30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.
I agree with William when he said, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.
This column is about trivial things. This one, God, is the most trivial of all. I want to make that clear from the start – and I think it’s the great downfall of God and religion. How important people place it in the lives.
God, beliefs, morality, religion – these are the last things I use to form an opinion about a person. I have so many friends with so many varied beliefs. And it matters not one iota what they believe in. Just as what I believe in isn’t really anyone’s business.
But I thought I’d get a few words down about it – this trivial, trivial thing.
When I was very young, I was given a book. Not the bible, but rather This I Believe, an anthology of writers talking about their varied faiths, edited and compiled by John Marsden (doesn’t look like it’s in print anymore). Amongst other things, it inspired me to write down my own thoughts on faith, God and religion.
I do it every few years. Just write down what I believe. It’s very therapeutic.
Before that book, I had gone to church with my parents occasionally. I was so bored and inattentive at the time that I’m pretty sure those visits had no affect on me as a person. My parents stopped taking me very quickly in favour of Chinese language classes.
And since then I have had zero contact with formal religion. It just doesn’t affect my life. If it wasn’t for This I Believe, and it’s unwritten challenge of – hey kid, get your philosophy in order – I probably would never have thought about God again.
That’s probably not true actually. Because my life journey through my beliefs is a river, not a line. And what has shaped it has been a million influences.
At 17, writing my first ever This I Believe essay, I would say I was a half hearted atheist. Around this time, I discovered the word ‘agnostic’. I can’t remember who said it (it might have been in the book) but agnostics are just the WORST.
Believe in something. Don’t choose “can’t decide”.
In the last 13 years, I have moved away from atheism. On one hand, I discovered certain pros for the competition, which I will get into. But more importantly, I have some very worrying cons against atheism.
To start with the last one, there was a Global Atheism Conference in 2010, held in Melbourne. Global Atheism Conference? Come on. What kind of bullshit cult is this? In the last decade, Atheism has become a religion of it’s own – or at least it’s edging that way very quickly.
The only, and I mean ONLY, people who have ever tried to push their beliefs on me have been Atheists. They take out ads on buses in London promoting their wares. They ridicule and make fun of those who have not read their books and see things differently. And now, they have closed off little conferences that do nothing but preach to the converted.
Atheists, like all religious nuts, believe they are right. And yes, they use science and so their beliefs are not, you know, like fairies in a pretty garden. But it is turning into a bullshit mass movement. And my idea that belief should be trivial is being left behind by this Atheist movement.
Can you really tell me that all atheists know everything about their beliefs? Or have they just read two Richard Dawkins books and are now smug assholes?
Now, I’m not talking about ALL atheists. I’m talking about the ones that organise conferences. The ones who buy ads on buses. The ones that ruin holidays with their politics and beliefs. Where is Pete Townshend to hit them with a guitar.
Atheism used to be easy. You don’t believe in fairy tales. Nowadays, when you say you’re an Atheist, people ask you when you last read The God Delusion.
So, nothing against those who don’t believe there’s a God. In fact, good on you for thinking about it and deciding on something. And fuck those bastards who have turned it into a religion in and of itself.
Not that I’m an atheist anymore. In the years, my view has changed to include a God. Here is a quick headline rundown of how I went from a to b.
From not believing there is a God, means there is no meaning to life.
If there is no meaning of life, then I quote Joss Whedon – “If what we do doesn’t matter, then all that matters is what we do”. Basically if you want meaning, you create your own.
From there – there’s the Oscar Wilde idea of “My life is my life’s work”. If we create meaning to our own lives – wouldn’t we want it to be the very best meaning? Which means we’ve now reintroduced the idea of living a ‘good’ life.
So what are the criteria of a ‘good’ life? Is living by the code set up by the bible? Or something that is personal? Personal is of course the best. But no man is an island, and you have to take moral codes and lessons from what is around you.
I decided to become an artist. Write music. Be a writer. So my personal definition of a good life became to live an artistic life. And to live it fully. Essentially, to leave behind a good biography for someone to write. Taking cues from my idols and heroes, from Keith Richards to Stanley Kubrik, or whoever. Live an interesting, artistic life.
