Saturday, April 30, 2005

He's just about nailed it, don't you think?

Wonderful interview with Richard Dawkins in Salon (requires that you watch a short add to view the article). Among other things he notes that:

Bush and bin Laden are really on the same side: the side of faith and violence against the side of reason and discussion.

I forget who said much the same thing – I suspect it might have been Umberto Eco – in saying that the worst enemy of the radical is not the opposing radical who wants to just fan the flames thus justifying the radical’s existence but the reasonable moderate who wants come to a sensible agreement and, thereby, threatens the radical’s raison d’être.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Which evil would you vanquish first?

Imagine you have just been elected Pope. You are now the head of the World's most powerful religious organisation and your opinion is heard all round the planet. Which of the great evils that trouble the world would you inveigh against first? Would it be the massive environmental damage which we are currently doing to the planet – likely to cause the collapse of our civilisation if not our outright extinction? Would it be the disgraceful and rapidly increasing inequality between the south and the north that you would have one of your spokesmen describe as ‘iniquitous’? Perhaps you would start with a clear statement of your opposition to the various dictatorships that oppress and murder millions in many countries? Which of the these great evils would you chose to say a clear ‘no’ to first? Or would you oppose the ‘intrinsic moral evil’ of people who love each other having the right to get married to each other? I don’t know about you but I probably wouldn’t. But then I am not the Pope. As BBC reports:

Pope Benedict XVI has responded firmly to the first challenge of his papacy by condemning a Spanish government bill allowing marriage between homosexuals.

My problem is that I just don’t get it. I simply do not understand what is the problem so many people have with homosexuality. It seems to me just as irrational as disliking people who like to eat steak tartare or who wear stripy shirts – neither of these activities being something I find myself personally attracted to.

The anti-John XXIII?

In the end I watched it live. The spectacle, with its obvious theatricality and the, first expectant and then jubilant, cast of thousands, reminded me of nothing so much as the loyal subjects awaiting to see their new sovereign after he has been crowned – which, essentially, is what happened. The first in line to the throne ascended among much public jubilation – who would have to have been chosen for the masses not to be jubilant, I wonder?

Out of the likely candidates Ratzinger definitely appeared to be the worst possible choice. Sidney Blumenthal managed to say it best in an article in Salon (requires that you watch a short add to access the article):
Some have been critical of Ratzinger on the basis of his belonging to the Hitler Youth when he was fourteen. I think this is basically besides the point: would anyone bother pointing this out as a shortcoming if Ratzinger was a modernist? It isn’t even the case that a Pope, being the spiritual leader of Catholicism, must be without moral blemish – Catholicism, for all its shortcomings, is very keen on forgiveness when it comes to past sins that are sincerely regretted. No, the significant problem with Ratzinger is not what he did more than sixty years ago but what he will do now.

Some have said that they hope or even think that, as it is often put, Pope Benedict XVI will be less doctrinaire than Cardinal Ratzinger. Indeed, they see something of this in the sharp change in tone between what Ratzinger was saying in the days before the conclave and what he has been saying since. Frankly, I find it unbelievable that a man like Ratzinger would suddenly show such a lack of consistency. In that context, the interesting thing about his recent statements isn’t their content but their sharp difference from what had been said before. To believe that behind them stands a sincere change of heart is foolishness. To think that the change is due to the changed circumstances Ratzinger finds himself in is much closer to the truth. It would be, I think, folly, however, to expect actions to follow these words. Ratzinger was a Cardinal in Germany where Catholicism is burdened with a history of conflict with the Protestant Churches and a current situation in which most Catholics have, in effect, left the Church if not the faith. Ratzinger’s reaction was not to reach out to the nonpracticing Catholics and the Protestants but to try and encircle the Church with walls high enough to retain those who still remained inside. His reaction to the various problems the Catholic Church finds itself in around the world will be the same – his twenty-four years at the head of the renamed Office of the Inquisition not having taught him anything else.

