Returning to First Century Palestine for Lessons on the Future of Religion – Reza Aslan’s Zealot, 2013

Aslan sketch_10.indd

Zealot, 2013

I’ve just finished a lovely book, currently #4 on the NYT Nonfiction Bestseller list, that I recommend highly for those seeking to improve their personal spirituality and understanding of religion, Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, 2013. First a personal disclosure: My parents were raised, and they raised their children in the Lutheran branch of Christianity. But like many a learning-oriented youth I had increasing difficulty reconciling the logic and aspirations of modern texts (primarily, the lovely World Book) with the illogic and wrath of large parts of the Bible. I started taking notes in the margins to document my disagreements, and began dropping whole sections from my mind, beginning with most of the Old Testament. By my young adulthood I ended up focusing on the parts of Jesus message I really admired, and I came to understand him as a courageous spiritual leader, a champion of the downtrodden, and a failed revolutionary who was very much a product of his time and culture.


Life of Brian, 1979

Do you remember Monty Python’s Life of Brian, 1979? In particular, that scene with all the messiahs in the marketplace, competing for followers? It turns out the truth isn’t that far from that famous skit. First Century Palestine was a highly competitive breeding ground for would-be messiahs, with rationality in short supply and populism, passion, rhetoric, and tricks like exorcism and miraculous healings as standard tools of the trade for a large class of itinerant preachers. Will and Ariel Durant covered this well in their amazing and epic Story of Civilization, 1935-75, parts of which I read in college.

One of Azlan’s gifts is that he resurrects that easily-forgotten world in the first twelve chapters of Zealot, in a well-crafted, suspenseful story. He begins by introducing us to the Maccabees, zealous guerilla-fighting Jews who recapture Judea and Jerusalem from the Seleucids in 164 BCE, after four centuries of non-Jewish rule. Then we see the Jews sadly lose control of their beloved homeland again in 63 BCE, when Rome conquers Jerusalem under Pompey Magnus, putting Judea under tithe and hated centurions in control of the holy Temple. He retells the hopeful prophecies in Judaism for a coming messiah (a new king, revolutionary, savior, prophet) who will smite the enemy and usher in a new “Kingdom of God” on Earth. We are introduced to scores of failed messiahs from this era (at least a dozen self-proclaimed messiahs are known, even with the poor records of the time) who each gain followers, even for years, yet most are eventually captured and crucified, the classic punishment for revolutionaries.

We next see the rise of Jewish Sicarii, stealthy assassins who use small daggers, hidden in cloaks, to secretly and effectively kill Romans and Roman sympathizers in crowds in public, and we see them eventually even murder the Temple’s head priest Jonathan of Ananus, a hated stooge of Rome, in 56CE. By 66CE, these passionate revolutionary Jews have risen up and expelled the far more powerful Romans from Jerusalem, and they are kept out for four entire years. At the end of the Jewish Revolt, in 74CE, almost a thousand Sicarii, men, women, and children, kill themselves en masse at Masada, rather than give the Romans the pleasure of doing so. That’s a level of zealotry, of fervent, extreme, and revolutionary belief and action in support of one’s religion, that we can scarcely understand today.


Jesus in the Temple

This history gets us ready to understand Jesus the revolutionary, Jesus the zealot, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived for some 30 years and who built the foundation for perhaps the most successful movement of religious believers the world has yet seen. The study of the real Jesus, and the attempt to uncover his true life and beliefs is called Jesuism (Jesuology might be more accurate, but it doesn’t seem to exist). As the wikipedia page on this topic reminds us, Jesus was a revolutionary, a communalist, and a transcendentalist, as well as being thoroughly a Jew. Even in the heavily redacted New Testament, pieces of the revolutionary Jesus remain.

We see a Jesus who had his disciples sell their cloaks for swords in Gethsemane (Luke 22:36-38). We see him “Cleanse the Temple” in Jerusalem using physical force (Mark 11:15-33). And he says things like:  “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have come not to bring peace, but the sword.” (Matthew 10:34).  Of course, all of this is heresay, written mostly by followers who didn’t know him personally, many decades after his death. What Jesus said and did in his life is largely a mystery. Yet Azlan takes us one step closer to uncovering that mystery, and presenting it as an epic story, and we must thank him for it.


