The Facebook Catechism

To be memorized and repeated at least five times a day, as a minimum before going online.

I saw this really cool thing on Facebook the other day. It said that if you—

No. Don’t. It’s not what it says it is.

But it’s on Facebook! Everyone reads Facebook, it must be trustworty.

No. You are confusing ubiquity with respectability. It’s precisely because it’s on Facebook that you have no knowledge of the real source, only what they themselves say they are.

But, look, loads of my friends have already—

No. Your friends might be smart people, but even smart people can be fooled sometimes.

OK, so it’s almost certainly not true: but what’s on offer is so cool and all I have to do is—

No. That’s exactly the gamble they want you to take. They exploit our natural cognitive bias to presume that things to our advantage are more probable or reliable than they really are. They offer something fantastic for apparently almost nothing, but then you find they’ve actually taken far more than you intended. And even if, once you’ve taken the apprently harmless gamble, you realize you’ve been conned, you’ve added your name to the millions who have taken it, and it looks more and more convincing, such that other people are less likely to realize it’s a con.

Once you have mastered this, you may progress to the Advanced Level, in which you repeat the entire exercise substituting the words “the Bible,” “the Qur’an,” or “the Torah” for “Facebook.”

In which I get butt naked for God

I have spent today standing, stark bollock naked, in my back garden; and for once, I have done so with good reason.

The world, you see, is going to end today, and I figure I’m on slightly dodgy ground to be Raptured—what with the whole atheism business, not to mention thinking it’s a good thing them gays can get married, and a bad thing that the extraordinarily hypocritical Lord Carey can rant repeatedly and hysterically against this whilst having the small matter of a child-molesting bishop on what passes for his conscience. So I figured I should make things as easy as possible for God, and preemptively whipped off my togs and made sure I was outside for Him, the easier to be Taken Up into the air. In fact, I was jumping up and down quite a bit, just to make the point, until I got tired and the neighbours threatened to call the police.

Of course, you could argue that Chris McCann is just another nutjob, one in such a long line that you would have thought they might have learnt by now. The world, after all, did not end on 1 January 1000, despite the best encouragement of Pope Sylvester II, nor in 1284 as sanctioned by another pope (Innocent III: a man innocent of much, perhaps, but not incitement to mass slaughter). It also did not end on … well the list is rather long, so just go here and write your own damn funnies for each and every eschatological epic fail.

But there’s a serious point here; McCann may be a nutjob (though one who has carefully built a caveat into his prediction), but that does not exempt him from moral culpability. McCann’s prediction is a rescheduling of that of Harold Camping a few years back, prior to which a number of people committed suicide out of fear of the impending disaster. Were these people probably already at least slightly disturbed? Almost certainly. Might something else, in the absence of Camping’s predictions, have pushed them over the edge? Quite probably. Was Camping directly responsible for their suicides? Of course not. But does that exonerate Camping from the charge of having spoken recklessly and having misinformed his not insubstantial audience? No, it does not.

As for Camping, so for McCann. Should even one person kill themselves, or even commit less extreme panicked reactions, as a result of hearing McCann’s idiocy, then as far as I am concerned this should lie, in part, on his conscience. You do not cry “Fire” in a crowded theatre, and you do not publicly announce the end of the world when that very world has a substantial number of unfortunate and fragile individuals within it.

I’m guessing the Rapture won’t come today, but if a single person does themselves any harm as a result of McCann’s foolish pronouncements, then I’d recommend that when it does come he join me in my naked bouncing, because the weight of having needlessly and stupidly helped push a few people to despair will be distinctly anti-Raptural ballast around his neck.

On satire

I hate you, Jorge, and if I could, I would lead you downstairs, across the ground, naked, with fowl’s feathers stuck in your asshole and your face painted like a juggler and a buffoon, so the whole monastery would laugh at you and be afraid no longer. I would like to smear honey all over you and then roll you in feathers, and take you on a leash to fairs, to say to all: He was announcing the truth to you and telling you that the truth has the taste of death, and you believed, not in his words, but in his grimness. And now I say to you that, in the infinite whirl of possible things, God allows you also to imagine a world where the presumed interpreter of the truth is nothing but a clumsy raven, who repeats words learned long ago.

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

Pope Francis’s comments on the Charlie Hebdo shootings, attempting to place limits on freedom of speech and endorsing the use of violence against those who say things that upset the religious, have already got themselves a post here, but I want to say something wider about the role of satire in religious affairs.

The Charlie Hebdo situation has frequently been likened to the Satanic Verses controversy, and I think that comparison stands, and not least now in the regrettable siding of Western religious figures with those who feel that the slaughtered and the maimed somehow had it coming to them. The Satanic Verses, as did the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, set out to undermine the Islamic conventions around the representation of Muhammed; but they are hardly the first—Dante’s Divine Comedy places Muhammad in Hell, his guts hanging out, a schismatic and a false prophet. Illustrators over the centuries have not ceased to relish this scene for visual depiction—yet there are no protests, no burnings, no gunnings down in Tuscan publishing houses.

