Despite my enjoyment of the week, there is something enormously callous and distasteful about the pilgrimage racket, and it became the theme of my novella, “The Miracles”. What message is it sending to the afflicted to send them to Lourdes in the hope of a “miracle”? It amounts to saying that if they pray hard enough, God may listen and make them “normal” like the rest of us. I can understand (though obviously not empathise with) the terminally ill heading to Lourdes, or some other pilgrimage, as a miracle is their last hope; but the same is not true for severely autistic children, the wheelchair-bound, or the otherwise mentally and physically disabled. They were born that way, or have become that way through accident or disease. This amounts to trying to second guess God, whom the faithful must presume had made the afflicted in that way, as well as making a value judgement that the way they are ought to be changed. My revulsion runs deeper than the common riposte; “Why does God hate amputees?” If you think it’s more to do with the experience of taking a pilgrimage, then explain the crutches hanging from the wall of the grotto – a clear signal that “miracles do happen” and that the faithful ought to maintain hope for one. Who wants the trip? Have the afflicted asked to go, or are they sent? A parallel that occurs to me is a charity worker who once gave a recruitment talk to a group of us at work, saying that it’s fine to be selfishly motivated when others benefit. She showed us photographs of her “good deeds” with elderly people, which amounted to playing them recordings of Britney Spears, shoving baseball caps on their heads, and telling them they were having a good time. Seeing pictures of their vacant faces, I’m not sure they would agree. Precisely who benefits? Do physically handicapped children, returning home without a “cure”, feel they have let the side down? Miracles don’t happen. Is it not better for everyone to accept their lot and get on with their lives, without judging somebody or being themselves judged in need of a cure, or clinging onto the false hope of a reversal of fortune?
The tackiness and tawdriness of Lourdes was not lost on me even then, nor was the certainty that the whole story was likely to be a complete fabrication used to lure the credulous and take their money. I bought a phenomenally kitsch LED-flashing statuette of the Virgin Mary and browsed the rows and rows of sub-Blackpool tat-shops with the best of them.
Yet there was a slightly different experience that gave me pause for thought. One evening, ostensibly for a laugh, a group of us ventured down to the grotto after dark. Dotted around the convenient open space around it, pilgrims were gathered, candles in hand, fervently praying. To my astonishment, I found myself choking up with tears. Not out of distress, but because of the literally overwhelming serenity of the place. I was embarrassed about this that it was some time before I looked at any of my colleagues, but when I finally did glance over I saw to my astonishment that they too were weeping, some of them hardy Liverpool lads who did not make a habit of showing emotion.
This can be amply and wholly explained in terms of human psychology. We vicariously share others’ emotions all the time. Smile at a friend and they are liable to smile with you. Laughter, as we are all aware, can be contagious. What I felt then was the faith of others, and the inner peace and tranquillity they felt by being at the site where they wholly believed the Virgin Mary had once stood. My dad had once been to Bethlehem and had a similar experience in a barn they had shacked up, claiming it to be the actual birthplace of Jesus. He had been stunned by the outpouring of emotion from the faithful, some of them unable to stand they were so overcome. He was even a bit disappointed that I told him Jesus definitely wasn’t born in Bethlehem and even if he had been, the chances of the location still being standing to this day, let alone historically authenticated, is zero.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Either way, what I temporarily shared in that night in Lourdes was the one and only time when religion, with all its bells and whistles and promises, has ever stirred my emotions. It was a salutary lesson in what others take from their faith, and which I try to keep in mind when finding myself voicing opposition to it. I must admit that I do not feel that I miss out on what the pilgrims had. “If you take away religion, what do you replace it with?” is a common question, often obstreperously asked. My answer would be embracing real knowledge, and appreciating art. Philosophy, art and science provide more wonders than I could ever hope to digest or understand if I lived to be a thousand, yet these disciplines are real, their mysteries worth solving, and their rewards great. I would not replace any of them with the false consolation and empty certainties of religious faith.
I further baulk at the readiness organized religions have to exploit the unquestioning reverence of the faithful, which of course, answers the question as to why religion demands that you not question, and makes a virtue of blindly believing the impossible. Such reverence creates a demand for apparitions and miracles and pilgrimages that religions are only too willing to exploit through tithes, indulgences, and plain rackets (like Lourdes).
