“Communion of Pain”

These lyrics are from the forthcoming Misanthrophile album (or whatever we call collections of similar songs these days).


 She’s done with the day
Closed door and shades
Leave the world outside
The time away fails to pacify
Seclusion of thought tears her up inside
Fear of herself slowly petrifies

Please give me a good boyfriend

Deliver unto me a good boyfriend

No more alone
Yearning to atone
Abject, bound and prone
Burning she moans as blood pours
Of master and lord

Gulp this stuff down

Blood shots

 

Relieved by his pain
Freed by her own
His grief dominates her whole
Sustains her soul

Jesus suffering again - Copy

Vincent Desjardins. Wikimedia.

 

Bent down and restrained
Purpose to obey
To exchange disquietude of solitude
For the certitude of servitude

you know what you want - Copy

Clarence Risher. Wikimedia.

Most gracious and loving lord
I kneel down before you and ask that you lead me in my hour of loneliness
That you allow me to know your power and presence
Direct me in the midst of this storm
I need to feel full of the love you have for me
Lest I forget I am never alone because you are always near
I long to feel your holy spirit fill me with its full force and quiet my fear
All must happen according to your will, my almighty, all-seeing father
While I am but your weak and humble servant
I rejoice in my salvation though the blood, tears, and suffering of your only son
Amen

Jahsuz - Copy

You needed this… you’re welcome

Fantasized to satisfy
Invasively gratified
Subdued but dignified
Sadistically fortified

girl eats flesh - Copy

SM Sanchez. Wikimedia.

 

 

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2018. Lyrics 2015. All rights reserved.

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“Ritual” – Observing a Servile Culture

It’s a useless waste of time
Useless waste of time
Forms imposed change nothing
Why fool yourself with lies
To believe in something?
Useless waste of time
Why try?

The blind bind
To ritual games
Their fears pacified
In false security
You hide in your mind
Narcotic states of faith
Ordained thoughts to mirror
Immortality

Paint, pierce, remove, resize
Mindlessly mutilate and mime
Replay the paradigm
Paint, pierce, remove, resize, baptize

The grind designed
To stifle change
The years pass you by
In mock stability
You follow your tribe
Flaunting the flesh with marks of paint
Mindless masses grapple
With eternity

Right hand raised
Left on this book
So help me, God
An oath I took

Paint, pierce, remove, resize
Mindlessly mutilate and mime
Replay the paradigm
Paint, pierce, remove, resize, baptize

Don’t ask why
Reason denied
Why pray?
‘Cause it’s our way
Should I
Even reply?
Why pray
When it’s all the same?!

Lyrics © Joshua J. Reynolds 2014. All rights reserved.

“Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.” — Frederick Douglass (“The Hypocrisy of American Slavery”)

Frederick Douglass. Wikipedia.

Frederick Douglass. Wikipedia.

I once visited a strange, foreign land. I was shocked to witness its people habitually engaged in activities that seemed exceedingly irrational. It was amusing to observe how progressive and free they presumed to be culturally and as individuals. For, unknown to them, a deep-rooted tribalism of the most servile sort dictated most of aspects of their lives.

For instance, certain tribes would drill holes into their members’ flesh, highlighting the openings with pebbles of various shapes and sizes. Many of these members would also allow certain people to carve obscure sketches and symbols into their skin in exchange for goods and services. At first, those receiving such modifications would express discomfort, which led me to believe that the process was punitive. But upon completion, the subject would leap up with an expression of deep pride and quickly gained admiration and praise from peers.

Oddly, the individuals involved in this rite seemed to assume that it provided them with a means of self-expression and individuality. But nothing could have been further from the truth, as the presence and style of the markings was always determined according to the expectations of a particular group. Indeed, the entire point of allowing oneself to be marked in such ways was to display the markings as a sort of public announcement of belonging. Rarely, if ever, did the markings remain concealed and personal.

In addition to self-mutilation, loud barbaric noises were common as a method of proving one’s tribal identity, status and supposed worth. One group, for instance, would move about public spaces while creating deafening roars with devices that they had affixed to the flashy carriages on which they would travel. They would also wear flamboyant clothing, often stamped with the emblems of the tribe that assembled those carriages, thus marking their perceived territory both visually and sonically.

Most females of this land were perplexing. They would vigorously protest and make all sorts of noise whenever a male or some other tribe attempted to exercise control over their bodies. One almost got the impression that they were attempting to defend some sense of personal freedom. But that impression faded quickly, as such females would just go on in fear of shame to decorate and dye their bodies in the various ways that their own tribe, esp. the male members, expected of them. Hair, eyes, lips, nails, skin, artificial body parts, stilts to increase height — not a single aspect of their appearance could be considered free or personal.

mutilateWhenever an infant was born, the adults would not fully accept it unless a local shaman had taken a sharp rock and sliced away portions of its tiny genitalia, thus marking tribal membership in yet another bloody manner. Similar tribes would shun their newborns until a man who dressed differently from the rest had doused the helpless infant in water over which he had waved his hands. During these senseless rites, the infant would usually scream in pain or fear. But the parents and other adult witnesses did not seem to care. After all, the pride that followed upon this fresh sense of belonging far outweighed in their savage minds the physical pain and distress they were inflicting upon the child.

The selection of leaders in this culture was equally bizarre. Whenever the stars had returned to a certain position in the sky, certain loud individuals who happened to have more possessions (and thus power and status) than the others would stand before crowds of people while uttering the same sounds and performing the same gestures over and over, just as other such individuals had done so many times before.

The whole ritual, I believe, was some sort of collective form of role-play in which tribe members would act as though they had free choice, much as a rain dancer attempts in his actions to recreate, and thus control, the rain. The two most notable contenders would pretend to oppose one another and behave as if they represented not only one tribe or the other, but also the entire populace and its descendants. But the contenders themselves clearly had little in common with the people and rarely any clue or concern about what was really best for the community. The crowd would then divide into two halves, each side shouting at the other, often in mockery, though they were expressing essentially the same ideas.

Following the shouting performance, members of each tribe would raise their hands to select one of two most notable individuals, while a group of chieftains from each tribe would pretend to tally all the raised hands. For some reason, these exceedingly odd people believed that the best policy was always the one that the majority — no matter how slight — believed was best, as if there was some sort of mystical authority in larger numbers but not lesser ones.

When the ritual was complete, the new leaders would then cease making those inspiring noises and gestures, often even proceeding to make opposite ones. They would then continue to preoccupy themselves with amassing possessions, power and status, all at the people’s expense — both those who did and those who did not select them to lead.

The two previously opposed tribes, however, would no longer care about hearing those noises and seeing the gestures to which they had once reacted so passionately. Instead they would simply return to their daily routines, drudging through lives that this silly little ritual hadn’t improved much at all, and living right alongside members of the tribe that they had not so long before vehemently opposed.

The single most perplexing aspect of this primitive society was its members’ apparent admiration for something they called ‘free-dum’. They appeared to believe that this idea was inherently important and necessary to their society — that is, if one can say that any idea at all lay behind what was largely just inarticulate grunting. In fact, whenever the tribes selected their leaders, they would show most interest in those individuals who promised to protect the ‘free-dum’ of all tribes. The reality, however, was that the tribes were selecting leaders to restrict, suppress, remove and trample ‘free-dum’ because the presence of this thing, which they pretended to value so highly, in truth made most of them feel very frightened.

