Post Christianity.

I am an atheist. There are places in the world where saying that openly comes with severe consequences; because it is a departure from an idea that has been one of the pillars of human cultures from the beginning of time – that a being beyond the scope of our understanding is the ultimate explanation to everything that we cannot rationally explain. In saying that I am an atheist I also expose willingly a bias which you would no doubt have noticed on your own throughout the text below.

Rowan Williams is a cleric, decidedly not an atheist. He is the former Archbishop of Canterbury. While not an equivalent of the Catholic Pope (the Monarch is the head of the Anglican Church), his former position was that of an archbishop foremost among equals, he spoke in the name of the Anglican Communion.

To put this into a little bit of context, the Anglican Church was formally created when Henry the Eighth  became “the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England” through a law called the Act of Suppremacy in 1534, thirteen years after the Lutheran split. It is however argued that the Church in England had a local identity long before this date due to it’s remote distance from Rome as well as the cauldron of culture which was England in the Dark and Early Middle Ages. That said, one can infer that there is a revolutionary identity to this otherwise traditional Church.

It is with these facts in mind that I recently read about something Rowan Williams said not two days ago, speaking not from his official position of Archbishop of Canterbury from which he stepped down in 2011, which may have been a little too revolutionary, but from that of a cleric nonetheless and that is: “Britain is now a post Christian country”. It made me dwell. It is a remarkably profound statement, and knee jerk reactions by the likes of David Cameron who replied “au contraire” only serve to underscore this.

He meant that even though people are nominally Christian, the vast majority do not actively practice and even though it is a part of the national psyche to be Anglican, people are really only ever in church for rites of passage, baptism, marriage and funerals.

I live in a large city. There is hustle and bustle, everyone is in a hurry to get where they’re going because they have to be someplace else after they get there. There is little time for soul searching even though, judging by the number of churches in the capital we are a staunchly Orthodox country. Our priests dress in increasingly more elaborate garb the higher the rank, and we take pride in the beautifully painted monasteries in the Romanian half of Moldova. People still do go to church and flock in their tens of thousands to kiss relics on special occasions of the Orthodox calendar, but there is a real distinction between the rural and urban populations in this sense.

It is in this context that I was recently invited to a wedding. A friend, whom I have known my entire life is getting married. There was a formal invitation, and the service will be held in a church and will be performed by a priest, just like my brother’s and my father’s and my cousin’s et cetera. These are people who, I think, do not really believe in an omnipotent, omniscient and wholly perfect God who created the Earth seven thousand years ago and suddenly decided three thousand years in that he got it wrong and had to drown everyone to start with a clean slate. No, for the most part they are rational people who can tell myth from falsifiable hypothesis.

And yet, they all made a conscious decision that, yes, “I want to be the protagonist in this religious ceremony even though I don’t really believe God physically took one bone from Adam and made a whole Eve out of it”. What’s more is that I too wouldn’t have it any other way. If I am to marry, I would like some kind of ceremony, the mayor/ship’s captain is not enough. Why is that? It’s completely irrational, why is it important at all to me?

I asked myself this same question when my father died. There was an Orthodox funeral, people came, there was chanting, flowers, superstitious wine spilling, everything you can come up with. Why? He’s dead, it won’t change that fact. Why would making a certain sequence of pressure waves pass through the air of this concrete building make a difference in whether or not he goes to heaven, if indeed heaven exists. Will God punish the individual that was my father if I do not describe the shape of a cross with my hands three times? What if I only do it twice? Not at all? Why do I have to do it with my tongue? Why are these things relevant? I thought of believers as either gullible or stupid, and of priests as either stupid or charlatans. I still think that this is true to some extent but I am no longer as militant about it.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it is the ritual itself that is important. The more elaborate the better. It not only binds us to our community as social creatures but provides a sort of ‘loading screen’ if you will, allowing us to progress from one perceived stage of our lives to the next. Before the ritual I had a father, I didn’t afterward, it helped come to terms with that fact and I contend it’s something that we all experience when we go through a religious right of passage.

Neuroscience has shown that this is not just a cultural phenomenon, something that we have consciously construed. There is such a thing as a religious center in our brains, an area that lights up in the lab when we are having a religious experience, when we have feelings of intense spirituality. I can’t say that I understand the detail of the science involved but the jist is, it is as much a part of who we are as love and fear, without it we would be less human. It is something our evolution came up with to avoid us asking too many questions about the world and concentrate on dinner, because dinner means we live to procreate while a starry eyed kid looking up at the night sky in the savanna with lions around would not.

