Archive for January, 2015


Religion’s Dirty Dozen—12 Really Bad Religious Ideas That Have Made the World Worse

Nuclear bomb with trees

 

 

 

 

 

Some of humanity’s technological innovations are things we would have been better off without: the medieval rack, the atomic bomb and powdered lead potions come to mind. Religions tend to invent ideas or concepts rather than technologies, but like every other creative human enterprise, they produce some really bad ones along with the good.

My website, Wisdom Commons, highlights some of humanity’s best moral and spiritual concepts, ideas like the Golden Rule, and values like compassion, generosity and courage that make up our shared moral core. Here, by way of contrast, are some of the worst. These twelve dubious concepts promote conflict, cruelty, suffering and death rather than love and peace. To paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, they belong in the dustbin of history just as soon as we can get them there.

Chosen People –The term “Chosen People” typically refers to the Hebrew Bible and the ugly idea that God has given certain tribes a Promised Land (even though it is already occupied by other people). But in reality many sects endorse some version of this concept. The New Testament identifies Christians as the chosen ones. Calvinists talk about “God’s elect,” believing that they themselves are the special few who were chosen before the beginning of time. Jehovah’s witnesses believe that 144,000 souls will get a special place in the afterlife. In many cultures certain privileged and powerful bloodlines were thought to be descended directly from gods (in contrast to everyone else).

Religious sects are inherently tribal and divisive because they compete by making mutually exclusive truth claims and by promising blessings or afterlife rewards that no competing sect can offer. “Gang symbols” like special haircuts, attire, hand signals and jargon differentiate insiders from outsiders and subtly (or not so subtly) convey to both that insiders are inherently superior.

HereticsHeretics, kafir, or infidels (to use the medieval Catholic term) are not just outsiders, they are morally suspect and often seen as less than fully human. In the Torah, slaves taken from among outsiders don’t merit the same protections as Hebrew slaves. Those who don’t believe in a god are corrupt, doers of abominable deeds. “There is none [among them] who does good,” says the Psalmist.

Islam teaches the concept of “dhimmitude” and provides special rules for the subjugation of religious minorities, with monotheists getting better treatment than polytheists. Christianity blurs together the concepts of unbeliever and evildoer. Ultimately, heretics are a threat that needs to be neutralized by conversion, conquest, isolation, domination, or—in worst cases—mass murder.

Holy WarIf war can be holy, anything goes. The medieval Roman Catholic Church conducted a twenty year campaign of extermination against heretical Cathar Christians in the south of France, promising their land and possessions to real Christians who signed on as crusaders. Sunni and Shia Muslims have slaughtered each other for centuries. The Hebrew scriptures recount battle after battle in which their war God, Yahweh, helps them to not only defeat but also exterminate the shepherding cultures that occupy their “Promised Land.” As in later holy wars, like the modern rise of ISIS, divine sanction let them kill the elderly and children, burn orchards, and take virgin females as sexual slaves—all while retaining a sense of moral superiority.

Blasphemy – Blasphemy is the notion that some ideas are inviolable, off limits to criticism, satire, debate, or even question. By definition, criticism of these ideas is an outrage, and it is precisely this emotion–outrage–that the crime of blasphemy evokes in believers. The Bible prescribes death for blasphemers; the Quran does not, but death-to-blasphemers became part of Shariah during medieval times.

The idea that blasphemy must be prevented or avenged has caused millions of murders over the centuries and countless other horrors. As I write, blogger Raif Badawi awaits round after round of flogging in Saudi Arabia—1000 lashes in batches of 50—while his wife and children plead from Canada for the international community to do something.

Glorified suffering – Picture secret societies of monks flogging their own backs. The image that comes to mind is probably from Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, but the idea isn’t one he made up. A core premise of Christianity is that righteous torture—if it’s just intense and prolonged enough–can somehow fix the damage done by evil, sinful behavior. Millions of crucifixes litter the world as testaments to this belief. Shia Muslims beat themselves with lashes and chains during Aashura, a form of sanctified suffering called Matam that commemorates the death of the martyr Hussein. Self-denial in the form of asceticism and fasting is a part of both Eastern and Western religions, not only because deprivation induces altered states but also because people believe suffering somehow brings us closer to divinity.

Our ancestors lived in a world in which pain came unbidden, and people had very little power to control it. An aspirin or heating pad would have been a miracle to the writers of the Bible, Quran, or Gita. Faced with uncontrollable suffering, the best advice religion could offer was to lean in or make meaning of it. The problem, of course is that glorifying suffering—turning it into a spiritual good—has made people more willing to inflict it on not only themselves and their enemies but also those who are helpless, including the ill or dying (as in the case of Mother Teresa and the American Bishops) and children (as in the child beating Patriarchy movement).

Genital mutilation – Primitive people have used scarification and other body modifications to define tribal membership for as long as history records. But genital mutilation allowed our ancestors several additional perks—if you want to call them that. In Judaism, infant circumcision serves as a sign of tribal membership, but circumcision also serves to test the commitment of adult converts. In one Bible story, a chieftain agrees to convert and submit his clan to the procedure as a show of commitment to a peace treaty. (While the men lie incapacitated, the whole town is then slain by the Israelites.)

In Islam, painful male circumcision serves as a rite of passage into manhood, initiation into a powerful club. By contrast, in some Muslim cultures cutting away or burning the female clitoris and labia ritually establishes the submission of women by reducing sexual arousal and agency. An estimated 2 million girls annually are subjected to the procedure, with consequences including hemorrhage, infection, painful urination and death.

Blood sacrificeIn the list of religion’s worst ideas, this is the only one that appears to be in its final stages. Only Hindus continue to ritually hack and slaughter sacrificial animals on a mass scale.

When our ancient ancestors slit the throats on humans and animals or cut out their hearts or sent the smoke of sacrifices heavenward, many believed that they were literally feeding supernatural beings. In time, in most religions, the rationale changed—the gods didn’t need feeding so much as they needed signs of devotion and penance. The residual child sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible (yes it is there) typically has this function. Christianity’s persistent focus on blood atonement—the notion of Jesus as the be-all-end-all lamb without blemish, the final “propitiation” for human sin—is hopefully the last iteration of humanity’s long fascination with blood sacrifice.

Hell – Whether we are talking about Christianity, Islam or Buddhism, an afterlife filled with demons, monsters, and eternal torture was the worst suffering that Iron Age minds could conceive and medieval minds could elaborate. Invented, perhaps, as a means to satisfy the human desire for justice, the concept of Hell quickly devolved into a tool for coercing behavior and belief.

Most Buddhists see hell as a metaphor, a journey into the evil inside the self, but the descriptions of torturing monsters  and levels of hell can be quite explicit. Likewise, many Muslims and Christians hasten to assure that it is a real place, full of fire and the anguish of non-believers. Some Christians have gone so far as to insist that the screams of the damned can be heard from the center of the Earth or that observing their anguish from afar will be one of the pleasures of paradise.

Karma – Like hell, the concept of karma offers a selfish incentive for good behavior—it’ll come back at you later—but it has enormous costs. Chief among these is a tremendous weight of cultural passivity in the face of harm and suffering. Secondarily, the idea of karma sanctifies the broad human practice of blaming the victim. If what goes around comes around, then the disabled child or cancer patient or untouchable poor (or the hungry rabbit or mangy dog) must have done something in this or a previous life to bring their position on themselves.

