Saturday, May 9, 2009

Christopher Pearson, American Catholicism, militant atheists on the warpath, and the joys of hell

(Above: way back when in the girlie magazine Man, artist John (Jack) Gibson did a regular series of sketches illustrating the joys of hell, with the first one appearing in 1938, and then running for over 35 years. He owned a yellow Goggomobile and did much for bohemianism).

Good old Christopher Pearson. 

Now that the global warming crisis has been sorted, courtesy of labeling true believers as fundamentalist religious fanatics, it's back to the business of religion. And labeling.

Militant atheism may be on the warpath in the English-speaking world, but last week its advocates had to take on board some unwelcome news.

Militant? Warpath? Meh. You believe or you don't, and so long as you don't shove religion down my throat - or associated warped moralities, and FUDs of a fanatical kind - or confuse secular states with religious states, it's a never mind matter to most secularists. Why is it that militant religionists of an Islamic and Christian kind always sound exactly the same when they're on the warpath? But quick, back to the good news as celebrated in Pearson's column Defectors to faith mark a growing trend:

According to the latest American research, parents with no religious affiliation are losing the battle to indoctrinate their children. A majority of those surveyed who grew up in atheist or agnostic households, or where there was no particular religious attachment, later chose to join a religion.

Err, actually Christopher, there's no battle to indoctrinate children where I'm coming from, unless it involves prattling pious priests shoving guilt down the throats of children while meddling with their underwear. You see in a free world, children will chose to believe what they want to, freely, and if religion suits them and their spiritual needs, that's just jim dandy. And like as not, if their parents believe (or don't believe as the case may be) in one thing, then the innate perversity of the young will lead them to believe in the opposite.

Sure, they're delusional and foolish - the young always are - but provided they don't come home to lecture me about my drinking or my loose sexual ways, again it's a never no mind. It's the religious who've always looked on attracting converts, and undermining rivals as some kind of doctrinal holy war. Bean counting the faithful, and making sure they hand over their ten per cent tithe to keep the vicarage in shape.

But Pearson is resolutely determined to get excited about the news from the Pew Forum that Americans change religions early and often (so much for a coherent theological viewpoint), and that 54% of those reared  in unaffiliated households have since got religion. And what's more, the adult convert is inclined to be zealous.

Well that's what the world needs, more zealots and crusaders.

Those who look forward to the triumph of secularism in the Anglosphere have taken heart at the rapid collapse of organised religion in Britain, Australasia and Canada. Even so, they must sometimes despair at the continuing vitality of the religious impulse in the US.

Well not really. A fairy tale life in heaven would in fact be preferable to an eternity rotting in the grave. There's no actual triumph in secularism, except insofar that you can escape the simple minded hectoring of heresies like Jensenism and Pellism (and Pearsonism).

If anything, what you find is nostalgia, as with Lewis H. Lapham's reverie On Deadline in the May 09 Harpers:

... I was raised in a family unincorporated into the body of Christ, and at the age of thirteen, it never once having occurred to me to consider the prospect of an afterlife, I knew that I lacked the documents required to clear customs in Heaven.

But then Lapham is having fun with the varied deaths of sundry philosophers, as outlined by Simon Critchley's The Book of Dead Philosophers, and musing on the desperate desire of Americans to avoid death at any cost.

I know that dying is un-American, nowhere mentioned in our contractual agreement with providence, but to regard the mere fact of longevity as the supreme good - without asking why or to what end - strikes me as foolish, a misappropriation of time, thought, sentiment, electricity, and frequent-flier miles.

Lapham had an early experience of being pronounced dead (as I once did), and it settles the mind, to accumulate bonus days, year after year, while provoking bemusement at the way people grab on to life and hold it dearly, with plastic surgery and pharmaceuticals deployed to avoid aging. Strange somehow, if you truly believe that death is just a passing over and you get to sit at the side of Christ in heaven. Makes you think religion might just be the final insurance, the last hope of a decent face lift for eternity.

On the other hand, Pearson is more interested in head counting, and the way that those who've left American Catholicism outnumber those who've converted to it by nearly four to one.

Severing links is largely related to the rites of passage into adulthood. A huge rush - referred to in some circles as the Gadarene swine - leave before reaching 18 and in the years to 23. Only 21 per cent of those now unaffiliated and 34 per cent now Protestant departed after turning 24. There are other indications of the scale of the catechetical failings of American Catholic education.