Paul the Narcissist

But I think it is Part III, the last three chapters and epilogue, where Zealot really shines. Here we are introduced to Paul of Tarsus, an urbanized Roman Jew who was a serious narcissist, power-lover, and yet another would-be messiah, born a few years after Jesus’s death. After at first unsuccessfully persecuting the early believers in Jesus, and no doubt impressed with how both stubborn and kind they were to him in return, in a flash of inspiration he realized this new religion’s weak spot – by fashioning himself into a “new apostle”, alleging divine communication with the dead Jesus, and preaching an even easier and broadly palatable version of Jesus’ teachings than the others on offer, he could take control of this new movement himself. In his fights with the other versions of Christianity on offer Paul says things like (“If anyone else preaches a gospel contrary to the gospel you received [from me] let him be damned” (Galatians 1:9) even if it comes “from an angel in heaven” (Galatians 1:8), instead, “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Most importantly, Paul’s version of the gospel requires only a simple and easy faith in the divinity of Jesus as the sole means to salvation for the believer.

This Pauline Christianity is geared toward gentiles, not just Jews, and toward the urban Romans. It ignored Jesus’s unpopular revolutionary ambitions, and did away with the need for good works and law abidance for salvation that we find in Judaism. Paul’s is a modern, sanitized faith for a New Wealthier and Lazier Age, and it eventually won the battle over the more popular form of Christianity taught in Jerusalem at the time by James, Jesus’s younger brother, which bitterly condemned wealth and was much more devoted to the Torah, both unpopular with Roman audiences. Pauline Christianity keeps growing with gentiles in Rome, and eventually becomes adopted as his own religion by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 300’s. He convenes the First Nicene Council to settle conflicting Christian beliefs in 325CE, and it becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380CE. When the official New Testament is finally assembled at Hippo Regius in 398CE, more than half of the twenty-seven books that make the cut are either by or about Paul.

His message has won, and Christianity has become a largely Roman invention, as well as a lasting gift the world. At the same time, beginning with barbarian invasions in 376CE and concluding with the murder of the last emperor, Julius Nepos, in 480CE, the Roman Empire itself entered a long and tragic collapse, from which its new religion could not save it.

It is all such an amazing story, and our historical records get better every year at piecing together the key details. It also deserves to be told in as many media formats as possible. Aslan, @rezaaslan, is a co-founder of BoomGen Studios in NY. They do “Transmedia Storytelling”, figuring out ways to blend true history, education, and entertainment in a way where people and institutions will pay for their own edification, starting from least and ending with the most expensive media formats. For example, they might launch a book version of a great historical story first, then a graphic novel (think of Persepolis2000), then a school version of the graphic novel, then a video game, then finally a film. Mahyad Tousi, @MahyadT, is BoomGen’s co-founder. I recommend Tousi’s inspiring TEDx talk, The Future of History, for more on transmedia uses of history to edify-educate.

First Century Palestine

First Century Palestine

I don’t know if Aslan and Tousi are thinking about doing a graphic novel of Zealot next, but I’m sure they could crowdfund one via Kickstarter right now if they choose. Eventually we can expect to see a film. A great film would immerse you in the incredibly messianic and violent world of First Century Palestine. It would show you how the idealistic, communalist, revolutionary Jew, Jesus of Nazareth lived and what he likely said and thought. And it would show how Jesus of Nazareth was turned into Jesus the Christ in the decades and centuries after his death, by a lot of motivated people, for many compelling reasons. Such a film could be particularly helpful for lapsed Christians who are moving toward the evidence-based destinations of scientific naturalism and agnosticism. It would also show how all successful religions continue to reform themselves, and that the only real moral problem with the major monotheistic religions is that they all stopped editing their scriptures about 1,000 years ago, while science continues to edit its morality story faster and more usefully every year.

