Michael The Huck A Bee

A Huckabee supporter's bumper sticker.
Mike’s interests include prayer, gardening, mystical visions, what you do in private, and running for President. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mike Huckabee is sending me email. Why, I don’t know. I could not care less what the man thinks. Calls himself a “Conservative Christian”, which apparently means that he was enjoying the Bible right up until Jesus came along and spoilt it. Mike wants me to know that a bunch of people in robes are not more important than God. This isn’t an anti-Islamic thing, he’s referring to the US Supreme Court and their judgement that some laws against Gay marriage were unconstitutional. He argues that they must be wrong because his God doesn’t agree with Gay marriage. This shows that he either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care for the constitution of the United States. Both, I suspect.

So I’m not an American voter. Was this sent to me by mistake? I get mail intended for other Richard Chapmans (Richards Chapmen?) all the time. I’m not sure; American conservative Christianity is not just a mixture of politics and religion. It’s also a business. Witness the fact that a while after this, along came another mail from Huckabee. Only this one began “Please find a special message from our paid sponsor”. Mike Huckabee’s political spam has breaks for commercials.

(Incidentally – “paid sponsor”?)

It was headed “Sopranos Star Ignored 4 Signs of Imminent Heart Attack, Doctor Says”, and was designed to terrify you into some dubious heart-health scheme by quite literally cashing in on the recent death of James Gandolfini. Classy. Interesting to note though, Outlook’s filters decided Huckabee’s advert wasn’t spam – but that his politics was. I think I see where they’re coming from.

My favourite bit:

Dr. Crandall says that if you ever suffer a heart attack outside of a hospital, you only have a 7 percent chance of survival!

That also means in 93 percent of the cases such an episode is fatal!

No comment of mine could add to that in any way.

Yes, all organised religions from Scientology on down are commercial entities. But the US religious right, seeing as it does no real distinction between Christianity and Capitalism, is among the least embarrassed to blatantly seek “customers”. These don’t necessarily have to be American voters as long as they can raise the funds and spread the programme. Witness “our” Youth Defence, in many ways a bridgehead into Ireland for American Conservative Christianity. (And one to which an outflanked Catholic Church has still to find an effective response.) So there’s every possibility that this mail reached me intentionally. Pointlessly, but intentionally.

The Tithes That Bind

The catholic church St. Kilian in Mulfingen in...
The catholic church St. Kilian in Mulfingen in Southern Germany. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We think it’s bad here, where if you don’t pay a tax your children could be kept out of university. In Germany, they’ll refuse to bury you.

For this is church tax. Yes, they have church tax in Germany. Actually this is in a lot of countries, and it’s not quite as weird as it sounds. Instead of being forced by social pressure to put money in a collection, a percentage of your income tax is funnelled to the religion you nominate. And yes, it can go to none at all.

It seems that more and more people though, while nominally Catholic, have not been paying Catholic tax. The kind the church would like us to refer to as “lapsed”, of Catholic backgrounds but who, whether due to abhorrence of its actions or simple lack of belief, no longer take any active part. Maybe going at Christmas. Maybe getting married in church to please their mothers. Maybe being buried in the family plot.

No longer. It appears things were brought to a head by a Catholic theologian who took the issue to court. Interestingly, he in no way wanted to refuse a contribution. His objection was to doing it through the taxation system. It was a church and state thing. Or if you want to take a religious point of view, a God and Mammon thing. But the upshot is that the Catholic Church in Germany has come down hard on paying your dues. In or out, no more fannying around. If you aren’t a subscribing member, you will be refused… services.

As marketing it’s a master stroke. People will value what a religion provides much more if it has a certain exclusivity. The Catholic Church – Members Only. It seems a perfectly sensible business model – for an insurance company, or a breakdown service, or a gym. I’m not sure how they’re going to make this work for a religion though. I mean, the important thing in Christianity is what you believe, isn’t it? Not what you invest. Will deathbed repentance still be good enough, or will you have to sign a cheque for your backlog of tithes before you get absolution?

Because that’s awful reminiscent of something the German Catholic Church did before once, and it didn’t work out well.

An Alternative Easter

Abraham embraces his son Isaac after receiving...
"What the **** was that about, Lord?"

