Showing posts with label atheism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label atheism. Show all posts

Friday, January 4, 2008

Bright stuff

Today, society can appreciate retrospectively the revolutionary effects of the widespread use of the elegant adjective "gay", starting in the 1960s, to designate individuals who are attracted physically to people of the same sex. It was a great invention, for many reasons. First, it wasn't really an invention at all, since the old French word "gai", of Gothic etymology, had existed since the Middle Ages. The term "gay" has a positive ring, like describing somebody as lively, dynamic or simply happy with life in general. The adoption of this new old-fashioned adjective enabled people to abandon the antiquated derogatory terms that had been used too often to stigmatize gay folk, just as it did away with excessively clinical adjectives such as "homosexual". Above all, in its modern sense, "gay" has never been an insiders' code word... such as the silly adjective "camp", which gay men were accustomed to use in designating themselves back in Sydney when I was a teenager. So, all in all, I believe that the invention of this adjective has been a highly successful linguistic and sociological operation.

These days, individuals who have succeeded in moving intellectually and morally beyond the antiquated domains of religious belief systems (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc) are in dire need of a similar adjective, enabling them to perform publicly their "coming out" in a simple and elegant fashion. Well, a US philosopher named Daniel Dennett has recently provided us with exactly the word we need: bright.

For an easy-to-read introduction to all things bright and beautiful, I recommend Dennett's Breaking the Spell. Not surprisingly, Dennett is a disciple of Richard Dawkins, who seems to like the "bright" word. Admittedly, atheism is not exactly the same kind of phenomenon as homosexuality, and it would be silly to suggest that homosexuals and atheists of the world should join their hands in a big common combat against bigotry and intellectual intolerance. Having never been implicated in the struggles of homosexuals for ordinary human rights, I have no knowledge of gay attitudes towards religion and atheism... if ever we were to generalize in this manner.

After saying all this, I'm determined to conclude this article by means of a grandiloquent declaration that would have surely shocked my grandparents and parents if they were still alive. But, before that, a joke:

Mary, a pretty Irish girl, went across the waters to work in Liverpool. With her pockets full of money, she returned to Dublin and visited her Catholic aunt.

Aunt: And what have you been doing in Liverpool?

Mary: I can't tell lies, but I'm ashamed to answer you...

Aunt: Come on, Mary. Tell the truth. God alone will decide whether you've sinned.

Mary: In Liverpool, I became a pro..., a prosti... No, I'm to ashamed to pronounce the word.

Aunt: Mary, you must tell me.

Mary: I became a prostitute.

Aunt: Thank the Lord and the Blessed Virgin. For a terrible moment, Mary, I thought you were going to tell me you'd become a Protestant.

Well, here it is. My coming out. I'm bright!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Reversing roles

I'm not usually narcissistic to the point of taking a photo of myself... with such a preponderance of green hues (the fault of my bathroom lighting) that you might imagine me as a political candidate for an ecological party. To appreciate the trivial anecdote I'm about to relate, you need to imagine me as I was this morning, attired in dusty working clothes, in the process of demolishing my woodshed with a sledgehammer. I stopped for a moment to contemplate the big pile of firewood that my neighbor Gérard Magnat delivered yesterday afternoon.

Up until now, I would have simply tossed the pieces of wood into the adjacent shed, and then stacked them up. But, since I've decided to do away with the woodshed, the task has become more difficult. I have to move all that firewood up into the empty corner of the house. It didn't take me long to decide that the best approach, rather than moving the wood manually in a wheelbarrow, is to wait until my Honda transporter is repaired, some time next week. While these thoughts were going through my mind, Sophia started to bark, and I noticed that an automobile had stopped down below my house. A young man and a woman, carrying briefcases, wandered up the road towards me.

Me: "What brings you up here on this lovely sunny morning?"

Visitor: "We were hoping that you might have a moment to talk with us about the word of God."

Me: "Sure. What faith are you?"

Visitor: "Jehovah's Witnesses."

