In response to a recently televised clip by Irish satirist website Waterford Whispers, Catholic Archbishop Eamon Martin published a tweet saying:
“I am shocked that producer/editor of ‘NYE Countdown Show’ @RTE @RTEOne didn’t realise how deeply offensive was a mocking ‘news report’ accusing God of rape & reporting his imprisonment. This outrageous clip should be removed immediately & denounced by all people of goodwill.”
He goes on to say that:
“To broadcast such a deeply offensive and blasphemous clip about God & Our Blessed Mother Mary during the Christmas season on ‘NYE Countdown Show’ on @RTE, @RTEOne & on Eve of the Solemn Feast of Mary, Mother of God is insulting to all Catholics and Christians.”
The clip was a mock year-in-review news bulletin, portrayed as a broadcast from satirical website Waterford Whispers News, where former RTÉ newsreader Aengus MacGrianna reads a report over video footage of a man dressed in white robes being led by gardaí from a court.
“A shocking revelation this year,” MacGrianna’s says, “God became the latest figure to be implicated in the ongoing sexual harassment scandal.
The five-billion-year-old stood accused of forcing himself on a young Middle Eastern migrant and allegedly impregnating her against her will before being sentenced to two years in prison, with the last 24 months suspended. Following the news, movie producer Harvey Weinstein requested a retrial in Ireland.”
The Archbishop’s reaction and subsequent opinions are his own. He is entitled to them and I have no objection to his public expression of same – although Twitter seems to me to be an ever-so-slightly-less-than-appropriate forum for such a ‘weighty’ initiation of religious debate by such an esteemed authority as an Archbishop. Does the Pope have a Twitter account?
I have both a minor and a major issue with the Archbishop’s statement.
Minor is his amateur attempt to augment his argument by stating that his shock was all the more severe given that the clip was broadcast during the ‘Christmas season… & on Eve of the Solemn Feast of Mary, Mother of God.’ There is an obvious inference here and it is this. The timing of the broadcast appears to insult the Archbishop all the more to the extent that we can safely assume his shock would have been less severe if the clip had been published at some other time of the year.
The national broadcaster, to its credit, appears to defend the clip while simultaneously apologising for any offence caused.
“RTE recognises that matters which can cause offence naturally differ from person to person, within comedy and satire in particular.”
The major problem I have with the Archbishop’s statement is that once again we have a case of the Catholic Church (albeit it an Archbishop – middle management) maintaining the position that everything it stands for is inviolate and must not be questioned (whether in seriousness or satirically) despite the countless examples of dogmas that have been discarded over the centuries of its existence.
The institution of the Church will always and stubbornly remain steadfast in its beliefs until overwhelming evidence to the contrary is presented authoritatively – and even then may resist. What the Archbishop fails to recognise publicly on this occasion, although I suspect privately he is well aware of, is the obvious satire contained within the clip.
The sheer hypocrisy (and subsequent atrocities – although not in this instance) demonstrated by Islamic fundamentalists when Charlie Hebdo published a satirical cartoon of Muhammad has once again been displayed by a religious leader, only this time that leader is not an Islamic fundamentalist but rather a conservative Catholic Archbishop appointed by Rome.
Whether Rome agrees with Eamon Martin remains to be seen but is largely inconsequential in my estimation.
Christians would have you believe that everything is preordained by God but, if this is indeed the case, then ‘free will’ – in which Christians also believe – is an illusion.
Multiple times a day we have to make a choice between ‘A’ or ‘B’ but how can it be a free choice if the outcome has already been determined by God? And how much pressure do Christians feel – having to make the right choice (even with the smallest little things) if the wrong choice would mess up God’s plan – not only for them but for all mankind? No man is an island!
In fact, if you think about it, a Christian’s whole existence is essentially that of a mere pawn on a chessboard – with a seemingly infinite number of squares and possible moves! Either every move for every pawn has already been preordained by God or each individual man, woman and child on earth has a real and actual freedom to choose his or her own move – as and when the choices arise.
From a purely mathematical standpoint, the possible permutations of even a single person’s choices (over the course of, say, a life lasting seventy-five years) are so incalculable as to render the notion of theistic determinism improbable! The notion becomes increasingly improbable when the choices of the entire population of the earth (not just at the present time but right back to when Eve first bit into her apple and on until whatever point in time mankind ceases to exist) are considered. And the permutations of all these choices were supposedly included in the one and only original plan – drawn up by God even before the first man drew breath. I saw some seriously deep decision trees throughout my career as a Computer Scientist but both the width and depth of the decision tree for God’s plan would take the proverbial biscuit if the permutations of billions of people’s free choices were to be depicted!
The simultaneous existence of preordination and free will is a concept which demonstrates the very essence of mutual exclusivity. It is, at its core, an utterly irreconcilable paradox.
I have neither the time nor the ability to discover if the plan I have for my own life coincides with God’s plan for me! So, I am left with little choice but to carry on regardless and with as much humility as I can muster, consider the life I live as being closer to that of the master (of my own destiny) rather than a slave to some predetermined plan.
It is in our nature to desire a sense of control over our own destiny. Without that sense of control we tend towards catatonia, numbly accepting whatever fate awaits us. Determinism, however stochastic, leaves us kneeling at the feet of some omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent planner, heads bowed in prayers for guidance, forgiveness, mercy, understanding and redemption – a cowering crowd of quivering pawns, awaiting the hand of God to reach down and move us to our designated squares on the board.
If, in the end, I am wrong and I am indeed a constituent part of some greater plan – well, at least it felt like I had some sort of control over my own destiny at the time.
If you have a wristwatch, glance at it now and mark the time. Alternatively check your phone or the task bar of your computer screen. What time is it?
As I write, the latest Spacex / NASA mission is preparing to launch four astronauts to the ISS. It was due to take place yesterday but was postponed due to unfavourable weather conditions. With all the accuracy of the instruments on board, the computers charged with manning the mission and the lives of the people involved, it was still feasible to postpone due to the weather.
