I was probably older than most kids in my class when I stopped believing in Santa Claus. From there it was only a short hop before my suspicion cast a dark shadow over the nocturnal activities of the so-called Easter Bunny. Strangely, I had dismissed the Tooth Fairy years earlier. Why? I guess it struck me as completely ridiculous. Or maybe it was that the cost of not believing was negligible. I used to get fifty cents for a tooth and if that was to be the cost of my apostasy, it must have been something I was prepared to risk. Whether for rational or economic reasons, I ended up abandoning my faith in all three. Granted, the risks associated with non-belief in Santa Claus were the greatest. But I didn’t let my growing agnosticism show until I was pretty sure that it was my parents who were at the bottom of this ruse. Once that had been confirmed, the risk of non-belief evaporated. Christmas would still come, my presents would still arrive and all I had lost was belief in a childish notion. The same went for the Easter Bunny. Everyone was off the hook. The chocolate still appeared and my parents got to go to bed early without having to wait for us to fall asleep first.
Which brings me to Mary MacKillop. The very notion that a dead woman (whether dead for a 100 years or one hour) can do anything but decompose in accordance with the laws of nature, is an extraordinary claim. The fact that people believe not only this, but also that an old man in Rome can perform some incantation which elevates the dead woman to some other-worldly status, is similarly strange. But hundreds of thousands of intelligent individuals believe precisely this. Some are so powerfully persuaded that they would shell out their hard-earned and travel to Rome to be a part of this ritual. Soused in a heady mix of religious fervour and misplaced nationalism, they parade their solidarity in the precincts of the Vatican, jumping up and down chanting “Mary, Mary, Mary. Oi, oi, oi”.
At a personal level I feel both offended and embarrassed by this. But why? It’s as if I still cling to the belief that, with the passage of time, humanity is on an upwardly mobile path to greater awareness, greater sophistication, actualisation. I let that fantasy go a while back in second year uni, but it still dies hard. I need to remind myself to attend to two very powerful sources of data.
The first of these is personal. As a very young man I was once an avid believer. I even went to theological college for a while. So, it is not without some understanding of belief, and the sincerity of faith, that I am able to make these observations. Just as I am able to recall the magic of Christmas Eve when, as a young child I marvelled at the thought of Santa setting out with his reindeer, I am able to recall the comfort that belief in a deity can offer. But as I reflect upon those times in my life, was it so much comfort or the certitude that belief afforded? And when it was challenged by a succession of probing questions during my years at university, what allowed me to step out of it (and not without some effort) like a set of ill-fitting clothes and face the yawning chasm of existence?
The second source of data is from human history. Witch-doctors, shamans, witches, wizards, oracles, high priests and priestesses. We have always appointed individuals within our societies to have responsibility for communicating the will of a deity or deities. Some may argue that the prevalence of this tendency supports the idea that there must be ‘something greater than ourselves’. It may be thought of as evidence that god(s) really exist(s). Why else would be see such a consistent pattern of behaviour as far back into human history as we are able to peer? Far from supporting the notion of the veracity of a supernatural realm inhabited by gods who need specialists in order to communicate with their creatures, it’s my view that the universality of this behaviour indicates something quite essential about the human condition.
Whilst not unique in our ability to perceive our own existence, humans have no doubt developed a greater capacity to obsess about and ponder the nature of being. That we are, is an amazing thing. It is surpassed only by our ability to be amazed by our ability to be amazed by the fact that we are. Whilst I can’t cite the research supporting it, I believe that other creatures with which we share this world have the capacity to perceive themselves. Birds, primates, dogs, cats, pigs, cows, horses are all, I think, able to exhibit some kind of self-awareness. However, and I may be wrong, but I’m not sure that many of them could engage in meta-thought, that is, thinking about the fact that they can think about themselves as beings. Maybe there are some very clever biologists or anthropologists or evolutionary psychologists who have been able to devise experiments to show that meta-thought is not beyond other species. I wouldn’t be shocked if they had, and if they have, we need to seriously consider our response to this.
Regardless, I posit that it is the human preoccupation with ‘self’ that almost invariably results in a compulsive urge to construct and then enforce belief in a god or gods. That is not to say it is the only reason. Or that, once in place, institutions of faith are not able to serve a vast array of other adaptive and maladaptive agendas such as judicial and civil rule, political control, military expansion, genocide, environmental stewardship, charitable causes and so on. But if we are to go back to the root cause, or at least a root cause, I think it is reasonable to argue that the fact that I can think about myself, my being here, the fact that I wasn’t always here and that in the future there will be a time when I will no longer be here – I think that that offers a plausible line of thought for understanding the development of human ‘spirituality’ or religiosity.