When I reached the age of seventeen, I was about to be unleashed onto the world to make my own way, through my own decisions and mistakes, or so I hoped. My theatrical exploits and hankerings for the stage had been tolerated, but with the unspoken proviso that I pack all this silliness and frivolity away and choose a sensible Catholic-condoned career when the time came. The upshot was that my undergraduate years were deeply unsatisfying and well as thoroughly miserable for me. My mum wanted me to choose a proper profession: medicine, as it turned out, though it could equally well have been law (though this, no doubt my grandmother would have impressed on her, was more of an unworthy Jewish pursuit). Something “well-respected in society”, to quote her exact words. In traditional Catholic families, the intelligent son becomes a doctor, and the idiot brother is packed off to the seminary. I did not have a brother, and having intelligence, the conclusion was obvious. Medicine, it was decided, without consulting me, was the only option. Having paid for my education, it was the least she could expect of me in return. That I had not asked for such an education, and that I had been at pains to liberate myself from much of its deleterious ethos, and that it was my life, were not part of the picture. My desire to be an actor, needless to say, met with considerable opprobrium. My dad, who was a straight-talking northerner with a business to run, and wasn’t much of one for art himself at the time, supported my mother. All of this is long forgiven, but in shaping my life, the events of the time had a massive impact, such that I cannot skirt over them, much that I wish I could.
I blame my mother’s Catholic upbringing for stifling much of her own creative expression, which finds one outlet in the preparation of lavish meals to feed her family and friends. She has, regrettably (for her as well, I would argue), a prudishness about “art” in any shape or form, and a censoriousness about its aims, and a standoffishness when confronted with it. We had no poetry in our house all the time I was growing up. I mean this literally, not metaphorically. Tasked by my English teacher to choose a poem to read out to class at school one day, when I must have been fourteen or so, I returned home to browse the bookshelf. Not one book on literature or poetry presented itself. Having gone to the library and hired a collection by WB Yeats, my mother was bemused by the trouble I had gone to, wondering why I couldn’t have read from a miscellany of children’s poems I had in my bedroom, which had been bought for me as a present many years earlier. My explanation, that the children’s book of silly rhymes was not poetry, failed to cut much ice. No. A poem was a poem was a poem: and best ignored.
The consequence of suppression of artistic and (largely) aesthetic sensibilities in an individual is likely to manifest itself in one of two ways when it comes to their progeny: an eager or even zealous desire that their offspring is never manacled by the same restraints, or the capitulation to the shackles, viewing them as desirable, and something that ought be adopted by future generations for their own good, or the good of their souls. Regrettably, my mother’s mind concreted itself around the latter. Whilst she was very loving and only ever wanted the best for me, my own analytical mind, which was to reject her theism, also housed a deep, unstoppable yearning for artistic expression, and it is this that has always presented a chasm, where two worldviews were so wildly disparate that they could only be conjoined by an incredibly unsafe and temporary bridge. Sometimes, in more recent years, an effort has been made on both sides to bridge this gap, and it is done so the only way possible: without religion.
Before this fresh understanding on both sides became possible, there was a lengthy period of distance, for which I mostly blame myself for too long going along with my mum’s expectations. I was confirmed into the Catholic faith when I was either twelve or thirteen. My sister, a year and a bit older, was getting it done, and my mum opted for a “kill two birds with one stone” approach, which, whilst understandable, did mean that I stood up and publicly avowed something to please my mother that, less than two years later and more mature, I would have wholly rejected. One of the few areas in which I agree with Catholic traditionalists is that twenty-one ought to be a minimum age for confirmation. It hardly matters now.
The ignominy of my university entrance procedure is still painful for me to recall, some thirteen years later. I will say no more about that time other than to say that it saw the start of a long period of depression which, whilst it has rarely been as bad since, has never entirely gone away, fluctuating between background noise and noisome, gnawing omnipresence, and has become something I have to live with; and that I leant far too heavily on alcohol to get me through during the first and most prolonged bout. True, I was at the age where depression, if it’s going to, likely manifests itself for the first time, and I could have suffered as badly, or even worse, had I studied for the stage instead. However I doubt my self-esteem and confidence would have taken such near-mortal blows.
When I first moved out of home and went to university I had a tough time settling in, and fell back on aspects of my childhood that I felt had defined me. This resulted in a brief spate of reading a lot of CS Lewis and trying to persuade myself that I had been wrong, which was coupled with a vague idea that I should start, four or five years after leaving, going to church again, which ultimately I never did. Nevertheless, during a heated debate with a flatmate I roundly despised, we were discussing abortion, and his point of view was that it was entirely the woman’s choice and there’s nothing reprehensible about it at all – it’s no different from having a mole removed or a boil lanced. My own thoughts are less accommodating than his, not through religiously inspired dogma, but I would nowadays vigorously oppose a ban on abortion. Not so then. Feeling that I was being shouted down in the argument, I played what I felt was my trump card. “Well, I was brought up to be a Catholic and we’re told to believe it’s inherently immoral.” My intended inference was that any secular argument he could throw at me could not permeate my sturdy shield of my religiously-inspired morality.
