Friday, 13 December 2013

13/12/13 - Religion, revisited

I ran out of time to write JuicyPips this week, but rather than leaving you hanging I thought we could revisit this one from January 2011 – it attempts to answer a rather significant question: which of the major religions is actually right?

I know, it’s a biggie. But bear with me, I’ve given it a game stab.
I’ve never really been a fan of organised religion; when I was young and had fire in my belly, I used to proudly proclaim that I found the entire concept ‘ridiculous’. I’ve stopped doing that now, having realised how enormously and unnecessarily offensive it is. In part, at least, it also made me a massive hypocrite. How so? Well, as a white middle-class boy born in 20th century Britain, all of my reference points for day-to-day life exist within a Christian society. Phrases like ‘oh my God’ or ‘Jesus Christ’ immediately leap to the tongue when I hit my thumb with a hammer or see a particularly cringeworthy X Factor audition.
Growing up under the Church of England, it’s natural to celebrate Christmas and Easter. At school, it didn’t seem odd to unthinkingly bring in old cans of beans for harvest festival. Singing hymns or carols didn’t create a logical pathway in the brain toward any particular religious sentiment, it was just something people did.

My dad was the headmaster of a C of E school. This meant that I had to go to church a fair bit as a child. In hindsight, I suspect that this is largely what has put me off organised religion, rather than any cynicism toward the specific beliefs and principles; I resented having to get out of bed on a Sunday morning in order to go and hang out with a bunch of mental pensioners and sing about how much I loved (yet was scared of) a fictional wizard. I’d far rather have been watching Red Dwarf and eating a sausage sandwich, or whatever else I used to get up to at that age. What did make itself constantly apparent, however, was the lack of logic in the tangled mass of contradictions, unpleasant pronouncements, intolerance, vindictiveness and plain nonsense that made up this holy book. Are we really supposed to believe that this tome, created quite a long time after the claimed events happened, can in any way be accurate? (If you were to write a book about something you’d heard might have happened in the seventeenth century [and didn’t have the benefit of the internet to check your facts as you went], how true to life do you think your story might be?) And furthermore, is it not just phenomenally arrogant for the champions of these storytellers to say ‘OK, all this happened, this man is your messiah, now you have to live your lives by the principles laid out in this book or you will be condemned as a bad person for eternity’? That’s just fucking mean. Surely a far more pleasant pronouncement would be ‘you only live once, the world is a pretty spectacular place, just bloody enjoy yourselves and stop worrying about what a speculative deity may or may not be judging you for’, no?
Therein lies my fundamental problem with religion: it’s about power. And to a lesser extent, money and property. But largely power. People blindly believe what they’re told, and it can ruin lives.

Now, this might seem like a nasty viewpoint and I’m not some kind of unpleasantly dictatorial atheist. If I were to say to you ‘you shouldn’t believe in any kind of god, it’s all nonsense’, that would make me just as morally reprehensible as somebody who said ‘you should believe in this, because… etc’. In many ways, I think religion is rather a beautiful and helpful thing. People who are dying of horrifying incurable diseases, or whose families have been wiped out in genocide, or whose homes have been swept away by tsunamis… they might turn to a higher power as a way of making sense of the world. And that’s brilliant. If such a concept can make people happier with their lives, or feel safer or more loved, then that can only be a good thing. It’s just that for me (and I can only speak for myself here), I find the crutch/fiction ratio a little too skewed away from plausibility for me to happily embrace.

But look at me waffling on. You’re busy, you just want to know which religion is the right one so you can get on with your lives, yes? OK, here goes…

It’s interesting how the Church of England has evolved from a blood-and-retribution revolt by a tyrant king into something altogether more about woolly cardigans and nice cups of tea.
For the sake of simplicity, it’s easiest to say here that Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox interpretations of Christianity - as diverse and complex as they may be - are basically different shades of the same thing. (Although I wouldn’t say that to the UVF.)
Followers are told to live their lives by learning from the thoughts and actions of a carpenter’s son who was killed by Romans for saying subversive things. A rich and bloody history of slaughtering non-believers and stealing land suggests that behaving yourself and doing unto others that which you’d have done unto you can only go so far before the greed and powerlust take over. But at least they have a strong moral code – harsh punishments are fully justified for doing things that the Lord would consider to be a bit naughty; y’know, like buggering choirboys.
Also, wasn’t Jesus a Jew? Shouldn’t that mean that, by default, all Christians should, er, practise what they preach and convert to Judaism?