A case in point: One of the most ancient rituals in this society involved the exchange of polished white stones between two members of the oldest tribes. The exchange was meant to symbolize a pledge of bondage between the two individuals. None of the other tribes had ever participated in this ritual or even seemed to care about it. I presume the reason for disinterest was this: The ritual required making unrealistic promises, and it often ended in the unhappiness of the two people involved, who were forced to remain together regardless of significant changes in feelings, lest the leaders become involved and exercise an even greater control over their lives.

markingsAnyway, in recent times, the leaders did become more involved in this bondage ritual in general and began to pressure people into taking part. They did so by agreeing to compel two people bound together in this way to surrender fewer of their possessions to the leaders than they would have been forced to surrender if they had remained unbound. Naturally, the newer tribes now wanted to take part in the bondage-stone rite. After all, why should the leaders take more from them just because they hadn’t gone through some silly ancient ritual?

So the new tribes joined together and began to grunt the socially prescribed refrain ‘free-dum’, ‘free-dum’. This of course caught the attention of the leaders, whose job it was to pretend to defend ‘free-dum’. It also caught the attention of some of the older tribes, who felt the need to protect their ritual by denying this ‘free-dum’ to the newer tribes. This, of course, was odd because the older tribes strongly pretended to value ‘free-dum’ in general. They even agreed that every tribe should have equal access to ‘free-dum’. And yet, these older tribes refused to allow the newer tribes access to the polished stones.

Naturally, the newer tribes became confused and angry. They complained to the leaders and insisted that the older tribes should be forced to provide access to those little white stones. It was not right, they felt, for the older tribes to refuse to comply with the wishes of the newer tribes. This was not ‘free-dum’, they cried.

In response, the older tribes also complained to the leaders. Some simply asked that they not be forced to provide the others with the white stones. But some among the older tribes, who found the behavior of the newer tribes offensive, went so far as to ask the leaders to prevent the other tribes from taking part in the bondage-stone ritual. To seal their request, they added a loud cry of ‘free-dum’, much as other, similarly primitive societies follow up expressions of their own hopeless wishes with ‘a-men’.

Now then, as it would happen, it was some of the newer tribes who supplied the polishing materials to the older tribes to prepare the bondage-stones. So in retaliation, these newer tribes refused to sell their materials to all the older tribes as a sort of punishment for what they deemed to be offensive behavior. The newer tribes then shouted ‘free-dum’ and continued to ask the leaders to force the older tribes to sell them bondage-stones for their own rituals. “All tribes exist to serve the public,” they cried. “So no tribe should be allowed to refuse to provide service to any of the others!” At the same time, however, the newer tribes continued to refuse to provide service to the older tribes.

I have provided here just one small example of this barbaric society’s contradictory treatment of an idea that the majority of its people can rightly be said to value only superficially. Despite this pretense, I am convinced that the ideals held in highest esteem by most of its members were two: 1) controlling individuals by asserting tribal identity; and 2) submitting to authority, whether the presumed authority of the leaders or of the tribe itself. ‘Free-dum’ rarely entered genuinely into their thoughts or actions, while conformity and social servitude predominated.

coerceUpon leaving this land, I was pleased to return to the rationality of my own world, where freedom and individuality would never succumb to socio-political pressure and tribalism. In retrospect, I concluded that the primitive obsession with social control that I had witnessed was a defense mechanism. The fear of change and death was so strong amongst the tribes that they would do and believe anything to convince themselves that they had some sort of purchase on immortality. Tribe and tradition, they believed on some subconscious level, would always outlast the individuals who comprised them.

The problem I see with this, however, is that repetitive, patterned behavior still does not qualify as permanence. Nor does expecting others to acknowledge marks of tribal affiliation serve to reveal anything relevant about the character of the individual or group that bears those marks.

Just because one ball team uses the same name, uniforms and logos as a team that played the game fifty years ago, does this mean that it has anything substantial in common with its predecessor? Do the symbols make the team? Does a group deserve respect and obedience simply in light of how it represents itself publicly? The inhabitants of the primitive, slavish nation I have just described would undoubtedly grunt in the affirmative.

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2014. All rights reserved.

“The Source”

From Chaos waters Time first nods
From Night born the light of Day
Mother Earth, raped by Sky, bares Titan gods
Bound and locked away

Mutilated by his son
Raining blood, utters a curse
Child devoured, prophecy is done
Father burns, lightning is hurled

For ten years storm-god rages on
Forests burned, seas boiled away
Final threat, flaming roar, eyes hundreds strong
Crushed by mountain, slain

All birth grows from what it is not
Fated in cycles of war
Aggression devastates
But fails to dominate
Destined return to the source

By cosmic planning Time moves on
Four seasons, fixed stars and Fate
Warming sun up at dawn, the moon’s motion
Gods give Nature her rightful place

Uncompleted world undone
Divine image, a creature to serve
Fruit of truth, tree of life, temptation
Fire burns as man yearns to learn

Innocence, a place of peace
(Painless bliss, joyous feasts)
Prosperous, a life of awe
(Peaceful deaths to live with gods)

But imbalance must be righted
Your delight can’t last for long
Opened eyes, mind enlightened
Happiness, an illusion

Curses, anger
Race doomed to failure
Forever toil
Until blood turns to soil

Time of Iron, man’s decline
Faithless children born with hairs of grey
Cities sacked, parents slain, jealousy and lies
God’s image proves its own hate

Inundated by the flood
Helpless cries damned to drown at birth
Love divine buries life deep within the mud
Will Father learn when taking his turn?

All birth grows from what is not
(Force from flaw, sick from sane)
Fated in cycles of war
(Win needs fail, frail needs strength)

Transgression throws its weight
But scales fluctuate
Destined return to the source
(Death the price for our gain)

Lyrics © Joshua J. Reynolds 2014. All rights reserved.


“The Source” is a song about origins — specifically, how things tend to originate in violence and death. The lyrics are based on a book I am writing that offers a satirical look at ancient myths concerning the beginning of the universe and mankind. Like the book, the lyrics amalgamate an assortment of such myths to focus on their similar origins, plot structures and themes.

Despite the convictions of devout Christians, there is very little that is unique or authoritative about the stories from the so-called ‘Bible’. I summarize below the Bible’s main themes concerning creation, which also happen to turn up in much older Mesopotamian myths, as well as those from ancient Greece.

