‘all religions seem to carry the same message: “Stop being an arsehole.”’
You might think taking on Christianity at Easter would be like stabbing chickens in a barrel here at Dysatisfunctional.com, and you would be right. What could be more on-message than a powerful institution that seeks to right what is most dissatisfied and dysfunctional in the mortal world, yet so often winds up perpetuating both? Great rolling wars, the hoarding of riches, political machinations, colonial adventuring, and more recently the denial of justice and equal rights to women, indigenous groups, homosexuals, and children abused by church representatives—its tragedy is almost matched by its irony. But it’s also just too easy, so we’ll be turning our blows aside at the last moment, seeking instead the flat-bladed mark of a more sympathetic ragging. We’ll even seek out religion’s most worthwhile parts, because while so many billions of people throughout history can be completely wrong, we’re nothing if not utter fashion victims.
I was a pious young Anglican at about twelve. Far more devout about my upcoming confirmation than most of the boys joining me, who were more or less forced into it by their parents (authoritarian weakness #1). My religious education teacher addressed us by surname only, an anachronism in the 1990s (authoritarian weakness #2). Mr Murray assured me that the family of my best friend, who regularly took in bedraggled borders from wherever, were nonetheless going to hell (authoritarian weakness #3).
Mr Murray had the brass balls to actually say: “I’m not saying I’m perfect, but I don’t drink, smoke, or swear.” We had all heard the punchline before: “Oh fuck I’ve left my smokes at the pub”, but good Mr Murray was all earnest denial. The punchline came during one of my frequent Friday detentions. I busted him through a crack in the door, sucking on a beer and a cigar. To be fair, I never heard him swear. It wasn’t our last disagreement.
I had another argument, this one much more recently, with a staunch old atheist. We agreed on everything, except my point that it was difficult to reconcile all the drawbacks of organised religion and religious belief, with the role they have played in framing moral order. So many good people, or just normal people trying to be good. So wayward, so naive and just plain wrong, but so often with the highest of intentions. The church justified colonial endeavours, true; but at the same time their missions were the only humane force restraining even further brutality. And not for nothing, the Pope did prevent a war between Argentina and Chile in the late 1970s. Atheist old man river was incensed, especially when I said his extremist position kept him from seeing how much we agreed on.
In many ways, around the world and throughout history, all religions seem to carry the same message: “Stop being an arsehole.” This is a difficult role to account for in its fullness, as our primitive animal brains urge us down the side of justification for the church and its good, or equally down the other side to utter condemnation. Then we mistake it for rationality. Much harder, morally and intellectually, to stay on the ridge that sees all around. This was why Jesus hung out with hookers.
Western atheists often make the mistake of denying their debt to Christianity. Secular society emerged in no small part from the European inter-faith wars, between all the different versions of Christianity that arose. Soon freedom of religion meant also freedom from religion. Liberty came in no small part from the Treaty of Westphalia. Is it possible that the values of Christianity somehow created a space in which to reject it? How very turn-the-other-cheek. My twilight-years sparring partner threw the big Enlightenment figures at me: Hume, Kant, Darwin. But their Christian credentials ranged from devout to ambiguous. Most of these big guns were desperate to rationalise God with an increasingly empirical order, rather than lead some secular revolution. My anti-faith interlocutor was filling history, retrospectively, with modern secular ideas. The denial of God is historically specific, relatively new, but hard atheism seems just as antiquated to me as being addressed by my surname in a boys’ school.
This Easter, in Australia at least, the question of religious relevance is again, er, relevant. Australia is one of the most secular Western nations, in which it is common to harbour suspicions for religious zeal. The ABC’s QandA program recently pit unlikeable but respected professional atheist Richard Dawkins against Catholic Cardinal George Pell, to often incendiary effect. They spent far too long debating the nature of existence, only coming to social issues late in the game. Dawkins mishandled the matter of Darwin’s faith, as well as the yawning chasm between his theory of evolution and subsequent social Darwinism. Pell was well prepared, to his credit, though he couldn’t avoid looking foolish when talking about the Jews, when dicing around such issues as atheists going to heaven/hell, the difficult evidence of evolution up to homo sapiens sapiens, and literal interpretations of both Genesis and of communion. Pell had to go into PR mode on these issues, playing language games that risked inflaming true believers, presumably for the sake of those future souls who might be saved. But armed with arguments the Catholic church has been loathe to update, he simply couldn’t have performed better.