Timekeeping, as we know it, was really only significantly developed by the Egyptians about 3,000 years ago when, using a primitive sundial, they first divided the hours of sunlight into twelve distinct segments. The further division of those hours into minutes and seconds really only became possible with the invention of mechanical clocks which could maintain a consistent ‘beat’ or’ tick’. How we keep time now and the intricacies of Universal Time Code (UTC) are superfluous to this discussion, suffice to note the stark contrast between the accuracy of a modern-day atomic clock and the observation of a shadow cast by a stick in the ground.
It is easy to imagine prehistoric man heading off for a day’s hunting and telling his ‘wife’ that he would be home before the shadow of the tree pointed to the large black rock on the other side of the clearing. She no doubt would have had some approximate idea as to when she should expect him to return but would not necessarily begin to fret were he a few ‘minutes’ late. The accuracy of their clock was open to a little interpretation. Although it is equally easy to imagine her remonstrations if his return was delayed beyond the setting of the sun – at which time she would justifiably begin to wonder if he had taken up residence in the cave of her younger and infinitely better-looking neighbour. I digress!
Let me get back on track by posing a question based on the old adage that ‘necessity is the mother of invention.’
Although unconfirmed, it certainly appears possible that the Egyptians realised the need for a better method of delineating the hours of the day out of sheer and continuous frustration with the fact that they were unable to arrange (and attend) important meetings with sufficient accuracy. If the shadow stick in the centre of the city was the only point of reference, it meant that anyone wishing to know the time would first have to travel to the stick to observe the shadows. Rather than just glancing at the watch on your wrist, if you lived in Egypt back in the day, a trip to the city centre was required – to view the shadow cast by the stick.
But what if, when you arrived, you were early – or even worse, late? The Egyptians obviously resolved to define the day in terms of twelve segments – to make more efficient use of the daylight hours. As a society develops, interactions between its members become more frequent and the necessity to efficiently delineate the day into some commonly-agreed segments becomes critical. We have been getting increasingly ‘accurate’ in our timekeeping ever since which, naturally, brings with it an inherent frustration when good timekeeping is absent.
A couple of years ago I was able to claim €400 when my Ryanair flight was delayed for over four hours. Clearly the airline industry relies on exacting standards of timekeeping to maintain services at optimum levels but it is not just the airline industry that suffers when standards lapse. Virtually every item of digital equipment we take for granted in our modern lives has some sort of timekeeping device underlying its operation. From the microwave oven in the kitchen to the communications satellite orbiting the planet, the exact marking of the time of day is virtually ubiquitous.
Ultra-exact timekeeping devices of today rely on the electromagnetic signal emitted from a Caesium atom (to an inaccuracy of perhaps 1 second in 30 millions years) whereas those of our ancestral cave-dwellers were based solely on the length or direction of a shadow, determined by the position of the planet with respect to the sun.
Somewhere in between these two timekeeping methods we now live our lives but, admittedly, it would be unfair to request a meeting with someone at 12:03.
So, for the convenience of both parties, we round our meetings to the nearest hour, half, quarter, sixth or twelfth of an hour. It is notable that we have not yet become so busy as to begin requesting meetings in terms of less than a five minute window. Were someone to ask to see me at 12:03 I would happily walk into the meeting at 12:00 or 12:05 without feeling the need to apologise for the lapse in my timekeeping. In fact, I would probably feel obliged to make some throwaway comment on their own timekeeping system!
But, if we are becoming increasingly accurate in our observance of time, there is no reason to believe that this trend might not continue – to the point that those sub-five-minute time slots for meetings start becoming commonplace. I, for one, do not wish to live in a world where one is so busy that five minutes one way or the other becomes critical to success or failure.
As a kid, I used to run everywhere – constantly afraid I was going to be late for something. I rarely was and that running behaviour has long-since ceased. If I arrive a little late (usually due to some uncontrollable external influence) I will make my apologies but it is typically of no great catastrophe and of no real consequence in the overall scheme of things.
Man invented the concept of an hour, a minute, a second, a millisecond and so on down to the single electromagnetic pulse from the Caesium atom but, thus far, the five minute segment has stood us in good stead. If Spacex and NASA can wait 24 hours, surely you can take 5 minutes for yourself!
Note: this article should take an average reader less than 5 minutes to read.
The post (somewhat eerily) suggested readers ‘like’ a photograph of a weeping ‘Virgin Mary’ and type ‘Amen’ in the comments section below – to receive a miracle within the hour! I have redacted any identifying information to save the blushes of the muppets!
Instead of ‘Amen’, I typed:
You will receive a kick up the hole if you keep sharing this shite!
I received the following reply in a private message:
How dare you challenge the power of God!
To which, at some length, I replied:
If we take the reactions of people on Facebook to this post as a population sample of humanity, a number of questions occur.
At the time of writing there were 21,000 emoticons. There are 6 emoticon options (i.e. Like, Love, Wow, Haha, Sad & Angry) but only 3 are used — Like, Love and Sad.
Likes number approximately 20,000 with ‘Love’ & ‘Sad’ making up the (residual) balance. Liking and loving a post are the most popular options used by all Facebook users. It can be assumed (with a reasonable amount of confidence) that the ‘Sad’ reaction is due to the fact that the image depicts a woman crying (let us also assume the image is a replica of the Virgin Mary — from Christian teaching).
Despite the poster requesting that viewers both ‘Like’ and type ‘Amen’ to recieve [sic] a miracle, there are only 15,300 comments — which means (on the presumption that most of the comments are actually ‘Amen’ — I have not taken the time to scroll through them all) approximately 5,500 people fulfilled only half of the poster’s request — despite fulfilment of the request only requiring a couple of seconds to complete.
The principle questions uppermost in my mind are
1. If receipt of a miracle is considered to be as significant a life event as it should be among those that believe miracles are, in fact, possible, why have only (approximately) 75% of viewers completed both requirements i.e. like and type ‘Amen’?
