Beyond faith: Becoming the Tollans?
Posted: 24 December 2004 02:00 PM   [ Ignore ]  
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On pages 108-9 of The End of Faith, Sam Harris writes,

It is a truism to say that people of faith have created almost everything of value in our world, because nearly every person who has ever swung a hammer or trimmed a sail has been a devout member of one or another religious culture. There has been simply no one else to do the job. We can also say that every human achievement prior to the twentieth century was accomplished by men and women who were perfectly ignorant of the molecular basis of life. Does this suggest that a nineteenth-century view of biology would have been worth maintaining? There is no telling what our world would now be like had some great kingdom of Reason emerged at the time of the Crusades and pacified the credulous multitudes of Europe and the Middle East. We might have had modern democracy and the Internet by the year 1600. The fact that religious faith has left its mark on every aspect of our civilization is not an argument in its favor, nor can any particular faith be exonerated simply because certain of its adherents made foundational contributions to human culture.

Actually the television series Stargate SG-1 hints at such an alternative civilization in its first season episode titled "Enigma," where the protagonists meet members of a human-offshoot society called the Tollans.

Two very interesting exchanges about the Tollans occur in this episode, one where the series' archaeologist character speculates about how the Tollans became so technologically advanced considering that their ancestors came from Earth:

HAMMOND: You evacuated ten people from an alien planet, Colonel. Doctor Frasier says they're all human and it looks like they're going to live. This was one hell of a rescue operation.

O'NEILL: Thank you, Sir

HAMMOND: There were no buildings in the area of any kind?

CARTER: No sir. We don't know how far they walked, but it looked like they were trying to make it back to the Stargate.

HAMMOND: What do we know about these devices they were wearing?

CARTER: Well, they all emit low levels of radiation indicating an operative energy source, but there's no circuitry, moving parts or chips. We've never seen anything like it.

JACKSON: I thought at first that they were from a parallel culture but it looks like they might be way ahead of us.

HAMMOND: We've determined humans on other planets originated here on Earth, right?

JACKSON: Yes.

HAMMOND: Then given our present state of technology, could they be ahead of us?

JACKSON: Yes. Umm… we'd be colonising space right now if it hadn't been for the Dark Ages. There was a period of over eight hundred years where science was heresy and anathema. Maybe they didn't have that set-back.

In a later scene, one of the Tollans, named Narim, explains to the series' physicist character, Samantha Carter, something of his society's intellectual evolution:

NARIM: You know, back on Tollan, I thought I was dying. I heard your voice and managed to open my eyes, and, uh… when I saw you… uh ...

CARTER: What?

NARIM: An old superstition. There was a time before reason and science when my ancestors believed in all manner of nonsense. Like the Sher'mau. The story goes that if a Sher'mau appears at the moment of death, she would take you to her dwelling in the stars.

CARTER: Ah! We call them angels.

NARIM: Than you still believe in them?

CARTER: Some of us do.

NARIM: Ours were reported to be quite beautiful… and, when I saw you… well… you seemed to fit the description. (She smiles)

Harris's conjecture about what a rational civilization could accomplish immediately reminded me of this episode, and its implicit criticism of religious faith. This and other anti-religion messages in SG-1, which is way underappreciated, in my opinion, suggest that science fiction has the potential to show ordinary people the nonthreatening and in fact beneficial aspects of a rational, post-faith society. I'd like to see more efforts going into creating stories like this to spread the secular-humanist message Harris has endorsed in his book.

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Posted: 24 December 2004 02:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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AA,

As anti-religion as I have become, there is still something beautiful that is being lost, don’t you think?  I mean what is to become of the Angels? 

I read your Tollans story and felt a little sad that Narim was disabused of a tether to another realm.  I understand what religion becomes , by necessity, but still, at times I bemoan the loss of innocence.  (Is that the right word?) 

Anyway, perhaps we humans will become the Angels we thought were out there.

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Posted: 24 December 2004 03:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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Something beautiful in organized religion?  I have yet to see it.  I really liked your story from Stargate.  Following is a letter I wrote to the editor of my local paper in response to an op-ed piece that ran a few weeks ago, and delt with US scientific supremacy slipping away.

“I enjoyed reading the piece by David Baltimore in the Sunday Star-news (U.S. scientific supremacy slipping away).  To his arguments, I would like to add a note from history, and advance an additional causative factor.

