Master or slave?

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.

Change. If not now, when?

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?

What are the odds God exists?

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

You can take our freedom but…

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 S├ínchez 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.