Me: "That's interesting. I have a lot of ideas about God and Jehovah's Witnesses. Please step over here into the sunshine, because my explanations are lengthy and rather complex. Now, where can I start?"

The two visitors were a little perplexed by my directorial manners, but they stood there silently and listened obediently to my monologue, which lasted for about half an hour. And I talked non-step, with enthusiasm, as if I were a preacher, except that my sermon was an attack upon religion, and a plea for the values of science and atheism. From time to time, the fellow would interrupt me politely, to ask a question. Each time, I would reply calmly, but inevitably in the sense of demonstrating that his questions were uninformed, indeed idiotic. Insofar as my visitors had come to preach to me, we were faced with a delightful case of reversed roles.

Our encounter ended on an amusing note. One of the minor details in my explanations concerned the name of their religious organization. I had drawn their attention to the fact that, as any student of Hebrew knows, the e-o-a vocalization of the Tetragrammaton, as in their silly term "Jehovah", could not possibly be correct, and that a more plausible solution was an a-e vocalization as in the two-syllable pronunciation "Yahveh". Well, this suggestion seemed to trouble them greatly. Funnily, they didn't react upon hearing a pure atheist such as me declaring that the "God delusion" (to borrow the title of the excellent book by Richard Dawkins) was an absurd human invention that did not correspond to cosmic reality. But they were visibly disturbed at the idea that there might be something wrong with the name of their particular branch of Christianity.

Visitor: "Let me ask you a final question. You're familiar with the name John."

Me: "It's my second given name."

Visitor: "You surely don't mind that the French say Jean for John. The Italians say Giovanni, the Greeks say Yannis, the Israelis say something else, and so on. Well, why don't you agree that Jehovah is simply another way of pronouncing Yahveh?"

Me: "I agree with you one-hundred percent. Historically, except for devout Jews, the terms Yahveh and Jehovah have ended up designating, in a perfectly equivalent manner, the mysterious concept of the Tetragrammaton in the Hebrew bible. But, if we agree on that point, then why don't you accept a majority decision and suggest to your superiors that they change the name of your organization to Yahveh's Witnesses?"

They laughed as if I just had just cracked a huge joke, and turned to leave, wishing me well with my task of moving the stack of wood.

Retrospectively, I can say that I surprised even myself (let alone, I suppose, my visitors) by the ease with which I was able to produce such a lengthy impromptu discourse in French, spontaneously and effortlessly, while remaining perfectly calm and friendly, like a polite clergyman. What I'm trying to say is that the amazingly smooth and continuous style in which my lesson unfolded suggests that it probably wasn't as spontaneous as I might have imagined. In other words, my brain is no doubt working constantly, unconsciously, on this kind of discourse. Unbeknown to me, the rhetoric of my Sermon on Mount Gamone had almost certainly been thought out and fine-tuned in advance. If God existed, I would be inclined to agree that He seems to act in mysterious ways.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Miracles happen

It would appear that a miracle was brought about on 2 June 2005 through the intercession of the late head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope John-Paul II. The Frenchwoman who benefited from that miracle happens to be a member of this same Church: Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, a 46-year-old nun. That's the Catholic way of keeping things in the family.

The story, which spans over two months, is straightforward. By the time John-Paul II died on 2 April 2005, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre was already gravely affected by Parkinson's disease on the left side of her body. Being left-handed, she could no longer write, and her trembling left arm dangled at her side when she walked. A month and a half later, on 13 May 2005, the new pope, Benedict XVI, wiped away the traditional delay of five years in the canonization process concerning his predecessor. The next morning, like a team of footballers preparing themselves for a forthcoming match, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre and her fellow nuns got stuck into a heavy-duty program of praying aimed at persuading the heavenly soul of the departed pope to do something about the nun's affliction. In spite of all their prayers, on 2 June 2005, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre was in such a state of suffering that she asked her mother superior for permission to abandon her physical duties. This request was refused. Instead, the mother superior demanded curiously that Sister Marie Simon-Pierre should use her pain-racked left hand to write the name of the deceased pope. As might be expected, the result was unreadable. But later in the evening, alone in her cell, the nun felt a sudden urge to perform the same writing exercise, and she discovered with amazement that, this time, the result was... miraculous. The following morning, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre informed her mother superior and the members of the community that her Parkinson's disease had indeed disappeared. A miracle... which the Church is now examining scrupulously.

