Monday, November 16, 2015

On Religion

I have some thoughts about religion. They are just thoughts, and I believe they are reasonably good thoughts, or I would not be writing them down. But they are still just thoughts, and I don't want them to be attacks, or even defences - if they are not expressed as well as I hope, I apologise in advance. It's not easy to find the right words, it's not easy to be the person one wishes to be at the best of times - anyone who says otherwise is lying to you. But the reason I write these thoughts down is not to campaign or argue or call anyone or anything out - I'm writing them down because it's frustrating to keep them inside, and I'm writing them down because it makes it clearer to me what they actually are.

I am not a fan of religions. I don't think there's any good reason to believe their stories, and I don't often think very kindly of their impact on the real world.

But that real world is one I live in, and it's a world full of religion, and full of religious people, and I know a lot of those religious people, and no matter how nuts I might think their various religions are, it'd be incredibly foolish of me to place their religious beliefs ahead of who they are, what they do, the imprint they leave on the world.

And the fact is mostly they're good, and they're kind, and even when they're not all that good or kind they're usually just ordinary blundering humans like we all are. And they surely think my total lack of belief in any gods is as mad or madder than I think their beliefs are.

So I can't follow any line of argument that says the way to judge a person's character is to ask them which holy book they invest their faith in. Even if there are bits of that holy book that horrify you.

But what I do believe, and I've gradually come to this belief over a lifetime of observation, is that a person's religion is not a club they join, it's a belief - or an identity - they carry inside themselves, and every religious person is committed to their own, often intensely personal, version of the faith.

In other words, you can never assume that you know what someone believes because they give their religion the same name as someone else whose beliefs you've looked into.

You could ask Fred Nile what a Christian is, and listen to all he has to say, and accept that what he told you was true, and the next time you met someone who called himself a Christian you would be almost totally wrong about what he believed.

Sometimes that argument is put in terms of "who's the REAL Christian?" Is Fred Nile the true Christian, or was Pastor Fred Phelps, or is Father Bob McGuire, Mother Teresa, Ann Coulter, Tim Costello, Kanye West?

Who among them follows the true Christianity?

Maybe they all do. We speak of "extremists", "militants" and "moderates", as if everyone under the same religious label is following the same religion, and the only difference between them is how strong their belief is.

But what if that's not the difference? What if the difference is that they're not members of the same religion in the first place? What if Fred Nile and Father Bob McGuire are both passionate, devout, committed Christians, but they are devout in two different faiths that happen to share a name?

This is actually not that difficult for we westerners to grasp, because we're quite used to thinking of Christianity in terms of different denominations. We don't expect a Catholic to think the same way as a Methodist, or an Anglican to think the same way as a Baptist, on everything, because we already have different names for the different sects. So it's not a huge leap to think of different Christians as belonging to different religions, or to put it another way, to different "versions" of religion.

Here in the west we don't have that same understanding of Islam: we're used to thinking of it as a monolith, and we tend to swallow the message that Islam is a religion with strict uniformity of belief.

And so when "extremists" tell us that they are being good Muslims by killing, and "moderates" tell us that Islam is a religion of peace, we who are not Muslims feel we need to make a choice of who to believe. So we see a passage from the Koran that seems to suggest killing is justified and we say aha! Islam must be a religion of violence. Then we see another passage from the Koran that seems to suggest killing is forbidden, and we say aha! Islam must be a religion of peace.

We get nowhere, because the reality is: Islam isn't A religion at all; Islam, like Christianity, is a whole bunch of religions, and some of them are so far apart from each other that they're barely even cousins.

I know Muslims. You probably do too. I know for a fact they don't belong to a religion that endorses terror and murder - I'm sure I would have noticed if they were going around doing that sort of thing.

And when I see people doing horrific things and claiming their religion endorses it, yes, I believe them. To think that the violence of the world is due only to religion would be absurd: to think religion is not involved at all would be just as absurd.

So who's the true Muslim?

Frankly, how should I know? I don't believe in their god, so I'm hardly in a position to opine on who he's smiling on. And it doesn't much matter to me.

But more importantly, I don't believe they're worshipping the same god at all. You can give your god the same name as someone else's god, and you can give the name of the religion based on that god the same name as someone else's religion, but saying that a god who wants you to slaughter and destroy is also a god who wants you to commit your life to love and generosity is, to my mind, ridiculous.

If I said, I believe in the god Bob, who wants me to shoot everyone I see in the face; and you said, I believe in the god Alf, who wants me to help the poor and extend the hand of friendship to all people; it's fairly obvious we are talking about two TOTALLY different gods.

Why would we think any different, just because the two gods had the same name?

