Friday 13 July 2012

Mmmmm… Sacrilicious

“…hence I will excite their minds
With more desire to know, and to reject
Envious commands, invented with design
To keep them low, whom knowledge might exalt…”

God, I love my job. It was my base school’s culture festival last Saturday, and that’s always a great reminder of how creative and motivated the students can be when the leash is loosened a bit. Great fun.

The school’s pretty high level, and has a specialist art course. Every class produces a big mural/poster to hang outside their homeroom, and the kids spend a couple of weeks getting it ready. The 3rd year art course class did a pastiche of the Last Supper, with Kocho-sensei as Jesus and various other teachers as the apostles. It was the last thing I was expecting and I pissed myself laughing when I saw it. I think the students were just happy that someone had got the joke. That’s the trouble with parodies; if people don’t know the source material, they can die a rapid and embarrassing death.


Now, I’m not religious, but growing up in the UK it’s kind of unavoidable. I’ve previously complained about the pervasive nationalism in Japanese schools – and praised the lack of the same back home – but religion is perhaps even more ingrained in the system in the UK than nationalism is in Japan. Both my primary schools were C of E – attached to local churches with the vicar on the PTA – and the same was true of my secondary school. You know the drill: The Lord’s Prayer and hymns in assembly, substituting ‘piss’ for ‘peace’ as necessary (which make this the funniest song ever); weekly talks on how the Samaritan was Good, the Son was Prodigal, Jesus was Magic and so on and so on.

I think my secondary school at least was something of a unique case. We had to take Religious Studies at GCSE, whereas in most other schools it’s just a (fairly unpopular) option. I’m actually glad of it though. Regardless of your views on religion, it does provide the overarching moral framework for most of the world’s population. Maybe I just got lucky with the teacher, but it really was studying religion and religions and not a veiled form of proselytizing. In practice that meant weekly discussions on ethics and morality. Something I think we could all do with more of.

One of the other classes produced something intriguing for the festival. It was a collage of the Garden of Eden with all the animals and a snake winding around the apple tree. Adam and Eve were holding hands with Eve just about to pick the fateful apple. What made it really interesting was that they’d both been exorcised from the picture; the rest was a riot of crushed coloured paper, but the mother and father of mankind were represented only as white silhouettes showing through from the underlying background, just moments away from the moment knowledge was gained and innocence was lost. Lots of layers to unpick there, literally and figuratively.

I still haven’t been able to track down the student who was apparently responsible for the concept, so haven’t been able to ask exactly what they meant by it. More than likely they just thought that it was a cool picture

Always room for improvement, mind.

They’d be absolutely right in that assessment. It was a pretty cool picture. Nicely conceived and skillfully executed. Just because everyone wasn’t getting all the nuances of meaning open to me with my background doesn’t mean it was a worthless endeavour.

I mention this because of a little discussion on Japanese weddings over at Mutantfrog Travelogue, where I revealed that when I say that I’m ‘not religious’ what I really mean is that I’m an atheist. Apparently this, in conjunction with the fact I had a Shinto wedding ceremony, means that I’m suffering from ‘penis envy’. Which I’m sure you’ll agree is no way to describe god(s). I know, fertility rites and all, but still…

And really, who wouldn't feel a touch insecure
in comparison?

I’m still occasionally surprised by how shocking saying ‘I’m an atheist’ appears to be for some people. To my mind it’s really just a logical extension of ‘I’m not religious.’ I’ve just chosen the other default option, is all. Sure, there’s a tiny possibility that I might be wrong, but then there’s a tiny possibility that anything might be wrong, or right. We’re talking about Maxwell’s Demon levels of unlikely here, and if that’s a level of probability good enough to base a law of thermodynamics on, then it’s good enough for me to stop pussy footing around with ‘well, maybe’ and just commit to a position.

And my position is this. Here is the atheist creed – our Quran, Talmud and Testament if you will – in its entirety:

I don’t think there is a god.

That’s it. You’ll notice the phrasing. I think this is where a lot of misunderstanding comes from. Atheism isn’t the opposite of faith, it’s the absence of it. Any time people claim to know what atheists’ position is on anything – except the likely existence of god – then they’re extrapolating based on faulty assumptions. You may as well try to ascribe a discrete and unified philosophical position to all people who have no interest in basketball.

In one of the debates for the Republican Primary four years ago I saw someone ask John McCain if he ‘believed in evolution.’ Which again, is completely missing the point; thinking about science as the opposite of religion is to fundamentally misunderstand one or both of them. Evolution is the best concept we currently have for explaining how we got here, just as 1000 years ago it was Genesis and 1000 years before that it was the Titans. You don’t ‘believe’ in it any more than you believe in Newtonian motion or, yes, thermodynamics. You use the best available information to understand the world, and if new information appears re-evaluate it and work out something better.