This will all, of course, have a highly damaging effect upon the Catholic Church. An atheist like myself might be thought to find reason in this to crow, or to use the German word to feel schadenfreude. However, there are at least two good reasons why this seems to me no reason for joy. The first is that Ratzinger is going to strengthen extremist religious feelings in the world at the cost of more moderate ones as well as providing support for the political extremists that feed off such feelings – the current US administration being a case in point. The second is that people who will end up leaving the Church will not do so due to the realisation that humanism and atheism are the intellectually and morally preferable positions and will, therefore, gravitate towards other faiths and sects. No, Ratzinger’s election is bad for the Church and for the World.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Who wants to be a Pontifex Maximus?

A funny thought. A few days ago I heard the official prerequisites one has to meet to be electable as Pope. I checked them out on the internet and here’s who can be Pope, according to a Canadian Religious TV channel:

Technically, any Catholic male who has reached the age of reason, is not a heretic, is not in schism, and is not "notorious" for simony can be elected pope - there is no other requirement for election (although there are several requirements before a person can actually assume the papacy once elected). It might even be technically possible for them to elect a non-Catholic male, if they had reason to believe that he would immediately convert to Catholicism.

So, here’s the funny thought – I satisfy all of the formal requirements but Mother Teresa didn’t. The idea strikes me as ridiculous, especially the bit about having a ‘reason to believe that he would immediately convert to Catholicism’. It is a wonder they don’t include having ‘a reason to believe that she would immediately undergo a sex-change operation’. I guess the conclave choosing an atheist feminist would really mean the Pontifex Maximus would do a fair bit of bridge building!

What is the right way to celebrate the conclave?

As I write, the very last of the arrangements are being made and the Cardinals are about to go into conclave. The name, reminiscent of some alchemical instrument, is quite appropriate for a meeting veiled with Byzantine ceremony and Masonic secrecy. The very latest predictions hold that, if it is a quick result then we ought to expect Ratzinger to be the next Pope. As I have previously suggested, I do not think there is any point predicting what happens. Still, I should like to be privy to the toing-and-froing that will take place inside the Sistine Chapel over the next few days. The reports that leaked out from the previous conclave suggested that the struggle that led to the compromise solution of Cardinal Wojtyla was a tough one. The interesting thing is that this time the rules have been changed so a simply majority may turn out to be enough to elect a Pope whereas a two thirds majority was required previously.

I have been reading up on the way that Pope’s had been elected in the past and there is no single method used throughout history. The methods have varied radically depending upon the status of the church. The general tendency, however, seems to be one of centralisation and formalisation. Thus, at the very beginning, and for some centuries later, the people of Rome played a very big and sometimes decisive role – a sharp contrast with the current situation where, so long as he lives long enough, the current Pope gets to pick all of the men who will choose his successor (from among themselves). When a Pope tried to name his successor the Cardinals protested against it. I guess the current system makes all the difference.

Perhaps I should do what I do after big sports matches and try to avoid finding out the result for as long as possible. Given the choice of available candidates this competition is almost as meaningless. My problem is that, while realising this, I find myself fascinated by it – comparison to watching an accident in slow motion is, by now, a cliché but it didn’t get to be one by being inaccurate - a massive pile-up has been taking place over the last two thousand years.

To celebrate the conclave I will go outside into the sunshine, enjoy the fresh air, lie on the grass and look up at the empty sky – something none of the electors will get to do over the next while.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

What now?

It seems like the worst of it is over and people are settling down after this orgy of overwrought emotions that I’d been witness to. Of course, it all had a nasty effect on them. For example, last night my wife accused me of having no beliefs – after all, it wasn’t like I was a Muslim or Jewish or anything. I was quite shocked. She, if anyone, should know better than that, given the trouble we went through to get married because I wasn’t willing to pimp my beliefs.

