Tag Archives: Art

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”.

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A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with Realising That There is No God.

When I was young I loved reading about the myths and legends of other peoples; I still do. I was enthralled by the pantheons of the Greeks, Romans, Indians, Norse, Irish, Aztec, Egyptians, and pretty much whoever else I could find. I did prefer the European ones, as the gods they believed in were mostly human. Snake gods and monkey gods were fun, but, even in my youth, I found them a bit unbelievable. The gods of the Europeans were clearly kings and queens, warriors and heroes, concepts I could grasp much more easily, and, with the limited understanding of history a child has, might in some fashion be based on real people and events. But, I was told, they were all myths, all made up by primitive people who didn’t understand the world as we now do. Whoever told me that really shouldn’t have…

In my mind, the gods of the Greeks were just as true as the god of the Christians; they each had complicated histories, heroes and monsters, heaven and hell. In my mind, it was simply that one religion had replaced the other in a contest of popularity, aided by men with pointy bits of steel. I never understood why one was relegated to fantasy while the other was regarded as reality. I was told it was because Hercules and Achilles were not real people, but Jesus and Moses were actual historical figures who lived and breathed, and wandered around a lot. I put aside the myths and became more interested in the Bible because its stories were real, apparently. ‘Why then are there no dinosaurs in the Bible; if it’s true they should be in there somewhere?’ The answer I received was adequate; the old parts of the Bible are made up because when people started writing it they hadn’t discovered dinosaurs yet, and they didn’t know how life began, but the stories are still important. Which appeased me somewhat at the time; I could see how the Bible began like any good polytheist myth, but then, as time moved on it became more real; Greeks, Persians, and Romans started popping up and having wars and such, the places mentioned could be easily found on a map, and people were still fighting in the region, which made the newer bits of the book far more true in my mind.

I should point out that the nation in which I grew up was almost exclusively Catholic, the schools were run by the Church, and the Church had a dominant role in society (things have change somewhat since then, but the Church still wields a great deal of power). A priest used to come to my primary school on a regular basis and quiz us; we learned loads of prayers (which I have long since forgotten), parables from the Bible, and all kinds of other nonsense. I vaguely remember being afraid at my First Confession that I wouldn’t remember all the prayers and curious incantations, which would lead to the priest getting angry at me, and then I’d have to say lots and lots of prayers. I don’t recall ever being afraid of god, just of priests; they were weird and always smelled funny (I later figured out the smell to be incense and sweat). I remember that when we were supposed to say our prayers silently I used to think about other things, and wondered if the other kids were doing the same. I’ve often wondered how many people actually pray when they bow their heads in silence.

By the time Confirmation came around (another of Catholicism’s strange rites of passage) I had serious doubts about the whole Bible thing. Not god so much, I was willing to give that the benefit of the doubt. I had become very interested in physics and history, and these disciplines, while not questioning Christianity outright, were certainly showing me an alternative perspective. Reading about evolution or the Big Bang, no mention of god was made, just of natural selection and elementary particles. Mathematically defined forces had drawn the universe, not some benign deity, and natural selection had led, quite randomly, to the improbable existence of us. Where was god in all of this? I was told all things happen “by his hand”, or some such platitude, but that was not satisfactory. Science didn’t seem to need god to explain the universe, so why did religion? And why was it made so empty? I had begun to notice some small inconsistencies in the Bible too; history books on Egypt never mentioned the flight of the Jews, the kingdom of David, which was a mighty and powerful kingdom in the Bible, was barely a blip in the history of the Near East, and Jesus was hardly noticed by the Romans until Christians started becoming a nuisance long after he died. You’d think that these great empires, and all their historians and annalists, would have noticed these apparently important people and events. The Bible was looking more and more like a myth, and not a very good one at that (also, I read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ around this time, and if one man could invent such a detailed world, well, it made me think that whoever wrote the Bible just wasn’t trying that hard). The history of the Church was also troublesome; its issues with Copernicus and Galileo, its oppression of reform, its stranglehold on education. This was looking more and more like an organisation that wanted confine the mind rather than liberate it. And who would want to be a part of that? I had not yet given up on the god thing though.

By the time I began secondary I was left with what, I learned later, is called deism. I reckoned that there might well be a god, but that it was beyond us, outside the universe, outside of understanding. So physics and history didn’t apply. I also thought that Jesus was probably a real guy, but more along the lines of Gandhi, a moral leader, rather than the son of god, and that Christianity, on the whole, was no more or less valid than any other mythology from the ancient world. I had move away from Christianity in general, and had begun to investigate Eastern faiths. I imagine many teenagers do this in some fashion or other. I became quite interested in Zen as it didn’t appear to require a belief in the divine; it was rather more an exploration of the self, and it had a far more positive attitude towards this self than Catholicism. Religion never really came up in this stage of the education system in my school; the one teacher who cared was generally regarded by students as an idiot; even other teachers seemed to shy away from her when she began talk of god and Jesus in her life. I had stopped going to Church, or rather being cajoled into going by my mother, except on special occasions (funerals, weddings, Christmas), so religion was having less and less of a real impact on my life, and I was becoming less and less interested in it. I was thoroughly agnostic. And one day something weird happened; some of my classmates and I happened to talking about something religious at lunchtime, and one of the girls in the class looked utterly baffled. I asked her why, and she said that she didn’t believe in god, and neither did her parents; she was never expected to believe. To me, this was a revelation. I had never thought of it that way; I had remained agnostic because I thought that I should believe in some kind of divine order, I hadn’t realised that simply not believing was an option available to me. Dispensing with deism, which was not difficult as it is the vaguest possible avenue of belief, in an instant I was intellectually free of this god character and the mass delusion.