2. Why have so many people responded at all?
It is to the second question I would like to turn my attention — the first appears to require more time than I have — given all the potential variables. I garner from the viral nature of the post that there is a deep-seated need in humanity. Remember, I started with the assumption that the responders to the post represent a sample population — and although the nature of the population raises more questions (e.g. what age range, beliefs are represented) — we must at least start somewhere in the absence of extensive data analysis!
The deep-seated need I refer to is the occurrence of a miracle — that miracle to be delivered by some higher power within the next hour. Let’s turn to the belief that there actually is a higher power that can deliver the promise — albeit a promise made by a member of Facebook. I think I am fairly safe making the assumption here that the poster is human — unless of course God himself is (at least) 13 years of age, has an email address, signed up to Facebook and created an account under the name of the poster — which would be deceptive of one not known for acts of deception — clearly, I am of the opinion that God fulfils none of these Facebook requirements — apart from maybe being old enough to have a Facebook account!
21,000 people (at the time of writing) have completed (or partially completed) the poster’s request to ‘Like’ and type ‘Amen’. Do they truly believe that this promised miracle will become a reality? Well — some probably do. Are they complying in the hope that the miracle will come true? Some probably are. Have some ‘liked’ on the off-chance a miracle is heading their way? Yes! Have a certain proportion responded because they simply like the concept of miracles. That could also be a valid explanation.
Ultimately though, 21,000 viewers have (for one reason or another) taken a few seconds to respond. I contend that a significant majority of the responders actually do believe (to some degree or another) that a miracle can occur and, further, believe in the higher power (i.e. God) who will deliver the promised miracle.
I am going to ignore the fact that they appear to believe in God and focus more on the fact that they have taken a few seconds to respond — for whatever reason.
When responding, were the viewers thinking of a miracle which would benefit themselves or were they thinking of a miracle which could be applied to someone they know in need of such an event? Let’s ignore those that were responding on behalf of someone else (in some perceived need of a miracle) and now focus on those that responded in the hope of receiving the miracle for themselves alone. Let’s give the benefit of the doubt to everyone who responded except one. So, to continue, I am going to assume that only 1 out of 21,000 people who responded was hoping to receive a miracle which would benefit him (or her) alone. Although I suspect my generosity is far over-reaching with respect to reality, I am minimising my presumptions of the 21,000 to bring you to the next paragraph — which states the case for my reasoning in no uncertain terms.
To hope (and or pray) for a miracle for oneself is the most selfish act of belief in God possible! Belief in God presupposes an all-knowing and all-loving (omnipotent) entity. Surely then, knowing absolutely everything about you, God is sufficiently wise (and loving) without needing your prayers or aspirations to guide or implement the divine design for your life he has already created? I feel sure I should be capitalising the ‘H’ in ‘he’ but I’ll carry on — regardless.
Deferring to some external (unseen) entity in the hope or belief that
a. the entity exists
b. the entity can hear and listens and
c. the entity has the ‘power’ to implement
is part and parcel of all belief systems. Making a request for a miracle to benefit oneself, however, is nothing more than self-serving.
Additionally, to believe on the one hand God has a divine plan for each and every man, woman and child and, to then, with the other hand, pray for a miracle — contradicts (in an instant) the very nature of belief (and understanding) of God’s omnipotence — to the point of self-deception!
In closing, it must be said that if the act of praying (e.g. giving thanks, praising) satiates the mind or heart of a ‘troubled’ person, then I have no argument with that person’s need to pray. In fact, I would wholeheartedly recommend it. However, giving thanks or praising God are NOT the same as praying for a miracle. Even the simple act of praying for something ‘realistic’ (i.e. not some pie-in-the-sky miracle) for oneself is foolhardy! If you believe that God has already designed your life from start to finish — remember he’s busy enough implementing that — without having to make significant changes to the design because you prayed for a miracle. If you must pray for miracles — pray for them to benefit someone else. Your altruism might just convince God to put in ‘a little overtime’ — altering the design for your chosen recipient’s life!
Lord, I could do with a couple of thousand extra euro this month to pay off my credit card debts after the Christmas craziness!
Remember the plan for your life you believe God has designed? How could you possibly know if the miracle you are praying for is part of it? In all likelihood, it isn’t — so are you just chancing your arm that it might be? That’s not prayer! That’s just downright, plain ignorance — and folly!
Invariably, miracles DO NOT happen. Apparently, anecdotal evidence over an extended period of time (how long has the human race existed on earth?) would suggest, for the vast majority of believers, that’s NOT the way God works!
But maybe, just maybe, if you like the post and type ‘Amen’ (go on — sure it’ll only take a few seconds) this Facebook member can make it happen for you — within the next hour. You are far more likely to receive a kick up the hole from me (regardless of your geographic location on the planet or ability to run away) than a miracle from God. Do you play the lottery? Best of luck!
I share here four years later by way of reiterating my position at the time, that position not having changed and being nicely summed up by the title of this post. Praying for miracles is just downright foolish!
I confess to having a morbid fascination with the lives of serial killers which has manifested itself of late as regular (and often long into the early hours) YouTube sessions, learning about all the famous (and some not-so-famous) psychopaths down through the ages. Apparently, if the YouTube view-counts are anything to go by, I’m not the only one!
I don’t have any particular favourite serial killers. After all, how would one go about selecting the criteria by which to choose a favourite serial killer anyway?! However, despite having some empathy with their confinement predicament and possibly as a consequence of my overexposure on YouTube to the environment where these killers live their lives, I have built up a heightened fear of ever having to spend any significant amount of time in prison. Sure, that particular fear has always existed but it seems that my increased exposure to the realities of life behind bars on Youtube has recently brought that fear to the forefront of my consciousness.
The most valuable asset we have in life, although possibly running a close second to our health, is our freedom. Getting up in the morning and walking out the front door is an activity most of us take for granted. Not so the prisoner. So, in thinking about exactly what my freedom means to me, I’m temporarily surrounding myself with bars and walls – to get a greater sense of why we fear prison so much – or should.
