Non Credo

In unum deum, but that’s another story. Lots of people go on at length about the things they believe; I thought it might be useful to list all the things I have trouble believing:

• In the piety of people who spend all their time making sure we know it
• That anyone is actually made happier by all those inspirational quotes
• That when I hear the words ‘this is for your own good’ it actually is
• That corporations are benevolent and are looking after our interests
• That corporations are evil and are trying to control the world
• That we are all brainwashed except for all the people telling us we are
• That everyone who disagrees with me is stupid
• That everyone who agrees with me is smart
• That everything I believe is true
• That everything I believe is consistent with everything else I believe
• That what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
• That it’s possible to become a billionaire honestly
• That you can be anything you want to be if you want it badly enough
• That giving money to some church will save my immortal soul
• That I have an immortal soul
• That whenever one door closes one door opens
• That poor people are just lazy
• That rich people just work harder than everyone else
• That just being yourself and ignoring what others think is a great idea
• That this list is anywhere near comprehensive

The making of a curmudgeon

I have often thought that I’m regarded by my friends with a mixture of disbelief, alarm, and chagrin. I seem inexorably drawn to insert my opinion into any and all discussions I stumble upon. I mean well, but I’m afraid I offend too often and too blithely. I don’t regret my propensity to skepticism, but I often regret having offended someone I respect.

I don’t think this is a learned response. As early as the first grade, I got into trouble with the nuns at my school for spreading the word around the playground that there was no Santa Claus. I was dumbfounded. Hadn’t they been teaching us just that day what a terrible thing it is to lie? Apparently, some of my classmates had gone to them in tears, asking if it was true. I imagine the nuns consoled them, “There, there, of course there is a Santa, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!”

I knew better; I had the news on the highest authority: my older brothers. Is it any wonder I started questioning everything else the nuns told me?

I’m a born outsider, literally. I was born in a refugee camp, and have never felt completely in my element, and I suppose this is a major factor in the way I relate to other people. It gives me a kind of distance that encourages my behavior.

To make matters worse, my father was an engineer by training, and a scientist by temperament. Instead of golf or bowling, he relaxed by reading science fiction and doing math problems. The first requisite of science is skepticism, and I learned it well. Too well.

He was also a deeply religious man, a Catholic who gathered the family around the radio to listen to and pray the rosary at the regularly appointed hours on Catholic radio. Naturally, when I got old enough to enter my normal rebellious years, I jumped on this contradiction in his example.

I did 12 years in parochial schools.  Once, in my sophomore year, I flunked religion class, for the sin of asking too strenuously how the Holy Trinity wasn’t just semantic trickery.  A certain native pig-headedness embroiders my skepticism, it seems.  My father was mortified.  He told me that he would rather I flunked everything else, but aced religion.  I briefly considered testing this theory, before coming to my senses; I had no desire to be sent off to a monastery.

Apparently, there were two rules:

  • Question everything
  • Accept Catholic dogma blindly

I could have chosen either of them to avoid the contradiction. For a number of reasons, I went with the first. Dogma is surrounded by walls; walls invariably yield to skepticism. And so, to this day, I am cursed with this compulsion to question everything. That’s not to say I don’t have my own blind spots, my contradictions; I would tell you what they are, but, of course, I don’t know, and wouldn’t recognize them if they jumped up and bit me on the nether regions.

Fortunately for me, my friends generally do not hesitate to help me out.

Faith

Recently, a blogger whose views I usually respect wrote a piece about Easter, lamenting that people just don’t believe in anything these days.  There were  lot of comments; mine was the only one that disagreed with the writer’s premise.  I’d like to go further, and examine the widely held notion that faith, in and of itself, is a great and wondrous thing, without which we would soon founder.

You hear this a lot, accompanied by a lot of sage nodding, amening, and otherwise approving responses.  Faith supposedly saves us from all manner of barbarism we would otherwise inflict on one another.  I don’t see any evidence for it, period.  It wasn’t 19 atheists who flew their hijacked airplanes into public buildings full of innocent people on September 11, 2001.  It wasn’t in the name of evolution that the Tsarnaev brothers blew up the Boston Marathon.  Down through history, you will find almost no atrocities perpetrated upon innocent victims by people who lacked faith, even the Nazi and Communist atrocities arguably fall in the category of faith despite lack of a supernatural power.  Where is there a single shred, the merest mote, of evidence that our hearts’ desire is to maim and persecute, and that we would cheerfully indulge ourselves were it not for faith?  I’ll grant you that we seem to torment each other with glee when it is to our perceived benefit, but belief in a higher cause only seems to confer a sanctity to it.  I’m reminded of Himmler’s famous admonition to the SS that while it may be emotionally difficult to slaughter Jews, one must grit one’s teeth and do it for the greater good of humanity.  He was only echoing Torquemada and all the other grand inquisitors since time immemorial.

And isn’t it more than a bit disingenuous to profess respect for all people of faith, when almost all religious faiths stipulate that those who believe differently will suffer an eternity of anguish?  Think about it.  You believe that if I have a different faith than yours,  after a few years of life on earth, I will suffer incomprehensible torment, not for a few millennia, but for all eternity.  Because you believe your God is perfectly just and merciful, you also believe I deserve every bit of it.  Yet you insist you respect me, and my faith.  Now that’s a Mystery!

Still, you might say, a person needs something to believe in, if not a religion, then at least a coherent set of principles.  That’s certainly an interesting assertion; it’s not clear what it actually means.  Will just anything do?  The ancient Assyrians believed their god Assur commanded them to conquer and humiliate as many people as possible as brutally as possible.  Very clear and consistent; their inscriptions brag about the heaps of flayed enemy youth left at the gates of conquered cities, and the rape and enslavement of the women and children.  Men of strong faith, all, not an atheist among them.

mesopo63

Victory stele of Naram-Sin

But wait, don’t faith and religion do a lot of good?  Yes, some do.  And some do a lot of evil.  Essentially, it’s a wash, so what’s the point of lamenting a lack of it?  The biggest irony of all, of course, is that far from suffering from a dearth of faith in these particular times, we seem to be positively deluged with it.  Religion is everywhere, and New Age faux religions seem to flow endlessly from an inexhaustible source.  Ideology has become a way of life even in this most pragmatic of nations.

A crisis of faith?  I’ll say.  We’re drowning in it.