Back in 2011 I started writing a book that was an expose of the absurdity of religious belief and the way religion was a power structure used to create a wealthy elite, control and exploit people. This is it:
‘So what is the bible?’ I asked myself. ‘Nothing more than descriptions and scenes from a life, scattered with events, asides and religious commentary.’
‘So what would an antitheist’s bible actually look like?’
Later that evening we were sitting around in the sitting room replete from another huge meal and opening another bottle of plonk. It had become a little chilly and we’d lit the fire so that the burning logs were creating a pleasant ambience and backdrop to the conversation.
‘How do you know what you’re talking about?’ Kathy asked out of the blue, softening the directness of the question with a follow up. ‘I mean, dear Oph, you’re not one for reading religious texts and you’re not exactly a church goer? What makes you an authority on religion?’
Liz and Tobes both looked across at me rather quizzically, waiting to see how I might react to being challenged in this way. It was straight to the point, typical of Kathy’s approach to things. I frowned slightly and mulled it over. It posed the question. What did make me an authority on such matters?
‘Aaah Kathy, I was brought up in a culture that has been suffused with religious mania,’ I finally replied looking straight into Kathy’s eyes. I could feel everyone watching me. They were all suspicious of my reasons and abilities. It didn’t matter to me. I knew I had a viewpoint and heaps of information. What I didn’t know I could look up. I was going to write the book because it was how I felt. That was all that mattered. This was what was eating at me. I wasn’t really interested in producing something that could get me published or make money. I wasn’t interested in becoming successful. The book was buzzing around in my head and it had to come out. It did not matter that I was no expert on comparative religion. I enjoyed writing and I chose what I wrote about because it appealed to me, because I felt compelled, not because there was a market for it. If I was to be totally unsuccessful that was OK. If everyone else had done the thing to death, well that was OK too. I had my own views and my own slant. It was how I felt that was important. ‘We’re steeped in it,’ I continued, not dropping my gaze. ‘I’ve got ears and eyes and an intellect that joins them up to form a rational logic. That rational logic is the bit that separates me from the brain-washed sheep, by the way,’ and I allowed myself a depreciating smile. ‘And, Kathy, I have read my share of religious texts, histories and commentaries – enough to know that the stories don’t add up and they’re all bollocks.’
Kathy seemed to consider this for the briefest moment. ‘But darling Oph, you haven’t exactly studied them,’ she continued, tilting her head quizzically.
‘And religion isn’t about rational logic,’ Tobes interjected. ‘It’s about faith.’
Well,’ I said turning to face him. ‘According to the faithful. It’s beyond logic, and as far as I’m concerned that means it’s bollocks.’
I turned my attention back to Kathy. ‘I think they’ve been hammering religion into me the whole of my life. We studied it at school. We sang it in assemblies and had reading after reading. I went through my religious phase. I read St John of the Cross and Zen. I see what’s going on around me. I have watched the news. I’m interested in history. I’m 60 years old and I take an interest in why it all happens the way it does. I think that provides me with a good basis for doubt. I have seen how religion is used.’
‘That’s hardly a doctorate, dear Oph,’ Kathy observed rather primly.
I chuckled. I knew exactly what she was doing. ‘I don’t think you need to have a doctorate to have an insight into how things work. When it comes down to it religion is about how human beings minds work. I’m a human being. I understand that.’ I shrugged and reconsidered before going on. ‘I decided on the Antitheists Bible because of all of the glaring stupidities that jump out at you from history and life. They all pile up and all get swept under the carpet. The faithful all conveniently explain it away with their irrational excuse that faith is beyond the rational. Spiritual things are not of this world. As if there is a dimension out there that is beyond the laws of the universe in which god dwells.’ I looked across at Tobes, meeting his eyes in order to emphasise the point. ‘That is bullshit and it doesn’t explain all the power struggles, papal excesses, wars, ridiculous interpretation of texts, and the like. That’s what I want to expose. If there’s a spiritual dimension, then fine.’ I shrugged. ‘I could even go along with that. Even a god, as long as they were more similar to atomic energy than some judgemental old man on a cloud.’
I could see Liz raise her eyes to heaven at the thought of me accepting either of those premises. I noted the expression of resigned incredulity and smiled across at her.