Such a touching reference, to the Gadarene swine. You might recall that this was when (instead of just expelling demons), at Gadara Jesus sent the demons into a herd of pigs:

And there was a good way off from them an herd of many swine feeding. So the devils besought him, saying, If thou cast us out, suffer us to go away into the herd of swine. And he said unto them, Go. And when they were come out, they went into the herd of swine: and, behold, the whole herd of swine ran violently down a steep place into the sea, and perished in the waters.

Poor pigs, they cop so much abuse, but as Homer rightly notes, there's nothing pork can't do, from roasts to bacon. At least unbelievers, especially those taught in Catholic schools, now know their true place - demonic infested swine. Possibly even the source of swine flu?

Pearson also broods about why people have left the Catholic church in America and reports the Pew results - 56% don't agree with teaching on abortion or homosexuality,  followed by teaching on birth control (48%), treatment of women (39%) and teaching on divorce or remarriage (33%). But perhaps there are even darker issues:

I cannot forbear from noting that, as a particular complaint, 8 per cent of the unaffiliated and 11 per cent of Protestant converts said "Catholicism had drifted too far from traditional practices such as the Latin mass".

Ah yes, the loss of the Latin mass. Actually I can't imagine many people who remember it, unless they're classical music buffs. I'm amongst the lost generation who spent precious hours learning classical Latin, and then had to sit through the nonsense of a church claiming the Roman language as somehow the mystical, sanctified language through which god could best express his message to the faithful. 

Any true Roman knew that the best place for a Christian was in a lion's mouth, and would no doubt still be rolling in grave with laughter at the thought that some fundie Catholics want to bring it back, instead of "selling its distinctive ethos for a mess of pottage."

Well the Latin mass did a wonderful job sustaining Mel Gibson's marriage, and inhibiting his desire to pork young Russian girls, so there must be something to it, I guess, besides giving the Holy Roman Church the distinctive ethos of avoiding the actual language used by Christ the Jew.

It's also interesting that, at a time when it has never been more biblically oriented in its liturgy and encouraging of Bible-study, developments that should be aiding the retention effort are apparently having the opposite effect. Despite the enormous media coverage of the paedophilia scandals and their mishandling by so many bishops, only 2 per cent of the unaffiliated and 3 per cent of the Protestant converts said it was the main reason for their leaving, although no doubt it was a contributing factor for many.

Never mind, while there's still plenty of other churches - if you don't like the feeling in the Catholic community, or the service and style of worship - and you can always go for a singalong at an ecumenical church, Pearson doesn't share "the disdain so freely expressed among the commentariat for born-again evangelicals", and nor do I. 

Without them, we wouldn't have had Burt Lancaster's great performance in Elmer Gantry, wherein he puts away childish things, including a rather neurotic Jean Simmons as a fundie preacher.

Still, while it looks bleak for Catholics in America, Pearson retains hope. 

One final, unexpected note about ex-Catholics who are now unaffiliated. Many of them remain open to the possibility of a return to religion at some stage of their lives and one-third say they "just haven't found the right religion yet".

Sounds like the time is right for me to reveal unto the world the truth about the aliens who landed on earth a million years ago, and hid under Uluru, the big red rock in the centre of Australia (check out the images in ancient rock carvings), and then selected various prophets to prepare the way for their eventual coming - including Julius Caesar and Cleopatra.

Our worship of these ancients will of course be conducted in Latin, and I expect the imminent return of the aliens within the next twenty years, at which point we'll all be taken to the Horsehead nebula for a celebratory meal of wafers and sherry. 

Somehow it reminds me of Archy the cockroach's experience with an older cockroach basking in the glory of having been to hell:

listen i says to him
old man youve never been to hell
at all there isnt any hell
transmigration is the game i
used to be a human vers libre
poet and i died and went
into a cockroachs body if
there was a hell id know
it wouldnt i youre
irreligious says the old simp
combing his whiskers excitedly
ancient one i says to him
while all those other
cockroaches gathered into a
ring around us what you
beheld was not hell all that
was natural some one was fumigating
a room and you blundered
into it through a crack
in the wall atheist he cries
and all those young
cockroaches cried atheist
and made for me if it
had not been for freddy
the rat i would now be
on my way once more i mean
killed as a cockroach and transmigrating
into something else well
that old whitebearded devil is
laying for me with his
gang he is jealous
because i took his glory away
from him dont ever tell me
insects are any more liberal
than humans

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