Unrighteousness

We become righteous not by denying the self but by improving it.

Today an Albanian lady called Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was made a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

In making Mother Theresa officially a saint, the Church reinforces a position on righteousness and goodness which is diametrically opposed to the way we Humanists approach these matters.

What is interesting is how the English language, at least in its everyday usage, had already canonised Mother Theresa a long time ago. We use the term “Mother Theresa” in day to day speech as a synonym for being the most saintly person one can be. Why is this?

It is now well known that in her lifetime, Gonxhe practised her faith in a way which actively increased or prolonged suffering in many of those for whose well-being she took responsibility. This was due to an entirely selfish obsession with the dignity, as she saw it, of suffering itself. As she puts it: “There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering,” (quoted by Hitchens, link below)

I do not intend to revisit those arguments here, as they were well exposed by Dr. Aroup Chatterjee (see this article) in the first instance and have been more widely publicised by Christopher Hitchens, as they deserved to be. This Canadian study covers the important details.

Do these things merely “taint” the reputation of one who would otherwise rightly deserve to be called a saint? I would argue absolutely not. The reason that both the Roman Church and our use of language canonises her in the first place is itself a telling perversion of the very notion of righteousness.

There are two related perversions of righteousness that I would like to consider here. One is the tendency to associate self-denial with goodness in a person, and the other is a conflation of sex with matters of morality. We see these not only in the Roman Church but also in Evangelical Christianity and many strands of Islam, among others. In both cases these represent lazy habits of thinking which exist in the wider population, so we should not entirely blame religions for going along with these habits, merely point up their lack of spiritual leadership or awareness in doing so.

Let’s start with sex.

“If war is holy, and sex is obscene / Then we got it twisted in this lucid dream”

– Alicia Keys

There are many things we know are wrong which also involve sex. Assaulting people is wrong, including sexual assault. Sneaking around on people is wrong, including where sex is involved. Human trafficking is wrong. And so on.

Many religions, most notably Evangelical Christianity and Islam, turn this on its head by focusing on sex as the “wrong” thing, to be indulged only in the “sanctity” of marriage. This is lazy, but it is also perverse. Instead of learning how to behave towards others with love, these religions focus on avoiding altogether that which forms an aspect of the way we may do wrong by others. Or that we may do right by them.

So how do we do that which is good?

This insightful piece from Brain Pickings makes the connection between seeking an enlightened mental state and living with love for others. Love is the thing. If we love others we seek to understand them and we strive to act in a way that furthers their own good. Dan Fincke takes this a step further and frames morality in terms of acting to further the empowerment of others, an approach known as empowerment ethics.

Learning what’s right and getting it right are two different things. Trying to lead a right life is a constant development. There are times we will get it wrong. The early Christian writer Paul of Tarsus (another “saint”) raises the notion that the purpose of any law is to demonstrate that we all fall short of it. He then goes on to make a “reductio ad absurdiam” argument that we somehow need a perfect being to take our punishment for us. This is the one hundred and eighty degree reversal of how living a good life really works, which is by constantly failing and getting up and trying again. We find out what is right and constantly strive to live up to that.

Gonxhe meanwhile said in her Nobel speech that she created 61,237 fewer children from (slum) couples abstaining from sex. Abstinence as morality.

Which brings me to the second lazy habit of religious “morality”.

In many societies there is a dominant religion. These religions flourish in an environment where members of the society feel less than adequate for not living up to the ideals they perceive in that religion. Most ordinary people feel that the religion represents something good but that they themselves are not quite up to the standards that it demands.

This is a bit tragic.

Who are the people that these ordinary folks look up to as representating of the most perfect good as defined by that religion? These are the Mother Teresas. The Saints. The people who are so much better than us that we can only worship them; we cannot be like them.

But the thing that is special about those people, which Gonxhe represents superbly, is not that they do good where we do not. It is that they deny themselves the good things in life more than we ever could.

Just as we have seen that righteousness in matters of sex is perversely replaced by abstinence, so this is then taken to the extreme whereby anyone who can live without each of the things we enjoy, must be better than us. If we enjoy good food, then someone who eats simply is perceived as being better than we are. If we live in a nice house then someone who is prepared to live in a hovel or a hermit’s cave must be more holy. If we enjoy good music then a more religious person will be one who does not – as we see with the more fevered versions of Islam. And so on.

Whatever we might enjoy in life, the notion is that someone who renounces those must be more holy than we are. They are denying themselves where we could not.

