Category Archives: Atheism

A Leap from the Lion’s Head

Religious faith has always struck me as a very odd thing. I have faith in things, like democracy, the rule of law, and the basic decency of humans (though this faith has been sorely tested in recent months), but the character of this faith is very different from religious faith. There may be no atom of democracy, but history bears witness to its powerful effect; there is no quantum of law, but all civilised people agree to be bound by it (unless that law, of course, undercuts one’s fundamental and inalienable rights); there is no scale of compassion, but no matter the horrors we see on the news, we always see people willing to help (perhaps not enough people, but that is an issue for a different essay). I know these things to be true as I have seen them, I have confidence (by and large) in these relatively abstract, human inventions, even though they aren’t really real. But they still occupy a literal and semantic space far and away from religious faith.

An intense spiritual conviction in something despite the total absence of evidence is truly baffling to me. I can see why, at a stretch, people have or need faith under certain circumstances: it can be very helpful to think there is a greater plan behind your suffering, an arbiter of justice who will punish the unjust, or some great hope of a better world to assuage the natural fear of death. But this faith is, to me, inherently empty as there is no plan, no judge, and you just die in the end. And I find that comforting. I find the truth far more useful than faith. “But”, you might say, dear Reader, “you are contrasting one truth with another, what makes you so sure yours is right?” Aside from the fact that that question cuts both ways, it is, I think, fair to ask the question all the same.

I think a fundamental problem is that religious faith (and here I mean faith patrolled by organised religions within administrative structures and hierarchical systems of governance) places an ownership on Truth, that there is one ‘Truth’ and a cabal of usually white men get to decide what that ‘Truth’ is. Whomsoever contradicts this Truth is, at best, considered inherently aberrant and must be either be corrected or excised. I find this monopolisation of ‘Truth’ to be intrinsically repugnant. You might be thinking, dear Reader, that religions (or your religion, if you have one) don’t do that, that they accept their ignorance in the face of the vast and all-encompassing wisdom of God. But they don’t. They hold up specific texts and doctrines which they state give them the right to pronounce how people ought to live, usually within very strange and often discriminatory parameters, which is tragically ironic since most religions claim to be founded on love. And each religion claims that their sacred text is true, is the literal Truth, which it obviously can’t be because there are so many. Every religion is suspiciously certain that it is the right one…

So that is their Truth, as I see it. You might disagree. And I believe in your right to disagree, even though most religions wouldn’t and would probably persecute dissent given half the chance (I’m not being flippant; see all of history). I don’t claim a monopoly on Truth, nor does any reasonable atheist (I’ll not deny that there are unreasonable ones, but let’s be fair here, unreasonable people of faith are far more dangerous and insidious). I’m not speaking on behalf of the atheist community or anything like that, this is just where I stand. I find that greater truths are found in literature and comics, in TV and cinema, in music and computer games than in religious texts. The internet is littered with stories about people inspired by Hermione Granger and Star Trek ; Game of Thrones and World of Warcraft create international communities of fans where none existed before; and Superman and the Blues allow us to access and process emotions in often surprising ways (Grant Morrison tells us in Supergods of how he once received a letter from a fan saying that his comics discouraged them from committing suicide – Superman literally saved a life). Now, you might say that the Bible or Koran or whatever does all of this too, which they probably do. People have turned to these religious texts for millennia for hope and solace, to learn from the experiences of others. Indeed, all art, I feel, is about one human trying to connect with another, often across vast distances in time and space. Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ makes me happy, and his depiction in Dr Who makes me cry. Both of these are true, but make no claim to Truth. And I doubt Van Gogh would denounce me for my responses.

