Saturday, December 18, 2004

And what then?

In my first post I mentioned my run in with the Catholic Church (CC) bureaucracy. The last thing I mentioned was that the priest told my wife and me that we wouldn’t be allowed to have a church wedding unless we, in effect, signed over our child’s up-bringing to the church. I hope that I am not revealing too much if I say that I am now married and bringing up a baby girl just as I (and my wife – the woman with whom I was sitting in that parish office) please. So, obviously something happened.

Well, when I was told that I’d have to sign a devil’s bargain to get married I appealed all the way to the top. That’s right, to the Catholic Church Curia (CCC). Don’t know what a Curia is? Curious to find out? Well, from what I gather, it is something between an embassy of a sovereign state, the headquarters of a major corporation and a monastery. At least that was the impression I got when I went there. You can be sure that I felt quite ill at ease, walking into the centre of catholic operations to declare that I was a notorious apostate. After having been sent to and fro by various nun secretaries I was finally directed to see the relevant priest.

I waited at his door with trepidation. He wasn’t in yet. I spent the time looking at the paintings on the wall. There were great charts that looked like maps of the sub-infeudation of a kingdom – they even had personal coats of arms (or so they looked like to me) next to each name. Looking closer I realised that they were names of bishops and that charts showed the various bishoprics and their current holders. So, I guess my initial guess wasn’t that far off.

Finally, the priest arrived. A tall, athletic, relatively young man who bounded up to me, shook my hand vigorously and swept me into his office. Before I knew it I was sitting across the desk from him and he was asking, “Right, so what’s the problem?” His voice was matter of fact but not unfriendly. The way he saw it, there was a reason why I was in his office and it was his job to make sure the problem, whatever it was, was solved.

I began to tell him at length about the difficulties that we had met at the parish office. I spoke about respecting views and differing values, and so forth. I had been talking for about three minutes when he reached for one of the folders that was standing on his shelf. He flipped it open, flipped through the pages and, swinging the it about, presented it to me, “Is this the document they asked you to sign?” I read – We, the undersigned... to bring up our children... “Yes, that’s it,” I told him. “Right,” he flipped the page over, “What about this one, are you willing to sign this one.” I read the document, carefully – I, the undersigned, am aware of the fact that my spouse-to-be is a Catholic. I read it again - ...aware... spouse... Catholic. “Sure, I can sign that.” “Good. Sign this document then, the other one isn’t really in use anymore, anyway.”

And that was it. I was out of his office within five minutes of coming in and all that I’d have to do is acknowledge the obvious. Where the parish priests had ummed and ohed, where they threatened and flustered, where they looked askance, he simply showed me a different document and bid me a good day on the way out. Efficient and to the point, I guess the church must have people like that to run what is a massive bureaucracy. I won’t be too surprised to find out that his name has been added to the charts in the Curia.

Mind you, that wasn’t the end of our troubles...

Who got me started?

Today is a red letter day. My best friend, whom I haven’t seen in something like five years is coming to see me.

In many ways it is thanks to him that I am the person I am. We met when, at age eleven and in a new school and a new country, I was seated by my new teacher in an empty seat next to a scrawny little kid who was then told by the teacher to look after me. Now, my friend might not seem like the nurturing type but in our ways we have both been taking care of each other since then. Mostly, it has meant a lot of talking. Talking about stuff that interested us and, it seemed, pretty much no-one else. Twenty-something years later and, thanks to the magic of the internet, we are still talking even though we have spent most of those years living hundreds if not thousands of kilometres apart.

In fact, my meeting him in that class-room many years ago is closely linked to my sitting here and writing this blog. It was during our talks that I started to think more deeply about, among other things, religion and it was those conversations that I am sure have shaped my intellectual habits. Maybe there is some deep point in that. You’re welcome to look for one.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Would you hire these people?

The occasions on which the problem of evil has been discussed are more numerous than the angels one could fit on the head of a pin. Still, I think that an interesting argument can be made that I have not seen made before.

