Yesterday evening, Matt Gemmell posted a lengthy essay on the topic of morality and persecution in religion. Citing recent anti-homosexual statements from the Pope, Gemmell makes a compelling argument against the indoctrination of individuals into religion, the tacit implementation of Christianity in politics, and the ignorance he perceives as being fostered by religious teachings.
As an aside, whether you agree with Gemmell's perspective or not, I'd highly recommend reading his essay in full. His argument is thoughtfully reasoned, constructive, insightful, and endlessly well-written.
From my perspective, there is a lot of truth to Gemmell's argument, but I believe some of his conclusions regarding people of faith -- whether passive or practicing -- are presumptuous.
This past Christmas Eve, my parents and I attended mass at my old Catholic school just outside London. Many former pupils, and their respective families, chose to do the same, thus making it a rather pleasant informal reunion of friends and peers.
When catching up with these distant friends and acquaintances, it was interesting to hear a near unilateral sentiment of confusion at the new words used during the ceremony. You see, in late 2011, unbeknownst to me, the Catholic Church issued a new translation of its Roman Missal, thus subtly altering the wording of mass.
Setting the issue of wording aside for a moment, the most interesting thing to note was the sheer confusion expressed by parents, friends, and former teachers alike. No one was aware of the aforementioned changes, despite their staggered implementation over the closing months of 2011.
In other words, all those complicit in the education of children in a Catholic environment were entirely unaware of the latest occurrences in the practices of their own religion.
To me, this embodies much of what it is to be raised as a religious individual in the United Kingdom today. As Matt Gemmell rightly points out:
In the UK, the overt influence of the church is somewhat less visible. Indeed, religion amongst the British adult population is often treated as a faintly humorous thing.
Of course, I do not mean to suggest that no one attends religious services in the UK, I simply mean to highlight that the purported ease of indoctrination of the youth is an exaggerated fear.
Having been raised Catholic, I attended mass with my parents each Sunday. I even went as far as to become a contributing member of the Sunday School teaching staff in my later adolescent years. I'll be the first to admit that I contributed virtually nothing to this endeavor, instead I was primarily keen to experience teaching and to reinforce my curriculum vitae.
Nevertheless, as an attending, "teaching" individual, I was an active Catholic. Today, at the age of twenty four, I do not attend religious services, but I continue to consider myself a Catholic. For Gemmell, this gradual distancing between self and religion is a natural, borderline inevitable, process:
Of course, as one approaches high school age, one has a troubling tendency to develop the capacity for rational, critical analysis - at which point my “religion” (which I viewed as no different from any other assigned attribute, and of no more importance) collapsed under its own weight. The patent ludicrousness of it all was manifest to even my untrained boy-man’s mind, and in a moment of sudden realisation I felt shriekingly embarrassed at how many people I’d nonchalantly admitted my “faith” to in the past.
I certainly recognize what Gemmell is saying, and I can admit to having felt similar emotions in the past, but I have repeatedly found them to be deceitful. Although I am not a practicing Catholic, I certainly appreciate the wealth of good that is apparent in the church's basic teachings. Perhaps there are overtones of inequality, persecution and abuse, but the core belief system held by the Catholic Church, and many other Christian religions, is largely sound.
The vast majority of controversy, hate and aggression stems from misinterpretations of aging texts. Rather than taking a parable at its metaphoric value, many religious individuals choose to take wording literally. The problems with such misinterpretations are self-evident and innumerous. Further problems, in my eyes, develop when religious texts are cast askew in an attempt to appeal to a younger demographic. Using Powerpoint and talking about iPhones is a manipulative, pandering, and wholly undermining practice.
From my perspective, I tend to view religious ceremony as being somewhat unnecessary and I unquestionably think the blatant homophobic, pedophilia-laced public image of the Catholic Church is deplorable, but that's not to say the core teachings of the Catholic Church do not hold value. I'd argue, in my experience, that having been raised in and amongst religious people and teachings, I have learned a great deal more than most might expect.
The core teachings of respect, mutual appreciation, and moral and considerate behavior are cornerstones of society, and their being taught in religious context does not bother me. In fact, in my experience, it is the teaching of these values in this context that can actually facilitate a broad vision of the world.
I don't mean to suggest that those raised outside of the church lack some fundamental developmental step, I simply mean to highlight that being raised in the church, or considering yourself a Catholic, does not preclude a balanced world view.
I am pro-abortion, pro-homosexual marriage, and pro-contraception, but I consider myself a Catholic. I was raised Catholic. I was educated Catholic. And yet, despite this, I have fostered a world view that is, in most regards, balanced. In other words, it is possible to be a reasonable individual without any internal strife despite appreciating some of the beneficial characteristics inherent within religious teaching.
Religion might be a divisive and controversial entity, but there are many other things that start wars, or engender hate between humans -- not just religion. There are many other things that serve to dull the human experience to the realities of the world and to cast shadow upon the true nature of the human race -- religion just happens to be one of the most prominent agents of such tragedies. And while this is certainly not a beneficial state of affairs, just as with many other things in the world, it is not a clear cut situation of negativity.
Religion brings and fosters a lot of good too. Yes, the Pope might be a proponent of spreading various ignorant philosophies, but human reason can coexist with religious faith. A reasonable human can read the Pope's words, absorb his opinion on gay marriage, and still choose to disregard it.
The assumption that religion cannot facilitate reason, and reason cannot engender faith, is fundamentally flawed. Further, the judgment of all religious peoples based upon this implication is callous. The existence of religion in humanity is not a clear cut case of right or wrong, it is a matter of personal choice. Some people do, indeed, use religion as a justification for ignorance and hate, but that's not to say that rational and progressive individuals are incapable of the same vices.
Learning morality, even in a religious context, does not necessitate a dogmatic vision of the world, and it is problematic to make such a conclusion.
It is, of course, wrong to persecute and judge people based upon their sexuality, but the implication that people of faith are somehow trapped or ill-informed seems misplaced. Sure, for some, religion is a means for escape, but for others it is a means for moral reinforcement. Whether reason is embraced or not is up to the individual, but it should not be forgotten that reason can coexist with faith.
Returning to my Christmas Eve mass, as I conversed with old acquaintances and teachers, many latched onto one specific feature of the new wording of the mass: the lack of the word "all." Where prayers once said "for all people" they now preach "for many people." This is an unquestionably problematic statement and lends credence to the existence of Catholicism as an agent of persecution.
On the other hand, the immediate recognition of the wording, and the instinctual distaste at the implied meaning, betrays the reason, whether latent or active, inherent within all humans -- religious or not. That is what interests me.
Incidentally, at the end of the day, Mr. Gemmell's argument makes a great deal of sense, and I certainly don't mean to suggest that he is wrong, but in support of our recent endorsements of intellectual discourse in lieu of commenting, I thought it might be valuable to contribute my thoughts to this topic. I applaud Matt for writing about such a divisive topic with such conviction -- it's rare and encouraging sight to see such unwavering passion in Internet writing.