Later, I went to bed thoroughly shame-faced, not because I had lost the argument but because I knew I had committed an act of intellectual high treason. To play the faith card was crass and moronic, and the shame of that moment still haunts me now, as I feel my cheeks reddening at the memory as I type, nearly a decade and a half later.
I’m not saying that abortion is an easy or clear-cut topic, or that in retrospect my flatmate was right, but what I realised then, and have witnessed many other examples since then of my behaviour that night in others, which has only reinforced my opinion, is that it is contemptible and immoral to attempt to close down debate or stifle others’ opinions by asserting a point of religious dogma.
What I find so objectionable about it is its ready acquiescence to arbitrary, unquestioned and absolute authority. It is a betrayal of the self to submit to the demands of an organized religion. Monty Python’s Life of Brian is the best satire on religious faith I have ever seen or read, and it repeatedly hits the bullseye (which is why it upset so many people and was duly banned in the UK for a decade). At one moment, Brian, having been mistaken for the Messiah, is followed home by thousands of devotees willing to hang off his every word. “You don’t need to follow me,” he protests. “You don’t need to follow anybody. You’ve got to work it out for yourselves.” I can think of no better rebuttal to the core purpose of organized religion.
The murderers of abortion doctors, the Christian “martyrs” who take legal action against councils when their jobs in the public sector require them to provide services for homosexuals, the Catholic adoption agencies who think it preferable to put their dogma before the welfare of children in their charge, and agree that closing their services is to be preferred over handing children to gay couples, all fit into this category. Their supporters campaign for a right for religions to legally discriminate.
Are we truly to believe that “reasonable” Christians would be more than happy to provide marriage guidance to gay couples, if only it wasn’t for the demands of their religion? Of course not. Time and time again we see bigots using their “faith” as a moral shield, impervious to secular criticism, when it comes to what they pick and choose as their morality from the hideous swap-shop of their sacred texts. When secularists and atheists like myself point this out, it is always we who are branded “intolerant”, often by fair-minded liberals who may see that, whilst we have a case, the safest route and the one that ticks the most PC boxes is to tiptoe gently away whenever the faith card is played, and to vilify whomsoever stands in opposition to religiously-inspired bigotry. This is the battlefield where freedom of religion and freedom from religion frequently cross swords. I recently read of a case of a man in Texas who won his appeal against an injunction that prevented him from slaughtering goats at his home in Dallas. Slaughtering the animals was part of his religious faith, and denying him this right, which he claimed harmed nobody (I doubt the goats would agree) was to deny him the right to freedom of religious expression. His religious rights in this instance trump animal rights, as it so often does when the faithful feel the need to bathe themselves in blood to appease their angry gods. If the man had demanded the right to slaughter human children, the same verdict would not have been reached. Any reader or watcher of The Daily Mail will be familiar with the litany of saints and martyrs trotted out seemingly weekly as an example of the way Christians are “persecuted”, as if the pursuit of bigotry, or the prevention of the happiness and freedom of others, is in some way a noble cause. The Religious Right frequently cite scripture as valid reasons as to why they oppose civil liberties such as gay marriage and abortion, which amounts to abusing their faith to push a political agenda. Forgive me for not applauding these sanctimonious bigots; but for treating them with the derision and contempt they have earned. I feel a better person now than when I was amongst their ranks, and catching myself at it prompted me to abandon Catholicism once and for all. Christopher Hitchens’ bon mot, that “it’s not what you think but how you think”, was something I had to learn for myself, having recovered from the bruises.