In denying themselves, these people are not more holy than we are. In fact they are taking the lazy approach to righteousness by simply not participating at all in the things which might make it possible to either do right or do wrong. By abstaining from life they are abstaining from the ability to live a right life.

We need to stop looking up to these people. We need to realise that our own moral development begins when we own the good things in life and learn to use them well. That we are not bad, merely imperfect; that we will always be learning, always striving to act better in this world, always finding out more things we can do to further the empowerment of others, more things to avoid doing to those around us.

So it is good that the Church has decided to canonise someone who stands for exactly the opposite of such objective measures of righteousness. In canonising Mother Teresa of Kolkota, the Roman Church reaffirms its position as the leading figure in a world of moral perversion.

I wanted to say “May she rot in Heaven” but a better person than I am reminded me that Gonxha was human too and deserves better than that, at least.


Footnote: Dr Aroup Chatterjee suggests that Kolkota will take a century to recover from Mother Theresa


On Knowing and the Knowing of Knowing

“As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

 – Donald Rumsfeld

When I say that I know something, am I telling you that I know that thing, or that I know that I know it?

Something about this has been bugging me for a while. It started with a simple trick I learned in the bush, and pops up often when I am driving.

Years ago I was in a small army, where there was some bush warfare going on. As part of our training we learned a useful trick, which anyone can do. The trick is to see behind bushes.

The way you do the trick is very simple, and the way the trick works is also very simple, but these are not the same thing.

The way you do the trick is to focus your eyes on the place behind the bushes where you want to see, and make sure you are moving about a bit. The way it’s learned is like a kind of knack: you focus your eyes as though you could see behind the bush, and it turns out you can see behind the bush. You just have to accept that you can see behind the bush in order to focus your eyes there in the first place.

The way it works is also very simple: by focusing both eyes on a place behind the bush and keeping on the move (or moving your head a bit) your brain is able to take each of the small bits of picture that filter through between the leaves and build them up into a coherent picture. Provided of course your eyes are physically focused on that place behind the bush and not on the near side of the bush.

So there is no mystery to why it works; no unscientific woo. But two things are worth noting: that you don’t need to be told that explanation in order to be able to do the trick; and that in order to do the trick at all you have to accept that you can do the trick.

This seems at variance with everything that my scientifically trained mind thinks of as knowledge. It seems that what we think of as knowledge is really stuff that we know, but which we can also back up – at least unless we are predator or prey in the world of anti-scientific woo.

But being able to know things without first having to know that we know also has a role – not when telling others that we know something they can rely on, but in our own internal dealings with the world.

When I am driving and I’m waiting for a traffic light to change from red to green, I often put the car into gear just before it changes. How I know the light is about to change is a combination of inbuilt timing, cues from other lights, people hurrying, reflections in windows and who knows what else. If I try and think about it, I end up putting the car into gear too soon or too late. If I try to think about it I would be using only knowledge that is also knowledge about knowledge. There is not so much of this as there is of the other sort. I would need to be aware of a number of things I had not noticed consciously, as well as be simultaneously conscious of each of those things that I had. The unconscious timing thing seems to run fast or slow if I try and watch it with my mind. But as long as I am prepared to listen to all the different impulses and signals that are there somewhere in the unconscious, and as long as I am prepared to simply accept that I know, then I am often (but not always) correct about when the light changes. Sometimes I put the car into gear just as the cars in another lane all start to move. And if I am driving in another country where the timings are different it doesn’t work at all.

I suggest that most of us do this all the time, but sometimes we let ourselves only act upon facts that we know that we know. If there is a lot at risk in getting it wrong, then that’s the safest idea. And of course we should not hold out our internal, without-metaknowledge ideas to other people as being true. But there’s a kind of “being in the groove” as some people call it, where we can live our day to day movements while being open to unconscious prompts; by accepting that we might know.

The modern, scientific approach to knowledge is a wonderful thing. When we say we know something, we are expected to be able to back it up. If you cannot back your assertions with good hard facts, or if you cannot point to something someone else has said which has been proven to stand up, then there is nothing to distinguish what you are saying from nonsense.

This is a Good Thing. Nonsense withers on the vine, superstition and other specious woo can be safely ignored, and all manner of bunk can be debunked. Progress owes a lot to the fact that when we hold out something as being knowledge, what is really there is not simply knowledge but knowledge accompanied by the way in which we came by that knowledge. When we say we know something we are really saying that we know we know something.

