There’s an excellent, thought-provoking post from Tom Coates over at plasticbag.org regarding issues of the religious kind, sparked by the recent Vatican proclamations condemining the ‘sin’ of homosexuality.
(Before I go on, I suggest that you read what he has written in its entirety, plus his replies to various comments on the piece, before you continue here.)
Coates begins initially by declaring himself as an atheist, and expresses his frustration in having a view on the world that’s perfectly reasonable (I myself cannot understand how people can put so much into blind faith) and yet being unable to comprehend how others would refuse to accept it. Further on, however, he admits that he’s gradually coming to the conclusion that he has no problem with religion if other people derive value from it, and the experience feels real to them (and, of course, _as long as religious reasoning is kept completely separate from policy decisions, logic and the like_).
Or rather, he would like to think this way, but can’t really bring himself to believe in it. This is exactly where I find difficulties in my own position (or non-position, as it were). It’s fine and dandy and politically correct to say “believe what you want, as long as you keep it to yourself” — seems to tie up all those fiddly little loose ends, doesn’t it? — but does anyone really think this is the most desirable state of affairs? All this gives us is tolerance, but mere tolerance doesn’t cut it anymore. Tolerance eases the symptoms, but it doesn’t cure the disease. Tolerance makes excuses for the inexcusable (see: dogma). Tolerance is happy smiles on the outside, but dirty looks underneath. And that just isn’t good enough. We — _all of us_ — should be striving not for mere tolerance, but for _mutual understanding_.
Coates can’t really bring himself to believe in it, because he has no reason to. Because the Catholic Church hierarchy — that ever-reliable bastion of stunted religious dogmatism — has seen fit to declare that he suffers from a ‘depravity’, that he undertakes ‘grave sins’, that he is ‘intrinsically disordered’. And all because he happens to be gay.
As one can tell from his post, he takes it personally — and why shouldn’t he? The Catholic Church is, after all, making a personal affront against his character, against his moral being. (If he were the litigious sort, he’d have grounds to sue them for defamation.) And it must be said, I take it personally too. Because this isn’t about words or abstracts or concepts. This is about real people. Real people with real lives. Real people who cannot help but be who and what they are.
Two of my best friends are gay. Truth be told, the label rarely occurs to me; only when others make it an issue. They’re my friends first and foremost. They’re not my ‘gay friends’, or even my ‘friends who happen to be gay’. They’re just my friends. They are who they are. And they’re good people. Two of the smartest, balanced, morally upright people I know actually. And I’m proud of them, not because they’re gay, but because they’ve got guts, the guts to be who they are in a world that refuses to accept reality. And you know what? When the Pope comes out and says that my friends are evil, it hurts. The Pope doesn’t know my friends — he doesn’t even know they exist! — so what right does he have to make any judgments about them? What did my friends ever do to him? And if they’re automatically evil, just because he says so, then what makes me so fucking good? Why should I give a fuck about anything anymore?!? I don’t know how it makes my friends feel, but I know it really gets under my skin.
[W]hile I’d like to say that it’s just Catholicism that’s seriously pissing me off, it’s not really Catholicism at all – it’s any approach to anything that would put more credence in statements (not even arguments) written thousands of years ago than in the accreted wisdom of hundreds of years that’s at our disposal now.
There’s no point in looking for any understanding in the Vatican; that’s the nature of dogma. Look at this this way: if your own sexuality supposedly automatically influences the sexuality of your offspring (since, according to the Vatican, we should “avoid exposing young people to erroneous ideas about sexuality and marriage that would deprive them of their necessary defences and contribute to the spread of the phenomenon”) then explain how most, if not all, gay people have straight parents. If you can do that, then you can turn lead into gold.
While keeping to the theme of understanding, let’s loop back to that declaration of atheism. From my own personal experiences in studying philosophy at university, it did take some time before I felt comfortable enough to form my own ideas, to see the world around me for myself, and not merely through the eyes of others as most people do, whether wittingly or not. And all throughout this time (a very formative time for me) I hopped from one position to another, depending on what new, exciting ideas I was introduced to. Anything could trigger it: a particularly interesting lecture or reading assignment, a heated tutorial discussion, or even just something overheard on the bus home.
I remember mentioning to one or two of my professors in the philosophy department during my final months at university that whilst at first I didn’t understand much, and at times didn’t even see the point of it all, I eventually (and almost unnoticeably) broke through to a kind of clarity in my thoughts, in the way I interpreted the world; everything came together.
But I digress. What I was trying to say was that at different times, I’ve labelled myself. As an atheist, or an agnostic, or a humanist, and so on. But none of them really fit me, because they each come with their own set of rules, and if there’s one thing that I’ve learned from my three years of academic philosophy, it’s that rules are made to be broken.
I have reasoned ideas and beliefs about the world, I can stick my ground and argue for what I believe in, but I’m equally open to challenges, and flexible enough to change my viewpoints should I be proven incorrect. Yet despite this flexibility, I adhere to an objective moral code that should be irrefutible (and yes, there is and _should be_ such a thing as objective morality: murder, for instance, is reprehensible by any standards). Does all of this qualify me for a place in the ranks of [insert belief system here]? It doesn’t matter, whether yes or no. Because, in the immortal words of Popeye, _I yam what I yam_.