  1. The creation of the world as a separation of opposites from a primal chaos: Separation of light from dark, as well as the waters above and waters below the sky in the Hebrew Genesis; Separation of fresh water (Apsu) and salt water (Tiamat) in the Babylonian Enuma Elish; Separation of earth and sky, as well as day and night in Greek mythology, esp. Hesiod’s Theogony.
  2. The world as a flat disk floating on water covered by a solid, domed roof of sky/stars: Hebrew Genesis; Babylonian Enuma Elish; Greek myth, esp. Homer’s Iliad and Hesiod’s Theogony.
  3. The supremacy of a storm/sky-god who sets primal chaos in order: Hebrew Elohim/Yahweh; Babylonian Marduk; Greek Zeus.
  4. A storm/sky-god who battles and defeats terrible, disorderly monsters: Yahweh vs. Leviathan and Behemoth (Hebrew Job; Psalms); Marduk vs. Tiamat and her demons, snakes, dragons, scorpion-men and bull-men; Hittite Teshub vs. the dragon-monster Illuyanka; Zeus vs. Typhon.
  5. The creation of mankind from some earthly or biological material to serve the gods and/or to tend to divine gardens: Hebrew Yahweh’s creation of Adam and Eve from soil/human rib; Sumerian Enki and Earth create first humans from the blood of a dead god, mud and spit; Babylonian Marduk creates people from the blood of an enemy; the Greek gods create the first woman out of clay.
  6. After the work of creation is complete, the mighty storm/sky-god feels the need to rest: Hebrew Elohim; Babylonian Marduk.
  7. The storm/sky-god sends a flood that wipes out most of mankind as punishment for their wickedness and/or annoyance: Noah in Hebrew myth; Ziusudra in Sumerian myth; Atrahasis in Akkadian myth; Utnapishtim in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh; Deucalion in Greek myth.
  8. A trickster deity who defies the storm/sky-god and promotes human knowledge: Hebrew Satan; Mesopotamian Enki/Ea; Greek Prometheus.
  9. Woman as troublesome temptress and her curiosity, which leads to human suffering: Hebrew Eve and her tantalizing fruit; Greek Pandora and her alluring box.
  10. The decline of mankind from paradise and the corresponding divine curse: Adam and Eve in Hebrew myth; Prometheus story in Greek myth; Pandora story in Greek myth; The Five Ages of mankind in the Greek Hesiod’s Works and Days.

These ten themes represent some of the well-known parallels that anyone with half a brain can pursue in much greater detail using any reliable online or offline source.

Now then, possible reactions to these striking commonalities might include:

1) Ignore the obvious parallels (just as you might ignore the Bible’s obvious contradictions and injustices) and stand firm by your faith that biblical stories are unique and authoritative. It is certainly acceptable to believe whatever you want to believe, but only as long as you keep it to yourself. You should not attempt to convert others or influence public policy according to those beliefs any more than you should persecute, violate or harm others for not sharing them.

2) Take the approach of the theologian, who will attempt to explain away the parallels (as well as the contradictions and injustices) according to some subtle and sophisticated theory that only the handful of experts with advanced degrees and years of Ivory Tower isolation would stand a chance of understanding. Such theories tend to appeal to arguments concerning mistranslation, offering instead the “correct,” “original” meaning of a relevant Hebrew or Greek term.

Now this is certainly admirable work, since it does make use of reason and evidence, as opposed to faith, which is by its very nature non-rational and close-minded. The only problem is that my salvation should not have to depend both on my acceptance of the Bible and of some random scholar’s intricate interpretation of it.

I mean, the Bible is ‘the Book’, right? It’s meant to stand alone, wholly sufficient in its supposed truth and authority. One shouldn’t require a Ph.D. to understand it any more than one should be required to know ancient Hebrew and Greek. Indeed, if only a select few can understand the real meaning of the Bible’s original wording, then all the more reason to conclude that it was not written for modern lay people.

Russell Crowe's

Russell Crowe’s “Noah.” Paramount Pictures. 2014.

3) Or we might take a rational approach, which realizes that the Bible’s stories, as all stories, were derived from prior and contemporaneous human sources. This means, in turn, that they cannot be, at least not directly, the ‘word of god’. In other words, the Bible has a traceable history of development and transmission, often using non-Jewish and non-Christian sources. One might respond by saying, e.g., that the five different flood narratives describe the same historical event (i.e., the “biblical flood”). But this still neglects to address the presence and influence of different deities who are fundamentally at odds with the Jewish/Christian god.

Anyway, in addition to these ten general parallels, “The Source” also touches on the theme of strife between divine parents and their children, esp. the conflict between father and son. In Greek mythology, Cronus mutilates the genitals of his father, king Uranus, who in turn curses his son. Now king himself, Cronus swallows his own children to prevent himself from being overthrown. But his own child, Zeus, outwits him and defeats his father in an epic battle.

Goya. Saturn Devouring His Son. Wikipedia.

Goya. Saturn Devouring His Son. Wikipedia.

Likewise, the Babylonian Apsu plots to destroy his great-great grandchild Ea, who eventually prevails, just as Tiamat plots to destroy her great-great-great grandchild Marduk, who goes on to become king of the gods. And finally, in the Hittite myth Kingship in Heaven, Kumarbi challenges and mutilates the genitals of his own father, Anush, while Kumarbi’s own son Teshub later defeats him and goes on to rule universe.

Of course, we find none of this bloody, parent vs. child power struggle between the Christian god and Jesus. Jesus does not try to overthrow his father or snip off his genitalia (although, given the maleness of this god, we must assume anatomical correctness). Jesus, however, does get to share the keys to the divine kingdom, but only after dear old dad treats him to a bloody death on the cross, which is what ends up setting things right in the world… somehow.

Artemision Bronze. Wikipedia.

Artemision Bronze. Wikipedia.

No… Jesus and daddy don’t go head to head in Christian mythology. But the Judeo-Christian god still harbors significant insecurity regarding his rule. That is, he constantly struggles with his human children – cursing, destroying, punishing and denying them the possession of knowledge and power. Divine jealously is what links the Judeo-Christian god to Zeus and Marduk.

As an aside, it is silly that these Star Wars-style fairy tales and ancient metaphors of rule and kingship still mean anything to rational people in this day and age. I myself have never seen or met a king or lord. I have never lived under a kingship or in a kingdom. I have never been ruled and so have no idea what the experience is like. Lords and kings and kingships are completely foreign to me. So I have no idea why Christians today try to communicate with me, others and themselves in these and similarly archaic terms.

The

The “Lamb of God”

I mean, I had a father growing up. So I somewhat understand what it might mean to say that some god or another is my ‘heavenly father’. But ‘lord in heaven’ and ‘kingdom of god’? No clue whatsoever. Such talk is to me as senseless as the Christian obsession with lambs, esp. Jesus as the ‘lamb of god’. What I am saying is that I couldn’t care less about lambs. I don’t find them particularly appealing or interesting (except on a skewer). So why the hell do Christians try to convince me to join their cult with so much talk of lambs?!?!

When you tell me that Jesus is the ‘lamb of god’, what I hear this: “Blah bleo laoc lk eyznho euohdoa… lamb.” So please… just stop with the ‘lamb’ talk. And while you’re at it, cut out all the ‘lord’ and ‘kingdom’ nonsense, the references to the archaic ritual of ‘sacrifice’, and the creepy business about how eating god’s ‘body’ and ‘drinking’ his blood is going to bring me eternal happiness. The bleating of a lamb makes more sense to me than that sort of gibberish.

Mmmmmm

Mmmmmm

To wrap up: Even as the Greeks and Jews were telling myths to understand their world, early philosophers began to offer naturalistic explanations of the principles those stories represented. Instead of a violent struggle and succession of gods leading from chaos to order, Anaximander, for instance, argued that cosmic order consists in a balance of opposites (hot/cold, war/peace, justice/injustice, etc.), each side attacking and replacing the other according to a natural, impersonal cycle. No one side prevails for long, before it is replaced by something else, which in turn will succumb to its opposition. This sort of explanation was meant to be a rational alternative to stories of anthropomorphic gods imposing order by dominating enemies and subjugating supposedly wicked human beings.

Anaximander relief. Wikipedia.

