September 22, 2009
I spent an exhilarating weekend-12 and 13 September- at CFI Indianapolis, Indiana talking alongside my old friend Bob Price, and colleague John Shook. I was impressed by the energy and organizational abilities of Reba Boyd Wooden and her team of volunteers. Thanks to their enthusiasm, CFI Indianapolis flourishes, located in a superb site along the Canal. The premises are roomy, and yet cosy, with even a well-stocked freethought library, graced with a reproduction of Raphael’s magnificent fresco from the Vatican, The School of Athens . Reba and her team had booked a large conference room at the University, which was well-equipped, and I was able to display on a huge screen examples of Arabic calligraphy directly from a computer plugged in with my own flash-drive- something I was rather apprehensive of trying, not having much experience with power-point presentations, and so on. For the Saturday session, at least a hundred CFI Members and guests turned up.
As usual I had prepared far too much and had to rush my talk at the end, but during question time I was able to gauge the audience’s interests and expand on some aspects of my subject, namely the present state of Koranic Studies in the West. Going from the questions asked, I think it is fair to say that many people present were not aware of the present revolutionary state of Koranic Studies, with new theories about the origins of the Koran, the most startling of which claims that the Koran must have been originally the sacred scripture of some Judeo-Christian sect written in Syriac and then badly translated into Arabic. Most of the audience were well-aware of Biblical Studies and were surprised to learn of the similarities between the skeptical conclusions of Biblical scholars and the Koranic ones.
It was a great pleasure for me to re-establish contact with Bob Price, whose knowledge of both Biblical and Koranic scholarship is quite considerable. He was able to give me some truly exciting bibliographical leads of scholars such as Matthew Black, Charles Cutler Torrey, and George Lamsa who all talked of the Aramaic element in the New and Old Testaments, and generally the importance of Aramaic and Syriac in our understanding of the Sectarian Milieu of the Near East. Needless to say, as soon as I returned home I ordered their books on AbeBooks.
I was also very impressed by John Shook’s lucid presentation and philosophical sophistication, talking of “Why Be Skeptical Towards Religion?”, a discourse which increased my vocabulary, and sharpened my debating skills.
We were invited for dinner during our last evening in the oldest restaurant in town, The Rathskeller, a German eatery housed in the Athenaeum Building built in 1890s. I believe one of the architects was the great grandfather of novelist, humanist, Kurt Vonnegut. I was dismayed on arrival at the restaurant to see across the road what I took to be an enormous mosque- thinking, “My God”!, Saudi money has funded yet another gigantic Trojan’s Horse in our cities”. I was much relieved to learn that it was not a mosque despite the decidedly mosque-like architecture including “minarets” adorned with Islamic crescents at the top. It was the Murat Shriner Temple built, I am told, at the end of the 19 th Century (though it looks as though it could have been built within the last ten years) by a Shrine chapter of the Masons. The Masons have always made a fetish of exotic wisdom, a mixture of Ancient Egyptian religion, Old Testament Folklore, and Gnosticism, and the Shriners, who must be seen as an offshoot of the Masons, are no exception. Five Masons of Indianapolis, out of the original thirteen Freemasons, gathered in 1872 to organize the first Shrine Temple in the United States. A certain Dr. Fleming proposed that the first temple be named Mecca ! As their website tells us, “Ten years later in 1882, five friends decided they would like to see Indianapolis have a Temple affiliated with this relatively new fraternal organization with the imposing name of Ancient Arabic Order Nobles of the Mystic Shrine.” The Shrine of North America is known for its colorful parades, and circuses, but it is essentially an international fraternity of approximately 434,000 Master Masons belonging to 191 Shrine chapters in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Panama, with charitable and philanthropic concerns. The Shrine operates specialized hospitals that treat children with orthopedic problems, burns and spinal cord injuries, up to their 18th birthday, free of charge. Rather oddly, members wear red fezes at their meeting, a kind of headgear that Kemal Attaturk banned in Turkey in the 1920s. The Shriners claim Clark Gable, John Wayne, New York Mayor LaGuardia, and Hubert Humphrey, amongst others, as members of their order.
The whole trip was rounded off neatly for me when returning home I switched on my television to find a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s
The Man Who Knew Too Much
, with James Stewart and Doris Day Within the first ten minutes we learn that Day and Stewart are American tourists in Morocco, and the latter is a doctor from Indianapolis (a Shriner?), and, as a character tells us, “Monsieur, Islam is not a religion that allows [permits?] mistakes” (or words to that effect).
#1 Scott Stafiej on Wednesday September 23, 2009 at 10:45am
I’d love to have the names of the books to which you are referring in relation to the Aramaic element in the New and Old Testaments and a suggestion about which book you felt was most comprehensive/readable.
Is there any chance that “Why Be Skeptical Towards Religion?” be put into video form and put out for those who don’t live in Indianapolis?
#2 Reba Wooden (Guest) on Wednesday September 23, 2009 at 7:16pm
#3 Steve Hall (Guest) on Tuesday September 29, 2009 at 8:16pm
I echo your comments about the enthusiasm and organizational skill of the people from CFI-Indy. I had a great time at the conference. Thanks for your contributions to the cause of religious skepticism. I look forward to reading you books.