Eternal Life – To our weary and unwashed ancestors, the idea of gem encrusted walls, streets of gold, the fountain of youth, or an eternity of angelic chorus (or sex with virgins) may have seemed like sheer bliss. But it doesn’t take much analysis to realize how quickly eternal paradise would become hellish—an endless repetition of never changing groundhog days (because how could they change if they were perfect).

The real reason that the notion of eternal life is such a bad invention, though, is the degree to which it diminishes and degrades existence on this earthly plane. With eyes lifted heavenward, we can’t see the intricate beauty beneath our feet. Devout believers put their spiritual energy into preparing for a world to come rather than cherishing and stewarding the one wild and precious world we have been given.

Male Ownership of Female Fertility – The notion of women as brood mares or children as assets likely didn’t originate with religion, but the idea that women were created for this purpose, that if a woman should die of childbearing “she was made to do it,” most certainly did. Traditional religions variously assert that men have a god-ordained right to give women in marriage, take them in war, exclude them from heaven, and kill them if the origins of their offspring can’t be assured. Hence Catholicism’s maniacal obsession with the virginity of Mary and female martyrs. Hence Islam’s maniacal obsession with covering the female body. Hence Evangelical promise rings, and gender segregated sidewalks in Jerusalem and orthodox Jewish women wearing wigs over shaved heads in New York.

As we approach the limits of our planetary life support system and stare dystopia in the face, defining women as breeders and children as assets becomes ever more costly. We now know that resource scarcity is a conflict trigger and that demand for water and arable land is growing even as both resources decline. And yet, a pope who claims to care about the desperate poor lectures them against contraception while Muslim leaders ban vasectomies in a drive to outbreed their enemies.

Bibliolatry (aka Book Worship) – Preliterate people handed down their best guesses about gods and goodness by way of oral tradition, and they made objects of stone and wood, idols, to channel their devotion. Their notions of what was good and what was Real and how to live in moral community with each other were free to evolve as culture and technology changed. But the advent of the written word changed that. As our Iron Age ancestors recorded and compiled their ideas into sacred texts, these texts allowed their understanding of gods and goodness to become static. The sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam forbid idol worship, but over time the texts themselves became idols, and many modern believers practice—essentially—book worship, also known as bibliolatry.

“Because the faith of Islam is perfect, it does not allow for any innovations to the religion,” says one young Muslim explaining his faith online. His statement betrays a naïve lack of information about the origins of his own dogmas. But more broadly, it sums up the challenge all religions face moving forward. Imagine if a physicist said, “Because our understanding of physics is perfect, it does not allow for any innovations to the field.”

 Adherents who think their faith is perfect, are not just naïve or ill informed. They are developmentally arrested, and in the case of the world’s major religions, they are anchored to the Iron Age, a time of violence, slavery, desperation and early death.

Ironically, the mindset that our sacred texts are perfect betrays the very quest that drove our ancestors to write those texts. Each of the men who wrote part of the Bible, Quran, or Gita took his received tradition, revised it, and offered his own best articulation of what is good and real. We can honor the quest of our spiritual ancestors, or we can honor their answers, but we cannot do both.

Religious apologists often try to deny, minimize, or explain away the sins of scripture and the evils of religious history. “It wasn’t really slavery.” “That’s just the Old Testament.” “He didn’t mean it that way.” “You have to understand how bad their enemies were.” “Those people who did harm in the name of God weren’t real [Christians/Jews/Muslims].” Such platitudes may offer comfort, but denying problems doesn’t solve them. Quite the opposite, in fact. Change comes with introspection and insight, a willingness to acknowledge our faults and flaws while still embracing our strengths and potential for growth.

In a world that is teeming with humanity, armed with pipe bombs and machine guns and nuclear weapons and drones, we don’t need defenders of religion’s status quo—we need real reformation, as radical as that of the 16th Century and much, much broader. It is only by acknowledging religion’s worst ideas that we have any hope of embracing the best. 

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Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel.  Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.


10 Reasons Christian Heaven Would Actually Be Hell

Perhaps descriptions of hell are so horrific to keep people from thinking about how hellish popular versions of the Christian Heaven would be.
Most Westerners are at least vaguely familiar with the popular Christian version of Heaven: pearly gates, streets of gold, winged angels and the Righteous, with their bodies made perfect and immortal, singing the praises of God forever. What’s surprising is how few people have actually thought about what a nightmare this kind of existence would be.

Let me start by laying out a bit more detail about what Heaven is supposed to be.

Our familiar images of Heaven come from texts written in the first and second centuries and incorporated by the Catholic Church into what we now call the New Testament. The Hebrew writers of the Torah alluded to an afterlife much like the Hades of the Greeks and Romans—a hazy underworld in which the souls of the dead neither die nor fully live. But by the time the New Testament was written, the concepts of a distinct Heaven and hell had emerged in the Jewish culture, from whence they entered early Christianity and then, later, Islam.

The books of the New Testament were written at different times and for different ends, which means they don’t always agree. Although Paul, in 1 Corinthians, says that Heaven is beyond imagining, other writers offer concrete details. The popular version of Heaven today is a composite that comes from several texts but relies heavily on the book of Revelation.

  • Heaven is a real place. The writer of John puts these words in the mouth of Jesus, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3NRSV). Some Christian leaders use verses from Old Testament prophets to pinpoint the location of Heaven, suggesting that it is somewhere beyond the North Pole.
  • People in Heaven have bodies. The earliest Christian texts, the letters of Paul, suggest that the eternal body is pneuma or spirit, but later New Testament writers inclined toward physical resurrection of both Jesus and believers, though with renewed bodies. This view was affirmed by Church fathers and is now the predominant Christian belief. From this we get the Evangelical belief that in the “End Times” bodies of believers will rise up to Heaven in a Rapture. This belief in a bodily resurrection is even used to explain why Christian women should keep their bodies “pure.”
  • Trappings of wealth abound. Many translations of the Gospel of John say that the dwelling places in Heaven are mansions, which fits with other descriptions of heavenly opulence. In the book of Revelation, the writer is taken in a vision to glimpse Heaven for himself: “And the foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all manner of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, a chalcedony; the fourth, an emerald; The fifth, sardonyx; the sixth, sardius; the seventh, chrysolyte; the eighth, beryl; the ninth, a topaz; the tenth, a chrysoprasus; the eleventh, a jacinth; the twelfth, an amethyst. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls: every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass.” (Revelation 21). God sits on an ornate throne, and along with crowns, the heavenly hosts are clothed in white, a symbol of purity and a reminder that they do not need to work.
  • Heaven is eternal and reserved for believers. The Bible verse that is most quoted by Protestant Christians is John 3:16, which makes both of these points: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. The author of Revelation assures that, “he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Revelation 21:4). In this eternity, it is always light and there is no need for sleep.
  • Children who die before an “age of accountability” also go there. Despite the belief that children are born bad, thanks to “original sin,” many Christians believe that children who die young go to Heaven because the alternative is simply unthinkable. For evidence, they point to two verses in the book of Matthew: “So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Matthew 18:14). “But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matthew 19:14). Although Christians have disagreed over the centuries about when a budding human acquires an immortal soul, many now believe this happens in the process of conception.
  • Inhabitants spend their “time” serving and worshipping God. Even though it is always light, we are told that the saints (meaning the saved) will serve and worship God round the clock. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them (Revelation 7:15). Several passages suggest that the faithful will receive crowns, which they can then offer up as gifts to God. Some take this literally and some do not.