Anaximander relief. Wikipedia.

The same goes for myths themselves. Just like everything else, stories about the gods change over time as they are borrowed, inherited, assimilated, edited, censored, spun, omitted, transformed, die and resurrect in new forms according to cultural, temporal and geographical variations. The upshot is this: if one myth’s death is another’s birth, then I see no point in debating with believers. Even if you convince them of the absurdity of their beliefs, you’ll just end up with another, similarly ridiculous, story as the new supposedly authoritative tale.

I don’t want to give Christians any ideas on how to speak more relevantly to their modern audience, but I would not be surprised if two-thousand years from now rational people find themselves dumbfounded as to why the predominant religion of their time speaks of god as the ‘Divine CEO’ or ‘President in Heaven’. Maybe that will make about as much sense to them as ‘Lord’ and ‘King’ should make to us.

Oh. I get it. I'm a believer now!

Oh. I get it. I’m a believer now!

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2014. All rights reserved.

“Contagion”

Principio caput incensum fervore gerebant
et duplicis oculos suffusa luce rubentes
sudabant etiam fauces intrinsecus atrae
sanguine et ulceribus vocis via saepta coibat,
atque animi interpres manabat lingua cruore
debilitata malis, motu gravis, aspera tactu

“First they felt their heads burning with fever and their two eyes growing red and glowing throughout. Their throats were black within and drenched with blood as the airways were blocked and closed by ulcers. The tongue, interpreter of the mind, flowed with gore as it was weakened by pains, difficult to move, and rough to the touch.”

inde ubi per fauces pectus complerat et ipsum
morbida vis in cor maestum confluxerat aegris,
omnia tum vero vitai claustra lababant
spiritus ore foras taetrum volvebat odorem,
rancida quo perolent proiecta cadavera ritu

“From that point, when the deadly disease had passed down through the throat and filled the chest, after it had flowed into the miserable heart of the sufferer, then in fact the very bonds of life gave way. The breath rolled out a foul stench from the mouth, just like the odor of exposed, rancid corpses.”

omnis… divom natura
necessest inmortali aevo… fruatur
semota ab nostris rebus…

nam… ipsa suis pollens opibus
nihil indiga nostri
nec bene promeritis capitur
neque tangitur ira

“A god, by its very nature must enjoy immortal existence, far removed from our affairs — strong in its own resources, not at all in need of us — neither won over by our services, nor touched by our anger.”


“God is not to be feared, death is not a risk. It is easy to procure what is good, while what is bad is easy to endure” (Epicurean ‘Four-fold Remedy’).

As you might have suspected, the vocals for “Contagion” are in Latin. The lines I used are from the poem “On the Nature of Things” (De Rerum Natura), penned by the Roman poet Lucretius (94 BC – 55 BC). Lucretius was an ardent admirer of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who lived and taught in Athens roughly 250 years before the poet’s death. In light of his deep respect for Epicurus, Lucretius composed his 7400-line poem to expound the philosopher’s doctrines.

Epicurus bust. Wikipedia.

Epicurus bust. Wikipedia.

At the core of this philosophy was the secular, mechanistic view of the universe known as ‘atomism’. In particular, Epicurus (and Lucretius) argued that all that really exists are an infinite number of tiny atoms moving around empty space at random, colliding with each other and forming all the visible stuff and events that we experience in the world according to fixed natural laws.

The idea here is even more relevant to life today than it might seem. Lucretius’ overall intention, as that of his predecessor, is that a rational understanding of why things happen in the world as they do will remove our fear of the gods and of death, thus allowing us to attain true peace and happiness in life.

The human soul, for instance, being purely physical in nature and subject to natural laws, must die along with the body. As a result, Lucretius insists, we can experience no sensation at all after death. Death will be for us just like what it was like before we were born: absolutely nothing.

As for god, a perfect divine being must be content with its existence. This means that god can have no needs, desires, emotions or worries. God would therefore have no reason to interfere with the workings of nature or human beings. This knowledge, in turn, should free us from the anxiety that comes from our efforts to worship god correctly and to live a righteous life – all in order to avoid everlasting punishment after death.

This is Epicureanism in a nutshell. Now, the lines I have used for ‘Contagion’ can be found at the end of the final book of Lucretius’ poem (book six). There, the poet describes in gory detail the horrific plague that devastated the population of ancient Athens during the Peloponnesian War (430 BC).

So how does this graphic plague narrative fit in with Lucretius’ mission to explain the mechanics of the universe and dispel our fear of the gods and of death? Keep in mind that Lucretius is attempting to explain the nature of things. This includes everything that might exist or take place around us: e.g., the earth, sky, stars, animals, man, the soul, civilization, the gods, hallucinations, the seasons, meteorological phenomena, and supposed miracles.

The basic idea is that nothing comes-to-be from nothing or perishes into nothing, as if by supernatural agency. All things change, come-to-be and perish because of the combination and separation of atoms, and all according to the immutable laws of nature. Not even god can influence or interrupt this natural flow of cause and effect.

Consequently, the various imperfections of the world must also have specific causes, especially the countless disasters that afflict humanity, seemingly for no reason, or in the eyes of believers, because of god’s wrath. For instance, Lucretius offers a natural rather than supernatural explanation of lightning, which was often seen to strike even the very temples of the gods. Similarly, he explains volcanoes and earthquakes as the result of natural processes underneath the earth’s surface.

It is within this context that Lucretius turns to the plague. He reminds us that world was not made for us. Disease, he says, has a physical cause in the combinations of various types of atoms which accumulate and upset the balance of health. He also discusses what we know today as infection and contagion, as well as the influence of climate as a factor in the spread of disease.

Plague in an Ancient City, Michael Sweerts. Wikigallery.org.

Plague in an Ancient City, Michael Sweerts. Wikigallery.org.

As mentioned, Lucretius’ description of the plague’s symptoms is graphic. In addition to the lines that I have translated above, the poet describes anxiety, incessant retching, convulsions and exhaustion. The sufferer’s body was cold to the touch, but the inside burned to the bone. Medicine was useless. Some people jumped into streams and wells in a futile effort to quench their constant thirst. Delirium and hallucination set in. Breathing was nearly impossible and sweating profuse. Putrid blood flowed through the nose. After nine days of agony, along with uncontrollable twitching, coughing and tissue deterioration, the victims would finally die.

The plague also had severe social consequences. Unburied corpses littered the streets. As soon as people got sick, they fell into frenzied despair. Ironically, many committed suicide. Those who dreaded death most refused to tend to the sick. But they too succumbed, just as those who did try to help the victims. Lucretius also describes parents stretched out over dead children and dying children clinging to the bodies of dead parents.

Finally, and most relevantly, the temples and shrines of the gods were filled with corpses. Lucretius emphasizes how little believers’ reverence and worship of the gods mattered in the end. The entire nation was in terror and lawlessness ensued. Some families even began to use other people’s pyres to burn their own dead, which often led to disputes and bloodshed.

Lucretius’ tragic picture of the Athenian plague shows us humankind at the mercy of natural forces beyond the power of their own knowledge, skill and religious customs. It depicts the inevitable suffering that human beings face in a world that was not made for them. Ironically, the power that comes from knowledge of the atomistic structure of the universe reveals the painful fact of our ultimate powerlessness within a hostile world. Most of all, the narrative strongly suggests that god does not care a bit about the welfare of human beings.


