Well it’s taken awhile, but finally I’m going to talk about religion. Up until this point I’ve been reluctant to go anywhere near the topic, because to do so is to risk boring the pants off of everyone. If you talk about it with any sort of conviction you sound like a self-important dickhole, and people far cleverer than me have spent a lot of time talking about it, and so it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to contribute anything further. If you haven’t been convinced by what’s already out there, I doubt anything I say will be able to convince you.
However, it’s easy to take the piss out of religion. And whoever said easy things aren’t worth doing? If religion didn’t want to be ridiculed, it shouldn’t have been so ridiculous. And this week, it has been especially ridiculous.
The Pope has sent a letter to an Italian newspaper in response to another letter sent in by a curious non-believer. His letter was entitled “Dialogo aperto con i non credenti”. This isn’t, as I first imagined, a ministration delivered by hooded figure moments after leaping from a Venetian balcony to impale a passer-by with a wristblade; rather, it means ‘an open dialogue with non-believers’.
Before proceeding to mock him and his insane religion, it’s worth acknowledging that, at least by the Vatican’s appallingly low standards, this Pope is actually quite alright. Compared to the last guy, he seems positively reasonable. Unlike his predecessor, Francis has never covered up for paedophiles within his church. He’s never aided them in escaping justice by moving them between dioceses so they can continue to rape small boys. He’s never issued an edict forbidding his clergy from reporting such practices to the police, under pain of excommunication. Well done Francis.
You can read the letter here, but I warn you, it is pretty hard work. The key point is that God’s mercy, in the opinion of His Holiness, ‘has no limits’. Which is nice. With that in mind, he strongly implies that God might not be planning on sending every non-believer to Hell. Well, that’s nice, too.
Following the letter’s publication, the Vatican swiftly issued a clarification assuring all the atheists that yes, they certainly will go to Hell. Not so nice. Sad face. You can see why the Pope is keen to distance himself from the whole Hell thing. If he really wants a dialogue, the topic is probably best avoided, since it doesn’t exactly grease the wheels of inter-faith relations. Catholics believe that God is a being of infinite justice, and incapable of doing wrong; they must also believe (or claim to believe) that God is right to send us all to Hell; to be cast into the furnace of fire where there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth, and to have our part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death. Or whatever it says.
So, if this proposed dialogue were to be truly open and honest, then it would have to proceed thusly:
- Hell is a real place
- You’re going there
- I’m glad
- Let’s be mates
Certainly, this sort of thing puts a dampener on any prospective friendship. So, before such a dialogue can proceed, I’d have to request that this theory about some supernatural everlasting torment is withdrawn, brushed under the carpet and never mentioned again. You were almost there, Your Holiness, you just have to have a word with the rest of them. It’s a hard request, I know, but not an unreasonable one. You can keep all of the other crap about miracles and human sacrifice and talking animals and whatnot.
I can’t help but find it a little jarring whenever I see a priest, a rabbi and an imam on some late-night talk show discussing whatever piffling issue of the day, while simultaneously holding the belief that the other will be infinitely tortured and it’s rather a good thing that they will be. Perhaps they get around it by saying that you aren’t literally tortured in hell, though what ‘metaphorical’ torture might constitute, I have no idea; presumably it’s something like filling out an infinitely large tax return or something.
There are a few questions that occur to me whenever I consider Hell, and they all centre around the ethics of intentionally inflicting pain on a human being and whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. I invite you to pose them to yourself. Don’t worry, they’re not that hard:
Is torture ever justified? Take waterboarding for example. The purported rationale of waterboarding is that of extracting information (eg. the location of the bomb) which will then be used for a ‘greater good’ (eg. saving some people from the bomb). Even then, it’s hardly a water-tight case since the person being tortured will say anything to prevent themselves being tortured. Those who require an example of this need only consider the Inquisition, when a great many witches confessed to copulating with demons, or transforming themselves into flying horses to travel the nightsky, or being Pat Sharp.
Is torture ever justified as a form of punishment? For example, in the case of a proven thief, would you condone: lashes, nails in the eyes, having rats tunnel through the chest, or crucifixion? I would submit that pretty much everyone reading this harbours a certain distaste toward all of these practices, and is rather glad that we are rid of them. If you haven’t gotten off the torture train at this point, then I fear that you are forever lost to me.
Can punishment ever be limitless? I would respond that no, punishment should always fit the crime. Even those guilty of the worst atrocities every committed should not be punished infinitely. There is no such thing as an infinite crime, therefore there should be no such thing as an infinite punishment. Any punishment beyond that which would fit the crime should be viewed as cruelty. Therefore it’s fair to describe any God who would countenance Hell as a being of infinite cruelty.
Final question: Is not believing in the existence of God a crime worthy of any sort of punishment at all?
To all of these questions, Catholicism answers yes. Now, I am not persuaded of the truth of catholic dogma. But, were I to become so overnight, my sympathy would certainly lie with all of the people in Hell.
People like the Westboro Baptist Church are widely decried as one of the worst examples of Christian fundamentalism, but to me these people seem more moral than any other Christian who believes in Hell, since, having learned that entire swathes of society are at risk of being subjected to never-ending torture, they do the right thing and tell them about it. That’s what I’d do if I really believed in hell. I’d tell everyone I came across. Hey, moderate religionists! Why are you not warning people of this never-ending holocaust? Why is your every effort not going toward saving them from this infinitely awful fate?