All of that said it is however important to realize that much of the way we are built as humans does limit our potential to achieve our goals of a better life for everyone and solving the world’s problems. We are warm blooded animals which means we consume a lot of energy and therefore require a lot of food compared to say a juvenile Komodo dragon who weighs about as much. This means feeding seven billion of us requires some ingenuity. The fact is you can’t really make it rain fish. Prayer will not stop an asteroid impact and you can’t repent your way out of a pandemic. We need to ask questions, it IS now a matter of survival and so we must recognize our limitations in order to overcome them and I think that is exactly what Rowan Williams did.


Role models are stupid.

We tend to measure up against each other. It’s called having a competitive nature. We love doing it. “Manchester is better than Liverpool” or vice versa. “Nelson was better than Napoleon”. “Newton was better than Einstein and both were certainly better than me”. “I should be more like Patrick Stewart or Morgan Freeman” They can be fictional too… “That Aragorn, he’s a hansom fellow and he’s good with a sword too… I suck with swords.” This is counterproductive.

In idealizing our role models, past or present we tend to take from them that which brings us closer to understanding why they are great – their flaws and by extension, their humanity. Could Newton have come up with the theory of relativity and phrased in in the same way as Einstein? Maybe… But the fact of the matter is that Newton was not Einstein, he lived in a completely different time, he was a mystic obsessed with finding the philosopher stone, and in his spare time he revolutionized natural philosophy, which is not to say that he placed as great a value on it as he did on his alchemical pursuits – he was a product of his time and it could be argued that “Principia” would never have been written or published had it not been for the insistence, friendship and patronage of Edmund Halley, who DID see the true significance of it.

The principles of Newtonian mechanics are fairly simple. So simple in fact it’s taught in 7th grade here. It is within the power of a child thirteen years of age to understand and demonstrate this understanding by writing the mathematical formulae and arguing the proofs. Was Newton therefor any different than you and I? You could say “well he thought of it first” and this is true, maybe. He was certainly the first to publish an academic paper about it, and he was the first to make clear sense of it and show it to the world, but this involved the participation of others. It is also possible, because the man named Newton thought of it, that others have or could have, but simply did not come by the set of circumstances necessary to either realize the revolutionary nature of their insight or bring it before an audience that might, or who may not have had the inclination.

Mihai Eminescu was a 19th century Romanian poet. The greatest literary mind our nation has ever known, it is taught. In a novella called “Sarmanul Dionis” – “Miserable Dyonis” in a philosophical tour de force, he tackles the issue of perception, among other things. The question of whether when you say something is red, would what you are seeing be something that I would also call red, or would it be my green? I asked myself this same question in second grade, having never read his works, I never told anyone because it never really came up in conversation after that and when I did read the novella I was rather amazed that that same idea had been thought of so long ago that I was somehow no longer special, less individual and more a collection of random thoughts that just so happen to exist together in this particular arrangement – thoughts that may be part of who other people are.

While personal experience is by no means indicative of truth, but rather a possible clue to a way forward in the pursuit thereof I too often hear from others this idea that something is beyond their comprehension or ability. To quote a cliche “genius is 99% hard work”. The quote leaves room for doubt, maybe it was the scientist in Einstein who thought one could never be sure, but can only establish degrees of certainty.

We instead tend to focus on this infinitesimal but comfortable and convenient doubt about our own potential to excuse ourselves from the hard work we must endure to achieve true greatness. This is the danger of role models and why it is stupid to assume they are greater than us. It is the pursuit of our insights and dreams that distinguishes the great from the many rather than the ideas themselves, the 1% is in fact there in everyone.

By ignoring this fact and failing to recognize one’s own individuality we end up in a uniform society, and by uniform I do not mean flat, but rather a patchwork of uniforms. We tend to think that “every generation has its’ way”. The 80s had strange hair, the 90s had full denim suits and somewhat less spandex, Generation Y has their Apple gear and thick black glass frames, metalheads have their long hair and “fuck you” attitude. These are all uniforms, worn by those who would define themselves by a certain idea, an idea that was voiced by someone else, which they may agree with, and which may be perfectly reasonable, but that does not and cannot encompass all validity.

It is far more beneficial to include all experience into one’s world view and try to make sense of it with this enhanced “dataset” than to automatically dismiss that which is foreign because it does not fit a predefined model of who we think we ought to be