Socrates, Champion of the Individual Mind

Socrates, Champion of the Questioning Mind

A great prequel to the Christianity story might begin with the birth of the modern secular naturalist mind in Greece, beginning with Thales, 624-546 BCE, perhaps the first great Western secular humanist, philosopher and mathematician. We could also meet Cleisthenes, who brought democracy to Athens circa 550 BCE, which would lead us to Pericles, the great secular leader of Athens in its Golden Age, 480-404 BCE, and next to Socrates, 469-399 BCE, who championed:

1. Questioning as a method of continual self- and world-improvement,
2. Agnosticism (knowing of nothing with certainty, including God),
3. Dualism (humanity’s body/behaviors and soul/mind are equally important),
4. Asceticism (earthly things are less important than one’s soul/mind/morals) and
5. Never retaliating to those who do you wrong.

We can imagine that if Socrates had been not only nonretaliatory but more empathic and humble, prizing people’s feelings as high as their thoughts, he likely wouldn’t have been sentenced to death for impiety and “corrupting” the minds of youth. He was not a revolutionary (Jesus was, and so his path was fated once he allowed himself to be called messiah), but a patriot. And had Socrates also promoted careful observation, measurement, and physical experimentation (closely watching and building things in the physical world, not just in the mind), we’d have had the scientific method about 1600 years earlier than we did. So close, yet so far!

Aslan, who also wrote the acclaimed No God But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, 2011, considers himself a reform Muslim. I know many reform religious members who are also open or secret naturalists and agnostics. That’s a big part of the future of religion, I think: increasing numbers of us being occasional or even frequent members of some religious or spiritual community, but no longer sanctioning scriptural falsehoods and hypocrisies. Protesting those parts of the story we don’t like, because our gut, or science, tell us they are wrong. That road has led to a 2013 Pope who has finally caved to homosexuality, for example. All we needed were enough Catholics speaking out, and enough empathy for gay Catholics. We could have also looked to all the nonhuman species, and acknowledged our kinship with them, in order to see how natural a sexual variation homosexuality actually is. Who are we to judge indeed.


Jefferson’s Bible, 1820

In college, I discovered that one of my heroes, Thomas Jefferson, had done his own Jesuism as well. With razor and glue, verse by verse, he compiled eighty-two pages of New Testament writings about Jesus life and teachings that he found worth studying, verses he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (aka the “Jefferson Bible“). He characterized this effort as picking out “diamonds in a dunghill”, and encouraged each of us to do the same, with everything that is held up to us as scripture, by anyone.

As for me, beyond religious naturalism (called deism in Jefferson’s day) and agnosticism, I haven’t yet found my ideal religious community. I’m looking for one that promotes scientific and philosophical understanding of the universe and our relation to it (“spiritual thinking”), unconditional love of the universe and all its creatures (“spiritual love and empathy”), and higher moral behavior, including taking some responsibility for our moral deviants, who may need “tough love” and protection from their own nature (“spiritual behavior”). It should have a large, cognitively- and skills-diverse community, doing lots of good social works and activism, to maximize friendships and social support. Members should have a great diversity of political views, ideally all lightly and agnostically held.

Unitarian Universalism (UU) - A Good (Not Yet Great) Secular Humanist and Reform Religious Community

Unitarian Universalism (UU) – A Good (Not Yet Great) Secular Humanist and Reform Religious Community

Like Jefferson, I dabbled in Unitarianism in college, and one community I participate in and can recommend is the Unitarian Universalists (UU). UU’s have built a tent that welcomes lapsed believers from all the world’s religious communities, as well as nontraditional spiritual communities like us secular humanists. UU Sunday Schools aim to give children a basic fluency in and empathy with all the world’s religous beliefs, while primarily promoting humanism, democracy, civics, and (to some degree) truth-seeking. There are still quite a few Liberal Christians, other scripture-believers, and antiscience New Age thinkers in UU congregations, and thus not enough emphasis yet on science, evidence, and rationality in their spiritual practice. But they have both religious and intellectual diversity and a growing secular humanist core, and in another 30 years, I think the majority of UU Liberal Christians will be lapsed and secularized. Thus I think their community is well on the way to the ideal many of us are looking for today.

GDP Per Capita for Western Europe, 1000 to 1999 CE. Global wealth continually accelerates, as does information production, computing, communications, and nanotech advances. This continual acceleration of special processes is the most interesting and civilization-advancing phenomenon in the Universe, and we don't yet know why it exists.

