Tag Archives: Christianity

Fwuzzerip, a ‘proof’ of Faith

I was hanging out with some Christian friends recently, and, as expected, we spoke about belief, and I get the feeling they want to convert me. They are genuinely baffled as to why I do not believe in ‘God’ (I doubt they put the quotes around that word though). And I am deeply puzzled as to why they do. One told me the story of his conversion; it was touching and clearly important to him, but I couldn’t help but think to myself “you don’t need God, you need a counsellor”. As they were going on about Jesus and miracles and stuff, my mind wandered.

Miracles amuse me. I study them, they are fascinating. But, basically, if one removes faith from the equation, they are basically fairytales and fantasy. And this is how people of one faith categorise the miracles of another. For a Christian, the miraculous deeds of Muhammad are either blasphemy, literary flourish, or fantasy, but the miraculous endeavours of the Christian sky-god and his son (as if that isn’t weird) are true. The intervention of a god is impossible in any other religion except the one they hold. How do they not see how incongruous this is? But this is only one logical flaw among many. I tried to figure out a simple way of summing up all of the issues in one neat example.

I can’t help but think of the arguments like this:

Believer A: According to my God, 1+1=1.

Believer B: Blasphemer! My God affirms that 1+1=3!

Believer C: Oh you silly people, my God holds the undeniable Truth: 1+1=fwuzzerip.

And the atheists sit on the sidelines and say: It’s 2, what is wrong with them? It’s so obviously 2. And why do we have to structure our society, laws, and social mores around their patently ridiculous assertion that it is 1, 3, or fwuzzzerip? This is holding back science and technology and human rights. We get that it helps you in some strange way to believe in 1, 2, or fwuzzerip, but do we all have to suffer for it? Can’t you just keep it to yourself? Seriously, people are dying, you are impeding the advancement of the human race.

Believer A: Ah, silly atheists, it is a miracle how my God makes it 1. Because God.

Believer B: Don’t be an idiot. Your religion is false. Only my God performs miracles. The truth of 1+1=3 says so.

Believer C: Ah, no, duh, fwuzzerip?

Atheists leave, stage left, exasperated, leaving A, B, and C to their curious argument.

***

Of course Believers don’t think that what they say is so strange. They really do think that 1+1=1, 2, or fwuzzerip. Sure, some toe the line, they agree to the answer fwuzzerip because their parents and society told them to. It’s called indoctrination. This should be stopped, obviously. Some believe that they have personally seen the ‘truth’ of fwuzzerip. Fair enough, but keep it to yourself? I love Samurai Jack and van Gogh and the Sandman Chronicles, but I don’t think we should re-model society based on them.

Sorry, dear Reader, no great diatribe here, no anger, no vitriol. Just bafflement. I really just don’t get why my friends want me to believe. When they talk about god and miracles like they are real, it literally makes no sense to me. And I imagine that they are thinking the exact same thing but from the opposite side.

It’s like as if they think Batman is really real and the movies and comics are factual recollections of his life and deeds. And praying to Batman to save you will have as much effect as praying to ‘God’. So yeah, Batman is as real as ‘God’ to me. But not to them, one is really real.

It make as much sense to me as 1+1=fwuzzerip.

(It’s so obviously 2. I mean, you get that, right?)

Reflections on St Patrick’s Day

This Saint Patrick’s Day, in a world where weak-willed politicians looking for an economic leg up court flaxen-haired fascists rather than stand up against tyrannical behaviour, I thought it might be informative to reflect on Patrick, since his day is so widely celebrated.

Patrick, patron saint of the Irish, was a slave. He was ripped from his family, his home, his way of life and forced to live on an isolated mountain to tend sheep in a land where he knew nothing of the culture or language. He escaped his servitude after six years and eventually made his way home.

Patrick was born into a wealthy background. His family owned an estate and had servants. His father was a senior member of the local council and his grandfather held an important position in the church. Patrick gave all of this up and undertook a life of hardship.

Patrick was an emigrant. He left his homeland to serve in another where he was constantly under threat and had to hire bodyguards.