But interesting by who’s account? From here we find Bob Ellis, who wrote in his “The Nostradamus Kid“, the idea of the future camera. That one day, someone will invent a camera that can look back in time and see everything we have done. And we need to perform for that camera, and that future audience.
(It’s not far off from Willie’s “all the world’s a stage” thing)
Who is this imaginary future audience, who’s audience-ness is shaping my life and my actions? It’s no one. They don’t exist. They are just a focus of an idea. Like a meditation mantra. Something un-nameable to hang something on.
And if you’ve come that far, you might as well just name that imaginary thing “God”.
Because for me – if life is a story – then God is not it’s writer. It’s not even it’s editor. It’s the reader we are trying to impress.
So, God is not a person. Certainly not one that looks like Alanis Morrisette.
But it is a belief in something that doesn’t exist, outside myself, is judging me. When I lie in my bed at nights and wonder if I’ve been good to God, it’s me wondering if I have had a “good” day, and if that audience will look at what I’ve done and think of me well.
Which excludes me from being an atheist.
The popular question is – does God exist?
The popular answer is – it doesn’t matter.
For years, that answer seemed like hocus pocus bullshit. But now I agree. It doesn’t matter. I’m not sure it’s for the same reasons the church would give. But here are my reasons.
Religion and God are, most thinkers will agree, a necessary invention at a certain stage of civilisation. People generally create moral codes, and tend to do it by committee. Religion – big and small, good and bad – spawn from this idea.
The fact – and it is a fact, really – that God doesn’t exist should null and void the lessons learnt in religion.
BUT – a big capital BUT – where have I learnt my moral code?
I’ll tell you. There’s one person who taught me more about good and evil, right and wrong than anyone else.
And that fucking do-gooder doesn’t exist either.
I’ll give you another. Captain Kirk. Or Spiderman. Or any character ever played by Steve McQueen. I am the product of learning from thousands of people who don’t “exist”. Does it null and void the lessons I’ve learnt?
Did the boy who cried wolf actually exist? Why don’t atheists attack that story?
So, there is some value in fictional people.
Now, lets take that further.
Dee Dee Ramone is a hero of mine (especially during high school). The guy is dead. I’m never going to meet him. The Ramones were personas at best. They are almost cartoons. How much does “Dee Dee Ramone” exist? That’s not even a real name.
What about Keith Richards then? If that guy was a fictional character, he’d be an unrealistic one. Again, I’ve never met him. What I learnt reading Rolling Stones biographies – is there more value to that than Catcher In the Rye? I don’t believe there is. Both are stories and I’ve taken what I chose to take from them.
Someone I have met then. Michael Stipe for example. I shook his hand once, and had a small chat. Those 3 minutes of confirming his physical presence had little affect on how I feel about the guy, and what I learn from him.
Real, not real. Fiction or fact. Alive or dead. It’s all the same. What gives something value is me, and where I choose to find inspiration.
So whether God exists really doesn’t matter. I’m not dealing with truths when I think of beliefs. I don’t know if there was a Jesus, anymore than I don’t know if Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads to play guitar. But I know which one I’d rather believe in, in both cases.
The problem is religion. It’s usually a pretty bad thing. But as the years go by, even I’m softening to that.
I have an addictive personality. It’s probably lucky that Paul McCartney got to me before God. But I look at KISS conventions, or the Joni Mitchell message board, and I think – a lot of what religion does for people is here. Community. Self validation. A feeling of being unique and special within a group.
Beth, for years now, has been someone I go to when I want to talk about these things. I once asked her about religious nutters. In particular, a guy I saw on the street with a Jesus sandwich board, ranting and raving.
She said, and I paraphrase, that guy is just a lunatic. Pure and simple. And he uses religion as something to be insane about. It’s the same lesson as anti-racism 101. That group of black kids that broke into the local shop aren’t black kids. They are just kids – and dickheads at that. Skin colour, belief, age, gender – any combination of those can produce a dickhead.
Religion is so big, there’s bound to be some real dickheads there. If you took religion away, they’d probably be a dickhead about something else.
(I mean, the Nazi’s were Darwinists gone mad. It’s not hard to see the religious parallels there. Dickheads are everywhere.)
So that is a brief overview of why I decide to not Not-Believe in God.
But then there are the reasons I do.