Eggs and rabbits, sex and death. Easter is weird. But then, the whole of Christianity has an odd feel to it. It’s the kind of eccentricity you only get when very different cultures meet and blend. A sort of… theological jazz. Greeks give the Jews the idea of the half-human demigod, Jews give the Greeks the idea of monotheism: Result, a god who is his own son. Which is pretty original, you must admit.

Another reason it’s strange is that it has such a satisfactory narrative. I mean, by mythological standards. It’s got structure, a beginning and an ending. A twist even. Like Judaism and Islam it really begins with Abraham, whom God told to sacrifice his son before relenting at the last moment. Weird in itself, but apparently just the stuff to start major religions rolling; keeps the audience off-balance I suppose.

But Christianity culminates with a dramatic reversal of this. Where before he’d demanded a son, now God sacrifices his to us. Yet instead of saying “Ha, had you going there!” at the very last opportunity, the humans just go right ahead and kill him. It’s the greatest of all surprise endings – the cavalry doesn’t make it. Humanity completely blows their one chance to return the favour God showed Abraham. It’s pretty shocking really. I’m imagining God the Father watching this unfold and shouting “Hey. Hey hold on there, I thought we had a deal.”

Wouldn’t that have been a better ending? A last-minute intervention by a stranger in the crowd. Christ is released. Everyone feels embarrassed and wanders away. The mysterious figure looks up into the sky and says, “OK, square now?” From then on, humanity and supernatural beings leave each other the hell alone.

I’m building the time machine as we speak.

Roots Of Religion

I came across something extraordinary. Chimps may have a religion.

When the seasonal rains come, chimpanzees – the dominant males especially – do a special sort of dance or ritual. It’s hard for us to guess their motivation of course. Are they celebrating the change of season, defying it, placating it? All you can really say is that it’s a social reaction to an environmental phenomenon. And that is surely one of the hallmarks of religion – personifying and attempting to communicate with natural forces.

It’s especially interesting when you consider that there doesn’t seem to be a human society without some religious sense. A traditional (non-religious) explanation is that when faced with the inexplicable, we are forced to ascribe it to the caprice of an unknown will.

Seen that way, religion is a consequence of intelligence. But what if all humans have religion because religion is older than humans, and our ancestors treated the forces of nature as living beings, malevolent or benign, long before they had language or culture?

It would explain some things – like how people with barely any language or culture can be so religious today.

Mystery Metal of Ancient Ireland

Wenzel Hollar's historical map of Ireland
Ireland used to be a different shape

Today was spent at the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, a curious seat of learning I have written of before. I was there for Tionól, a symposium on Celtic Studies. Not my usual stomping ground, but it’s good to go off and explore sometimes.

Ireland is fascinating because so much of what seems like the distant past happened so recently. (And vice versa.) The coming of Christianity didn’t overwrite pagan social structures. Much of their law and their system of values continued alongside the new religion. Nor did Viking settlement or Norman invasion destroy that cuture; it was only in Elizabethan times that real efforts to replace it began. So it’s almost as though we moved from the pre-Roman era directly to the early modern.

Yet there is so much we don’t understand about that past. When the change came it came fast, and though it left us a rich supply of written records, we do not always understand them.

For example, there is a word findruine that means…. Well, from its context it appears to be a precious metal. Stories speak of valuable objects of “gold, silver, findruine and bronze’ – in some it even outranks silver to become the most precious substance after gold. Yet we don’t know what it was.

Theories abound of course. My own first thought was that it might be a special version of bronze, with more copper in the mix. Or perhaps one that substituted zinc for the tin to make gold-coloured brass. But all these have been suggested over the years. Our speaker argued that none of them were right, and that the material was bronze (and perhaps other metals) that had been ‘tinned‘.

Which is not to say it had been put into cans. Tinning is the art of heating metal and then introducing solid tin to it. Tin melts at a relatively low temperature, so it spreads out on the hot surface, bonds with it, and forms a bright silver-coloured coating that resists corrosion and tarnish. The art was widely practiced until quite recent times – it gives its name to the trade of ‘tinker’ – and we know it was done by the ancients because, though it’s less robust than a pure metal, some beautiful articles of tinned work still exist.

So perhaps an ancient riddle has been solved. In the scheme of things though, it’s a relatively minor one. For example one of the most important roles in traditional Irish society was that of file. The word is usually translated as ‘poet’, yet fully qualified members of the file class were social equals to kings. And we still don’t know exactly what it was they did.

