| (printed in an English newspaper last
year) Some things get lost in the translation
According to the Anglican church's latest figures, on the average Sunday only
one million English people go to church, and only two percent of the English
population are frequent churchgoers. Similar declines in church attendance have
occurred throughout what was once Christendom. Superficially this may appear
to be a triumph for atheism, but judging by public statements by various bishops
the great threat to the Church of England is not atheism but the various beliefs
and practices they describe as New Age. This is a rather vague term, and one
almost invariably used to describe people other than oneself rather than something
people actually identify themselves as (as an experiment, accuse a likely target
of being new age and watch them look offended and tell you they are actually
Wiccan or pagan or a spiritualist), but I think most people have some idea what
the bishops mean.
The threat to the established churches (Catholic, Methodist and other churches
are all shrinking) is from people who reject organised or 'institutional' forms
of religion but pick and choose (to the horror of bishops everywhere) from all
the available major religions and from less conventional belief systems ranging
from yoga to being abducted by aliens. The invention of new composite religions
may appear to herald a new era of autonomy, independent thinking and intellectual
rigour, but alas, it is not so. The change from organised, participatory religion
to a world in which we all have our own private beliefs has been a gradual one,
going back at least as far as the Reformation, or arguably to the birth of monotheism .
Protestantism demanded a personal relationship with god for every man and woman
with no need for saints to intercede, priests to administer sacraments and speak
to god in Latin or magic rituals to change wine into blood. To take it to its
logical conclusion, no need to attend church on Sunday. Of course the Protestant
churches have ensured from the beginning that Protestantism is not taken to this
extreme, and it can be argued that Protestantism was the result of a gradual
process of secularisation rather than the cause of it, but the death of organised
Christianity was written along with the tracts Martin Luther nailed to the church
door. Not, however, the death of Christian habits of thought and belief.
A personalised religion means it doesn't have to make sense, there is no need
to communicate it to anyone else, no need for doctrinal coherence. There is actually
less examination of beliefs. In this way I quite agree with the bishops, although
it is the intellectual decline rather than the spiritual one which I am lamenting.
Tolerance toward other religions means not questioning them or pointing out that
they are illogical or inconsistent. A myriad of personal religions means that
every person can wield religion's weapons against skeptics - the retort that
you cannot question, explain or contradict matters of belief. It is the same
technique used by people who preface their opinions with 'I feel', you can't
argue with that, how could you know how they feel?
Such people are equally tolerant of my beliefs, at least until they understand
what they are. When I tell people I'm an atheist they often presume that what
I actually mean is that, like them, I do not follow the religion of my parents,
but still have my 'own spiritual beliefs' and have rejected 'organised' religion
for some motive other than my lack of belief in god. One common misconception
is that an atheist is someone who doesn't like religion (or some of the major
word religions) because religions cause wars. While religious differences may
prolong established wars through many generations, people of different faiths
tend to tolerate each other unless an economic conflict intrudes. Then religious
issues may take over as each side uses any means they can to attack their enemy.
Religious leaders may then exploit this for their own ends if it is in their
To give you some examples, the Palestinians were not particularly antagonistic
towards Judaism until European Jews set up a religious state (i.e. a state to
which you are entitled to citizenship on the grounds that you are Jewish) on
their land. Likewise, the Jewish settlers, some of whom actually believed they
were going to 'a land without people' to 'make the desert bloom' were not going
there out of a dislike of Muslims or Christians, but because they were (and still
are in the case of recent Russian Jewish immigrants to Israel) escaping prejudice
in their own countries. And as for Ireland, that other great centre of 'religious
conflict', many early Irish nationalists were Protestants, so the Protestant
religion does not preclude a belief that Ireland should be independent and united.
The Catholic Church has shown little interest in supporting their own religion
in the conflict, possibly because the IRA is at least nominally not keen on Catholicism.
I'm also not opposed to religion on the grounds that it is 'repressive' or sexist
or anti-sex. Social controls take many forms, religion is just one of them.
I am an atheist simply because I don't believe that there is a god, and I think
that if more people believed this the human race would be better off. Of course
I don't think religion should be 'banned', outlawing it only makes people want
it more (e.g. look at the power of the Catholic church in Poland after years
of official disapproval). I have never seen or heard of any evidence that there
is a god, an afterlife, a soul or a 'spirit world'. I don't think my view of
the world lacks something without a god in it. (The only reason I can see for
believing in god is to have someone who can be held responsible, a final authority
who's fault it really is when there is no one human whom one can blame).
I think religion is detrimental to the freedom of the human race as it convinces
people to put up with injustices imposed upon them in the hope that they will
be rewarded in the afterlife or when they are reincarnated. If, as I am convinced,
we have one life and after we die we no longer exist, then the centuries of lives
wasted deferring pleasures and rewards to a non-existent afterworld are a pitiful
waste. If everyone acknowledged that this life was all they had, they would have
to concentrate on improving the real world. Perhaps that is too optimistic, but
at least people would not be willing to justify or accept the miseries that they
suffer in their life. As has been observed before, religions are an invaluable
tool for those in power to keep the masses quiet.