Please note that I have made no attempt to analyze or explain what these passages may have meant in their original contexts, given the objectives of the writers. My purpose is to demonstrate where modern Christianity got the image of Heaven so often depicted in hymns, sermons, art and pop culture.

Why This Heaven Would Be Hellish

To many people the biblical description alone is enough to make Heaven sound unappealing, especially if you add in the company of noxious public figures like Pat Robertson, Mel Gibson, Sarah Palin, Ken Ham, or Anita Bryant. (Why does God have such a bad marketing department?) But the problem isn’t just bad company. The closer you look, the more the Bible’s version of paradise seems like another version of eternal torture. Let me spell it out.

1. Perfection means sameness. Much of what makes life worth living is the process of learning and discovery, growth and change. We delight in novelty and laugh when we are startled by the unexpected. Curiosity is one of our greatest pleasures, and growth is one of our deepest values and satisfactions. In fact, our whole psychological makeup is designed for tuning in to change, including our senses. When a sound is continuous, we mostly stop hearing it; a static image on the eye registers as a blind spot. Even art relies on imperfection and newness to create beauty or to trigger our aesthetic sense.

By contrast, timeless perfection is static, as Christians are reminded in the traditional hymn, “Immortal, Invisible God Only Wise”: We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree/And wither and perish but naught changeth Thee. In the book of Matthew, Jesus commands, “Be ye perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect,” and in Heaven, supposedly, this ideal is finally attained. The problem is, perfect means finished and complete. It means there’s no room for improvement—for change and growth. Perfection is sterile, in every sense of the word.

2. Your best qualities are irrelevant.If everything is perfect, then many of the qualities we most value in ourselves and each other become irrelevant. Compassion and generosity are pointless, because nobody is hurting or in need of anything. Forgiveness? Not needed. Creativity? Courage? Resilience? Decisiveness? Vision? All useless. Sigmund Freud once said that mental health is the ability to love and to work, but in the state of perfection both lose their meaning. There is no need to create or produce, and little value in offering our affection and commitment to another person who is 100 percent perfect and complete without us.

3. Gone is the thrill of risk.In addition to loving and creating, some of life’s most exhilarating experiences require risk: flying down a ski slope almost out of control, jumping out of airplanes, racing cars, surfing, performing. The adrenaline rush—the high—and the euphoria afterwards surge only because, despite our skill and preparation, there was some chance we would fail.

4. Forget physical pleasures like food, drink, sleep, and sex. Does the risen Jesus with his new and perfect body have a penis? Do angels? Eating, drinking, or fornicating—each of these physical pleasures depends on hunger of one sort or another. Ice water tastes most heavenly when you are hot and thirsty. Falling asleep is most delicious when you simply can’t stand to be vertical any longer. The reality is that our bodies and brains are made for each other and optimized for life on this planet where our pleasures are linked to survival.

To make matters more complicated, we are predators in a complex web of life. The eating that gives us so much sensory pleasure and sustenance simultaneously destroys other lives and creates waste. Christians disagree about whether there will be meals in Heaven. Some point to “feasting” in the book of Revelation and reassure foodies that eating and drinking will be part of paradise. But none dare speculate on the perfect slaughterhouse and sewer.

5. Free will ceases to exist. Some Christians explain the presence of suffering and evil here on earth as God’s way of creating creatures who would love him freely—by giving them the option to reject him. But that is exactly the opposite condition they predict in Heaven. In Heaven there is no sin, no option to sin, and so, by Christianity’s own definition, no free will. (Some skeptics point out that “love me or I’ll torture you forever” doesn’t exactly create the conditions for genuine love either. Why, they ask, would a god who wants love to be freely given threaten us with hell, even if it existed? But that is a different article.) Philosophers and neuroscientists debate whether free will is real or merely and adaptive illusion. Either way, in the Bible’s version of Heaven, even the illusion vanishes.

6.  Ninety-eight percent of Heaven’s occupants are embryos and toddlers. Human reproduction is designed as a big funnel. Most fertilized eggs die before implanting, followed by embryos and fetuses that self-abort, followed by babies and then little kids. A serious but startling statistical analysis by researcher Greg S. Paul suggests that if we include the “unborn,” more than 98 percent of Heaven’s inhabitants, some 350 billion, would be those who died before maturing to the point that they could voluntarily “accept the gift of salvation.” The vast majority of the heavenly host would be moral automatons or robots, meaning they never had moral autonomy and never chose to be there. Christian believers, ironically, would be a 1 to 2 percent minority even if all 30,000-plus denominations of believers actually made it in.

The theological implications are huge. Christian theologians typically explain evil by arguing that this was the best of all possible worlds, the only way to create free will and to develop moral virtues (like courage, compassion, forgiveness and so forth), to make us more Christ-like and prepare us for Heaven. But if we run the numbers, it appears that God didn’t need the whole free will—sin—redemption thing to fill his paradise with perfect beings because no suffering, evil, or moral freedom is actually required as a prelude to glory.

The ratio of adults to embryos has social implications as well. Pastoral counselors sometimes tell a women she will get to apologize in Heaven to the fetus she aborted, which will be a fully developed person there. As a psychologist, I don’t know what this means, because the brain and mind, our individuality and identity—our personhood—develop only via experience. Imagine if 98 percent of the “people” around you had never made a decision or felt sorrow or experienced anything akin to an adult conversationThe company of Mr. Robertson starts sounding not so bad.

7. Gems and streets of gold define heavenly wealth and beauty.Our desperate, goat-herding Iron Age ancestors may have yearned for the trappings of royalty. They may have heard rumors of the gold and jewels amassed by Pharaohs or kings or tribal warlords and wished the same for themselves. Both greed and inequality are timeless, and the story of King Midas has played out in countless variations over the millennia. So, the fascination of the Bible writers with gold and precious stones is understandable.

But let’s be honest. Their gem-encrusted paradise is the product of limited imagination, an inability to dream beyond the arts, technologies, and mythologies of their own culture. The Bible’s version of paradise is like a velvet painting from a tourist shop when compared to an alpine meadow or cloud forest or coral reef (or when compared to a world that contains all three as Tracy Chapman does in her song, Heaven’s Here on Earth).

8. Take your pick of sadism or ignorance. One of Heaven’s dirty little secrets is that it co-exists with hell. Or maybe it isn’t a secret. Maybe it’s a perk. Some theologians have argued that witnessing the torment of the damned will be one of the joys of paradise. In the words of Puritan superstar Jonathon Edwards, who preached a whole sermon on the topic:

When the saints in glory, therefore, shall see the doleful state of the damned, how will this heighten their sense of the blessedness of their own state, so exceedingly different from it! When they shall see how miserable others of their fellow creatures are, who were naturally in the same circumstances with themselves; when they shall see the smoke of their torment, and the raging of the flames of their burning, and hear their dolorous shrieks and cries, and consider that they in the meantime are in the most blissful state, and shall surely be in it to all eternity; how will they rejoice!

