Wednesday, 25 January 2012

"Even if religion isn't true..."

Or, why I'll read Alain de Botton's new book but don't like its ad campaign.

Alain de Botton is a fascinating man. On Twitter, he's one of the most consistently thought-provoking people to follow, dispensing 140-character chunks of serene wisdom, many of which are deeply applicable to the state of the human condition in the modern world.

I read Status Anxiety when I was fifteen, and thought it was wonderful (although it's almost certainly in need of a re-read now that I'm no longer fifteen). His new book, Religion for Atheists, looks like it's going to be lots of things I'm very interested in - not least the idea that one can be an atheist and still appreciate the trappings of religion.

I love religious architecture and music, but it irks me that such glorious, transcendental, humbling things have been built and made by man to the glory of God, when so few things built to the glory of mankind and man's achievements are on a similarly mind-blowing scale. We're getting there, especially in terms of art, music and literature (less so architecturally, but still somewhat), and I have no doubt that, as society drifts further towards atheism in the most literal sense, this trend will continue. Humans make beautiful things. We can't help ourselves. And there doesn't need to be a higher power to justify this creation. The range of human experience - the vast, mutable palette of human emotion - are enough to keep us creatively occupied until there are no more of us. Having a constant to continually compare that to, in a world where nothing is constant, is impractical and unnecessary.

My only concern with the release of Religion for Atheists is the advertising campaign which accompanies it. The adverts are a series of gorgeous images of religious structures, with the tagline, "Even if religion isn't true, can't we enjoy the best bits?"

I applaud and support the sentiment; it's the usage of "true" which troubles me. It jarred my ear as soon as I read it. Of the relevant definitions of "true", it's a choice between "conforming to the actual state of reality or fact; factually correct" and "legitimate". And it's clear that the advert isn't using "true" in the sense of legitimate (e.g. referring to the Catholic Church as the "one true Church"). Which leaves us with "conforming to the actual state of reality or fact."

My issue with "even if religion isn't true" is that I don't like the application of "true" to broad, sweeping concepts. "True" suggests a reasonably straightforward true/false dichotomy. Which is not something that "religion", as a noun, presents us with. You could take "government" as a comparable conceptual noun. No one is going to argue that government isn't true. Whether or not it exists is something you could theoretically doubt ("even if government isn't real..."), and you could certainly take it to mean "legitimate" (though modern English does not tend to use "true" to mean "legitimate" except as an identifier, like in "the one true Church"), calling upon the "true government" either as a request for a government to step up to the plate on something or in contrast to a non-legitimate government, but one would not ask the question, "Even if government is not true, can't we still enjoy the best bits?" Nor, even, would one state, "government is not true." Not valid, sure. Not real, maybe. But "true" or "not true" in a strictly true/false, "factually correct" usage (as I believe it is being used in this case)? No.

It's a subtle usage - perhaps not even incorrect, but questionable enough to set off my inner alarm bells. On the surface, the statements implied by the question asked by the advert - "religion is/isn't true" - sound as though they mean functionally the same thing as "I do/don't believe in religion" (as a concept, and as opposed to believing in God). The statement "I do/don't believe in religion" are not useful or functional tools for examining the role of religion within society. And whilst "even if religion isn't true" does not quite mean exactly the same thing semantically, there's not much of a mental leap between "I don't believe in religion" and "religion is/is not true."

The question which the first clause of the advert implies, "is religion true?", is a redundant one, and not useful to the conceptual framework in which the book (I dearly hope) attempts to examine the role of the trappings of religion in the life of the modern atheist. If de Botton's examination will (as I hope it will) open the debate on creating glorious things in the glory of man, not God, then we cannot afford sloppy copy. Atheism, to me, at this time, should need no justification or legitimisation in the eyes of the world, yet still it does. For a long time, we've had some of the best thinkers. Ideas - precious ideas about the infinite potential of the secular life - need to be grounded and clothed in the best possible words we can muster. And "Even if religion isn't true..." doesn't quite cut it.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

An Uncensored Life

Yesterday evening, at long last, I watched the most recent episode of Sherlock (S02E02, 'The Hounds of Baskerville') and it dredged up a long-forgotten childhood memory of the fact that my whole family was mauled by giant dogs from Hell.

Quick critique on the show itself: I've heard from quite a few Sherlock fans that they were disappointed by last week's episode, and from watching it I can see why. It was interesting that the explanations for the strange occurrences around the Baskerville site as suggested by the locals were along the lines of some kind of horrible beast created by genetic research - I thought this was quite a good 21st Century parallel for the mythological/folkoloric suggestions from the original Sherlock Holmes novel, but at the same time I kind of missed the supernatural element because I really love Dartmoor mythology and folklore (this is what you get when you take nerdy kids to National Trust bookshops and allow them to purchase volumes entitled Ghastly Ghosts of Devon and the like, but more on that later).

