July 3, 2012
July 3, 2012
July 3, 2012
“They shall make an ark of acacia wood,” God commanded Moses in the Book of Exodus, after delivering the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. And so the Israelites built an ark, or chest, gilding it inside and out. And into this chest Moses placed stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, as given to him on Mount Sinai.
Thus the ark “was worshipped by the Israelites as the embodiment of God Himself,” writes Graham Hancock in The Sign and the Seal. “Biblical and other archaic sources speak of the Ark blazing with fire and light…stopping rivers, blasting whole armies.” (Steven Spielberg’s 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark provides a special-effects approximation.) According to the First Book of Kings, King Solomon built the First Temple in Jerusalem to house the ark. It was venerated there during Solomon’s reign (c. 970-930 B.C.) and beyond.
Then it vanished. Much of Jewish tradition holds that it disappeared before or while the Babylonians sacked the temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.
But through the centuries, Ethiopian Christians have claimed that the ark rests in a chapel in the small town of Aksum, in their country’s northern highlands. It arrived nearly 3,000 years ago, they say, and has been guarded by a succession of virgin monks who, once anointed, are forbidden to set foot outside the chapel grounds until they die.
One of the first things that caught my eye in Addis Ababa, the country’s capital, was an enormous concrete pillar topped by a giant red star—the sort of monument to communism still visible in Pyongyang. The North Koreans built this one as a gift for the Derg, the Marxist regime that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991 (the country is now governed by an elected parliament and prime minister). In a campaign that Derg officials named the Red Terror, they slaughtered their political enemies—estimates range from several thousand to more than a million people. The most prominent of their victims was Emperor Haile Selassie, whose death, under circumstances that remain contested, was announced in 1975.
He was the last emperor of Ethiopia—and, he claimed, the 225th monarch, descended from Menelik, the ruler believed responsible for Ethiopia’s possession of the ark of the covenant in the tenth century B.C.
The story is told in the Kebra Negast (Glory of the Kings), Ethiopia’s chronicle of its royal line: the Queen of Sheba, one of its first rulers, traveled to Jerusalem to partake of King Solomon’s wisdom; on her way home, she bore Solomon’s son, Menelik. Later Menelik went to visit his father, and on his return journey was accompanied by the firstborn sons of some Israelite nobles—who, unbeknown to Menelik, stole the ark and carried it with them to Ethiopia. When Menelik learned of the theft, he reasoned that since the ark’s frightful powers hadn’t destroyed his retinue, it must be God’s will that it remain with him.
Many historians—including Richard Pankhurst, a British-born scholar who has lived in Ethiopia for almost 50 years—date the Kebra Negast manuscript to the 14th century A.D. It was written, they say, to validate the claim by Menelik’s descendants that their right to rule was God-given, based on an unbroken succession from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. But the Ethiopian faithful say the chronicles were copied from a fourth-century Coptic manuscript that was, in turn, based on a far earlier account. This lineage remained so important to them that it was written into Selassie’s two imperial constitutions, in 1931 and 1955.
Before leaving Addis Ababa for Aksum, I went to the offices of His Holiness Abuna Paulos, patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which has some 40 million adherents worldwide, to ask about Ethiopia’s claim to have the ark of the covenant. Paulos holds a PhD in theology from Princeton University, and before he was installed as patriarch, in 1992, he was a parish priest in Manhattan. Gripping a golden staff, wearing a golden icon depicting the Madonna cradling an infant Jesus, and seated on what looked like a golden throne, he oozed power and patronage.
“We’ve had 1,000 years of Judaism, followed by 2,000 years of Christianity, and that’s why our religion is rooted in the Old Testament,” he told me. “We follow the same dietary laws as Judaism, as set out in Leviticus,” meaning that his followers keep kosher, even though they are Christians. “Parents circumcise their baby boys as a religious duty, we often give Old Testament names to our boys and many villagers in the countryside still hold Saturday sacred as the Sabbath.”
Is this tradition linked to the church’s claim to hold the ark, which Ethiopians call Tabota Seyen, or the Ark of Zion? “It’s no claim, it’s the truth,” Paulos answered. “Queen Sheba visited King Solomon in Jerusalem three thousand years ago, and the son she bore him, Menelik, at age 20 visited Jerusalem, from where he brought the ark of the covenant back to Aksum. It’s been in Ethiopia ever since.”
