Monday, December 13, 2004

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.


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