TOLERATING PEOPLE WITH INTOLERABLE IDEAS

Many believers treat me as an outcast because I abandoned the Catholic priesthood and renounced my Christian faith.  Some, however, while deeply regretting my decisions, continue to welcome my company, in spite of my double apostasy.  We are comfortable together, no doubt because of a tacit mutual understanding that discussion of religion (but not of politics) will be eschewed – unless they choose to initiate it.  We disagree, but though our contradictory ideas are intellectually opposed, we tolerate and even appreciate each other as persons.

There are limits, however, to tolerance.  My atheism may be militant but it is not murderous.  Dawkins, Hitchens and immeasurably lesser lights like myself don’t assassinate non-atheists or advocate the criminalization of religious belief or of believers.  The latters’ faith may be rock-solid, but they do not call for the incarceration or execution of atheists like us.  Their beliefs and our convictions are diametrically opposed but we agree to disagree and to respect the right of others not to share our point of view.  On the other hand, dictators like Hitler and Stalin did not hesitate to persecute and annihilate dissidents, as the Church in past centuries had tortured and assassinated heretics.  Nazi death-camps and Soviet goulags, like the Inquisition, were the expression of intolerable ideologies; the monsters who applied them were guilty of crimes against humanity and unworthy of any form of tolerance.  Neither atheism nor non-atheism is per se intolerable, though some believers and (even) unbelievers can be a real pain in the neck.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

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WHY SOME PEOPLE WILL NEVER BECOME ATHEISTS

It has little to do with one’s Intelligence Quotient (IQ).  It has a lot to do with one’s Credulity Quotient (CQ), which I invented and explained earlier in this Blog.  It has everything to do with what I am presenting here, for the first time in human history and world literature : the Convertibility Quotient (CQ2).  Call it the ” Readiness to Doubt” scale, if you’re more comfortable with that.

There are, naturally, two extremes on the CQ2 scale, and different degrees within it.  At the extreme right end of the scale are those I have … baptized “BOTBs” (“Believers on the Brink”).  In case you’ve forgotten, these are people who may have been gung-ho believers in the past, but who at some point realized that a particular belief was just too silly to swallow.  It could be the seminal belief in Jesus’ Resurrection, or – just as incredible – His Ascension into Heaven or His Mum’s Assumption.  Or perhaps the central rite of Catholicism, the Mass, at the heart of which is the cannabalistic consuming of Jesus’ body and blood !  Or some other outrageous assault on rationality.  These people no longer accept such beliefs but still hesitate to take the final step into atheism.  With the help of reflections like those in this Blog, they hopefully will finally find the courage to reject the whole ball of wax.  At the other end of the scale, way over there on the left, are the Unshakeables.  Don’t even think of trying to convert them !  They KNOW they are right, and nothing a renegade ex-priest become an atheist (like myself) can say, will ever make them change their mind.  In between the two extremes, there are multiple degrees of convertibility, indicating different levels of permeability to doubt.

I think I know why there are believers totally immune to religious doubt.  I have already spoken here of people who have had a NDE (“Near-Death Experience”) and claim to have had – even though medical personnel may have declared them clinically dead ! – a mystical experience involving visions and voices as real as anything they had ever experienced before, that left them so profoundly affected that nothing could ever again make them doubt the existence of God and of an afterlife.  Others base their unshakeable faith on something less dramatic, but almost as convincing.  Often it takes the form of recovery from a supposedly terminal illness or fatal accident, but without the NDE.  It may even be a vicarious experience, concerning a close relative who survived such … close shaves.  Less dramatically, it may be founded on the positive apparent answer to a desperate prayer – often addressed to the Virgin Mary – that made them not only eternally grateful but forever convinced as believers.

There are a number of implications in all this.  One is that if the origin of our religious beliefs is in none of these profoundly personal experiences but – like mine – in our family and social traditions and environment, one can, as I did, learn to question and even abandon our faith.  Often however it requires more courage than many people can muster.  Another implication is the futility of many debates between atheists and non-atheists, and the ineffectiveness of arguments on both sides.  The Five “Proofs” of St Thomas Aquinas, for example, are at best mere reinforcement and confirmation of already firm religious convictions.  I doubt that they ever converted anyone.  People are far more susceptible to emotional experiences than intellectual elucubrations.  It may be fun to watch Richard Dawkins  and Cardinal Pell contradict each other,  but their arguments serve only to confirm pre-established convictions.  I don’t even try to convert the gung-ho.  My target is the BOTB.  I prefer to engage battles I have a fighting chance of winning.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

LET’S TALK TALENT !

