I was fortunate enough to attend a magnificent rugby match last October in Bordeaux. The local team (UBB) took on a much fancied Clermont-Auvergne side. Not having any real allegiance with either team, I tossed a mental coin before the match and became an instant Bordeaux supporter. As it turned out, ‘my’ team won on the night and subsequently took what was appearing to be an unassailable lead in the Top14 league a few months later. Unfortunately, they, like so many other teams in so many other sports this year, were unlucky not to be crowned champions when the Coronavirus pandemic resulted in the cancellation of the competition.
The reason I mention the match last October is that, surrounded by some 30,000 other rugby fans, it is almost inevitable that one is uplifted and carried along on a wave of chanting and singing. I found myself insulting the referee when decisions went against UBB and, by the end of the game I was singing along with the local supporters with as much gusto and enthusiasm as I might have, had I been in the stands at the RDS in Dublin. As ‘Hozier’ might say, I had been ‘taken to church’. The analogy from Bray’s most famous son is closer to the truth of this article than might first appear. Take a bow young man!
In an address at Notre Dame University some years ago, atheist Sam Harris referred to belief in God as allowing, “perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions what only lunatics could believe on their own.”
On Sunday mornings, at the age of eight or so, my siblings and I would don our ‘Sunday best’ and traipse down to St. Patrick’s Church in Monkstown for mass. Yes, we did indeed have outfits reserved solely for appearances at Sunday mass, said outfits to be immediately removed on our subsequent arrival back home – before we were allowed out on the street to play with our friends.
So, seated in the church amongst hundreds of our fellow parishioners, we would listen to the hypnotic drone of the priest’s voice as he delivered the liturgy. We sang familiar hymns without attending too closely to the meaning of the lyrics. We would smell the alluring scent of incense and partake of a dry sliver of ‘bread’ that more often than not stuck to the roof of your mouth and could best be described as having all the flavour of cardboard. How any of us knew what cardboard was supposed to taste like is a matter for another day!
Mass would (eventually) end and we would emerge from the subdued light of the church into the near-blinding Sunday morning sunshine, energised and mentally prepared for whatever trials or tribulations chanced upon our relatively uncomplicated lives in the days ahead.
In my case I would race home and change into my rugby gear. Sunday mornings were made most exciting in those days by my weekly excursion to mini-rugby practice, around the corner at Blackrock College RFC’s ground in Stradbrook. After an hour of running around muddy pitches we were always treated to biscuits and orange. A rare treat indeed in the late seventies and early eighties, when the same fare would only be gifted upon us at home on the occasion of the annual Late Late Toy Show. Gabriel Byrne – take a posthumous bow!
Monday morning would come around all too soon. I would join my fellow-students reciting poetry, ‘ecoutez-ing and repetez-ing’ French verbs, bouncing basketballs around the gym for an hour at Physical Education (P.E.) and generally attempting to get away with as much youthful and harmless mayhem as possible when the inimitable Fr. Farquarson S. J. (R.I.P) wasn’t looking.
All of these activities, mass on Sunday, rugby training and school had one common thread. They were all performed in groups. None were performed alone.
As humans we are gregarious. We are in constant need of company. We enjoy being part of a like-minded group. It is good for our development as children to learn appropriate behaviours within group situations. After all, what is society only one big group of people comprising many other sub-groups? My rugby team was a group. My classmates were a group. The congregation at mass was a group – and so on and so forth.
Competent and all as I became at actively playing my part in a variety of group scenarios, as a teenager I also found myself developing a quiet contentedness when finding myself alone. In fact, so content did I find myself in my own company that I deliberately started to create situations where my thoughts were my own. As a fourteen year old I would go for walks at the seaside – a rare activity for other boys my age. They appeared to prefer ‘hanging round in groups like battle-weary troops.’ Chris de Burgh – take a bow!
Being alone afforded me the time, space and freedom to think for myself – without the ‘pressure’ of having to agree with the group mentality, without the ‘pressure’ of having to play the part assigned to me in the group. I could allow my thoughts to wander in whatever direction they chose – with the confidence that nobody would question my thinking or try to convince me of some other opinion.
The building of our own opinions should involve a combination of both group mentality and our own thought processes. A rounded view of the world is best formed with contributions from others as well as our own inner musings. It is critical that we find a balance between these two contributors to ultimately achieve a balanced view of the world. Too much of the group opinion renders us like sheep bleating in a field and too little input from a range of our peers is typically precursor to extremist views which rarely benefit ourselves or those around us, assuming, of course, that the opinions of the groups we frequent are themselves already finely balanced and equitable.
And thus I found myself in class at the age of fourteen, calling into question the teachings of one Mr. Fitzpatrick (his first name escapes me). An attempted interjection was summarily dismissed without explanation as he continued a diatribe on the benefits of belief in God for moral fortitude. I’m not even sure it was a religion class we were in but his rant is nonetheless as clear in my memory now as if it had just been delivered this very moment. So convinced was I that his refusal to allow me to air my opinion was going to continue that I stood up and headed for the door. He turned towards me enquiring as to my motivation for leaving. I informed him that I was no longer interested in listening to him if he was not prepared to listen to me. I further went on to liken his refusal to listen to an alternative opinion as being similar behaviour to that of an infamous German tyrant associated with the genocide of millions of Jewish people during the 1940s.
My jibe had more than a little substance to it. Corporal punishment had been outlawed in Irish schools the previous year but Fitzpatrick (please note my deliberate omission of the ‘Mr.’ as a mark of my continued disrespect thirty-four years later) was known to still favour (and practice) the clipping of the odd ear. In fact, he was subsequently dismissed from the school for continuing to administer said clippings, a couple of years after the new corporal punishment regulations had been enacted into law. I digress.