Religious texts as art, as literature can make the same assertions and can point to the same underlying desires and hopes as any other form of art, like Lord of the Rings (which is a far more coherent text). Art and literature are attempting to achieve the positive aspect of religious faith, the desperate need of humans to connect with one another, to find compassion and understanding, to reach out and say “I have suffered, I have loved, I have lived; have you, do you understand?”. But it does this without prejudice; all modes and manners of expression are deemed to be equally viable. And therein is the failing of religious faith: everything is mediated through one code, one doctrine, however elaborate and wide-ranging it might be. I’ll not deny that religions have inspired great works of art, but it is the art that connects us, not the religion. When I see a Pieta, I am not thinking of God made flesh and his suffering for Man, I am filled with sorrow for a mother who saw her son tortured and killed. I see more valuable meaning in the human aspect, and to attach something unreal and spiritual denigrates the suffering of both mother and son.

I have Christian friends who think I am missing something because I don’t have faith. I’ve explained that there is nothing missing, but they don’t seem to understand. I used to say, “I’m not the one missing something, you are, you fill your emptiness with this story about God you think is real”. I don’t say that anymore, because I now think the space they fill with their story about God I fill with comics and movies and novels and cartoons and comedies and satire and history and art and architecture and friends and family. And they say, so do we, but I can’t help but feel that there is a paucity in their world, a myopic vision.

To me, it’s like religious people really like the colour blue, every shade and hue, and they think blue is the best thing ever. Which is fine, they are totally entitled to that opinion. You can do great things with blue. But they seem to think all of reality should be understood in terms of blue. They say other people are wrong for not thinking blue is awesome beyond compare, that I am somehow lacking for not being utterly devoted to blue, that there must be something missing in me…

Whereas I’m saying, “Have you heard of red and green, and all the colours in between? They’ll blow your fucking mind”.

Stranger Things: The Life of Saint Brigit and Her Astonishing Miracles

A Traditional Irish Upbringing
Growing up in Ireland, you tend to imbibe many tales about Saint Patrick and Saint Brigit, and the odd local favourite like Brendan or Columba. As a kid, I always found Saint Patrick more exciting – after all, he killed druids with magic. Yes, there is a miracle where Saint Patrick gets a druid’s brains dashed out all over the ground. The character of Saint Patrick, as one eminent historian once described, was basically a medieval Dirty Harry. Saint Brigit, well, she was a bit lacklustre by comparison. Her miracles involved taunting kings with tame foxes, making implausible amounts of cheese (which, unless you are a fan of the Elder Scrolls, is not the most enthralling thing), hanging a cloak on a beam of light, and making some ducks change their direction of flight. Hardly thrill a minute stuff. Oh sure, we used to kill a few hours in school on the first day of February making crosses from reeds, but even that lost its escaping-schoolwork glamour after a certain age. It wasn’t until years later, during the course of my PhD, that I discovered that the stories of Brigit are awesome.

The Many Lives of Brigit
This is where things get a bit complicated, dear Reader, but you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t like complicated things. First off, there is some debate about whether or not Brigit was a real person. Some scholars have suggested that the figure we know as Saint Brigit was a Christian appropriation of a pre-Christian Irish goddess of the same name, pointing out that Brigit performs many of the duties of a fertility goddess (remember the cheese?). The contrary argument points to situation of her stories in the real world, the numerous named and identifiable characters she meets, and the unlikely fact that a Christian cult could be founded on top of a pagan one and no rival church exploited such a scandalous origin. I fall broadly into the latter camp (as I think most modern scholars do), while accepting the possibility that some aspects of the goddess were indeed appropriated by later generations and merged with a Christian holy woman called Brigit who lived during the late fifth to early sixth century.

Secondly, the textual tradition is debated. The earliest writings about Brigit are recorded in three saints’ Lives or Vitae. A Life is a genre of medieval religious literature designed to record the miracles of a given saint and extol their virtue, often to suit the political aims of those who control the cult of the saint – this latter point is important, so keep it in mind. Saints often have many Lives written about them, but I shall be concentrating on the earliest Lives of Brigit, of which there are three: two in Latin and one in Old Irish. And here is where we try to avoid the rabbit hole of the great debate on the priority of the Brigitine Lives. In short, it seems that there were three Latin Lives of Brigit written in the mid- to late seventh century, a good century and a half after Brigit would have died. One of these is known as Cogitosus’ Life of Brigit because a chap called Cogitosus wrote it. Now, sometime in the eighth century, someone gathered together these three Latin texts; basically, they made a collected or omnibus edition of the miracles of Brigit. This is known as the Vita Prima, not because it is the first Life written, but because it is the first of the Brigitine Lives in a collection of books called the Acta Sanctorum ‘The Acts of the Saints’. Then, at some later point again, somebody made an Old Irish translation of one of the anonymous Latin texts, except it has stories not found the Vita Prima, which mean someone was leaving things out or adding things in. Sadly, the two anonymous Latin texts have been lost to time, so we have a situation where we have a old text, a newer text which seems to have older material, and a newer text which should have the same material as the second, but doesn’t. And I’ll leave it there, dear Reader, because much ink has been spilled trying to explain the relationship between these texts and I want to get to the good stuff.