Patrick challenged authority. When the warriors of a distant king took some of his converts as slaves, Patrick wrote to that king demanding their return. When this failed, he wrote a public letter demanding the excommunication of those warriors if they did not do as he demanded.

The Irish, a nation of migrants and refugees, took Patrick with them wherever they went in the world. St Patrick’s Day is a global phenomenon born of the tragedy of Irish history. The curious irony of St Patrick’s Day is that it is an expression of both persecution and community. A diaspora scattered to distant lands clung to ancient traditions and invented new ones to create and reinforce their sense of identity. Their perseverance and success fueled the celebration of the symbol of their identity.

Patrick, the slave who became the saint of emigrants and refugees, is celebrated on shores he never knew existed. The children of the nation that calls him patron are scattered to every corner of the earth. I hope they remember their history and their homeland on this day above all others, in a world where so many minorities are persecuted, where migrants are vilified, and refugees callously turned away. I hope they reflect on how their identity was wrought in the hardships so many now suffer and on the fact that Patrick has more in common with the family being turned away at the border than those who raise a pint of Guinness in his name.

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.

The Shadow Line. Part 2 – Still Annoyed at That Damn Graph.

Meanwhile, in Rome…

Following from the previous post, there is an exception to the relative lack of any major cultural and scientific force in the Antique West: Rome. While Gaul, Britain, and Spain were comparative backwaters, Italy was, however, another matter. There we could find major cities, such as Ravenna, Milan, and, of course, Rome itself, which did suffer a massive decline in the Medieval period. This was mostly due the Goths, Vandals, Lombards, and Byzantines coming in and pretty much ruining the place. For hundreds of years the Italian peninsula was ravaged by competing would-be conquerors seeking to hold on to the last embers of Roman glory. Their desire to grasp what remained of Rome is what killed it in the end, and for the next few hundred years, whenever anything important happened, it didn’t happen in Rome, or by Rome’s will. Notice how this was not the fault of the Church. The Papacy did hold on to some power, but by and large the barely ‘civilised’ ‘barbarian’ kings rarely did what the pope told them to do, or cared that he even existed. In the early middle ages, the Church in the West was not as powerful as a unified organisation as many people (including the creator of the graph) seem to think it was. It was actually far more decentralised, with archbishops and bishops largely left to do as they wish, sometime in flagrant opposition to the papacy. This changed later in the ‘high’ middle ages, as the papacy sought greater control over its own constituents and independence from monarchs, and this is when the dogmatism of the Church became an entrenched feature, which would become a full-blown panic attack when an alternative world-perspective arose in the fourteenth century.

It’s a matter of priority.

In a certain fashion, this graph also assumes some level of predictability, that history is progressive unless some external force acts upon it, a notion which may be plausible in theory, but not in practice. In the first place, scientific advancement requires a certain level of stability and organisation; essentially there needs to be enough time to do the science, and the will and the money to do it. The Greeks became wealthy through trade and could afford to pursue more philosophical endeavours, and the Romans jumped on their coat-tails. While the Empire was stable everything was hunky-dory, but then if you introduce a little anarchy, upset the established order, everything becomes chaos, as the scarred philosopher once said. The priorities of the Germanic kings was not to learn, but to conquer, not to admire great works of art, but to accumulate power. They judged a man on his sword-arm, which the Romans also did, but they also expected a man to appreciate and recite complex poetry (and trust me, all poetry in Classical Latin is complex). The latter outlook survived in the Eastern Empire in a secular sense, and in the West it fell on the shoulders of the Church, the priority of which had never been education in a Classical sense, but of revelation.

No great centres of learning were established in the West by the Roman state to compete with those of the East. The great monastic schools preserved as much as they could, especially in Visigothic Spain and pre-Norman Ireland, but their priorities were different to that of the Roman state. They were not educating a class of civil-servants to administrate an Empire, but rather trying to develop a stratum of society with a deeper appreciation of their God so as to better teach the masses. It is not the fault of the Church or of early Christians that they did not appreciate the industry or science of bygone empires, it was simply not the point of their organisation. The Western Church was a religious organisation which took over the role of administration, healthcare, and education with the collapsed of the Empire.  This was not what the Church had been designed for, the world perspective that it extolled was not conducive to perpetuating the ideals of the collapsing Empire. But they did pretty well, in retrospect.

