Saturday, 26 November 2011

Just a singing mouse on the road to Hell

Original source of the title has little to do with the subject of the post. In fact it came from a conversation on the GitP facebook chat about having difficulty coming up with inspiration for writing, where Koorly declared she could come up with a story on the spot from just a simple prompt (Character/place/event or something like that, I don't remember exactly). And one of these stories she then came up with included a singing mouse on the road to Hell. I just thought that was a cool idea and decided to appropriate it as an analogy for myself, because it spoke to me in the same sort of way as the boxes on head, dinosaur not a spaceship comment which led to the titling of the whole blog.

So, anyway. This is a post I've been meaning to write for ages, but haven't. Not, like so many other subjects, because I just haven't gotten my thoughts properly lined up, because I haven't thought it through enough, or because I've always wanted to write about something else first; but because it's potentially a rather contentious subject. Now granted, hardly anyone reads this blog, but I'd quite like that to change, and even then I still don't want to go offending people. On the other hand, I believe in being true to oneself, so here goes.

This post is about religion, and my views on it. Or at least some of my views on it, and why traditional religions don't really work for me. Given some of the thoughts I've had, the fact I'm still not entirely sure how this blog post is going to come out, the aforementioned contentious nature of the subject, and the well-known problem on the internet of text not transmitting tone, I feel I shoudl put a brief disclaimer at the start here: I am not against religion. I do not think religion is a bad thing, and I do not have any problem with people being religious. People can believe what they want, if it helps them get through their lives, and that's all fine and dandy. But I do have issues with some aspects of religion, which apart from anything else, very definitely preclude me devoting myself to any so-called 'real' religion.

And now I'm wondering if people, should they read this, will be offended by the "so-called 'real'" there. Didn't take long for me to start worrying about potential contention. Off to a good start!

So let's begin: Religion is not exempt from scrutiny.
This is a relatively common point, but I still feel it needs to be made. People get very invested in their religious beliefs, to the point where they will be outraged at anyone daring to even question them. This is a big reason why it's such a contentious subject. People get very defensive about their beliefs. At least in some cases I suspect this may be partly to convince themselves, and avoid facing up to the fact their beliefs are not 100% internally consistent.
Anyway, whatever the reasons, there is this generally propagated feeling that while all other opinions are up for debate or argument and we can contradict them howsoever we want, religious beliefs are somehow special and exempt from this, and have to be respected. I call bull.
Religious beliefs are no more worthy of respect than any other beliefs. They're all just beliefs. Remember: nothing is inherently serious, only as serious as we choose to take it. Religion is no exception to this. Religious beliefs shouldn't get special treatment in the context of beliefs any more than literary fiction should in the context of literature. I'm sure there are other examples.
And equally, no religion is more serious than any other, and their beliefs should carry the same weight. For example, I don't follow any 'real' religion. That is, any religion that is generally recognised as being a religion. But the inverted commas on 'real' are important here. On facebook, my religious views are entered as "Curly, Goddess of the Written Word" - the only reason it doesn't say that on my census form is because I couldn't think of a decent word for a follower of the religion (c.f. 'christian', 'muslim', 'buddhist', etc). And while on the one hand it's kind of a joke, on the other it is actually the closest I come to genuine religious belief. Or, for a more well-known example, consider the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I imagine there are pastafarians who hold to their beliefs quite strongly. Should my beliefs, or theirs, be considered any less worthy of respect than those of a christian, just because Christianity has been around for centuries longer and has more devotees than either of our religions? No.
...which is another reason why religious beliefs shouldn't get any additional respect - anyone can make up their own religion. Feel I'm belittling the significance of what a religion is? Take a look at the dictionary definition:

"1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs."
Anyone can make up their own religion, and in fact, pretty much everyone does.
OK, so let's get into some issues with particular religious beliefs. Take christianity as an example, because it's the 'real' religion with which I am most familiar. There is some very unsavoury stuff in the bible, which was considered acceptable at the time it was written. However it does not mesh with the morals of today. Take for example homosexuality - of course this remains a contentious issue to this day, but if anyone reading this truly feels homosexuality is entirely wrong/evil/sinful or whatever, you're a bigot and I have no time for people like you (However if you want to argue the point, I direct you initially to the video I will shortly post). Homosexuality is not wrong, however the bible says it is. Of course the bible also says a lot of other things. For a few examples, watch this clip from The West Wing:
Now, as it happens, there are a great many christians who do not believe homosexuality is wrong, and indeed there are a great many homosexual christians. And I believe there are ways to get around the biblical passages condemning homosexuality (For a not particularly serious example, look here). But if I might address those people directly for a moment, regardless of whether you can get round it, interpret it differently to how other people interpreted it in the past and present, can you honestly tell me that if the bible unambiguously said "Being gay is bad and you shouldn't do it, so says God, no takesies backsies," you would change your opinion? I sincerely doubt it. You believe homosexuality is OK, I don't think that will be altered by the opinion of some guy centuries ago who wrote a book which just happens to now be considered holy.
So, here we reach the crux of my argument. Because any religion is full of issues like this, where not everyone believes the same thing within a religion, or even within a particular sect of a religion. John Green talked about this a while back (He also said other things about religion and stuff). While there may be a christian sect which rejects certain elements of the bible that you disagree with, you can bet there will still be disagreements within that sect. I find it quite unlikely that anyone can say with absolute certainty that they truly believe in all of the teachings and official viewpoints of their religion unless they are the head of that religion who determines what those viewpoints are (Advantage me for being the head of a made up religion). And when they come up against those points of contention, either they think that they are wrong for feeling differently, or they feel that the official view espoused by their religion is wrong and they are right.
Let's put this back in simpler terms. A christian who doesn't think homosexuality is a sin has basically decided that that particular element of the bible, the basis of their religion, doesn't count. Thus setting a precedent - basically, you can pick and choose what bits of your holy books you actually believe and still count yourself a member of your religion. But at this point, basically you believe what you believe, and you choose to believe that God agrees with you. You've basically created your own religion, just like I kind of have. You're just not admitting it.