The worst possible loss of freedom must certainly be the isolation unit in a prison – where one is confined alone to a cell for twenty-three hours a day and only allowed out to exercise for that other hour. If the stories are to be believed, extended isolation very often drives a prisoner over the edge into the realms of insanity. I am reminded of ‘Papillon’ with his head stuck out through the hatch in the door for the guard to shave him, turning to the prisoner in the next cell and asking how he looked, not having seen his own reflection for many years. ‘Great,’ his neighbour replies, despite the obvious ravages of time evident on Papillon’s face. The total absence of other human beings with which to communicate certainly seems like hell on earth. We are, by nature, gregarious.
In contrast, being in general population (or ‘Gen Pop’ as I have discovered it is known colloquially) doesn’t actually appear to be all that bad! At least you can talk to other people and, even if they don’t want to respond, you at least have a sense of their physical presence in the space you occupy – unlike solitary confinement.
Everything, even being in prison with a total loss of physical freedom, is relative. Positives can always be found – even in the most dire of circumstances. However, in analysing our own lives, we often compare ourselves to people who appear to be doing better in life. While this may appear to be an errant approach, it is absolutely natural and healthy to do so. Without seeing how others have improved their lives we would have no reference points for strategies to improve our own. Role models are essential.
But where we often appear to go wrong is in defining what we consider to be improvement. What are we actually looking for in the search to optimise the life we live? What is the goal and is it worth the effort to achieve? Ultimately, we are all searching for that elusive ‘happiness’. I have some bad news. Happiness is unattainable! At least, it is unattainable for any extended period of time. Happiness, in my experience, is a fleeting sensation, often quickly replaced by the harsh realities of life.
I like nothing better than to lie on a sun-soaked beach in the afternoon, watching the clouds go by while listening to my favourite tunes in my earphones. This is my ‘happy’ place. But if I stay there for any longer than a couple of hours I get bored – not to mind risk a serious sunburn. Eventually I have to pack up and leave the beach. There’s always something else to be done.
So, if I know that the beach is the thing that makes me happy – albeit temporarily – then all the other things I do to facilitate that time at the beach are necessary activities for my happiness.
So, let’s get practical. To go to the beach I need to drive. It’s too far from home to walk or cycle and there is no public transport. The car needs to be taxed, insured and fuelled which means I need to earn money. To earn money I need to work. So, to spend time at the beach in my happy place, I need to work.
I am fortunate enough to have a job that I love and never think (or complain to others) that my job is boring or tedious or ‘dragging me down’. But many people are not so fortunate and find themselves ‘slaving away’ in jobs they simply hate! It is easy to suggest the logic above when attempting to empathise with their predicament, reminding them that they are working to facilitate those moments of happiness but, it is incumbent upon each and every one of us to individually ascertain why it is we are working in jobs we simply cannot abide and what those moments of happiness are. There are only two possible outcomes:
1. Change nothing – the moments of happiness you already have are what you want
2. Find (or redefine) what makes you happy and make changes to facilitate that happiness
None of this can be done if you have not defined what makes you happy. Do that first and every other decision should fall into place, however difficult those decisions may appear to be at first. Those fleeting moments of happiness are the goal so, grab the bull by the proverbial horns and make those changes – and make them now. If not now, when?
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!
And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”Genesis 2:16
The chronology of events in the Garden of Eden shows that God commanded Adam before Eve arrived on the scene. But, Eve was certainly aware of the command not to eat the fruit from the tree. She indicated as much when she spoke with the serpent:
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden and you must not touch it or you will die.'”Genesis 3:2
Either God repeated the ‘rule’ for her or Adam passed on the message at some stage. I suspect the latter is true since God, in His typically misogynistic manner, created Eve merely as a ‘helper’ for Adam. Regardless, they were both aware of the warning by the time the serpent came slitherin’ along. But, let’s just take the serpent out of the equation for a moment and have Adam and Eve wander around for a couple weeks eating the fruit from every tree except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I’m reminded of poor ‘Ralph’ in William Golding’s ‘Lord of the flies’. The diarrhoea must have been something wicked on a diet of nothing but fruit! Anyway, they pass the tree a few times and remember that they were told not to eat its fruit – on penalty of death. Wait! Adam and Eve are the first humans on earth and – up to this point – nothing (and definitely nobody) has died. Where did they acquire their knowledge of the concept of death?
OK. Let’s just assume, for the sake of continuity, that God has already provided an explanation of death to them (whatever that might be), so that they understand the severity of the penalty should they eat the forbidden fruit. Although, having said that, we are barely into the third chapter of Genesis (the first book of the sixty-six books of the Bible – that we know about) and the assumptions are already adding up. Maybe we should just read it like we do our favourite fiction writers – suspending belief for the greater good. But, as is so often the case, I’m digressing again!
Why put the tree there in the first place, unless God deliberately wanted to test their ability to obey i.e. not succumb to the temptation of eating the fruit they have been told will result in death? It is quite possible that they passed that tree umpteen times and refrained from eating the fruit to the point that God decided He needed to ‘up the ante’. Enter stage left, another one of God’s creations – the serpent.
So, God tells Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit from a tree he put there and they are deceived into eating the fruit by a serpent that God also put there. What game is God playing?
We’re moving into Walt Disney territory now – with a serpent that openly converses with Eve. We know the serpent isn’t human – there are only two of those on earth at this point. So, the serpent is either a figment of Eve’s imagination (manifest by her desire to succumb to temptation) or it must be an animal of some sort. The latter appears more in keeping with the narrative. The interpretation down through the ages has been that the serpent is some sort of snake – at least it has been portrayed as such in images associated with the official repetition of the story. So, we have a talking snake, tempting Eve to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A talking snake which we must assume is another one of God’s creations since He has just been credited with creating every living being on earth.