In medieval times, the Arabs led the world in almost every category, including science and mathematics, while our ancestors, instead of writing books, were burning them – and people too, for the glory of God.

During the centuries that followed, the Arabic civilization collapsed, and degenerated into a culture that is presently far behind the West.  This collapse was due to the ascendancy of fundamentalist Islam, and the formation of states based upon Islamic law.  As the increasing power of Islam led directly to the decline of the Arab world, so did the rebirth of European civilization coincide with the diminishing power of the Christian church. 

When we ease science out of our schools, and replace it with preposterous, unfounded myths, limit promising medical research for purely religious reasons, or write Christian dogma into our laws, we are doing PRECISLY the kinds of things that plunged Europe into the dark ages, and precipitated the collapse of Arabic civilization.  History has proven that we must base our decisions upon reason and intellect, not fear and superstition.”

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Posted: 25 December 2004 01:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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Something beautiful in organized religion? I have yet to see it.

I think everyone could agree that there is something beautiful in Nature. Religious people call it god. No need for that—the beauties of Nature are exhilarating, no matter what name you put on them, and they inspire the human imagination. Nothing wrong with angels—they are some of the most beautiful products of the human imagination. They are how we extol the beauty of Nature. Let ‘em be! smile

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Posted: 25 December 2004 04:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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[quote author=“child”]AA,

As anti-religion as I have become, there is still something beautiful that is being lost, don’t you think?  I mean what is to become of the Angels?

I never understood the appeal of winged, usually androgynous humanoids with supernatural powers.

I read your Tollans story and felt a little sad that Narim was disabused of a tether to another realm.  I understand what religion becomes , by necessity, but still, at times I bemoan the loss of innocence.  (Is that the right word?)

If you watched that episode, just before the exchange I quoted above, Narim tells Sam that he’s glad to be alive, even if his rescue put him and his companions in a difficult situation. In other words, he was in no way sorry that he didn’t get to find out what was happening in “another realm” by dying. The Tollans’ values are grounded in observable reality.

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Posted: 25 December 2004 10:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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AA,

I am a big fan of SG1 myself, and I like the embedded messages that the show carries within. However, I found myself in disagreement with Jackson’s explanation of the reason behind the advancement of the Tollans, which you kindly quoted in your post.

The world did not go through the Dark Ages, only the Western civilization did. The claim that the Dark Ages held back the advancement of earth humans is as egotistical of the show’s writers as any creationaist can be. As another kind members highlighted, the Islamic civilization took over the torch for a while and managed to introduce several mathematic, medical, astronomical, and even philosophical achievements into the human knowledge pool.

Robert Write, in his book “Nonzero”, explains how human advancement carries on, albeit in various speeds, regardless of the specific advancement rate of each civilization. “Nonzero” is a wonderful read and I highly recommend it.

Regarding angles and other beautiful notions in religion, I think that it’s unfair for one to deny their beauty just because she or he doesn’t see it in them even though all believers, and even most ex-believers, agree on their loveliness. Nevertheless, this is similar to the realization that Santa does not exist as well. And even though Santa did not exist in my culture, but I can imagine that most of you are content with that reality yet remain fond of its beauty.

Angels may not exist, but I still love hearing their stories just as I find entertainment in reading ancient mythologies of long gone cultures.

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Posted: 26 December 2004 01:03 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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Angels may not exist, but I still love hearing their stories just as I find entertainment in reading ancient mythologies of long gone cultures.

Couldn’t agree more.

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Posted: 26 December 2004 02:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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[quote author=“Arabian Enlightenment”]

The world did not go through the Dark Ages, only the Western civilization did. The claim that the Dark Ages held back the advancement of earth humans is as egotistical of the show’s writers as any creationaist can be. As another kind members highlighted, the Islamic civilization took over the torch for a while and managed to introduce several mathematic, medical, astronomical, and even philosophical achievements into the human knowledge pool.

The world has always been in “the dark ages,” with the relatively enlightened zones being exceptional. Muslim civilization is in a dark age now. Dr. Jackson could have just as plausibly credited Islam after its relinquishment of intellectual progress for keeping the human race from Tollanhood.

[ Edited: 26 December 2004 06:41 AM by ]
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Posted: 26 December 2004 04:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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There’s another beautiful example of a culture overcoming/developing without religion (called the Mintakans) in Star Trek: TNG.

