God or godless. Either way, you’re wrong

Though I’ve only made a wee dent in the book I got today — “Seven Types of Atheism” by philosopher John Gray — I am already bitten and beguiled. On page 33 of the 170-page manifesto, I find myself putting it down often to copy a tart line or provocative passage.

Gray, without airs but with erudition, places in his crosshairs the arm wrestle between religion and atheism, that eternal, irreconcilable chasm of belief, God and godlessness. He is acridly and relentlessly critical of both.

Dense but light on its feet, slim but chubby with fact, philosophy and opinion, the book reveals a bracing entertainer who hardly balks at taking intellectual swipes at celebrity atheists slash rational humanists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and other crusaders. 

Gray, says The Guardian, “is a card-carrying misanthrope for whom human life has no unique importance, and for whom history has been little more than the sound of hacking and gouging.”

That’s my kind of guy, though Gray takes things a little further than I do when it comes to faith, history and humanism. Still, his book, from 2018, is studded with eyebrow-cocking history lessons, slashing judgments and pleasing iconoclasm. A few nuggets from my early reading:

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“There is no such thing as ‘the atheist worldview.’ Atheism simply excludes the idea that the world is the work of a creator-god, which is not found in most religions. … Nowhere does Buddhism speak of a Supreme Being, and it is in fact an atheist religion.”

“Many versions of Jesus and his life can be supported on the basis of existing evidence. Among the least plausible are those that have been presented as fact by Christian churches.”

“Christian thinkers have interpreted the rise of their religion as a sign of Jesus’ divine nature. Among the many prophets teaching at the time, why should he alone have inspired a religion that spread to the last corner of the earth? Unless you think that human events unfold under some sort of divine guidance, the metamorphosis of Jesus’ teaching into a universal faith can only have been the result of a succession of accidents. … The Christian religion is a creation of chance.”

“A free-thinking atheism would begin by questioning its prevailing faith in humanity. But there is little prospect of contemporary atheists giving up their reverence for this phantom. Without the faith that they stand at the head of an advancing species, they could hardly go on. Only by immersing themselves in such nonsense can they make sense of their lives. Without it, they face panic and despair.”

The weird and wiggy, worldwide

As one who seeks out the freaky and far out in my travels, serendipity seems to be the best GPS for the fiendishly, often funnily, strange. Mostly this is in the form of art, mainly sculpture and statue and the occasional painting. (Or some decidedly unfunny human cremations in India and Nepal — I’ll spare you.)

Sure, it’s superficial this fascination. (So weird! So hilarious!) What does it mean? Not much. It’s aesthetics of the outré, stimuli out of left field, tailored, perhaps, to the oddballs among us. It’s striking, warped and wonderful. The more ghastly the better. The more shocking the cooler. (Note: I have yet to stumble upon art or artifact that’s sincerely blasted my senses. It’s out there, and I will find it.)

Here, meanwhile, are irresistible curiosities I’ve come across around the world: 

 

Cast of Joseph Merrick’s, aka the Elephant Man’s, skull, Royal London Hospital. One of the most interesting, most hideous and saddest skeletal specimens ever.
Latex cast of the Elephant Man from the 1980 David Lynch film “The Elephant Man” at the Museum of the Moving Image, New York. This is the mold they used to make-up John Hurt as the real-life Elephant Man.
“Crucified Woman,” an unsettling work by supreme provocateur Maurizio Cattelan, hanging in the Guggenheim in New York City. Note the pigeons. I have no idea what’s going on.
Cracked cherub in Iglesia de El Salvador, a gorgeous church in Sevilla, Spain. I love the little fella’s decrepitude and pink and bulgy doll-like creepiness.
Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona. Stacked: a sheep, a pig, a cow, all with unicorn horns. Interesting, until you realize it’s just bad art.
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Rugged hiking man with primates. The bloke’s head is like a bobble-head.
The Met, New York City. Exactly how I wake each morning.
Body cast of Chang & Eng, original Siamese twins, Mutter Museum, Philadelphia. Gross and glorious.
A baby through Picasso’s eyes, Paris. I just like this poor warped toddler, so bulbous and twisted — and probably demonic.
Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg, Russia. At the resident Torture Museum. Highlight: the saliva string and puddle.
Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC. Trump in two years, in his cell. 
Malformed Baby Jesus, flea market, Barcelona, Spain. So distorted and freakish I desperately wanted to take it home and cuddle it.
Hanging horses by crazy Cattelan, Guggenheim, NYC. Something out of Fellini. See the little Pinocchio puppet by its front legs. Discuss.
Monkey murder. I really haven’t the foggiest. I wish I did, but I don’t. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. 