Global wealth continually accelerates, as does information production, computing, communications, and nanotech advances. This continual acceleration of special processes is the most interesting and civilization-advancing phenomenon in the Universe, and we don’t yet know why it exists.

Other good-sized groups seeking to advance spirituality in a secular age are the Humanist, Ethical Culture, Society of Friends (Quaker) and various Freethought communities. I’d recommend checking any of these out now and attending any that are helpful to your own spiritual path. Walking the path with others who are serious about living higher values is far more effective and rewarding than doing it alone.

Finally, while Freethought, and to a lesser extent, the other communities above recognize the primacy of science as way of knowing, all of these still miss the importance of the phenomenon of accelerating change to the human condition. And none engage in deep discussion of apparently innate evolutionary and developmental trends toward increasing universal complexity, morality, and consciousness.

Given these apparently natural developmental processes, it is obvious to me at least, that we will see a far faster, smarter, more capable, and more resource-independent (catastrophe-immune) postbiological intelligence very soon in this little corner of our Universe. So for me, what intelligent technology wants, its emergent goals and morality, and how we can best guide its long arrival, a process that began centuries ago, are among the most interesting practical and spiritual questions of our age.

Keep Calm and Carry On – Reacting to the Boston Marathon Bombing

Runners continue to run towards the finish line as an explosion erupts at the finish line of the Boston MarathonI’ve had some deep discussions today about the Boston Marathon bombings with friends. Here’s something I shared with a friend who lives in the Boston area in Massachusetts. His predominant feeling right now is disillusionment. If you’re in the same boat, I hope you find it helpful in some way. Thanks for any feedback.

Friend, I hope this event won’t shake your faith in humanity or in the continued acceleration of global progress, or in our ability to better understand what progress is, and for reasons yet to be discovered, why accelerating progress seems only partly under our control, and partly driven by the amazingly intelligent and self-correcting environment into which we were born.

acooperativespecies2011There are always half of one percent of us who are seriously broken in some way. It is surprising, when you stop to think about it, that majority of us are so strongly against doing such cowardly and terrible things. Almost all violence is rapidly self-limiting. It can be a calculation of fairness, a seeking of justice in the wild. Or a case of beliefs being seriously out of step with reality, or emotions not being sufficiently regulated. Fortunately, for the vast majority of us, our moral sentiments and desire to cooperate are incredibly deep, selected and self-organized over countless previous life cycles. At the same time, our tools and policies for protecting the world system get only better and smarter. We must understand these processes better, and aggressively work to improve them in society and the individual.

the.transparent.society1998The mentally ill, extremists and oligarchs throughout history are a persistently tiny fraction of society. The main effect of mental illness events like this (these particular bombings, irrational as they are, are even more a mental and psychological illness than an extremist/terrorist event, as I see it), aside from their tragic short-term cost, is to grow our global immunity to them in future years. If we learn from them (a critical “if”), they accelerate the emergence of the transparency tools and social development programs that we know is our future, and as long as it is increasingly a bottom-up, citizen-driven transparency and social development process, we gain greater control over both the extremists and the autocrats, our democracy strengthens, and the world gets collectively more intelligent. Imagine, as social and media futurist Alvis Brigis says, if it was ten years in the future and one out of twenty people in that Boston crowd had been wearing Google Glass or an equivalent? (I’m a Glass Explorer, so I’m looking forward to getting an early adopter version of this fantastic new wearable computer and lifelogging tech). They’d all be able to share their recent archives and feeds and it wouldn’t be long before we’d have the perpetrators identities and last public locations.

Mental illness is one issue, but what about oligarchy (government by elites, without representation) and plutocracy (government by the wealthy), and the way such governments breed extremism in the developing world by replacing culture with commercialism, removing self-determination and representation, and inducing cornered cultures to react with Fundamentalism? If increasing political, economic, and social fairness is a clear vector of social progress, how do we keep building it in all our societies in the years ahead?

With regard to the plutocrats, there is good news: our global rich poor divide has never been smaller. It was highest in the 13th century  under Feudalism by several measures, and has slowly decreased ever since. But the problem we face is that in the world’s leading and fastest developing countries inequality seesaws, at first going up as the wealth of new technology revolutions is initially captured by the well-capitalized few, and then later down again as the revolution works its way out to the many, where the maturing and cheapening tech allows disruptive new entrepreneurship on top of the platform, and as new rights and entitlements eventually emerge.