Talking about miracles, I've often imagined a fabulous thought experiment: the resurrection of my father King Mepham Skyvington [1917-1978]. Now, that would be an authentic miracle, which would convert me instantly into a Believer. But that's not the point of my scenario. Let's imagine that my resuscitated father, out in his native Australia, were to be placed in front of a webcam, and that his friends were to tell him that he could now communicate in real time with his son over here in France. I would imagine that Dad would see this as magic... or, in ecclesiastic terms, as a miracle.

If we were to quiz enlightened Church people about the notion of miracles, many would admit that universal Science cannot be opposed concerning almost everything that has happened, is happening or will happen in the Cosmos. But they would then mention an addendum à la Leonard Cohen:

There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

They would claim that there are exceptions to Science, and that some of these exceptions can be described as Miracles.

Exceptions? I don't like exceptions of any kind. Imagine a murderer who defends himself as follows: "In general, I've always believed that killing was an unpardonable crime. But, in the case of my victim, I made an exception." Or a child rapist: "Sure, I believe in general that children should be protected from people like me. But this kid was exceptionally appealing."

In democratic societies, laws prevent citizens from saying certain things. I know little about legal systems, and I certainly don't have the vocation of a lawmaker, but I often feel that there should be some kind of a French law concerning people who would blab out publicly, at the start of the 21st century, their ridiculous beliefs about allegedly magic events. To call a spade a spade, I'm shocked by the fact that a French nun should be seeking the spotlight because her Parkinson's disease disappeared "miraculously" (in inverted commas). Medical researchers should be given time to advance suggestions (if they can) about why this astounding event might have occurred. Meanwhile, talk of magic and Christian miracles is stupidly outrageous, and should be outlawed.

Normally, this might be a big deal, except that [once again, an exception] few people today in France or elsewhere really give a folkloric fuck about what this nun or the Roman church might be claiming. Maybe it was Jesus himself who descended miraculously from his cross and gave this mindless nun the power to write the name of the pope. Who knows? Who cares? Let's have done with clownish popery. Meanwhile, Science moves on...

Saturday, December 9, 2006

God bashing

In the UK, religion and the religious are being treated pretty roughly these days. A few weeks ago, Elton John was outspoken on this subject, saying: "From my point of view, I would ban religion completely. Organized religion doesn't seem to work. It turns people into really hateful lemmings, and it's not really compassionate." Today, Prime Minister Tony Blair made a thinly disguised criticism of Muslim immigrants, saying: "Our tolerance is part of what makes Britain Britain. So, conform to it, or don't come here. We don't want the hate mongers, whatever their race, religion or creed." Blair’s explanations included a catchy slogan: "The right to be different, the duty to integrate.” Earlier this year, the Oxford professor Richard Dawkins (author of scientific best sellers such as The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker) made a brilliant attack upon all kinds of religions in The God Delusion.

In Iraq, a suicide bomber sees himself as a martyr who will be rewarded in paradise by being introduced to seventy-two virgins. This sounds like a ridiculous incentive. But is it more absurd than the religious motivations of a George W Bush who was led to invade Iraq because God apparently encouraged him to do so?

In France, the Catholic Church recently criticized medical research using embryonic stem cells, and this criticism was expressed shortly before the Téléthon: France’s gigantic annual call for donations. Most French people were angered by the attitude of the Church, and the president himself stepped into the arena in order to tell the Church politely to shut up.

The French philosopher André Comte-Sponville recently brought out a book whose title could be translated as The Spirit of Atheism, in which he advocates a new kind of “spirituality without God”.

There’s no doubt about it: In the Old World (particularly in the laic republic of France), religion is more and more often an unwelcome visitor. The graffiti is on the wall: God, go home!