Saturday, December 6, 2008

Do You Believe in Magic?

But not the kind in a young girl’s heart.
What kind of magic do you believe in? Are you a LOTR fan? Hobbits, elves, orcs, that sort of thing? Or even darker: vampires, werewolves, the Mummy, ad nauseum?

Or are you a fundamentalist Christian?

Wait! Do I really mean to say that Christians believe in magic? I mean, gee, you won’t find any Christians, fundamentalist or otherwise, publicly admitting that they believe in things like vampires, or hobbits or even witches. As a matter of fact, just about every Protestant religion—and even the Catholic Church—has repudiated the prosecution of witchcraft. The official position is that witchcraft, black magic, doesn’t exist and it is in fact blasphemy to believe that it does. So how can I say that Christians believe in magic?

You’d better believe that they do, bubba. A stupefying percentage of them believe in the blackest magic of all: the existence of Evil as personified by the Thing we call Satan. And the Catholic Church has as the foundation of Its faith the daily miracle (read: acceptable white magic) of transubstantiation, i.e.: the changing of wine into blood and bread into flesh.

And just between us folks, a religion that ritualizes cannibalism is kind of creepy.

But it’s magic we’re concerned with here, people. Western religions refer to acceptable magic as miracles, that is: ultimately descended from God and thereby acceptable. Whether performed by a saintly person, an exorcist—and what is an exorcism but a series of incantations by a priest?—or merely a purportedly innocent human being, it’s magic that God Himself has authorized. Sanctified by prayer and pure intent, of course.

But consider: the more fundamental of the Protestant faiths quite clearly acknowledge the existence of a supernatural being called Satan, once called Lucifer. He is said to be a fallen angel, formerly the most highly regarded of all the angels and a creation of the Deity Himself. Yet this Divine creation was somehow flawed, rebelled against God and was cast into another Divine creation we call Hell. A most unpleasant place, by all reports and by the physical laws of our universe: impossible. This place was apparently created to hold those who rebel against God or do not believe in God or who were unaware of the existence of God. The latter get a slightly better deal, according to Dante, similar to a nice retirement center or vacation resort encircling a particularly odious garbage dump.

Damnation is relative, it would seem.

Yet most of the Western world believes in the existence of these impossible things: a Divine creation that rebels against its Creator and a whole host of demonic creatures accompanying It. Evil acts—mostly temptations to unpleasant behavior—encouraged by these creatures. Miraculous cures, tears of blood, stigmata, visions of the Virgin Mary, portents in the sky and sea and soil and the occasional corn chip. Signs. Omens. That transubstantiation thing. And the biggest, baddest most Magical Thing of all, the headliner act to beat all acts, the Lollapalooza of battles (or Mother of All Battles, if you’re a Muslim), the hot ticket for the season, ladies and gentlemen, it’s Armageddon!

That’s right, the End of the World. You can’t miss it; it’s in the Enquirer every other week.

Now, how do you reason with that? How do you deal with a faith, a whole sheaf of faiths that believe the world is going to end in a huge fight between the armies of Good and Evil? Good is supposed to win, of course—survey says!—and all the baddies are supposed to get their comeuppance. Or so it says here in the Book of Revelations: an interesting, if somewhat hallucinogenic series of letters written by one of the early Christian holy men during the time of the Emperor Nero. Who, by the way, was referred to by early Christians as The Great Beast. Really. Look it up if you don’t believe me. Google: Nero+Christians+Great Beast.

This is a bit weird, friends. Why would anyone want to believe in a God that intends to let the world end in a blaze of fire and destruction? Why would anyone want the world to end? Uh, I think I know why, but the answer disturbs me even more than the concept of magic:

Some Christians are cowards.

Okay, now calm down. Do you think I like the idea? I don’t like concluding that nearly half the world is composed mostly of gutless, chickenshit whiners who want Big Daddy to wipe the slate clean because they can’t deal with all the unpleasant subjects demanding our attention these days. Which ones? Fundamentalist Christians are against: abortion, homosexuality, procreational sex, teenage sex, extramarital sex (in fact, sexual intercourse seems to be a big no-no for any reason except making babies exclusively in wedlock), free speech, evolution (hey, don’t blame man for that!), unlimited medical research, democracy and impure thoughts, whatever those are.

They are, however, foursquare in favor of war against the heathen Muslims. Onward Christian soldiers. If you want a real eye-opener—and stomach-turner—try to lay hands on an unexpurgated history of the Crusades, especially the First and Fourth Crusades. You will discover why the Arabic world holds us in such contempt and it isn’t because we slaughtered so many of their people to capture a few cities that didn’t belong to any European monarch in the first place. No, it’s what the noble knights of the Crusades did afterwards that pisses them off and rightly so.

But, enough history. Turn off your hormones for a moment and let’s be utterly objective. Evolution is change. Change is the only thing that remains constant. The scientific word for it is thermodynamics or sometimes entropy and you can see it happening all around you. You can see evolution at work, too, but only if you put down the Good Book for a moment and really look. A social system is subject to change, too. Just like an organism, which it resembles on a larger scale. This is why I can’t help snickering when I hear the word conservative. Definition: “desiring to preserve existing institutions and thus opposed to radical change”.


If you don’t grow and change, you die. Period. Ever read Dr. Robert Malthus? A depressing man. He pointed out that when an organism runs out of resources and room to grow, it dies. Every time, without fail. I don’t know if he ever tested an organism that deliberately and consciously refused to grow, but it follows that an organism that limits itself cannot grow in that direction.

A Christian might tell you that that’s a good thing. Who wants a society to grow in the direction of abortion or homosexuality? Do you want unlimited abortion or rampant gayness pervading this society? Well, abortion, no. I’d rather see a foolproof—make that idiot-proof—method of birth control. But that’s forbidden, too. No makin’ whoopee other than for makin’ babies. Married couples only, please. Preferably those devout enough to pray before they do the horizontal bop.