The Finland Phenomenon, a great film on the education reform the US needs for more self-reliant and less fearful citizens.

The Finland Phenomenon, a great film on the education reform the US needs to make more self-reliant, innovative, and less fearful citizens.

As Joseph Stiglitz discusses in The Price of Inequality, 2013, we need a certain amount of income inequality to spur innovation, but if we let it get too big, the wealthy and the corporations capture our political machinery, only their interests are represented, and democracy, political reform, and political compromise and moderation die. Due to tech globalization’s great wealth creation, income inequality has grown rapidly in the last 60 years in a handful of nations, in the 1970’s-80’s in the US, UK, and Israel, and in the 1990’s and 2000’s also in rapidly developing countries like China and Brazil (and to a much lower degree, in a few low-inequality countries like Germany and Sweden). In the U.S., asset inequality is now so extreme that just 1% of us own 40% of the nation’s wealth. When our lower and middle classes can no longer find meaningful jobs under constant technological change, while we see other developed nations doing far better with education and job creation, we should not be surprised. We let this happen, by letting our MNCs get larger than governments (instead of splitting them up, as we used to), and by dismantling progressive income and inheritance tax for the wealthy (which last existed seriously in the US in the 1950’s).

To bring this back to the theme of this post, another big price of plutocracy is that our citizens lose the ability to engage with the developing world an empathic and positive-sum way, and our fear grows. We fear technological progress, as the job disruption dumps us into a degraded society that doesn’t keep job creation and retraining as the top priority. We fear the further loss of jobs via outsourcing. We fear immigration, and forget that merit-based immigration is one of the fastest creators of new jobs, science, and industries. We fear other belief systems, and we demonize the other, rather than finding common cause with the moderates in every religion and group. As our political system gets captured by unresponsive and polarized elites (they are wealth driven and fight hard to divide the spoils among themselves), tough social problems like educational reform don’t get done. See The Finland Phenomenon for an excellent example of what we can will one day do to fix our broken educational system, when we finally get the political will. In the meantime, our citizens grow increasingly globally ignorant, inward-focused, and politically apathetic, or polarized and uncompromising like their wealthy masters.

Source: Growing Unequal?, OECD 2008. <BR> Click the graphic for the report.

Source: Growing Unequal?, OECD 2008.
Click the graphic for the report.

But, thank the Universe, America is an outlier, with our elites capturing such an outsized portion of the new technological wealth in the last six decades that we are going temporarily against the global trend. We will eventually reverse this and be forced, by accelerating technoeconomic integration, to get back to the global trend. The developed OCED countries as a whole aren’t following our sad course of sixty years of rapidly increasing income inequality and 60% higher levels of income poverty, as the 2008 OECD graphic at right shows. Remember that for the global economy, the absolute size of the inequity gap is still closing since Feudalism. As visionary books like Abundance, 2012, make clear, we can see how extreme global economic and educational poverty will disappear just a few decades hence.  Many of the emerging nations are now in the process of growing their GDP two or three times faster than us. Check out for some beautiful graphs telling that story. If we’re thinking at all about accelerating tech, we can see a new world of the conversational interface and of teacherless education (to use futurist Thomas Frey’s great phrase) less than ten years hence, where every literate and illiterate child has a wearable waterproof smartphone on their wrist, listening in to what they are learning and teaching them who knows what.

Accelerating technology always causes evolutionary disruption in the first phase. More money goes to the rich and the leading corporations, at first, rather than the rest of society from any new technological and trade revolution, be it industrial, transportation, mass consumption, communications, personal computing, internet, web services, or any other revolution affecting the global marketplace. In the U.S. and a few other countries, these and other revolutions have been the dominant story of the latest 60 years of globalization. In turn, the vast new wealth increase of the MNCs, many of whom now have revenues larger than those of the leading countries, and their unrestrained effects on the developing world, has been a great driver of the clash of cultures and the extremist events we see today. We are pushing citizens in many of these cultures to change at a rate far faster than their reformists are comfortable with, and successive waves of technology innovation are driving them (and us, but always to a far lesser degree) continually out of their livelihoods into a globally wealthier but, in the absence of good retraining and social safety nets, a much more socially uncertain future.

virtuous_circleantifragileEventually the global system, being not only evolutionary but also developmental, always gains irreversible new levels of total positive-sum integration, and immunity. For the system as a whole, virtuous cycles are always underway and antifragility will increasingly dominate, if global development is like living systems development, as I believe it is. I hope you can find a way to see and guide the positive changes that will come from this tragic event, as they surely must.