Bunnies and the Bible — wrestling with Easter’s confused impulses

As a lapsed Catholic and ironclad agnostic (and probable atheist), Easter means nothing to me. Not literally, not symbolically, not allegorically, not chocolate bunny-y.

It’s but another Sunday that happens to roll around, like a brightly-dyed egg, in the flush of springtime, solemn yet gay, prayerful yet festive, scripture-dry, yet sweet as a gooey, chewy (ew-y) marshmallow Peeps.

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Palm Sunday doesn’t rock my boat. Good Friday — today — isn’t always so “good.” (Crucifixion, anyone?) Sometimes, like this one, it’s just all right. (All Right Friday — What would Jesus do?) It’s a little rainy, and my head hurts.

I’m not offended by the crass commodification of Easter — or, even more egregious, the wholesale whoring off of Christmas. White bunnies, yellow chicks, rainbow jelly beans, baskets stuffed with plastic grass, chocolate everything and those infernal Peeps (seriously, WWJD?) — what does any of this have to do with humankind’s purported savior rising from the dead and sealing the deal?

Nothing, of course. It’s a smoke screen to bamboozle children to get into the spirit, whether that’s the Holy Spirit or the spirit of a plush rabbit named Flopsy.

But can these tenets reconcile and exist side-by-side? Can one believe wholly in the Holy while worshipping at the altar of Cadbury? I found some excellent artwork that argues both sides. Behold:

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The bunny and the beatific one make strange bedfellows. Shoo, egg-monger! And whatever those kids are wearing is certainly blasphemous. 

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A real sport, Jesus blesses the secular trappings of Easter. His favorite: Reese’s eggs.

Am I going to hell for this? Could be. Maybe. Whatever. Pass the Peeps. You should see what they do in the microwave.

Curiosity killed the Catholic

I’m always on the lookout for a little religious illumination, be it the rattling Scientology documentary “Going Clear” to actually inviting a pair of Mormon elders to my home for an eye-crossing lesson in radical historical revisionism. (They were very nice young men, for the record, natty in ties and pressed white shirts. A wee deluded.)

Right now I’m returning to some tried-and-true texts: the four Gospels and Acts in the New Testament, along with “The Historical Figure of Jesus” by E.P. Sanders.

This hidebound agnostic isn’t going reborn, hasn’t “found” anything and anyway isn’t searching for religious enlightenment, a Damascus moment. I’m a minor history buff (literally: it was my college minor) and armchair theologian, which means I sit in an armchair and read about religion with skepticism and a giant cigar.

The cigar’s a jape, but I’m fascinated by ideas of mass worship, divinity, mysticism and the spread of religion through the ages. Seeking “truth” isn’t the object — I don’t believe it resides in a religious text — but merely intellectual stimulation.

(And I have gotten out of the armchair: I was raised Catholic — baptized, Sunday school, weekly Mass, teenage apostasy, the works. In 2000 I made a solo trip to Israel to, among other things, get immersed in monotheism firsthand. It altered none of my thinking on the matter, except to solidify preconceptions about faith and fanaticism.)

Curiosity killed the Catholic. The more religion I ingest, the warier I become. I thirst for facts, historical actualities, not myths or homilies or inspired conjecture. I want the relative power of knowledge, not the affirmation of faith.

What strikes me is how, outside of the academy, intellectual ballast is so often at odds with religion. Example: A good friend in college prided herself on her devout Christianity, chided me for everyday blasphemies, went to church weekly and praised Christ. But she never read the Bible and everything she knew about the religion was received wisdom, blind faith from the church and her parents. Once, when I described to her what Jesus probably looked like, she said, and I quote, “Didn’t he have those beautiful blue eyes?” Yes, and a brushed swoop of sandy-blond hair.

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Would the real Jesus please stand up?

Maybe Jesus did look like Barry Manilow. But I care more about a historically accurate account of what he said and did. I especially want to know how he turned water into wine, a miracle that could save me bundles at Liquor Locker. No one seems to have a complete grasp on the actual Jesus. Even the Catholic Bible I’m reading is strewn with footnotes that cast troubling shadows over the “gospel truth.” Despite my reading, I’m still a grappling student. I’ll get back to you when the heavens crack open.