I hope to return to this.

America’s Praying Politicians

American cultural icons, apple pie, baseball, ...
No One Gets A Slice

Disturbing to watch Tea Party representatives talking about how they’re praying for guidance as the economy teeters on the edge. This is the American Taliban. They have their own fundamentalism, ostensibly Christian rather than Islamic perhaps, but like the original Taliban they hate the American government. Unlike them, they have a real chance of harming, possibly destroying it. And they don’t even need weapons, because they attack from within.

On whose behalf are they fighting? That of America’s greatest enemy: Its own wealthy.

Many of America’s rich want to divest themselves of any responsibility towards their fellow Americans. It’s not as if they were ever under a lot of pressure to help out anyway, but in recent history at least it has worked better that way. You would employ Americans to make things to sell to other Americans, who could afford to buy things because they were employed to make things… Not everyone was included within this benign circle of course, but the general upshot was an optimistic land where it was at least believed that everyone’s lot could be improved.

But now that circle has been broken. The simple fact of the matter is America’s rich don’t need other Americans anymore. They buy, make and sell globally. America is just one market, and they don’t need to invest in it. Americans do get cheaper goods that way, but less and less are they buying them off each other. So though the super-rich are making more money than ever before, a large part comes from effectively taking a cut out of the export of America’s jobs and wealth. We can only watch in horror as what was once a country of opportunity for the poor grows an ever-widening gulf between a tiny minority that becomes more fantastically rich all the time and the vast majority whose position is deteriorating.

How can that ever happen in a democracy, when it is up to the people how the country is run? It’s simple really. The super-rich sponsor all the parties. But the Tea Party is taking it to new extremes, preaching a blatantly wealth-favouring agenda while using prejudice, fear and religion to manipulate others into voting against their own interests.

The irony is that it’s named after the Boston Tea Party, an incident leading up to the American War of Independence, yet the people its policies favour want to run America exactly like an exploited colony –  milking it for what can be got, giving as little as possible back. The US has a new aristocracy, and they will be a lot harder to dethrone than one based far overseas.

Vatican City Limits

From Roma with love
Ideally, it should be in a hollowed-put volcano

What I hate about the Vatican is their holier-than-thou attitude. It may not pretend that it’s above error, but it continuously insists, to us and to itself, that even if it does on occasion do harm it ultimately achieves a greater good.

Look closely at the logic of that. The more harm the Vatican does therefore – whether it be protecting paedophiles from the law or impeding the prevention of AIDS – the more good it must be doing. The benefit of its existence must outweigh these ephemeral evils. To think otherwise would be to confront a truly appalling vista.

And if the good the church does must inevitably outweigh the bad, then preserving it and its power in the world must surely be worth more than the safety of a child. Or any number of children.

This kind of ruthless logic is what makes religious organisations last for thousands of years while kingdoms and empires rise and fall.

But when an Irish politician unequivocally condemns the actions and the attitude of the Vatican, you know that times are changing. Addressing the Dáil, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said:

The rape and torture of children were downplayed or ‘managed’ to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and ‘reputation’.

Couldn’t have put it better myself really. Well maybe stylistically, but the content is spot on. He continued:

. . . a report into child sexual-abuse exposes an attempt by the Holy See, to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic . . . as little as three years ago, not three decades ago. And in doing so . . . excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism . . . the narcissism . . . that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.

Broadly speaking, he tore them a new one.

Hight time, and popular support is overwhelming. Irish new media publication TheJournal.ie did decide to give space to a priestly apologist for the Catholic church, but I think that was mainly to give the rest of us a target. His point though, if the metaphor is not unfortunate, was that we should not throw the baby of the church’s teachings out with the bathwater of its failings. Society needs a spiritual dimension, and the church has contributed much of practical value too.

I’m not going to argue against the social utility of religion – not today at least. For the moment I’ll accept the assertion that people, some people at least, require or benefit from religion in their lives. The question that still remains however, which I would like to ask this apologist, the Vatican, and every cleric who put the instructions of the Vatican before the safety of children: Why does that religion have to be Catholicism?

There are many other faiths. Heck, there are even many other forms of Christianity. Perhaps people in Ireland who wish to practice a religion should choose one that has sinned less.