The occurrence of extreme, senseless suffering is not restricted to the ancient world. We need only turn our thoughts to the recent disaster in Nepal. We have all seen the clichéd memes on social networking sites expressing prayers for the victims and survivors of the earthquake. Such responses make even less sense than the disaster itself. If god has the power and will to alleviate human suffering, then why would he wait until enough people asked him to do so?

pray for nepalAs my mom used to say, ‘Life’s a bitch and then you die’. Nature is a cruel killer who indiscriminately attacks young and old, innocent and guilty, rich and poor, healthy and sick. Consider yourself lucky if you get through life without experiencing serious suffering, sickness or misery. Only deluded, narcissistic fools would consider it a divine blessing granted specifically to them… and why? Just because they had gained divine favor by praying, kneeling or chanting in the prescribed manner? So Jesus says: “Clasp those hands real tight and get down on your knees or I won’t help those little children whom I allowed to be crush by falling debris.” Do I understand that right?

The specific function of a mind is to think — to figure things out according to common sense and reason. So what does reason say about all this suffering? Either god doesn’t know about it, doesn’t care about it, can’t stop it, or doesn’t exist. Those are the only options. Of course you could simply ignore the rational workings of your mind and cling to faith — convince yourself that god was ‘ready for’ the victims of the plague or the earthquake or whatever other disaster.

You could convince yourself that the suffering all makes sense in god’s mind, but not ours. (Of course, leave out the part about how our own tiny, limited minds could know even that much.) Reassure yourself that despite the victims’ unspeakable suffering, it is all part of the plan of a god who loves them very much. But this is not love. Most of us had unquestionably loving parents who would never allow us to suffer in such ways if they had any say in the matter. Whatever was at work behind the scenes during the Athenian plague or the Nepal earthquake, it is not what any sane person would recognize as ‘love’.

I often say ‘faith is a mental illness’. Of course, this metaphor is meant to be provocative. But the similarity between faith and delusion is striking. Faith is a matter of stubbornly denying whatever conflicts with one’s beliefs regardless of reason and common sense. An adult who goes through life refusing to accept conclusions that contradict what they simply feel to be true no matter how strong the contrary evidence is a person who is not using his or her mind in a healthy, sane manner.

Lucretius’ point is that a rational view of the universe allows us to see an event as horrific as the plague as far less of an illness than religion. Religion and the fear of death that inspires it are the real contagion.

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2015. All rights reserved.

“Our Father”

Destroy life on earth
Drown the innocent
Sick and elderly
Defenseless infants

Dash some kids to death
Before parents’ eyes
Loot the homes of foes
Thrash and rape their wives

It’s in the book
It’s in your heart
Believe

Kill all male children
Kill their mothers too
Keep the virgin girls
For your sexual use

Curse the children who
Scorn a hairless man
Watch while savage bears
Shred them where they stand

He so loved the world

Stone the thief, his kids, and more
Stone his cattle too
Stone to death those you deplore
For opposing you

Force your enemy to eat the flesh of their own sons and daughters
Kill the man who refused to impregnate the wife of his brother

In his own image

Raining fire down on towns
Torch thousands of men
Grind to salt those you allow
To see your sins

Burn and sacrifice
Your young girl to me
I shall grant you bloody victory

Bash brains to bits against stones
Toss bodies out to rot alone

Give virgin daughter to mob for rape
Slay this one, slay that one
Decapitate

Drive sword right through
Pregnant woman’s guts
Slice her open
Tear and rip her up

Starve and torture
Carve the corpses
Infect the genitals
Hamstring the horses

Spread disease
Leave nothing to breathe
Mercilessly taunt and slaughter

Strike the slaves
Send a plague
For I am the Lord, thy Father

On and on
The list goes on
Of beneficence flawed
Fear and fright don’t qualify
As love for your god

Lyrics © Joshua J. Reynolds 2014. All rights reserved.


fear the lord - Copy“Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand.” — Mark Twain

The lyrics to “Our Father” are straightforward. They are comprised mostly of a variety of descriptions of the atrociously violent acts ordered, approved or committed by the Jewish / Christian god in the so-called ‘Bible’. Along with the lyrics above, I have included hyperlinks to the relevant passages as they have been reprinted in over 100 different translations at BibleGateway.com.

Aside from “the Good Book” itself (New Oxford Annotated edition), I used as my secondary sources The Skeptics Annotated Bible and Dwindling in Unbelief. Both are excellent websites that I highly recommend for reliable information and humorous criticism.

I have to give credit to the author of these sites, Steve Wells, for having the stomach to rummage through the Bible to compile (and comment upon) the relevant stories. For my part, Judeo-Christian mythology is not something I exactly enjoy reading. In fact, I would rank the experience alongside the nauseous feeling I get when encountering any other racist propaganda or fascist nonsense.

Equally distasteful is the fact that the Bible is in origin nothing more than one tribe’s attempt to divinely sanction and glorify its own existence to the (violent) exclusion of all others. Sure, other ancient cultures had similar myths. But compared to, say, the ancient Greeks’ Iliad and Odyssey, the Judeo-Christian form of self-explanation — with all its irrelevant pedantry, hypocrisy, verbal and narrative simplicity, barbarism and absurdity — seems no more than the product of scared children and superstitious savages.

order and chaos - CopyOne thing I enjoy even less than reading the Bible is debating devout believers. Not a single rational argument is ever likely to convince such people of the absurdity of their beliefs because those beliefs are grounded in faith and authority, neither of which proceeds through anything even remotely close to reason, logic, evidence, fact or common-sense.

For this reason, I don’t attempt to make a case here for why people should suspend their belief in the Bible. I desire to do this just about as much as I want to explain to a bratty, snot-nosed little kid sitting on Santa’s lap at the mall why there’s no such thing as Santa Claus. Instead, I am happy simply to offer these general reflections and, more importantly, to provide convenient links to the various passages I reference in the lyrics.

god love - Copy“The best minds will tell you that when a man has begotten a child he is morally bound to tenderly care for it, protect it from hurt, shield it from disease, clothe it, feed it, bear with its waywardness, lay no hand upon it save in kindness and for its own good, and never in any case inflict upon it a wanton cruelty. God’s treatment of his earthly children, every day and every night, is the exact opposite of all that, yet those best minds warmly justify these crimes, condone them, excuse them, and indignantly refuse to regard them as crimes at all, when he commits them.” — Mark Twain

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2015. All rights reserved.

“At Bay” – In Defense of Cynicism

Submerged amongst the waves again
Endless downpour drowns my breath within
Delusion deepens my dread
Hope looming in a light ahead

Sun dries solid ground
My breath unbound
Soothing welcome breeze
Not what it seems

Lost amongst the sand
Nothing but waves on land
Trust and faith in man
Slipping through my hands

Drifting awry
On the open sea
Deception justifies
Disordered being

Asylum
Forces submission
Salvation
Is oblivion

Sunlight all around
My refuge found
Living life at ease
Nothing’s what it seems

Lost upon the land
Back to where I began
Trust and faith in man
Shifting as the sands

Lyrics © Joshua J. Reynolds 2014. All rights reserved.


“There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist, except an old optimist.” — Mark Twain

In terms of trust and faith, “At Bay” contains some of the most cynical lyrics on Depths of Distrust. The lyrics themselves, I think, are self-explanatory. But some reflections on cynicism do seem to be in order.