As I opened the classroom door to make my exit, something occurred to me with such clarity as to render me helpless to my next move. I was going to leave a lasting impression on this bully of a man. I turned to him, raised a straight right arm towards the ceiling at an angle of about forty five degrees and uttered the immortal words, “Seig heil, mein fuhrer!” The gasps from my classmates still reverberate as I recall the incident. Looking back on it now, I can see that I had reached a point where, not only was I starting to think for myself but, I had also found the ‘brass monkeys’ to stand up for my opinions in the face of authoritarian suppression. Little has changed in the interim except maybe my ability to recognise the appropriate time and place to express my opinions – however contrarian they may be.
Sam Harris, in the same speech at Notre Dame, opined that for an otherwise intelligent person to suggest that God is ‘good’ when good things occur but ‘mysterious’ when bad things happen is not only tiresome but also morally reprehensible. I would particularly like to focus on Harris’ use of ‘intelligent person’ in that statement.
He, justifiably and correctly, infers that people who are less intelligent can be forgiven for believing the Christian doctrine of God’s ‘mysterious’ ways. Otherwise he wouldn’t have included the ‘intelligent’ qualification. The statement would have otherwise meant that ALL people who believe and repeat this doctrine are morally reprehensible, which would have completely alienated him from his target audience. In this situation I think Harris is balancing his own ‘brass monkeys’ with the message he is trying to convey to his audience and the balancing act is performed to the detriment of the message. Reading between the lines, anyone who believes the Christian doctrine that God moves in mysterious ways (when things go wrong for humanity) either hasn’t thought it through for themselves or is being deliberately deceitful, perhaps for some greater purpose they are unwilling to admit. And I think we are now coming to the crux of the reason for the continued existence and proliferation of religious doctrines, be they Christian, Muslim, Mormon or otherwise.
People without the intelligence or time to think long and hard about the truth of religious doctrines simply accept, because they have a need to believe and must accept, what they are told. Whereas, those with both the time and intelligence to do that thinking should absolutely never come to the conclusion that religious doctrine resembles any form of philosophical truth.
There seems only one conclusion. Religious leaders either lack intelligence or are being deceitful. I am firmly of the belief that they are being deceitful. They are some of the most educated men on the planet. They have read and thought extensively about their respective religious doctrines and come to the conclusion that the best solution for humanity is to allow (and urge) us to believe in God. Why? For the very reason I outlined above. The vast majority of believers have neither the ability nor the time to think things through for themselves and it is absolutely impossible, for those that do, to reach any conclusion other than that God, or any god, is a complete and utter myth, a fabrication created in the minds of men who condescendingly decided, on behalf of humanity, that it makes for an easier life to believe rather than not.
The question then becomes, should we, who have ourselves discovered the absolutely ridiculousness of the respective religious doctrines we have inherited, continue to pretend to believe – for the greater good of those following in our footsteps. Or, should we voice the truth we have found in the hope that those who listen search for (and hopefully) find for themselves a truer sense of what it means to be fallible and mortal?
Pascal’s Wager suggests that we are better off placing our faith in the existence of God, that the odds are stacked in favour of those who believe. If God doesn’t exist we have lost very little but, if He does, we have gained everything by remaining faithful. But, there is a glaring problem with the wager. One cannot, in truth, pretend to believe in something in the hope that the pretence will prove correct. If you don’t believe in something you simply don’t believe in it. Present yourself to an all-knowing God at the gates of heaven and request entry on the basis of your lifelong pretence at belief. How do you expect He will respond? At least you can vociferously argue that you remained true to your lack of belief, should you discover you were wrong and suddenly find yourself in need of a reason to back up your request for passage through the gates.
If the truth sets us free then I am free. Free from the wrath of a mythical God whose existence was ‘bullied’ into my psyche by so many priests and teachers (and, incidentally, my own parents) who either intelligently decided it was for my own good or unintelligently just carried out their duty as they saw it. I have long since forgiven each and every one of them for their deceit – whether intentioned or not. In respect of me, and me alone, they knew not what they were doing!
The gods – claimed to exist by the multitude of religions practicing their doctrines all over the world – are utter figments of the imaginations of those who created them and the leaders of those religions are highly intelligent men continuing to practice an insurmountable deception – having decided on behalf of humanity that it is for the greater good.
Most people have a spiritual need for those mythical gods to exist. I do not. I prefer to watch my fellow man run with a rugby ball, cheer on his efforts, advise him when I can, watch his progress and speak well of him when the final whistle blows. I may have flipped a mental coin before the match in Bordeaux but at least I was the one flipping the coin and not just supporting the team because I was born in their town. I may have been carried along by the raucous chanting and singing of the congregation in the stadium but, afterwards, over a burger and chips, my reasoned analysis of the game was based on a match I had seen with my own eyes.
I will always be a supporter of UBB, not because they won but because I left Bordeaux that night proud of their efforts in the face of massive adversity. Clermont-Auvergne are a vastly more wealthy team, with infinitely more experienced players in almost every position. In some small way I think we all like to root for the underdog and applaud his success when it happens. Unfortunately, in matters of religion the vast majority of us prefer to support the favourite. The odds for success, apparently, are better! Paddy Power – take a bow!
Ref: Sam Harris speech at Notre Dame on YouTube at time of writing – https://youtu.be/AcO4TnrskE0