THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

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The American Declaration of Independence has made even non-Americans familiar with the phrase in the title : not only U.S. citizens but “all men” have “certain unalienable rights” including “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  Apparently this third right means not just the right to seek happiness but to experience, to possess, happiness.  In the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, article 3, the concept was broadened to include “religion, morality and knowledge” as “essential to the happiness of mankind”.  Scholars expert in the dissection of such documents define it as “virtuous felicity”, and, for good measure, “eudaimonia”.

Obviously there are degrees in the meaning we give to “happiness”.  For millions today, having a roof over their head, clothes on their back, food on the table and a bed to sleep in would be nirvana.  Others would be happy if only the bombs would stop falling on their homes.  This is happiness at the level of survival.  Beyond the satisfaction of basic needs and survival from one day to the next, there is a variety of views on what is necessary to make people happy.

Long before the writing of the American documents, Epicurus, the 4th century B.C. founder of one of Athens’ four great schools of Philosophy, taught that there are four conditions for happiness : the autonomy that comes from being delivered from fear of the gods, the rejection of the fear of death, the mastery of desires and the capacity to endure suffering.  Very recently an eminent French philosopher, a former Minister of Youth, National Education and Research, Luc Ferry, devoted a book to seven ways of being happy (“7 Façons d’Etre Heureux”, XO Editions, 2016) : Physical and Mental Harmony, Love, Admiration (for others), Self-Emancipation, Expansion of Horizons, Learning and Creating, Doing Good to Others.  Take your pick.

My own list would include  :

—   Security, having the means to provide for one’s personal well-being and that of loved ones, as well as the necessary protection of those means and of other personal property

—   Health, both physical and mental, and the means to protect it as well as, when necessary, to restore it

—   Relations of reciprocal friendship and love, including sexual satisfaction with a faithful partner

—   The development of one’s potential through education

—   Employment that is interesting, satisfying, challenging, meaningful and adequately recompensed

—   Leisure and the availability of the entertainment of one’s choice

—   The satisfaction that comes from contributing to making the world a better, safer, more friendly place, and assuring that at least some of its inhabitants are better fed, better housed, better educated and better protected

—    A social and political environment that ensures the protection of human rights and the values of liberty, equality and solidarity (if not fraternity)

—   The freedom to hold and to express with impunity personal opinions and beliefs

—   Living in an unpolluted environment with a moderate range of temperatures, preferably close to a city’s cultural riches, and, if possible, with a view of the sea and/or mountains and/or forests.

Poverty, unwanted solitude, ill-health, physical and mental ailments and handicaps, boredom, insecurity, oppression and fear are the enemies of happiness.

Happiness is the birth-right and ambition of all of us.  How many of us are truly happy ?  Is this, for us, a “wonderful world” or a “vale of tears” ?  For too many, it is the latter; for too many, happiness remains out of reach. The wise never abandon hope in the quest for happiness and find the courage to survive in adversity.  Some of us are lucky enough to experience happiness for at least brief periods of time.  Realists know that permanent, and a fortiori eternal, happiness is an illusion.  Only the credulous imagine that however unhappy their lives may have been, eternal happiness awaits them in Heaven.

However you define earthly happiness – the only one one available – I am resigned to its limits, and plan to make the most of many happy days ahead.

