Tag Archives: religion

Comparative Contexts: From Stars, to Humans, to Faith

No human has lived long enough to witness the life-cycle of a star, and yet we know how stars are created, how they persist, how they degrade, how they die. There are two main reasons for this: we know the basic rules that govern their lives (i.e., physics) and we have a tremendous sample size. We understand the principles of atomic fusion, the power of gravity, the inevitability of entropy. We can look up and see stars at every possible stage of development across a variety of compositions, from gaseous nebulae to black holes and supernovae.

Just like how we have a broad understanding of the fundamental forces that underlie the life-cycle of stars, we have a sense of how the human mind works. We know that humans are susceptible to suggestion, are easily misled, how ideas can be reinforced through repetition, and how we rarely question the status quo. The psychology of humans is one designed to defer to authority in youth, bad at breaking habits later in life, and often resolute in erroneous belief near the end. Children are predisposed to listen to their parents as part of the survival instinct, otherwise they might die. Habits formed in youth are extremely hard to break, and humans have a great habit of forming and maintaining habits; it’s basically a mental shortcut we’ve evolved to save time. And old people, after a lifetime of such reinforcements, are often implacable in their ideas no matter how illogical (think of the stereotypical racist grandfather or the grandmother who has boiled potatoes with pizza, because it isn’t dinner without potatoes).

Now, I agree, these are broad generalisations, but we do have a remarkably large sample size; there are, and have been, literally billions of humans, not unlike stars. Even if an alien took a single snapshot of humanity, there are so many of us from so many varied backgrounds that they could arrive at a reasonable hypothesis as to how we are conceived, born, live, and die; they could note the similarities and differences in our cultures; they could see some interesting disparities in wealth and status across gender and race. Basically, we do not have to witness the full lifespan of an object or concept to understand its underlying principles if we have sufficient evidence from various stages of development.

Now, because we have such a large sample size and a basic understanding of humans, in addition to the whole of human history and endeavours, we can draw some interesting conclusions concerning faith and religion.

If we look across the gamut of humanity, we can see a life-cycle of sorts for religion and faith. Taking a snapshot of the world as it stands today, we can see primitive cultures (I do not use this term in a pejorative sense, I simply mean societies which are not considered technologically or organisationally advanced, or what anthropologists refer to as Traditional Cultures) which have ‘rudimentary’ supernatural beliefs revolving around ill-understood natural forces, spirits, or totems, whereas more ‘advanced’ societies have complex religions with elaborate rituals and hierarchies of celestial beings. Through history, we can examine the development of, for example, Judaism from polytheism to monotheism, or how Christianity and Islam picked up ideas from paganism and Zoroastrianism. We can see how faith was born of ignorance and awe of the natural world, how, as cities and hierarchical societies emerged, more hierarchical religions developed alongside to minister to the nascent societies. We have religions born in the full light of history, like the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormonism) and the so-called ‘cargo cults’, which offer fascinating insights into how religions begin and develop. This is not new information. It seems patently obvious that faith and religions were born of human imagination, like love and hate, art, Doctor Who, and unicorns. Over time, these invented and inventive notions were clarified and codified, laying the foundations for religions. Elaborate stories were told to explain the nature of reality and humanity’s position in it, and came to be understood as ‘true’. Generations of reinforcement and the stifling of free thought led to the situation where to think that these ‘truths’ were just stories was anathema, ridiculous, a challenge to the status quo.

Then there arrived on the scene the modern disciplines of academic History, Archaeology, Science, Philosophy, Anthropology, and Literary Criticism (I say ‘modern’ here, as many disciplines had a strong religio-imperialist spin until very recently, a spin which disappointingly persists in some quarters) which started asking questions and some people got a bit annoyed and started saying that the ‘truths’ they hold can’t be academically analysed. But they can. And they have been. I’ve met Catholics who scoff at Mormons and their recasting of the great journey westward to Utah in the Mosaic tradition, but these same Catholics affirm the reality of the ‘true’ exodus of Moses (for which there is no evidence). The fact of the matter is that both stories clearly demonstrate how people mythologise their own religious past. Islam grafted in the daily prayer routine of Zoroastrianism and the veneration of the pagan Ka’aba. Christian notions of the essentiality and holiness of virginity are drawn from Roman legal demands for ensuring paternity and pagan custom. And, of course, there is the well-trod path of comparisons between the Christian myth and various Egyptian mystery cults, the cults of Mithras and Sol Invictus, and various Graeco-Roman mystery cults which I will not explore here. When you get to the heart of it, many core traditions (or ‘unique selling factors’ if we think of religions as competing marketing brands) of many religions are actually fairly common myths recycled into new narratives.