The question everyone is asking is who will be the next Pope. As it happens, I know who it will be. Frankly it isn’t hard to work out – it will be someone who was made cardinal by the last Pope, i.e. a conservative who will keep on focussing on whether guys commit the ‘sin’ of wearing a little bit of plastic on their penis, and who will keep on cutting himself off from those priests who dare to actively oppose non-secularist dictatorship. In other words, business as usual. What name this Pope carries now seems to me pretty much as inconsequential as what name he will choose upon being elected. I hope I’m wrong about this and I guess it will make some difference who is chosen – Ratzinger being one particularly frightening choice – but it will not make enough difference to justify the focus it is receiving. Apart from the conservatism that the 26 year long reign of JP2 entrenched, there is also the inherent conservatism that any institution that has managed to survive for 2000 years must exhibit (not that I can think of any other examples of such long-lived institutions). After all, an institution survives in the long term not by aiding change but by opposing it.

Having said that, the same kind of pointless expectation and emotion surrounds the election of a new Pope as there is surrounding a football match that is about to begin – which side will come out on top, who will walk away with the trophy? Strangely enough this mystique manages to persist despite everyone knowing that all of the players are on the same team.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Consummation devoutly to be wished?

The other day I was walking along the street, looking at the omnipresent images of John Paul II and watching the people’s long faces when I was struck by a thought. Let me put it this way. Imagine you have a beloved uncle whom you haven’t seen in ages but kept on seeing on television. He hadn’t been well for many years and was clearly suffering. Then, one day, you find out that he had gone away and that he is now feeling as well as ever. The only problem is that you wouldn’t be able to see him on television anymore and it would be many years before you’d actually get to meet him in person again but, once you did, you would never be parted again. Would you cry at this news or would you throw a party, joyous with the news that your beloved uncle is now feeling fine?

Why is it that Christians grieve at the death of the Pope? Surely, they believe that he’s gone to his rightful rest in heaven and, even now as we discuss who is going to be the next conservative to try to hold back progress from his throne in Vatican, he is already looking down on us from the right-hand of God. Given what Christians say about heaven there can’t possibly be anything but joy at that turn of events. The only source of sadness might be the knowledge that they will not meet again for years but to grieve at that knowing the Pope’s respite seems shamelessly self-centred. And even in that case, if one believes in heaven one shouldn’t grieve. After all, what is a dozen years or two compared to eternity?

No. The realisation I had was that the Christians, for all their talk, don’t generally believe in any of this. Their actions unveil their thoughts. They may try to convince themselves to salve their fears of death but, in the end, they fail. When faced with death they are just as aware of its irredeemable finality as atheists and so, they cry for the unrecoverable loss. The death of the Pope has revealed the emptiness of the beliefs he spent his life defending. He may have actually believed in them but it is clear that almost no-one else does.

I think that this is something to be well remembered and to be recalled when a Christian starts to mouth their platitudes. They do not believe in them either. And their desperate attempt to convince others is nothing more than a sublimated effort to convince themselves. Atheists are in the majority, it is only that most of us are not being honest with themselves.

Bigger than Stalin?

The Russian media, I’ve heard, are disputing the claim that John Paul’s funeral is going to be the biggest ceremony of this type ever. They are claiming that Stalin’s funeral was bigger. I have no idea if this is the case but the comparison is, to some degree, apposite. Of course, Stalin was a murderous maniac who had no problems with starving millions of people to reinforce his own rule while John Paul II was, by all accounts, a very good man but that is not the point of the comparison. Both Stalin and the Pope were totalitarian rulers who had complete control over massive organizations and whose decisions shaped the lives of millions of people. Both maintained this rule, to a large degree, through a carefully managed idolisation of their charismatic personalities. Both, upon death, were mourned by millions in a way which, due to the echoing of the emotions among the people and between them and the media, far exceeded the private mourning for a close relative. Is this comparison disrespectful? Yes, of course it is. But it is, as I have already said, apposite and, it seems to me, that it oughtn’t be, the fault for this lying not with the one who makes the comparison but with those who act in ways that justify it.

Bigger than Jesus?

The Pope’s funeral is starting in Rome right now. Outside my house the streets look completely deserted. Just now the fire station’s siren has started up. Even a passing train is sounding its horn though there’s no-one on the tracks. Over the last week the people here have worked themselves into a frenzy of lamentation. I’ve stopped buying local papers as there’s quite literally nothing in them except articles somehow connected to the Pope. I’ve reached the conclusion that the grief evidenced wouldn’t be any deeper and more universal if it had been Jesus who had died. Which, at least to me, smacks of that old favourite of the Popes – heresy. I’m just waiting to see someone set up a Church of the Latter Day Popes.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Remind you of anyone?