Because of some linguistic accident, what we call knowledge is really this knowledge that comes with its own knowledge of how it got there. Metaknowledge, if you like. But if knowing is the word we use when we say that we know that we know a thing, then what about those things that we merely know?

Let’s call our usual kind of knowledge “knowingly knowing”, and the other sort “merely knowing”.

I talked to some epistemologists. Epistemologists are people who study how we know things, so that seemed a good place to start. I went to one of Daniel Fincke’s Google Hangouts based philosophy courses – see http://danielfincke.com/dr-daniel-finckes-philosophy-classes-welcome-page-a/

It turns out that when you start to study how knowledge happens, things get very messy very quickly. The epistemologists describe knowledge in terms of how we acquire beliefs. For instance if you believe something, it might be based on something else you are pretty sure of, along with a reliable mechanism for getting from there to the new belief. So then it’s a matter of how you became sure of that other thing in the first place. You can chase some of these down to basic sensory inputs, but even those can be notoriously slippery at times. In the end, belief formation comes down to a couple of things at the ground level: things you believe which have proven to be reliable in your day to day experience, and things you believe which you can justify. These are called reliable true beliefs and justified true beliefs.

So now our “merely knowing” can be thought of as reliable belief, and our “knowingly knowing” is justifiable belief.

In terms of justifiable beliefs it is right that in making assertions to other people, we stick to what we can defend; what we know we know. There are plenty of charlatans who prey on the epistemologically unwary, and it is good to be clear about facts. So let’s agree that what we call knowledge in our dealings with other people should be this kind of knowing knowledge. But what about the rest?

Even if we only accept justified true beliefs for ourselves, this is not true of everyone and everything else that forms beliefs, so it’s worth understanding how others can merely know. So this kind of merely knowing is important for two reasons: in living to ourselves and in understanding others.

Consider knowledge in others. “How can they know that?” we might ask, for example about animals, about ancient civilizations and so on. What we think we mean when we ask that question, is “How can they know that in the way we think of knowing things” or in other words, “How can they knowingly know that?” But animals don’t knowingly know anything. At the same time, it’s clear they know stuff. All the things which an animal knows, they “merely know”. Similarly most ancient civilizations were on pretty shaky ground epistemologically but they obviously knew stuff.

Of course like any mere knowledge, like my traffic light routine, what the animal merely knows is sometimes wrong. This was shown to me by a cat I met once. I was borrowing a flat for a few days and one day as I got out of my car in the large car park, this cat came bounding up to me like a long-lost friend. Just before the cat reached me, another chap pulled up nearby in an almost identical car, whereupon both cat and man shot me a dirty look and went on their way. The cat “knew” that the person pulling up in this car at this time was his long-departed owner, as was the case every other day. But on this day he or she was wrong. Even for us humans, many of the things we regard as facts are really what you might call factoids – they are made from the same stuff as facts but they are not necessarily true. Knowledge is not always truth, but we work to make sure it usually is.

As for ourselves, we can live so as to make the most of what we merely know, rather than limiting all our actions to be informed only by what we know we know. This is liberating.

For the things we merely know, we must accept that while they are likely, they are not necessarily true. If your life depends on it, don’t rely on something that you merely know. But conversely, a lot of the time your life is not at stake. What might be at stake is, are you really living? Are you making use of the full potential of the things you merely know, or are holding yourself back through a misplaced desire to always and only be right?

So here’s a thing. I had been teasing at this idea of what we know versus what we know we know for a long time, without really having the language for it. It was kind of just a hunch; I could not explain or justify it. Now, thanks to those epistemologists, it turns out I was onto something, and there are words for it. I can justify my belief that there is more to what we know than just what we know we know.



March 2016



On Dreams, Magic and Miracles

Consider dreams. Is it unrealistic to dream of something: to change the world or the minds of mankind, to own and flDreamy an aircraft, to live in your dream house. Reason would say that it is, yet these things happen to those who follow their dreams.

To some, the fulfilment of dreams is seen as something mystical, divine; as though there were a hand of God to make their dreams come true. This is not so: the only God is us. We alone can take the myriad events and opportunities that surround us, and turn these into the Will of God. To do this, we must have faith in that God of Ourself. We have to believe that somehow, in the confusion which is the world, it is possible for Ourself to create a pattern, sensitively, in a way that leads us to our dream.

How can all this be? Is there some contradiction in what I have written here? In the multitude of opportunities and the constancy of dreams?

Consider two things: A statistic on coincindences, and a trick of magic. I may not be able to explain clearly how they fit into what I am saying. Simply consider them and they may fit.