Homosexuality? (Shrug. Yawn.) Well, if I may be permitted an entirely utilitarian observation, it’s one way to lower the birth rate and increase adoptions. Of course, it will also increase the mortality rate, AIDS being the mutating killer it is, but that’s an area we must grow to understand or we will die. (No kiddin’, said Doctor Malthus.) But am I worried that the gays have a secret agenda to control the world and turn it into vast sodomite orgy, controlled by the Fiendish One?

Uh, no. And frankly, that sounds pretty damned paranoid to me. I rate it right up there with the Red Scare and all its attendant horrors like McCarthyism, anti-Semitism (and its equally suspect counterpart Zionism) and the horror of horrors: racial purity as religiously practiced by the National Socialist Party of Germany. (Gott Mit Uns!) Of course, they didn’t like homosexuals either and I expect that the religious right will soon adopt much if not all of their rhetoric and tactics.

Then again, they may have done so already. You probably realize that in the minds of most fundamentalists, gay equals pedophile. That the evidence does not support this conclusion in any way shape or form, seems to be irrelevant to your average devout—and blindly obedient-- fundamentalist. Their preacher told them that the Bible says so: end of discussion. Their preacher also told them that the world will end in fire fairly soon, so get ready for this by contemplating your next life through prayer and regular donations to the Church. Which may be why some elderly people can’t make ends meet: (“That handsome minister on TV told me to send in a $100! So I did . . .”)

Springsteen once commented that blind faith in your leaders will get you killed. No kiddin’, Bruce?

Amazing. Never have so many believed so little for so contemptible a reason: cowardice. And if the world really is ending, what do you need all that money for? Just curious...

Facing an uncertain future takes a certain amount of courage. In a high school physics class I saw a depiction of the curve of human technological advancement graphed logarithmically. The damn thing went completely vertical very shortly after the Millennium. I’m sure most of you have seen it as well or something quite similar, jammed as the media was at that time with predictions by Nostradamus, the President’s astrologer and every damned crackpot who managed to get on the Art Bell radio show. And friends, that’s scary.

That means that technology is not only changing faster than we understand or can control, it means it’s changing faster than is possible for us to understand or control. Shall I simplify that?

No one human, unaltered or un-enhanced can possibly understand the whole of human technology or science nor absorb more than a fraction of the new technology that is being developed every minute. It can’t be done. Our brains aren’t big enough to contain all of the bits of data nor do we have the processing power to comprehend the sum of it. The operative word here is un-enhanced. There are ways, now being explored, to make it possible for us to get most of it, or at least the parts that really matter. But, as they’re finding out now on Google and other search engines, what constitutes the important stuff and what is garbage?

We might want to keep Sturgeon’s Law in mind when addressing that. Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of it? Ninety percent of everything is crap. I know some people who live by that paradigm. Sometimes I don’t know whom to pity most: the Christians that believe in a God who wants to blow up the world and torture most of us or those poor saps that can’t tell a rose from a cowpie.

Fear and Faith and Knowledge and Reason: it seems to be not so much a War between Good and Evil, but rather a War of Extremes. And isn’t that the way it’s been growing for several decades now? Partisanship has not merely reared its obscenely ugly head, it stands rampant upon its hind legs and both sides are worshipping that particular Golden Calf. Riotously so, one might say, especially in the neo-con camp.

What can be done to reverse this or even stop it? Sadly: not a whole lot.

We can only hope that posterity will judge those conservatives who want us to remain as we were because they fear what we might become for what they truly are: cowards. Obstructionists. Speed bumps on the road to Progress. We can’t reason with them: the fundamentalists and the neo-cons, the nouveau riche of the right-wing power elite. We can’t smear them or defame them either, because there will always be more to take their place and it cheapens us to use their tactics, assuming anyone would even pay attention. (Another scandal? Yawn.) We can’t ignore them because they won’t go away and they insist upon spying on us in the bedroom, taking our money to wage wars and thereby enrich themselves; lying to us, deceiving us, rigging elections, bullying the helpless and needy and generally behaving in a reprehensible, hypocritical, boorish manner unworthy of allegedly civilized beings.

We could try to vote them out of office and keep them out but that’s been fairly unsuccessful and the process is fraught with accusations and counter-accusations and not a shred of proof, thus far. The jury of public opinion is still out on that one and as long as the opposition continues to influence or outright control a substantial percentage of the media, we’ll never be sure.

And one need only accuse a priest of child abuse to create no end of grief for him, that is, if you don’t mind the foul taste in your mouth afterwards. Trust me; washing your hands repeatedly doesn’t help either. (“What is truth?” said the jesting Pilate, and would not stay for the answer. Anyone remember where that came from? I don’t. E-mail and educate me, please.)

No, all we can do is hope that their dreams come true and that their God ends the world for them and leaves it for the rest of us to go on with our lives and grow and change and hopefully: flourish. Or we could go elsewhere. We’ve been trying to do that for nearly half a century now and sometimes I think: just one more great idea or one more committed billionaire and...

So I guess I believe in Magic, too. But I don’t have to like it.

Michelle Rose
Portland, 2/15/05

1 comment:

BRIGID said...

I believe in magic
A child's joy on Christmas morning.
or the look of amazement as they discover The wonder of new things, which we adults take for granted, too soon finding out there's no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy.
That's the time to teach them about a loving creator who made us and everything in this wonderful world and what is incomprehensible to us, and sadly the magic was only an illusion, and goodness or badness is kindled in the human heart and the blame lies within ourselves when things go badly. But that is the exception to the rule because life is mostly beautiful.