P. S.   There is an important footnote to all this.  You see, now that I have drawn up my list,  I realize that I already have everything that I consider to be what I need and want to make me happy.  I’m not filthy rich, in perfect health or immune to life’s slings and arrows.  But I am perfectly happy with what I have and the life I am able to lead.  There were times when I had less, a lot less.  And I was, I think, just as happy then as now.  That intriguing fact deserves reflection.  What is worrying is that I realize that if ever I lost what I now have – including the luxury items in my list, including a home in France On Zeee Beeech ! – I could be much less happy.  With less, I was once content enough.  Having more, I have made the non-essential essential.  It is a rerun of Jesus’ parable about the rich young man looking for happiness and refusing to renounce his wealth.  St Francis of Assisi did just what Jesus suggested, became the Poverello and found in “Lady Poverty” what he called “Perfect Joy” !  I think he was nuts, as I was to follow him as a Franciscan.  But at least he taught us that maybe we are shooting ourselves in the foot in getting so attached to what we once did without.  Could detachment be the ultimate, fundamental ingredient of happiness ?  Buddhists would seem to think so.  Come to think of it, that maybe is what Epicurus meant by the “mastery of desires”.  But I do love watching the surf crash on to the beach below my ocean-side deck !  I’ll enjoy it and the rest of what I am privileged to possess for as long as I can.  When I no longer can, I’ve decided that I will be happy to recall the joys I had for so long; it’s already been fifteen years !   In a word, I will settle for less and enjoy what I have left, physically, mentally, materially and relationally, for the time I have left.  Having enough is … enough.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

” OUR THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS GO OUT TO THE VICTIMS . . . “

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It is hard to take this cliché literally when it is uttered by public officials in the U.S., after a tragedy such as last Monday’s knife-attack on students at Ohio State University.  Interviewed on CNN, politicians, police and others in positions of responsibility feel obliged to make such politically correct statements, whether they are believers or not.  But it is doubtful that even believers among them would actually take time out to pray for the victims  – and – as they do not forget to add, their families (how touching !  Sorry, but they are seeking popularity, if not votes.  OK, OK  – some of them may be sincere, but they ought to find a less hackneyed, more credible way of saying it.)

This real or feigned religiosity is essentially an American phenomenon.  Whatever their personal convictions, public figures in most other countries would never make such an explicit reference to religion in similar circumstances.  But in the U.S. religion is omnipresent.  For example, “prayer breakfasts” (!) feature clergymen who open an early morning political gathering with the “Saying of Grace”, which is in fact a discourse ostensibly addressed to God but in fact promoting and praising the politician who is the guest speaker.  When said speaker has delivered his spiel to the assembled businessmen, after the OJ, coffee, donuts and danish, it will almost certainly end with “God bless America”.

Eulogies at funerals, especially in military cemeteries, are positively drenched in sentimental expressions of piety, meant to reassure people that though the corpse is dead its “soul” is not, to make people “feel good” about the deceased’s death as well as . . . their inevitable own, and to create a sense of shared values, the first of which is “In God We Trust”.

Donations collected at prayer-breakfasts and other political rallies will not include the one-dollar greenback, which bears this national Act of Faith.  No one would dare put anything less than a $20 note in the basket.  Fifties and hundreds are more common.  When I attended such early morning rituals in the States (at one of which, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the guest was the Vice-President of the United States, Spiro Agnew !), I could not help thinking of priests on Sunday who tell people they prefer “silent” collections – too many people offer coins, which are hardly worthy as offerings to promote the “good works” of the Church.  But the businessmen who fork out a fifty at a political prayer-breakfast often think they are being generous in offering a five at Mass.  No doubt they feel there is a better R.O.I. (Return on Investment) investing in politics than religion.  I can’t blame them.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

 

WOULDN’T IT BE GREAT IF . . .

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—   we and our loved ones did not have to die  ?

—   when we and they do, we somehow survived death in an after-life  ?

—   there were a loving God waiting to welcome us into His Kingdom where we would live   with loved ones in eternal joy  ?

The GOOD NEWS, my friends, is that though we have to die, Heaven, reunion with our loved ones and everlasting happiness are not just possible but a promise guaranteed by God Himself.  Let us sing His praises, as the collection plate passes among you.

(That perverse punch-line is too cruel, too cynical.  Religions and their preachers of pie in the sky when you die, are, for the most part, sincere in their belief and in their message. However we must remember that Churches are businesses – no matter how sincere their faith in their propaganda and in the product they sell.)

The BAD NEWS is that the promise of Heaven in an illusion.  Billions of people believe it, as billions of children believe in Santa Claus.  We all had to abandon the childish fantasy about Santa.  But most of us hesitate to jettison the incredible nonsense about life after death.  Not only is there not one shred of evidence for an afterlife – Jesus’ “Resurrection” is, like His other “miracles” just a story, based entirely on faith – but belief in Heaven is, like belief in God’s existence and the Incarnation of His Son, pure wishful thinking.  We want it all to be true so it must be !