A statistic on coincidences:

How many people do you need to have in the same room for there to be an odds on chance that two of them share the same birthday? An instinctive answer might be 365, or 364. Not so. That is the number to have a particular day as a birthday, one you have already specified in advance of doing the experiment. Your birthday, perhaps. The right answer lies between 19 and 20. For each person in the room who has a birthday, there is another who may or may not share that birthday. Twenty birthdays may or may not be shared by one of the other people in the room, not one. When you don’t put preconditions on coincidences there can be many more of them than you might expect.

We live in a world of possibilities. Millions of them. So many that if you were to add up all the things that had a million to one chance of happening, there would probably getting on for a million of them. Sooner or later one of them must happen.

Coincidences happen so many and so often that each of them represents an opportunity, a continuum of opportunity, to bend the life around us to fit the patterns in which we are walking. Bend it not break it.

Our minds survive, are defined, by their ability to form patterns. A thing happens, we fit it into a pattern of what we already know. This becomes part of knowledge, our knowledge. We look for patterns too in the lives we lead. To some these patterns may be the mind of God, the way of the sky, the Tao. To others, more versed in a reductionist, scientific view of the world, there is no Way, no pattern into which life can fall. Instead, they bend the world into the patterns which their minds have willed. Sometimes successfully.

A magical trick:

I ask you to pick a number, between 1 and 10. You suggest one. 7. I reach over to my desk, pick up a sealed envelope, open it, and there, on a piece of card, is the number 7. Magic!

What you don’t see is the number 3 on the back of the door, the sealed envelope with “NINE” on it in my shirt pocket, the book lying casually on my desk which has “The number chosen today was 4” on it… Each of these things is designed to look as if it were the next and only thing I could have done to produce your number. But it wasn’t.

This is the secret of magic. Not only the magicians magic, but the magic of life. Many things may happen next; many coincidences are more than we can accept as being purely coincidental. Many tides, taken at the flood, lead on to greater things, things we could not have imagined or thought possible but which have their origins in that little seed of coincidence, that little impossible event which, wondering, we have picked up and woven into our dream.

This is the secret of the dream: We must be true to it. If we simply follow every wave of incident, every little pointer as though it were from some divine hand beyond us, we will drift for ever. Life will be interesting, in a frustrating sort of way, but we will have no direction as long as we expect direction from beyond ourselves. To make the dream happen we must make it our own, hold to it through disasters and successes. Believe that we can weave the strands of destiny around us in a way that leads, miraculously, to our dream.

City on a Hill

In the high Arctic there are mountains without names.
I’m flying from London to Vancouver and somewhere in Greenland there are ranges of hills far from anywhere, which must almost never have been gazed upon from the ground; mountains about which there are no legends about a giant who threw them there, no gods born in their flanks, no colossi striding them in times of old.
Now they are gazed upon by aircraft in their flight, as remote and untouchable as the random shapes of clouds.
I’ve been meaning to write for some time on the subject of pilgrimage, and here on a flight across the roof of the world seems a good time to catch up.
Why pilgrimage? We have seen how, shorn of all vestiges of religion, religions have a lot to offer. There is wisdom from self-appointed prophets and reluctant Messiahs. We may not believe what they believed, many of them may not have believed what they said they believed, and most of them certainly did not believe what later scholars claimed they believed. But in amongst the things they said and the things they are said to have said, there is gold – useful advice for living life; rules and principles by which to behave towards others; common precepts by which to order a society.
So we could ask ourselves for each of the things we find in those religions, whether there is some good in them.

And so to pilgrimage. What is it? Does it have any place in a world without mythical beings, saints and martyrs?
I was thinking about this while flying from Dulles Airport in Washington DC, up the Eastern Seaboard by night to London. Night fell and I had quickly lost sight of where we were, when we came upon a city, bright and abstract in the distance. There was no GPS but I knew we were due to fly past Philadelphia and New York before Boston. So this was probably Philly or New York. But there was something more than that. I was reminded of all those ancient Christian hymns about a City on a Hill, a New Jerusalem, a sort of ideal city.
The writer JRR Tolkien describes the effect he is trying for, as something akin to being on a ship and glimpsing a distant island. In your imagination the island is full of detail and promise. Tolkien wrote whole books describing the other side of the island, with the intention that no-one should read them. His aim was to provide just enough unseen detail, enough back story, that in the books he does want you to read, there is a sense of a broader world, a world unseen and unknown but very real.
So too with the mysterious city on the horizon. There was a sense in which it could be anywhere and nowhere, real or mythical. As long as I just looked at it from the window, like Tolkien’s distant island it was nothing more than an ideal.
Pilgrimage is the act of collapsing the space between the ideal and the real. A person grows up with stories and ideas of a city or a place, but the sense of what that place is really like in that person’s head is very different to the sense one would get from the place itself.
So when a person makes a journey to Jerusalem or Santiago or Kerbala, they are not just traveling to some religious place, to make some pointless gesture at some shrine. They are taking steps to inhabit, at least for a while, a place which occupies a very real amount of space in their heads.
So what would be the equivalent for those of us who acknowledge no gods and venerate no saints or sacred places? How do we visit the City on the Hill?