The way they shot Dartmoor itself was also very interesting, although again I was slightly disappointed. There were a lot of panoramic shots where they kind of messed with the colours a little bit to make it look more vast and bleak and forbidding, which is an entirely natural cinematographic response to that kind of landscape, but it didn't work for me (although it wouldn't have looked out-of-place in an adaptation of, say, Wuthering Heights). The great thing about Dartmoor, as a couple of the local characters mentioned during the episode, is precisely how vast and bleak it is, but that for me was lost in the way they shot it. Especially the vastness. There's a certain perspective you sometimes get when standing around on Dartmoor, not even anywhere particularly special like on top of a tor, just by the side of the road looking across acres of gorse scrubland, wherein everything you are feels infinitely dwarfed by the untameable, untillable, barely-inhabitable land. And the big, fancy shots of it that they put into last week's Sherlock managed to completely lose that aspect of the scenery. The more intimate bits shot in "Dewer's Hollow" (which doesn't exist, although there are plenty of places very much like it which do) gave a much better feel for the landscape close-up than any of the panoramas did (although it's entirely possible that those bits weren't filmed on Dartmoor at all).

A lot of the plot elements were stupid (as one of the people I watched it with mentioned, why would a super-secret CIA experiment have its own t-shirts?), but on balance it was at least an entertaining (if not perhaps as intellectually tantalising) episode. I did like the fact that they showed Sherlock experiencing doubt and fear; that was a really nice piece of characterisation.

But enough on that. What those ninety minutes managed to remind me of (aside from how much I love Devon) was my first foray into the library held at our primary school. This would have been in late 1994, during my first full term at school; our infant class was dutifully marshalled down to the library in small groups and told that we could pick any volume we chose to take home and have our parents read to us. I would like to emphasise the word any; perhaps this is more about my earliest experiences with the fallibility of adult authority, but I digress. I was overwhelmed by the possibilities offered to me. My reading experience thus far had consisted of the formulaic books we were using to learn to read, filled with poorly-developed (and illustrated, if I'm honest) farmyard characters and little to offer in the way of narrative intrigue. So to be presented with a room full of books which were filled with completely new pictures and stories seemed wonderful.

I chose, being a morbid five-year-old, an illustrated (and, I presume, heavily abridged) kids' edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Show me the five-year-old who would not rather be reading about a flaming-eyed murderous hell-hound than, say, Spot the Dog, and I'll lose my remaining faith in humanity. I cannot fully express how entirely awesome this kids' version of The Hound of the Baskervilles looked. I was practically foaming with literary rabies at the prospect of taking it home and forcing my parents or grandparents to read it to me. It was like a shining beacon in a sea of battered tomes. I can remember many things about that day, in that room, but what any of the other books offered looked like or consisted of are details lost to my memory. I plucked The Hound off the shelf and proudly presented it to whichever teaching assistant was there with us, to "show us around the library". Or, as it turned out, to censor what we read. For that is what she did.

I was told in no uncertain terms that The Hound of the Baskervilles, even in such an innocent and childish incarnation, was entirely unsuitable reading material for little girls. Being a ballsy thing, I protested, and was once again told that I could not have it. I believe (although perhaps this is just years of anger about a] the whole experience and b] the way gender is hammered into children from almost every source during every developmental period) that I was offered something more girl-specific as an alternative choice. But no other choice (and certainly not whatever I ended up being fobbed off with, the memory of which escapes me) was in fact anything resembling my choice, since I had chosen and subsequently been denied the right of choice.

There's an incredibly happy ending to this story, though. The people with the most power to censor my reading - my parents - chose at almost every opportunity not to. I can recall perhaps only one or two attempts made by my parents to stop me from reading something they considered unsuitable, and those were almost certainly both Jilly Coopers furtively stolen from my grandmother at the age of nine. I have no idea why, when they were fairly overprotective about many other aspects of my young life (including in particular the films and television I was exposed to), they made so few attempts to control what it was that I read. It could have been the speed at which I read - books were coming in and out of the house at such a frantic rate, and often with so little involvement from them, that what I was reading was pointless or impossible to police. Or perhaps, especially when I was a little older, it was that they had not themselves read what I was reading, and thus couldn't comment on its suitability.

It was a glorious and remarkable freedom, and one which I would urge all parents to grant to their children, no matter how much they long to shelter them from the shocks and hurts of the world. It meant that I was occasionally reading wildly inappropriate things, books whose contents I had no register of tone or emotion by which to frame and thus properly understand. Will Self, for example, is a startling writer even now - when I was thirteen, his novels were just penetrable enough to be unsettling without me realising how darkly funny they were also intended to be. The same goes for Don DeLillo - I read White Noise entirely straight when I was fifteen, and it was only when I came back to study it for a dissertation that I realised how funny a book it is. These wildly inappropriate things did not damage me in the slightest - and neither would The Hound of the Baskervilles have done, had I been allowed it. One of my favourite things to do when I was a lot younger was to read something that frightened me so much I could not sleep. That the human imagination is capable of producing such an effect is a glorious thing, to be treasured rather than prevented.