As disappointing if not shattering as is the recognition of the blindfaithblindfolly on which religion is based, one can still make the most of life, however short, and its multiple opportunities for happiness, in spite of its slings and arrows and the fact that it ends definitively in death.  Of course, if you prefer the myths, it’s your choice.  But I and countless others have found that liberation from the illusions has given us the comfort and serenity that comes from not kidding ourselves.  I for one could never go back to believing in either Father Christmas or God as our Father who art in Heaven.  Many choose credulity.  I choose lucidity.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

MOSUL UNDER SIEGE : WHITE FLAGS AND PRAYER

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Prisoners of ISIS in their own city of Mosul for the last two years, civilian Iraqis now in permanent danger of death from the constant bombing by the Iraqi army, as well as from ISIS’ car-bombs and IEDs, can count only on white flags and prayer as weapons of defence.  There is little chance that the flags will help.  There is none at all that prayer will.

“No atheists in fox-holes” ?  A myth, no doubt.  But it is understandable that desperation can lead some people to grasp for straws, and even straw-gods.  Prayer, especially when practised in the company of others in harm’s way like oneself, can bolster hope and even create the courage to resist.  But of itself it is pointless.  Nobody is listening.  Divine protection is simply not going to happen.

In critical situations, logic and reason have little weight.  And if, by luck, the pray-ers survive, they will probably see in their salvation cause and effect.  Belief, by definition, is irrational.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

WHY WOULD GOD WANT TO CREATE SO MANY PLANETS ?

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The Hubble telescope has recently revealed that the number of observable (!) galaxies in the Universe is ten times previous estimates, dixit Christopher Conselice, University of Nottingham, U.K., in “Sciences et Avenir”, November 2016.  There are, in fact, 2,000,000,000,000 (two trillion) galaxies and 400,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars, each with at least one planet.  That means that up there we have at least 400,000 BILLION BILLION  PLANETS  !   It is no wonder that non-atheists affirm that all this could not have happened by itself or by some sort of random cosmic physico-chemical quirk or stroke of luck.  Who dunnit ?  Surely only God could do this !  But we have to wonder WHY He would bother.  The believer will repeat “ours not to reason why”, the traditional cop-out.  But whether or not we are the only mere seven billion rational beings in the whole Universe, on the only planet in the Universe with any sort of life (on the face of it, pretty incredible suppositions !), it is just too much to swallow that such a Universe, the unbridled expansion of which, moreover, is madly accelerating, has any purpose or meaning.  “God” is just too much to believe.

P.S.   Even if He did want to give a planet to every dead Mormon, as members of the Church of the Latter Day Saints believe (a belief as silly as their silly rules about underwear), the figures are somewhat disproportionate.  Founded 200 years ago, the Mor(m)on Church numbers some 15 million members living today.  Membership hit one million 75 years ago.  So even if we imagine that since the Church’s beginning as many as another 15 million have died and each been given a planet, that leaves an awful lot of planets which Mormons will never need.  What in God’s name are they FOR ?

RIDENDA     RELIGIO

THE SHROUD AND THE FIFTH GOSPEL

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I thought that I had said enough about the Shroud of Turin (“Wowed by the Shroud ?”, October 26, 2016), until I read “The Fifth Gospel” (Ian Caldwell, Simon and Schuster, N.Y., 2015).  The alleged burial cloth of Jesus is, in fact, the novel’s central character.  The other is the Diatessaron, the attempt by a 2nd century Syriac disciple of Justin Martyr, Tatian, to combine all four Gospels into a harmony, used for some time in liturgical readings until it was replaced by direct readings from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

This eminently readable though erudite novel is set in the Vatican in the final years of the pontificate of Pope John Paul 2.  The protagonists are two brothers, both priests, one a celibate Roman Catholic and the other, Greek Catholic and married, who is a seminary professor, estranged from his wife but living with their five-year-old son within the Vatican.  The plot centers on an exhibition of the Shroud of Turin, the curator of which is found killed by gunshot just before the exhibition is scheduled to take place.  It is a gripping story, set in the same locale as Dan Brown’s “Angels and Demons”, but much better researched and written, and more credible than that other bestseller.