If we are to believe the earnest Christian hate mail that Bonnie Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation has compiled into a book, or “love letters” read aloud by biologist Richard Dawkins (watching him struggle with the word biatch is priceless!), at least some of the faithful can hardly wait for the show to start.

Many Christians, to be fair, find this thought horrifying, and some teach universal salvation or that evildoers are simply annihilated. But for hell-believers the alternatives to gloating aren’t a whole lot better: Either the faithful are blessedly blissfully indifferent to the endless suffering of the damned, or their joy depends on them being unaware, meaning ignorance is a condition of their eternal bliss.

9. Your celestial day (and night) job is to sing God’s praises. What do the faithful do in Heaven? The same thing the angels do. They worship God and sing his praises. The writer of Revelation even offers us a sample song. In one passage, 24 elders “fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Revelation 4:10-110).

As one graduate of Evangel College (Assemblies of God) observed wryly, “Having spent some time in N. Korea, where the incessant praise music and propaganda were required and all-pervasive, I sometimes wonder if the dynastic leaders there somehow lifted a page from an older playbook.”

It has been said that the only god worthy of worship is one who neither wants nor needs it. What are we to think of a deity who creates the earth and her inhabitants—in fact the entire universe—so a few bipedal primates, most of whom were never born, can spend an afterlife in this posture of praise and adulation?

10. This Heaven goes on foreverMost of us would prefer to live longer than the time allotted to us. Aging sucks, and losing a loved one is one of the most painful wounds we can experience.

But forever? Forever is infinity. It never ends. Think of the best possible experience you can imagine—your favorite symphony or rock concert, the most beautiful place you’ve traveled, the most intimate or intense sex ever, holding your child…any one of them, stretched to infinity becomes unthinkable.

Fiction writers who seriously explore the idea of immortality rarely treat it as something to be desired, and for good reason. Even kids grasp the problems, for example, when they read Tuck Everlasting. Author Edgar Shoaff put it bluntly: Immortality—a fate worse than death. The movie Groundhog Day is a comedy. But part of what’s funny for viewers is the insane array of suicide attempts Bill Murray makes in order to stop living the same day over and over. What might an inhabitant of the Heaven I’ve just described do to cease existing?

Could an omnipotent god create an afterlife that was actually some form of paradise? Perhaps. And without a doubt pained Bible believers who read this article will insist that their God has done just that. Some will fall back on the words of Paul and claim, on biblical authority, that they (and I) have no idea what Heaven will be like—other than eternally wonderful.

But the fact is, Christians for centuries have claimed that they do have an idea of what Heaven will be like. New Testament writers, Church fathers, monks, iconographers, crusaders, inquisitors, reformers, conquistadors, missionaries, priests, nuns, Sunday school teachers, pulpit pounders, faith healers, televangelists, Internet wonders…for almost two millennia Bible believers have sought to entice small childrenthe desperate poor and the trusting by promising the kind of debased, tawdry everlasting life described above. They still do today. Selling shares in this Heaven is a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Crowns and white robes and streets of gold and angelic choruses are Christianity’s carrot, with the threat of eternal torture as the stick. Millions of people have lived and died, fearing one and anticipating the other, never noticing the sleight of hand—that they are two versions of the same thing.


AI Has Arrived, and That Really Worries the World’s Brightest Minds
robots-AI-crop On the first Sunday afternoon of 2015, Elon Musk took to the stage at a closed-door conference at a Puerto Rican resort to discuss an intelligence explosion. This slightly scary theoretical term refers to an uncontrolled hyper-leap in the cognitive ability of AI that Musk and physicist Stephen Hawking worry could one day spell doom for the human race. That someone of Musk’s considerable public stature was addressing an AI ethics conference—long the domain of obscure academics—was remarkable. But the conference, with the optimistic title “The Future of AI: Opportunities and Challenges,” was an unprecedented meeting of the minds that brought academics like Oxford AI ethicist Nick Bostrom together with industry bigwigs like Skype founder Jaan Tallinn and Google AI expert Shane Legg. Musk and Hawking fret over an AI apocalypse, but there are more immediate threats. In the past five years, advances in artificial intelligence—in particular, within a branch of AI algorithms called deep neural networks—are putting AI-driven products front-and-center in our lives. Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Baidu, to name a few, are hiring artificial intelligence researchers at an unprecedented rate, and putting hundreds of millions of dollars into the race for better algorithms and smarter computers. AI problems that seemed nearly unassailable just a few years ago are now being solved. Deep learning has boosted Android’s speech recognition, and given Skype Star Trek-like instant translation capabilities. Google is building self-driving cars, and computer systems that can teach themselves to identify cat videos. Robot dogs can now walk very much like their living counterparts. “Things like computer vision are starting to work; speech recognition is starting to work There’s quite a bit of acceleration in the development of AI systems,” says Bart Selman, a Cornell professor and AI ethicist who was at the event with Musk. “And that’s making it more urgent to look at this issue.” Given this rapid clip, Musk and others are calling on those building these products to carefully consider the ethical implications. At the Puerto Rico conference, delegates signed an open letter pledging to conduct AI research for good, while “avoiding potential pitfalls.” Musk signed the letter too. “Here are all these leading AI researchers saying that AI safety is important,” Musk said yesterday. “I agree with them.”

Google Gets on Board

Nine researchers from DeepMind, the AI company that Google acquired last year, have also signed the letter. The story of how that came about goes back to 2011, however. That’s when Jaan Tallinn introduced himself to Demis Hassabis after hearing him give a presentation at an artificial intelligence conference. Hassabis had recently founded the hot AI startup DeepMind, and Tallinn was on a mission. Since founding Skype, he’d become an AI safety evangelist, and he was looking for a convert. The two men started talking about AI and Tallinn soon invested in DeepMind, and last year, Google paid $400 million for the 50-person company. In one stroke, Google owned the largest available talent pool of deep learning experts in the world. Google has kept its DeepMind ambitions under wraps—the company wouldn’t make Hassabis available for an interview—but DeepMind is doing the kind of research that could allow a robot or a self-driving car to make better sense of its surroundings. That worries Tallinn, somewhat. In a presentation he gave at the Puerto Rico conference, Tallinn recalled a lunchtime meeting where Hassabis showed how he’d built a machine learning system that could play the classic ’80s arcade game Breakout. Not only had the machine mastered the game, it played it a ruthless efficiency that shocked Tallinn. While “the technologist in me marveled at the achievement, the other thought I had was that I was witnessing a toy model of how an AI disaster would begin, a sudden demonstration of an unexpected intellectual capability,” Tallinn remembered. Deciding the dos and don’ts of scientific research is the kind of baseline ethical work that molecular biologists did during the 1975 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA, where they agreed on safety standards designed to prevent manmade genetically modified organisms from posing a threat to the public. The Asilomar conference had a much more concrete result than the Puerto Rico AI confab. At the Puerto Rico conference, attendees signed a letter outlining the research priorities for AI—study of AI’s economic and legal effects, for example, and the security of AI systems. And yesterday, Elon Musk kicked in $10 million to help pay for this research. These are significant first steps toward keeping robots from ruining the economy or generally running amok. But some companies are already going further. Last year, Canadian roboticists Clearpath Robotics promised not to build autonomous robots for military use. “To the people against killer robots: we support you,” Clearpath Robotics CTO Ryan Gariepy wrote on the company’s website. Pledging not to build the Terminator is but one step. AI companies such as Google must think about the safety and legal liability of their self-driving cars, whether robots will put humans out of a job, and the unintended consequences of algorithms that would seem unfair to humans. Is it, for example, ethical for Amazon to sell products at one price to one community, while charging a different price to a second community? What safeguards are in place to prevent a trading algorithm from crashing the commodities markets? What will happen to the people who work as bus drivers in the age of self-driving vehicles?

