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An Atheist’s Perspective: House of Cards

I have a method to my writing this blog. The difference in time between when I hand-write the initial idea and the time it takes to actually get that idea posted is about a month and a half. Yes, dear reader, some editing does actually go into this. Not much, I assure you that, but some. My handwritten draft was written on Columbus Day of this year. The fact that I even considered Columbus Day as an inspiration is odd to me and some people that I know personally, because of a session long screed I once unleashed on an Introduction to Political Philosophy class that I was teaching.

The gist of my attack on Columbus Day is this: Christopher Columbus was an asshole. There can really be no doubt of this: slaver, murderer, thief; all of these words can be legitimately applied to him. Furthermore, we can add that not only did he not do the thing that he is “credited” for, but that for a good part of his life he didn’t believe that he didn’t do it. Remember, his plan was to find an alternate route to India so that he could avoid the perils of travelling through the Middle East or around the Southern tip of Africa. He landed in the Caribbean believing that he landed on some island off the coast. Ok, fine, I get that, one can make that type of mistake…at least for a little bit. Seriously, even that’s a little hard to swallow since Europe had been trading, thus communicating with the Far East but he had no idea that this wasn’t it? Even after it was pointed out that he had in fact missed his destination but found a new land he refused to believe it. This despite the fact that this land and people bore no resemblance to the actual Indians. Not to mention that he hadn’t even discovered a new part of the world, as the Vikings had him beat by about 500 years.

Columbus was the first historical figure that I learned was an utter fabrication. A relic of the desire for Italian-American Catholics to get one of their own recognized as a hero by the American government–despite the objective fact that Amerigo Vespucci was a better candidate in every respect.

The world was proven round by Aristotle, any person with an education in the 15th century would have known about it provided their education went beyond just letters, and that they weren’t a bible literalist (there wasn’t as many of those as we might expect during the Renaissance). I can get into many other things that Columbus did, but I must show some kind of restraint.

The reason that I bring it up now, is because it is one of the first things I can remember being taught about history and it isn’t true. I don’t consider it a lie, because I don’t believe that the people who taught me knew better given that they were likely taught the same thing–that they should have known better is a different story, but a lie is a lie only if the person telling it seeks to deceive. It’s like the American story about George Washington and the cherry tree–it’s a story that gets repeated so often that it becomes a “fact.” The question that I could ask myself is that if this pivotal piece of knowledge was untrue, what else was I taught that could also be put in the category of being untrue? For the most part American education follows the same mold as the rest of the world, American roles in historical events become inflated while certain facts are glibbed over. The story of the American revolution is a good example. The causes of the Revolution were pretty watered down. For instance the Stamp Act inflicted upon the colonies was pretty justified in that it was done to pay for the British army’s role in the French and Indian War. Instead of explaining this, along with the real problem of not being represented in Parliament, we get the idea that all taxes put upon the colonies were wrong. I get why this is done: depending on the level of the lesson it may not be fruitful to teach third graders the intricacies of Parliamentary decision making processes and what the true role of an Empire’s colony is supposed to be. The French role in the revolution is being minimized to the point where I was thirty before I understood that the French were fighting a proxy war in the colonies, again though everyone does this to instill a sense of national belonging and patriotism in their respective countries.

With this kind of doubt one would begin to realize that certain things are a matter of fact while others are of belief. Everything that we know now is based, in one part of another, on what we learned as kids. Religious lessons are no different in this respect. In another respect they are different because there is no way to independently verify the truth of religion. Inquiries into the origins of a religion will always be some kind of primary text, but that source is taught as being untouchable. To even question the sources is regarded as fruitless and/or wrong. Neither notion is correct.

Christians, Jews, and Muslims are taught that the world begins in Genesis, either literally or figuratively but this cannot be true as the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh predates the bible and is obviously the source of the story of Noah and the Flood (at least). This the kind of story which throws the origin story of the world into doubt. When one of the supposed rocks of knowledge is shown to be nothing but an image of a rock the whole thing gets regarded with skepticism at best and cynicism at worst. In a way, this can be regarded as the gate way to more knowledge but that was not the intention.

The problem isn’t about leaving something out, which is why I am leaving aside Columbus’s genocide and slavery, this is about the falsity that taints everything it touches. At some point, someone knew better than to teach this stuff as fact. This had to happen because the Columbus story isn’t true but at some point it shifted. The poem about Columbus is regarded as a lyrical version of real events and someone taught a fiction as fact…because it was catchy I guess? It would be like if 500 years from now the end of WWII held closer to the ending of Inglourious Basterds than Hitler shooting himself in a bunker. As it stands though we have falsity taught as fact with resistance to correcting this mistake by those that have held the facts longer. When you pull the bottom card out the whole thing is supposed to tumble but the memory remains. In keeping with the metaphor, we were taught the memory. We know that no evidence exists of a wandering group of Semitic people who escaped from Egypt. We know that there is evidence that those who built the Pyramids were not slaves but rather paid workers, yet the story that we know from the Charleston Heston movie is the one that sticks with us. At some point, we all must stand up and begin asking for our history to be taught with the best available facts that can be proven and ditch the myths.

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