The author recalls the shock of the recent studies which revealed through carbon-dating that the Shroud was cloth of the 13th century and therefore clearly a fake.  Since then, specialists have objected that the carbon-dating was erroneous, and claim to have found evidence of the Shroud’s prior existence.  This is the . . . thread picked up by the novel’s author who traces the Shroud back a thousand years to Edessa !  Readers will be fascinated to discover the scriptural exegesis of the four Gospels and of the Diatesseron, establishing the fact that though the Shroud may be authentically ancient, it is nonetheless a fraud (though I personally suggested in my previous post that though an authentically ancient, blood-stained cloth, it  was perhaps created, innocently, to promote piety and devotion).

The author could have chosen to end his novel with a conclusion less disappointing for devotees of the Church’s most famous relic, considered to be nothing less than proof not only of Christ’s crucifixion but of His Resurrection.  It is, after all, only a novel, but it is one helluva good read.  Atheists and non-atheists both, will be challenged by the book’s historical and exegetical hypotheses, and will not regret discovering the hidden world of the Vatican in a captivating story they will thoroughly enjoy.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

THE FIRST VICTIM OF RELIGION IS THE TRUTH

The original statement was about war, not religion, but I find it equally . . . true of religious belief.  The difference, of course, is that when it was said during World War 1, it referred to the fraud practised on both sides in reporting the numbers of casualties and victories of the Allies, as well as violations of the rules of war and crimes against humanity practised by the enemy.

Religion may not have originally been promoted fraudulently,  but because it became rapidly obvious that because people wanted to believe, they could be made to believe almost anything.  Today most of those we call ministers of religion themselves believe much, if not most, of what they teach and preach, because that is what other sincere representatives of religion taught them.  But what is being taught is largely fable, not the truth.  The biggest lie is that we and the world were created by God.  “He” is, in fact, the invention of ignorant primitive people to explain the world around them.  The second is that our spirit, our “soul”, survives death in an “afterlife”.  The third is that “God” has given His revelation about how we should live, to certain people appointed to be His representatives and spokesmen, with authority to speak and act in His name.  These lies are still believed today.  But more and more people are rejecting them, discovering the truth and finding the freedom that comes with thinking for themselves.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

LIVING DANGEROUSLY

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Thousands of Americans applying for visas permitting them to live in New Zealand apparently prefer the risk of earthquakes and tsunamis to living in Trump’s America.  Barbara Streisand is wondering whether she should move to Australia or Canada.  French people are conscious of the fact that over the last fifteen years the number of mosques and other Muslim prayer-centers has more than doubled (1000 to 2500, of which 140 are Salafist !).  From January 2015 to July 2016, France has had more than a thousand victims of Daech terrorism (238 dead, nearly 900 wounded).  American Muslims are wondering whether they will be among the three million Trump is promising to expel.  Rednecks are putting up signs in their front yards warning Mexicans that they will be shot at sight if they trespass their property at night.  Darkness is covering the world we live in (in spite of tonight’s Perigee Full Moon).  Fear is immediately evident on both sides of the Atlantic when a law-abiding Muslim boards a bus, a train or the metro.  Our gut-reaction is to wonder what he has in that bag he is carrying.  It is indeed a Mad, Mad, Mad world.

We know that prayer is pointless, that military victory over Daech is not the panacea, that dialogue with radical Islam is virtually impossible.  Our only hope is the courageous determination to use our solidarity to protect our lives, our freedom and our way of life, to refuse submission, capitulation and the paralysis that fear engenders, and to continue to search for ways to convince religious fanatics that no God could want them to destroy fellow human beings whom they blindly label as infidels.

Trump and the threats he presents, and above all the people who support him – especially his just-appointed chief advisor Bannon – together constitute a further challenge we could have done without.