To the people against killer robots: we support you.

Itamar Arel is the founder of Binatix, a deep learning company that makes trades on the stock market. He wasn’t at the Puerto Rico conference, but he signed the letter soon after reading it. To him, the coming revolution in smart algorithms and cheap, intelligent robots needs to be better understood. “It is time to allocate more resources to understanding the societal impact of AI systems taking over more blue-collar jobs,” he says. “That is a certainty, in my mind, which will take off at a rate that won’t necessarily allow society to catch up fast enough. It is definitely a concern.” Predictions of a destructive AI super-mind may get the headlines, but it’s these more prosaic AI worries that need to be addressed within the next few years, says Murray Shanahan, a professor of cognitive robotics with Imperial College in London. “It’s hard to predict exactly what’s going on, but we can be pretty sure that they are going to affect society.”


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The blessed bomb; was delivered in a mission blessed by a Christian-Catholic priest in a bombing that decimated and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of men, women and children.

Remembering US barbarism that slaughtered over 300,000 civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Kate Hudson


The city of Hiroshima stands on a flat river delta on the Japanese island of Honshu.

At quarter past eight on the morning of 6 August 1945, the US plane Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on the city centre, a busy residential and business district, crowded with people going about their daily business.

The bomb, called ‘Little Boy’ because of its long, thin shape, was made from uranium 235. Unimpeded by hills or natural features to limit the blast, the fireball created by that single bomb destroyed 13 square kilometres of the city.

The heart of the explosion reached a temperature of several million degrees centigrade, resulting in a heat flash over a wide area, vapourising all human tissue. Within a radius of half a mile of the centre of the blast, every person was killed.

All that was left of people caught out in the open were their shadows burnt into stone.

Beyond this central area, people were killed by the heat and blast waves, either out in the open or inside buildings collapsing and bursting into flame.

In this area the immediate death rate was over 90 per cent. The firestorm created hurricane-force winds, spreading and intensifying the fire.

Almost 63 per cent of the buildings of Hiroshima were completely destroyed and nearly 92 per cent of the structures in the city were either destroyed or damaged by the blast and fire.

The total number of deaths was hard to establish, but at least 75,000 died in the first hours after the bomb was dropped, with around 140,000 dead by December 1945.

The death toll reached around 200,000 by the end of 1950.

Many of those who survived the immediate blast died shortly afterwards from fatal burns. Others with possibly less-fatal injuries died because of the breakdown of rescue and medical services, much of which had been destroyed, with personnel themselves killed.

Within two or three days, radiation victims who were near the hypocentre developed symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, bloody diarrhoea and hair loss. Most died within a week. Radiation victims further away from the explosion developed symptoms one to four weeks after the explosion.

Pregnant women who survived the bomb faced additional horrors, for the bomb had a terrible impact on a foetus. Many were stillborn, but those born alive faced higher infant mortality rates than normal, or had abnormally small skulls, often suffering from mental disabilities. From about 1960 a higher rate of cancer became evident, in particular of the thyroid, breast, lung and salivary gland.

Radiation is known to cause many types of cancer, and Japanese scientific research has now shown a direct correlation between the distance from the atomic bomb hypocentre, the probable exposure dose of radiation and cancer rates.

Conventional wisdom – especially in the US – about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and three days later on Nagasaki, is that it was necessary in order to bring about a speedy conclusion to the war and save lives. Even today many people genuinely believe that the bomb was necessary to bring about a Japanese surrender and to avoid the need for an invasion of Japan by the US, which might have cost hundreds of thousands of lives. But extensive scholarly research in the US, using primary sources from the time, shows that this just wasn’t true.

By the time the bomb was ready for use, Japan was ready to surrender. As General Dwight Eisenhower said, ‘Japan was at that very moment seeking some way to surrender with minimum loss of face. It was not necessary to hit them with that awful thing.’

So if Japan was ready to surrender, why were atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? A significant factor in the decision to bomb was the US’s desire to establish its dominance in the region after the war. Those planning for the postwar situation believed that this required US occupation of Japan, enabling it to establish a permanent military presence, shape its political and economic system and dominate the Pacific region without fear of Japanese resurgence. But Japanese resurgence was no longer the US’s key strategic concern; its main concern, above all, was the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union was the US’s wartime ally against Germany. But ultimately, of course, their economic systems were incompatible; the US would not accept that any part of the world economy should be closed to it and those seeking an alternative to the market economic model of the US tended to look to the Soviet Union. This looming antagonism was heightened by the increased power and prestige of the Soviet Union following its role in breaking the back of Germany’s military machine. The US consequently wished to prevent a Soviet advance in Asia and subsequent Soviet influence on Japan.

One is forced to conclude that the US wanted to demonstrate its unique military power – its possession of the atomic bomb – in order to gain political and diplomatic advantage over the Soviet Union in the postwar settlement in both Asia and Europe.

Whilst many leading US politicians, diplomats and military figures thought it unnecessary to bomb Japan, the group around the US’s president at the time, Harry S Truman, pressed strongly for it. Secretary of War Stimson, for example, described the atom bomb as the ‘master card’ in US diplomacy towards the Soviet Union.

Other claims made by the US to try to further justify the use of the bomb have also been shown to be false. For example, it was claimed that the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were warned, by the dropping of leaflets, what was going to happen and urged to evacuate the cities. This is simply not true. Evidence shows that the decision was taken at the highest level not to give any prior warning. Leaflets were dropped on Japanese cities, but they were dropped after the atomic bombings, warning that further resistance would be useless.

It was also claimed that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were legitimate military targets. Again, this just wasn’t true. Hiroshima was home to the Japanese Second Army HQ, but it was primarily a big city with a huge civilian population. About 10,000 of the total 200,000 deaths in Hiroshima were military personnel. Nagasaki had no military units and, of the total 140,000 deaths there, only about 150 were military. In total, over 95 per cent of the combined casualties of the two cities were civilian.

As well as securing political, diplomatic and military advantages for itself, the US also secured the otherwise impossible opportunity of testing its nuclear weapons on human beings, and determining their impact on buildings and other materials. The US was also able to monitor the impacts of radiation on humans in a way that would otherwise have been impossible. In dropping two bombs, one of uranium and one of plutonium, in different physical settings, a variety of effects could be tested.