A viable alternative.

We also must be at pains to remember that a scientific world perspective didn’t really exist, and, in many cases, religion answered the same questions just as convincingly (to the the people of the time). They had no notion of microbes, so a plague could easily be interpreted as a curse from God. There was no Theory of Relativity, or of Gravity, no Evolution, no understanding of the formation of galaxies, of the vastness of time, nothing electronic to help do the difficult sums. While Greek philosophers may have pondered the atom, ‘God did it’ was, at that time, a viable answer, because there was no other paradigm. You might think that these people were stupid for thinking this way, and after a certain fashion, they were; education was the privilege of an extreme minority, as it has been, and remains to be, throughout history. While the upper ranks may have scoffed at the religious notions of the lower orders, religion was still a powerful force in the pre-Christian world, and it remained so when Christians rebranded the game. Of course the Western Church did cause a certain level of what we would call intellectual stagnation, largely because they spent a great deal of time wondering about myths and fantasies, but then again, what religion doesn’t?

An illuminated manuscript from the ‘Dark Ages’ – I am sure there is a pun to made from that juxtaposition (via Wikipedia)

They also spent a good deal of time trying to rebuild the Empire, copying and discussing ancient works. Had the Church not stepped in to the void left by the decline of the Empire in the West the Renaissance may never have happened, or at least it would have been greatly delayed. Had the Merovingians and Carolingians not recognised the value of a Classical or ecclesiastical education they might not have been so keen to let highly educated Irish and Anatolian monks wander around their territories,  monks who brought different world-views, and, most especially, Greek knowledge with them. The Carolingian Renevatio was born in Irish- and Near Eastern-influenced monasteries (the former, though neither native Latin- nor Greek-speaking, were enthralled by those languages and learned them to an impressively high standard, and for the latter, Greek was the language of education), a movement which laid the groundwork for the Renaissance.

It does not mean what you think it means.

A product of the ‘Dark Ages’; the very way we write today – 10th century Vulgate (via Wikipedia)

The greatest factor in the decline of science in the West was the fact that most works on the subject were written in Greek, a language few in the West ever bothered to learn, even in Roman times. Indeed, not only was science almost literally a Greek subject, but so was philosophy and the Bible. The Church in the West did its best with what little Latin resources it had, preserving  what may have been little more than snippets and quotations from Greek texts, or brief accounts of such documents found in Latin translation. The ‘Christian Dark Age’ did not happen; the stagnation of the West was due to the traditional priority of Latin over Greek in the western half of the Empire, and because the region was never (outside of Rome itself) home to great centres of learning like Alexandria, Antioch, or Athens. The West was a bit of a cultural backwater, in comparison to the East, during the Empire, and, yes, things did become worse with its decline, but it was not the fault of Christianity, and it did not lead to a universal dark age.  Indeed science was undertaken throughout the Middles Ages; an early text survives from Ireland which describes the motions of tides and what might cause them, the whole Church was obsessed with the calculation of time. Mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy remained important subjects of study, as did law and engineering, giving rise to what were known as cathedral and palace schools, the well from which universities sprang.

Technically speaking, there are ‘dark ages’, periods of paucity of sources, such as during the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain or the collapse of Bronze Age civilisation, but there were not a ‘Dark Age’, not even one which can be blamed on Christianity (unless the religious right in the US continue on their draconian crusade against women, minorities, and education). We might more accurately describe the ‘gap’ the graph suggests as “the inevitable result of a mass invasion by pagans into a region which received very little investment into its educational infrastructure, while other regions, while they did suffer some incursions from the aforementioned pagans, remained educationally vibrant, though this graph has curiously chosen to omit these cultures”. Maybe I’m being pedantic, but at the very least, the ‘Dark Age’ of Western Europe, if you still want to believe in such a myth, was not the fault of Christians, they just happened to be living there at the time.