A BRAVE BUT BLIND BISHOP

“And here’s to you, Bishop Robinson, Jesus loves you more than you will know (with apologies, and thanks, to Simon and Garfunkel).

Or He would, if, as you believe, He were still alive rather than dead.  Like every man who ever lived, He died.  Like every dead man, woman and child who ever died, He remains dead.  He is no more.  He may live on, as do your parents and mine, in our memories, in our affection.  You revere His memory, you feel His presence , you believe He rose from the dead and is now alive and well and seated at the right hand of the Father.

As soon as you say that, you have crossed into Never-Never Land, a world of myth and fantasy and wishful thinking.  You have entered the realm of faith – and fiction.  You are out of touch with reality.

For all the admirable courage and sincerity you display in your book, “Contemplating Power and Sex in the Catholic Church, Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus” (John Garratt Publishing, Mulgrave, Victoria, Australia, 2007) criticizing many of the Catholic Church’s traditional beliefs, you give yourself away in speaking of the Assumption, page 255 :

If someone were to ask me whether I believe in the Assumption, I would answer ‘Yes’.  If I were asked why, I would answer ‘Because that is what my mother told me as a child and I have always believed it’.  If I were asked whether I could prove that she was assumed into Heaven, I would answer ‘Can you prove that she was not ?  I have an ancient tradition and the common faith of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches behind my belief.  What do you have behind your denial  ?’ “.

Your Lordship (my mother taught me as a child how to address Bishops), you seem to have forgotten what you wrote earlier in the book, page 72 :

The mere fact of a long-standing tradition is not a proof of its truth”.

You, a respected, intelligent theologian, cannot expect us to take you seriously !  The following Reflection, “Harry and the Burden of Proof”, based on another best-seller, will explain what I mean.

HARRY  AND  THE   BURDEN  OF  PROOF

All seven of the Harry Potter books are superb page-turners.  Sometimes, besides the gripping story-line, they contain surprises which have nothing to do with Goblets of Fire, the Order of the Phoenix or Deathly Hallows.  The final volume includes the following example where Hermione is talking about something called the Resurrection Stone.  The point here is not belief in life after death or the supposed magical power of certain objects unknown to poor, ignorant Muggles, non-magical people, like you and me.  The point is whether or not the burden of proving that something is not true is on the person who contests its reality :

What about the stone, Mr Lovegood ?  The thing you call the Resurrection Stone ?”

What of it ?”

“Well, how can that be real ?”

Prove that it is not”, said Xenophilius.

Hermione looked outraged.

But that’s completely ridiculous !  How could I possibly prove it doesn’t exist ? Do you expect me to get hold of – – of all the pebbles in the world and test them ?  I mean you could claim that ANYTHING’s real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody’s PROVED it doesn’t exist !”

Yes, you could”, said Xenophilius.  “I am glad to see that you are opening your mind a little”.

(J.K. Rowling, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”, Bloomsbury, London, 2007, p. 334)

Out of the mouths of babes – or at least of gifted, if fictional, adolescents like Hermione Granger – or, more accurately, out of the creative minds of authors like J.K. Rowling, comes unexpected support for atheists who feel no need, even if it were possible, to prove that God does not exist, nor that the Assumption, like the Resurrection Stone, is also a myth.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“ALL THE LONELY PEOPLE . . .”

The French are famous – “infamous” would be excessive – for their habit of remaining isolated from, unknown and indifferent to their immediate neighbors in their apartment building or on the street where they live.  They can spend years in a neighborhood without ever exchanging a full sentence with anyone.  “Bonjour” is about it.  People die next door without anyone noticing.

Does this trait – in no way a French monopoly – explain why many people turn to God, their faithful, trustworthy, permanent companion, solace and friend ?  Children everywhere invent imaginary companions.  Grown up children do too.

Maybe if we all took the trouble to say “Hello ! Everything OK ?” – “How’s the family ?” – “Anything I can do for you ?” – “Would you like to have a cup of coffee (tea, whatever) with me; I just bought a new brand” – or even “I wonder if you would like to let me get to know you a bit better ?”

“All the lonely people, where do they all come from ?”.  The Beatles may not have been the world’s most profound philosophers, but they asked some of the most important questions.  People tend to fill the void with God.  It would be so much nicer, or, as Winnie the Pooh said, “so much friendlier with two”.

We do not need the imaginary God-of-the-gaps whom we have created.  Real people are all we’ve really got.  And they are enough.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

 

 

 

 

EVER BEEN BORED ?