As the decades pass since the terrible war crimes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we must never forget what happened and the cynical and barbaric opportunism of the US in using those weapons.


Woman’s Attempt To Troll Liberals Backfires When Someone Notices This Disturbing Similarity

By Jameson Parker
 

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Holly Fisher, a conservative Christian, has been getting insane amounts of attention recently by trolling liberals on social media over the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. Unfortunately, she tried to up the ante one too many times and now she has unintentionally become the living symbol of how fundamentalism, no matter in what religion, looks disturbingly similar.

After gaining internet fame for posing for a “conservative hat trick” by standing in front of a Hobby Lobby wearing a pro-life t-shirt and drinking out of a Chick-fil-a cup, Fisher wanted to find her next big political statement. Fisher’s fans had apparently been telling her that just standing in front of Hobby Lobby wasn’t good enough. The astute patriots noted that the most important aspects of being an American – guns, the Bible and the American flag – were conspicuously absent. Assuming she could get a further rise out of the liberals she hates so much, Fisher quickly tweeted a new photo to prove just how patriotic she was.

screenshot-twitter com 2014-07-06 14-09-11

While many of her followers fawned over the latest “suck it, Liberals!” tweet, one user noticed how creepy the photo was if you stopped to think about it.

This prompted someone to post the obvious comparison: Fisher’s picture next to an almost identical picture of a young woman holding a similar rifle, in front of a Islamic flag and clutching the Quran. Even their crooked smiles are exactly the same. It’s uncanny.image1-500x321Fisher, a self-described “Second Amendment supporting mother of three and wife of a military combat veteran” is an amazing reminder that had she been born in a different place in the world with a different religion she would proudly be standing up for Islam and not Christianity. Fundamentalism knows no national borders. See, we aren’t so different after all – even in our extremism.


Pakistanis: the keepers of religion

What is it that makes Pakistanis, normal day-to-day Pakistanis, want to be the main keepers of Islam?

A few months back, an incident happened in a UAE mosque, where a non-Muslim woman stormed into it wearing her shoes and ripped a poster that had a prayer on it and threw it in the dustbin. A Pakistani man, who probably felt like the world had ended, went to the Imam of the mosque and complained to him about what had happened.The Imam assured him he would deal with it. When he didn’t do anything for a day, the Pakistani went back to him and insisted he call the police and again was told that he would do what was to be done and he need not worry about it. After a few days when the Imam did nothing, as neither his world had ended nor had his religion, the Pakistani took the matter into his own hands and went to the woman’s workplace and stabbed her multiple times to death.

The imam of the mosque, the actual keeper of religion there, as well as everyone else brushed it aside not giving it much importance, but the Pakistani was not able to. He had to kill her to punish her, to save his religion.

A simpler less violent example – I, along with a few family members visited the white marble (tourist infested) Sheikh Zayed mosque a little while back. At the steps outside of the mosque, where the road was, I was taking a picture and a Pakistani guard put his hand in front of my camera, stating I could not take the picture unless my hair was covered. I won’t even talk about the logic here about covering hair and taking a picture in which I was not even in. He then proceeded to tell a family member that she would need to wear an abaya because he could see her wrists.

Please note, that other non Pakistani guards were doing their actual job, guarding the place and not staring at all the women ogling at what parts were showing or not. The family member was forced to go where they give free abayas to the ‘inappropriately’ dressed.She was sent back by the Arab person in charge, who said that her clothes were perfectly fine as were her barely visible wrists.

This is outside of Pakistan where they don’t even have that much “power.” Inside of Pakistan, things are so out of control that anyone can do anything and get away with it.

However, there is a quiet uprising hero, referred to by newspapers and people alike as a charismatic lawyer who is taking the Taliban head on.

Muhammad Jibran Nasir, I beg to differ; is not only taking the Taliban head on but also the very mindset of Pakistanis that lets people like Maulana runaway Burqa (Abdul Aziz) live securely in our society. The mindset that makes excuses for atrocities that people commit, the mindset that justifies murders, the mindset that puts one’s religion above everything else, even humanity.

This is no easy task. Historically, most people in Pakistan who have opened their mouth to speak up for others have ended up being killed. Salman Taseer was shot by his own guard 33 times. Mumtaz Qadri, his murderer was deemed a hero and to this day enjoys the status of one, even behind bars. Lawyers showered him with flowers, people who scream against all ‘western influences’ sent him Valentine cards as well as roses with notes declaring their never ending love.  But then, everyone knows this already.

Four years on, candlelight vigil was held on Sunday in Lahore in Taseer’s memory, and fans of Mumtaz Qadri attacked it.

The savage mindset still going strong.

Jibran Nasir, in spite of everything,has managed to get an FIR issued against Maulana Runway Burqa but he is yet to be arrested. With scores of proof of support for terrorism available, this man still remains free and goes about as he wishes. Clearly, he has powerful friends.

The Taliban on the other hand, have taken note of Jibran Nasir, and are obviously threatened by him – enough to start sending him threats on his telephone.

They are the Taliban, and this is but to be expected of the cowards but going back to the mindset, what of the normal people like you and me, who are cursing him and what he is doing? They are deliberately and falsely labeling Jibran as an Ahmadi or a kafiron social media as well as everywhere else, knowing quite well that being branded either (or a Shia) is good enough as signing a death warrant in Pakistan. These labels (even if they are just on social media) make the person vulnerable and open prey for all who wish to do God’s (or their own version of God) work.

This is the first time, at least that I can remember that people have come out on the streets to speak up so openly against terrorists, all thanks to Jibran Nasir.  So there is no surprise here, that there is even a hashtag #HangJibranNasir being shown all over by those who wish to see Pakistan destroyed under extremism and terrorism. And regular people are sharing it with triumphant fists in the air.

Even a small video of his invokes the same response. I posted one on Facebook and was bombarded by messages from random people calling me a kafir.

Keeping all this in mind, Jibran Nasir has a long and dangerous journey ahead of him, but he is the one person who has gotten hold of the horns that everyone else was scared to even mention let alone grab. Even if not much changes, he is still opening our eyes to what we have become as a society.


Christianity Is A Sick Death Cult

Christopher Hitchens
Christianity is often criticised as a death cult, with its preoccupation with suffering, torture, death, relics (human remains) and hell. Its most central doctrines concern the torture and death of a man-god, and Roman Catholics still purport to eat his (real) flesh and drink his (real) blood. Its main emblem, the cross, worshipped like a holy saint, is an instrument of torture and death.

In churches around Europe you can find the miraculously preserved miracle-working relics of thousands of Christian martyrs and other saints. At least that is what devout Christians will tell you. According to many Christians, saints’ bodies do not decay like ordinary human bodies. They miraculous stay fresh and sweet indefinitely. One of the most curious aspects of this is that all of the remains shown off as “perfectly preserved” are at best mummified, and more often decomposed. Many of these “perfectly preserved” remains are skeletons with padded cloths, furnished with shoes, gloves and face masks.

St Theodosius, Basilica of Waldsassen

On Catholic websites you can easily find accounts of these perfectly preserved remains, moving, smiling and requiring regular attention for their hair and nails which continue to grow.