I asked if the ark in Ethiopia resembles the one described in the Bible: almost four feet long, just over two feet high and wide, surmounted by two winged cherubs facing each other across its heavy lid, forming the “mercy seat,” or footstool for the throne of God. Paulos shrugged. “Can you believe that even though I’m head of the Ethiopian church, I’m still forbidden from seeing it?” he said. “The guardian of the ark is the only person on earth who has that peerless honor.”…
July 3, 2012
“Religious freedom is a cherished American value,” writes David Niose in his new book, Nonbeliever Nation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), “but religious predominance is not.” Published in July, the book takes the reader through a history of secularism in the United States and renders the powerful rise of the conservative religious right in sharp detail. But what makes the book groundbreaking is Niose’s survey of the growing number of Americans who call themselves secularists, humanists, atheists, freethinkers, and skeptics—in general, the nonbelievers who have been organizing and growing as a force to be reckoned with, namely by the religious right that continues to impose its dogmatic agenda upon the nation. An attorney who is also the president of the American Humanist Association and author of a humanist-themed blog for Psychology Today, Niose is perfectly poised to check and report on the pulse of the current secular zeitgeist. Richard Dawkins characterizes the book as “simultaneously disturbing and reassuring” and Michael Shermer calls it “The Feminist Mystique of this movement, destined to be a classic in freedom literature.”
The following three excerpts are from Chapter Seven of Nonbeliever Nation by David Niose. Copyright © 2012 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.
Reason for Hope and Hope for Reason
AS SECULAR AMERICANS have emerged over the last few years, one of the most fascinating and exciting areas within the movement has been the phenomenon of student activism. Religious skepticism on college campuses is nothing new, but what’s happening today is truly unprecedented. Across all lines of wealth, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, students are standing up together to identify as personally secular.
The historical role of religion in higher learning is somewhat paradoxical. On one hand, by definition higher learning should be an exercise in skepticism—questioning facts, finding flaws in arguments, and developing work that can withstand intellectual scrutiny—so it should not be surprising that colleges and universities are havens for the critical analysis of religious claims and doctrines. Nevertheless, established churches have historically wielded enormous influence over social and political life in both Europe and America and, therefore, have often had close relationships with institutions of higher learning. Harvard, Yale, the College of William and Mary, and virtually all of the oldest colleges in America were mainly incubators for clergymen in their earliest years. When Connecticut legislators founded the college that would later become Yale in 1701, they declared that they were motivated by “Zeal for upholding & Propagating of the Christian Protestant Religion” to educate “a succession of Learned & Orthodox men” who through “the blessing of Almighty God may be fitted for Publick employment both in Church & Civil State.” Thus, it is ironic that these bastions of intellectual pursuit, which would ultimately do more to chip away at the credibility of established religion than any other social institutions, were often established by men for whom the idea of separating God from academia would have been unthinkable.
With the Enlightenment already underway in Europe when religious men were founding the earliest American colleges, the relationship between religion and higher education was bound to eventually get tense. One obvious dilemma was that established religious institutions, which were by their nature conservative, inflexible, and reliant on ancient doctrine, needed educated, literate leadership to maintain power and legitimacy. This was not so problematic in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when an advanced education did not necessarily conflict with religious authority. As the years progressed, however, Enlightenment ideas, industrialization and commercialization, the discoveries of Darwin, and other advances in knowledge made it increasingly likely that a college education would result in religious skepticism, not reinforcement. Over time, this resulted in the diminished role of religion in higher education, and as early as the nineteenth century we begin to see atheism and agnosticism as visible, sometimes even acceptable, schools of thought in establishment academia.
That trajectory continued into the twentieth century, resulting in skepticism being not the exception but the rule in many institutions of higher education. While schools of theology can still be found in many of the great educational institutions, theology as a discipline of study is often seen as a puzzling relic from a bygone era. Much more dominant are the schools of science, technology, medicine, law, business, and liberal arts, most of which, depending on the specific institution, are likely to be populated with instructors and students who, if asked, are skeptical or ambivalent about religion. Few courses of study will expose students to ideas that are particularly sympathetic toward traditional religion. This is in part because few of those doctrines withstand a search for empirical truth, and also because many courses of study, such as history, anthropology, and gender studies, expose students to ideas that may delegitimize religion and portray it in an unfavorable light. Students learn of historical and contemporary religious justifications for the mistreatment of women, the rejection of basic matters of scientific truth on religious grounds, atrocities attributable to religion, and convincing arguments that religion is a natural phenomenon and not the product of divine revelation, to name a few examples. Thus, for anyone alive today who has attended college, it is likely that notions of atheism, agnosticism, and general religious skepticism were a part of the college experience.
A Primary Secular Identity
Despite all this, even though atheists have been a fixture on America’s college campuses for decades, the situation today is unprecedented. Today’s secular students, unlike their parents and grandparents, see secular identity as a primary, important part of who they are. While there were atheists and agnostics all over college campuses in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, most nonreligious students in those days, if asked, would have first defined themselves as many things other than atheist or secular. They may have first seen themselves as liberal, conservative, socialist, libertarian, environmentalist, gay/lesbian, feminist, antiwar, no-nukes, or one of many other labels; in fact, their religious skepticism often would have been incidental and very low on any list of importance. Today, nonreligious students are increasingly seeing their personal secularity as a key aspect of their character and their approach to life, an identity that immediately conveys much about what they accept and reject.
