Back in prehistoric times, I imagine men and women sitting around their campfires at night would stare up towards the vast abyss with similar awestruck wonder as we do today. It is not unfathomable that the resultant questions which consumed their firelit conversations were similar to those we still ask ourselves millions of years later.
Granted the human brain has developed considerably since then, both in size and cognitive capacity, but it is nonetheless arguable that even the smallest and least-developed prehistoric mind was capable of capturing a very real sense of the absolute enormity of the visible universe in which the stars twinkle now exactly as they did when man first stood upright and walked the earth.
The realisation of just how seemingly insignificant his existence appeared to be when compared to the vast blanket of twinkling lights above him must surely have caused him pause for thought. In the language of the day, he may well have introduced his friends and family to a new phrase which they had never heard before – a phrase which described his pondering of the workings of the night sky. He may well have been the first philosopher but unfortunately, he was unable to document his thoughts other than sharing them with those around him and so we can only hypothesise as to what those thoughts might have been.
At some stage in our human evolution, men looked up to the night sky and used their imagination to invent gods – other-worldly entities which went some way towards explaining the magnificence which those men, using reason, could not. Whether this creation of ethereal gods first happened in prehistoric times or more recently is essentially irrelevant. Deities were (and are) the product of human imagination – which takes over the thought processes when reason and logic fall short. The moment when the human mind realises that something is unknowable is the moment when the line between reality and imagination is crossed – and god’s are instantiated to fill the void. The search for reasonable explanations to the unknown (having trawled exhaustively through everything that is actually known and still not finding universally-acceptable answers) has plagued mankind since first he strung a sequence of thoughts together. Where reason and logic fail, imagination succeeds.
The list of gods invented and worshipped by the ancient Pagans, Greeks and Romans is almost as infinite as the stars in the night sky. Those gods are now all virtually obsolete but there is a characteristic which is common to the lives of all who put their faith in god-like entities, from the Pagans, Greeks and Romans right up to the present day. That characteristic is subservience.
Whether from outright fear of the unknown – death, for example – or a good sense of empathy for others (particularly children), the invention of a god (or gods) facilitates relatively easy answers to the great philosophical questions. Where do we come from? Why are we here? Where do we go when we die? What else is there? The simple religious answer to all the seemingly unknowable questions is ‘God’!
At this juncture I would like to offer a round of applause to those who ultimately conclude that whatever god they worship is in fact the answer – having first searched the stratosphere for all other possibilities. At least they have paid their dues. I accuse everyone else of ignorance or laziness. But, I immediately qualify that accusation by saying that in many cases, their ignorance or laziness is through no fault of their own. If a man is not capable of reading, he can scarcely be justifiably accused of not having read the work of the great philosophers or theologians. If a man is busy working and taking care of his family, he can scarcely be accused of being too lazy to do all that reading. The man (or woman for that matter) that has the time and intellectual capacity to question religion but nonetheless accepts it without question is either lazy or ignorant – or both!
It appears then that most people, who find each day quickly filled with the tasks of living, don’t have the time to investigate the big philosophical questions for themselves – much less take even more time to assimilate all the information they have consumed and form reasonable conclusions based on their findings. They must, necessarily, turn to someone (or some thing) who has actually spent that (not insignificant) time doing the research on their behalf. Ladies and gentlemen, please show your appreciation for the religious institutions of the world as they take the stage to present their vast and various theories on life, love, the universe and everything. Break out the popcorn and sweets. We could be here a while!
Actually, this won’t take as long as one might imagine because all religions have a common thread at their core. There is no real need to delve deeper into their respective teachings at this stage. Suffice to say, regardless of which you choose to ‘follow’, all religions make a single (and seemingly straightforward) request of their respective congregations. They present their doctrine and ask that you accept it in full – without question.
This is where I part ways with every religion ever invented by man – which is to say every religion ever invented. To expect me not to question a doctrine I have initially chosen to follow (or have been introduced to as a child) is the epitome of arrogance. Surely if the doctrine holds up to detailed scrutiny its proponents would be more than happy to have it examined. My suspicions are immediately aroused when I am told that I have already been provided with all the evidence and the case is closed. What if I disagree with the way in which the jury arrived at the verdict? I am deliberately using a legal metaphor here because in any reasonably developed justice system a verdict should always be available for further scrutiny. For a justice system to render a guilty verdict and subsequently lock away the case files is a criminal act which necessitates its own trial! The legal metaphor doesn’t end here. Religion is on trial in my little WordPress courtroom.