Brigit, Wonderworker.
So, Brigit has some amazing miracles. Once a man came to ask for her hand in marriage; she wasn’t keen. After asking God to aid her, one of her eyes burst and liquefied in the socket. Liquefied her eye. The young man was less keen, and God helpfully restored her eye. Or how about the time she met some men who had sworn to kill a guy but Brigit caused them to hallucinate hacking him to bits, proudly displaying the gore on their swords to their kinsmen (this type of miracle seems to have been a favourite, as there are three different versions of it recorded in the Lives). On another occasion, some thieves dared to steal Brigit’s cattle, but as they drove the herd across a stream, the river rose up against them, washing them away, because Nature itself wouldn’t allow such a misdeed.

There is a very interesting miracle where Brigit asks a favour of the King of Leinster, and he asks what he will get in return: she offers him eternal life (in heaven) and that his descendents would be kings forever. The king replies that he has no need of a life he can’t see and his sons should make their own way in life (how… pragmatic). No, he wants his current life to be a long one, and he wants to be ever-victorious against his hated enemy: the Uí Néill. She grants him this boon and the king becomes invincible, winning thirty battles and waging nine campaigns in Britain. The moment he dies, the Uí Néill try to take advantage and invade, the Leinstermen tie the body of the king to a chariot ride into battle, routing the attackers like El Cid, but a good few hundred years earlier.

Brigit also performed an abortion. Did that get your attention, dear Reader? Yes indeed, Cogitosus wrote that a pregnant woman came to Brigit and the saint ‘cured’ the woman, miraculously reversing the pregnancy (a version of this miracle is also found in the Vita Prima). I want to underline the significance of this: an Irish Catholic saint, in a text written by a devoutly religious man who was operating at the behest of his brethren and who belonged to one of the most important and influential Irish churches, terminates a pregnancy. The women is not interrogated or condemned, she is not degraded or denounced. She has a problem and it is resolved. One can’t help but wonder if this was an allusion to a service that Kildare offered; medieval handbooks of medicinal recipes suggest that monks were well aware of methods to terminate pregnancies. Or perhaps Cogitosus was, through this tale, extending compassion to women in difficult situations; there is no mention of forgiveness, no sin has occurred. What makes this more surprising is that several other Irish saints performed similar miracles, all of whom were men. We may never know what lies behind these stories, and, in all fairness, I should point out that the medieval religious mind had a very different understanding of when the soul supposedly entered the body, but it is remarkable how popular this miracle was.

 

I have wondered, ever since I learned of this greater corpus of Brigitine miracles, why we were never told them in school. Actually, no I haven’t, it is pretty obvious why. Tales of a saint who goes around the country making cheese, curing the sick, and feeding the poor is one thing, but a woman equal in status to a bishop giving men violent visions of gory murder, aiding kings to bloody victory, and performing miraculous terminations? Yeah, that is not going to make it into the weekly sermon. Even if none of it ever happened, these were stories that inspired and entertained, gave solace and hope. Who knows what a different world we would have lived in if we celebrated St Brigit the Humble Badass instead of the saint that is hidden in the shadow of Patrick?

Still, I get a kick out the idea that, every first of February, kids all around Ireland are making crosses to St Brigit of the Miraculous Termination.

Search Terms.

Keeping track.

