Sunday, May 9, 2010

Hearken, ye faithful, ye unfaithful & ye disfaithful!

Religion! Where do you start? Some baptism-related joke, maybe? Nah, those must've been done to death. I'll go instead with my memories of childhood church-going. Now you, dear readers, know me as a fairly easy-going bloke, with not a hint  of meanness or malevolence in him. I blog of this, I blog of that. Yet I'm rarely vitriolic. So it saddens me to report that I'll have to break with tradition about now. All in the name of art. "Setting up the scene." "Building atmosphere."

If I were a superhero - and my superpower were a superhuman ability to travel through Time, and bring back with me the best cricketers, at the peak of their abilities - what fun we'd have! A time would come, no doubt, when Gary Sobers and Sachin Tendulkar are at the crease, facing a spell from Harold Larwood and Shane Warne. Since my superpowers do not extend to the off-field commentary team, though, Navjot Sidhu could very well be on air. (And pay attention here, because this is where the scene setting comes in.)

Even with this most sublime of cricketing moments about to explode on the screen, I'd mouth a few profanities and switch the TV off. Why not just mute it? Because in my mind's eye, as the action unravels, I'd still be able to picture those eyes wide with childish glee, that gob like a particularly large lunar crater, as he prepares to unleash on a cringing audience yet another of those "Sidhuisms" - phrases picked up from one or more Indian languages, and translated to English with the effortless ease of one who, for years and years, has been perfecting the art of bringing out the worst in so many different languages.

I suppose what gets my goat most is the delivery. Practically a shout. He drowns out all ambient sounds, in the supreme self confidence of one who knows, with absolute certainty, that he's elevating his listeners to a whole other plane; that he's taking them places they wouldn't even be aware of - if it weren't for this linguistic genius in our midst, that is...

How all this ties in with the weekly church-services of my childhood is that if I had to choose between those one-and-half-hour services, and the same length of time with Mr Sidhu, I'd probably pick the latter. The Sunday church service was the absolute low point of my week, the pits, the sixth circle of hell. And from a kid whose week included enduring calculus classes, Sanskrit classes and compulsory sports, that's saying something!

On the way to church, I'd welcome every bus or truck that got in our way like a long-lost brother. "Ah! 30 seconds more in traffic. That's 30 seconds less of church." Unfortunately, at 7:30 on a Sunday morning, there's only so much traffic can do for you. In church, one doleful eye would be on the clock; willing it, urging it, pleading with it - with all the telekinetic powers of my soul - to get a move on. Sometimes, I'd close my eyes, recite a multiplication table or two, and take another hopeful glance at the clock. 20 seconds. Aaaaaaaaaaargh!

Is it any wonder then that since I moved out to live on my own, I haven't bothered with stepping inside a church (except when architectural curiosity strikes, or for weddings/funerals)? I think the last Sunday service I attended was in 2003. I was back home on vacation, during a semester break. Concerned that I was going the way of Lucifer, or whoever it is that the heathen go the way of, they dragged me out of bed, for church, early one Sunday morning. Three years of soft living, of the worst done to me being the occasional maths classes, had left me totally unprepared. To quote, "My gut turned over like a hooker right after she's earned her money and now she just wants to sleep, damn it." That tears it, I told myself. I spent the whole of the day, and a good part of the next, being so unpleasant to everyone at home that no one's ever asked me to attend church again.

But indelible marks had already been made. Years of religious persecution - and that, too, by people of my own religion - had left me an angry, bitter man. Not content with merely turning my back on religion, I became the most rabid of atheists. The Narendra Modis, the Bin Ladens, the George Bushes - they all aroused despair, as well as a strange sense of vindication. Religion! I'd known all along!

For the longest time, my view was that science - in its inquisitiveness; in its unsentimentality, in its willingness to question and, if necessary, discard the old; in getting us to open our eyes, look outward, and see the world as it is; in its emphasis on observation and data - reflects all that is the best of us. Religion, on the other hand, seemed the reverse. Here were people holding on to, sometimes word for word, these ideas and morals of aeons ago. How much of it would even apply now? So much hate, so much intransigence, over something that's so personal and should therefore, logically, be open to the most varied of interpretations. And yet, here are the factory outlets for the unalterable ready-made ware.