And don't ever call me a 'lapsed Catholic'. I may have been brought up a Catholic
but the word lapsed implies that I just forgot to go to church a few times and
was too embarrassed to show my face again and decided staying in bed was easier,
when in actual fact, starting at the age or ten or eleven I began to examine
and ultimately reject the doctrines I had taken for granted and then slowly and
painfully dismantled the habits of belief.
People also presume when I say I am an atheist I mean I disapprove of born again
Christians, the Catholic church and 'Islamic fundamentalists' yet recognise the
need for a 'spiritual side to life' and admire 'Eastern religions', particularly
Buddhism. I don't: I disapprove of all religions equally. It doesn't make much
difference whether someone wastes their life praying at an altar, praying facing
Mecca or meditating. In actual fact, out of all religions I think Islam and Catholicism
are my favourites. I like the art, and in Catholicism I appreciate the willingness
and ability to incorporate pagan festivals and gods. The preservation of these
traditions in different areas has made each country's Catholicism distinct. The
supposed viciousness of these two religions adds to their appeal in a way.
If I was to become a lapsed atheist I hope I would chose a faith that did not
allow me to pretend I was doing anything other than giving up my own autonomy
and surrendering  to
god. The idea of joining a religion that lulled me into thinking I was not rejecting
all I had held dear is a far more horrible thought. As for Buddhism, I have been
given no convincing reasons why I should make an exception for it. I've been
told it is the only religion that does not seek out converts. A small point in
its favour perhaps, but it's not enough to convert me. I've also been told Buddhism
is not sexist. That's nice, but it's possible to be not sexist AND not religious.
And of course, we are meant to like Buddhists because the Dalai Lama is a nice
man and Tibetan Buddhists are being oppressed by the bad Chinese. No doubt this
is true, I just find it rather dubious that celebrities such as Richard Gere
and the Beastie Boys and many other Western liberals  have
chosen this issue of all the possible conflicts in the world. Why not, for example,
pick on one of the many bloodthirsty governments established by their own countries,
or protest against their country's murder of Iraqis? And while there is no justification
for the Chinese colonisation of Tibet, I would never give my support to a campaign
to set up a state run by a religious leader.
A curious phenomenon among the Free Tibet sympathisers is the number of them
either professing to be Buddhist or at least speaking of their great admiration
for Tibetan Buddhism. This smacks of orientalism. They are romanticising a selected
group of 'Eastern' people who are singled out as more spiritual and holy than
'us', sanctified by their oppression, and yet somehow not suitable for, ready
for, or perhaps deserving of, the kind of secular democracy that these Western
liberals demand for themselves. I would have a lot more sympathy for the Free
Tibet enthusiasts who I have met if they simply argued for Tibetan self-determination
rather than expressing great admiration for someone who gained their position
by being selected as the reincarnation of a former leader.
By comparison, it seems, for example, that very few people who support Palestinian
self-determination convert to Islam or claim to have an affinity for it. On the
contrary, many explicitly state that the rise of popularity of Islamic Palestinian
organisations is an unfortunate consequence of continued Israeli occupation.
They defend the rights of a people who they do not claim to understand or wish
to emulate. The point shouldn't be that Palestinians, the Irish, Iraqis or Tibetans
are special, wise, spiritual people and should be favoured on that basis, on
the contrary the point is that they are not special and should have the same
rights as anyone else.
Westerners who convert to a religion other than their own are adopting it without
seeing how it works in practice, i.e. in a society in which it is the norm. This
is a fundamental misunderstanding of what a religion is. By taking Buddhism and
making it your own personal religion you are trying to opt out of the society
you live in, rather than recognising that you are part of it and trying to change
it. So much of your subjectivity comes from your religion: in Western Christian-based
countries our laws, philosophy and concept of time emerge from a Christian tradition.
Secularisation doesn't mean religion went away, it just means we no longer recognise
it. These things that you never think of as part of a religion are much more
difficult to get rid of, and there is as large a part of your new religion that
you will never be able to see, and which the religion's 'native speakers' take
for granted to the extent that they do not notice it. You might as well say that
you are going to change histories.
The personalised version of a 'foreign' religion is as much a caricature of a
religion as a private, 'new age' belief system is. It gives the illusion of autonomy
while allowing the adherent to retain a moralistic logic. Submission to the retarded
modern church has become inconvenient, but people still cling to these travesties.
Making religion a personal matter means denying that our beliefs are historical
in origin and claiming they truly are absolutes. Each person tolerates other
religions, claiming that underneath it all we all want the same things and adhere
to certain fundamental truths. They claim religion, not as part of a cultural
legacy but as part of being human, therefore one can no longer fight against
it. It is only when we recognise that our religions are part of our history,
and their effects are still our causes, that we can hope to escape from them
Naomi Rousseau [Leo Dog], is kind of an expatriate New Zealander, but
was an expatriate Englisher before that she says, so what does that make
her? She is a writer and co-edits Wolverine (look out for their
new website), 'lives in Hackney and collects artificial aquaria'.