The Second Council of Nicaea in 787 decreed that every altar should contain a relic, and this requirement remains part of Church Law, in Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

Detractors say that these relics – often but not always the remains of dead people – are one of the main manifestations of necrophiliac practices, which appeal to a disturbingly large number of Christians. Dressing up dead bodies in gold and jewels and putting them on public display seems as best macabre, and at worst confirmation that Christianity is a cult of death with disturbing sexual overtones, evidenced by the strangely excited states of some devotees. Other Christian devotees even pay the dead-bodies money to do supernatural favours for them.

One of the more disturbing aspects of the cult of saints is the dismemberment of bodies for the members to be preserved or sometimes eaten by the devout. When Bishop Hugh of Lincoln chewed on a bone of Mary Magdelene preserved at Fecamp he was challenged by the guardians of the precious relic, and defended his action by saying that if he could eat Christ’s body [in the Catholic mass] then he could certainly chew on the Magdalen’s arm.

Devout and noble people often had their hearts removed after death, and those who cut them out often noted that these hearts had pictures engraved upon them, generally representing the things most dear to them in life. Sadly none of these pictures have survived on the perfectly preserved hearts of any of the saints, for whom this miracle was claimed. (So our only surviving reminder of the phenomenon is the often quoted claim of Bloody Mary that the word “Calais” would be found written on her heart after her death.

The question of whether relics have ever worked properly attested miracles is covered at Miracles, Revelation & Faith, but it is worth noting where many relics come from.

According to the Catholic Church many came from the Christian catacombs under Rome, and this is true as far as it goes. The Roman catacombs had been abandoned as burial sites and largely forgotten by the sixth century. They were rediscovered in 1578 by vineyard workers. This looked like a God-send as the Catholic Church was engaged in the Counter-Reformation and keen to promote the cult of relics. One of the areas of concern of the Council of Trent was affirming the efficacy and belief in relics against attacks by Protestant detractors. The bones in the catacombs were a treasure trove. The remains in the catacombs dated from the second to fifth centuries AD so it was possible, for Churchmen to imagine the bones as belonging to famous early Christian saints and martyrs. They correctly saw the cache of bones as the perfect tool to promote their power and wealth. The bones were removed, sold to willing buyers, dressed in gold, silver and jewels, and put on public display to attract the faithful.

Skull Cathedral in Otranto

What the Church is more reticent about is how we know whose remains they are. There was no way of knowing if they belonged to Christians or to pagans who had not been cremated (some but not all pagans were cremated). To find out who the bones belonged to Priests used psychic mediums, or acted as mediums themselves, or even used the services of psychic popes. The practice continued until the mid-19th century.

Churches in the German-speaking Alps, vied to obtain the sanctified skeletons, in mass quantities. The Diocese of Konstanz accumulated 120 of them in the 17th and 18th centuries. The pose and decoration of the bones was left to local churches, who used familiar methods to decide on poses and the extent of decoration – they simply asked the bones, again relying on psychic powers. Priests, nuns and other mediums communed with the bones, and the bones told them how they preferred to be posed and what they would like to wear. At St Gallen Monastery a team of nuns, prayed over the [second set of] remains of St Pancratius until they were rewarded by details of his preferred articulation, dress and jewels, though he neglected to mention that he had died at the age of 14 and was not, as they thought, a soldier. Sometimes the bones were more compliant. At the Basilica at Waldsassen, according to local records, the skeleton of St Maximus helpfully positioned itself.

For some reason, Catholic writers were reluctant to give specifics about psychically communing with bones in the catacombs, but SI Mahoney, a Catholic priest who left the Church, wrote an account of the process. He said that periodic trips were made to the catacombs, to augment the supply of relics. No one knew the identity of the skeletons, or even if the skeletons were those of Christians – hence the need for psychic communications.

Bone Monstrance, The Sedlec Ossuary (Czech: Kostnice v Sedlci) a Roman Catholic chapel, beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints, in Sedlec, a suburb of Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic.

A monstrance or ostensorium is a vessel used in Roman Catholic churches to display the consecrated Eucharistic host, during Eucharistic adoration or Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

Mahoney mentions that Pope Gregory XVI would descend into the catacombs accompanied by priests. There he would invoke the Holy Ghost, and read a prayer, “by which Divine assistance, and directions from on high, is sought for the performance of this… solemn duty. The Pope then casts his eyes around the confused mass of mouldering skeletons, and, as the whim may take him, calls this the body of saint such-a-one, another, the body of ‘Virgin some-other-one’ – and so on, till he is warned by his attendants that enough are now baptized… to serve for the present occasion. The rotten bones are then carefully collected, and, having been sprinkled with holy water, are placed in a chest prepared for that purpose, and carried in procession to the Vatican.” [SI Mahoney, Six Years in the Monasteries of Italy, and Two Years in the Islands of the Mediterranean and in Asia Minor, New York, 1836, pp261-262.]. Such exercises were immensely profitable, as the holy relics were then sold to the devout rich.

The psychic abilities of priests and popes were not always reliable. They identified bones as belonging to Christians they had heard of, but who had died and been buried elsewhere, or whose miracle-working skeletons were already being venerated, sometimes in several different places. Constantine the Great, for example, was buried in Constantinople, yet the bones of his second body were identified in the catacombs and are now working their miracles in Rott-am-Inn, a parochial church in Germany. The Church of St Nicholas in Wil in Switzerland, possesses skeleton of the third-century martyr St Pancratius, taken from the catacombs in the 17th century, even though the saint’s relics were already in the Basilica San Pancratio in Rome. The remains of St Deodatus declared their identity to a papal secretary in 1688, even though he had several other dead bodies already being venerated and working miracles elsewhere in Italy.

Perfectly preserved saintly bodies are becoming ever less accessible to the public, and even to the faithful. They can still be seen in a few traditionalist areas of Europe, most notably at the Papal Basilica of Waldsassen (Stiftsbasilika Waldsassen) – though it is notable that such locations have ceased to be widely advertised.

Mummy at Santa Maria della Grazie, Comiso, Sicily
By kind permission © Paul Koudounaris http://empiredelamort.com/

The Catholic Church is still keen on the cult of the dead, celebrated at the beginning of November in pre-Christian times. According to the current Catholic Enchiridion of Indulgences, one can apply a plenary indulgence to a departed soul by the “visitation of a cemetery” from November 1st to the 8th.:

13. Visit to a Cemetery (Coemeterii visitatio)

An indulgence, applicable only to the Souls in Purgatory, is granted to the faithful, who devoutly visit a cemetery and pray, even if only mentally, for the departed.

The indulgence is plenary each day from the 1st to the 8th of November; on other days of the year it is partial.

Most of this website is closely reasoned, but for the rest of this page, the pictures can speak for themselves. Catholics are encouraged to visit and venerate not just ordinary graves, but dead bodies and dismembered body parts.