If Jews were around before the whole Jesus thing kicked off, it makes sense that their beliefs have a greater claim for being true, right? I’m being flippant and simplistic, but it makes chronological sense.
The militancy of blindly sticking to the text can be side-stepped by steering clear of Orthodox Judaism and easing yourself in with a bit of Conservative or Reform Judaism, which make day-to-day life in the modern world a bit easier, saying that the tenets of Jewish Law are really more a set of guidelines than anything. Although that’s a slippery slope; Henry VIII had the same feelings about Christianity, and look at the mad shit he got up to.

There are some nice ideas in this one, not least that which is perennially annexed by Hollywood: karma. That’s the concept that every other religion wishes they had a simple word for. Too late now.
Hinduism pulls together a history of diverse Eastern beliefs and philosophies, so it doesn’t really have one notable forefather or central text; furthermore it encourages absolute freedom of belief and worship. There’s no such thing as blasphemy or heresy with Hindus, as their beliefs encompass all other beliefs, if that makes sense, making the human race one lovely whole. Their concept of ‘god’ is a little confusing, bordering the notions of henotheism (worshipping one god while accepting the existence of others), monotheism, polytheism and pantheism, but basically you just believe what you want to believe on the understanding that everyone is, to a degree, right. There’s a load of stuff about devas and yogis too, and lots of nice bright colours.

Ha. There’s no way I’m publishing any kind of commentary on Islam. I’ve seen what can happen.

Buddhism is basically about being nice to each other, which knocks Christianity into a cocked hat. It’s largely based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama – a.k.a. Buddha – who said some pretty sensible things: the Four Noble Truths state (in abbreviated form) that 1) life is suffering, 2) suffering is caused by craving, 3) suffering ends when craving ends, 4) you can end craving by doing what Buddha suggests. And what does he suggest? Being nice to people, telling the truth, not hurting anyone and having a clear awareness of reality. That all sounds pretty good to me.
I’m not too sure about some of their ideas though, like the concept of being reincarnated as animals, and the claimed existence of various ‘Narakas’. These are a variety of hells, one of which is Arbuda, a frozen plain swept by blizzards in which one must exist naked and alone ‘for the amount of time it would take to empty a barrel of sesame seeds if one were to remove a single seed every hundred years’. Sod that.

No religion in the world has cooler buildings, outfits or beards than Shinto. The indigenous faith of Japan, it’s basically a set of lifestyle guidelines to link modern Japan to its past. A lot of Shintoists are also Buddhist, which is jolly accepting of them. (It’s pretty common that life is dealt with by Shinto and death/afterlife is picked up by Buddhism.)
Purity is an important concept – you always need to be showing that you’re grateful for the gift of life, as dying without gratitude will see you damned forever – daily purification rituals are commonplace. Shamanic dances and protective amulets give it all an interestingly cartoonish feel, and there’s a lot of living on a knife-edge of respect for fear of accidentally condemning your soul. Shinto, happy and respectful as it is, can be bloody hard work.

Sikhism is one of the fastest-growing religions in the world, so it could be a good bandwagon to jump on if you want to make friends.
It’s a monotheistic faith with quite a sensible framework, its teachings coming from ten gurus who, as the name suggests, have a lot of knowledge to work with, each one reinforcing and adding to the thoughts of the last. The eleventh guru, the Guru Granth Sahib, is the final and perpetual guru in that it wasn’t a person, but rather a kind of conceptual embodiment of the Sikh faith. There’s a lot of communal meals and no-one’s really judging each other, and they’re discouraged from fasting, going on pilgrimages or worshipping idols, which all sounds pretty sensible. However, there are a lot of rituals, with morning and evening prayers taking up about two hours of your day. If you want to convert to Sikhism, you’ve got to really mean it or you’ll miss out on a lot of lie-ins.