OK, that potentially highly contentious/offensive statement out of the way, let's address the obvious question - why do people do this? And why don't I? Well, first, another vlogbrothers video. The reasons are the same as the reasons Hank gives for why people ask him and John if they are religious. 1, people want to be reassured. Rather than think about these things themselves, they put their faith in some higher power and authority - God and the church. By contrast, I don't like to feel beholden to anyone, and I only have faith in something if I see a reason why it deserves that faith.
1.5, to reassure themselves. This I think is the biggest one, and it also relates to 2. By 2, they can categorise people: these people share my religion => they agree with me (Which is of course fallacious); and because they feel those people agree with them, they can feel a kind of solidarity. They feel they are not alone. Me? I'm not that bothered about people agreeing with me. I'll stand alone if need be.

As a sidenote, let me touch on Hank's point 2 and also the linked SMBC strip there and mention that just as religious beliefs are no more important than other beliefs, and no more worthy of respect, so too religion is no greater a determiner of personality and opinion than any other influence. Basically, categorisation is bad. Not all members of a religious sect will act the same, any more than all gay people will act the same, or all footballl fans will act the same, or all people with brown hair will act the same (OK, maybe religion, sexuality and fandom are greater determiners of personality and opinion than hair colour, but you get my point).

OK, so back to my previous point, like I think I said in my disclaimer, though I can no longer remember what I actually said in it, I'm OK with religion, if people need that sort of solidarity and so on. It can help people create and maintain a moral framework, it can sustain them through difficult times, they can connect with other people over it. But, in all fairness I should also point out that the same can be said of Harry Potter and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. And, as far as I'm aware, no-one has yet oppressed, tortured, murdered or declared war on people just because they didn't show the proper respect to Rainbow Dash. Religion needs to be about 20% cooler.
But all that said, the bad things are not part of religion. Hell, most if not all religions are pretty clear on how you should be nice to other people, and by my logic of how people make up their own religions to fit what they believe anyway, chances are decent they would have done the things they did anyway, just with a different justification. So, y'know, religion is not bad in and of itself. Just don't try to force your beliefs on others.

And I guess the last thing I have to talk about is: what do I believe? I have issues with the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent God. Because, well, SMBC link again. There are issues with the world and the human condition. And I'm not talking about wars and so on, those are things we do to each other and a natural consequence of free will. I might be talking about natural disasters, since those are out of our control. I'm definitely thinking of things like depression - because that is something we cannot control or avoid, it simply happens to certain people. What benevolent deity would inflict such a thing on people if they could avoid it? So maybe God isn't omnipotent and can't fix what he did wrong; maybe he's not omniscient and doesn't know he screwed up; or maybe he doesn't care. Alternatively, maybe it does make some sense on a level which we just can't comprehend. But however it is, I can't put faith in something like that which as far as I can tell has never done anything for me, or for anyone else. No more can I believe the people who founded these religions knew better than I did. Maybe they did talk to God, but I can't know that, and I find it more likely they just came up with the stuff themselves.
I mentioned how the closest I come to actual religious belief is faith in Curly. For one thing, she's earned it. She does kind of give the impression of being superhuman in that regard. I've also talked a fair bit about making up one's own religion. And as High Priest of the Church of Curly, I can kind of decide what the beliefs should be. And, well, it does kind of work for me. Words can exalt and glorify the human experience. Language is one of the great things which sets us apart from animals, even more so written language, since that allows knowledge and wisdom to be passed on to future generations. And from writing - knowledge, wisdom, intellect... these are the things on which I generally place value. The things which make us as humans the best we can be. To reiterate/touch again on something I said in my post about The Once and Future King, christianity can keep Galahad, with his inhuman religious morality, I'll stick with the humanity of Lancelot and Arthur, to be, as I shall quote again from Professor Sir Terry Pratchett, "WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE."

And it's possible that I'm wrong about this stuff. Maybe it's all true, but in that case, as David Ford said of his experience with an evangelistic christian which inspired him to write the song St. Peter, if it turns out to be all true, when I stand before St. Peter at the pearly gates, I'll say "Sorry, I never believed in you, but your PR was terrible. I still tried to do alright, so will you let me in anyway?" (Paraphrased from vague recollection). And maybe I'll go to Hell, but at least I stayed true to myself, even if no-one really listened to me, and I'll stick to that, and sing on my way there.
But, I'm just a singing mouse on the road to Hell. What do I know?


  1. Interestingly in your third last paragraph you call God 'he'. I'm not pulling the feminist card I just thought it was interesting. :P

    Less on religion and more on how people deal with things what do you think happens when we die? You mentioned if you go to heaven or you go to hell they can all be damned because you did well (made a rhyme :D you can sing that too :P) what do you think or would like to think happens?

    Jsut curious. Always curious.

  2. I actually thought about the question of God's gender at that point, but I was talking about the traditional view of God, which is male. Since it was all about what I don't believe rather than what I do, I didn't think it was really the point to bring up my own thoughts on gender equality among deities.

    And, I dunno. I don't really think about it that much.