Saint Ambrose, Milan – not quite perfectly preserved despite his great holiness

The perfectly preserved remains of St Francis Xavier in Goa in 2004
(The body is rumoured to be that of a Buddhist Monk dressed up,
Francis Xavier’s body having been buried as sea)
No DNA tests to establish the truth have been permitted

The perfectly preserved remains of St Francis Xavier in Goa
(His missing toes were bitten off by enthusiastic Christian pilgrims)

Chapel of Bones. Royal Church of St. Francis. Portugal

St Wenceslas at the Basilica in Stara Bolesav, outside Prague

Christians offer money to skulls to answer their prayers
The Sedlec Ossuary beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints, in Sedlec, a suburb of Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic.
By kind permission © Paul Koudounaris http://empiredelamort.com/

Painted Skulls. Hallstatt Ossuary. Hallstatt, Austria

St Maximus, Basilica of Waldsassen

Chiesa dei Morti, Urbino, Italy

The body of Pope Celestine V – his badly decomposed state concealed by gloves and a wax mask

Pope Celestine V again – note the wax mask and badly stuffed papal glove.

St Clemens, Church of SS Peter and Paul, Rott-am-Inn, Germany

The conveniently labelled and miraculously preserved skull of one of the many saints called St Valentine

The remains of John Neumann inside the glass altar of St. Peter of the Apostle Church in Philadelphia, USA
His skull is covered with a face mask. Evidently he is regarded as a suitable playmate for young children.

Monastery of Santa Maria della Concezione. Rome, Italy
By kind permission © Paul Koudounaris http://empiredelamort.com/

Another death cult – this is supposed to be the Skull of St Mary Magdelen
kept at La Sainte Baume, Diocese of Frejus-Toulon, Southern France.
It attracts thousands of pilgrims each year, and is sometimes taken on world tours

The Death mask of Martin Luther along with casts of his hands. Lutherans and other protestants do not recognise the veration of relics, so these gruesome artefacts are kept in a museum, not a Church.

The Ossuary of St. James’ Church. Brno, Czech Republic

The body of Cardinal Schuster in the Duomo, Milan

The perfectly preserved bodies of two virgins
Chapel of the Virgins, Monastery of Santa Maria della Pace, Palermo

The perfectly preserved hand of St James, kept in St. Peter’s Catholic Church, Marlow, England

These skeletons were recovered from the Roman catacombs, and identified as Christian martyrs by psychic Roman Catholic priests – and so might well not even be the skeletons of Christians at all
Basilica of Waldsassen

The perfectly preserved remains of Pope Paul XXIII
His skull is fitted with a wax mask

The Dead Lovers by Matthias Grünewald (1470 – 1528)

St Theodosius, Basilica of Waldsassen

Relics of St. Theodore of Tyro (known as St. Theodore of Amasea in the West)
Brindisi Greek Orthodox Church dedicated to St. Nicholas of Myra.

The Czermna Skull Chapel.
It is situated in Klodzko County, near Kudowa Zdrój, in the Lower Silesia, Poland.

The Sedlec Ossuary (Czech: Kostnice v Sedlci) a Roman Catholic chapel, beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints, in Sedlec, a suburb of Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic.

The Sedlec Ossuary (Czech: Kostnice v Sedlci) a Roman Catholic chapel, beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints, in Sedlec, a suburb of Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic.

Schwarzenberg Coat-of-Arms. The Sedlec Ossuary (Czech: Kostnice v Sedlci) a Roman Catholic chapel, beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints, in Sedlec, a suburb of Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic.

The Sedlec Ossuary (Czech: Kostnice v Sedlci) a Roman Catholic chapel, beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints, in Sedlec, a suburb of Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic.

Ossuary chapel (Capela dos Ossos), Campo Maior, Portugal
By kind permission © Paul Koudounaris http://empiredelamort.com/

Chiesa di San Bernardino alle Ossa

Ossuary (Osario), Custoza, Italy
By kind permission © Paul Koudounaris http://empiredelamort.com/

The skull of Pope Pius X, covered with a face mask

Teresa of Avila was cut into pieces by priests and bishops.
Here two nuns kiss her hand, preserved as a miracle-working relic.

The wax figure of St Victoria under the St Margaret Mary Altar at St. Mary’s Church in Kilkenny City, Ireland

Charnel house (Beinhaus = “bone-house”), Leuk, Switzerland)
By kind permission © Paul Koudounaris http://empiredelamort.com/

Family group in the catacombs,Santa Maria della Pace, Palermo, Sicily
Readers with stronger stomachs than the webmaster can look up the name “Rosalia Lombardo”
on Google for more about the death-cult at Santa Maria della Pace
By kind permission © Paul Koudounaris http://empiredelamort.com

Paris Catacombs
By kind permission © Paul Koudounaris http://empiredelamort.com

Mummy Chiesa dei Morti (Church of Death), Urbania, Italy
By kind permission © Paul Koudounaris http://empiredelamort.com

The remains of Pope Pius IX (d 1878) – acclaimed by the Church as being “almost perfectly conserved”

Saint Valerius, Weyarn, Germany
By kind permission © Paul Koudounaris http://empiredelamort.com

The body of the (fictitious) Saint Celia (or Celia) was so well preserved that it has been replaced by replicas. One is in plain marble, by Stefano Moderno (1599) in the Church of St. Cecilia, Trastevere, Rome.
The other, a polychrome replica, is shown below.

St Pancratius, Church of St Nicholas in Wil, Switzerland.
you can see his perfectly preserved body within his specially designed armour

Bible illustration by Gustave Dore, The Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14)

The Transi de René de Chalon, ou Monument du cœur (Monument of the Heart), a sculpture by Ligier Richier, carved around 1547. Today in the Church of Saint-Étienne de Bar-le-Duc

The perfectly preserved relics of Saint Anthony of Padua,
displayed in the Relics Chapel of the Basilica in Padua, Italy

Relics in the Church of St. Anselmo, Nin, Croatia. Less impressive relics are often kept in gold and silver containers shaped like the part of the saint’s body they allegedly contain

St Therese’s relics on tour in Britain,
being venerated in Westminster Cathedral, London, in October 2009

An example of Catholic “art”

Chiesa dei Morti, Urbino, Italy

Sacrifical and bleeding lambs are also popular

The perfectly preserved “Holy Right” hand of King Stephen I, St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest, Hungary

Saint Philip Neri, Chiesa Nuova, Rome

One of the many miraculously preserved heads of St. John the Baptist
This one is kept in the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Amiens

Santa Muerte Pieta

St. Valentin (Bad Schussenried, Germany)

The Kiss of Death Statue at the Old Graveyard of Poblenou in Barcelona

Saint Vincent de Paul, Chapelle Saint-Vincent-de-Paul (Paris, 6ème arrondissement)

Mourning Jesus, or mourning a normal family life?

St. Valentinus (Waldsassen, Germany)

St. Benedictus (Berg am Laim, Munich, Germany)

St. Deodatus (Rheinau, Swizterland)

St. Albertus (Burgrain, Germany)

St. Valerius (Weyarn, Germany)

St. Felix (Gars am Inn, Germany)

St. Vincentus (Stams, Austria)

St. Deodatus (Roggenburg, Germany)

St. Konstantious (Rorschach, Switzerland)

St. Maximus (Bürglen, Switzerland)

Familia de esqueletos (Family of Skeletons), c. 1800,
José López Enguídanos (Valencia, 1760 – Madrid, 1812)

Perfectly preserved nun?