It is clear, then, that belief in the divine is a human construct. There is always the cry of the religious that Science can’t explain everything, which of course it can’t, and that the God of the Gaps still leaves a space for God. And there is the argument that Faith and Science occupy non-overlapping magisteria, which seems to placate some, bit it is still a platitude, and not a very helpful one at that. The gap that Science can’t fill, the Humanities do. Science drives forward with explaining material reality, investigating everything from strings to stars, and the Humanities give it meaning, and then interrogate that meaning, and then interrogate the validity of that interrogation and its meaning. The magisteria of religion is based on a false premise, and its area of inquiry is better left to Philosophy. Logic might drive the Sciences, but Reason leads the Humanities; Evidence is the foundation to both. Faith and religion are easily explicable frameworks within the context of human development; they arose from fear and awe and became enmeshed in value systems and societal structures. The religious have convinced us that faith is the foundation of a just society when it is, at best, an impediment and, at worst, a corruption. The sheer number of competing faiths and structures of belief, from animism to polytheism to monotheism and all the factions within, do not demonstrate the existence of a divine force, but rather serve as evidence of human inventiveness and susceptibility to belief.

Just as we no longer believe that the stars are the super-celestial fires burning through the celestial sphere, just as we no longer believe that the mind and body are governed by four humours, we must cast aside the unhelpful burden of faith in the divine. We ought to at least put it in its proper place, not prioritising it and its adherents’ beliefs over all other considerations. Once you have seen that it is only shadows that dance on the cave wall, you can never go back. The world outside the cave is full of beauty and wonder. There’s horror and sorrow too, but even that is better than the lie perpetuated by religion; false hope in an afterlife is little encouragement to make positive change in the real world, while sober and rational confrontation with the ills of humankind yield tangible results. It’s about time we stopped wasting energy on Iron Age cults gone viral and effect real change in the world.

A Tale of Two Catholicisms

Living as I now do in the UK, I have noticed that religious people here are very different from religious people from my homeland of Ireland. The various forms of Christians I meet here seem to have a very positive perspective on their chosen faiths, even the Catholics. This has puzzled me for a while, but I think it is down to two primary factors. But first, you may be wondering why I am puzzled. It rests in the fact that these people are around my age and are true believers, and I would normally expect people my age and younger to be more tepid in their faith, if not agnostic or atheist.

I grew up in Catholic Ireland. I grew up watching bishops and priests tell people how to think on TV and from the pulpit, not just in matters of faith but on issues of social mores and politics. The Troubles in Northern Ireland were cast as Catholic versus Protestant, as indeed was much of the history of Ireland we learned in school. One might think this would only serve to inculcate a distrust of non-Catholics, but I was always puzzled, baffled by how ‘their’ God was different to ‘our’ God, when it was all basically the same God. We were never really taught why we should believe or the benefits of belief, only that we should and the other side was wrong. I was fairly agnostic at a young age; I liked Jesus, he seemed like a decent sort, but the whole magic thing never really grabbed me.

By the time I arrived in university, I was an atheist, and then the scandals began to hit. The Catholic Church was revealed to be home to paedophiles and rapists, abusers and colluders. And, as I became more aware of such things, I discovered how the Church had oppressed and abused women for generations, stolen children, and generally impeded freedoms. The power of the men of God was shaken and the number of non-believers in Ireland has been rising ever since. And many of my friends think that my atheism stems from this, but I was already a non-believer when the toxic nature of the Catholic Church in Ireland was finally revealed. The revelation of the depths of the corruption within the Catholic Church only reaffirmed my distaste of organised religion.

Religion appears to be a very different thing in the UK. You can imagine my surprise, given the above, when I discovered that young people here seem to willingly join, and participate in, organised religion, even Catholicism. Now, I do live in one of the more believer-filled corners of the British isle, so this may not apply everywhere, but it is weird to me how often I am invited to church or bible study groups. People chat with their priests, ministers are involved in public projects; I have spoken to clerics more often in my brief few years in England than ever in my life in Ireland. Part of the enthusiasm for faith may be that my friends are often converts, and no one is more faithful than a convert. But why convert?