‘No. It is the whole human element to this that doesn’t hold up to one iota of scrutiny,’ I added pausing and looking down at my hands. ‘The thing I gleaned from all my tens of years of being subjected to continuous religious pounding is this:’ I surveyed them all with serious expression. They were all attentive. ‘There is one god in the Jewish, Christian, Islamic tradition. We share him. We bicker and fight and kill each other over him. That’s probably as it should be.’ I paused again. They had initially nodded in agreement. There was one god shared by those three monotheistic religions. It was the last bit that was a little bemusing to them. What had I meant by that? I noted their perplexity. That was precisely the effect I was after. ‘If god is real that is exactly what he wants,’ I explained. ‘All those crazed bombers, jihadists and Inquisition torturers were spot on!’
By now they were getting a little lost in my logic. What did I mean? It was alright to kill and maim? I continued to launch into my rant knowing that my point would eventually become clear.
‘All the blood thirsty, child raping crusaders, and disease spreading enslaving missionaries were 100% right.’ I grinned round at them and shook my head. ‘Don’t you see? They were only doing god’s will.’
No they didn’t see. They were still bemused. I was enjoying this.
‘When I read the Koran, Bible or Torah I see a despotic, evil, malevolent monstrosity who delights in torture and suffering and rains misery and destruction on all and sundry,’ I explained. ‘He is intolerant, racist and excessively violent and vengeful.’ I was revelling in it now. ‘That’s one fuck of an unpleasant motherfucker. You would not want him round for tea. He’d be after you sacrificing your children and slaughtering your neighbours on one pretext or another. Fear the Lord. Too bloody true!! The fucker’s going to have you tortured for eternity! It’s no wonder there’s so much fear, anger and conflict.’
They were beginning to see where I was going with this.
‘Who can believe in such a barbaric human construct straight out of some medieval tribal Arab culture? If he were real then he would demand torture, death, destruction and vengeance. That’s the nature he has been imbued with. The old testament’s full of dashing babies brains out, sacrifices and such like. The Koran is full of revenge, jihad and violence. You don’t have to have a doctorate to see that. We are all experts in understanding the way of the Lord. A little bit of research behind the scenes fills in the back story, the hypocrisy, the politics and the way the State and individuals, like Saint Paul and Constantine, have used religion for their own ends. It doesn’t take much to delve into its underbelly. It is all too apparent. You just have to open your eyes to it. That’s what my Antitheists’ Bible is going to be about.’
I was manic. Kathy passed me a jay to calm me down.
That night I lay awake in bed thinking about my mother and the conversations with Kathy and Tobes. Liz lay asleep beside me but my mind would not let me be and I knew that if I did not unravel the knot in my head my mind would not stop pulling at it and sleep would be impossible. Better that I dealt with it, thought it through and resolved it. I did not want it nagging at me all night.
Death. Death was at the centre of it. ‘Wasn’t that one of the main threads behind all they had talked about this evening?’ Death the unknown destiny, the reason for religion, the justifier of the most heinous crimes. Without death, the promise of eternal life, paradise, heaven, where would god live?
My mother was probably dying. That was a reality. She was losing blood from somewhere and becoming anaemic, hence the need for regular transfusions. She was blasé about it. It was as if she was refusing to accept it. Indeed she was glossing over the whole thing but I knew that at the back of her mind she knew. Her resistance to being ‘poked and prodded around’, as she so succinctly put it, was really her way of saying that she had had enough and was ready to die.
The probability was that she had cancer. There was a tumour somewhere and it had progressed to the point where she was losing blood. She was bleeding internally. It was probably bowel cancer. It was impossible to tell without tests and she was refusing to have the tests. Ergo she would inevitably die. Her only hope was to go in for tests, find the problem and hope that it was not too far advanced to deal with. In all probability it was too far gone anyway. We both knew that. She was right, the tests and treatment would prove pointless. After all she was eighty three. The fact that she was having a transfusion every two months suggested a major problem. There was no getting around that. To urge her to have the necessary tests, procedures and treatment was probably a pointless and unnecessary intrusion. She knew that and was adamant she didn’t want it. That left me with a dilemma – should I argue and push her to doing something about it or respect her wishes?
Then there was the question of her belief. My mother had religious beliefs, weird and idiosyncratic beliefs, collected from an assortment of religions, particularly spiritualism. She believed that after death she would go off into some wondrous after-life and meet up with her much adored mother. I had noted that there was never any mention of my father. Perhaps he wasn’t quite so adored? Her view of this wondrous after-life seemed almost childish to me yet it had sustained her through her life. Who was I to argue? She claimed to ‘have had enough’ and ‘couldn’t wait to get over to the other side’. I was not quite sure if she believed that whole-heartedly but who was I to judge? At least it gave her comfort and so I avoided arguing with her. What was the point of that? No. Better to leave her to her beliefs.