Or lonely ?  Ever waited aggressively for the phone to ring, but it never did ?  Then maybe you can understand why God decided on the Big Bang.  Not that He particularly liked fireworks, but because He was bored !  After a literally timeless, eternal, empty silence and solitude, He decided to create time and the heavens and the earth, plants, animals, Adam, Eve and the rest of us.  This infernal loneliness had become even more than He, the Omnipotent, the Impassible, could stand any longer.  “Let there be light !” (how would you like to live in perpetual darkness ?), but more to the point, let there be someone else around here to keep Me company, to make something HAPPEN !  Hence Adam and Eve, you and me.  And He saw that all this was good.  In fact, very good (although, the Bible tells us, He was later, as Noah found out, to have a few regrets).

All this may sound flippant, outrageously sarcastic, blatantly blasphemous.  But honest to God (!), surely we need to shout it from the housetops : belief in divine creation is pure folly.

You may or may not, dear reader, manage to pardon my impertinence, but at least I hope I have not been boring you.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

LESE – MAJESTE , BLASPHEMY AND THE LACT OF RESPECT

“God save the King !”.  Every Saturday afternoon when we were kids, we went to the “pictures”, the double-feature movies plus cartoons and the indispensable “serial”.  Like everyone else in Sydney’s cinemas, I had to stand and sing this prayer – for it is a prayer – before the show could begin.  A thing now of the past.  But in the U.S., just a few years ago, I was astounded to have to do the same thing in a theater before “The Pirates of Penzance” could get under way.  (I was, I think, the only one among all those Americans who knew the words.)  The Gilbert and Sullivan ritual has been preserved in the rebel colony up to this day.

God and monarchs have had a long association.  From time immemorial, the King, if not considered and worshipped himself as divine, was next in importance to the deity, and often His High Priest.  Naturally enough, God was seen as a King, in fact the King of Kings (Catholicism’s “Christ the King” is faithful to this tradition) and was revered, and feared, because of His regal power and authority.  Subjects of the monarch knelt before him.  Catholics still genuflect in church.  They and other Christians may stand but often kneel to pray; Muslims go so far as to prostrate themselves entirely.  No one today, I understand, kisses the Pope’s slipper, but the to-be-knighted still kneel before the sovereign.  God and royalty demand, if they do not always deserve, respect.

Understandably, both the celestial monarch and the terrestrial could not tolerate disobedience or even disrespect.  Royalty is in your blood, if you happened – as God is not – to be equipped with veins.  Human monarchs do not get elected to the throne.  It is theirs by heredity, if not Divine Right.  As a King, you may be accessible, affable, generous and just – like Solomon – but even if you exceed your authority by adultery and murder – like David – you can always count on God’s, if not your subjects’, forgiveness.  But Heaven help those who commit lèse-majesté.  Might has always been right for Kings and Queens.  The Kingdom could crumble if you don’t keep your house in order, people in their place, and taxes coming in.  Ipse dixit (“He hath spoken”) : it is enough for a monarch to decree; there is no need to debate or negotiate, except, of course, with fellow-royalty (most of whom are your cousins anyhow).  Insubordination, let alone revolt not to say revolution, sire, are to be put down, whatever the cost, and severely punished.  God sends people to Hell.  A King has no qualms sending people to the gallows.  Which is why the people, during revolutions, sometimes paid him in kind.

“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”.  Nor dare defame or denigrate royalty.  There is, however, a huge difference between blasphemy or atheistic satire, and disrespect for, or mocking of, the man or woman on the throne.  The latter is real, the former a figment of imagination.  It makes a certain amount of political sense not to tolerate lèse-majesté, although today as a product of hard-won people-power and democracy, caricaturists, cartoonists, stand-up comedians and sit-down journalists who dare to criticize royalty, are no longer sent to the Tower or the Conciergerie, hanged, drawn and quartered, or, more mercifully, guillotined.  But it makes no sense at all to refuse to accept, to reprimand or to punish “blasphemy”.

A monarch may not, as we have said, deserve respect and allegiance, and only the brave would, and did – in days gone by at least – dare to rebel.  But how can a non-existent deity deserve either respect or allegiance ?  In some religious societies today it is still dangerous to profess atheism, or even to practise non-conformity to supposed divine legislation.  The minimum punishment in some religions today is ostracization or excommunication; in others it is torture, imprisonment, amputation or lapidation.

Insulting a living person, failing to respect anyone, whether a simple citizen or an elected official, chief of state or reigning monarch, is reprehensible.  But what could possibly be wrong with ridiculing a product of human imagination ?  An outrageously funny French film become a cult-movie regularly re-run on television, is entitled “Le Père Noël est une Ordure” (“Santa is a Scumbag”).  Like you, I used to believe in Father Christmas.  But now we know he’s a fabrication of modern marketing, what can be wrong with sending him up ?

I can imagine only one answer : to protect the child-believers from the truth, as long as possible.  Why destroy such a lovely myth ?  By what right would anyone dare to show such indifference, such cruelty towards innocent, naïve children who believe in Santa ?  “Primum non nocere” (“First, do no harm”).