What was extraordinary about the Satanic Verses affair was how much Christian and Jewish leaders leapt into line, not with the supporters of free speech, not with the opponents of bigotry and intolerance, but with the other camp. The then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, declared that Britain’s blasphemy laws should be extended to Islam, and that Rushdie should be prosecuted, and other Christian and Jewish leaders took a similar line (see Christopher Hitchen’s God Is Not Great for a detailed list of those non-Muslim and secular figures who enthusiastically endorsed religious censorship). A spokesman for Pope John Paul II, whilst admitting that the fatwa was excessive, denounced the book as “blasphemous,” and the official Vatican newspaper stated that “the very attachment to our own faith induces us to deplore that which is irreverent and blasphemous in the book’s contents.” That is, the heads of churches which necessarily consider Muhammad to be a false prophet and consider this a matter of fact demanded the prosecution of an author for representing Muhammad as a false prophet in a work of fiction, and then only in a dream of a madman. Why? Why did Runcie want blasphemy laws extended to “protect” all religions when to him the other religions must be blasphemous, because they deny the tenets of his? Why did the Vatican consider deplorable this minor supposed attack upon that belief which the church had spent many centuries and shed a huge amount of blood attempting to surpress? And why, now, has an otherwise intelligent and reasonable (as far as medieval theocratic monarchs go) Pope similarly fallen in with the “they brought it on themselves, you know” brigade? The answer is related to the absence of fury over the Divine Comedy: it lies in the fact that these works seek to make us laugh; and that, in our post-Enlightenment world, with a viable secular agenda for power, this laughter threatens not just who holds power, but the very concept of religious authority as a right to power.

The Catholic Church didn’t always have such a downer on mockery. The second/third century church father Tertullian, a heresiologist and one of the first theologists to grope his way towards the sacred nonsense that is the Trinity, is feted for the scathing wit with which he demolishes his opponents, and the fourth century Hilary of Poitiers—orthodox enough to earn himself a sainthood—was bitingly savage in his Against Constantius. The current Pope’s namesake, though far gentler, was himself an adept user of mockery.

Early Islam was equally happy to cohabit with satire. The savage, obscene wit of the pre-Islamic poetic style hijaʾ (lampooning) was actually utilised by Muhammad’s companions, most notably by the poet Ḥassān ibn Thābit, in vicious attacks upon the unbelieving Quraysh; attacks which one Hadith reports as having been expressly endorsed by the Prophet himself. What is notable about this is that this endorsement took place in Mecca, prior to the flight to Medina and the subsequent return in military power. Tertullian wrote prior to the Constantinian conversion, and Hilary was writing in exile against the Arianizing Emperor Constantius. Francis of Assisi, though far later, was himself an outsider figure, attempting to turn the Church away from its increasingly terrestrial trajectory.

What’s the common thread here? That humour punctuates power. That humour is a strong weapon with which to debase and expose the absurdities of presumed authority, and that—when in opposition—both Christianity and Islam were more than happy to endorse it. And then, once the tables had turned, they moved against it: the Rule of Benedict prohibits levity, and though laughter appears in the Qurʾan it is usually reporting the foolish mockery of unbelievers and contrasting it with the laughter that believers will then direct back at them when sat in their thrones on high; it is also, given Muhammad’s endorsement of hijaʾ, careful to endorse poetry when in the service of God—as for other poets: “only the deviators follow them.” No lampooning except for the Prophet’s Companions, it would seem.

Until the Enlightenment, when directed at power, satire was directed at the holder of power, not the institution, not the grounds for power. Hilary’s invective attacked the emperor for his Arian tendencies, but did not question the basis of imperial power . Dante and his illustrators may have drawn the undrawable, and named him a schismatic, but they did so in fervent support of an apostolically-justified papacy. However, it appears that, now, when it comes to the crunch, the religious close ranks to vilify the non-believer, even if it means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people whose beliefs they explicitly reject. I would argue that this is because, since the Enlightenment, secularism (not even necessarily atheism) has become a viable narrative for “Earthly” power.

Now that the right of the religious to wield power simply for being religious is no longer a social given, mockery need no longer be targeted at the specific holders of power, but actually at the very institutional grounding of power. The satire of The Satanic Verses contrasts the absolutist claims of monotheism with the inherently interpretative requirements of textually-based dogma. The cartoons in Charlie Hebdo were not because the cartoonists disagreed with the specific claims to prophethood of Muhammad, but was mockery of the very idea that temporal authority is granted by religious adherence. The stakes have changed, the allegiances shifted, and, now, the enemy of any religion is secularism, not because it denies specific tenets of their faith—because the other faiths with whom they now stand side-by-side do so too—but because it denies the very right to legislate on the actions of other people simply by virtue of being a faith. The Muslims and the Catholics and the Church of England may disagree on who should be on the top of the pile, but they are in total agreement as to why they should be there. They require us to believe, not in their words, but in their grimness; they justify their terrestrial authority from the fervency of their own belief: and satire, denying anyone status through grimness, is a common enemy to them all.