This is why I'm troubled by talk of "moderates" and "extremists". It seems easy to alienate a person by telling them their faith is "moderate", because they believe in peace and acceptance. I know Muslims whose commitment to Islam is fierce and full-blooded, and completely compatible with a love of diversity, equality and freedom.

In short, the "moderates" do not differ from the "extremists" by the intensity of their belief, but by the very nature of their faith. And we who are not religious do not get anywhere useful by seeing Islam as a single religion in which believers are distinguished by greater or lesser commitment.

Instead, it's worth recognising that Islam, the religion practised by the Muslims we know and and love and live among and value as friends and colleagues, quite simply is not the same thing as Islam, the religion practised by the Muslims who gun down innocents and blow themselves up and behead their enemies.

You'll often see the repetition of a line that goes something like, "ISIS represents all Muslims the way the Westboro Baptist Church represents all Christians". It's true, but not because there is a neat line we can draw between "true" Christians and Muslims, and "false" Christians and Muslims. It's simply because knowing whose religion shares the name of another's tells us nothing about what their beliefs are, and how their beliefs influence their behaviour.

That a person's religion could be so hateful and diseased that it would inspire murder is a horrible thing. But I can tell if a religion is hateful by the way the person who follows it behaves. Likewise, if you want to know what any person's faith is like, don't ask them what it's called: get to know them - what they believe will be illuminated by the person they are.

In summary: I remain no fan of religions. I am saddened by the horrors done in their names. But if we allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking good people are not good people, just because of what their religion is called, rather than what their religion IS, we can only worsen divisions, and forget who our friends are.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Hard Questions

US Presidential candidate and political WAGAB (Wives And Girlfriends And Brothers) Jeb Bush - seen here informing the press of the ideal size for a sandwich - has made headlines with a bold claim.

'Hell yeah I would!' the up-and-coming Bush replied to the question of whether he would, given the chance, go back in time and kill Baby Hitler (by which the interviewer meant, Hitler when he was a baby, as opposed to an infant version of Hitler who ruled a nation of babies with an iron fist).

The reason this is an important question is simply that presidential elections are, as former president Michael Douglas said, entirely about character. And when you're trying to determine a man's character, it's vital to know just how committed he is to his convictions. It's all very easy to SAY that you're anti-Nazis, but are you willing to LIVE that principle? Do you have the integrity to follow through, to actually jump in that Delorean, head back to the late 1800s, and blow that infant's brains out? And if you don't, why the HELL should anyone vote for you?

But let's not pretend that killing baby Hitler is all you need from an aspiring commander-in-chief. There are plenty of other complex moral dilemmas that a president needs to be ready to tackle. Here are some other questions the American press might want to throw at the hopefuls.

1. Would you travel back in time and abort Foetus Hitler?

2. Would you travel back in time and trap Sperm Hitler in a condom?

3. Would you travel back in time and give Hitler's dad a vasectomy?

4. Would you travel back in time and make Hitler's mum fall in love with you instead of Hitler's dad, even knowing that it was possible your son would turn out to be Hitler anyway?

5. Would you travel back in time and kill baby Stalin?

6. Would you travel back in time and kill adult Stalin?

7. What if he had a gun?

8. Would you travel back in time and prevent the evolution of mammals, thus saving the world from every bad person ever?

9. Would you travel back in time and kill Martin Scorsese? Why/why not?

10. Would you travel back in time, if you knew that a side-effect of time travel was that you would become incapable of killing babies?

11. Would you shoot Saddam Hussein in the head, even though he's already dead?

12. Would you shoot Bashar Al-Assad in the head, if you knew the bullet would pass through his head and hit the Pope?

13. Would you go back in time to kill the baby Pope?

14. Would you go back in time to kill yourself to prevent yourself going back in time to kill the baby Pope?

15. Would you go back in time to kill Vincent van Gogh, if you suspected he was doing some pretty bad stuff when he wasn't busy painting?

16. Would you go back in time to kill Bill Cosby?

17. Would you go back in time to destroy the tapes of Bill Cosby's instrumental jazz-funk album, Badfoot Brown and the Bunions Bradford Funeral Marching Band?

18. Would you go back in time to kill baby Kyle Sandilands?

19. Don't you think Kyle Sandilands looks a bit like a giant baby anyway?

20. Would you feel bad if you went back in time and killed baby Kyle Sandilands and then found out you hadn't gone back in time at all and you'd just killed adult Kyle Sandilands because you thought he was a giant baby?

21. Would you go back in time and kill the giant baby from Honey I Blew Up The Kid?

22. Would you go back in time and kill the guy who invented hunger?

23. Would you go back in time and kill climate change?

24. Would you go back in time and kill Ronald McDonald?

25. Would you go back in time to kill all the other presidental candidates as babies? If not why not?

26. Would you go back in time to kill all the other presidential candidates as five-year-olds who are in the middle of singing the Alphabet?