I ended up studying Classical Civilisation, which I found a fascinating and enjoyable subject (apart from Latin, which again recalls Monty Python’s Life of Brian, specifically the “Romanes eunt domus” scene). The philosophy courses were a joy, and nobody has done it quite as consistently well as the ancient Athenians. Socrates, whose ideas are expounded second hand through Plato, was a remarkable mind and a great moral, as well as what we would now consider immoral, thinker. There is no hint of divinity or revealed truth in his works, but I would be very keen to hear anyone argue where the New Testament is more profound or moralistic than the secular philosophies of the ancient Greeks, who lived and died hundreds of years before Jesus’ time. There’s plenty in the pages of Plato and Aristotle that we discussed and disagreed on, but without the threat of excommunication, the invoking of heresy, the torturing of unbelievers, or the dehumanising of those who perhaps preferred the teachings of the Stoics or the Atomists. Philosophy really does start where religion ends, and I found this aspect of the course so much more profoundly intellectually satisfying than the whole litany of cheap and tawdry conjuring tricks and platitudes of the New Testament, or the woolly, rambling “insights” of its protagonist. The lectures and tutorials were more worthwhile over one academic year than the combined fourteen years of biblical indoctrination.
Worse was to come. Up until the age of nineteen I had unthinkingly assumed (in fairness, a lot of people make the same mistake) that the gospels of the New Testament were biographical, written by the apostles of Jesus, perhaps with a little exaggeration, at the time of his life, with exact words and sayings recorded for posterity. Phrases such as “bible truth” and “it’s gospel”, to indicate the veracity of a statement, are in common vernacular usage. Already being an atheist by this time, I had no great shaking of faith to encounter, but I was still surprised, as well as fascinated by the course in Roman History that dealt specifically with early Christianity and the establishment of the tenets of its faith. The gospels were not written by people who knew Jesus. In fact, they never even met him, and given that they weren’t written until at least several decades after the events they are alleged to record, and in most instances were set down almost a century later, they are anything but accurate and faithful records. Neither are the historical figures who are attributed authorship the authors of the books of the New Testament. You may be tempted to think that half a century or so isn’t that big a problem to discovering the truth of the life of a historical figure. George Orwell died in 1950, and even though we don’t have a single fragment of his recorded voice, we can still piece together a compelling biography that paints a broadly accurate description of the forty-six years of his life. This is because we live in a literate and photographic age. We have his books, essays, letters to friends, photographs, living relatives or friends who could, decades later, recall memories that were perhaps bolstered by entries in a diary or letter. The difference is that nowadays people write things down and have methods of recording historical events that we take for granted. Judea at the time of Jesus was populated by illiterate goatherds who were as superstitious as they were uneducated. Stories were handed down through the oral tradition – literally word of mouth – from one generation to the next (common to many cultures and how the Greek myths Homer later recorded came about). Are we really to believe that people who never knew, let alone met Jesus or any of his disciples, writing decades later, with a vested interest in making Old Testament prophecies come true in a land steeped in credulity and illiteracy, produced accurate historical records? Are we further to believe that these writings are the inerrant records of the life of God who revealed himself to his people in such an eccentric way?
The Early Christianity course was not designed as an indulgence in faith-bashing. It was a dispassionate academic course that I found stimulating. I have maintained a fascination for religion, and why people believe what they believe ever since, which is occasionally mistaken for piety. How the Christian church became established and spread west, by its adoption as state religion by the Roman Emperor Constantine, is a fascinating study of power play, scheming bishops, the exploitation of guilt and the duping of the credulous, the desire for material gain in the here and now, and cobbling together of sacred texts and central tenets of faith in an ad hoc style I can only describe as grossly casuistic. Indeed, the formation of the church in the time of the late Roman Empire is a microcosm of all the inherent and many caprices of the faith and abuses of power ever since. The collapse of the Roman Empire ensured the faith gradually spread west rather than stayed in the East. Western history would have taken an entirely different course had the dashing and popular Emperor Julian (“the apostate”, whom Gore Vidal wrote an excellent novel about) succeeded in reversing his uncle Constantine’s decision and re-established Roman paganism as the state religion, before he was killed in battle at a young age. Not only is the faith itself a tenuous one that withstands no scrutiny, but it may never have survived had an arrow in flight missed or only wounded a Roman Emperor in 363. Call this divine intervention if you will, but to take that route you are still left with the almighty task of disentangling the rest of the Christian narrative from its shamelessly invented origins.
As part of my course, I was required to spend two weeks in Rome, staying at the British School, which was fully paid for by the university (those were the days). It probably goes without saying that this was a wonderful experience, and apart from the intellectual satisfaction of my studies, it remains the one oasis of pleasant memories I have of my time as an undergraduate, besides the intellectual satisfaction of my studies. It appealed to both core sides of my nature: a long day of looking at historically significant rubble followed by a long evening of drinking ridiculous amounts of cheap Chianti and Peroni. On a day off, a small group of us eschewed a lie in for a trip to the Vatican. This is the powerhouse of the Catholic Church, which played such a part (even, or possibly especially, when it didn’t) of my youth. Never before or since have I seen somewhere of such opulence and grandeur, with so many priceless works of art, as the gilded and marbled, and seemingly endless corridors and enormously tall ceilings of the Vatican, culminating in the astounding depiction of creation with Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.