And I just have to look at La Sagrada Familia. God, that is a fucking humbling experience. Looking up at those spires, and the work – since 1882 and not scheduled to finish for another 15 years – and you think, man, Gaudi really loved God. I mean he really, really loved Him.
That sort of outpouring of inspiration is – well – inspiring.
I want to live like that. I want to express myself with such thunder.
And God can take me there. I’ve chosen my own unique God to be my guide, but a God nonetheless.
Also, a lot of my heroes believe in God (although mostly troubled and turbulent relations at best). Stuart Murdoch. Neil Finn. Craig Finn. Jeff Tweedy. Tim Rogers. That’s just the music guys.
There’s no shortage of inspiring works in the name of God. So many churches. A million songs, movies, poems and books. It makes me think if you let yourself go to something bigger than yourself, then amazing things can happen.
This was a tough piece to write. I hope that you take it in spirit it was intended – a discussion rather than, ironically, a sermon. I usually don’t talk about this stuff, but I do think about it a lot.
In those very rare times I do talk about God, I have come up with a perfect nugget-sized analogy to sum it up.
The school of painting I’ve always been drawn to have been the impressionists. Those murky colours and shapes that suggest reality but don’t reflect it. Like the awesome “The Fighting Temeraire” by Turner or “Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte” by Seurat. And so – I take an impressionistic view of life.
I’d rather blur reality for the sake of beauty.
This I believe.
(Small post script. The name ‘Danny’ means ‘The Lord is my judge’)
(Take the following as discussion – I’m happy for you to believe what you want! I grew up being religious – I have a couple of uncles who are ministers – and was very interested in the Bible stories and so forth, until I started high school, when I started to question things. I then went atheist for a bit, and then agnostic for a long while, until I was 2-3 years into studying psychology at university and it became obvious that there was no room in the brain for that classical idea of the soul that goes to heaven.)
I think there are two issues that matter in terms of religion. The first is power, and the second is happiness. If you get a bunch of people who believe the same thing, and they look up at you, you have power. And religions are designed to concentrate this power, because the most successful religions are the ones that have the most power. I mostly see the current atheist movement as a reaction against the power of the churches – people like Dawkins mostly don’t seem that worried about what individuals believe, they mostly seem worried about, say, fundamentalist Islam’s effect on the world, or the Catholic church’s hate of condoms, which really is causing a lot of misery in Africa.
In regards to happiness, there are some things that are you going to make you happier than others, and some sort of sense of meaning is really really up there. I am quite happy to find meaning outside of religion, but it’s obviously where a lot of people find it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it (in some ways) was almost a genetic thing that some people have and some don’t. And so, if it makes them happy/good people, people can believe what they want.
(Not sure your argument against atheists having conferences makes sense – you a) poo-poo atheists getting together and hanging out as being against the spirit of the enterprise, and b) then say that people in religious communities find joy and belonging when they are in a community? (But yes, I also instinctively feel weird about such things but I think I’m suspicious of community in general).)
You are right that dickheads are everywhere though, and there’s definitely some athiest dickheads (check out Sam Harris, who makes Dawkins look moderate). There’s an argument that religions can often amplify the dickheadedness, give people a sense of zealotry and righteousness about their dickheadness that they might not have otherwise, because of the “because God said so” factor, which like you say is more pronounced than the “because science says so” stuff atheists sometimes come out with, simply because of the finality of it (the science can change, the Bible can’t). But still, the different here is a matter of degrees, not type. And this is what you’re responding to with the atheist conference stuff – if you put people in a community, they develop groupthink, their beliefs become more extreme and harsher, etc. Perhaps this is necessary in terms of wielding power within society? I’m not entirely sure being polite and thoughtful actually gets stuff done politically.
(The Nazis were Darwinists thing is a bit of a beat up – there was a variety of religious beliefs held by the top Nazis. Some of them were athiests or agnostics, but Hitler in Mein Kampf talks about God and Catholicism, and anti-semitism was whipped up by Catholic priests at the time, and historically in most of Europe. The veneer of Darwinism in Nazi thought was mostly a convenient justification for the racist whitey = the best thing, and they would have believed that, Darwin or not)
(Is Neil Finn religious? I know he grew up Catholic, but I thought the gist of “There Goes God” and “Sinner” – and explanations I remember him giving of “Sinner” was that he had figured out it was all crap, but had felt bad about offending his mum by saying so for a long time)
Hi Tim. I thought you’d reply. Out of all people on the planet, we should get a beer and discuss this stuff one day. Could be good.