Who Watches the Watchers

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Posted: 26 December 2004 08:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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[quote author=“advancedatheist”]

The world has always been in “the dark ages,” with the relatively enlightened zones being exceptional. Muslim civilization is in a dark age now. Dr. Jackson could have just as plausibly credited Islam after its relinquishment of intellectual progress for keeping the human race from Tollanhood.

I think that you misunderstood my point. What I was trying to say is that what is known as the Dark Ages is something very specific to the Western civilization. You mentioned that the Islamic civilization is going through a dark age now, and I concur. But to claim that all of humanity was held back because the West was going through a dark age is a bit vain.

I was not defending the Islamic civilization for I was mentioning it to cite a corroborating example. Mankind owes a lot of its advancements to one culture or the other, but for one culture to assume that when it laid dormant the world had to stand by until it shook the darkness away is unfair in my humble opinion.

I, however, agree with you that mankind has always been in a dark age because of the various religions. The new studies that indicate the existence of a “God” gene are very disturbing indeed, especially since having that gene must have been an advantageous trait and thus evolution allowed that gene to cultivate within the human gene pool.

What is happening nowadays could serve as further evidence for the existence of such gene. I say so because even though for a while the Western civilization seemed to be on the verge of eradicating the whole concept of religion, yet the current trend in the States is not very promising. Perhaps drawing parallels with the Islamic civilization is not entirely appropriate, but it could serve as a sign of warning. This is because in its prime the Islamic civilization began to introduce several philosophers who questioned the whole legitimacy of religion, which is similar to what happened during the Enlightenment era in the West.

It all started when philosophers, known then as the “Talk Scientists”, questioned the accuracy of the Islamic holy book, the Quran. For a while they seemed to be gaining grounds, and at one point one of the Caliphs, Almamoon, adopted their teachings and prosecuted scholars who insisted that the Quran was eternal. However, subsequent to the death of Almamoon the following Caliph banned the research on the subject and prosecuted the Talk Scientists into oblivion.

That point marked the decline of the Islamic civilization and the begining of the fall back into fundamentalism and then into radicalism. The science of “Talk”, or philosophy, was banned and was replaced by religious sciences.

This is why I liked Sam’s book, “End of Faith”, and I hope that the struggle in the West does not take the sad turn that it has been taking every time throughout history enlightenement seemed to be emerging.

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Posted: 27 December 2004 01:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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I don’t know about the god gene, but there is no question that we all have in us the Fear-of-Death gene, derived from the Imagination gene.

Humankind seemingly is the only species that can imagine and foresee its own demise, and for most of us that thought is simply unbearable. The hope of living forever is a powerful motivator.

I can commiserate with that to some extent, but believe the only solution is to try to accept it and not let the thought ruin one’s life.

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Posted: 06 January 2005 02:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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[quote author=“Beth Kurtz”]I don’t know about the god gene, but there is no question that we all have in us the Fear-of-Death gene, derived from the Imagination gene.

Humankind seemingly is the only species that can imagine and foresee its own demise, and for most of us that thought is simply unbearable. The hope of living forever is a powerful motivator.

I can commiserate with that to some extent, but believe the only solution is to try to accept it and not let the thought ruin one’s life.

I beg to differ. The biotechnology revolution is changing the look of things, and it seems increasingly likely that we can treat aging and death as really hard but potentially tractable engineering problems.

Read, for example, the article about scientist Aubrey de Grey, who invented the concept of “engineered negligible senescence” and who has proposed some scientifically plausible ways to attain it:

The Prophet of Immortality
http://www.popsci.com/popsci/medicine/article/0,20967,929447,00.html

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Posted: 06 January 2005 02:43 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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[quote author=“Arabian Enlightenment”]

Mankind owes a lot of its advancements to one culture or the other, but for one culture to assume that when it laid dormant the world had to stand by until it shook the darkness away is unfair in my humble opinion.

It is more than unfair it is vainglory.

It is very unrealistic to look at each culture as totally insular, as separated from each other as the walls of test tubes separate the bacteria cultures.

It is clear that throughout history cultures have exchanged ideas as well as goods.

An 2000 BC Egyptian mummy was recently exhumed that, when tested, had traces of cocoa, coca and tobacco (or maybe we have some very naughty anthropolgists working in the lab!)

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Posted: 07 January 2005 01:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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increasingly likely that we can treat aging and death as really hard but potentially tractable engineering problems.

I think I’ll not count on it—I’m 68. But beyond the Fear of Death gene, there is still the Self Importance gene to deal with. That one will still be keeping me busy in my senescence.

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