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.

Strange Thoughts In The Night

Do you ever wake up suddenly in the middle of the night with a strange idea you just have to write down?

Well no, I don’t much either. But last night it happened. In the morning I found this:

I believe in God, and God believes In me.
It’s a Folie à Dieu

Where do thoughts like that come from? I have no idea. Theologically though it seems pretty solid. We invented God, but God invented us. So everything works out OK.

Anyway, we mixed it up a bit yesterday and actually didn’t go swimming in the sea. We tried one of Finland’s many billions of lakes instead. Beautiful; all surrounded by silver birch forest. In the cool of the evening, with families playing and little fish swimming around our ankles. The biggest difference from the sea was afterwards; last night was the first since coming here that I didn’t have a shower before bed. I could not have felt more thoroughly washed than I did after that lake.

Good news for anyone envying me though – it was finally too wet to go swimming today. l had to make do with a sauna.

I don’t know if you have a clear image of a sauna. It’s not at all the same thing as a steam room, more an oven to cook yourself in. Any accurate description sounds too dangerous to be quite believable, but seriously it is a sealed room where, using fire and steam, you get as hot as you can possibly bear. Then you close yourself in and sit there, sweating profusely, for as long as you can possibly bear. Then you go and take a cold shower or jump in the snow or something, for as long as you can possibly bear. Have a beer perhaps. And go back in to get unfeasibly hot all over again for as long as you can possibly bear.

For some unknown reason, this doesn’t kill you. Apparently it even does you good – I certainly feel good. I’m unclear about how it’s supposed to work, but my guess would be that the general principle is to kill every single living thing in the vicinity of you, that isn’t you. Bacteria, fungal spores, small mammals, anything that might try to infest you during the long winter months.

The heat must of course also be a great comfort on those long, frozen-solid nights. Doing it in the summer almost feels like cheating.

It's The Economy That's Stupid

Abie Philbin Bowman made a good point at the gig yesterday. Once, people believed in a mysterious, invisible force. They didn’t understand it, they could hardly even describe it, but they credited it with vast power, claimed it controlled just about every aspect of the world, and declared that whatever it wanted to happen was what must happen. They called it “God”.

Now, they call it “the economy”.

It’s so true. Nobody really understands the economy. We can’t even define it – is it the sum total of human transactions, or just the sum total of human transactions that involve things you can count? But nevertheless we positively invite it to take control of our lives. As someone else said, the problem with calling economics the “dismal science” is not that people think it’s dismal, but that people think it’s science. At best, it might aspire to being a branch of psychology. Yet people actually try to run the world according to its self-defeating prophecies.

A concept tossed around a lot in current economics is “competitiveness”, which sounds like it has to be a simple, positive good. Got to be lean and fit to make it in this world, don’tcha? It seems almost synonymous with efficiency. But when you look at it more closely you realise that there are a lot of assumptions involved here. “Competitive” is sometimes used as a synonym for “cheap”. When it comes to wage costs, it seems competitive always means cheap.

Competitiveness is at heart a sports metaphor, so let us imagine economic activity as a game like soccer or rugby. We – as a country – have to get out there and be competitive. Cool. Let’s go get ’em! We’ll show them who… costs less. We’ll give it 110% all the way through the first half, and right through the second, and on through the third, and… Hold on, three halves? When does this game end actually?

It doesn’t. We’ve taken the concept of competitiveness from sport, but overlooked the fact that a game is a brief interlude of peak performance. You can’t live your whole life like that. That would be, well, a desperate struggle. If democracy and civilisation exist for any reason at all, surely it is to free us from desperate struggle. And yet struggle is precisely what they’re telling us we need.

So it turns out that, like a lot of words used in economics, “competitiveness” translates most accurately as “whatever makes most money for the people who already have most money”.

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So-called “Logios Hermes” (Hermes,Orator). Mar...
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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.

Priestly Identity

Why would the Vatican think that further separating seminarians from other students can help prevent them abusing children? If anything, becoming more enclosed and collegiate will make them less likely to reveal the criminals within their ranks, not more. What this tells us about the Church’s mentality is shocking, but not surprising. Inevitably a religious institution, even one as worldly and cynical as this, reverts to magical thinking: As God’s representative on Earth it cannot be wrong, not fundamentally. Therefore the causes of abuse must come from outside. It stands to reason.

The further implication is that the problem can somehow be traced back to the slight liberalisation that paved the way for more open seminaries. Plenty living people can attest to being abused before Vatican II of course, but such evidence is invalid because it doesn’t fit with the magical thinking. Or indeed, with the general prejudice in the Church against openness.

But what is worse, it shows the Vatican still resisting the idea that clerical sexual abuse is its fault. It must have been tainted by exposure to other people. Other, less pure and spiritual people. Women, is the word that’s not being spoken aloud here. If the Catholic Church can somehow blame women for child abuse, it will.

This is wilful self-delusion. Of course the problems of the Church do not come from the pernicious influence of ordinary people. They come right from the soul of the institution – the belief that it is an instrument of the will of God. This is what allows it to consider itself above the law, to ‘protect’ its own members from justice, to let them keep raping.

The Catholic Church can never be trusted with children until the day that it admits it is not an organisation carrying out God’s will. And that day will never come.

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.