Imagine that you are a company director and that you are hiring new managers for a subsidiary company. Your company's image is that of an upstanding corporate citizen, its whole brand is based on ethics, the personification of this ethical stance being your public image. You have in front of you the CVs belonging to the prospective new managers. Unlike a normal director you are in the enviable position of knowing exactly when a CV is less than factual. So, you know which manager is corrupt, which one is about to have charges of molestation brought against them, etc. Given all this, which managers do you choose? Nazi sympathisers? Child molesters? Corrupt Mafia collaborators? War mongers?

Well, assuming that your public image is more than good PR, I would expect the answer to be: none of the above. You'd want someone ethical, someone who 'embodies your values'. Right? So; what's the story with the parade of sordid characters that have been The Lord's representatives on this Earth? I mean, it seems like every other day you read in the paper news of some bishop who's been sprung with his hand in the cookie jar or with some other member in an inappropriate location. Looking at history, the list of Popes is all too full of anti-Semites, reactionaries, chauvinists or what have you. Should God outsource the HR department?

It could be argued that that's exactly what he's done. People have free will and people choose the bishops. Not in a democratic kind of way, of course. Indeed, actually only the Pope gets to choose and he, in turn, is chosen by the Conclave, a gathering of cardinals. But, if we are to believe the PR brochures, the Conclave is supposed to be merely doing God's bidding in choosing the next Pope. Which brings us back to God. Clearly, something somewhere gives. Even if we assume that God is leaving the whole succession question to humans it doesn't get rid of the problem. I mean, imagine that you have let your managers choose new Members of the Board and then found that their choices were undermining the future of your company. What kind of director would you be if you did not step in at this point? How long would you wait till you started to do something? Six months? A financial year? Two? Two thousand financial years?

The problem is that God's only representatives, the only ones who are supposedly passing his message onto us, all too often seem not to be listening to that message themselves. So, sure, maybe not all evil is God's problem but what about the evil which is wrought in his name by his official representatives? I mean, if that's OK by him, he can't then turn around and feel disappointed if the customers begin to lose faith in his brand, if they doubt that his public image is anything more than just the product of a sophisticated advertising campaign. This all might not have mattered if he had a monopoly but we are in a deregulated market for souls.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

What's wrong with being made of atoms, anyway?

I do not understand the horror some religious people have of the idea that they might be nothing more than atoms.

These people, somehow, seem to think that being made of atoms would make their lives, their very being, worthless. And I just do not see why. What does what we are made of have to do with whether our existence has meaning? I mean, if someone strikes me, I feel pain; if I watch great art, I feel wonder; if my daughter cries, I am concerned and wish to help. Whether I - or my daughter - are made of atoms or of ethereal clouds of soul-stuff is really besides the point. If someone destroyed a thinking, feeling robot that would be just as much a murder as if they killed me.

The only explanation for this fear of being made of atoms that strikes me is some strange feeling of disgust towards one’s own physicality. But, frankly, it just doesn’t feel like enough of an explanation to me – there has to be more to the story, it seems to me, as the trait is just too universal to be at core a perversion.

Is it that atoms have no free-will while human beings do? Well, atoms also don’t prefer to watch English comedies, like Chinese take away or have a fear of spiders. To argue from what atoms can do to what humans can do in such crudely reductionist terms is to commit a fallacy that Aristotle already wrote of – the fallacy of composition. Just because something is true (or false) of a part of something, it doesn’t mean it is also true (or false) of the whole thing. Just because my atoms don’t have free-will doesn’t mean I don’t. That doesn’t mean that I claim to understand what free-will is but, then, neither should anyone else – it is just too damned difficult a question to be feeling sure of one-self when talking about it.

Could it be claimed that matter does not have the god-spark, that the soul isn’t material, so that, if we are just made of atoms, we have no soul? But that’s just begging the question and assuming that we are something more than atoms. And, anyway, if someone showed me two people, one without a soul and one with, I would still think it despicable to discriminate between them.

So, the question remains – what’s wrong with being made of atoms, anyway?

Ecce Homo?

It has been observed many times that the Catholic Church has a morbid fascination with suffering. The very symbol for the faith is that of a man suffering on a torture device.

Yesterday, we buried my aunt. She had known a lot of suffering. For the last ten years, she had had Parkinson’s. By the end she had been bent and twisted by the disease that had frozen her into a grotesque form. All of her muscles were in a permanent spasm. She had not been able to speak for many months, recently not even been able to point out letters on the ouija board that we had made for her. So, when I saw her laid straight out in the coffin, I found the sight strangely disturbing. Not because she was dead - I had seen dead people before - but because lying straight as an arrow simply wasn’t her.