Dribbling from the mouth is common in the very young and the very old.  Dribbling on the soccer-field makes up 90% of the game, and seems to be as instinctual and as effortless as the disgusting habit of infants and patients in a geriatric ward.  The former form of dribbling requires no talent or training.  Rinaldo and his ilk have spent their lives perfecting their gift.

The distribution of physical and intellectual prowess is notoriously uneven, if not unfair.  The gamut runs from the handicapped through the also-rans to champions and pure genius.  Within the same family, some seem to have been dealt a lousy hand while others discover they have four aces.  Such inequality is a challenge for all of us.  Many wisely accept the status quo and make the most of the talents they have.  Others, even the exceptionally gifted, sometimes waste their talent, while others again succeed in overcoming their handicaps, thereby winning the admiration of all but the terminally jealous.

Jesus could not resist sharing His parable of wasted talents, though the talents in question were in the form of hard cash.  It is even more tragic when the talents are immaterial and far more precious.  Jesus would be unhappy to hear me apply His parable to many of His own followers.  Some of them, including former colleagues and priestly confreres of mine, far more intellectually gifted than I, spent their whole lives without questioning and rejecting the myths and superstitions of the religion He founded.  My talents may be few, but I’m glad I used them to discover how ridiculous religions are, and how pitiful it is that intelligent, talented people fail to recognize their absurdity.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

GETTING OLD

Adolescents react politely to stupid remarks from adults about how they have grown up.  “What did you expect ?  That I would be growing down, shrinking into a dwarf ?” is what they’re thinking, but they keep it to themselves and smile, acknowledging the brainless congratulations for getting taller as they get older.  Later in life, when they themselves enter old age, they will react similarly, perhaps, to the liars who tell them how young they look.

Old age has been the subject of literature reaching back at least to Cicero’s “De Senectute”, which some of us, “ere our youth attained a beard”, were forced to read and translate.  “When I’m 64”, Paul McCartney’s speculation written in his mid-teens (16) about what his life would be like in the distant future, half a century on, rings true for young and old alike.  A recent French novel, Pierre Lemaître’s “Couleurs de l’Incendie” (2018), contains a pearl from an old man reflecting on aging : “I have constantly to be careful.  I’m afraid of smelling old, of forgetting words, of being a bother to others, of catching myself talking all alone.  I spy on myself; it takes up all of my time.”

We senior citizens, old geezers, tend to forget that old age is a luxury.  We all had friends who died even before they became adults, and our present ranks are getting thinner every day.  We should remember that the inconveniences of our twilight years are a small price to pay for the luxury of having lived life to the full.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD ?

If you had to list the 20 Greatest Lives Ever Lived, I’ll bet that 10 of them would be those of  :  Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Jesus Christ, Leonardo da Vinci, Napoleon Bonaparte, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Bill Gates.  No one doubts the greatness of any of these . . . men (no women ?).  Nor does anyone doubt the existence of nine of them.  You know who is the Odd Man Out.  But if you were asked to list the Greatest STORIES of All Time, no matter how short the list, Jesus Christ’s would be one of yours and everyone else’s.  Which raises the question : are the Gospels, four separate, interdependent, sometimes contradictory accounts of the life of Jesus – history ? – or His-Story ?  Our title is, of course, that of George Stevens’ famous 1965 (accurately titled) movie, with Max von Sydow playing the rôle of Jesus.  But does it recount His life – or His legend ?

By any literary standard, the Gospel story is a great read.  It has everything – except explicit sex and comic relief.  Full of surprises, including miracles galore (take your pick : walking on water, feeding 5000 with a few loaves and fishes, giving sight to a man born blind, raising the dead), intrigue, betrayal, virtually revolutionary, courageous questioning of the status quo, charismatic preaching of a new message of hope for mankind, it’s a winner from charming start to tragic, then glorious, finish.  Even the contradictions between the different versions of “the” Gospel are intriguing, both to the general reader and scholars who tie themselves in knots trying to explain them.  And the life of no one else, real or fictional, ever had the sequel that has been Christianity for the last 2000 years and the religion of 1.2 billion Roman Catholic believers today.  But whether or not it is the Greatest Story in Human History, it contains without doubt some of the Tallest Tales Ever Told.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

 

CATHOLIC TUNNEL-VISION

I have just finished reading a fictional satire of a very real, money-making, scary sect which calls itself a “church” : SCIENTOLOGY.  Readers familiar with “The Underground Bunker”, a powerful blog full of testimonies from disillusioned devotees of L. Ron Hubbard’s infamous scam, would immediately recognize Norman Spinrad’s “Mind Game” as a superbly crafted send-up of $cientology.  “Transformationalism” is the dangerous and vicious twin of the sect and money-machine sponsored by Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

I am struck, however, not only by the gripping tale of the brain-washing, exploitation and raw power of the sect portrayed in the novel, but by the ironical reaction Catholics have to $cientology itself.  I can hear them scoffing at such sects and the credulity on which they feed, forgetting their own superstitious beliefs and practices.

