22 May 2012

Cross Talk

You may be wondering, since I haven't blogged on the subject recently, how I've been adapting to my newfound atheism.

I haven't mentioned it for a while because, after the frankness of those two early posts, I've been feeling as if I'd rather prefer to get on with my crisis of faith in private, instead of tweeting it on a minute-by-minute basis. Suffice it to say that not a great deal has actually changed: my worldview was sufficiently secularised before that not having itunderpinned by a literal belief in a deity hasn't really made a terribly seismic difference.

I'm still wearing the wooden cross I've worn under my clothing since some friends brought it back for me from Lourdes when I was eighteen. The habit had become so ingrained it took me months to spot that this was even anomalous -- and about five minutes to conclude that my reasons for wearing it had far more to do with its sentimental value than with what I'd believed. I'm even attending an Anglican church only slightly more sporadically than I used to (atheism being generally accepted as no real bar to ordination these days, let alone communicant status). I've always found church ritual soothing, a link to a historical context of British communities across the generations, and that hasn't changed either.

It's possible I'm not a very effective atheist, but that's not really surprising. I was never a terribly effective christian either.

The main difference I've found in my thinking -- and it shames me to admit this -- is that I find forgiving people far more difficult these days. If you'd asked me a year ago to name a specifically 'christian' virtue -- ie, one which christianity is unusual in promoting, and which has therefore possibly been marginally more prevalent in christian circles than elsewhere, historically speaking[1] -- it would have been forgiveness, which Jesus was so keen on that he reportedly practised it even at the moment of his death. It's a vital social value, which assists in the general smooth running of the comomnwealth by keeping individuals and groups from constant feuding. It would certainly be indispensible in a utopia, which is one reason why it's difficult to imagine a utopia without faith. 

In any case, it's not something I'd feel happy to think I'd lost. 

However, I've come to understandthat the forgiveness I used to try to practice (not terribly effectively, I admit -- see above) had more than I realised of schadenfreude in it. The peculiar eschatology I'd constructed had no truck with the idea of eternal damnation -- that I'd dismissed, once I was old enough to escape the usual childhood terrors, as a barbaric dogma -- but it had metabolised the idea of purgatory into something typically idiosyncratic. I believed that, after death, each individual (myself not excluded, obviously) would be presented with a moment of absolute self-knowledge, in which it was revealed to them -- not as mere fact, but as an empathetic recognition -- exactly what they'd done and been in life. Every petty selfishness, every thoughtless action, every glib dismissal, sneering gibe, assault, murder or act of genocide would be seen clearly for what it was, and for the effect on its recipients.

Having received this insight, I blithely assumed, everybody would repent and turn to God.  There'd be no need for hell after that, because who could withstand such self-knowledge and retain their pride?

As I say, it was eccentric.  But it comforted me, when I saw people getting away with selfish, shitty behaviour -- especially the kind of thoughtless use of power which screws up entire populations for generations -- to know that it would rebound on them in the end.

It wasn't a vengeful thought particularly, just a feeling that this was the right, the just, way for the world to be run. Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan or Autgusto Pinochet or Rupert Murdoch might die peacefully in bed, surrounded by admiring well-wishers, but they'd damn well have their complacency stripped away from them afterwards. And, given genuine repentance and a heartfelt apology for the vicious crap they'd inflicted on the poor plebs around them during their lifetimes, I'd be magnanimously willing to share Heaven with the (formerly) evil fuckers. 

It sounds odd, I admit, but to be honest I'm not sure it's possible to sustain a religious universalism under a benign God without something of the kind. 

Now that comfort isn't available to me any more, I find myself raging day after day, appalled that whatever horrific idea Cameron and Clegg and Osborne (yes, and Murdoch) think up next to ravage the country with, the bastards are going to get away with it. They may face some uncomfortable verbal criticism, but unless God moves in some pretty fucking mysterious ways, it'll be water off a duck's back to them. Unlike the sick and disabled people, the single mothers, the nurses and teachers, whom these wankers are screwing on a daily basis to serve the interest of their plutocratic arsehole friends[2], they'll never see a moment's serious consequence to their actions. 

That isn't just, it isn't right, it isn't reasonable. It's not how I want the world I live in to be. 

When people say (atheists, I mean, and as a criticism) that religion is comforting, they usually mean that it allows believers not to be scared in the face of their own death. To be honest, I still don't see that as an issue.  I fear the pain that I imagine will precede death, but not the cessasion of my personality. Perhaps when you've grown up fearing hell, the prospect of oblivion seems like a neutral option. 