And then the church. A small rotunda in the suburb where she had lived. Inside, dozen of friends and family. During the service I looked at the place. Of course, above the altar hung the cross. Seemingly larger than life-size: Christ’s body twisted in pain. On the left, Christ standing, crowned with thorns, his hands tied. There is even a name for representations of Christ in this pose – Ecce homo – ‘Behold the man’ as Pontius Pilate cried when presenting Jesus to the Jews demanding his crucifixion (or so the anti-Semitic authors of the Gospels have him say). On the right is a Pieta – another traditional pose – Mary is holding Christ’s body in her hands after it has been taken off the cross. Thus the story of Christ’s sacrifice is told in statues. Behind all this a stained-glass representation of the Shroud of Turin – that medieval fake. All of these symbols focussed upon the one thing – suffering: pain that is supposed to be redemptive.

The priest spoke at length about redemptive pain: my aunt’s suffering that, he claimed, somehow ennobled us. That is not my experience at all. Neither as one who has witnessed people in pain, nor as someone who has, mercifully rarely, felt it. Pain does not redeem anything. It may make the religious feel cleansed of whatever sins they feel they have committed– thus the self-mutilation that is an undertone in much Catholic practice. But it does nothing to redeem. My aunt’s suffering was pointless, it gave her and us nothing. Though pain can have a positive role. I experienced it myself after I had broken my leg. Though this was nothing compared to what many go through I did feel a sense of ‘communion’ with them, a sense of compassion for what they must suffer. And I have seen this in others - the most compassionate people are those who have suffered. The callous ones are without blemish.

But what does real compassion bring? Surely, the unbearable need to act, to help. And while Christ’s life may have been full of compassion, his death on the cross – the central motif in Christianity – is a denial of this. He suffered passively and redeemed nothing. Original sin? The very concept is as immoral as that of a Ladder of Being. By focussing on that last moment in Christ’s life Christianity is trying to somehow redeem one thing – the senselessness of his death and suffering. It is trying to give it meaning when it had none. The same it true of religion in general. It tries to give meaning to death and suffering when there is none.

My aunt’s faith helped her bear the pain and face death – as was pointed out repeatedly during the day (most often to me, pointedly). Indeed, the thought that they will meet again in heaven has made the process of saying goodbye to her sister much easier for my mother. And sometimes – when faced with the inevitable – to take up a Stoic attitude is the best that one can do. But one does not need to be religious to be a Stoic – many an atheist faced their own annihilation with equanimity. But the Stoics did not counsel passivity. They had no concept of redemption. They realised that we often can not control what happens. Instead, they believed that rational thinking should guide us in acting virtuously. We should do they right thing and accept what happens. This acceptance is different from passivity and only makes sense once one has done everything that one can.

By focussing upon Christ’s death, Christianity counsels, in the face of suffering, passive acceptance in hope of redemption; analogous to God’s passivity. Thankfully, humanity, including many Christians, has not been heeding this advice since the Renaissance. Instead, we have been far more Stoic in acting to change what little we can. If God did exist, his failure to help should be taken to mean that his son’s death has not taught him compassion.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Why blog?

The people I live with are members of an organization that has been, for hundreds of years, the single most powerful opponent of progress and which is still causing unnecessary hardship and pain around the world. These people have beliefs which I find to be not just irrational but, even, immoral. Not just relatively harmlessly so, but in a profoundly dangerous and troubling way. These are the people I love – my wife, my mother, most of the rest of my family.

While I am thoroughly convinced of the error of their beliefs – and they of mine – we live together. For others the question of tolerance is an ideal, for us it is the fibre of our every day. How to live in a way consistent with your own beliefs while also living with people who do not share those beliefs? What do words like ‘tolerance’, ‘respect’, ‘acceptance’ mean in this context?