Amongst the tourists there was much reverence and awe, manifested through gasps of wonderment. I can understand this reaction, but it’s only part of what the Vatican was designed to invoke. The larger part is to impress you with its importance. Any truly pious pilgrim may wish to reflect on the obscene wealth of the place, and of the Catholic Church in general, and on what Jesus’ “message”, about rich men passing through the eye of a camel, or whatever it is, and sort out in their own mind the mismatch. If religion is about the spiritual and the hereafter, then why the clamouring for material wealth and political power in the real world? Mostly, my colleagues and I were appalled by the plundered pagan art and the grotesque opulence of the place. Knowing the history, that the Vatican didn’t materialise out of the heavens but was paid for through indulgences and tithes, by fleecing and conning the poor, left me feeling sick to the stomach (much more so than the grand ruins of the Coliseum, where the blood of thousands of innocents had been shed in the name of entertainment), but I would still choose truth over fantasy and would not ignore these painful truths. Just as knowing that Michelangelo was paid under commission to paint the Sistine Chapel, and used a team of his best students to paint under his direction, and knowing that what it depicts is a fiction, does not make it any less an incredible work of art and testament to human achievement. Michelangelo was a remarkable artist whose work achieves the numinous on its own merits. Nothing further is required. To throw out the dogma is to lose nothing, nor to surrender any capacity to marvel at the inherently sublime.
St Peter’s in a fascinating place, and I enjoyed putting my vertigo to the test by walking around the inside of the dome, but seeing the Vatican only reaffirmed my already solid opinions about Catholicism: that its core purpose is the duping of the credulous for their money and keeping the poor poor, and in a state of perpetual ignorance. It does so with kitsch displays of opulence designed to impress and browbeat the worthless sinner, who must make propitiations of wealth in order to achieve salvation and eternity in heaven.
Since my trip to Rome, my views on religion in general and Catholicism in particular have barely changed. Why have I come to be so po-faced about other people’s desire to believe in something irrational? Does this make me a killjoy?
Perhaps it does, but I find that to live life as a secularist, you are constantly having to fight against the certainties and expected privileges of religion, with no expectation that your views will be treated with as much importance. Any Christian is duty-bound to believe that I (and every heretic from Einstein to Plato) am doomed to an eternity in hell unless I “repent”. They must also think this of anyone of any other faith, no matter how passionately they believe, because each religion thinks it holds the keys to the truth, and only its adherents will be rewarded in the afterlife (the Catholics still make this claim for themselves. After a history of stamping out heresy, the most recent attack on religious pluralism was with 2000’s declaration Dominus Jesus, signed by the then-pope John Paul II, and endorsed by Ratzinger. It makes it clear that Christian Churches deemed non-apostolic, having not, “preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery” are not proper Churches, which includes Anglicans). The previous leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cormac Murphy O’Connor, said that atheists are “less than human”, and a few days before had said that atheism is “the greatest of evils – worse than sin itself”. One only need take a look at his record on covering up child abuse and enabling a child rapist (Father Michael Hill); contribution to the spread of AIDS in Africa; and his various employment issues to see what a wretched example of a human being this sinister old fool is. This arrogance of certainty and the pursuit of exclusivity are the foundation of religion’s out-group hostility, as well as the solidarity of in-group kinship; which is why religion causes so much trouble and is, and always will be, a threat to freedom of thought and expression, fundamentally tyrannical rather than liberating, and blinding rather than enlightening. Yet the UN is increasingly on the side of those who would criminalise the freedom to criticise religion, which will demand that atheists and secularists lie about what they really think and keep quiet, for fear of causing “offence”. This is backing the wrong horse in a perverted attempt at “tolerance” and “respect”, which is all one-way. A common riposte to my heathenism I hear from religionists is, “The fool hath said in his heart there is no god.” This raises two points. The first is the affirmation of out-group hostility this response indicates, and the second is that given that it’s a quote from a psalm, it follows the usual circular logic of finding that something must be true because it’s in the bible, and the bible is true because the bible says it’s true. In other words, it’s still a call to an arbitrary authority, and as an argument, it is impervious to reason because it is not based in reason. It is very difficult to argue against an approach like that because it doesn’t fall within the normal parameters of reasoned discourse.