In 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract posited that:
individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority (of the ruler, or to the decision of a majority) in exchange for protection of their remaining rights or maintenance of the social order.
While Rousseau was discussing subservience in a societal context, it is clear that a similar sentiment can be applied to a religious context. We consent to the doctrine of our ‘chosen’ religion without question. It’s a contract which we spiritually ‘sign’ either knowingly as adults making an informed decision to follow or unknowingly as children, whose illegibly-scrawled ‘signatures’ are, notably, not yet legally binding.
While I may be accused of comparing the indoctrination of children into a religion as a contract which is not legally binding, the practice of excommunication from the Catholic Church for breaking any of its ‘contractual’ rules is still considered a viable punishment. In 2009, the Brazilian mother of a nine-year-old rape victim was said by Archbishop José Cardoso Sobrinho to have incurred an automatic excommunication when she consented to her daughter having an abortion. It is clear from this and countless other incidences of excommunication that the Vatican still considers its global congregation to be under some kind of ‘contract’, the breaching of which may well result in the most severe consequences. Incidentally, the doctors who performed the abortion were also included in Bishop Sobrinho’s declaration!
Anyone who has ever had a legitimate job has signed a contract of employment. The same cohort of people will also, at some stage in the course of their employment, hear or be heard to say:
‘He’s the boss – what he says goes!’
It is true. If you want to keep your job you keep your nose clean and do as the boss tells you. You accept the way things are done at work because you want to get paid at the end of the month. Whether you have the freedom to discuss your concerns with the boss is an important distinction. Pure subservience means that while you may privately question the authority of the person or institution to whom you are subservient, you never publicly express those concerns. You are subservient in your quiet acceptance of the way things are for reasons which suit your own objectives.
Similarly, you go to the polling booth on election day and vote for your ‘favourite’ politician – to represent your concerns at both a local and a national level. You are subservient to the laws enacted by government and stay within the rules in exchange for your other ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’ being protected by the justice system. As long as you are reasonably content with the life you lead you are unlikely to object – at least not publicly. However, should politicians renege on the promises they made at election, you will typically become frustrated or disillusioned by them and may even take to the streets in protest. At a minimum you are likely to review your voting options at any ensuing elections.
So, we are subservient to our boss at work, to our government (both local and national) and to the doctrine of our ‘chosen’ religion. There are many more aspects of life in which it is plausible to suggest we display subservient behaviours. Let’s keep it at the macro level for the purposes of progress and ask a seemingly simple question. What are the consequences of subservient behaviour?
The positive consequences are easily identifiable because they are the basis upon which we allow ourselves to become subservient in the first place. Political subservience allows us to live our lives while accepting that the government will take care of the issues which are above and beyond our own individual capabilities. Employment subservience guarantees we keep our job and get paid. Religious subservience provides us with a system of beliefs which typically enhances the quality of our spiritual lives. What about the negative consequences of subservience?
In all cases, should we come to a point where we disagree with or go so far as to break the rules, we typically find ourselves bowing our heads and asking for forgiveness. Who is standing in front of us when we do? The boss (Yes, sir), the judge (Yes, your Honour) or the priest (Yes, Father). Asking forgiveness is an admission of fault which follows from a realisation of guilt and each successive incidence of guilt chips away at our self esteem. One of the negative aspects of subservience is reduced self esteem or self worth.
It seems that we can live a reasonably peaceful and uninterrupted life within the confines of the law of the land or the rules laid down by the boss at work. The regulations are laid out in the statute books or the employment manual and we mostly just go about our business without any serious breaches. However, if we do breach the rules at work or the laws of the land, we have to be actually caught doing it before the punishment process kicks in – unless we are the most conscientious individual ever and feel obliged to hand ourselves in. But as conscientious religious beings we actually catch ourselves and report ourselves – to God – via the confession box. Guilt is a matter of conscience. It is our conscience that reports on us and it is our indoctrination by religion that fine-tunes that conscience to act as a ‘more-than-my-job-is-worth’ guardian of everything we do – a guardian who is always alert and on duty, even while we sleep!