Apparently, as our ancestors began to supplement their diets with meat, the additional nutrition and greater efficacy of this food source resulted, over millennia, in a larger brain, a greater capacity for creative thought, the development of more complex societal norms and, I expect concurrently, an enhanced degree of self-awareness. Drawing on my own experience again, I am aware that vast tracts of each day are consumed with thinking about myself or with processing my perceptions of my environment, monitoring my internal state, my interactions with others. Even when I’m thinking about others, or my work, it’s usually in relation to what that means for me. Thousands and thousands of thoughts pass through my mind. Some result in observable behaviours, others apparently do not. All, however, are coursing through what I experience to be me, my ‘self’. This is what it is like to be. One of the side-effects of being is that it is the ultimate in immersive experiences. I can’t choose (without killing myself) not to be, and I can’t choose not to be aware of being. One of the other side-effects of being, I would argue, is that it’s very difficult (if not in fact impossible) to meaningfully contemplate non-being. As the robot from Lost In Space would exclaim, “It does not compute”. It is beyond comprehension. My experience of my life, myself is so all-encompassing, so overwhelming, so full-on and undeniable that it gets in the way of imagining not being. But, in many respects, ‘I’ am an illusion. My ‘self’ and ‘my’ awareness of ‘me’ are very clever, very adaptive mechanisms or syndromes for bringing all of my complexity together into a whole. I experience myself as a whole person, for most of the time. I live and behave as if I am in control of me. I live my life as me. I am more than the sum of my parts. There is something more, something ineffable about me, transcendent. I rail against the notion that I am simply an organism compelled to do what that organism has evolved to do. And for the most part, it seems, that entails looking after me and mine no matter what the consequences to others may be. Perhaps I am a ‘child of god’ or carry a ‘spark of the divine’. Whatever I am, I am not ordinary. I am special and certainly not destined for non-being at the end of my days. It’s simply incomprehensible to me.
Inevitably, this denial of the non-being into which we will all pass cannot persist unruffled amidst the torrent of life’s data to the contrary. People we know and love die. People we hate die. We may even witness their death. It may even be at our own hands, or at the hands of someone we know. Good, bad, loved, hated, by accident or by design, everyone dies. And naturally, this means that I too will die, but, as we’ve already seen, that “does not compute” and so death has to be reformed, rehabilitated, reconstituted into something comprehensible, something which is more compatible with my own immersive experience of being. Me and mine matter most and cannot be destined only for dust. It is absurd. Clearly, according to this logic in my DNA, death cannot be the same as my current being. I’ve seen those around me die. Their bodies stop living and eventually decay. The being part appears to have gone away. Death must be a transition to another type of being which is different to this type of being, but where I will still somehow be ‘myself’ and where ‘I’ will be reunited with the other ‘selfs’ I have known.
Enter god. And not a moment too soon. It’s literally a case of ‘Thank god, you’re here’. In its most crass terms (and it’s shocking and appalling to admit) humanity rescues itself from its own existential dilemma by creating a fantastical imaginary saviour, and then proceeds to heap belief upon that saviour with all the energy we can muster. Part of me laments and wants to shake us out of this morass as if it is somehow beneath our dignity, but I don’t think it is. It is precisely in keeping with our dignity and our evolutionary identity. Some people, like myself, have been able to throw off the burden of faith, not because we are superior in any way, but simply because we live in a time when the cost of doing so is very slight. I might be labelled an atheist, I may be spurned by my Christian friends, I may even incur the disapproval of some of my family members. In this country at least, I certainly won’t be persecuted. It hasn’t always been that easy, and it isn’t that easy now in certain parts of the world. How many former Muslims do you know of who are now atheists? It is simply luck that sees me living at this particular time in human history, that allows me to write this on a computer and lob it out into cyberspace for anyone to read.
I know that this essay has taken a deeply complex and sensitive issue and dealt with it in a rather simplistic and speculative fashion. But for me, it has the ring of plausibility. This type of reasoning fits with what I think I know about myself, with what I think I know about others and with the prevalence and persistence of religious belief I see in the world around me despite not a shred of supporting evidence. From my perspective the world is filled with evidence that there is no god running the show. On the contrary, the universe is random, unaware of our existence. Bad things happen to good people. Good fortune shines on bad people. A tragic accident sweeps hundreds or thousands to their silent deaths and yet one person who survives feels entitled or obliged to attribute his survival to God. A child is struck by a car, is horribly maimed and paralysed, but is not killed. God is given the credit for this. A person is diagnosed with terminal cancer and given weeks to live. Ten years on, she is still alive. Why? I do not know. What I do know, however, is that it wasn’t the work of a century-dead nun.