It is vital to be able to criticise the ridiculous, and pour scorn on bad ideas. Without this, humans have no future, apart from to return to the Dark Ages of theocracy and repression. It would also be preferable if all humans were governed by more reason, then this situation would be avoided. I include myself in this. I get irrationally angry when stuck in traffic. I don’t believe in the supernatural, yet I am easily scared by horror films, even though I am able to monitor my feelings and recognise the conflict between reason and a baser, primeval response. The thought of the ghosts of creepy Japanese children in my airing cupboard, or monsters under the bed, still, I’m ashamed to admit, lose me the occasional hour of sleep. If a parcel gets lost in the post, or I break the handle on my favourite mug, or I lose a much-loved shirt, I emotionally claim that it’s the sort of thing that could only happen to me, and can become so emotional that I get disproportionately upset. I am hardly a shining example of a fully rational human being. In fact, there’s no such thing. However I do try to be aware of my lack of reason, and genuinely look for good reasons for taking a particular course of action, and for holding the beliefs that I do.
I also have rituals that I couldn’t live without. I regularly meet up with like minds for Doctor Who weekends, maybe two or three times a year. What’s interesting is that there was no effort to establish this tradition, no recruitment drive, and even though we’ve been doing this a few years now, there is no membership, no form, no hierarchy and no rules: it just spontaneously started to happen; then it grew. Undeniably, despite its unplanned origins, the events have become ritualised; and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy that. We all need ritual.
Humans ought to come to terms with the idea that the universe would cope perfectly well without us, and that we will all be exterminated perpetually and for all time by death. This is not bleak and hopeless, but real, and when this is joined with a true understanding of our place in the universe, subject to the same natural laws as every other species, an urgency to understand and to take part in what little period of consciousness is afforded us becomes an imperative. There is no good reason to live life based on the special pleading that humans somehow give purpose to the universe and are the “last word in evolution”. In fact, I think God’s chosen species is dogs, and he only made humans so that we would artificially select and breed wolves for thousands of years, thus resulting in the emergence of Canis lupus familiaris – the domestic dog. Humans were just a tool in the creation of the truly divine – the dog. Obviously, I don’t believe that, but there’s as much evidence for maintaining that as a credible position as there is for the religionists’ view of the “purpose” of evolution. Believers such as John Lennox, author of “God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?” (to save you having to read it, his conclusion is “no”), now has to claim (with a straight face) that God intervened in the case of humans to endow them with a soul (which seems to be, though the waters have been muddied by second-hand accounts and mistranslations – much like biblical texts – the Catholic Church’s stance as well). One could well ask; what about the dozens of other hominid genii, such as the Australopithecine and Ardipithecine species that existed before Homo sapiens evolved? Did God intervene to give them souls? What was the cut-off point when God had decided that speciation had occurred and all future Homo sapiens would have souls? Logically some children must have been granted them where their parents had not. Does God sit outside the universe and outside space/time with nothing better to do but create human souls which he beams down to earth at the moment of conception? What am I missing here? No, we all die. None of us likes the idea, but there it is. The rest follows.
I’m also sick and tired of the non-debate over evolution, and the amount of support deeply ignorant people have for the religiously-inspired (and therefore well-funded) creationist movement. Despite overwhelming and conclusive evidence from fossils, molecular genetic taxonomy and many other scientific fields, there are still plenty of people who claim not to “believe” that evolution is “true”, and I’m sure we’ve all met and worked with them. They allow themselves this blinkering against the truth because religion posits that there are different ways of knowing what is true or not. Devout Catholics can only decide what is true by what the pope tells them is true. This is plainly stupid, but the obviousness of this fallacy is perhaps clouded by cultural relativism, which likes to pretend that what’s true for one person may not be true for another, or true in a different way, which enables respect for all manner of ludicrous and dangerous religious beliefs.
I frequently hear people who declare themselves to be atheists, or perhaps weak-tea, bet-hedging agnostics, that they don’t believe in the man-made religions but feel that “there’s something out there,” a sentiment that is so often the bed-fellow of the desire to “believe in something larger than oneself” (with the implicit assumptions that this is both desirable, and cannot be achieved through secular academic pursuits). This sentiment often finds an outlet through a desire to travel to “the East”, a place of great “spirituality”, where they will be able to “find themselves”. This sentiment is patronising in its attitude to the East that has more than its share of problems in part caused by high levels of superstition brought about by ignorance.
