I was brought up as a Roman Catholic, like all good little Irish boys should be. I have no problem with this. My parents considered it to be the right and proper thing to do and I don’t imagine for a minute it did me any real lasting harm.
But… Take this scenario.
I am seven years old and not the most confident of children. At school, at home and at Mass every Sunday I am preparing for That Great Day; my First Holy Communion when you get all dressed up and are able to take part in the Holy Eucharist (eating the flesh of Jesus, literally via transubstantiation), and after Mass there is a little party.
So far so good.
But before the Great Day you are expected to enter a dark cupboard which has a small window connecting to another dark cupboard. In this environment you are expected to tell the guy in the other cupboard your dastardly sins, because after all the minute you are born you are contaminated with evil. Damaged goods. An inherently Bad Person.
I became incredibly distressed, cried and screamed and had to be taken outside to calm down. The compromise? I was allowed to perform this act in a room with the Priest in daylight. I was terrified and hated every single minute of it. My reward was my poor Mother giving out to me all the way home for committing the Cardinal Sin in all families. Showing Her Up. Believe me, this the Worst Thing Of All in a ‘Seventies household, not quite on the War Crimes scale, but getting there.
That ain’t the end of it. Just the start. Due to my schooling we were expected to go to confession as part of the curriculum. I’m not joking.
We went up to Marist College in 1981, and every term during RE we had to go down to the Church, conveniently on the site, and tell one of our teachers in the confession box what we’d been up to. Stealing, lying, and of course the Catholic All Time Favourite; Impure Thoughts.
Why do you think so many Catholic boys wear glasses? It really does make you go blind. I’ve even got a card in my wallet to prove it… well you do get free bus travel and a half price TV licence.
I hated going to confession, and lied to my Mum about going to it on a regular basis until I was fourteen, and sitting there waiting with Phil B and Pete we decided to satirise the whole thing because the Priest was such a total dork, gullible and easy to wind up. By the time it was my turn I was in such hysterics from laughing that the guy earnestly asked me if I was having an asthma attack!
If you actually strip it down to what it really is, then Confession is a great way to screw your kids minds up, I don’t blame my Mum, it’s just the way things were and I certainly don’t subscribe to the Phillip Larkin view in my particular up bringing, but it easy to see the potential for harm.
It had it’s comic moments, my Catholic child hood.
At my Middle School we had a kindly old Priest who came in to say Mass once a term.
One day he put a statue of the Virgin Mary on a table, and we had to give it a minutes enthusiastic applause, complete with three cheers. Surreal.
I went along with it all because everyone around me was, and it just seemed normal. Nothing extreme just routine and part of a harmless ritual.
It was my RE teacher, a very principled and admirable man who declared himself in public as a CND member, who first showed me how religion can cause anger and conflict.
We were being told about the evils of abortion and the guy quoted some statistics produced by the Vatican. I made the point that statistics are open to interpretation and can be manipulated to support a point of view.
Well I never! This mild mannered Pacifist went absolutely ballistic, slammed a bible down on my desk and shouted; “Just who do you think you are?! Mr. God Rathbone!!!”. He was shaking, he was so angry, and I immediately lost respect for him, and tacitly the Church itself. It was a watershed moment.
I would love to believe in it. I really would, but when you analyse religion it is in fact the most stupid and irrational thing imaginable.
Bransholme, March 2007. A fifteen year old girl takes a test and the dreaded blue lines match up. She is pregnant. Disgrace. She is a good girl, works hard at school and helps her Mum out with the kids. It seems unimaginable that she would have ever Done The Deed, especially as her boyfriend is Mr. Squeaky Clean Nice Boy whom all the Mothers wish would go out with their daughter!
No worries. She tells her Mum and boyfriend not to panic. Dad wants to beat the bejaysus out of the guy… BUT.. Wait for it.. This was an act of God! An angel told her. That’s OK then. Boyfriend is feeling betrayed, but no problem, he has a dream where it’s all explained.
The Social Worker visits because the girl is under age. She tells all. What happens next? You decide.
And, as Dawkins goes on to explain, there are literally thousands of other example in the Bible, Qu’ran or any other of the so called Sacred Texts where the reader is asked to believe in the absurd. Why?
Religion fills in the gaps. It is the answer for the unanswerable, an emotional crutch, and crucially it feeds our immense ego that it can’t possibly all end when we die. We are, after all so damn marvellous that our sheer wonderfulness surely can’t be lost for all eternity?
But it is the effects of this narrow minded, cock eyed view of the world that does such immense danger.
Blind faith in anything is wrong as certainties lead to arrogance, and then inexorably to conflict.
Ah ha! Isn’t Socialism the same thing? Belief in a set of values and a certainty that you are right?
Values yes, and if religion was just about that then there would be no problem. All the major faiths subscribe to that basic Golden Rule; “Do unto others as you would have done to you”.
The trouble starts with the certainty of belief. I like to think I arrive at my opinions (granted strongly held) by rational observation and evidence. The fact that we do better as a Society when we work together, and not against each other seems perfectly logical when you look at the history of human achievement. Capitalism is a reality, but I believe that Democratic Socialism acts as a check to its extremes.
Religion, by its sheer irrationality means that followers have to adopt extreme and inflexible positions.
There is no getting away from extremism, even amongst the most Liberal followers. Christianity teaches, in common with all the other faiths the concept of Soteriology, which is unambiguous that unless you believe in God as revealed through the Bible then you are damned. Simple and straightforward.
Therefore there is no possible reconciliation between different faiths, ergo conflict is inevitable.
Having said that I found Dawkins to betray that smugness that many religious people have regarding the absolute truth of their belief, but the book is a polemic and meant to provoke.
One weakness is that Dawkins picks on the rather easy targets of religion, e.g. a rather lame experiment to prove that prayer doesn’t work. As if…
He refers to the “fact” of evolution. It isn’t. It’s theory otherwise how do you explain a lot of anomalies? It’s the best we’ve got, but there is still an awful long way to go in explaining how it all began. But that’s the beauty of science. There’s always more to find out and ruminate on.
Dawkins explains clearly and accessibly the trouble with religion, and why is such a corrosive and debilitating cancer in our world, and coupled with unfettered Capitalism is a major brake on progress to solve our myriad of problems. Not least War and Poverty.