Religion is more bad than good in my book. It’s the lesson learnt from the Wire – old institutions grown too fat. And the church is the fattest one there is. But I do find in older age I am more forgiving of people’s needs to go to church. But I’m disgusted, as a former atheist, to see see that movement follow down that path. I would have thought atheist would be made of sturdier stuff – the absence of God suggests interests and beliefs in other areas. It’s also the idea that there is a central body that asks you to be a ‘good’ atheist. Agains, it’s just the dickhead atheists, but the top line atheists too.
(Also, someone is making a lot of money on this stuff. Horrible)
Nazism is my argument against people who use the Religion Has Killed More People blah blah. It hasn’t. Just the maths of population shows that. And it’s maniacal egotists that kill people (and, ahem, guns).
Oddly, I don’t think of happiness and God in the same thoughts. Could be a definition thing, but happiness for me is derived from real things. Friends, music, movies, stuff, food etc. Living a ‘good’ life doesn’t lead to happiness. In fact, almost the opposite. There’s a lot of sacrifice. For example – my not drinking. That’s a very monastic tendency I have. Giving stuff up to be good. Being unhappy to be good. If that makes sense.
Neil Finn is very spiritual. Religious is such a bad word. But his upbringing, and his struggle to place God in (or out of) his life is a big thing with him. Guilt plays a big part in his music. And his imagery – seven worlds will collide, water on a burning beach – could only come from a man who knows his religion. It’s like that other Finn, Craig. And like myself – it’s a fight to figure where it fits.
This is how I feel now. Might change in a year or two.
When I say ‘happiness’ I probably mean something different to the general population. There is short-term and long-term happiness. So, ten beers might make you happy now, but between the hang-over and the fall-out from the shit you did while drunk, overall it’s made you unhappy. Or, if you have kids, day-in-and-day-out it’s way more stress and unhappiness and anxiety and frazzled nerves and arguments than not having kids. But parents seem to think that in the long term it’s worth it if the kid turns out good.
And there’s different kinds of happiness too – the physical happiness – the feeling that you get from a good orgasm or whatever – and perhaps the feeling of accomplishment is a different thing. The Greeks talked about “eudaemonia”, which literally means “the state of being in good spirits” but means something a little different and more “living a morally good life” rather than hedonism. Aristotle also had a word, “makaria” which meant the feeling of wonder as you contemplate the beauty of the world. Which is obviously better than malaria. So this kind of stuff is what I’m talking about in terms of happiness, rather than the feeling you get after six beers. And it’s these kinds of happiness you’d get from religion.
I completely agree that religion doesn’t kill people, that people kill people. But in the same way that guns make it easier to kill people (or for people to die accidentally), I think it’s the same with religion. Religion makes maniacal egotists sound more plausible. But for your argument, Communist Russia is a much better example than Nazi Germany! Stalin presided over the deaths of millions and millions as a result of his policies/war tactics, and the Communists were officially atheists. But Communism was in a lot of ways a religion – it was a faith-based belief system. I think a lot of the topline atheists are naive about the way people’s minds work, and that they have a lot of misguided faith that telling the truth is going to change minds. But I’m not sure the likes of Adams & Deveny or Hitchens & Dawkins have a wider coherent set of beliefs about the world beyond those about religion and how atheism will make things better. I don’t really get a clear idea from Hitchens or Dawkins about what a good atheist is. If they did I would be disturbed.
How would you say your feeling of God changes how you act, in concrete terms? You’re obviously inspired by the work of people who believe in God, but how might that change how you go about doing stuff?
Oh, just to be clear, the Dawkins, Adams, Fry etc group are not the new atheists I’m talking about. They are if anything the old atheists I used to believe in. I think their work has been massively co-opted.
I think religion is less involved in politics in the western world than ever before – but it hasn’t stopped evil acts?
I get the big Happiness idea. I still think it’s different from Good? Good to others vs Happiness for oneself. Contentment, or whatever the word is. God, for me, is not about thinking of myself, really.
I think God affects all my actions? Or at least, all my choices.