WordPress has this fun little feature which tells me what search terms are used to arrive at my frivolous endeavours. The majority of them make sense, but there are some oddities, some of which are stupid, others disturbing. In the last month Worpress recorded two vaguely racist searches, “anglo saxons in Missouri”  and “anglo saxon and proud” which amuse me all the more because the people who use this phrase tend not to realise how little the Anglo-Saxons contributed to the genetic make-up of the people of the British Isles. In fact the genetics of an Irishman from the extreme west, which never saw an Anglo-Saxon, are almost identical to the point of statistical irrelevance to a woman from York. Even culturally the English owe more to the French, via the Normans, than they do to the Anglo-Saxons. And besides, being proud of your genetic heritage is nonsense, if anything genetic research has proved how little difference there is between individuals humans. So stop it, stop being racist, stop suggesting that your ancestry is superior, stop being an idiot.

And now to more amusing things…

I’m not really sure what people are looking for when they type these – “adam & eve first people on earth”, “what did adam look like”,  “jezus born [sic]”,  “the tree ate by adam and eve”, “jesus birthday photo/portrait”, but at least they are looking for answers, I suppose. The short answers are, in order, no they weren’t; Adam didn’t look like anything, he probably didn’t exist; I assume you mean Jesus, and he may have been born, but not to a virgin, or the daughter of a virgin; even if they did exist, how could they eat a tree, I think you mean the fruit from the tree of knowledge, which isn’t real either; and there is no picture or portrait of Jesus because (a) cameras weren’t invented until about a millennium later (moron), and (b) nobody knows what he looked like anyway, he certainly wasn’t the guy in all the pictures we see in churches, he probably looked a lot more like a Palestinian than a BeeGee…

To be perfectly blunt, most of the characters in the Bible are just that, characters. Adam and Eve, Noah, and all the earlier fantasy folk did not exist, even the Catholic Church accepts this. Abraham and Moses may have existed, and David definitely did, but all have been greatly aggrandised to the point of caricature. Jesus, a charismatic faith-healer who wandered around annoying the establishment, probably existed, but Paul, the real inventor of Christianity certainly existed. If you sincerely believe in the talking snake, fitting all the animals in the world onto one boat, a huge movement of people that nobody else noticed, and the writings of men who were very imaginative if not delusional, seek help, soon.

Bad History.

There are some wonderfully odd entries concerning historical matters, and the Merovingians appear to be particularly popular, with such gems as “merovingian atlantis”, which is an odd opposition of terms since one had nothing to do with the other (aside from the simple fact that there was no Atlantis), and, this is brilliant, “what are merovingians, really”. Clearly someone has become exasperated with all the pseudo-historical nonsense concerning the early rulers of the Franks, which is what they were, really. The ruling family of a bunch of Germans (ironically) who settled in Roman Gaul. No magic, no Atlantis, no conspiracies.

Of course we find the odd historically inaccurate searches, such as “visigoths and roundheads”. The Visigoths began bothering the Romans in the 3rd century, and were running  Spain by the 6th, while the Roundheads were the Parliamentarians of the English Civil War in the 17th century. That’s over a thousand years, most of France, and a narrow stretch of water apart. What could possibly connect the two? Coming in at a close second we have “the huns,the vikings, and visigoths who tear down rome”.  Neither the Huns, nor the Vikings ever sacked Rome, the city, though the Visigoths did. In relation to the larger empire, the Visigoths and the Huns did create instability which contributed to the fall of the empire in the west, but it could hardly be said that they tore it down. The Vikings had nothing to do with Rome, unless you count the sack of 1084 perpetrated by the Viking/French hybrid Normans. The city of Rome was sacked by Gauls, Vandals, Visigoths, and Ostrogoths, the last of who ended imperial power in the west.

This is a strange one, “scottish face hair”… I think it’s called a beard, and yes, sometimes the Scots grow beards.

And, inevitably, I am afflicted with the blatantly stupid search; “fomenko atlantis troy”, which translates roughly as “what does this deranged mathematician who is swiftly losing what credibility that he had think about a fantasy and a true event?”. To be ignored.

Questions and Answers.