Must we respect their belief ?  Most of us do, knowing that it will be short-lived anyhow.  But must atheists respect the belief of believers ?  Are there limits to the respect we owe them, and to our right to proclaim that their God is a Santa in another suit ?

I have said in other Reflections that some atheist-authors not only refuse to proselytize but to say anything that would offend the respect which belief in God, and more important, believers in God, they say, deserve.

I beg to differ.  My brief is that people deserve to be liberated from illusions.  The world is not flat.  The Sun does not revolve around the Earth.  You should not build your family budget on winning the Lottery.  You should not believe everything car salesmen, politicians and priests tell you.  You deserve my respect to the point that I would like you to at least question why you believe in Heaven and Hell, prayer and Purgatory, divine creation and pie in the sky when you quit this mortal coil.

I once heard an atheist say to another :  “See you at the stake !”.  We have no monopoly on intolerance.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

IDENTIFYING THE DEITY

There are a lot of phony divine I.D.s out there.  You would need more than one enormous pantheon to house statues of history’s pretenders to the title of Deity, even if you left out the millions of gods worshipped by Hindus.  Buddha may not have claimed to be God, but the way he is revered one could be excused for thinking he did.  To stick with just Greek-Latin tradition, the list, to understate the fact, is long.

Judaism changed all that.  Our God, Yahweh, is One God; He, and He alone, who is.  Christianity naturally adopted and continued the same monotheism, with the essential nuance, unacceptable to believers in the two other expressions of belief in a single God, that God is One and Three.  That does not make four.  It makes the Trinity, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost (“the three men I admire most; they caught the last train to the coast, the day the music died”).

Most people consider monotheism an improvement on polytheism.  But it is just as incredible, absurd and unfounded.  Theologians, notably those of the Golden Age, the 13th century of the Dominican Aquinas and the Franciscan Bonaventure, wrote heavy tomes, copied, recopied and treasured until Gütenberg made them generally accessible, at least to those who could read Latin, with interminable discourses on the divine attributes.  It came down to the fact that we cannot state positively what God is like, but we sure as hell can tell you what He’s not.  A great help.

The trouble, of course, is that it did not occur to them that the only problem was that He didn’t and doesn’t exist.  They knew that some benighted idiots did not believe He existed, so they offered “proofs” that He did.  Anselm, before them, had gone so far as to say that the fact that we can conceive of a Godhead is evidence, per se, that it exists.  Thomas’ Five “Proofs” are not much better, but they were enough, for the last seven centuries, to convince seminarians, including myself, who studied his “Summa Theologica”, that there could be no doubt that He who gave His name as “He who is”, is.

A 19th century, non-Catholic Archdeacon, William Paley, did his bit in bolstering belief in an Intelligent Designer, obviously without using the current expression, by his authoritative argument about finding a watch and KNOWING that it had to have been made by a watchmaker.  Watches do not just happen.  Q.E.D.  (Quite Enough : Deity !).

Darwin’s thesis should have definitively demolished all this, but for the vast majority, 80% of Americans for example, belief in God is still alive and well and not about to disappear.  We know why.  All of us need a comfort zone.  And Darwin makes many people feel uncomfortable.  Even his wife could not buy his invitation to remove the scales accumulated on human eyes for millennia.  But some of us, mirabile dictu, (“strange to say”), have learned to see.  Theologians still discuss what God is like.  It’s a bit like asking how much does Santa Claus weigh, how long is his beard, and how does he manage to produce all those toys (the secret being, of course, delocalization of production lines in countries where labor, especially elves’, is cheap).  The rest of us have more serious problems on our hands.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

 

SLEEP – MERCHANTS

Every big city has them.  In Paris we call them “les marchands du sommeil”, “sleep-merchants”, because they exploit impoverished people’s need to sleep.  If you have nothing, you sleep in the street, maybe on top of a metro-vent to keep warm in Winter (free of charge but at considerable cost to your health).  If you have a little money, you may be tempted to find a place to sleep in a starless “hotel” room, the advantages of which can be summed up as having a roof and walls and a door with, hopefully, a lock.  The plumbing, the heating, the furniture including the bed, the cleanliness – to be kind – are minimalist.  But people need to sleep.  We all need a place to sleep.  And there will always be those who exploit this need, and make the poor pay an arm and a leg to have somewhere to lay their head.

In another sense, religions are sleep-merchants.  They exploit our need to make sense of life and especially of death.  They are expert in lulling us to sleep, in reassuring us that though life may be tough, another, wonderful life awaits us after death.  Don’t be discouraged.  You have a Friend who loves you.  People may be crooks, liars, hypocrites, traitors, thieves and false friends, but in God we trust.  You should too.  After this vale of tears, He will prove to you how worthy He is of your trust.  He will welcome you into Paradise, eternal bliss.  All you need to do is believe.  And die.