The great thing about literature is that so much of it self-censors, depending on the reading age (and, perhaps more importantly, the emotional maturity) of the young reader. So much of description, narrative and tone can be gained or lost by the reader. It was precisely because I had been allowed to read widely and rangingly that I came to love reading so very much. Censorship does not protect; it merely makes children bitter and angry towards the censors.

So please do not censor the reading of your children. Their development will censor itself, up to a point, and even after that they're unlikely to be damaged by what they read. Many of my earliest memories involve reading and books, and for kids who don't easily make friends, a book is a passage into a world where the social constraints of day-to-day life do not matter in the slightest. A book is a true friend, even if it appears to be a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, too-much-makeup-wearing older kid, trying to lead your child astray. Reading is one of the safest ways a child can thus be led.

Monday, 2 January 2012

2012 - Resolutions

There's a word I was trying to remember earlier on, whilst watching The West Wing (Season 3 Episode 6, 'War Crimes') with my housemate. Bartlet comes back from church ranting about how awful the sermon was, how it lacked panache, and how the preacher fundamentally misunderstood the passage from Ephesians that the sermon was meant to be about. The President's interpretation of the verses was not that they pertained to the relationship between a man and his wife, but that they are all about the passage, "Be subject to one another."

The word I was looking for is accountability. Accountability to one another is incredibly important. It reminds us of our better selves. It reminds us that we shouldn't do stupid, hurtful things to other people. It's a great reality check, except in the case of mass delusion: if I do something or want to do something that I'm not sure of the ethics of, and someone whose judgement I trust agrees with me that it's an okay thing to do or to have done, then that's good enough for me, and it's a stronger indication than just my judgement alone. I'm not saying that one cannot live an ethical life without someone to be accountable to, more that for those of us who are particularly human it can be really useful to have a gate. And sometimes both you and the person you consider yourself accountable to are wrong about something, but somehow that makes it better than just you being wrong. At least, it does for me.

In 2011 I made resolutions at the beginning of the year. Some of them I kept and some of them I failed at, but I didn't really publicise any of them. I told people casually that I was trying to do this, or that, or the other, but I wasn't really accountable to anyone but myself. And that was fine. I didn't need to be, and I don't think I would have succeeded at any more of them if I'd stated my aims publicly at the start of the year. But there's something nice and satisfying about writing my resolutions for 2012 down on some stone tablets at the top of a mountain somewhere in the Holy Land and then proclaiming them to those who care to listen, so to speak.

So I am being accountable here. I don't need or want a cheerleading team, or a stern, authoritarian power outside of myself to shame me into keeping or not keeping them. I just want to let it be known that this is what I hope to achieve this year.

- To read all of Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu:

I received a complete translation for Christmas. Never have I been so afraid of a Christmas present in my life.

- To be vegan in January, and to generally eat less dairy in 2012:

I find myself increasingly using cheese as a condiment. I'm hoping that Veganuary will both make me think more about what I cook and eat, and will instil in me a proper and fitting reverence for cheese.

- Not to eat a single Ginsters cheese and onion slice:

This is kind of a subset of Veganuary, and is mostly motivated by the fact that the aforementioned slices do not even slightly resemble food. That they are frequently reduced in the Co Op, and that I am frequently hung over, are not reasonable grounds for putting these monstrous things into my system.

- To be more forgiving and less bearing of grudges:

I come from a long line of grudge-bearers. My mother once didn't speak to her father for six months over a fight they had about a biscuit. I don't want to be that guy, difficult as it can be to let go of stupid, petty things at times. They're always stupid and petty, and life would be better if I didn't hang on to them for a long time, or, ideally, at all.

- To be formally excommunicated from the Catholic Church:

I have been functionally an atheist since the age of five, when a priest could not satisfy me on a point of theology. There have been times in my life when I attempted to find religion, but I'm just not wired for faith. It is ludicrous that a decision could have been made for me at an age when I was not sufficiently intellectually developed to object which is incredibly difficult for me as a rational adult to extricate myself from. It used to be that one could formally defect from the Catholic Church, which was easier to achieve than excommunication, but they closed that loophole in canon law some time in 2010. In order to be excommunicated, I have several options, including assaulting the Pope or a high-up Cardinal (I'm not such a fan of beating up old men, and this might result in a prison sentence), desecrating the Host (this would probably require going to Communion, which I don't want to do) or proving my apostasy. I am very much looking forward to writing the letter by which I intend to declare myself an apostate.

See you in 2013 for an update on how all of these went.