Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

Part 3 - Divine Deviation: Religious Excesses & Eccentricities

Religious Excesses & Eccentricities

“The religion of one seems madness to another”

Sir Thomas Browne

Religions are undoubtedly responsible for many of mankind’s most elevated thoughts and actions and even today in our rapidly secularising world their precepts underpin most basic civilised values. Ironically though, and precisely because they have always reflected the complexity of human needs and emotions, their contribution has never been entirely and universally beneficial. The Inverse Law that operates between certainty and reasonableness comes into play here. It seems that, because religious beliefs are usually accompanied by a high degree of conviction, they are particularly prone to deviate into objectively unreasonable behaviour. In fact it is safe to ay that, at some time or other, every imaginable error, perversion and crime has been acted out in a religious context, or justified by religious doctrines. It is a sad commentary on the human condition that, down the ages, those acting in the name of inspired ideals have been responsible for uncounted abuses and every variety of peculiar (and downright nasty) conduct…

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Contents (in no particular order)

Closer God to Thee

Simon Stylites, the illiterate son of a goatherd, conceived the notion of placing himself at the top of a column in the Syrian desert, the better to dedicate his life to God. His innovative form of asceticism eventually attracted hordes of pilgrims from every quarter of the Christian world, and as a result he became extremely influential.

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The Desert Monks

The deeper into the desert that the early Christian monks went, and the greater the hardships that they endured, the more clearly they demonstrated their virtue. This naturally made them a target for pilgrims, many of whom were little more than sightseers.

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A Fall from Grace

The sad tale of St. Francis and his followers, their vows of poverty, and their conflict with a corrupted Church.

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Sex, Sin & Antinomian Antics

What with earthy Ancient customs and newer excuses, the Christian Church was confronted with the problem of sexual shenanigans from its earliest days

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Gelding for God

The strange, tormented mood of early Christianity led to extremes of sexual self-loathing – some believers went so far as to castrate themselves. Astonishingly, this practice was revived by the Skoptzi in 19th century Russia, surely one of the most repellent of all religious sects

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The Problem with Lightning

Until the invention of lightning-conductors Churches and Cathedrals, of all buildings, were particularly susceptible to lightning strikes.. This was a matter of great embarrassment to the Church, which tied itself in knots trying to provide an acceptable theological justification for these damaging events

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Sabbatai Z'vi - An Improbable Messiah (ii)

A heroic, Messianic figure in his lifetime, Sabbatei was a tormented soul, wavering and finally failing in his mission. He became an embarrassing disappointment to his devoted followers and to the Jewish diaspora at large – but his legacy was enormous

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Authorised Versions

There is a circular argument common to most religions that base their legitimacy on a revealed text. Their scriptures provide the basis of their religious authority, but this has usually been selectively edited at an early stage on the basis of what was, at the time, felt to be sound.

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* Warriors for Christ

The military orders of the Templers and the Hospitallers were founded to protect and assist Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land. But they rapidly graduated from the role of dedicated elite forces to hold positions of arrogance, wealth and insubordination – and of deadly rivalry with each other.

* Mortifying the Flesh

Much of the modern, conventional explanations explaining masochistic behavior involve the need to expiate a sense of guilt, not surprising then that the religious promulgation of guilt should give rise to extreme examples of masochistic expression. Much of this was pretty weird though, by any standard.

* Sex, Sin and Antinomian Antics

What with earthy ancient customs and newer excuses, the early Christian Church was constantly confronted with the problem of sexual shenanigans.

* Moral Ascendancy and Pious Forgery

Beneath the high claims of moral superiority put forward by religious and political orthodoxies there is a secret history of the ‘interpretation’, fudging and outright forgery of key documents.

* Odium Theologicum

There is a universal tendency among religious movements (in common with most other dedicated groups) to split into different parties, sects or schisms – which naturally leads to argumentation, bigotry and acts of intolerance.

* The Furore over Images

In 8th century Byzantium the issue of the use of the image in worship became the focus of a bitter internecine argument, exciting extreme passions on both sides. This epoch-making dispute, the Iconoclast controversy, raged for well over a century - during which period much blood was spilled over the issue.

* Locating Paradise, Measuring Hell

Among other pressing theological matters, late-Medieval scholars were intensely preoccupied with actual, physical location of the Earthly Paradise. There were many theories on this, some which survived well into the Age of Exploration. In this same period there was considerable debate on the precise location and size of Hell, and a great deal of pseudo-scientific speculation on the precise conditions obtained in both places.

* Holy Hypocrisy

There is often a great disparity between religious theory and practice. An investigation into religious insincerity, deception and venality – all in all, a rich seam of deviant behaviour.

* A Family Quarrel

Islam, despite its central doctrine of Unity, was no more successful in preserving the coherence of its beliefs than any other of the major religions – and problems occurred at a surprisingly early stage. The quarrel between Fatima, the Prophets daughter, and Aisha, his youngest wife, became the source of a bitter, divisive Schism.

* Forgiveness for Sale

In the late medieval period the sale of Pardons and Dispensations turned a corrupt Catholic Church into a money-making corporation – and provoked the Protestant Secession.

* The Tailors Apprentice

In 1533 one John of Leydon, a fanatical Protestant sectarian, took possession of the town of Munster, founded a new theocratic rule and made preparations for the conquest of the world. Claiming that his actions were dictated by heavenly visions his rule rapidly descended into a reign of terror and excess.