27. Would you go back in time to kill five-year-old Hitler in the middle of singing the Alphabet, bearing in mind he'd be singing it in German?

28. Would you go back in time to kill baby Pol Pot?

29. Would you go back in time to kill baby Vlad the Impaler?

30. Would you go back in time to kill baby Ike Turner?

31. If there was a train speeding toward a fork in the track, and on one track there is your mother, and on the other track is a schoolbus full of children you've never met, and you can pull a lever to switch the train onto the other track, but if you don't pull the lever the train hits your mother, but your mother is currently pregnant with baby Hitler, but she is seriously considering an abortion, but she also has strong Catholic beliefs that still exert a pull on her so it's not certain, but on the other hand the schoolbus contains Baby Gandhi, but you just read a biography of Gandhi that paints him in a less flattering light, BUT also you have no arms, so to pull the lever you have to travel back in time and save yourself from the train accident that took your arms off, but doing that would cause the train to hit a pram containing baby Nelson Mandela, which member of your workplace would you eat first on a lifeboat?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015


Ideally, suicide would not be so frequent a topic of my thoughts. It's an exhausting thing to think about: wondering whether you should, wondering what would happen if you did, and much, much worse - wondering why your friends have.

The fact that I am unlikely to go more than a few days without reflecting deeply on the logistics and advisability of self-destruction is something I've come to accept as part of the normal round. Much of my thinking is quite detached in nature: I'm just thinking about suicide, not thinking ABOUT suicide...if you get me.

And even on those occasions when I'm actually considering it, I don't think I ever will. Partly this is cowardice. Partly it's FOMO - I just want to see what's going to happen. Partly it's a sort of fear of hurting my family that in my more optimistic moments I could call selflessness.

Because of course suicide is terribly selfish. This is well-known. Putting your own petty desire for oblivion ahead of the happiness of your loved ones? Ugh, who wants to be THAT guy?

It's true - killing yourself is not a nice thing to do to those people who don't want you to kill yourself. At my very very lowest, it may have been my ability to stay dimly aware of that fact that saved me - convinced as I have been that my family would be better off without me, the knowledge that at least in the short term they'd be pretty upset has held me back.

Because I don't want to be seen as selfish. Which is, in itself, a selfish reason to not do something, but if my particular kind of selfishness happens to produce the same outcome as genuine selflessness, I guess that's a win.

Of course, when I'm dead I won't know whether people are calling me selfish or not, so I'm still not sure why it matters to me. Maybe I subconsciously fear the existence of an afterlife.

But even if I am quite the selfish fellow, at least I am not as selfish as people who tell me not to commit suicide. Because God, THOSE people...

Why do you want me to stay alive? Because you'd miss me? You'd be sad? Perhaps you could stop thinking about yourself for a minute.

Maybe you could think about this: I suffer depression and anxiety - days when absolutely everything seems pointless, when I can't see any glimmer of hope anywhere and I'm positive that everything I do fails and everyone I care about hates me. Nights when an invisible boulder sits on my chest, an invisible rope tightens around my neck and an invisible adviser whispers to me that I'm going to die right here and right now.

Other times...things are OK. Some days I'm happy. Some days I can see the good things I have and the good things I do. Some days I can believe I have friends, even. Some nights I go to bed smiling and without a breathless fight or flight response urging me to throw myself onto the rocks.

But every day and night I get through feeling fine, I know the next subterranean low and the next blind panic is that little bit closer. One of the most important things to remember when you're suffering is that it will pass, things will get better. But any honest appraisal of reality will illustrate that it works just as well in reverse: when I'm feeling good, "this too will pass".

So if I've got to live my life like this, knowing I'm going to be pummelled by this over and over and over again, for no good reason, for however many decades I've got selfish are you to tell me I have to endure?

It's not like an assessment of the world I live in gives me much external cause to rejoice in the value of life. This is a stupid, cruel, vicious world in which suffering is the rule and joy is the exception, and I'm unable either to ignore the nightmare that is humanity, or to do anything to improve it. There is murder and torture and tragedy filling the world to the brim every day, and it seems a hell of a lot more delusional to think there's cause for hope than to abandon it.

So, if a desire to leave this world is understandable...and if I, personally, spend most of my life either in pain or in the anticipation of pain...where does anyone get the idea that suicide is not a reasonable response to circumstances?

To quit my life now would be selfish. To tell me that I mustn't is surely at least AS selfish.

Not that I will. I'm still a coward, after all.