I am unable to think in this way, and I don’t believe it is from a poverty of imagination or though any fundamentalism on my part when it comes to understanding what constitutes “the truth”. To say that something is true if your holy book or your arbitrary human representative who interprets your holy book says it is true, and false if they say it is false, is the same kind of lobotomising of mind I talked about earlier in relation to religious indoctrination or military training.
Are there not some good things about religion? Do I not enjoy the wonderful Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter? Would I wish to see them banned? Well, I enjoy the time off work at Easter. Christmas I enjoy as a time to see the whole family and rarely-seen friends; as well as to relax and watch films, snug indoors on a winter’s night with loved ones, without the guilty feeling that I ought to be making more constructive use of my time; and yes, to get trollied by midday with hedonistic abandon, each year wondering if I’ll like sherry any more than the last time, and never failing to decide not after the first tentative sips. I have always loved the smell of pine in the house that a real tannenbaum creates; the rich food; the anticipation of presents under the tree. OK, I could quite happily live without the kitsch decorations of athletic Santas and a platoon of reindeer in gardens; and the constant bombardment of adverts on television; and the hordes of shoppers making purchasing a misery, if not a downright impossibility: but what has any of that to do with the birth of Jesus or the Christian gospels? Absolutely nothing. All of the traditional elements of Christmas remain intact from the Pagan winter festival that preceded it, which came at the time of the winter solstice, where the aurora borealis provided the symbolic use of lights, and the traditions of bringing the outside in, and exchanging gifts with friends, family and neighbours were central to the Yuletide holiday, spread over twelve days, where a large Yule log was burned, designed to cheer up the Northern Hemisphere during the time of long, dark evenings. The Christian story hijacked the tradition that had long-since been in place. This is why it always makes me laugh when Christians bemoan the “taking Christ out of Christmas”, and the usual and predictable made-up nonsense in the Daily Mail about deliberate attempts by our nasty liberal councils to water down our Judeo-Christian heritage. It would be hilarious to hear Nick Griffin, were it not for the ready supply of dupes who think he has something credible to say, talk of restoring England to how it was seventeen thousand years ago, especially as he is so keen on maintaining the Christian faith of this country, which has been in place for less than one and a half millennia. As for Easter, that’s a pagan festival too, about sex, as it happens: hence the themes of rebirth and rejuvenation that abound, especially through the apt symbol of the rabbit. Why was Jesus resurrected on a different day each year anyway? That was another awkward question I often asked at church, to which I never received an answer.
As for my own particular brand of atheism, far too many places in the world bear the ugly stamp of Catholicism, leaving me with feelings of shame and repulsion for what was once expected to be a big part of my life – my moral compass – and more certain than ever that the increasing secularisation of society is the correct way to go. The AIDS crisis in sub-Saharan Africa, in which the attempts of secular, or even Christian charities, to educate communities about contraception and safe sex, have been shouted down by Catholic emissaries, who have lied to the credulous that condoms cause AIDS rather than prevent them. I have recently witnessed first-hand John Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria, spout this nonsense dogma during a debate, and that he was greeted with boos and derision is no great comfort as it will hardly help those in most dire need of emancipation from the institution he represents. The numbers of those dying, without treatment or even palliative care, will probably reach the hundreds of millions before this disaster is brought to an end, if indeed it ever is (and then it will be by secular means and the intervention of medicines, rather than by the Vatican admitting it has been wrong all along). All this misery and needless human suffering is because of Casti Connubii, a pre-AIDS 1930 papal encyclical banning use of contraception (amongst other things, all to do with the sinister and despicable human reproductive system) that is obviously infallible and requires no alteration. Those who agree with the Catholic Church, and consider contraception a mortal sin, may wish to ponder the collateral damage of the countless numbers of women whose philandering husbands infect them, and the resulting offspring born already with the disease, through no fault of their own. Africa is now up to 1.2 million AIDS orphans, at the time of writing. Which would be the more moral thing to do, abandon dogma and save lives, or rigidly adhere to dogma, prevent all attempts to educate those most in need, feed them lies, and then sit back and do nothing whilst they die in the most hideous and degrading way imaginable, ad infinitum? I’d suggest this is exactly the sort of policy you would expect from a group of maladjusted elderly celibates who are terrified by human sexual urges in general, and those of women in particular.