At the tender age of 12 and accustomed to top marks for creative writing, I received a considerably upsetting deduction of one point (9/10) from Daniel McNelis, my English teacher, for an essay which referred to (the pathetic fallacy of) a bridge which experienced human-like stresses as thousands of soldiers crossed it. The author of Genesis 3 deserves a similar deduction for attributing human abilities to a snake. While talking snakes most certainly appeal to the infinitely-flexible imaginations of the younger generation, arguably the most indoctrinable target market for such cartoons, it beggars adult belief that the physiological evolution of the snake has deteriorated in the interim, having its magnificent ability to (albeit it sibilantly) chat with humans replaced with an unintelligible ‘hiss’ and a flicking of its devilishly-forked tongue!
But, you might say, God gave Adam and Eve free will to choose not to heed the serpent’s exhortations, not to eat the fruit. You would be spot on with such a precisely-timed sequitur. I would immediately counter with the fact that he certainly did appear to grant them ‘free will’, but that ‘free will’ is actually not as free as it might seem. God intervened in the ‘free will’ process by introducing a test. Why else would he create a ‘crafty’ serpent to appear in the garden and tempt them?
The next question can only be: What did God expect them to do? Wait! He created them. Just as a computer programmer decides the outcome of a decision in code, God knew exactly what options were available no matter what Adam and Eve decided to do. In programming we call it an ‘if/else’ statement. In this case, if: they succumb to temptation they will die else: they live forever.
But up until this point they had not yet eaten the forbidden fruit so God pushes them a little harder by introducing the serpent to the plot. This would be analogous to the computer programmer testing his software by deliberately ensuring a particular path is executed in the code. In this case the ‘disobedience’ path. But, ensuring one path is executed is not ‘free will’. It eliminates the choice from the process and makes me wonder if God didn’t have a few more tricks up his sleeve should the serpent have proven unsuccessful. Remember, nothing in Christianity happens without the preordination of God. He is all-powerful, all-present and, most notably in this case, all-knowing. So, He must have known the serpent would be sufficient to tempt Eve and that Eve would subsequently pass her ‘weakness’ on to Adam.
Incidentally, it appears Adam didn’t have much of a backbone. When accused by God he instantly blames Eve for his digression. Jesus Christ, take responsibility for your own actions Adam or as we say these days, take it like a man. In this case, take it like the first man on earth instead of passing the buck to your good lady wife, weak and all as she has proven herself to be by succumbing to the temptations of the serpent!
God’s barking of the rule – to not eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – appears to have lacked the bite that one would correctly assume should follow. Adam and Eve disobeyed the rule but neither died. Well, not for another 930 years anyway, in which time, first, Cain and Abel were born to the couple. We are then told that Adam was 130 years old when another son, Seth, was born. It’s not categorically stated who Seth’s mother was but the assumption (given no evidence of an alternative) is that Eve’s biological maternity clock was still ticking along nicely at the ripe old age of 130 – ish. If the time-based limitations of the present-day female birth-cycle are reasonably used as a basis for calculation, it appears more likely that Seth’s mother was one of Adam’s own great-grand-daughters but let’s not allow our modern sensitivities, with respect to the nature of incestuous relationships, deny the truth of the biblical text. I’m still wondering what age Adam actually was when God created him – and Eve for that matter. Were they already adults or were they new-born children? Again, a serious lack of detail on the part of the author(s) leaves the making of (often outrageous) assumptions as the only reasonable course of action!
Let’s assume, again for the sake of continuity, that by using the word ‘die’ in his original threat, God meant they would ‘eventually’ die – when they got old or at some distant point in the future. This presupposes that He originally meant that they would never die, that they would live forever. Otherwise, the threat of death would be meaningless – that proberbial bark without a bite to which I have already alluded. So, what was the point of having a ‘tree of life’ in the garden as well as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? If God, as the text appears to suggest, had originally intended for Adam and Eve to live forever, they would have no need to eat the fruit from the tree of life – they were going to live forever anyway. Whoever wrote this shit clearly hasn’t considered all the angles! I’ll get back to the tree of life a little later in this article. It really should have been called the ‘tree of contradiction’!
The alternative is that He meant they would instantly die, which is more in keeping with the nature of a threat as we know it today. If we don’t obey the laws of the land in civil society the justice system, as it should, deals with us. While it often takes some time after the offense, the system does attempt to punish as quickly and efficiently as it can. The threat of disobeying the rules of society is a punishment laid down in the statutes of that society. Should you commit murder, there are over thirty states in the USA that potentially have the terrors of death-row waiting for you. The statute does not intend for you to go to death row when you are older or at some stage in the future. It intends for punishment to be as swift as possible – despite the various delays incumbent in the processing of most modern-day death sentences. At least you are given the benefit of a trial by a jury of your peers. No such luxury was afforded Adam and Eve. A jury of twelve peers would have been hard to find!
So, God presided alone over the hapless couple in the ‘Court of Eden’ and instantly sentenced them to a different set of trials and tribulations – not the death penalty with which He had first threatened them. There must have been unmentioned and extenuating factors he took into consideration before passing sentence!
Eve was sentenced to labour pains and obeying Adam’s rules who, it appears from a literal reading of the text, has suddenly become her husband. Really? In a single statement, God shows Himself to be a sadist, a misogynist and a matchmaker! Well, two out of three are unforgiveable for a god! The matchmaking is unavoidable – Tinder, with only two active members.
Poor Adam, his crime having involved nothing more than joining (his new wife) Eve in the consumption of what must have been the most delicious fruit ever, was sentenced to – wait for it – farming!
As an aside, it’s not clear when we started specifying that the fruit was actually an apple. There is no clear indication in any biblical texts other than references to ‘fruit’. I have lived the better part of my life under the illusion that the variety of apple colloquially known as ‘Granny Smith’ has been around since the days of Adam and Eve!