The Catholic pot calling the $cientological kettle black is too gentle a description of Catholic blindfaithblindfolly, better described in this context as tunnel-vision.  Sects come and go, but the Catholic Church, which claims to have been founded by Jesus Himself and headed by so-called successors to His Vicar on Earth, Peter the Rock, continues to survive in spite of holy wars and revolutions from the outside, and schisms and scandals from the inside.  The One, True, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church continues to be embarrased by many of its own clergy, guilty of unspeakable sexual crimes, while their confreres continue to exploit the gullibility of its members.

“Mind Game” is a damned – and damning – good read, which underlines the credulity of the members of both sects and churches, and the power they exercise over the minds and lives of their victims.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

 

An Open Letter to the Pope : IT’S TIME TO ABOLISH CLERICAL CELIBACY . . . N O W !

“Wise men say … ‘only fools rush in’, but I — can’t — help” (sorry, Elvis !) . . . advising the Pope to allow priests to marry NOW !  Angels may indeed fear to tread on this holy ground.  “Holy” ?  Baloney !  What is holy about refusing to allow men (and – why not ? – women) who want to be priests to receive, besides the Sacrament of Holy Orders, the Sacrament of Matrimony ?  There is urgency here.  Pope Francis is exactly my age, 81.  We are both visibly slowing up.  He has even more difficulty than I with stairs, as we saw recently as he pulled himself up the steps of his popemobile in Dublin.  Several years ago Francis warned us that his pontificate would be short, five years max . . . I hope he gets to read this Open Letter :

It’s Showtime, Holy Father, Showtime !  Make this the finis that coronats the opus of your pontificate.  You can influence decisions about the environment, about immigration, about the economy.  But this is something you can DECIDE, all by your papal Self !  It’s a law stupidly imposed by a predecessor in the 12th century.  You can undo his disastrous mistake, born of a prudery proper to the Dark Ages.  You and I know the ball and chain that have impeded your predecessors these last 900 years from allowing priests to marry, as do their validly ordained confreres in the Orthodox Churches, and even in the Catholic Uniate Rite !  We, you and I – both priests and theologians – know that the Roman Catholic Church has always considered that married people are, ipso facto, second-class Catholics because they copulate.  Seminarians are told that they prove their absolute, exclusive love of and commitment to God by sacrificing sexual pleasure and personal fulfillment as sexually active married men and fathers of children.  Bollocks !  St Augustine of Hippo, the “Doctor of Doctors”, has a lot to answer for, when, a millennium before the imposition of celibacy, he – after a life of debauchery and the fathering of his illegitimate son, Adeodatus (“Given by God” !) – did a U-turn by making procreation the primary purpose of marriage, while sexual pleasure was relegated to a merely secondary status.

Your Holiness, dear namesake, Francis (may I call you Frank ?), time is running out for both of us.  Your resignation, or perhaps your death, in the near future, make this the last chance  – maybe for centuries to come – to let priests marry.  Your successors are likely to be far more conservative and less courageous than you.  Don’t do it for the embellishment of your legacy.  Do it because it’s the right, the intelligent, the Christian thing to do.  Before it’s too late.  Carpe diem, Sanctissime Pater !

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

 

IF REAL TIME REALLY ISN’T , WHAT IS ?

I thought I saw the Sun come up this morning at 7:04 a.m.  It didn’t.  Primo, it didn’t move at all; our Earth did, creating the illusion.  Secundo, it became visible at 7:04, but had actually “risen” at 6:56 a.m. – the eight minutes’ difference due to the time it took for its light to reach my retina.  Last night I saw the Moon as it was a second before I looked at it (mind you, it could not have changed much in the … meantime).  There is even an infinitesimal gap between what you think you are reading here in “real time” –  and reality : what you see is the page as it was a miniscule fraction of a nanosecond before.

Light travels at 300,000 kms/sec.  The stars we see may have died millions of years ago.  This may be fake news to an ignorant POTUS, but it is not news at all to graduates of primary school.  We live AS IF reality is what we observe, but it is reality as it WAS … some time ago.