This is just getting ridiculous. TV is still running the Pope marathon and helping everyone work themselves into a lather. A world-changing moment? The death of an angel? It all reminds me of another highly publicised death from several years ago. Remember the Paris tunnel? The flowers, and crying multitudes, the mass outpouring of grief. It was all much the same when Princess Diana died. People all over the world were saying how life had become meaningless, etc. etc. Just this morning I found in my mail a message from one of the lists I’m on. Someone is claiming that this is the greatest tragedy of the century. I do not know if he means the last five years or the last one hundred but, either way, the claim is ridiculous. An old man died after a full life. Nothing tragic about that apart from the obvious fact that death is tragic in general. On the other hand, even just the last five years have had their fill of tragedies: Sudan, Iraq, the tidal-wave in the Indian Ocean – I could keep on going and name hundreds of events which were by far more tragic.

The thing is that it seems like people are only now starting to get really worked up about the Pope’s death. Of course, the reason is that they aren’t reacting to the death but to the wall to wall coverage of the death. It is everywhere and it is ridiculous in its total lack of perspective – no wonder everyone else is losing theirs also. Many mainstream journalists have, once again, showed a lack of professionalism. Perhaps they are afraid that they will be rejected if they do not show the sufficient level of public grief. I don’t know. By next week something else will happen and the world’s attention will slide off the Pope’s death and onto some other issue. A case of Attention Deficit Disorder together with Manic Depression. It would be interesting to study the mechanics of how this happens. It is tedious and saddening to watch people, including ones that I’m close to, fall into this pattern.
The death of John Paul II was not a tragedy, given the full life he’d lived. He was not an angel or a saint, having done in his life many things that I consider heinous. However, he was a man who tried to improve the world in the way he saw it and, as such, someone who does deserve to be honoured in some way. The orgy of tremulous grief which the world is indulging in right now, however, honours no-one.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Did anyone else find these scenes distasteful?

If I was religious I would find the hullabaloo surrounding the death of the Pope even less bearable than I do. It seems like every reporter who has anything to do with the reporting of the event is trying to be more holy than the next. They all have taken on this faux devout tone that stinks of sheer hypocrisy. Not to mention the five-minute hagiographies that all the media seem to be intent on producing. Round here, it’s all Pope, all the time! Everyone on television is making it out like this was the most significant event in their life and that they will now be trying to be holy and good. Far be it for me to criticise people wanting to live their lives morally, but this kind of straw fire enthusiasm occasioned by the death of a famous religious figure ought to be just as distasteful to the profoundly religious as it is to me. Deep religious beliefs I find scary but, at least, I can respect; this kind of thing is just nauseating.

The whole thing is rather distasteful, in fact, not just the religious devotion born from it. First, the fact that a crippled old man was kept on in office till his body finally gave out. I know exactly what Parkinson’s does to a person and the Pope would not have been able to properly fulfil his duties for many years now. An extreme case is the claim that he named several bishops the day before he died. I suspect that this meant no more than him nodding his silent assent to a list of names of which I am not convinced he knew the owners. Second, is the vulture-like media frenzy that has encircled this dying man. It seems like every step of his last few months had been examined, photographed and televised around the globe – his tired, diseased frame half cruciform advertisement for the faith, half media theatre of the macabre. Third, the enervated stories circulated about his last hours and immediately endowed with puffed-up meaningfulness: the last note, the last word. The back and forth story of his last days presented to the world in the end reminded me of nothing so much as of the way that James Brown would repeatedly shuffle off the stage, always coming back for that one more time. Obscene, really.

I am not saying that I would have known what to do in such a situation. Given the real interest in the Pope it would have been difficult to have made his dying days more private. I guess it just seems to me that he should have retired to Castel Gandolfo a long time ago. Cardinals can not vote for the Pope upon reaching eighty – why shouldn’t the Pope also retire at that age, at the latest?