A great irony surrounding the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is that modern-day theologians repeatedly argue that without a belief in God, humanity would be bereft of morality. At its core, morality is an awareness of the difference between right and wrong, between good and evil. God forbade Adam and Eve from eating the fruit that would actually teach them the difference between right and wrong but, since they did, theists might as well add it to their principal list of arguments for the existence of God. The story of Adam and Eve teaches us that we need God to learn morality, they say. How convenient! How magnificently erroneous!
To be clear, we do NOT need God (or religion) to be morally upstanding citizens. Good role models (parents, teachers, peers etc) are sufficient to ensure we develop into morally decent adults. Granted, it may have been because Adam and Eve had no parents or peers that God intended for them to listen to Him – a substitute teacher if you will. But it must be simultaneously granted that He ultimately intended for them to disobey Him at some stage. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil wasn’t just an ornament in the Garden of Eden! Forbidding them to eat its fruit was an easy precursor to what would follow, knowing full well they would eventually disobey and pluck its fruit. When they didn’t He introduced the serpent. For a father-figure to ‘up the ante’ to ensure the outcome He wanted reeks heavily of the disingenuous, moves swiftly passed deliberate and unavoidable entrapment and, given the consequences for every single human being that followed, quickly ascends all the way up to the lofty heights of pure evil. To use another passage from the ‘good’ book, the sins of the father have ever since been visited upon the sons – and daughters. Free will my hole! Do what you are told or suffer the consequences would be more like it.
I would be falling short of a thorough analysis (of chapters two and three of Genesis) if I didn’t mention again the other tree in the centre of the Garden of Eden, the tree of life. God apparently ‘discovers’ that Adam might also eat from this tree and live forever so, he immediately banishes him from the garden. The contradiction in respect of a God that is supposedly all-knowing is overwhelmingly obvious. If I were all-knowing, there would never be anything to ‘discover’. I would already know everything!
The only logical conclusion here is that either God or the author is ‘winging it’ – making it up as He (or he) goes along. Not very ‘God-like’ I think you’ll agree? Sounds to me more like a writer furiously penning word after word, sentence after sentence without retracing his steps to ensure the quilt isn’t too patchy. Genesis 3 is more like a sieve than a patchwork quilt! While the plot is simplistic enough, the need for a complete suspension of belief (in the face of contradictions, the improbable and the downright impossible) is overwhelmingly difficult to swallow.
The litany of assumptions required to fill in the gaps in the story of Adam and Eve (where the author has lazily or deliberately omitted critical detail) makes it an incredibly easy convenience for believers to complete the story according to their own particular outlook. But, as Christopher Hitchen’s was contrarily fond of reminding us:
“That which is asserted without evidence can just as easily be dismissed without evidence.”
The ‘opening of their eyes’ also bequeathed upon Adam and Eve one final insult, the effects of which have evolved over time but have nonethess plagued humanity ever since. Immediately after taking their respective bites of the fruit, both Adam and Eve discovered they were naked. Their first reaction to eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was to discover they were naked. The inference here is as clear as the hand in front of your face. Nudity is evil. The best interpretation I can offer for this ‘dilemma’ is that they became aware of their nudity as an analogous attempt to explain, or even initiate the concept of, self-consciousness. This verse (Genesis 3:6) was clearly added by one of Calvin Klein’s ancestors when nobody was looking – an astute businessman with an eye on manipulating the circumstances for profit. From fig leaves to boxer shorts indeed!
Our local McDonald’s in Malaga opened its doors a few days ago for the first time in eight weeks. I try to maintain a healthy diet during the week but allow myself a ‘junky’ treat on the weekend, indulging with a tasty burger and fries. However, it having been eight weeks since I had last indulged, I headed over there as soon as I heard they had reopened. As I was parking up I noticed an old man lifting the lids off the bins outside the restaurant and picking out leftovers. Normally I would silently express pity for him and carry on but, on this particular occasion, I reacted differently. I bought an extra burger and gave it to him when I came out.
“Esto es para ti,” I said, handing him the burger. He looked at me as if I was joking but took the burger from me nonetheless.
“Gracias,” he said.
“De nada,” I replied as I walked away to take a seat in the outdoor terraced area. It really didn’t feel like ‘nothing’ at all to buy a hungry man a burger but that was the polite thing to say under the circumstances. I didn’t want to make a big deal of it. My mind, however, had other ideas!
As I sat eating I ignored my phone and thought about the true nature of altruism instead. I wondered why, on this occasion, rather than any other, I had been motivated to act as I did. Was it because I genuinely wanted to help a hungry man or was there something else at play?
Before I continue, I would like to make it clear that I am not writing this in the hope that readers will congratulate me for my apparently selfless act. In fact, I’m not even sure it was selfless now. My only motivation for writing is that my conclusions were something of a revelation to me and may serve to help others analyse their own motivation for helping their fellow man, even if it is only in some small way – like buying an extra burger at McDonalds.
I could be wrong but it appears to me that we are typically too busy living our own lives to either see or take the opportunity to help others in whatever way we can. However, perhaps the more we hear about incidences like this the more inclined we may be to act in a similar manner which, as it turns out, is good for everyone concerned.
Altruism can be described as:
‘A selfless act.’
I have deliberately kept this definition as short as possible because it is the nature of selflessness with which I am most concerned.
When we act ‘selflessly’ we are not thinking about ourselves. This is certainly true at a conscious level. The thoughts that immediately preceeded my decision to buy the man a burger were that I wouldn’t like to be in the same situation myself and I was in a position to, at least temporarily, alleviate the man’s hunger. I clearly experienced a degree of empathy with his dilemma. That’s not so unusual. The fact I actually acted upon my feelings of empathy on this occasion is, as I have already said, somewhat out of character for me. I have passed umpteen homeless people over the years and never stopped to empathise or offer my help. Typically I would conclude that any financial help would be immediately squandered on drink, drugs or both. Whether this particular man on this particular day was an alcoholic or junkie never even crossed my mind. He wasn’t begging for money. He was quietly going about the business of looking for food in the bins.