As is inevitable, though, with the passing of the years, I've mellowed. Reading the book "Bad Science" (a must-read if there ever was one), for instance, gave me a sense of how pervasive our desire for quick fixes and Messiahs is - even in matters of science. Then there's this hilarious Isaac Asimov short story, "Reason" (from "I, Robot") that elegantly emphasises a few core similarities between reason and faith; that is, even to reason, you have to start somewhere. The devil (pardon the pun) is in those little details called assumptions.

Religion breeds fanaticism, sure. But is it religion that makes us fanatics, or are we merely a species of fanatics? What of patriotism? Do we not glorify that; in schools/cinema halls/you-name-it? Does it not breed fanaticism?
What of the multitude of other prejudices we have? Didn't your pulse quicken, didn't you coo with delight, when those helicopters playing "The Ride of the Valkyries" butchered all those farmers? How about that moment, when the flash of insight finally hit Kurtz, and he scribbled, "Drop the bomb, exterminate them all"? And thinking about it never does any good. For instance, it made me write something like this here below a while back...

"There are two kinds of people in the world," began P.G. Wodehouse. Allow me to complete the thought as it was; as he really wanted to say it. "There are Them, and there are Us." They swarm into our paradise; their trail of slime behind them. They pervade our culture. Day by day, they erode it; we have no past and no future. They steal our jobs, our livelihood. They lead our children astray. They are terrorists. They are thieves. They can never be part of Us. They are Different.

That was probably incredibly corny. But on the off chance that it's some sort of a literary masterpiece, I wanted to put it in anyway. Moving on... Let's do some categorising. Categorising helps in generalising. And generalising probably saves a great deal of time. The problem, if you haven't caught on yet, is figuring out what to put as my "religious views" in the forms that we invariably have to fill up now and then.

Agnosticism? Nope. This guy had this (do follow the link and read the whole essay) to say,
"If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense."

I dare you to state, with a judicial tone - and a straight face - that "the truth value of certain claims - especially claims about the existence or non-existence of any porcelain, or, for that matter, silverware or toiletry, in outer space - is unknown or unknowable." Atheism? To state, as your position, that a celestial teapot definitely does not exist, and that you intend to spend the rest of your waking life arguing with anyone who believes it does, seems only slightly less silly.

Which leaves a term I picked up recently. Apatheism. Denis Diderot says, "It is very important not to mistake hemlock for parsley; but not at all so to believe or not in God." And Eric Hoffer adds, "The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a god or not." Beautiful, aren't they? And so it shall replace, officially, my current affiliations to Brianism. I'll be honest. "Look, you've got it all wrong. You don't need to follow me. You don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for yourselves! You're all individuals!" fits my beliefs to a T. But referencing a Monty Python movie for religion is just so passe.

Apatheism has weight behind it, a sense of proper nomenclature, of scienciness... It has luminaries as Bertrand Russell in its ranks (admittedly, I'm basing the assertion solely on the evidence of that one link I've posted above); though, perhaps he isn't lazy enough and seems to know far too much about history and religion to qualify. Apatheism wouldn't offend the gently religious, for you wouldn't be in their faces. But the real pleasure is the guaranteed spot under the skin of the zealots. Nothing annoys like indifference - they'd trade in 10 atheists for getting rid of one of you.

There's the matter of convenience to consider, too. One of the chief attractions of drifting away from religion is that you have more time for the books you really want to read. The only religious reading I've ever done is as a child; of this pictorial edition of the Old Testament. And it wasn't a bad read. Blood-letting, divine ego trips, the odd sleazy dame... What's not to like? (But this was before I discovered Literotica, and frankly, there's no going back.) The New Testament, on the other hand, didn't grip quite as much, plot wise. The upshot being, while I'm probably in the census books as a Christian, I know virtually nothing at all of Christ or his teachings. Buddhism is perhaps the only religion that interests me enough to want to read about it (if I can lick this phobia of the religion tag).