The last post on “Windowless I” noted the stigma against individuals disconnected from society and religion — skeptics, misanthropes, atheists, etc.– all of which exhibit their own sort of cynicism in varying degrees. Keep in mind, I am not equating atheists with cynics. In fact, these days, a good number of atheists tend to be humanists and thus maintain positive feelings about society. It’s just that I don’t think in absolutes. So I don’t really believe there is such thing as a ‘cynic’. But there are varying degrees of cynical attitudes and perspectives. So on this view, atheists by definition are cynical about religion.

Trust No OneAnyway, as part of this stigma, society tends to see cynicism as some sort of disease, whether physical, psychological, social or spiritual. “Distrust is a mental illness,” as the shrink explains to the misanthrope in the dialogue portion of “Servitude.”

Consider the following examples:

  1. Distrust and an anti-social personality are key symptoms associated with what psychologists call ‘PPD’, or ‘Paranoid Personality Disorder’;
  2. Distrust of authority and anti-social behavior are key traits among conspiracy theorists, whom mainstream society has been trained to look down upon as a bunch of lunatics;
  3. Cynicism and pessimism are linked to higher rates of depression, dementia, heart disease, cancer-related deaths and mortality.

Wow! Optimism — the true panacea, discovered at last! Of course, none of these articles considers, if there really is such a link, whether cynical personalities can in fact be changed and ‘cured’, any more than any other sort of personality. I certainly don’t recall ever selecting my particular personality. It’s just kind of what makes me… me, you know? But the point isn’t to understand cynicism. It’s just to make oneself look good by making cynicism look bad and blaming it for the supposedly bad things that happen. Hmmm… sounds exactly like what some in the optimistic crowd say about cynicism.

M'Kay

Cynicism is bad, m’kay?

Just Google ‘cynicism’ and you will find yourself inundated with — what!? — intensely cynical reactions to cynicism. Ironically, however, it is not the cynics who have these reactions, but those bragging about, or at least implying, their own optimism or healthy idealism. What about ‘glass half full’? Geez!! Here’s a list of the usual clichés:

Cynicism is: ‘for losers’, ‘lazy’, ‘selfish’, ‘a waste of intellect’, ‘a missed opportunity to improve the world’, ‘blind’, ‘unattractive’, ‘intellectual cowardice’, ‘a cop out’, ‘rooted in fear’, ‘unrealistic’, ‘toxic’, ‘pitiful’, ‘naïve’, ‘intellectual treason’, ‘cheap’, ‘impotent’, ‘contagious’.

So cynicism is for ‘losers’, is it? Aww, shucks. The last thing I want is to be called a ‘loser’. Stupid half empty glass… gonna make me unpopular. Remember name-calling as a child? The fact that so many adults cannot avoid perpetuating the label- and clique-mentality of high school kids is one thing that makes me especially cynical.

This sort of cliché, stereotyping, slogan-based criticism of cynicism also seems to be fashionable among late-night comedians:

  • “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us” — Stephen Colbert
  • “All I ask of you is one thing: please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism — it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.” — Conan O’Brien
  • “It’s all about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.” — Craig Ferguson

This is strange stuff coming from sarcastic men whose job consists of deconstructing and ridiculing everything that comes their way. Maybe they feel guilty for creating hordes of mindless drones who believe they are gaining genuine political awareness simply by watching the late show. Or perhaps they see themselves as similar to smokers who warn their children not to smoke. Whatever the reason, George Carlin would be rolling over in his grave – if he gave a damn.

CarlinThe problem with such reactions to cynicism is that they are hypocritical, trite and grounded in unrealistic stereotypes. A particularly cynical attack on cynicism can be found here.

The author repeats the usual claims — that cynics are ‘cowards’, ‘lazy’, ‘afraid’, and somehow cultivate a false appearance of sophistication and depth. Oh no! Please don’t call me a coward!! Anything but that!! Of course, the author simply states all this and fails to back any of it up with specific examples or argumentation. Regurgitate those clichés!

Interestingly, this person also insists that if all the cynics and skeptics in America “made noise,” and worked actively “for the restoration of a democratic republic, justice, and the rule of law,” then things “would instantly change for the better.” You know, that sort of thing is very easy for a blogger, comedian, politician or some other such talking head to say since they get paid to spend their time and effort ‘actively changing the world for the better’.

I laugh at this sort of advice. It presumes that people ‘adopt’ cynicism by choice and can just choose not to be cynical. Simply push the happy button in your soul and ‘bam!’ — you no longer notice or care about the insurmountable obstacle of lies, hypocrisy and corruption in politics.

But seriously, such critics, if they really want to change attitudes, need to take a step back and re-evaluate what they think is the real cause of cynicism. I assure you it is not the cynic him or herself. If you want to fight cynicism, at least on the political level, then point that scathing finger at this sort of thing: here and here. Let’s not get distracted from the real problem.

“Show me somebody who is always smiling, always cheerful, always optimistic, and I will show you somebody who hasn’t the faintest idea what the heck is really going on.” — Mike Royko

RoykoI mean, I get it. A representational form of government is largely incompatible with widespread cynicism and apathy. But more importantly, so are all the power, wealth, security and status that accrue to our political representatives. So the politicians need the talking heads to be cheerleaders, encouraging their mostly young, brainless TV-watching audience to believe in the system, to hope for change, and to adopt other such useless states of mind. Go team!

Professional politicians and the mainstream media loathe the cynic because the cynic reveals their game for what it is. Such honesty threatens the illusions they must create to maintain power. And so, instead of facing the cynic’s criticisms head on, they attack an abstraction. They set up a token cynic, a straw man just to knock down so that they can appear caring and productive. Yet no one really exists exactly like the people they describe. Reality is far more complicated and interesting. But polarization sure is a nifty means of thought control.

A common cliché is that cynics are apathetic or lazy. Most cynics, however, I have ever known or have known about are hard-working, productive individuals who care quite deeply about what is happening in the world — at least more so than the many who wear optimism as a mask. They are just honest with themselves in admitting that they don’t have the faith that things can or will improve. You can’t force faith.

Another little platitude that passes as wisdom is that cynics live miserable lives, so we ought to refrain from being cynical. But this is like telling a gay guy that he shouldn’t choose to find other men attractive. In the end, the stigma against cynics and those like them stems from the usual ignorance and prejudice of people who do not understand what they fear. Cynics need not be miserable. Some are. Some are not. Some are sometimes. Some are severely unsatisfied with society or politics or religion, but perfectly happy in their personal lives.

The misanthrophile, for example, finds satisfaction in knowing that he or she is conscious of the lies and hypocrisy that define society. Such individuals find true contentment, at least, in trying not to perpetuate the tribal game of make-believe. There can be pride in refusing to stick one’s head in the sand or to whitewash what can be very ugly facts about our social existence.

Speaking of make-believe, here’s a Christian take on cynicism, which pretty much sums up the sort of hypocritically discriminatory perspective from which society tends to represent the cynic:

“A cynic is self-centered. Jesus is self-giving. A cynic has a low view of humanity. Jesus died for humanity. A cynic builds himself up by mocking others. Jesus lays down his own life so others can be filled with life. A cynic assumes people in the end get what they deserve. Jesus does all He can to ensure as many as possible get what they do not deserve.”