In the next day’s papers, most gave the ‘win’ to Dawkins. Only the shrill and irrational conservative Greg Sheridan at The Australian thought Pell came out ahead. But what neither advocate was unable to resolve was 1) how much faith most Australians put into reason- or evidence-based accounts of the world, including evolution, and 2) how much most folks still want to believe in a benevolent authority with some kind of design especially for them. It’s easy to fall one way or the other, in an effort to stay consistent, but it’s hard to explain how so many people keep a foot in each argument.
Once I was swerving through Perth traffic with a fine lady, and we spied out several triple-1s on licence plates, which had a grand significance for her. Each triple-1 is apparently a chance to express some “intentionality” to somehow magnetise the good shit to you (aka: make a wish). Like too many friends to count, she will snort breakfeast through her nostrils at the mention of God, and yet believes irredeemably in a benevolent universe. Isn’t it lonely, these religious hippies ask, to get on with no faith that something out there loves me? Yes, I say, it’s lonely. Social connections mean more. They ask: how can you live in a randomised world without meaning? Well, I say, chance simply makes everything that happens that much more significant, compared to what could have happened just as easily. Unlike preordained destinies, I’m never waiting for the other foot to drop.
In Marc Cohn’s signature tune “Walking in Memphis”, I always hang out for the affective narrative peak of that song: “She said, / Tell me, are you a Christian, child? I said, / Ma’am, I am tonight!”. As Cardinal Pell articulated quite well, religion exists to provide existential peace of mind, a response to a yearning that takes hold for many of us more or less often. Dare I say, that’s the precise space Dysatisfunctional.com was set up to address. If we can suspend the question of how true those sandal stories are, or how relevant they are to social values thousands of years on, there is surely still merit in religion’s function. Some social studies have claimed along these lines, that faith leads to a level of robust stability during adversity and happiness more generally. The jury might be out for a long lunch on this one, but anecdotally at least, I’m listening. I’ve seen people firm in their beliefs live more sure-footed, though they can create chaos around them by virtue of what falls beyond their narrow perspective. If they were more dysatisfunctional, they would be better people.
Pell claimed science cannot provide a comparative existential guarantee, and Dawkins agreed with him, branding the existential question of purpose silly. Well played, Dawkins, though you are also not dysatisfunctional enough. People are silly. We ask silly questions, want, demand and do silly things every day. Besides, many people find scientific explanations and questions about the universe humbling, awe-inspiring and deeply compelling in ways that are comparable to religious belief: the concept of in/finitude, the nature of matter, the vexingly simultaneous simplicity and yet comlexity of observable laws. Those who actually seek to understand dark matter, string theory and quantum mechanics are no doubt rewarded with some kind of existential kick, contrasted with myself, who can’t understand how the toaster works. Let’s admit it now—for those of us to whom the causative workings of switches, buttons and pills remain a mystery, our belief in science isn’t much more than magical. If I press this button at the right time, hey presto!—Lily Serna will appear on my television screen. And thank God for her.
Since Dysatisfunctional.com began, I’ve become a much more consistent fan of Alain de Botton, who uses philosophy and the history of ideas to help improve people’s lives. (He still might not belong in the philosophy section of the bookstore, however…) Last week he appeared on the ABC discussing ideas about religion he expressed also in a TED talk entitled “Atheism 2.0”. Amongst other ideas, he focuses on the helpful functions of religion in human lives, offering a much more sympathetic view of Christianity than most atheists afford. When it comes to mastering our dysatisfunctional natures, I’m with him. Stay atop the ridge! I say. Don’t vault down one side or the other, merely to claim consistency. Merely to say you believe in something. It’s not worth it.
- Religion and Atheism on Q&A (stumbledownunder.com)
- Ruse: creationism the fault of Gnu Atheists who don’t study enough (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com)
- Atheists soldiers “Rock Beyond Belief” (examiner.com)
- If This Passes For “Reason”, Atheists Are FU***D! (neosecularist.com)
- Pell vs Dawkins on Evolution (signposts02.wordpress.com)
- Showdown in Oz: Dawkins vs. Cardinal George Pell (luvsiesous.com)
- Pell, Dawkins wage battle of belief – Barney Zwartz – theage.com.au (richarddawkins.net)
- Robert Wright promotes accommodationism, disses Dawkins (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com)
- Face to faith: Richard Dawkins, rationalism, and religion as a team sport (guardian.co.uk)
- Atheist Dawkins calls for mockery of Catholics at ‘Reason Rally’ but I say “God Will Not Be Mocked!” (deaconjohnspace.wordpress.com)