Nothing better illustrates this point than the explosive growth of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA), the national umbrella organization for campus atheist and humanist groups. Founded in 2000, the SSA had less than fifty campus affiliates in early 2007, but by 2011 it had over 340. Currently, the SSA has affiliates from coast to coast and even throughout the Bible Belt. With groups such as the Penn State Atheist/Agnostic Association, Students for Freethought at Ohio State University, the Boise State Secular Student Alliance, and the University of Alabama Atheists and Agnostics, SSA affiliates demonstrate the national significance of atheist-humanist identity on college campuses today.
“We’re witnessing a major shift in our society,” SSA spokesperson Jesse Galef told me. “More students are proudly calling themselves atheists, which inspires others to do the same. We used to go out and find them. Now they’re springing up everywhere and finding us, asking to join the movement.”…
The Vice Presidents That History Forgot: The U.S. vice presidency has been filled by a rogues gallery of mediocrities, criminals and even corpses
July 3, 2012
In 1966, I stood outside my elementary school in Maryland, waving a sign for Spiro Agnew. He was running for governor against a segregationist who campaigned on the slogan, “Your Home Is Your Castle—Protect It.” My parents, like many Democrats, crossed party lines that year to help elect Agnew. Two years later, he became Richard Nixon’s surprise choice as running mate, prompting pundits to wonder, “Spiro who?” At 10, I was proud to know the answer.
Agnew isn’t otherwise a source of much pride. He became “Nixon’s Nixon,” an acid-tongued hatchet man who resigned a year before his boss, for taking bribes. But “Spiro who?” turned me into an early and enduring student of vice-presidential trivia. Which led me, a few months ago, to Huntington, Indiana, an industrial town that was never much and is even less today. It’s also the boyhood home of our 44th vice president.
His elementary school is unmarked, a plain brick building that’s now a senior citizens center. But across the street stands an imposing church that has been rechristened the “Quayle Vice Presidential Learning Center.” Inside the former chapel, you can see “Danny” Quayle’s report card (A’s and B’s), his toy truck and exhibits on his checkered tenure as vice president. He “accomplished more than most realize,” a caption states, noting Quayle’s visits to 47 countries and his chairmanship of the Council on Competitiveness.
But the learning center isn’t a shrine to Quayle—or a joke on its namesake, who famously misspelled “potato.” It is, instead, a nonpartisan collection of stories and artifacts relating to all 47 vice presidents: the only museum in the land devoted to the nation’s second-highest office. This neglect might seem surprising, until you tour the museum and learn just how ignored and reviled the vice presidency has been for most of its history. John Nance Garner, for one, said the job wasn’t worth a bucket of warm spit.
“Actually, Garner said ‘piss,’ not spit, but the press substituted another warm bodily fluid,” notes Daniel Johns, the museum director. This polishing of Garner’s words marked a rare instance of varnish being applied to the office. While Americans sanctify the presidency and swathe it in myth, the same has rarely applied to the president’s “spare tire,” as Garner also called himself.
“Ridicule is an occupational hazard of the job,” Johns observes, leading me past political cartoons, newspaper invective and portraits of whiskered figures so forgotten that the museum has struggled to find anything to say or display about them. He pauses before a group portrait of Indiana’s five VPs, a number that stirs Hoosier pride—except that the first, Schuyler Colfax, took bribes in a railroad scandal and died unrecognized on a railroad platform.
“His picture should be hung a little more crooked,” Johns quips. He moves on to Colfax’s successor, Henry Wilson, who died in office after soaking in a tub. Then comes William Wheeler, unknown even to the man at the top of the ticket in 1876. “Who is Wheeler?” Rutherford B. Hayes wrote upon hearing the quiet congressman suggested as his running mate.
The VP museum, which once used the advertising motto “Second to One,” isn’t kind to the nation’s founders, either. It was they who are largely to blame for the rogues, also-rans and even corpses who have often filled the office. The Constitution gave almost no role to the vice president, apart from casting tie-breaking votes in the Senate. John Adams, the first to hold the job, called it “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived.”
The Constitution also failed to specify the powers and status of vice presidents who assumed the top office. In fact, the second job was such an afterthought that no provision was made for replacing VPs who died or departed before finishing their terms. As a result, the office has been vacant for almost 38 years in the nation’s history.
Until recently, no one much cared. When William R.D. King died in 1853, just 25 days after his swearing-in (last words: “Take the pillow from under my head”), President Pierce gave a speech addressing other matters before concluding “with a brief allusion” to the vice president’s death. Other number-twos were alive but absentee, preferring their own homes or pursuits to an inconsequential role in Washington, where most VPs lived in boardinghouses (they had no official residence until the 1970s). Thomas Jefferson regarded his vice presidency as a “tranquil and unoffending station,” and spent much of it at Monticello. George Dallas (who called his wife “Mrs. Vice”) maintained a lucrative law practice, writing of his official post: “Where is he to go? What has he to do?—no where, nothing.” Daniel Tompkins, a drunken embezzler described as a “degraded sot,” paid so little heed to his duties that Congress docked his salary…