So atheism isn’t a religious conviction; it’s a complete lack of it. I’ve just decided there’s nothing to be gained with half-arseing the description. Sure, I could take Pascal up on his little wager, but that’s always seemed to me to be one of those, ‘follow the letter not the spirit,’ types of contract. Given that we’re supposed to be talking about The Spirit here that seems a little off. If you do eventually meet St Peter at the pearly gates I doubt he’ll be too impressed that you’re there because you decided to bet on red. That’s the thing about gambling – the house always wins.

No, I'm not quite sure either. It sounded pretty
deep though, didn't it?

None of this is to say that I think less of people who do believe. I just think they’re wrong about this particular matter. Admittedly it’s a fairly significant matter, but wrong is not (necessarily) the same as stupid or evil. Nor do I think that organized religion is a bad thing in and of itself. Well, I do, but I think people are people and that any organization capable of amassing significant wealth or power is going to tend towards the ‘arsehole’ end of the spectrum. That’s how you get wealth and power in the first place. It's the 'organized' which is problematic; the religion part just means that people don’t have to work quite as hard as they otherwise might to justify acting like pricks to people who are different. If there were no religion, they’d find another excuse soon enough.

Like every other sane and rational person in Japan, I usually go out of my way to avoid Mormon missionaries. But still, they’re putting their money where their mouth is. Learning another language and carting yourself halfway round the world is certainly more of a commitment to your faith than holding a bake sale, at any rate. I can have a certain respect for that on a personal level. From the other side of the street, of course.

So, none of this meant I felt like a hypocrite when I was standing in that shrine on my wedding day. And I certainly wasn’t thinking about anybody’s penis. No, it probably didn’t mean the same to me as to someone who was raised in that tradition, and it will certainly have meant something different to those who truly believe in all that stuff. But my kids’ pictures were still cool. The Last Supper parody still won first prize and I can still listen to Leonard Cohen and James Brown, or read Milton or CS Lewis and gain significantly from the experience. Why would you seek to deny that to yourself, or to anyone else?

Remember children, if you try to grow up I will
murder your family.

*     *     *

So in the last few weeks we’ve covered racism, rape, and now religion. It’s just super-happy-mega-fun-time on this is how she fight start! I’ll try to up the funny quotient in the near future, I promise. Anyway, I just gave you a post about toilets. What more do you people want?


  1. Well, thank you for this.

    Disclosure. Grew up in RC schools near Toronto, with a fourth-gen. Potato Famine Catholic mother, and worse... a father who was a Yorkshire-Anglican to Canadian-Catholic convert. Converts, of any sort, are bat-shit crazy. As a pre-teen I thought I'd become a priest, mainly because we did have good ones, and none ever touched me. Then the usual: I noticed girls were hot, and that once and a while I could convince one to let me 'feel her up'! "What dire events from trivial causes spring." And yet... I am Jesuit-manque. Falling out of 'the Church'* made me investigate elsewhere for answers: Philo Major led to EA Studies Minor, led to martial arts, lead to dark eyed women and the JET Programme, led to 'proper' teaching and my J-wife.

    "I don’t think there is a god." I used to say that, but I have simplified it: "There is no god." It's never enough for people, and they start to tell you what they believe, or insist that Atheism is a belief, so I cut them off: "Who cares what anyone believes? Tell me something you know. Give me facts. Give me evidence. We can see the sun rise, use telescopes etc. and determine the elliptical orbit of the Earth around the Sun. Sorry, nothing like that for a god. Let me tell you about 'The Flying Spaghetti Monster'..." People get angry so easily.

    *Note that verbal tic?

    1. Forgot one point that should have made me wonder sooner. Much as I then, and still, have nothing but respect for the character named 'Jesus', real, fictional or syncretic, I never 'got' the nonsense he spoke to Thomas. Were it me, damn right I'd put my hands in his side, if I were not too worried he was out for brains.

    2. You'll like this then.

      I suspect that variations on your journey are pretty common. Certainly I was never exposed to it in as explicit terms as you seemed to have been, but it's a constant background hum which once you notice it is impossible to ignore.

      Yeah, I've seen the spaghetti monster. The line between what's accepted as a religion and what's dismissed as a cult is pretty arbitrary. At the last UK census there was a pretty well supported drive to get people to enter 'Jedi' as their religion, because if it got past a certain threshold then it'd have to be recognised as a religion and supported as such by the state. Almost worked as well. I'm not proud to be british all that often, but I was then.