Bruce Schneier, Security Maven

Bruce Schneier, Security Maven

So regarding our emotions and actions around this bombing, with a potential to cause disproportionate fear and immune response, as occurred after 9/11, I think Bruce Schneier’s brief piece in The Atlantic says it best: Keep Calm and Carry On.” Let’s not overreact, overspend, overregulate. Let’s not fixate on or overgeneralize this rare event itself, or get scared. Let’s continue to work calmly on the social development processes (income equity, representation, education, psych services, job creation, civics, religious tolerance and reform) that will reduce the probability of this happening again, and the transparency processes (primarily bottom up, and secondarily top down cameras, sensors, networks, databases, pattern recognizers, human intelligence) that will increase our ability to find, isolate, and help (or at least, prevent from further harm) the broken folks or individual who did this.

Let’s implement our actions carefully and incrementally, while always insuring their social benefits exceed their costs. Let’s keep calm and carry on.

Chemical Brain Preservation: How to Live “Forever” – A Personal View

Here’s my 45 minute talk on Chemical Brain Preservation at World Future Society 2012. Given the progress we’ve seen in the relevant science and technologies it’s a topic I’m presently very optimistic about. I had a great audience with lots of questions at the end, but in the interest of brevity I’m just uploading the talk. Let me know your thoughts in the comments, thanks!

A number of neuroscientists, working today with simple model organisms, are investigating the hypothesis that chemical brain preservation may inexpensively preserve the organism’s memories and mental states after death. Chemically preserved brains can be stored at room temperature in cemeteries, contract storage, even private homes. Our 501c3 nonprofit organization, the Brain Preservation Foundation, is offering a $100,000 prize to the first scientific team to demonstrate that the entire synaptic connectivity (“connectome”) of mammalian brains can be perfectly preserved using either chemical preservation or more expensive cryopreservation techniques.

Such preserved brains may be “read” in the future, analogous to the way a computer hard drive is read today, so that either memories or the complete identities of the preserved individuals can be restored or “uploaded” in computer form. Chemical preservation techniques are already being used to scan and upload the connectomes of very small animal brains (C. elegans and OpenWorm, zebrafish, soon flies). Though these scans are not yet sufficiently complex to extract memories from the uploaded organisms, give them a little more time, we’re very close now to cracking long-term memory. We just need to know a bit more about this process at the protein/receptor/gene level:

Amazingly, if information technologies continue to improve at historical rates, a person whose brain is chemically preserved in 2020 might have their memories read or even fully return to the world in a computer form not centuries but just a few decades from now, while their children and loved ones are still alive. Given progress in electron microscopy and connectomics research to date, we can even forsee how this may be done as a fully automated and inexpensive process.

Today, only 1% of people in developed societies are interested in living beyond their biological death (see When I’m 164, David Ewing Duncan, 2012). With chemical brain preservation, this 1% may soon have a validated, low-cost method that will allow them to do just that. Once it becomes a real option, and recovery of simple memories has been demonstrated in model organisms, this 1% may grow larger as well.

I am particularly excited by chemical brain preservation’s ability to improve the social contract: what benefits we may reasonably expect from the universe and society when we choose to live a good and moral life. I believe that having the option of chemical brain preservation at death, if the science is validated, may help all our societies become significantly more science-, future-, progress-, preservation-, sustainability-, truth and justice-, and community-oriented in coming years.

Would you choose chemical brain preservation at death if it was widely available, validated, and inexpensive? If not, why not? Would you do it to donate your brain to science? Your memories to your children or others who might want them? Would you be willing to come back in person, if that turns out to be possible? If it is sufficiently inexpensive, would it be best to preserve your brain at death, and let future society decide if either your memories or your identity are “worth” reanimating? Please let me know what you think in the comments, thank you.

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