The point is, Christianity has the Bible, Islam has the Koran, Hinduism has... well, I don't know which ones specifically, offhand; but a lot of them. And that's just the Top Three. And new ones, like the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster - He who created the universe after a night of heavy drinking, and who weeds out the believers from the non-believers by altering scientific measurements (with a flick of His Noodly Appendage) - keep springing up every day. If you were to take a contradictory stand against each of these, you'd have a lot of reading on your hands; plus constant surveillance of the "current affairs" realm to keep up-to-date on the latest misdeeds of the believers. Exhausting. Sure, you may think that you can get away with arguments like that of the Lord Russell quote above, but sooner or later, you're going to have to enter the nitty gritties. Take it from one who knows.

Can you not see how liberating a "You bore me" is vis-à-vis a "You're wrong"? The latter comes with the responsibilities of a reasoned argument. The former comes with none. There is no riposte to indifference; and if coupled with just the right contemptuous sniff, or that languid drawl, the effects can be devastating. The next nutjob who comes up to you with a desire to convert, can be sent packing with a mere "Sure, your religion is interesting. But I'm afraid I've already signed up as a follower of this 3000-page tome on picking lilies. Maybe if you annotated every line in my book with a superior one from yours..."

Until next time...

P.S. - Here's another thought. The thing about celestial teapots is that they don't really raise questions of any significant import. The most that you can expect is a "How the fuck did that get here?" from a passing astronaut. And they probably wouldn't be of any great value, either, unless they dated back to the Ming Dynasty or something. But there are certain kinds of Gods that are, to me, plausible and in a whole other league from orbiting china. The ones of "2001: A Space Odyssey", or "Contact", for instance. And why not? We might even be Gods ourselves, one day.

Or, consider the God of "Amadeus". Looking back at my previous posts, I'm probably over-referencing the movie, but what the hell. It's a slice of heaven on film. An all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God? Yeah, right. Look at the world around you and tell me you really believe that. However... a God who would gladly kill your father to help you to your dream; a God who would fill you with the longing to sing to him, and then make you mute; a God who would instead choose an obscene child to be his instrument; a God who would destroy his own beloved, rather than let a mediocrity share in the smallest part of his glory; a God who would spit in your face if you suggested all men are equal; and a God who is laughing at us - constantly - through an obscene giggle. Is there a more realistic explanation for our world? Does it not satisfy Occam's razor?

P.P.S. - Oh, and to the religious amongst family and friends - for all those atheistic years of mine spent simplifying your deeply-held views for the purpose of easy attack, for insulting your intelligence, and for generally being an annoying prick - here's, by way of an olive branch, a link to an article that hails Jesus as "clearly a very nice guy" and credits the Bible with describing the first-ever clinical trial.


Neha said...

this seems too personal to comment, and frankly, a little scary for an atheist ,an apatheist, or a flying spaghetti worshipper? am pagan, and i like it that way! btw, it's informative like a high-end essay, now, now, it's too much for my lil brain.

Highlander said...

Ha ha ha.. I think I must agree to your observation that humans are fanatical by nature and not just in religion. They tend to see everything in hues, even grey is acceptable. But will they accept the colour of emptiness??

Intelligent questioning of organized religious beliefs is perhaps a younger, if not twin, sibling of organized religion itself; Socrates perhaps being the most famous among them.
But indifference is not too younger either, the Ajivikas of India and the Hedonists of Greece being good examples. It also scares the anthropologists to even imagine the existence of an ancestor who did not give two hoots about who created the world or who even did not, and did not want to be part of any faith.

Now being the strong spiritualist that I am, I must say that even such indifference must be respected. For in the eyes of a spiritualist, even the indifferent person has a spirit/soul. But I must admit such tolerant people are a minority in this world. May be it is that the human race is yet to fully evolve to accept and live with the indifferent human brain.

Entertaining writing bro!! Stimulating thoughts for a Sunday morning.. :-))

Rohan said...

Neha: Thanks for the comment. I suppose I really should learn to stick to the point...

Highlander: Great comment. I do have to point out, though, that apatheism isn't so much about emptiness or general apathy. It's just prioritisation; cutting out what seems pointless, and spending the time on, say, learning the guitar - as that Uncyclopedia article on apatheism tries to explain (oh so hilariously).