The other elephant that lumbers through the room when talk of Catholicism crops up is paedophilia. Perhaps the best that can be said of BK is that he was not, to the best of my knowledge, a child rapist. But both forms of child abuse, physical and sexual, undeniably occur throughout the clergy, now as well as throughout the centuries since the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire under the Emperor Constantine. Any secular institution, that precisely through its teachings, (and repression of sexuality has a lot to do with it), that churned out child abusers would be instantly investigated and prevented by any just society, with the authorities given full powers to investigate and act, with consequences for failure to cooperate. The present pope, Joseph Ratzinger, when he was a lowly cardinal, was charged in 2001, as part of his duties as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with stamping out endemic child raping by clergy, but his response was to issue a letter instructing all clergy to cooperate with a universal cover-up of child raping, on pain of excommunication. His “solution” was to do nothing and carry on as before, because the problem is so deep that to tackle it would mean the disembowelling and bankrupting of the entire Catholic Church. Given that the Catholic Church is worth tens of billions in assets alone, you can see the scale of the problem. The pope, it is not unreasonable to say, has actively enabled the largest and most damaging paedophile ring in the history of humanity. Yet he is trotted out as an example of unimpeachable morality. Here is an institution that has such a firm grip over the minds of its followers that it will even beat and rape their children, and they will still keep coming back for more, and so often believe the representative of God rather than their own child. That it then sets itself up as both infallible and the last word on morality is so profoundly hypocritical that I find it hard to articulate my contempt. If you are in any doubt over the scale of this, read the Ryan Report. The faithful are exactly how the Vatican wants them – powerless. All they can do is vote with their feet and sever their ties to the Church, and I know a few brave Catholics, some of them of mature years, who have taken such decisive action after decades spent attending mass.
Even in the early Twenty-First Century we can witness the installation of a new head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales who used his inaugural speech to launch an unfounded attack on secularists and atheists, whilst saying, as the Times reported “nothing on child abuse”, even though this was mere days after the publication of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse. He’s a former old boy from the school I attended, which only adds to my shame. Ratzinger made a speech in which he cited “the evils done in the name of atheism,” in the Twentieth Century, where the throngs of the faithful were seen in St Peter’s lapping up this tired old lie. Now the prime minister has invited Ratzinger to Britain on a state (rather than, like his predecessor, pastoral) visit. Whether the prime minister is Brown or, more likely, Cameron when this visit takes place makes no difference. Both have expressed “delight” that the pontiff has deigned to set foot in non-Catholic Britain and grace us with his presence, in order to woo the all-important faith vote. Even Clegg has retracted his metaphysical worldview of “atheism” and settled for a typically Lib Dem weak-tea “agnostic – but look! I have a Catholic wife who does my believing for me.” It’s enough to make me want to move to Norway. If a relatively small percentage of the population regularly worships in churches; then why are their voices so over-represented in British political life? If they could keep the god-bothering to themselves, I wouldn’t mind. The problem is that it pervades everything.
I suppose I think about it a lot, and write about it a lot because it matters to me a lot. All of it: the truth claims, the political and social influence, the influence upon the minds of individuals both within and without its sway. The next great divide, already happening across the world, is between people of reason and people of faith. Like rich and poor, like cultural and ethnic divides, these collisions are a battlefield, and likely to get bloodier. Realistically, the argument won’t ever go away, and I’ll be defending my atheism and secularism, and losing the argument, until the day I die. Religion can and does, for a lot of people, permeate all aspects of their lives, and this has a knock-on effect to the rest of us. I would love to live without the issue of religion mattering to me, but this will never happen, because of the special privileges it demands as the right of its adherents. It’s also something that has formed the thinking and concreted the personalities of members of my family in ways that I have never understood. In striving to appreciate the religious impulse in people, I am perhaps attempting to unravel and unlock the mysteries and confusions of my childhood.
It’s true that there’s countless decent people who think their faith is important to them and who are impressed with stories of miracles and to whom the notion of salvation appeals. Would I so callously wrench the crutch of faith from under them? No, though I may gently persuade, whilst not keeping silent on my own belief that to live without religion is no loss at all, quite the contrary, and that there are many more manifest wonders in science, philosophy and art than in the sum total of theology throughout the ages. All’s that is required is to grow up, to acknowledge that we are all certain to die, that our lives are all-too brief, and that children too will one day come to pass. Let us embrace the consolation of the real wonders this life has to offer without recourse to wishful thinking and falsehoods; the demand that all manner of bad ideas may be used as an excuse for intolerance towards our fellow travellers; and to all the fairy stories and non-answers learnt on mother’s knee. Perhaps it may be best, in the long run, to tell children the truth from the get-go.