I’m guessing the following are lazy students looking for answers. Don’t get me wrong, the internet can be a valuable tool for research, but typing in the essay/exam question hoping for an answer, that’s just indolence of the lowest order. But, just for fun, here are the answers.

“discuss what is meant by salus populi suprema est lex”  In brief, keep the people healthy and the everything will be fine. US Republicans, and others, who think universal free healthcare is bad idea take note. It also has to do with the bee laws, pregnant women, and legal murder, but I’ll let you figure that out for yourself.

“did the celts call themselves celts?” No, thought Caesar said that they did, but we can’t really trust him… Or can we? He may have misinformed us to fulfill Roman stereotypes, but also, since nobody could really contradict him, he could be telling the truth. Ah, ’tis a delicate puzzle.

“what medieval viking basically rose from nothing to becoming a duke” I really don’t know. There were a few Viking earls, but dukes, I’m not so sure. The closest is Rollo, the first Duke of Normandy, who was a viking, but  he didn’t rise from ‘basically nothing’, he was of the nobility. Though, in a sense, we all rose from nothing, a handful of cells which developed music, art, assault rifles, and gelato.

“the 100 years war basic history” It was one hundred years long, and you want a basic history? Actually, that’s a challenge I might take, I’ll get back to you on that.

“explain the causes of world war one”, “what are reasons of second world war” The Germans got a bit uppity, and then the British, French, Russians, and, at the last minute, Americans, gave them a good thrashing. Why did they get uppity? Hunger for land, power, prestige, and the fact that they kept putting megalomaniacs in charge.

“where do you think western art would be today if the byzantines hadn’t continued to support the arts in society” Impossible to know. I don’t really like these ‘what if?’ questions, far too many different factors to consider.

“what was the major factors for european to leap forward from the middle ages overatking the other great civilisation at the time” Luck, lack of space, war, greed, trade, politics… The list goes on. I’m guessing ‘the other great civilisation’ is China, and I really hope this isn’t a reflection of the new (stupid) theory that the East (China) and West (Europe) have been in some kind of cultural war for the last two thousand years. One factor in Europe’s great leap was a sudden shift towards introversion in China, but it wasn’t as if anyone knew what was going on at the time, they couldn’t have planned or foreseen the consequences of their actions. Also, the grammar of this question is terrible.

“french revolution including its legacy and contribution to the world” The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, one of the greatest scenes in cinema, the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, the invention of the bistro, French cinema, the bikini, Napoleon and his complex… The list goes on…

Religiosity.

Finally we come to the truly strange, religion. Let’s start with a fun one; “moral worthiness and chances to go to heaven” and “that your good conducts will be rewarded and your soul will ascend to heaven”. You have no chance of getting to heaven, it doesn’t exist. Your good conduct shouldn’t require a reward, don’t be so feeble-minded. Pick a better set of rules to live by than those written down by a bunch of desert nomads and faith-healers.

“issues trying to comprehend the afterlife” Well there isn’t one, so there should be no issue. Unless the statement is philosophical, as, in a similar fashion, I try to understand why people believe in an afterlife. I imagine it is born of the fear of death, or the facile desire for reward or guarantee.

“do not associate with immoral people” Generally speaking, yes, that is a good rule to live by. Don’t associate with rapists and paedophiles, also known as priests and clergy. Don’t associate with people who base their moral code on the rantings of men who speak to their imaginary friend. Sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll are all groovy so long as everyone agrees and nobody gets hurt.

There are more, but I have grown tired of caring. Except for one more, that seems really popular, and is worthy of a longer rant. I’ll get to it later, but for now, I hope you’ve enjoyed this small selection of the strange and irrational things people type to get here.

Facebook for Atheists

(Though they might find such a comparison offensive)

I’ve just discovered an interesting social network for atheists, Think Atheist.

I’ve joined up out of curiosity.

Tim Minchin’s “Storm”.

For the first time I post something that is not my own, mostly because it articulates my position as regards to fairytales in a fashion far more clever and witty than I can.  Also, I quite like the style of the animation. Enjoy!