This is great material — fuel for the fire. You just can’t make up stuff like this. It is as real as it is fake. The author concludes: “Don’t get me wrong, Jesus loves cynics. He died for cynics. But not just to save them; He died also to change them.” Why in the world god would require the brutal death of his ‘son’ to ‘save’ a cynic the author does not say. But perhaps that’s just me being cynical — you know, using my mind to think through the implications of astonishing claims.

Face it: Faith, not cynicism, is a mental disorder. The tendency to place unwarranted trust in religion, society, politicians and others is no different than childish fantasy.

I have always found the phrase ‘beating a dead horse’ to be delightfully cynical. Coincidentally, that’s precisely how I feel at the moment writing this. So I’ll just wrap up with another comedian’s quite sane assessment of faith:

“Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. It’s nothing to brag about. And those who preach faith, and enable and elevate it are intellectual slaveholders, keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction. Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don’t have all the answers to think that they do.” — Bill Maher

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2015. All rights reserved.

“Windowless I”

Lies
They all lie

Freak show media
Consciousness machine
Tribal game hurls out
Reflexive conditioning

“Thou shalt not alter the consciousness of thy fellow man”
“Thou shalt not prevent thy fellow man from altering his own consciousness”

Freed from my filter
Panoramic sea
World of white light whirls
Into backwards memories

Mind betrayed by space and time
The three collide
Raw sensations amplified
Conscious state clarified

Gauge explain
Weigh narrate
Analyze
Fabricate

Eyes portray a frame unseen
No boundaries
Sympathetic unity
Synchronous harmonies

Insignificance is my significance
My significance is insignificant

Arrogance a place inside
Some grand design
My separation justified
Windowless I

Lyrics © Joshua J. Reynolds 2014. All rights reserved.


“Which is better – to be born stupid into an intelligent society or intelligent into an insane one?” (Aldous Huxley, Island).

Philosophers are full of shit and always have been. For centuries, they have drooled and tripped all over themselves trying to identify (solely in their minds) the basic building-blocks of reality. These ‘substances’, as they called them, are supposed to be whatever remains once you have ‘stripped away’ (in your mind) all the properties from a thing. A person is still a person, for example, whether black or blonde hair, dark or light skin, 4’6” or 6’10”, twelve or seventy-eight years old, male or female, sick or healthy. Such properties are temporary and incidental to the ‘being’ or ‘substance’ of a person, whatever that happens to be.

In the late 17th century, German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz postulated that the world consists of an indefinite number of such substances. He called these ‘monads’. Each of these monads, he thought, can only affect itself. On this view, each thing in the world is truly distinct from all others and cannot, therefore, interact with anything else. Instead, things only appear to interact with each other. Their actions have been programmed in advance by god to harmonize with the actions of other things.

Leibniz's hair is entirely its own entity, distinct from all else.

Leibniz’s hair is entirely its own entity, distinct from all else.

A result of this view is that cause and effect are not real. Let’s say I throw this philosophy book. The book hits the wall. A dent appears in the wall. The book’s pages tear. Leibniz would deny that I caused the book to fly through the air. He would argue that the book did not in fact cause the dent in the wall any more than the wall caused the pages to rip. Rather, the book was preprogrammed by god to take off through the air at the precise moment I opened my moving hand. A certain portion of the wall, in turn, was preprogrammed to crumble at the precise moment the book came into contact with it, just as god had put it into the nature of the book’s pages to rip, entirely by themselves, immediately after the book had hit the wall.

The point to all this is that there is no direct causal or perceptual relationship between one substance and any of the others. You can’t, as it were, ‘see’ into substances and you cannot ‘see’ out of them. They are ‘windowless’. They exist and do what they do entirely on their own, without being caused to act and without acting upon anything else. It may seem that things interact with each other in the world, or at least have the power to do so, but they do not. This, you see, is simply god’s ‘pre-established harmony’.

Now this is mostly bullshit, of course. But it does offer a great model for viewing the self (minus the divinely pre-established harmony junk). The lyrics of “Windowless I,” the second track from Depths of Distrust, take on this perspective. They are also inspired by the writings of various other authors, such as Aldous Huxley, Herman Hesse, Timothy Leary and Carl Jung.

“Lies. They all lie.” In Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, after the protagonist withdraws from society, he begins to realize that “everything lied, stank of lies,” as he walked through town, scornfully glancing at pretty women, well-dressed people, business men and traders, princes and prostitutes, priests, lovers and mourners.

“Everybody lies” – House M.D.

“Windowless I” begins in the realization that society is comprised of lies – incessant efforts to conceal, embellish, spin, ignore, mislead, and appropriate words to twist their meanings. People have grown so accustomed to it that they neither notice nor care. They expect lies and would feel empty and awkward without them in social contexts. Lying is the business of politicians, advertisers and corporations, as well as the mainstream media, priests, professors and scientists. All of it to maintain status, to save face and deflect from hypocrisy, to subtly impose one’s will on the masses, to mark oneself off as a member of some tribe.

The media bias is especially obvious. Yet people only pretend to care. They like it that way. The use of catchwords, slogans and symbols rather than critical thought is especially prevalent here — all to instill conditioned reflexes in voters, to keep them distracted and prevent the sort of rational thought that would topple their empire of false imagery.

The tools used to perpetuate lies are symbols. Symbols are public. But what happens inside each person is private. Think of the so-called ‘cross’. Only one person can understand the sense of spiritual ecstasy, awe, personal helplessness, guilt, and/or feelings of cosmic significance that ground his or her own choice to identify with the cross as some sort of personal symbol. These experiences are as private as an individual’s particular sensation of pleasure or pain. There is no way of passing such experiences on to another person. The only possibility of communication is indirectly through symbols. So one symbol, in this case, the cross, stands for millions of private experiences.

The problem is that symbols seriously over-simplify reality. They replace thought with mere reaction, which is only surface-deep. Trusting a pair of blue jeans because it has the right sort of label, believing a person with a cop uniform and badge, and embracing someone who wears cross-jewelry is like accepting or rejecting a Christmas present based solely on the wrapping paper.

Symbols are meant to limit experience and constrain thought. Stimulus in, preprogrammed response out. The previous post on “Servitude” compared them to “the crack of the whip a master uses to rouse a slave into action without question.” Symbols are the bonds whereby the powers-that-be control the masses. Media and advertisers, politicians and priests: They speak your language but have no idea what you want or need. Nor do they care. In reality, there is no such thing as ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican’ — only two supposedly opposing tribes consisting of individuals who identify with each other solely on the superficial basis of slogans and clichés.

Hairstyles, clothing, catchphrases, gestures, body art, piercings, cranial accessories, shoes and the like: None of this is truly significant as expressions of the self. They are as lifeless as a photo of a beautiful woman when compared to her presence in motion. Such symbolic behaviors serve merely to indicate membership in a tribe. Think of those supposedly ‘badass’ motorcycle packs, which tend to employ deafening sonic symbols to mark their territory. If Harleys made no noise at all, but were just as powerful and ‘cool’ looking, would anyone want to ride them? Far fewer, for sure. That is because society values the container over the content.