So why did I label myself in the first place? What compelled me to try to slot myself into a particular position? What is it that lead Coates to begin his article with those three words: “I’m an atheist”?
The more I read of Coates’ post and of the subsequent comments, and the more I think about all the issues involved, one question keeps coming to mind: why does anyone _have_ to _be_ anything, other than what we are? Why can’t I just leave that box on the form ‘undeclared’? Why should we have to assert ourselves — assert our identities — within any kind of uniform structure, just because others would prefer it that way? Why does participation in society seem to necessitate affiliation with a religious creed? Coates even explains in his piece that Christianity in its formative stages was just one of many cults and sects throughout the Middle East, chosen as a binding agent (a political tool, when it comes down to it) for the Roman Empire under Constantine. It didn’t come down from the clouds on the palm of God. It was inspired by one man’s way of living — as it was reported (and more than likely embellished) — a man who might well abhor what became of his legacy if he were to return.
Coates winds up his treatise here, but I’d like to further the discussion some for myself with a few questions. In the case of the world as it is today (or even as it has been for the last couple of thousand years) hasn’t religion become intrinsically related to identity? Don’t the majority of people identify themselves as members of a particular creed? Does it not seem the case that even those who would renounce religion still feel the need to identify themselves as having a belief in _something_; as an atheist or an agnostic or whatever? And that if they don’t, they’ll be treading water, fearing that the currents will carry them out to sea? Might this not be a loose description of the _angst_ so well captured by the existentialist dramatists and philosophers?
It brings to mind the concept of _bad faith_, as explored in the work of Jean-Paul Sartre. Bad faith, as in the avoidance of personal responsibility for one’s own decisions. _Oh I’m too weak-minded to decide for myself what’s right and what’s wrong, I’ll let (the Pope/the Ayatollah/L Ron Hubbard) do it for me._ Insofar as this, it seems evident that most of society lives in bad faith. Without trying to sound overly pretentious, we fear the _angst_ of existential alienation; we don’t want to feel that _nausea_, those pangs of anxiety and loneliness, even though it doesn’t last for long.
(Here’s a pop-culture reference for you: in one scene from The Abyss (1990), scientists onboard a submarine drown a lab rat in a tank of hyperoxygenated fluid. But the rat doesn’t die. It might think it’s taking its last breath — the audience surely does — but in a matter of moments its lungs adjust to the liquid and it resumes normal respiration. This — _a-ha!_ — could be compared to the angst one might feel when abandoning a certain belief system to intuit one’s own rational ideas; one might gasp for air, feeling unable to bear the loss of the foundation that has propped one up for so long — but this moment of fear (or confusion, or discomfort) soon passes, and one takes a major step towards living in good faith.)
Coates, in his conclusion, feels that he doesn’t “know anything that’s going to do any good in this situation, except a faith — not in divinity — but in humanity’s capability to tell its arse from its elbow”. Yet he also states that even this is a faith he lost some time ago. In my own humble opinion, however, I think it is still possible. _Potentially_. Every one of us has the potential to live in good faith with an open mind. I’ve taken the first few steps myself. But until people start opening their eyes, realising their potential, and letting go of this baggage — this dependency on religious doctrine and dogma — to move with the times (and it doesn’t even have to be anything major; we don’t need any great irreligious revolution, just a few steps in the right direction to prove that there indeed is some hope for us) then I fear that we’re pretty much doomed to keep repeating our mistakes, over and over, again and again. They say the more things change, the more they stay the same. That’s bad faith in a nutshell.
To conclude for myself, I don’t wish to come across as some sort of ruthless agnostic _conquistador_ on a mission to convert all religious, theistic heathens to the civilised ways of science and reason. Because good faith isn’t black and white, it’s not about right or wrong. Living in good faith does not mean abandoning one belief system and slotting the opposite into its place — that’s just exchanging one form of bad faith for another! Living in good faith should mean freeing yourself from external influences that don’t have your best interests at heart, seeking out that which feels right for you, opening your mind to new (or old) ideas, making your own reasoned judgments, and not forcing said judgments down the throats of others. It should mean open debate and discussion, not polarised argument and confrontation. (Here’s another pop-culture reference: Pi Patel’s religious experiences, and the consequences thereof, in the opening chapters of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi deal with this issue much more eloquently than I’m doing here.)
Considering a recent weblog post by Mat Honan on the subject of religion — an essay that while not technically related to Coates’ article nonetheless serves as a fitting companion piece — what we have is a textbook example of someone who lives in good faith. I might not share Mat’s belief in divinity, but there is no doubt that I respect his beliefs. He came to his position much in the same way as I came to mine, so what’s not to respect?
And besides, when you get down to the nitty gritty, when people respect each other despite their differences, when people relate to each other, person-to-person, the differences really don’t matter at all.