This being Easter Sunday (why didn’t someone tell me it was clocksgoforward night? I’d have gone to bed an hour earlier, and not tarried to catch-up with the first episode of the new series of Dr Who – big disappointment) it seems appropriate to introduce a religious element to this, my little bogl.
Yesterday brought news of the arrival of another Follower, Number 6. Welcome, traveller! Idly browsing on this person’s published profile, it was immediately clear that, whatever else may float their lifebelt, they are intensely, all-consumingly religious. Why such a person should follow my bogl, I have no idea. Perhaps they hope to convert me? It is unlikely that they hope to learn from me, but you never know. For I am intensely, all-consumingly atheistic.
Atheism does not mean that one necessarily denies the existence of God, merely that one has taken a personal vow to do without Him, his capital letter and all the other trappings of religion. As it happens, I do have a sense of the numinous. My life to date – I am 63 years old – has almost convinced me that Somebody Up There is looking after me. Too many fortuitous happenstances in which I seem to have been protected against the unforeseen consequences of my and other people’s stupidity have occurred, to allow even my rational mind to dismiss the idea. If you want evidence, there is anecdotal evidence. But not, I believe, conclusive proof of the existence of the god of Abraham, Isaac, etcetera. Not as anything other than the product of the human imagination. We make Him in our image.
I could argue the point. may well do, in another Post. The question is, whether the Universe owes its existence to chaotic chance or to the operations of a rational external Mind? Either or both seem possible, but the latter is surely less likely, as it presupposes that such a Mind also had a point of coming-into-being. I do not personally believe it is helpful to embroider a complex system of belief, involving much myth and ritual, in order to give a human face to whatever founding principle operates the universe, and to imagine it has interventionary powers in human affairs. Nor do I relish the idea of imposing such a system of irrational belief, often by force and in infinitesimal detail, on other people; especially one’s own children.
That this system, in whatever specific form it takes, is based on love and fear and wonder in equal measure suggests in the very meaning of those words that the model is merely analagous to, and has its origin in, our relationships with other human beings, especially our parents; and with our rapidly decreasing ignorance of the workings of the natural world – not with the supernatural. Religion is a man-made, not a god-given, thing. Thus, it is full of dangers, obfuscations and imperfections.
The making of the new Pope put the whole shebang on public display. An organisation of immense power and prestige, massively hierarchical, irremovably old, in all its pomp is a pretty impressive, overwhelmingly persuasive thing. How can so many oddly dressed men foregathered in one place, surrounded by such effusively baroque artworks, perched on the pinnacle of so much history, so much earnest intellectualism, so much self-denial, so much blood, mortified and charred flesh, so many Sundays; how can 1.2 billion followers all be merely deluded, credulous, superstitious little creatures genuflecting to some terrifying but supposedly also loving interventionary Being, and the cheap plaster images of His gorily martyred saints?
Which brings us to the Word Made Flesh. There is something mildly revolting about the eucharist, so obviously cannibalistic is it in its origins in pre-Christian history. God sends his only Son to earth, to redeem Mankind, for whatever reason (we don’t seem to have altered much in the meantime) and Mankind nails him to a tree and spends the next two thousand years symbolically (or, if you are a Catholic, actually) eating him, like a bunch of South Seas islanders enjoying an explorer. A licensed magician in a frock turns wine and wafer into the blood and body of a long-dead peripatetic Jewish preacher with nothing especially original to say about life, the universe and everything, and who (according to reports) frequently denied that he was the Son of God, pointing out sensibly that we all are; he is put to death with the same degrees of pain and degradation as any of us might be, perhaps less so given the infinitely resourceful nature of human evil: and you solemnly go down on your knees and eat him. What is that about? as they say. The difference is that he is an avatar: a magical being who does not die, but flies up to heaven still in his earthly body. Well, well.
The fundamental problem with contemporary religious faith, I fear, is that it is so obviously rooted in primitive animism.The idea of a vengeful, all-powerful, all-seeing deity has clear parallels in nature. Volcanoes are terrifying, huge and powerful, unpredictable – glowing eyes on the horizon. They dispense death arbitrarily, with fire and brimstone. Yet volcanic soils are among the most fertile on the planet. Life miraculously returns to their tranquil slopes. Mighty rivers too bring periodic death, destruction and fearful misery; yet they irrigate the fields, generate new life, bring fertility to arid valleys. Worshipped as a god for millennia, the sun too is an incomprehensible, yet constant force that brings both life, and dispenses death, in equal measure. Such imagery permeates the Biblical texts on which religions rely for their dubious veracity. Human society, too, is reflected in ideas of kingship in the heavenly hierarchy: religious ideas of the ‘Lord of Hosts’, the ranking of angels, the image of the high table, fundamentally underpin the absurd claims to divinity or, at best, to the god-given right of earthly princes. There is nothing divine about any of this: religion is a cheap conjuring trick, that works precisely because it appeals directly to the inherent need in humans to believe in ‘something’ beyond themselves, to placate the forces of destiny.
I don’t mean to insult your faith, I have Followers too. Mine are perhaps more obviously demented. There is a need I recognise in many people to try to find meaning in their lives; ritual is important to social cohesion, and religion is purpose-designed to provide a ready-made model for those who are not happy merely to be alive, but who need to believe that there is a source for happiness. Many people believe apparently intrinsically and give their belief a human face: Jesus “meek and mild” is their invisible friend. Much good work is done in the name of religion, that could equally be well done in the name of Humanity. Much suffering is experienced, feelings about which have to be offloaded somewhere. But it really does not do to examine too closely, the evidential basis of this bizarre system of beliefs and rituals, that has been misappropriated for centuries by powerful hierarchs to bamboozle and oppress the poor and illiterate peasantry with a promise of a better life to come. A god of human bewilderment is not enough. You either believe in it, or you simply can’t.