Our values, our resilience and our intelligence will be sorely tested in the years ahead of us.  We will learn to live dangerously – in a double jeopardy – until we overcome, as overcome we shall.

                                           RIDENDA      RELIGIO

” WASTED “

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It is part of a “queer”, if not an “awesome”, contemporary linguistic phenomenon :  the word “wasted” no longer means only what it used to mean.  It’s the new code for “drunk” from alcohol, or otherwise physically and mentally incapacitated by consumption of other mind-changing chemical substances, in a word, “stoned”.

The word “wasted” is worth a wallow, if  I may accentuate the alliteration to which I am addicted.  I’ve said before on this Blog how much I regret having wasted fully half of my life as a believer and as a professional promoter of Catholicism.  I have dared to tell my Franciscan former confreres how much I pity them for having continued to waste their lives following Jesus and his poor Poverello.  Some say I am now wasting my time (they do not mention talent) attacking such credulity and attempting here to enlighten and encourage Believers on the Brink to adopt atheism.

About to turn eighty, I am still surprised and delighted that at age seventy-four I went on the wagon and am still on it.  I have no illusions about the real possibility of my going back, if not to the flesh-pots, to the Single Malts that had become part of my daily routine.  Was I ever “wasted” ?   Of course I was !  Luckily my addiction never resulted in physical harm to others, but it did nothing to improve my own health.  And it must have been a considerable cause of concern for my loved ones.  I hope that all that is behind me, now that I have decided not to kill myself slowly or even quickly through the abuse of alcohol, nor to waste the time I have left by being “wasted”.

I am particularly conscious of the blindness of young people already in the grip of the “demon” drink, or of equally diabolical drugs.  As with religious blindness, they have to find their own way out of the slavery to which they have submitted.  “Ab esse ad posse”; “From what exists we can identify what is possible”.  But if a run-of-the-mill bloke like me could find freedom from both these ways of wasting one’s life, others can.  I wish all of them “Bon Courage”.  Dare to decide.  “Carpe diem”.  I will not have been wasting my time writing this, if you do not regret wasting yours reading it.  The steps I am proposing are not easy to take, but when you do, you’ll never be sorry you did, either as a non-addict or as a non-believer.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

BLIND FAITH , BLIND FOLLY

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Since the democratic election, two days ago, of Donald Trump as President-Elect of the United States, commentators both professional and amateur (like me), have been comparing it with the democratic election, over eighty years ago, of Adolph Hitler as Chancellor of the German Republic.  But it is only this Blog which can use its own title to describe in four words what these two elections have in common.

All of us, even young people for whom World War Two is almost ancient history, have seen photographs and videos of those scenes in Germany of enormous crowds saluting their new Chancellor.  All of us have seen on television Trump on the stump, surrounded by enormous crowds cheering their candidate, and now Trump, after his election, being cheered by his jubilant supporters.  But we have also seen, in the big cities of the U.S., equally enormous and vociferous crowds of his opponents expressing their disappointment, their anger, their shattered hopes and even their fear.  There were no such crowds of Germans opposed to Hitler.  Perhaps the good news is that there are as many people who voted against Trump as for him, more in fact in absolute figures, though a unique, antiquated and anachronistic Electoral College system (created to compensate for the fact that slaves could not vote !), gave the unexpected and undeserved victory to Trump.

Readers of this Blog will not be surprised to see me attributing Trump’s election to the same blindness that made Hitler’s possible.  With luck, the comparison may stop there.  Hitler brought death, destruction and despair not only to Germany but to the whole world.  Hopefully we will find ways to prevent a lesser but similar outcome of the election of the new American President.  Apart from a small number of fanatics, the German people had no choice but to recognize, in a few short years, their blind faith and blind folly.  It is too late to correct the vision of Trump’s supporters.  We can only hope that the President himself realizes, before devastating damage is done, that he has been a blind leader of the blind.  Unfortunately we cannot count on Jesus to open his eyes . . .

RIDENDA      RELIGIO