Spring is here: a secular sermon for Easter

(Religion alert)

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.

Happy Easter.

The ins and outs of political exile

England has for centuries been a home-from-home for exiled radicals. Harbouring controversial  fugitives is just another aspect of our national diplomacy, a dirty trick we play on countries which, though not exactly enemies, we like to get one-up on; and they on us.

Perhaps the most famous exile we have hosted was the German political philosopher, Karl Marx. Famous, but also in historical terms the most dangerous. For, although Marx only wrote a boring book, Das Kapital, his ideas of social justice and anti-capitalism were taken up by successive dictators around the world, fuelling violent revolutions that were in every case followed by unimaginably cruel and stupid social engineering projects that directly caused the deaths of hundreds of millions of people.

But there have been others, for instance the North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh was a washer-up in London hotels, before prosecuting a brilliantly successful war of liberation against, first, the French and then the American colonial powers. The jovial Ugandan dictator and mass-murderer, Idi Amin, was a sergeant in the British army and underwent officer training at Sandhurst. Octogenarian man-of-the-people, Robert Mugabe, dictator of Zimbabwe, qualified as a lawyer in London. Former President, General Musharraf, has this week returned to Pakistan after a sojourn in Britain, hoping to restore his brutal but helpfully pro-Western military dictatorship. And, of course, the murderous Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, remained as a welcome guest of Margaret Thatcher until being sent home for a trial he was ‘too ill’ to survive, poor thing. And no-one batted an eyelid.

It strikes me as extremely unlikely that history will celebrate the radical Islamic cleric Abu Qatada as the man who brought about the destruction of the West and its corrupted values, the founder of a global caliphate. However, Mr Qatada is at present the bête noir of the British government, having heroically resisted extradition to Jordan for the past eight years. The tabloid press has had a field day, excoriating this offensively bearded Muslim man and his family for living free at the expense of the taxpayer, as if he would ever be allowed to find work to pay his way.

Never charged or convicted of any crime in Britain, this ‘hate-preacher’ was tried and found guilty in his absence by a Jordanian court, of having been a fundraiser for an Al-Qaeda cell that carried out bomb outrages in Amman. The evidence against him consisted of statements from witnesses who had allegedly been tortured before signing them. The British courts have bravely withstood disgraceful political pressure to uphold Mr Qatada’s right not to be sent back to be tortured, whatever his political or religious views.

These, the Home Secretary should be reminded, are in theory at least protected by historical guarantees of the freedoms of speech and thought that Mr Qatada himself does not believe in. Freedoms once espoused by that greatest of homegrown English radicals, Tom Paine – author of The Rights of Man – whom a despotic German king succeeded in exiling from these shores.

Bugger’s muddle in la-la land

Picture the scene. You arrive at the checkout with a heavily laden trolley. The bill is £90. You put on a confident expression and demand of the assistant that they accept £40, because it’s all you’re prepared to pay under the circumstances.  ‘The market is king!’ you shout to the startled shoppers, as the burly security guard wrestles you out of the building. ‘The price is whatever the customer says it is!’ Indeed, capitalism is a form of anarchy.

In some curious circumstances, this view of the market is actually true.

Two years ago, I was looking for somewhere to live, under threat of imminent redundancy. As my job meant being on the premises at all hours, I’d been given rooms at the back, where I lived for nearly seven years. These, I would soon lose and have nowhere to go. Thanks to a timely legacy, I had just enough capital to buy a house somewhere near the bottom end of the local market.

The first house I tried was a 1960s semi-detached on a sprawling suburban estate, overlooking playing fields to the river.  The area had a bad name, but the worst part was at the other end, across the main road. The house was obviously a repossession: the departing occupant had made a bonfire in the living room and burned a large hole in the ceiling, revealing illegal standards of DIY wiring and plumbing. It was salvageable, at a cost. But other houses in the street had been ‘done-up’ and were fetching £170,000, so it seemed a good investment.

The advertised price was £97,000, which I immediately offered in cash. The response of the agents was that they had a duty to obtain the highest possible price so I would have to wait two weeks to see if my offer was accepted. It wasn’t. Someone had offered more. So I upped my bid (it had now become an auction) to £105,000. But someone again bid more. At £120,000, I threw in the towel. Otherwise, I should have had to make a pemanent feature of that charred hole.

I did eventually buy a place, a small cottage on a thunderous main road on the edge of town. I got it for £12,000 less than the asking price, after the buyer who bid more pulled out (as I had predicted they would). Now, I’m hoping to sell it again and move on. I’ve put it on the market at one percentage point over what it cost me to buy, the average increase nationally (except London) over the past 12 months, plus the cost of the extra room I had built. A fair way of setting a figure, I thought. So, do you imagine people are making and trumping offers, pushing up the price, as with the burned-out house on the problem estate?

Not a bit of it! The first question anyone asks about my habitable, centrally-heated and double-glazed cottage is, how little are you prepared to settle for? I’ve already accepted two ‘firm’ offers in writing at well below the asking price, and both of them have subsequently reneged on the deal, leaving me stranded. It’s a game with no rules: unlike a bunch of bananas in a supermarket, there’s no such thing as ‘the price’ – if there is, it describes something infinitely flexible.

Even the law offers no protection. Unlike many other jurisdictions where an offer in writing is a firm promise and a contract is binding, when buying and selling houses here in this strange hybrid entity known as EnglandandWales, ‘la-la land’, nothing means what it says it does until the money is in the bank, the legal team have been paid for doing whatever it is they do, and the owner has moved on, taking all the light fittings and the toilet seat with them. Times like these, you feel like setting off down the road with a pram and a sad-eyed mongrel on a string.

Eventually, something will sort itself out somehow, it usually does in this bugger’s muddle we laughingly call the housing market.  I suppose then I’ll have to try and find somewhere else….

Mothering Monday

Walking with Hunzi on a cold sunny day through the exurban space that does for our local park. Ahead of us on the footpath is a young woman in pink, pushing a pink buggy. The buggy is unoccupied. Behind her, occasionally falling over on the tarmac path and having to be picked up and dragged, a tiny child of perhaps 20 months, also dressed in pink, is screaming, presumably in terror at being repeatedly abandoned by the carer who periodically turns into a scary monster. The mother reciprocally turns from time to time to shout at her (in the vernacular) to f-ing pull herself together and stop making such a fuss.

As we pass the scene, the woman – who also has a dog with her – smiles brightly. ‘Dogs are so much easier than children!’ she tells me.

‘Are they?’ I reply coldly, calling Hunzi to heel. Cynically, he obliges. It is not hard to see where teenagers come from.

I recall another day, many years since, on holiday in the remote far west of Ireland. Driving in the mountains in a rented car, my father announces brightly that my mother will now have a driving lesson. I cry in terrified anticipation of inevitable disaster. This does not go down well. Age three, I am put out by the roadside and watch my life-support lurch erratically off into the unknown distance, the silence punctuated only by the mew of the kite.

Yesterday was Mothers’ Day. I forgot to send a card, as usual.