To my mind, the most morally consistent approach of all would be to attempt to kill God. I don’t know how this would be accomplished. Presumably you’d need to enlist the aid of Jeff Goldblum, Will Smith, an Apple Powerbook 5300 and some sort of commandeered angelic flying chariot. This particular branch of Christianity does not seem to have been invented, though. In fact, with the exception of certain sorts of theistic Satanism, there seems to be a distinct paucity of religions whose objective is to reject God’s word and destroy him using any sort of concrete weaponry.
Of course, you might point out that an alien totalitarian menace is not entirely analogous to God; crucially, God created all the people he’s torturing. This is true, but I’m not sure that that makes it any less reprehensible. I believe this argument could be called the ‘Josef Fritzl defence’. I don’t consider it very sound.
To use popular culture as a barometer of all of our moral intuitions: think about a film (or any other work of fiction) where some malign entity comes along, intent on enslaving humanity or whatever. Sometimes, a character will suggest the obvious: We can’t beat, we might as well bow down and surrender; it probably won’t be so bad anyway.
These characters are rarely painted as sympathetic or reasonable. For the most part they are, rather, deluded or cowardly. We are not supposed to like them. We are encouraged to laugh when their foolishness is demonstrated, and we are encouraged to cheer when the protagonist resists the tyrant and, against the odds, overcomes. Were any of you seriously sitting in the cinema watching ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, thinking “Why is this Saruman chap being given such a hard time? You can’t beat Mordor!”
Yet religious people, having been convinced of God’s existence, never seek to resist or destroy him. Rather they spend a lot of time praising him and encouraging others to do so.
It’s also sometimes pointed out that there are only a few lines in the Bible where Hell is referred to, and a lot more time is spent on nice things like love and peace and what-have-you. It’s only one or two lines that describe homosexuality as an abomination, after all. Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine if David Cameron, at his conference keynote, were to promise that, if elected, he would immediately euthanize all of the trade unionists in the land. Would everyone then say ‘Oh, well it was only the one line. What about all the good things he said? Don’t be a negative nelly!’
It’s debatable whether this is even true of the Bible, anyway. It certainly isn’t true of the Qur’an, which threatens the reader with Hell after even the vaguest instruction. Do this, do that, I know everything, I’ll kill you, you will burn; blah, blah, blah. Allah, you are the worst.
Here’s another thought experiment. Occasionally I’ll encounter a customer whose offspring is running amok. I’m sure you have all, in your travels to the local supermarket in search of ingredients for a nice chop-suey, come across a similar situation: “Behave yourself, little Billy!” the stricken parent might say. You’d be sympathetic to their plight, perhaps. Now imagine if said parent, after delivering the instruction, were to append the threat of some horribly disproportionate punishment: “Behave yourself little Billy! If you don’t I will take a nailgun to your eyelids!”
Oh my word. Would you still feel sympathetic to the parent? Or would you immediately phone the police? Would you say that the parent ‘loves’ the kid? Would you care?
However, there’s a thing about words like love and mercy: they only mean what people think they mean. This is why declaring a text to be of divine origin is so problematic, particularly if that text is translated many times over centuries and then used as a source of moral authority. What you and I think the word ‘mercy’ means might not necessarily be what the pope thinks mercy means. If torturing people forever can be considered ‘merciful’, then God’s mercy is indeed without limits.
My ability to take anything the pope says seriously, however, has very precise limits.
I’ve gone on for a bit, but there is another religious issue in the news this week, so it seems fair to address it, also. I’m talking about the full face veil, or Niqab (the one with just the eyes showing). I say religious, though a number of Islamic scholars have angrily insisted that this practice has nothing to do with Islam, and has no basis in the Qur’an. You’d think that that argument would hold some sort of water. The thing with religious belief is that personal interpretation plays an enormous part. If someone says that their religion demands that they do something, then their religion demands it. It’s no use saying ‘you’re wrong’.
The whole controversy began with Birmingham Metropolitan University announcing a few changes to its dress code. It was widely reported that the university sought to ban ‘the veil’, and I’m sure a great many people read that and concluded that we’re talking about the Hijab (the one that just covers your hair, because hair pisses Allah off especially). It banned face coverings of every sort, along with the Niqab, and did so for ‘security reasons’.
Here’s my opinion, since you ask: the state should not try to dictate what people wear. This is Britain, you can dress however you like, as long as you wear something. Organisations like schools and clubs can, if they like, enforce a dress code. This is not a new development. At the risk of sounding like an old man, when I was at school I got regularly reprimanded for wearing a tie that was too long, or shirt that was not tucked in. On reflection, I can see my mistake. I should have insisted that worshippers of the almighty Crom need pay no heed of such things, and that by insisting that anyone who robbed me of that right was interfering with my human right to appease Crom through dress.
Of course, Birmingham Metropolitan College have no balls, and backed down moments after being confronted by a medium-sized mob of regressive-left middle-class grievance-mongers, which is not really surprising, actually.
Enough, anyway, since I’ve rambled on for ages. Before I depart, however, I invite you to read Maajid Nawaz’s opinion on the matter, which pretty much coincides with mine 100%. Which just goes to show, there is always someone who’s written it better.
Until next week!
PS. Pope Francis closed with some scripture, so I will as well:
“Yet she multiplied her whoredoms, in calling to remembrance the days of her youth, wherein she had played the harlot in the land of Egypt. For she doted upon their paramours, whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue is like the issue of horses.” – Ezekiel 23:19-20