The ‘Thought Police’ in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 were guardians of the collective conscience because the state didn’t trust its citizens to legislate for their own thoughts. Similarly, religions fine-tune the conscience of their followers over time to guarantee they become guardians of their own thoughts and deeds. It’s like a completely automated legal system. Commit the crime, catch yourself doing it, feel guilty, report yourself to the authorities and ask forgiveness. Regardless of how forgiven you feel following confession, the thought is always there that you will be back again soon. Actually, if you obey the rules of the church you will be back regularly with a similar list of sins. Imagine heading to the local district court once a month to inform the judge of which laws you broke! Confession became a farce for me years ago when, like the angel I was, I found myself making up sins in my head as I entered and closed the door of the confession box behind me. Bless me father for I have sinned. It’s been far too long to bother you now!
Through empathy, our interaction with others as adults instills in us a sense of justice and morality but that sense of what is right is primarily encapsulated a lot earlier in life, in the behaviour of our role models towards us while we are young. A conscientious parent will scold for erring behaviour and praise the good – always ensuring that the confidence of the child is maintained. A good judge will issue a sentence appropriate to the crime. Fair cop judge – you have me bang to rights! A reasonable boss will issue behavioural warnings (whether verbal or written) unless of course the offence is punishable by immediate dismissal. The following day the warning is all but forgotten – in the spirit of progress. But, what does the Roman Catholic Church do to keep us ‘in check’?
Well, should we break one of the ten commandments, we are threatened with fire and brimstone for all eternity – unless we bow our heads and ask for forgiveness. An equivalent judge in court would be issuing life sentences for, say, burglary. Similarly, dismissal from work as a result of being late some Monday morning would be the wrong course of action and likely result in a justifiable claim of unfair dismissal by the unfortunate employee.
When the potential punishment is known to be utterly inappropriate to the crime, we find ourselves emasculated to the point that we never question the rules, never break even the most inconsequential of laws or commit even the most menial of sins. Our human nature has left us with no protection against the damnation of hell except to always do the right thing.
But we don’t always do the right thing! For whatever reason, all of us at some time or another have broken the law, bent the rules at work, questioned the authority of our parents or even protested decisions of the state. It’s in our nature to be dissatisfied at the best of times, to tiptoe the wrong side of the rules all the while weighing up the risks of getting caught. It is human to make mistakes and it is equally forgivable. What we shouldn’t be doing is relying on the forgiveness of God’s middleman who is always working on the assumption that we’ll be back next week and who’s sentencing guidelines never extend beyond the saying of a few prayers. That’s a strange kind of punishment indeed! The ‘break-em-down’ with guilt and ‘build-em-up’ with forgiveness routine of the Catholic Church is a continuous cycle of psychological abuse that can ultimately be detrimental to self esteem! It’s so much easier to fall than to pick yourself up again. The net result of the abuse is negative – reduced self esteem.
In an effort to assuage their own guilt, Catholics repeatedly surrender their self esteem and become subservient to the courtroom in the confession box. Telling a priest your sins is equally as useful as shouting them to the wind. A problem shared is not halved in this instance. How can it be? He’s about to judge you and pass a sentence of ten ‘Hail Marys’, a ‘How’s Your Father’ and a ‘Glory Be’ – and say a prayer for him if you can find the time. How is that halving your problem?!
Your conscience is doing all the morality work for you anyway, whether you vocalise your wrong doings or simply sit in a quiet room and think upon them silently to yourself. Granting the Catholic Church the power to forgive the very sins they set forth in the ten commandments is worse than a folly. You were set up to fail the minute Moses chiselled the word ‘First’ into his tablet of stone. Your ‘loyalty’ is guaranteed – for life. That’s not loyalty. Where else are you going to go when you need to alleviate the weight of your conscience?
Fuck this subservient bullshit. Cut out the middleman. Stay home and forgive yourself if you think you’ve done something wrong that you might otherwise take to the priest, nay judge, in the confession box! It will boost your self esteem no end when you complete the whole process on your own and the boost in self esteem should more than counterbalance the guilt. Stay home and save yourself the trip to the church. If you need to include God in the conversation, by all means do so. He’s everywhere – not just down at the church. At the very least, stay home until this Covid-19 crack is over!