I’ve been writing all sorts of things for many years, but this is my first outing as a blogger. Cool. A little scary. And to my relief, it seems I have a lot to say. As an archaeologist, I track the wild wonders of pseudoarchaeology with wide-eyed fascination. As a historian, I have collected messiahs for years in the way some people collect butterflies. As a writer of f&sf, I’m alive to the joys of using fiction to approach what I want to say from unexpected angles – hence the “lateral” in “lateral truth”. Oh yes, lots to say.
Here’s where I’m coming from.
My progeny call me a fundamentalist atheist, which is irritating but probably true. I was first carried into an evangelical church at the age of ten days, and spent the next twenty years attending four to seven religious functions per week. These included (but were not limited to) Sunday school, Sunday morning service, Sunday evening service, Wednesday prayer meeting, choir practice, assorted kiddy clubs, Young People’s, and a girls-only group with the dreadful name of the King’s Mission Belles.
In those days, Sunday school and the morning church service ran back to back, like consecutive prison terms. Sunday school was not too bad, enlivened as it was by flannelgraphs and action choruses. The main service, however, involved sitting on hard pews and being very, very good for up to two hours at a stretch, while suffering through an eternity of incomprehensible sermons and interminable prayers. Until about age six, we only had to be quiet. After that, we were also required to be conscious.
Fortunately, that was about when we learned to read. Storybooks and comics were of course banned from the pews, and the church bulletin was pretty dry stuff, but nobody seemed to mind if you stuck your nose into the hymnal or the Bible for the duration. I trawled the hymns happily, wondering why exactly the saints would want to cast down their golden crowns; or how blood could wash whiter than snow, when my experience of nosebleeds was quite different. This was adequately entertaining, and the songs stayed with me. Even now, where some people belt out show tunes in the shower, I will belt out the Baptist hymnal.
But the Bible was an even better device for surviving the dreariness of sermons, because there were lots of games you could play with it. I spent many delightful hours choosing names for future offspring, names that were humanely discarded long before any potential Hepzibahs, Jochebeds, Eleazars or Habakkuks came along. I held competitions among the genealogical chapters, awarding one point for each “begat.” I found as many common English words as possible using the letters in the name of each book of the Bible. And I played the most dangerous game of all – I actually read the stories.
What could look more innocent than a small child in a shaft of glass-stained sunshine, absorbed in the pages of the Good Book? Actually, I was discovering with great interest all the bits that should have been X-rated for sex and violence, as well as the bits that were gorgeously written and a damned good read; and there was always the chance of stumbling on a nugget like Song of Solomon 5:4, with its reference to moving bowels. Anyway, little by little, I began to notice that the cuddly versions of the stories handed down to us in Sunday school were curiously incomplete.
Samson, for example, was presented as an action hero who did just fine for himself until he annoyed God by getting his hair cut. Nobody mentioned his trick of tying firebrands to the tails of live foxes, which I thought smacked of cruelty to animals. The Children of Israel were presented as a bunch of whining sinners who strained the patience of God and Moses with outrageous demands. To me, their complaints seemed to be perfectly reasonable worries about food and water and getting massacred. Jehovah came across as a horrendous bully, though Jesus sounded like a very nice person; but there were several different versions of his resurrection, and I did not see how all of them could be true at the same time.
This was all very confusing. And there were some stories that Sunday school avoided entirely: the near-annihilation of the tribe of Benjamin, the scandal of Tamar and Judah, the account of Zipporah’s DIY circumcision of her son’s foreskin. We heard about David and Goliath, but not David and Bathsheba; Moses and Aaron, but not Moses and Korah. And God not only seemed to order a great many massacres, but also made a point of including babies on His hit list. In fact, it seemed to me that the misbehaviour of God and His appointed leaders, as recorded in God’s own infallible scripture, would have earned them at least a smacked bottom in my world.
I did ask questions, now and then. My parents told me gently there were some things I would understand when I was older, and some things we were not meant to understand until God explained them to us in Heaven, presumably with flannelgraphs. This did not satisfy me, but it did temporarily shut me up. By the age of ten, when I came to the dread realization that I was a natural-born atheist and also that I was going to hell, I was very much in the habit of keeping my questions to myself. I understand this is not unusual in the atheist children of devout families. More of this another day.
Anyway, that was a longer time ago than I’d care to admit. Since then, I’ve read a lot, written a lot, drunk much beer, dug things up in a spotty career as an archaeologist, taught things, changed diapers and wiped noses, lived as an expat in faraway places, and done many stupid things, as well as some quite clever ones. In the course of all that, I’ve arrived at a few observations and propositions, which this blog is intended, in part, to explore. Here are a few of them, in no particular order.
1. You don’t have to be crazy or stupid to believe in batshit things, though it frequently helps.
2. In terms of cult formation, there is little to distinguish between secular and supernatural ideologies.
3. Human history makes more sense if you posit that most messiahs and many great men would score high on the psychopathy checklist.
4. The “god-shaped hole” which atheists lack may actually exist in believers, and may be equally well filled by Jehovah on the one hand, or, say, Amway personal-hygiene products on the other.
So there’s a start. This blog will be divided between articles that display messiahs from my extensive collection, neatly skewered, to expand upon the above propositions; articles that track particularly delicious or current examples of pseudoarchaeology; and short stories that riff on Biblical, humanist, or skeptical themes. I am delighted to be with you. Welcome to my blog.