This is an Indian religion based on a central belief in non-violence, which is a strong start. It does go a little downhill from there though. Jain doctrine states that Jainism has always existed and will always exist, although historians pinpoint its beginnings to somewhere between the 9th and 6th centuries BC. (Although Jains wouldn’t say ‘BC’, of course.)
Further core beliefs are that everything has a soul (every one of which is potentially divine), excessive possessions are unholy, followers should ‘enjoy the company of the holy and better qualified’ and ‘tolerate the perversely inclined’, and celibacy is positively encouraged. Sounds a bit iffy in principle – largely elitist, and without a real future if no-one’s allowed to have any of that dirty procreative intercourse.

Chinese folk religions

Shenism is largely grounded in Chinese mythology, and relies on the worship of ‘shens’ (deities, spirits, awareness, consciousness…) including cultural heroes, ‘city deities’ and, er, dragons. It’s pretty similar to Shinto in everyday life. Taoism is the form of Shenism that is most popular in the West, and champions the Three Jewels of the Tao: compassion, moderation and humility. A common Western metaphor for Taoist principles is Winnie the Pooh (seriously).
These folk religions are very traditional yet are constantly evolving, and have a huge number of gods and goddesses. It all gets a bit complicated. But hey, there are a lot of people in China, maybe they’re right.

…is ridiculous, and that’s the one ‘religion’ I’m happy to say that about. L. Ron Hubbard is some kind of evil genius in convincing his followers that a) they’re all immortal beings from space and b) they should give him all of their money. Bonkers. The Church of Scientology encourages followers to cut off all contact with friends and family who don’t believe, which is a pretty appalling way to behave. Have you seen that episode of The Simpsons where they join the Movementarians? Yeah, it’s basically that. Pseudo-spiritual bullshit for crazy people.

This is a Neopagan religion, and a form of modern witchcraft. It’s not as mental as it sounds: Wiccans ‘regard the cosmos as alive, both as a whole and in all of its parts’, which, on an atomic level at least, is pretty much scientifically accurate. However, there’s a lot of arguing about whether their core views should be fundamentally mono-, duo- or pantheistic, and you kind of get the feeling that any other Wiccans you meet will be either angsty teenagers or batty middle-aged women who just want to draw pentagrams in the dark and experience the heady thrill of buying a pig’s heart from the butcher’s. If that sounds rude and intolerant, please feel free to find a Wiccan to correct me.

Rastafari movement
Quite a new one, this – it only dates back as far as the 1930s. Followers worship Haile Selassie I, former emperor of Ethiopia, believing him to be the second coming of Jesus Christ. So they’re kind of like traditional Christians, but much happier as they have a sense of catharsis. They proclaim Zion (Africa) as the birthplace of all humanity, which you can’t really argue with, and vehemently encourage the spiritual use of cannabis.
Whatever you do, don’t refer to it as ‘Rastafarianism’ – Rastas find this pretty offensive, as they don’t like being pigeonholed as an -ism. A lot of Rastas would actually argue that it isn’t a religion at all, but a way of life. And that’s fair enough.
(If I was a devout Christian, I’d definitely consider converting – Rastas can get on with life and enjoy themselves knowing that they’re not going to be hanging around indefinitely waiting for their saviour to rise again. Takes a lot of the pressure off.)

In spite of all my Christianity-bashing, I guess I’d technically call myself a Christian (which is what gives me carte blanche to be so rude about it). Not that I particularly believe in or agree with anything that it has to say, just that growing up in a Christian society has made it so. I celebrate Christmas with great enthusiasm. I got married in a C of E church and I meant every word of what I said. I enjoy the iconography and architecture of the Christian faith, and the comfort it seems to give people.
I always used to tell people I was an atheist, but that does imply a certain effort on my part, when it’s actually the case that I rarely bother giving religion any thought at all. I’ve also always said that life’s busy and complicated enough without having to worry about religion as well, but I can certainly see the benefits of belief.
So what of the original question? Which religion is actually right after all? Well, somewhat predictably, none of them seems to be totally right (or wrong, depending which way you look at it), but if you feel the need to live by a set of unusual historical guidelines, I’d suggest a combination of Buddhism, Rastafaria and Hinduism. The mixture of friendly behaviour, relaxation and comfort with oneself and general acceptance of one another sounds like a winner to me.

There we go, that was patronising and offensive. But hopefully a little informative too.

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