Bring out the fowl’s feathers!

A to Z blogging challenge: Z

On offence

After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Pope Francis—until then doing pretty well, as far as medieval theocratic monarchs go—stated that “One cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith. There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity … in freedom of expression there are limits.” The presumption of religious people that they should be entitled to protection from offence, that the sincerity or depth of their belief provides them with some kind of right to protection from ridicule is hardly news. But there is an element which I think is not often stressed when this is discussed, and so I’m going to do it here.

As I’ve previously mentioned, when I indulge myself in a little poking of fun at religion, I generally choose the leaders, institutes, and dogmas as my targets, and avoid directly mocking individual believers: but this is largely because I’m a nice person, because I think the ends are better achieved by exposing the system to ridicule rather than the practitioners. But I am utterly convinced of my right to ridicule individual believers should I choose and, of course, even when I am directing my mockery at the institutions, it is not a hugely inaccurate inferential jump for willing members of those institutions to take this personally. And if you think I’m calling you a fool then you should bear in mind, for starters, that this is precisely what your religion calls me.

I’m sorry, kinda, if you’re offended. But the point of this post is to say that if you are, then you’re also kinda missing a trick: because there is, at least as far as the monotheistic creeds are concerned, nothing that I can say about them that is as offensive as what they say about me. On this side choirs of angels, on the other, the gaping maw of hell: and there can be little doubt which gate I am headed towards. That’s not a very nice thing to say, but especially not when coupled with the regular assertions of the supreme mercy and justice of God. Yet no atheist demands defense from this most abusive of insults: we are routinely condemned to deserving hellfire and damnation in churches, synagogues, and mosques throughout the world—and it is not hard to see how many have interpreted this (not without scriptural authority) historically and contemporaneously as a call to enact God‎’‎s vengeance in this world.

Your faith, my monotheistic friend, says that not only will I suffer an eternity of agony but also that, given the supreme mercy and justice of God, this is precisely what I deserve. So next time you fret that I have suggested that I think that you may be credulous, a fool, or a hypocrite; that the dogmas of your institutions are incoherent and their practices perverse; just stop a moment before crying offence: because your religion freely and repeatedly says about me—expressed not even as an opinion, but as a matter of fact—that I am so hideously, egregiously, despicably vile that even a merciful and all-loving God cannot find it in Himself to save me from perdition.

There’s not a lot, really, that I can say about you that equals that.

A to Z blogging challenge: O

The Sunday Sermon

To get to the little casazinha in which I stay in Picinguaba, you climb some stairs from the beach to an old Catholic chapel. Constructed in the traditional style of Brazil, it had long been out of use—as the Evangelicals have something of a hold here—and was thus quaintly dilapidated, with rusty streaks and incipient lichen on the whitewashed walls. But in the two years that I’ve been away, it has returned to use—two Sundays a month—and has been spruced up and given a lick of paint. They are singing there, now, glorifying God; and it says something about the state of religion in this country that I am happier for them to do so there than in the rapacious Evangelical church down the road, with its smartly-suited unsmiling doormen and bottomless collection plate.

From the chapel, the quickest way to my house is across a small patch of grass, maybe twenty foot by ten. But during the day, at least, I will not pass this way, because it is infested with marimbondos, and they put the fear of God into me in a way that the brimstone preachers of the chapel will never achieve. Marimbondos are a type of wasp—though to make that claim to one who has never seen anything but the British variant of this genus is analogous to describing the ocean as a type of pond. They are two or three inches long, black as the devil, and aggressively protective of this small patch of grass. As well they might be, for below that grass, in burrows that they have built, their children are growing to adulthood.

And how! The marimbondos terrify me because their sting is notoriously painful, but what they do to another species—well that is something else again. The burrows under the grass contain not just marimbondo larvae: each larva has been lovingly, caringly deposited upon the inert but living body of a spider, paralysed—but not killed—by this same sting, and dragged into the burrow by the mother wasp, there to provide all the nutrients that her child needs. So sophisticated, so well-designed is this rearing system that the larvae even instinctively leave the spider’s vital organs to last, as they slowly consume it. The larva thus has the freshest possible food—for it is still living—for its entire infancy.

The marimbondos terrify me, indeed; but the God they are glorifying in the building next door to them terrifies me more. For He created this wasp, this creature whose act of supreme loving care for her offspring involves the prolonged torture of another creature. He saw fit to design a world thus, where the horrible slow demise of one being is necessary for the very survival of another. As His worshippers leave their church later this evening, having raised their voices in song praising his goodness and all-lovingness, I wonder how many of them will glance at that small patch of scrubbish grass to their right, and think upon the viciousness and sadism encapsulated there—not of the marimbondo, who is only acting as she must to continue her species, but of her Creator who designed her, and made her a torturer.