I resolved to talk it through with my sisters and see what they thought. If that was what she wanted then they should respect that. I was not sure that my sisters would totally agree though. Anyway, I had a way forward and I could put it to one side, ring my sisters tomorrow and discuss it.
Death. My Mum’s imminent death focused the mind. We all would die. Our days were numbered. I would die. How long did I have? There was no way of knowing. As my mum often said: ‘it’s better that we don’t know what’s ahead of us.’ Yes, when you thought about it, quite probably. Still, it would be nice to know so that you could plan things out, sort out what you had time to pack in. But then what was the purpose of packing anything in? You couldn’t take it with you, not even memories. Your life, your possessions and even memories would all be left behind to fade and crumble. It was sobering stuff. You could see why people craved an after-life, why religion was so fundamental to human beings. Death was a formidable concept to grapple with.
I pondered on it in the dark.
What was this ‘spirit’ that was supposed to rise out of you and go off into the after-life; the essence of self that haggled with the ferryman to cross the mighty river Styx to get to the land beyond? Why did the Egyptians, American Indians, Vikings and so many other cultures think that you had to fill the tombs with food and their worldly goods so that they could make their journey into some realms beyond? In the darkness my mouth involuntarily broke into a smile. My head was full of images of bald Indians on the other side scalped so that they would forever be bald; Viking sailors at the helm of their mighty longboats in the sky and Egyptian kings trying to carry all that gold into the next kingdom. It was a bit farcical. Yet the idea of a spirit seemed quite universal. It must have been a very early human creation. They could see that the body was going nowhere; it just rotted away, so they invented some unseen spirit that continued to live. Yet I knew from my own experience with my father that there was something eerie about a corpse. There was definitely a different feel to it. You could sense the absence of the person. Something was missing. The body was hard and cold like marble but it was something more than that, an absence. Did that suggest a spirit though? Not to me it didn’t. My mother had told me that his spirit had passed on and I had felt that my father was certainly no longer present.
Many religions saw this ‘spirit’ as being the essence of self that went on into after-lives or reincarnation. It was quite ubiquitous, but that didn’t make it true, did it? It didn’t hold weight for any scientific examination. There was no ‘essence’ that sat inside you and guided your body. There was only the consciousness created by that neuronal net – and when that shut down you ceased to be – that was the sense of absence.
My mind was too active. I had too many thoughts and feelings. My Mum’s health was weighing on me. I pondered it for a while in the darkened room as the clock slowly altered its digital display and Liz’s breathing provided a steady background beat. Life was a wondrous event. Death was a massive psychological phenomenon. How could we come to terms with it?
Scientists were still at the beginning of trying to understand consciousness. They might not get a handle on it for another hundred years or more. That didn’t make primitive explanations correct, though did it? They still hadn’t figured out that the brain was involved. The idea of spirit was a very human concept; something that had been arrived at intuitively because it felt right and provided answers for the big questions around death. It had probably been a very early invention which was why it had emerged later in so many cultures. The shaman had tried to provide a means of solving those imponderables that worried people so much. On many levels the idea of a spirit made sense. It enabled elaborate ritual that unified people and served a purpose. Unification was essential to tribal people. It worked.
No, the idea of a spirit had had its day. There was no inner spirit, no matter how much we craved one. Our consciousness was the product of our amazing brains. We did not understand it yet, maybe never would. But that did not mean that we should be satisfied with a simplified primitive concept that happened to fit the bill and make us feel better. It didn’t work with me.
As far as I could tell my eyes had opened into this amazing universe due to an incredible evolution of chemistry and circuitry. That was the miracle. It required no god, no design and no spirit world – all of which were utterly absurd and even more inexplicable than reality. All that was necessary was the fundamental laws of the universe and time, huge dollops of time. God was redundant, a mixture of fairy-tale and wishful thinking.
I understood that when I died those peepholes would close and the universe, for me, would cease to exist. The chemicals would stop reacting, the circuits would shut down and my consciousness would dribble away to nothing. I was OK with that. I was OK with my Mum dying.
It was hard to think of the universe going on without me but I knew it would. It had not been constructed for me to experience. It just was and that was alright.
For a short while, as the clock slowly ticked in the dark, I contemplated a universe in which there were no sentient beings to experience it. It made me think of the Zen parable of the tree toppling over in the forest with no one to see it. Did it really fall? Did the universe really exist?
Yes it did.