Thinking about it afterwards, my buying of the burger for him may also have gone some small way to restoring his faith in human nature, assuming he had actually lost that belief. These are some of the thoughts I remember having as I sat eating my meal. They can be referred to as ‘conscious thoughts’ – in as much as I remember having them and can recall them at a later date. I was (and am now) ‘aware’ of the things I was thinking. But the human mind has significant activity taking place at a level beyond conscious thought.
Imagine getting into a lift and only having two hypothetical floors from which to choose. Level ‘1’ for conscious and level ‘2’ for subconscious. Would we actually want to press the button for level 2 or would the unravelled mysteries we discovered there be too much for our conscious mind to grasp?
Research suggests that we actually do press the level ‘2’ button each night when we fall asleep. When we dream we are somehow accessing our subconscious, whether in some attempt to better understand the issues consuming our conscious lives or simply to tidy up the chaos of a million thoughts moving so fast that capturing their essence or meaning is nigh on impossible. Certainly it is anecdotally true that the people appearing in our dreams are very often those that we were thinking about, met the previous day or are due to meet in the near future.
There is a very good reason that the subconscious level is difficult, if not impossible, to visit with our conscious minds. I would postulate that our conscious mind could not even begin to assimilate the vast array of thoughts racing at break-neck speed around the inner space of level 2. Our brain would become overwhelmed with the workload and probably shut itself down or drive itself around the proverbial twist.
Although the subconscious is effectively unreachable, we can hypothesise, based on our conscious thoughts and actions, what exactly is going on. This is what I started to do as I finished my fries and tucked into my first (OMG delicious) Big Mac in eight weeks.
I started by admitting that, regardless of how my hungry beneficiary felt about the whole incident, I was feeling rather pleased with the scenario too. I caught myself (mentally) patting myself on the back for having achieved my ‘good deed’ for the day. My next thought caught me completely unawares.
Maybe, at a subconscious level, I needed to do something to boost my own self esteem? Although my conscious thoughts had been as a result of the empathy I felt for the hungry man, perhaps my subconscious mind was acting in parallel, telling me that this was also a good opportunity to feel good about myself? That would certainly explain why, on this occasion, as opposed to all those other times when I had passed by a homeless or hungry person, I acted in the way I did.
Here’s where things got complicated. I asked myself if I had bought the extra burger less because of my feelings of empathy and more because my self esteem was in need of a boost. I was trying to be as truthful and genuine as possible with myself. Unfortunately, my self esteem stood up for itself and answered on my behalf, telling me I was actually fine – but thanks all the same for your concern! They say a man that represents himself in court has a fool for a lawyer. In the search for the truth of my apparent altruism, I was accusing myself of having low self esteem that needed a boost but was simultaneously defending myself as already having plenty – thanks all the same for your concern (my self esteem’s words – not mine). I needed an impartial judge to intervene with a few words of wisdom.
And therein lies the crux of the problem. The mind does not appear capable of having a waking conversation between the conscious and the subconscious, at least not one that we are aware of at a conscious level. It’s a shame really because the subconscious appears to have our own best interests at heart. We have lives to live and are typically consumed at a conscious level with the things we need to do just to get through the day, while our subconscious necessarily sits in the background, alerting us in a variety of ways to the things that might not be good for us or detrimental to our safety. We call it intuition or a ‘sixth sense’. In software engineering there is a similar activity we call ‘multi-threading’ but I’m not going to overcomplicate matters with a discussion of context-switching or parallelism – not today anyway!
The subconscious also appears to be on the lookout for opportunities which may help us. In this case, although I am not 100% certain, l would like to think that my subconscious was taking care of me – subtly signalling that buying the hungry man a burger would boost my self esteem – even if only a little. Everybody wins. The hungry man enjoys a delicious burger and my self esteem receives a boost.
The definition of ‘altruism’ has to change – ever so slightly – if an altruistic act is to be considered truly possible. It should read:
‘A consciously selfless act.’
Inserting the single additional word ‘consciously’ acknowledges that there may be some selfish thoughts occurring subconsciously but the altruistic action is motivated only by thoughts at the conscious level.
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself! [Franklin D. Roosevelt]
The fear of death, which I acknowledge as being a wholly normal and natural human condition, is nonetheless irrational for most of us in 2020. In the modern world, the vast majority of us are relatively safe from detrimental harm whereas our survival instinct was once primal and based on a reasonable fear of death in the wild west of prehistory. Fear kept us alive!
Like a clock on the wall, ticking out the seconds of your life, the brain which you use to reach the conclusion that you are afraid of death (and the infinite nature of the void after your death) is the same brain that stops ‘ticking’ the instant you take your last breath.
Conversely, it is altogether rational to fear the actual process of dying because your brain is still conscious of your existence while you are dying. But, it is equally irrational to fear something of which you will not be consciously aware after it has already happened.
You didn’t think, ‘Oh look, I’m about to be born!’ Similarly, you will never catch yourself saying, ‘Oh look, I’m dead!’
Consciousness is a function of the brain and facilitates awareness of our existence but only while there is oxygen available to feed it i.e. it can only operate while we are alive and breathing air. The conscious mind wasn’t aware before we were born. It is reasonable to postulate that it won’t be after we are dead either.
‘Sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care’. [Macbeth, William Shakespeare]
Sleep is analogous to death. We often have difficulty falling asleep and can become very stressed and anxious around bedtime, fearing that sleep will not come. However, once we actually fall asleep we are no longer aware that we had any difficulty getting there. The conscious functionality of our mind switches off, the subconscious cogs kick in and the stresses and anxieties of the day are all but forgotten while we sleep. Whether they re-emerge the following day has a lot to do with how efficiently the brain repairs itself overnight. Certainly, a good night’s sleep has been shown to optimise the repair work but other factors may play a part in the healing equation.
So, by all means, admit you are afraid of the process of dying but – do not be afraid of actually being dead. When you get there you won’t actually be aware of it. The fear is irrational and almost certainly holding you back from reaching your full potential in life – just as the three monotheistic religions have done to humanity for centuries and continue to wilfully do to this day!