The answer seems almost trivial, but I am going to suggest it by way of example. Like many people, I have spent much of my life watching movies and reading books set in New York, without having been there. I considered, as I think many of us do, that I more or less knew what it was like as a city, what it would be like to visit. But of course when we visit a place for the first time that has occupied so much space in our imaginations, it is very different (as we knew it would be) but also different in a way that wasn’t how we thought it would be. For one thing, New York is at one and the same time both bigger and smaller than you thought. Taking a cab across the Queensborough Bridge, walking up a large part of Broadway or across the park, the scale is different to what you think.
My first visit to New York was in January 2002. The atrocity that was the Twin Towers was still fresh in everyone’s minds and the city was a sobering place to be. I was invited to a meeting in a skyscraper downtown, just off Wall Street, to present some ideas to some financial folks. I arrived at the airport late at night and took the subway to my cheap hotel on the Upper West Side. My hotel was one of those thirty bucks a night places where you get your own room but share bathrooms. The door had layers of history inside and out – a peephole, a tin can lid to cover it, paint on that and so on. There was a metal radiator that was too hot to touch, and a proper New York movie-style fire escape right outside the window.
My first real glimpse of New York was in the morning, making the commute alongside everyone else. I had wondered if all the buildings were tall or if some were shorter – things like that are hard to picture somehow. In the West Nineties the buildings were of stone, not skyscrapers at all, and all with that Florentine style of eaves that you see in the comic books and movies. Downtown (past subway stations just like in the movies) was another matter – these are all or mostly of glass and steel. After I had made my presentation I was loaned an office for the afternoon, where I could gaze down into the canyons and streets of New York just like you read about.
So that was my pilgrimage. I have been back many times since then, but there is something special about that first time – about going and occupying a space in the world of real places, that already occupied a space in one’s own mind.
Is pilgrimage the same for everyone? I remember one young chap from my political activist days, a member of a youth movement, who liked tough guy action books and movies. He had a couple of hours between flights in New York, and “of course” as he put it, he went to the Bronx to look at the places his heroes inhabited. That was his pilgrimage. I have never been to the Bronx.

So this is my suggestion: that for each of us, there are many places which we have built up a mental picture of in our minds – sometimes idealized, as a sort of city on a hill or some special Jerusalem, or sometimes maybe just somewhere that we think of as the place where our heroes lived, be they mythical or real. So go there. It might be New York or California, London or Cairo or Jerusalem. There will most probably be several places of pilgrimage for you. They may not be the same as they are for someone else.
I can’t quite put the reasons into words, but it seems to me there’s something good about being able to occupy our imaginative spaces, to claim the worlds of our myths as part of our reality.
Here’s what I would suggest: tourism may be a matter of going to all sorts of places and seeing interesting things that we may never have seen before. The Seven Wonders of the World, the Grand Canyon – these are interesting places to see, but we may not have given them much thought. Also it’s very tempting to end up doing the tourist “thing”, crossing off places that everyone else has seen and that everyone in your peer group wants to be able to say they’ve seen. Pilgrimage is something quite different, something more personal. Find the places that occupy a space in your imagination (if you’re into intergalactic science fiction you might have a challenge – the best I can recommend is Arizona or Tunisia, or maybe Hollywood itself). Find your Jerusalem, your Makkah, your City on a Hill, and make a pledge to yourself that one day, whatever the circumstances life finds you in, you will make the effort to go there.
Also, and this is just an idea, but do what I did and go there as a real person not as a tourist. Find something to do that is part of the life of the place. Take no camera at least until later. You can use your camera to go back over places and find the best angles, the best framings of shots to show people the place that you live. But don’t use it as a surrogate for being there yourself. Don’t be like those tourists in London who try and walk right through you forgetting it is not some 3D experience. Be there yourself, situated in the place and living in the moment.
So that’s my idea. Pilgrimage as an observance which, shorn of its religious context and content, still has something to say to the modern secular humanist. Or indeed to anyone.