“The F Word,” South Park, 2009

I am reminded of a scene in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” Brian, the mistaken messiah, abandons his sandal in flight. Meanwhile his followers stop pursuing him and passionately debate whether “the shoe is the sign.” They then go on to contemplate whether the shoe is a shoe or a sandal, and if it is a sign, what it means and how they should react, and if it is not a sign, what other things that happen to be around them might be signs of the messiah. Following this obsessive display of symbol-worship, the crowd runs off to continue their search for the messiah himself.

This scene nicely depicts the eagerness of people to follow and prioritize empty symbols to the exclusion of what they are supposed to symbolize. It shows the human tendency to see symbols everywhere, even where they are not or cannot be; and if they are present, to misinterpret them, giving them far more favorable significance than they are worth. I mean, the crowd got so caught up in symbolism that they forgot about the guy they thought was their savior!

Living a life predominately dictated by symbols reveals a mind that has been conditioned to respond, follow, and obey rather than to think. It is a mind stuffed with arbitrary categories that filter and censor the vastly more complicated flow of reality.

One might choose to escape this tribalistic freak show by seeking alternative forms of enlightenment, e.g., through drug use (as in the 1960s LSD phenomenon), spiritual quests, meditation, holistic lifestyles, etc. — all of which supposedly lead to feelings of intensity, epiphany, and of touching something universal and eternal. These experiences have been said to involve sensing boundaries between oneself and the world vanish. They supposedly allow feelings of hope and the sense that the universe has deeper meaning. They provide, it is said, a harmonious connection with others, the whole earth, with life in general — a feeling of being united in mind and body and of relating to everything as a part of a greater whole.

But this is tribalism come full circle. What is the satisfaction of feeling that you are a mere pawn and part of some grand design? Why the need for such connection? The universe is absurd and ultimately unknowable. Can’t one just find satisfaction and meaning in accepting that? The search for, trust in, and mass appeal to symbols comes from the need to feel significant. But so does seeking a transcendental connection to the universe. Ultimately, admitting insignificance and lack of connection is the only true significance. Labels just don’t stick.

In the end, if there really is some grand design of which I am part, then isn’t my sense of separation just part of that? Who is society to judge my separation or to eschew values that are centered on the individual and emphasize disconnection? What of the atheist, the skeptic, the misanthrope, the cynic, the egoist, the nihilist, and the solipsist? Why the stigmas against such individuals when such lives are truer to the flow of reality than that of the superficial, tribalistic symbol-worshiper? If everything really happens according to a plan, then wouldn’t their abandonment of religion and/or society just be part of that plan?

In the end it doesn’t matter. True belonging and participation are as impossible as experiencing another person’s feelings or understanding their thoughts. Any claim to be part of god’s plan or some cosmic scheme is simply human arrogance and on a par with finding patterns that resemble human beings in the chaos of billions of stars in the night sky.

Who am I? I might apply endless labels: ‘American’, ‘man’, ‘middle class’, ‘white’, ‘musician’, ‘teacher’, ‘writer’, ‘editor’, ‘citizen’, ’40 year-old’, ‘progressive rock fan’, ‘libertarian’, ‘drummer’, ‘philosopher’, ‘atheist’, ‘skeptic’ — all ultimately as meaningless as a mask, badge or uniform. Several of these, in fact, can be used by social forces to categorize and control a person. Impermanent marks of tribalistic identity are helpful in a superficial society. But are they truthful? In the end, the only true identity is ‘I am I’.

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2015. All rights reserved.

“Servitude”

Lord is my shepherd
My holy father
Ancient metaphors
Fitting masochistic whores
Kingdom of my master

Slavish brood
Programmed to praise selfless servitude

Serve your God
Serve your country
Serve community
Platitudes
Downplay your salvation
Commendation
Coercive use

Bless our dear leaders
Government keepers
Fascist overlords
Lavish lifestyles tax the poor
Render unto Caesar

My blood flows for you

Slavish brood
Programmed to praise selfless servitude

(Serve) the public
(Bow) the company
(Kneel) the patron
Downplay your promotion
Compensation
The taboo truth

Celebrity idols
Reverend role models
Empty impostors
Worthless lives to be ignored
Bind my mind to symbols

Lyrics © Joshua J. Reynolds 2014. All rights reserved.


This song is mainly about the tendency of society to idealize self-sacrifice and its hypocritical inability to follow that ideal. Just think of how often you hear people draw attention to the supposed ‘service’ they have performed simply in order to get what they want:

  1. Want to fool the voters into thinking you give a damn about them? Brand yourself a humble ‘public servant’ at a fundraiser (then fly back home to your publicly-funded mansion on your publicly-funded jumbo jet under the protection of your publicly-funded bodyguards).
  2. Want to graduate? Well, ‘community service’ is required. Just ignore the fact that you’re being coerced into it. It’s a ‘do this or else’ sort of thing. Nevertheless, others will praise you for it. This is the point, right? Or not.
  3. Want to sell lots of pills or pizzas or health plans? Then constantly remind the public that yours is a ‘service-oriented’ company. Just say it, regardless of what it means or if it’s true, and that should be sufficient to make people like you and trust your product.
  4. Want to get on God’s good side? Two words: ‘Church service’. I have to admit, however, that it is beyond my ability to comprehend how sitting in a building with others singing songs to a divinity constitutes ‘service’ — unless, of course, we view that divinity as some sort of Medieval Lord who demands song and dance from his serfs for… uh… his own entertainment? Then it almost makes sense, I suppose.
  5. Finally, what about ‘serving the company’ or ‘service to the profession’? When my father died, the funeral director recommended addressing his ‘service’ to his job in the obituary. I guarantee my dad didn’t see it that way. He had busted his ass for countless years for a paycheck, plain and simple. Nothing wrong with that.

Anyway, the problem with all this is that it’s brazenly hypocritical. People pretend to be sacrificing something important to them as if they’re all noble and admirable, but in reality they are just using the labels ‘servant’ and ‘service’ to benefit themselves. And when they do so, society gives them in return a good pat on the belly. This is, however, exactly the opposite of the self-sacrifice that service really entails. It’s as if people use the words ‘service’ and ‘serve’ simply as passwords to prove that they’re members of the ‘good people’ club. Beyond that, the terms are empty and meaningless.

This brings me to the second theme of the song: symbol worship. It makes sense that society would care only to flash their ‘service’ to others as an empty token of their supposed virtue because society as a whole is obsessed with symbols over substance, the container over content, the image over reality.

Think again of all those dutiful Sunday morning worshipers kneeling before… not Jesus or God, but the so called ‘cross’. Bumper stickers, flags, logos, badges, uniforms, trademarks – none of these really says anything substantial about the thing or person that bears them. But they pretend to do so. If you are a Christian, do you automatically respect those with crosses around their necks? Probably. Should you? Uh, no. No more than a Yankees fan should think he has anything significant in common with some random guy on the street sporting a cap that the Yankees corporation has branded with the appropriate logo. And yet, such senseless solidarity thrives, all at the end of strings pulled by advertisers, corporations, politicians and priests.

Basically, symbol-minded = simple-minded. Symbols replace thought. They are like the crack of the whip a master uses to rouse a slave into action without question. The upshot? Society’s symbol-worship and service-praise sadly reveal most people’s secret desire to be dominated. They obsessively long for a lord and master to command them. They want to be controlled and released from the burden of thought. They desperately desire to ‘turn the other cheek’ like their idol, but can they?

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2015. All rights reserved.

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