Religious institutions knowingly rely on the fear of death to keep their faithful coming back for further forgiveness, consolation and hope but, for their deceit – and a host of other crimes against humanity – all religions of the world must be wholeheartedly and perpetually condemned. I’ll get back to that – soon…
The ‘new normal’ after Coronavirus here in Spain feels more free than the last 7 weeks in almost total lockdown.
But I suspect people will soon, by their very nature, begin to feel restricted again and yearn for even more freedom. We just can’t help ourselves!
But what if we returned to exactly the same way of life as before – by which I mean – seven shorts weeks ago? How free would that actually be. In other words, how free were our lives before Coronavirus?
Our very existence on planet earth requires us to live within one society or another, whether that is communist China, tyrannical African nations or any democratic country in the western world.
By the very nature of our implicit agreement to live within that society and abide by its laws, we are sacrificing some of our freedoms in exchange for the protection of other freedoms which, typically, we value more. Each constitutional referendum is analogous to sitting down to sign a new contract with the government of the day – after extensive negotiations to optimise some new freedom. Our ancestors did it on day one and progress is dictated by our repetition of their arduous achievements – albeit via referendae which only become a reality when the political will for change has been nudged and cajoled by the people. Progress is solely for, by and of the people!
We are all born into one society or another and learn the rules as we mature towards adulthood, which is when we are expected to obey or suffer the consequences. Infractions before adulthood are usually viewed and treated by reasonable societal justice systems as outliers – unless, of course, the offending behaviour is repeated.
Once the age of consent is achieved we become legally and morally responsible for all our actions and must therefore conduct ourselves accordingly in both our public and our private lives.
The human paradox, I noted in the last few weeks, stems from the fact that different countries applied different levels of behavioural restriction, according to the requirements of their own particular crisis.
For instance, in Ireland, citizens were allowed to exercise within two kilometres of their home whereas here in Spain no outdoor exercise at all was permitted. Clearly the authorities of each jurisdiction were applying their own rules according to a variety of issues which were primarily guided by weighing the severity of the local crisis and the capability of their respective health systems to manage the fallout. So, different countries made different requests of their people which, on the whole, were complied with.
When presented with new restrictions of freedom, people appear to be willing to comply as long as they are also presented with reasonable cause. Failure to present the cause in a clear and efficient manner can lead to confusion – as was seen in the early days of the crisis in the UK. Boris Johnson literally bumbled through the first couple of weeks not knowing what to say or when to say it. Horse racing meetings went ahead, music concerts continued as scheduled and planned public gatherings the length and breadth of the country proceeded without hesitation. Whether these activities have had any significant impact on the overall crisis in the UK is still either unknown or hidden in the maze of data.
In contrast, Spain’s Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez was immediately and sufficiently authorative (and concise) when presenting his case to the people in the early days. The potential severity of the crisis was made clear in no uncertain terms and, whether out of fear or a patriotic willingness to comply, the people of Spain stayed at home.
If it is true that, as members of the human race, we are essentially all the same, how is it that people in one country accepted more severe restrictions than people in another – despite the universally catastrophic consequences of the virus all across the globe and especially in light of the fact that, via social and mainstream media, anyone could see in an instant how the restrictions were completely different from one country to the next?
In a very deliberate move by many government agencies across the globe, the focus of the crisis was subtly shifted from the catastrophically significant death tolls to the bravery of the front line workers – risking their lives every day to ensure continuity of essential services, most notably the healthcare professionals. While data was collected on every conceivable aspect of the crisis, it was the emotions of the people to which the authorities played, rather than their mathematical reason and logic. Suddenly, every evening at 8pm in Italy and Spain, as in many other countries where significant numbers of the population in the major cities live in high-rise apartments, balconies rang loud with the sound of clapping, singing and banging of kitchen utensils – ostensibly as a show of solidarity with those ‘fighting in the trenches’ below. But there was something else, perhaps even more critical, that the ‘solidarity show’ provided to those on the balconies. It gave people something to look forward to – a brief but essential escape from the claustrophia of being couped up all day in their apartments.
As a photojournalist I was dispensated – on a number of evenings – to photograph the balconies at 8pm for a local newspaper here in Malaga. Solidarity was self-propagated as people saw their friends and neighbours on the front pages of the local press each week. But, as week six of lockdown in Malaga began I noticed a change. People seemed less enthusiastic. They stayed out on their balconies for only a brief time whereas previously they had spent at least fifteen minutes clapping. I concluded that enthusiasm for the restrictions of the lockdown was wearing thin and it appears that the authorities were coming to the same conclusion in Madrid – and elsewhere around Europe and the world.
The plateau of new Coronavirus cases was being reached in many countries at exactly the same time as the plateau for acceptance of the lockdown conditions was achieved. Whether there is a direct cause and effect between the two plateaus might be debated but I would proffer that it was no coincidence. People saw the data curves being flattened and started to immediately look to the future, when their previous freedoms might be restored.
Almost overnight, officials started announcing that a panel of experts had been assembled to discuss how best to begin to ease the lockdown restrictions. The morning news has since included the data from the previous day and reiteration of the planning process for easing of restrictions.
Spain has begun to implement a 4-stage exit strategy which will proceed over the next six weeks – at a minimum. As the second-worst affected country on the planet, it is astounding how effective the total lockdown has been in Spain. As I previously mentioned, each country applied their own proportionate restrictions. It appears now that the optimum strategy for Spain was complete lockdown. Whether we will ever know if another strategy might have worked is moot. We are now in the process of waking up from a fifty-day nightmare. When morning comes we will open our eyes and cast our minds across the ‘new normal’.
How much freedom are people willing to exchange for societal protection of their other freedoms? As much as it takes it seems – and then some. It’s all relative but there is a limit which was defined by the Coronavirus lockdown. You can take our freedom but, even in the most severe circumstances, we want it back after six weeks.