In a sense it seems to me that to live ethically is impossible. In a perfect world being ethical would be meaningless – everyone would do it out of habit, well-ordered self-interest or whatever other reason – and everything would be sure to turn out for the best. Ethical behaviour only has moral urgency because we do not live in a perfect world. As much is said by theistic theodicy in trying to understand why God would let evil exist. However, what seems not to be as often understood is that in an imperfect world behaving ethically is just as doomed. Whatever we do, we are by necessity caught in interactions that mean someone inevitably is wounded. We choose the lesser evil and by choosing become responsible for it.

Writing about these things gives them a clarity and concreteness that they otherwise often lack. Writing in an, at least potentially, public forum means that what I write has to try to stand on its own. This is why, it seems to me, I have started this blog.

Why a Notorious Apostate?

I am a mild-mannered thirty-something academic. The most notorious thing about me would have to be some of my jokes. Imagine my surprise when I found out that I am a notorious apostate. But I am running ahead of the story.

Imagine the scene, if you will. You are sitting with your fiancée in the parish office. You have all the documents and you wish to organise the wedding day. You are feeling uncomfortable, having long ago decided that you and religion don't see eye to eye. However, you are here as your wife-to-be wants to have a church wedding. The atmosphere is somewhat charged, the priest eyeing you with suspicion. He’s already asked you a number of less-than-comfortable questions - “But you have all of the sacraments, why don’t you wish to marry as a Catholic?” “Father,” you’re being super polite, “I do not think that doing so would show respect for your beliefs or for my own.” And so on.

Then, you are given a paper to sign. Just a pre-wedding formality, you understand. The document states that you and your wife take on the responsibility of bringing up your children as Catholics. You feel a cold sweat but you know what you have to do, “I’m sorry but I can not sign this.” “But unless you sign it there can be no wedding.” You want to scream that this is the twenty first century and that the wars of religion were fought several hundred years ago, you want to scream about the Enlightenment, you want to scream about pluralism and mutual understanding. The clock on the wall ticks as it measures off another minute. The priest watches you impassively. It is then that you find out about the Ladder of Being. Yes, you might remember it for a book about the Middle Ages – God at the top and, at the bottom, devils. Well, the Ladder still exists. And you are on it, whoever you are.

It works like this. At the very top are the Catholics who go to church every week and fulfil all of their other obligations – the Practicing Catholics. Just below them are the Catholics who do not practice regularly – a bit like golfers who do not work on their swing often enough but are still club members. Below the Catholics you can find the other Christians – a big change since the days of Cardinal Richelieu (a real fiend, not just a Dumas creation) when Protestants were headed straight to the other place, with the help of obliging holy warriors. Underneath the Christians you will find the other People of the Book, i.e. the Jews and the Muslims – this must be news to some of the more fiery televangelists. Under those is the place for other believers, all and sundry. It must be a colourful place, with Pagans of all stripes mixing it up with Buddhists, Hindus, and whatnot. Sounds like a fun place, except for the inevitable rounds of name-calling and genocide. But that is not the bottom, yet. Beneath the various believers – the weight must be getting uncomfortable by now – is the place for the agnostics, i.e. those who insist on asking for a bit more evidence before making a decision. Yes, what in a customer might be thought of as prudence, in a potential worshipper is deemed to be worse than heresy. But that is not the bottom, yet. Only now are we truly entering the darkling lands. For after the agnostics come the atheists and we all know what terrible people they are and how truly deserving of their position upon the Ladder of Being. But even they are not the lowest of the low. As, beneath the atheists, there is a truly dark place that is kept for the apostates – those who walked in the light but chose to turn away. And even among those there is a distinction to be made. Some apostates have the good sense to at least shut up about their so-called beliefs, these are the normal apostates. But there are some, deserving of the deepest corner of this dark place, who have the gall to go out and speak freely to others of the fact that they have ‘left the faith’. And though their place is dark, it is also hot, as below them there are only devils.

I was, suffice to say, somewhat surprised by this assessment of my worth as a human being. Not that I didn’t feel a certain frisson at being called ‘notorious’ for the first time in my life. Still, the whole concept felt wrong in so many ways that even now I can not count them. But, nonetheless, the classification mattered as – being a particular moral danger to my future children – it was deemed necessary that I, essentially, sign away my right to bring up my children as I wish to. Indeed, that I sign away my right not to live a lie in the confines of my very own house.

So, I thought, if that’s what they’re selling, they must be right – so I’m proud to be an apostate, notorious at that.