Saturday, January 01, 2005

Fireworks, Families and Faith

Once again my attempt to go to sleep at my normal hour on New Year's Eve was foiled by what sounded like World War Three breaking out. Deafening fireworks continued for about an hour from 11.30 onwards.
New Year's Eve was exempted from the new restrictions on fireworks that came into force last year. One of the handful of days that the new law might have given us some peace. How stupid is that? So once again I spent the first minutes of a new year cursing my fellow man.

You probably won't find it difficult to guess what kind of news story these quotes come from:
"They always seemed to be a very happy family. They were very polite and always said good morning."
"I was completely surprised because they were a lovely family, an ordinary, lovely couple."
Yes, a mother had returned home to find her husband had murdered their five year old daughter before killing himself. In many of these cases the father, and it's usually the father, kills the entire family. And then come those quotes from neighbours and friends: loving family, pillars of the local community, etc., etc.

Sometimes mental illness is the cause of these tragedies. But in other cases the police uncover a startling disjunction between appearance and reality. I remember one case where the father slaughtered his wife and several children before killing himself. They were a living embodiment of what New Labour now call a 'hard working family' and what moralists call 'family values.' The parents were both Governors at the local Catholic school. But the investigation revealed not only massive debts but that the father had been visiting a prostitute every week for many years and the mother had been having an affair.

I relate this not to denigrate the value of the nuclear family as an institution but to highlight the folly of people who live in the cosy, reassuring world of appearances.
But these family tragedies do have a reassuring message for the millions of us who live alone. If you live on your own, people often say to you - even if you're a man - "aren't you afraid?" But perhaps we have less reason to be afraid. At least we know we aren't in danger of being slaughtered by our nearest and dearest - or, for that matter, slaughtering them. It's a disturbing thought that the ruffian on the stair could be the person you love.

I don't like to keep returning to the same topic, like a dog to its own vomit, but the debate between deists and atheists continues in the Guardian and has been one of the most fascinating ones on the letters page for quite some time. Two interventions by Richard Dawkins have provoked the Christians into ad hominem argument - "an ayatollah without a deity" someone called him.

"My naive guess", Dawkins says today, "was that believers might be feeling more inclined to curse their god than pray to him." This raises a point that has always puzzled me. If, for the sake of argument, God exists, why does worship of him follow from that? The only reason I can evince is self-interest and that seems a bit demeaning, like licking the boots of your line manager at work. I think it was Dylan Thomas's father who used to shout "Bastard!" heavenwards if he got up in the morning and found it was raining.

A letter yesterday from a Dr Welch gave an interesting and shocking insight into the morality of some Christians:
"As a Christian, I know exactly why I should love and care for others. If I were an atheist, I can't imagine why I should bother to help anyone whose genes might compete with mine."
So Dr Welch must find it profoundly puzzling that most atheists are not running round murdering and raping people. For my part, when I see the hatred and intolerance that pours out of some Christians, I always shudder to think what these people would be like if they didn't have the restraining influence of a religion purportedly based on love.


At 5:22 PM, Blogger peter said...

Would "lapsed Catholic" describe you? Or have you done more than just lapse? :)

The deists do have a point about Dawkins though. By constantly throwing up "science" as the antidote to "God", he seems to overlook the calamity that science actually is. (Another day, another theory.) Throw in a Big Bang which is "unknowable" (where have we heard that one?) and we're straight back in the realms of religion again.

The mistake almost everyone makes is to think that because we know some things, then we can eventually know everything. This is nonsense. Ask any dog or cat. We can no more understand the universe than an ape could design an auto engine. It's sheer intellectual arrogance, and not only on Dawkins' part.

The areas of the Universe we don't understand can be called God. The error comes in ascribing humanity to this God. To ascribe care and love. That's where the religionists go wrong. But it's historically understandable. Prayer sometimes seems to work. And equally often doesn't. Religion is principally for priests.

At 6:01 PM, Blogger The absent referent said...

And ... this is obvious, but, religion and science aren't really at opposite poles because they attempt to do the same exact thing: explain mysterious things. One does so through narratives, the other through experiments, but in the end, they urge towards both comes from the same exact place.

This might be why I prefer poetry. It lets mystery be mystery, as does some post-modern philosophy at its best. Religion and science are both annoyingly meddlesome much of the time.

At 6:48 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

I agree with most of the above comments.
I was never a Catholic. Before the age of 13 I had no choice in the matter. 'Lapsed' is a term invented by the church to imply that people only ever leave through apathy rather than a rational decision.
Science is not an unmitigated calamity. Think about that next time you're in the dentist's chair. And if money had been spent, science could have saved most of the people killed by the tsunami.
What on earth is achieved by calling the things we don't know 'God'? Why not just call them the known unknowns (to borrow Rumsfeld's expression)?
The reason religion can be so dangerous (unlike poetry, AR) is that once you abandon rationality at the meta level, you also abandon it at the micro level and start enforcing moral codes that increase human suffering rather than ameliorate it.


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