  2. i recently told my mother i was an atheist, and she was so sad. which really surprised me, considering how religion treated her. i guess that my path to atheism was via seeing religion as false, as a way for a person to say, "i am moral--i follow the bible" or, "i am christian." (which means, of course, "i can do no wrong in your eyes, because you are christian, too.", which is assuming a lot.)

    i rarely went to church as a child, my mom had had enough of it growing up. she was brought up as a seventh day adventist and was treated like shit (mostly by others of the faith, not the leaders of the church) because her parents divorced when she was five. as if this was her fault. *rolls eyes* my father never really seemed to care either way, i don't even know what flavor or protestant he was brought up. my mom didn't want to prevent me from going to church, she just didn't want to go herself, so whenever a little friend invited me to go to sunday services (and sunday school) with them, she would say yes. i remember going somewhere as young as five. i think that's the one that ended, though, when i came home and told my mom she was a good mom and a bad mom. good, for letting me go to church. bad, because she didn't go herself! brainwashing--GO!

    anyway, i know that i'm starting to write a blog post in your comments section, and i don't know how much sense it's going to make as i only just got out of bed. and i'm not really sure what my point is, only that i am right there with you. atheism isn't a faith, it isn't a belief (which kinda makes my blood boil when religious types say that), it is what it is, and i'm not afraid to say it (here on your blog. :/ )

    1. Say it loud, say it proud. I'm happy to provide a platform :)

      Kids'll parrot whatever the authority figures in their lives tell them. That's natural enough, and growing out of it is an important part of growing up. Perhaps the most important part. What worries me about a lot of religion is that it encourages people not to do that. But again, that's more of an 'organisation' thing than a 'religion' thing, if we're being fair.

  3. I used to be friends with a guy who was raised in an atheist family, no contact with any religious. It was very strange - not the religious side of it but that he seemed to have missed out on this major chunk of cultural references. Like having to explain a reference to Noah and the Ark to him.

    It made me wonder how you raise a child without biblical references in Western society. I never raised my son with any conscious religious training but I think you need to learn those stories to function.

    I realised this when I picked him up from childcare one day around Christmas time and he pointed at the nativity scene set up and said, "look, mummy, a farm set!"

    1. Completely agree with you here. There's a lot I resent from an RC upbringing; however, I get my biblical references in Western literature, and have been taught better than most 'Christians' so can prove they're talking shit. Not that they have the stones to listen, mind. I'll read the bible with my kid, just as I expect him to learn about the Buddhism and Shintoism from his other side, same as I'll do with important strands of philosophy and political theory. I'll make it clear I'll disown him if he becomes fundamentalist at anything but skepticism.

    2. Well, he's not wrong. It is a farm set. At least it didn't have one of those crapping men they're so fond of in Spain, 'cos that's even more out of place than the baby.

      I think it's inevitable that my kids won't have the same frame of reference for all this stuff. At present I'm taking the attitude that I'll explain it as even handedly as possible if asked, but I'm not going to broach the subject. We'll see how well that works out...

  4. Even those of us who sympathize intellectually have good reasons to wish that the New Atheists continue to seem absurd. If we reject their polemics, if we continue to have respectful conversations even about things we find ridiculous, this doesn't necessarily mean we've lost our convictions or our sanity. It simply reflects our deepest, democratic values. Or, you might say, our bedrock faith: the faith that no matter how confident we are in our beliefs, there's always a chance we could turn out to be wrong.

    Best write up I have yet read and I became a fan of WIRED after it.

    My personal belief may never become clear and I'm O.K. with that.

    1. That is quite exceptionally well put. I think I might get that on a t-shirt. It's brilliant.

      So I'm going to spoil it by picking you up on a couple of points. Firstly, I'm very suspicious of the whole 'New Atheist' label. I've never met or heard of anyone who would describe themselves as such. It's always struck me as term constructed by the media in their ongoing quest to label anything which catches their interest as a 'trend'. Replace it with 'extremists' or 'zealots' then I'm with you all the way.

      The second is that I'm not so taken with that WIRED piece as you seem to be. Lots of interesting stuff there, for sure, but it falls prey to just the stuff I've been talking about regarding describing atheism as another flavour of religion. Just the title set my teeth on edge and it didn't improve in that regard. And for all that the author tried to make it seem like he'd been on some kind of personal journey, I'm willing to bet he hadn't and was just tacking that on in a fairly transparent attempt to provide some kind of 'narrative'. Seemed to my like he was trying too hard to make everything fit into the boxes he wanted it to fit in. Still worth a read, mind, so thanks for the link.