Magicians exploit our inattention and make us believe that they really did transform that scarf into a bird, and make that elephant disappear into thin air.  Jesus is said to have changed water into wine, and disappeared when He ascended into Heaven.  No one we know, let alone ourselves, saw Him do any of this (and even if we had, did the “divine magician” make it really happen ?).  Ancient translations of even more ancient texts tell us that people SAID they saw Him do it.  Such “miracles” are asking a lot of our common sense.  But so does the concept of spacetime and the fact, proven by Einstein, that things never happen simultaneously, though they seem to.  “What is truth ?” asked Pilate, who then washed his hands.  We wonder “What is real ?”, and reach for a refill.

We simply cannot live, constantly wondering about things like this.  It’s a bit like peering into the Milky Way on a cloudless night, far from civilization and its omnipresent artificial light which conceals the stars we think are there but which in fact may no longer exist.  All this may be fascinating to us and the obsession of professional and amateur astronomers.  Meantime we have to put food on the table, answer those damn e-mails and pay those bills.  Most of us have no time to bother with out-of-this-world speculation.  Nonetheless I think it is healthy to take a few moments from time to time, as you do each time you read posts in this Blog, to do a reality-check, realize how little we know and how unfathomable the world is, decide what matters, what is credible and get on with living in a world we will never fully understand, but which can make life really worth living.  Carpe diem !

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

WAITING FOR THE BIG ONE

Here in Southwest France, Bidart’s surf is not that of Hawaii, but it can rival the best of Bondi.  You see the surfers out there waiting, not for the Big One (that’s “Belharra”, the monster biannual wave from Newfoundland), but for the seventh in line.  When you see them waiting on their boards, even though the sea is calm, you know they are clients of the Surf School, obliged by their schedule to take the surf – or its absence – as they find it.  The “Big One” for Californians is not a wave at all, but the earthquake that will equal  or surpass San Francisco’s.  But they are not eagerly waiting, like the surfers, for it to arrive.  In fact, they don’t even think about it.  Que serà serà.  And then there’s the Really Big One, but that’s five billion years down the road, when our solar system disintegrates.  No one gives a damn about that one.

Some people, especially my age, are waiting for their personal Big One, their death.  Condemned by terminal illness or extreme old age (that’s 15 years away for me), they try to ignore it but, if they still have their hearing or leave their aid switched on, they can hear the clock ticking (if not saying, in French with Jacques Brel, “Je vous attends !”).  I am not waiting for death.  I have too many other things to do rather than sit around waiting for the Grim Reaper.  I’m not waiting for anyone or anything, but looking forward to continue doing the many things I enjoy – writing, listening to music, reading and watching videos both serious and frivolous, and especially visiting with my family and sharing BBQs or at least e-mails with my friends.  Death will mean the end of all that, the end of my existence.  I’m definitely not waiting for a sequel.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO   

IS BELIEVING THIS STUFF JUST SILLY OR TRULY PATHETIC ?

  1.    His name was Kuhn, a fellow-inmate of Primo Levi in Auschwitz.  He thanked             God for not being selected for the gas chamber.  The next day he was.

2.    My cousin Mary, in her early teens, contracted polio.  We all prayed our hearts                     out.  She died anyhow, on her 14th birthday.

3.   He was standing in front of a stack of full-sized, pure-gold ingots, which he had                   acquired by re-filtering the debris from former digs in Kalgoolie, Western                             Australia.  “God”, he said to the camera, ” has been very good to me and to my                     family.”

4.  Pope John Paul 2 was a fervent devotee of Jesus’ Mum, the “Virgin” Mary.  “Totus                 tuus” (“All Yours” !) was the pledge of his love for her (an old widow, dead these                   last 2000 years).  A Turkisk terrorist tried to assassinate him in his Popemobile in               the piazza of the Vatican.  The bullet just missed his heart.  He attributed his good               luck and the bad shot to the miraculous intervention of his lady-love.  It                                 happened to be the anniversary of her final “apparition” to three peasant                             children in Fatima, Portugal, during World War 1.  His Holiness never                                     wondered why Mary did not make the bullet miss him entirely.

5.   A former mate of mine, highly intelligent but the Catholic incarnation of                               blindfaithblindfolly, told me of his serious car-crash years ago in Nowra, N.S.W.  He is       to this day convinced he owes his survival to the Miraculous Medal he wears.  (We             both did as kids seventy years ago.  He still does.)

RIDENDA      RELIGIO