It quickly dawned on me that market forces were at work. And deceit. Well, maybe not outright deceit, but definitely obfuscation. Organised religion in the UK comes in many brands and each one has to compete for attention. They each emphasise their unique selling points and actively nurture their communities. In Ireland, the Catholic Church basically had a monopoly; it could do whatever it wanted and still retain its dominant market position. It didn’t have to work in Ireland as it had already cornered the market, but in the UK it had to appeal to each new generation otherwise it would lose its market share to a competitor. Each religion appears to have adopted an open, friendly, welcoming attitude that is utterly alien to me, raised in the holier-than-thou, don’t speak until you are spoken to, do as we say not as we do approach of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Oh, and yes, they seem to gloss over all the abuse and inherent sexism. It really seems to me that English Catholics happily ignore this very real problem which cuts to the heart of Catholicism, how an organisation which claims to act on behalf of God on Earth could routinely abuse women and children for generations, avoid and confound any legal repercussions, and yet still claim to have paramount moral authority. The systemic corruption and abuse is dismissed as ‘a few bad eggs’, or, to put it in more modern terms, ‘hashtag: not all Catholics’. It’s disappointing. It’s disgusting. It’s delusional. But then again, it’s not too much of leap when your core religious text advocates child sacrifice, whoring out your daughters, incest, genocide, slavery, and all kinds of intolerance. Sure, organised religion does good things too, but I don’t think the scales are tipped the way they would like us to think, and I don’t think they have made due compensation for all their sins.

I think I get the appeal of faith: it is some kind of egotistical or egocentric comfort to people to believe in a guiding force, a divinity that places you at the centre of the universe. I can even see the logic behind religion: I believe in X and I want to hang out with other people who believe X, especially if we are persecuted. That’s fine. I like educators, I love talking to teachers and academics; I like comics and movies and books, I am part of a book club and go to the cinema with friends. I understand the appeal of sharing an experience or outlook. But, to the best of my knowledge, there has been no systemic collusion to hide paedophiles or subjugate women in the groups I attend.

Maybe I would have a more positive view of organised religion if had grown up in a more secular nation, but I suspect I would still have my suspicions. Whenever a religion is in charge, it leads inevitably to corruption, but theocracy has a peculiar kind of corruption that is absolute as it claims a mandate from heaven. It just becomes another form of absolutism, just another stick to beat people with. Competition is good; it drives a brand to refine its message, to create the best possible product for the market, whereas a monopoly leads to stagnation. So, secularism might be good for religion, it might even help it strive to be the best form of itself to win more converts. But, of course, so many competing brands only reveal the intrinsic flaw in any organised religion’s claim to be the indisputable font and arbiter of Truth: they aren’t. The plethora of competing claims may be contributing to the fact that atheism and non-belief are on the rise as these assertions of ownership of the ‘Truth’ are comically numerous and claim to be mutually exclusive.

In any event, I think I am just surprised that intelligent, worldly, and aware people would willingly give themselves over to religion. I am of the opinion that the more you learn and the more you see of the world, the more you ought to realise how chains of faith are forged, and that you can break free of them. I am also deeply concerned by friends who appear good and moral, but tacitly condemn vast swathes of humanity to Hell because they believe in a different version of a divine motive force (and they have a special corner for those who don’t believe in such things).

Some people grow up in certain cultural or familial contexts which reinforce their faiths and religion offers them a sense of place. My friends who have converted seem to have endured a difficult period in their lives and then ‘found God’, and here again the sense of community may be appealing. I can understand the desire to belong to a community, but I don’t understand the willingness to join organisations that believe that humans are inherently sinful, that we have little or limited agency in the universe, that human rights are not universal and paramount, that women should be subservient in reality while offering the empty platitude that they are equal in spirit, that a ‘good’ and ‘loving’ god purposefully makes your life arduous to prove to him that your faith in him is true (those last two really rather twisted when you think about it). And all of these issues arise before we even begin to talk about the non-existence of gods. Maybe that first sip of Kool-Aid helps you forget the structural misogyny, centuries of repression, focus on guilt and sin, condemnation of natural aspects of human biology and character, and flaws in logic and reason. I understand the appeal of religion, but the fact that so many adherents can so quickly gloss over the intrinsic flaws is deeply upsetting. My concerns have been dismissed by my faithful friends because I don’t understand that faith is the important thing, that I focus too much on the material world where it is the spiritual that matters. Well, forgive me for saying, but it’s in the real world that priests fucked children and got away with it for decades, nuns tore babies from their mothers and gave them away without consent, Christian clerics advocated the Atlantic slave trade, women are denied basic human rights on religious grounds, ministers condemn LGBT+ folk and give licence to violent intolerance, and so very much more.

I was never a good Catholic. I think I’d rather go to Hell for being a good person than to Heaven for being a bad one who happened to pick the right divinity. But, of course, there is no heaven, no hell, no gods. Just us. And it’s well past time we cast aside Iron Age beliefs employed to support absolutism, intolerance, and subjugation.

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”.