But my religion was a comfort to me, and it was one which for years helped me avoid confronting a basic truth:

The world is unjust, and it doesn't get any better, and that's the fault of specific people. Nobody -- apart from us -- is going to teach them any better. And until they make amends, the bastards don't deserve forgiveness.

[1] And yes, I'm fully aware of the large body of potential counterexamples.
[2] It's possible I swear rather more these days, as well.


  1. Helen5:48 am

    It may be less comforting, but I think there's something more honest about acknowledging the importance of forgiveness - and *working* on figuring out how to forgive and be forgiven (and I'm not about to claim that's in any way an easy or automatic process) - when one does it for pragmatic reasons rather than because it's divinely mandated. And I think it is important, not just for social reasons, but for personal ones too: a person who has wronged you retains a hold on you until you can put that injustice behind you. Of course, what standard Christian theology doesn't tell us is how that might not be possible until the person in question has *also* made some kind of effort to make amends: or indeed it might not be possible at all. Nevertheless, I reckon most psychologists would probably argue it's worth trying.

    What I've just said can have no possible relevance to the above-mentioned politicians, however.

    1. Democracy cannot function, any more than any other aspect of society, without forgiveness. The tribal demonisation of political opponents erodes the democratic process. I believe we would, as a society, do better moving towards the consensual politics of Scandinavia and that can't be done with the sort of rhetoric common in the UK political blogosphere.

    2. It's not rhetoric, Henry -- what this government is doing is genuinely disgusting. I've no tribal stake in this: some of what Labour did was disgusting as well. Much less of it, in retrospect, but I protested it at the time. I generally vote Green myself.

      If you're upset by my including Clegg in the list, it's because he continues to facilitate the vile actions of the most callously doctrinaire iteration of the Tory party in at least a century, despite being free to do the decent thing at any time.

      If you deal with the devil you should be prepared to be demonised, as I might have said if I was in fact being rhetorical.

  2. cousin felice7:21 am

    Yeah, forgiving the people responsible for perpetuating the injustice of the world is decidedly unhelpful. Good post.

  3. Not Invented Here12:00 am

    I sympathise with this. The idea that people will get away with this stuff makes me very angry. But then, two things occur to me.

    1) I've not been too great myself. I could sell my petrol-guzzling car. I could buy more fairtrade stuff. I could make it my business to find out where my clothes, food, stuff comes from, and clean up my own act. I could live in a smaller house, and a more energy efficient house. I could stop draining resources from other people who need them. And yet I don't. Which is the greater evil - a few people in power shaping the economy, or 62 million people using fossil fuels and resources that they don't need because it hasn't even occurred to them to think about it?

    2) As Helen said, forgiveness is healthy. Forgive people because it is good for your health to do so. Forgiveness is not about a benefit to the person who harmed you, it is about a direct benefit to you. Not forgiving is like keeping a book of every debt that is owed to you, no matter how small, and constantly worrying and plotting and planning how to get them paid back. Eventually you turn in to Gollum. Please note that I am not saying forgiveness is easy - far from it. Nor have I mastered the process. Just that the gift you give is to yourself, not to the person being forgiven.

    I'm not saying this very well. If you can ignore the God stuff, this guy says it better: http://newspring.cc/series/upgrade/forgiveness/ (Skip to minute 34 to miss the worship session and housekeeping).

    Thanks for continuing to blog about this. It is really helpful to read about someone else's experiences.

  4. I'm slightly curious as to how the idea of an 'unjust' world squares with the point expressed in the last article on this subject, about the absence of any kind of absolute value system? Justice, it seems, requires exactly this kind of absolute value system: if people are to get what they deserve, then they must, in some kind of objective sense, 'deserve' something.

    Or to put it another way, if people ought to be punished for something, then that something must be, in some sense, wrong. Not just disagreed-with-by-you but actually wrong.

    As you pointed out in the previous article:

    there are no absolute truths. We make our own, as best we can, from the materials available, and if ours don't agree with someone else's... well, one may be better than the other according to certain criteria, and if we accept those criteria we may wish to adjust our own views accordingly, but there's no real question of one person being objectively right and the other wrong.

    In which case, all those you list are simply acting according to different criteria than yours, but their criteria are no more wrong than yours are right. In which case there would be no justice in punishing them for what is not, in fact, wrong.

    So it seems to me that if you're going to be consistent here you have to jettison all talk of the world being 'unjust' as meaningless in the absence of any objective standard of justice. Putin, Assad, Murdoch et al simply do what they do; you do what you do; none of it is 'right' or 'wrong'.

    (The only thing I can see you could claim is that they are causing suffering, but in that case you'd have to claim that causing suffering is 'wrong' in the absolute sense and therefore in a just world would be punished, and that kind of absolute is exactly what you've decided doesn't exist).


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