The Holes in the Boat

Ancient Athens, at the height of its power, commanded an empire of millions, covering most of the Eastern Mediterranean.  Nominally, they were the foremost city of an alliance, but in practice, they dominated and extracted tribute from settlements in the Cyclades, Ionia on the west coast of Asia Minor, Italy, Sicily, Cyprus, and various points on the north coast of Africa.  They even had a couple of colonies in Spain.  This whole maritime empire was held together by the trireme, a 120-foot warship alternately propelled by sails or three banks of rowers, with a vicious battering ram on its tip.  I’ve mentioned the trireme before, in my Darkened Ages post.  It was a mighty weapon, but it had its limitations; it was strictly a coastal vessel, which had to make landfall every night to restock with food and water.  Also, very expensive.  At its aforementioned height, Athens could only build three or four triremes per year.  Usually this was done by selecting one of the city’s richest citizens for the “honor” of funding it, in the form of a charitable endowment called a liturgy (lit. “work for the people”; also an apt term for our religious service, but one wonders exactly how the term got transferred!).

Anyway, suppose you were to go to one of Athens’s busiest shipyards and tell them that, at some point in the past, a man and his three sons, possibly assisted by their wives, had built a ship three times the length of a trireme, and far wider–a boat the size of a modern American football field.  That these men had then loaded down said ship with massive amounts of heavy cargo–live animals, and plenty of fodder–and kept it afloat through forty days of nonstop storm conditions, plus an indeterminate period of calm afterwards. Continue reading


I mentioned evolution a couple of posts back, and now seems as good a time as any to comment on it.  Or rather to use it as a blatant springboard to start a post with, since I always have the devil’s own time figuring out how to begin.  I have no intention of arguing over the political game of “creation science” or “intelligent design” or whatever it’s being called now.  Science is a naturalistic discipline, ergo the supernatural has no place in it, and that, so far as I am concerned, is that.  But there is an argument that, because many parts of creation, and in particular the human body, are not optimally designed, they are unlikely to be the work of an intelligent Creator. Continue reading

Something Fishy

I think–I’m not certain, but I think–it was C.S. Lewis who coined the term “chronological snobbery.”  It refers to our curious modern tendency to assume that, because our ancestors were less technologically, politically, and economically sophisticated than we are, they were necessarily quite stupid.  I should add that we tend to apply similar reasoning, albeit unconsciously, to people in poor countries, and most of all to tribal peoples.  Of course, there’s nothing logical about this assumption; if anything, it is substantially more difficult to survive in a low-tech, unstable society than in modern times, and so one would expect successful members of those societies to be more intelligent than our own elites, at least in terms of raw capacity. Continue reading

An Addendum

. . . to yesterday’s post, since I likely won’t have time to write a substantial post today.  I left off a final point: that atheism, or naturalism, not only does not require any advanced science to support it–the ancient world had plenty of nontheistic philosophies, like the Stoics and (alas) the original Cynics–but is likely more ancient than theism, or even belief in the supernatural as such.

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The Music of the Spheres

Two posts back, I addressed the “Just-So-Stories” theory of religious development–that religion emerged as a prescientific means of explaining natural phenomena.  I gave what was, to me, the most obvious evidence against the theory: most religions don’t actually care about natural phenomena.  Those aspects of religious belief which do explain nature are mostly peripheral, and could be gutted without affecting much else in any given religion’s beliefs, rituals or practices.

I would further argue that, to the extent that religions do tie natural phenomena into their superstructure, the point is not to explain nature so much as to sanctify it.  When Hades drags Persephone to the Underworld for half the year, sending Demeter into grieving, that doesn’t really “explain” winter; any idiot, however ignorant, is bound to notice that the days are shorter, and the weather colder, in winter.  Demeter was not supposed to have power over the sun or the sky, only the fertile earth.  As an explanation, the Rape of Persephone doesn’t make sense.  As sanctification, however–as a way of tying the rhythms of everyday life to the eternal–it works.  But that whole way of thinking is alien to us, because we live in a largely de-sanctified world, what Fr. Stephen Freeman calls “a two-story universe.”  I’ll leave the details of that to Father Stephen and company; a pedantic nerd like me can hardly wrap his head around the concept. Continue reading

Just So Stories

“People long ago didn’t understand how the universe worked; they didn’t understand lightning, for example, so they made up Thor and Zeus to explain it.  That’s where religion came from.”

Yeah, this’n’s an oldie.  But it never really goes out of style.  Whenever and wherever people are arguing about the existence of God, this notion–I think of it as the “Just So Stories” theory, after the silly Kipling tales about how the camel got his hump, etc.–is bound to pop up if the argument goes on long enough. Continue reading