Thursday, 31 July 2008

Losing religion or gaining psychological freedom?

The letter below was sent to The Times but was edited prior to publishing. Here is the unedited version:

Oh dear, I feel a bit guilty writing this letter - a bit like telling a child that Father Christmas is not real. Still, Jacqueline Calleja's letter in The Times of 25 July merits some corrections.

The most glaring and often-repeated falsehood is that Europe owes its roots and identity to Christianity. Europe has existed since long before Christianity started, and owes its identity mainly to the presence of the Mediterranean separating it from North Africa, which affected the spread of the Greek and Roman influences, and formed a barrier to a greater mixing of cultural influences. Although Christianity has been a major influence in Europe for over 1500 years, that influence has not been too positive. Consider that, 200 years before the birth of Jesus, in Greece, Erastothenes had accurately calculated the diameter of the earth, the angle of tilt of its axis, and invented the leap day after calculating the exact length of a year. By comparison in 1600 the Catholic church burned Giordano Bruno at the stake for saying there were other worlds besides our own, and in 1633 sentenced Galileo Galilei to house arrest for life, for the heresy of claiming that the earth orbits the sun. It was only in 1992 that the church finally conceded that Galileo had been right all along. From the achievements of the Greek and Roman worlds, Europe was dragged into the dark ages. We went through the crusades and the inquisitions thanks to the church. Did you know that the Holy Inquisition remained until 1908? After that it had its name changed - it is now called the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. It was headed by a certain Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger until he got a big promotion.

Many might object that these acts are all in the past, and the church of today is totally different. Then again, when one hears a Cardinal of the church telling people in Africa not to use condoms, when 1 in 5 people of the region are HIV positive, one has to wonder - has it really changed? He told them that condoms have small holes through which the AIDS virus can pass. How many lives were lost thanks to Cardinal Trujillo's words? Some priests in Africa were even telling their congregations that condoms are laced with the AIDS virus. Throughout all this the Vatican remained silent.

I am not at all surprised at Ms. Calleja's statement that "the Church is witnessing a wondrous growth" in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. In both of these regions there is severe poverty, and a lack of educational facilities, medical facilities and so on. The inhabitants are faced with a terrible choice - adopt Christianity and get education for their kids and food and medical care for the whole family, or stay with your own religion and starve. The objective of missionaries is to use material items like food as the carrot with which to bring in converts. Of course, in their eyes the latter is the greater benefit, but it's good to keep in mind the reason why Christianity is growing so much in these regions. I'm not saying that the missionaries there actually refuse to provide material needs to non-Christians, but if you place your kids in a school run by Christians every day, getting a mix of academic tuition and religious indoctrination, they will be converted. Of course there are also some cases when they do refuse, such as in the tsunami-struck village of Samanthapettai, where a group of nuns insisted that the starving locals convert to Christianity before getting food and water - and when these devout Hindus refused to convert, packed up and left. Obviously this was an unusual and extreme case, but I wonder how many Christians are aware of how their contributions are used when they give generously to such causes.

It is not surprising that Christianity is in decline in the better-educated regions of the world. There was a time when gods were used as an explanation for phenomena that we could not otherwise explain. We had gods of thunder and lightning, of storms, volcanoes, of the sun and so on. We are a curious species, always seeking to understand everything around us - a trait that fuelled our intellectual progress. As science grew and started bringing us better and more accurate answers, these ancient deities were discarded, their carcases littering the road to knowledge. Eventually, deities started needing more explanations than they provide. We don't need them to provide answers, we don't need them to provide food or resources, the moral leadership of their self-appointed ministers has been questionable at best. So what's left to justify belief? A fear of retribution perhaps? It appears that even that story is not convincing many any more.

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