Hard Choices in the Garden of Eden

Today we look at the story of the Garden of Eden. Some say that this is nonsense – a fable at best; others hold that it is to be taken as an allegory. Others (a small minority) consider it to be literally true.

I would hold out the view that this story, like much that is in the Bible, was written and is intended to be taken as a representation of some underlying truth, told in story-telling form – what the Hebrews call “Medrash” (the same word root as “Madrasah” in Arabic). This is something like allegory, but stronger. A truth but not perhaps a literal blow by blow account of what happened in some fertile-crescent field far away and so very long ago.

I think that this story relates an important truth which is of direct relevance today both to the religious and to non-believers. It relates, at base, the fundamental choice which we all face as we lead our lives; a choice which for some leads to uncritical obedience to the tenets of one or another religious belief, and for others to the quest for a righteous life as embodied for example in humanism.

So let’s take a look at this story and see what it says to us.

Warning: If you are easily offended, fuck off now.

So these two, Adam and Eve, find themselves in a garden with the instructions of God ringing in their ears: “You can eat of anything in this garden except that tree over there which would give you the knowledge of good and evil”.

A difficult moral choice: Do as I say, or eat a fruit which would impart the knowledge of what’s right and wrong.

A moral choice in which one of the options would give you the ability to resolve difficult moral choices. It doesn’t really require a talking snake to figure that one out. Though the talking snake does give us one interesting piece of information in passing: if you eat of this tree then you would be just like God, knowing what’s right and wrong. Never mind about creating the world or anything like this – to be like God at this point is to know what’s right and wrong.

So they eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Munch. “Hey, according to this fruit, it’s wrong that we are naked!”

Munch. “You’re right. I’d better stitch us together some fig leaves.”

Munch. “How come this God character didn’t mention this?”

Munch. “He had a choice: Tell us we should not be naked, or tell us not to eat from this tree.”

Munch. “Or both.”

Munch. “He knew it was wrong for us to be naked but rather than mention this, he only chose to tell us that we should obey him.”

Munch. “He had a choice. Did he do the right thing in making obedience to him a higher priority than telling us what was right or wrong?”

Munch. “No. He made the wrong moral choice.”

Munch. “Why would he make that choice?”

Munch. “He would prefer to see us prancing about naked – knowing this was wrong – than have us know what was right or wrong for ourselves.”

Munch. “So basically he’s some kind of pervert.”

And this boys and girls is why the Bible was not meant to be taken literally – if it was, it would be a very short book indeed. One could read on, through all the conquests and genocides, the slayings and begettings, to see if the main character redeems himself (spoiler alert: He doesn’t; quite the reverse in fact). But the basic moral landscape is laid out right here in the Garden of Eden.

In case you were wondering, I don’t believe this story is literally true. I don’t really believe that God is morally deficient because I don’t hold that such a being exists.

But I do believe this story contains a timeless truth. We each of us have a choice: delegate our own moral agency to some other, or pursue the knowledge of Good and Evil for ourselves. If we have any desire at all to be moral agents then we owe it to ourselves – and to those around us – to seek out truth and goodness wherever it may be found. Those who have chosen religion in any of the forms represented by the Garden of Eden story, have chosen to throw away their own moral agency. In so doing, they have abdicated one of the fundamental components of what it is to be human.

In short the Garden of Eden story sets out, in accurate detail, the fundamental perversity of Abrahamic religion. It sets out a stark choice between unthinking obedience and the quest for righteousness and then goes on to define blind obedience as the “right” choice. God creates beings with moral agency and then condemns them for exercising that moral agency in the only way that it could be exercised – by rejecting blind obedience in favour of the pursuit of the knowledge of good and evil.

And while God may not be the caricature I’ve presented here – a perverted old man who prefers to see Adam and Eve cavorting around naked rather than tell them what this means to him – there is an underlying truth about religion here which is no less perverse. As the Old Testament goes on to demonstrate, and as the subsequent history of these religions continues to attest, people who have abdicated their own morality and replaced it with blind obedience to whatever they are told do to in the name of God, are capable of carrying out some deeply immoral acts, and are able to feel that they are doing the right thing because they have wilfully chosen not to partake of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

There’s a Biblical truth right there.