Sleep-merchants all.  One of the most curious of modern Christian sects is that of the Jehovah Witnesses.  It has always astounded me that they can continue to get people to believe their spiel about the imminent return of Christ.  They gather in their thousands every now and again, in anticipation of Jesus’ spectacular Parousia, His Second Coming – which, of course, never happens.  The irony is that, in pairs, fulfilling their “missionary” commitment to spend several hours each week in seeking converts, they knock on your door to offer you their magazine, called … “Awake“.  Its purpose, like all religious literature, is to put people to sleep.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

 

 

 

” GOD HAS BECOME PROBABLE “

The German journo, Thomas Vasek, having studied Stephen D. Unwin’s “The Probability of God : A Simple Calculation that Proves the Ultimate Truth”, has come up with the irrefutable, scientific conclusion that God has 62% chances of existing.  So you should efface this Blog and any others that suggest that God is a myth.  Science has proved the opposite.  Some you win, some you lose.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

 

CREDULITY QUOTIENT

Some politicians and members of the world’s governments have an exceptionally high IQ.  Many of their colleagues would not want theirs published.  But all of them should be obliged to reveal their CQ, their Credulity Quotient.

The U.S. Constitution states that there should be no religious test for office.  But when you consider the religious absurdities in which many if not most English-speaking politicians believe, one has to wonder what else they are prepared to swallow without question.  The famous case of JFK provides them with a ready answer to the question as to what they would do if they should confront a conflict between their personal religious convictions and the interests of the State.  Kennedy replied that he would resign – and so, though a believing Catholic, he was elected.

But it is a bit scary, when Presidents oblige their cabinet ministers to begin meetings by bowing their heads in prayer, when they and others oppose certain legislation because it conflicts with their personal religious beliefs, when they seriously believe in their messianic, God-given mission to impose democracy by force, or – supremely ridiculous recent example – they ask their electorate to pray for rain.

It is highly unlikely that the non-credulity of atheists would ever make them favored candidates for political office.  In fact, in many countries, being a religious believer is considered an electoral advantage, if not an essential condition for election.  But a minimum requirement should surely be that candidates submit themselves to the Kennedy question.

Being an atheist, an agnostic or a skeptic in matters religious, is not necessarily an indication of competence, objectivity or intelligence.  But, omnibus paribus, (“all things being equal“), it is reassuring to know that such a candidate does not believe in the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, a Free Lunch or Pie in the Sky when you croak.  Intelligent electors should take into account not only their candidates’ IQ but their CQ as well.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO



 

CHOOSING FREEDOM (or : Defining BOTBs)

Literally from time immemorial, history has witnessed a spectacular variety of religious beliefs and practices, the alleged universality of which, for some, points to a deity, belief in whose existence would seem to be a pre-programmed part of the human psyche.

Atheists are not impressed by the place of religion in  human history, nor by the numbers of those who continue to believe in God.  They have had the still rare courage and clairvoyance to recognize the truth that has made them free.

There are others – I call them Believers on the Brink, BOTBs – who are critical of certain religious beliefs and practices, those they grew up with and which they have since rejected.  They have freed themselves from many religious fables, superstitions and practices, but continue to believe in God.  They have not yet discovered that the problem is not in certain dogmas and devotional expressions of faith, but in faith itself.  One day they may come to realize that belief in God is born of our inability or unwillingness to accept the reality of our fortuitous coming to be at birth, and our inevitable, definitive ceasing to exist at death.  Then they will be free at last, thank God Almighty, free at last !

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

 

 

” HOW GREAT THOU ART ! “

Even if God did exist, even if there were an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving Supreme Being who created the world and humankind in His image, how can anyone imagine that He would expect us to worship Him ?  If His loving, fatherly, not to say intelligent, design were to offer us the opportunity of sharing His eternal life and happiness, would He expect us to grovel, to kneel in reverence and adoration before Him ?  Some of the people He presumably created, notably Kings, Dictators and Popes, do expect the rest of us to acknowledge their sovereign power by bowing and scraping and telling them humbly how worthy they are of our praise and servitude.  But surely God would be above and beyond that.

I may not be much of a father, but while I hope my kids respect and love me, I do not expect them to fall on their knees every time they see me.  Matter of fact, I spent a lot of time and effort getting them, literally as well as metaphorically, to stand on their own two feet.  God Almighty !  Can God be so outrageously Self-centered as to expect His children to adore Him in fear and trembling ?  “Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name” ?  “Te Deum laudamus” ?  (“We praise Thee, O God “).  “Glory be to the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost” ?  I liked my Dad, loved him even, put him on a pedestal, congratulated him for his achievements and thanked him for all he did for me.  But he would never have allowed me to flatter him, let alone grovel.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO