A couple of months ago I read The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and really enjoyed. I’d bought the book and tried to read it about 30 years ago but then set it aside, deterred by the dense prose and the many digressions. I had no problem with that this time, and found many of the digressions exploring religious sects and controversies of the time utterly fascinating. It led me to believe that these are things I should know more of – like so many things I should know more of.
By chance, it appears that much of my recent reading has a religious aspect. I made mention a few weeks back of a novel I was reading of 1950’s Ireland that touched upon the religious divide. I’m reading a book now that is similar, set in Ireland during the troubles post WW1. (And another set during the English reformation).
This is fascinating to me from many angles.
To start with, to read of these things from within an Australian society that is modern and secular to the point of being irreligious, is a foreign experience. Religion has played no part in my life. I’ve never been to a church service that wasn’t a funeral, a wedding or a christening. I have an intellectual and historical interest in it, but feel nothing holy.
It’s never really played a part in our public life, either. There have been powerful religious voices, and our most recent PM tried to bring Christianity into the conversation, but it’s never taken here as it has in other place’s. I think that comes down to the nature of Australians – we don’t like to be lorded over or told what to do. And, somehow, we lack that holy need – the thing that draws man to god. We’re practical and independent and believe in the things we can do. It’s both a positive and a limitation.
Whether it’s by nature or nurture, I take a cynical view of the religious infrastructure and am wary of its power. Throughout history there’s been a long tradition of corruption in the church. Popes have feathered their own nest and sponsored violence, while cardinals and the like have acquired wealth and influence in the service of their own ambition. Then there’s the terrible and cynical abuse that priests have perpetrated upon their vulnerable brethren.
It’s a broad brush, I know, and there have been many devout and sincere holy men doing their best to uphold the true meaning of their belief. Often times, through history, they’re the ones who have been persecuted by the church. I’ve spoken to church leaders and found their faith endearing, even if I couldn’t share it.
I’ve wondered if that made me cynical, or if it came down to individual belief. I’m a democrat to my core, and by that I believe in equality and frown upon privilege. We each are deserving of an equal chance, but I believe in individual responsibility. I don’t need or want anyone telling me how to conduct myself, and I won’t believe in something I can’t.
My view is that you don’t have to be a churchman to be a decent human being, and wearing a cassock or a collar to do right by your fellow man. You don’t need a book or teachings or belief in a higher being to be a good man, it should be innate. By my observation, some churchgoers are the least charitable.
Ultimately, I just can’t believe it. I don’t doubt the historical basis for any religion, just the meaning given to it. We crave a higher meaning to give purpose and shape to our lives, and so we invent – or conflate – something we can humble ourselves before.
I’ve never felt any such need. I would be pleasantly surprised to find there is a God – I’m not against the idea. Given what I’ve gone through lately, I’d vote for a heaven also. I don’t judge anyone for their belief, though I do their actions. What you choose to believe in is your business.
But now I’ve digressed. If it wasn’t already clear, I’m an atheist who’d happily be an agnostic. I don’t believe in the church and am sceptical of organised religion generally. I was christened a Protestant, though by blood on my father’s side, I’m Catholic – Irish Catholic.
This I find interesting reading some of these books. If my family had never left Ireland all those generations ago I’d have been a Catholic and doubtless drawn into the troubles. Though I care less about the religious divide, as a democrat I feel sure I’d have become involved on the republican side. I don’t care where it is, I’m almost always going to take the side of the oppressed – and fighting for home rule seems the most worthy of causes.
It’s a curious thought, and an easy view to take sitting comfortably in secular, sophisticated Melbourne when nothing is on the line. I accept that. It’s easy to rage. To do is a different thing, and nothing more than a hypothetical in this environment.
If it counts for anything, we debated Australia becoming a republic at the dinner party last week. The boys were for it, the girls ambivalent or against it. I was predictably fierce. It will come.