Stephen Fry’s interview on RTE’s The Meaning of Life with Gay Byrne has become this week’s viral sensation (along with Jimmy Fallon’s Fresh Prince parody – because obviously.) For any non-Irish unfamiliar with presenter Gay Byrne imagine a patronising Uncle who operates under a general air of disapproval and probably thinks describing people as “coloured” is politically correct. Byrne epitomises the old-school Irish media pundit: a judgey Catholic who seeks to maintain status quo by pretending everything is grand and we’re all just having a lovely time.
During the interview Fry, with his usual eloquence, explains to an increasingly disapproving Gaybo why he finds the idea of God to be grotesque. Seeing Fry denounce God to Old Gay on the country’s national broadcasting station was heartening. RTE’s decision to air such fervent atheist views come at a time when Ireland’s ludicrous Irish blasphemy laws are being called into question and reaffirms what we all know to be true; that the Catholic Church’s stifling influence on the country is waning.
Fry’s speech made me want to articulate my own reasons for denying the existence of God and leaving the organised religion in which I was raised. Growing up in Ireland in the 90’s was synonymous with growing up Catholic. Despite my parents’ liberal sensibilities going to mass “as a family,” was an automatic part of our routine. Every Sunday we joined the other families in our community and dutifully spent an hour listening to the sermons and the readings and in turn playing our part in the call-and-answer ceremony of a Catholic Church service. Induction to the Catholic Church was not only expected; it was unavoidable. Both my primary and secondary schools were either run by or affiliated with religious orders. Visits from the Parish Priest were common (and met with serious preparation and forewarning from the teacher) and religious education was a serious part of our curriculum. Making Communion and Confirmation was as natural a process as taking state prescribed exams. It was just what you did.
I never consciously chose to enter the Catholic Church and similarly I never chose to leave. There was no great epiphany, no great fracture or crisis of identity. I came to the point where I simply didn’t believe the reductive and restrictive explanations that religion offered. As an annoyingly inquisitive child I wasn’t content on stopping short a line of inquiry because some questions could only be answered with “faith.”
When I actually gave it some thought I found countless reasons to question or deny what I had been taught for so many years. The below list is by no means exhaustive but highlights the main reasons that I have personally chosen to deny God and religion in my life.
1. The Odds are Stacked
Here’s how a religious institution works: it tells us we are sick and then tells us that it, and only it, has the medicine. Religion imbues its followers with a belief that they are unworthy, fractured and fundamentally sinful and only by devoting their time, energy and resources to the religion can a follower be absolved of these intrinsic deficiencies. This concept of Original Sin is the perfect way to ensure Catholics spend their whole lives feeling guilty and in the thrall of the Church. I find this abhorrent. I refuse to believe we are born with an inherent flaw. I refuse to believe lovely, chubby, innocent babies are born sinful or tarnished by some fictional act of transgression. The Church decrees that natural human impulses (impulses that every human will experience) are bad and offers a solution to this badness, Positioning itself as the saviour to a problem it helped create.
I always questioned: why would God instill these desires in us if he wanted us to constantly suppress them? Why are modesty and asceticism good but desire and pride bad? Why not remove these emotions altogether? Why these constant impossible tests? Why keep us in such a state of guilt and conflict?
2. God Seems A Little Unstable…
This brings us to my next point. Even if God does exist (which I firmly believe he doesn’t), I would still choose to deny him because of his general volatility and nastiness. As Fry describes in the interview, God’s actions seem incredibly unjust, capricious and monstrous. He gives the example of cancer in children and asks why? Why does God make these atrocious choices? Why impregnate underage virgins? Why order people to kill their beloved sons? Why drown the whole world as a punishment for vice that he himself created? If he exists, why has God set up humankind for repeated failure from very beginning?
In addition to revealing the Church’s inherent misogyny (more on that later,) the story of Eve’s transgression and the origin of Original Sin reveals a meaner side to God. As an omniscient Being God knew Eve was going to eat the fruit which begs the question: why put the forbidden fruit there in the first place? Why intentionally trick your beloved children and then eternally condemn them to a life of guilt and attrition? The Catholic answer is that Eve was exercising her free will. The Church’s juxtaposition of free will and God’s omniscience is not only a fabulous lesson in doublethink but also conveniently explains any tricky questions that may arise when people question why anyone acts against God’s orders: “Oh, free will obviously.” But do we have a choice to have free will? Can we not beseech God to remove our free will so that we may act entirely under his guidance and live purely, making no bad decisions and never needing absolution? The answer is no. God gives us no choice but to have free will, (by the way undermining the entire concept of free will) and thus gives us no choice but to be constantly making mistakes, constantly guilty and constantly begging forgiveness.
As well as setting us up for this never-ending emotional turmoil, God also ensures we suffer on a physical level. As Fry asks why is there an insect that exists solely to eat children’s eyeballs? Why do good people get cancer? The explanation that religious people offer is that we cannot question or understand the workings of God. That he makes these choices because of some reason we don’t have the capacity to understand. To this reasoning I say nonsense. This is simply another way of demanding unquestioning conformity and stifling logical questions. The world has not been designed by a divinity that considers humans to be of primary importance. If it was then the earth would not seem so indifferent to us. For me, it is more far appealing to believe that things happen by chance and we simply co-exist with millions of other species on a planet that has absolutely no consideration for us. It is too cruel to believe otherwise, to believe that there is divine justification for why good people get cancer or why there exists an insect that thrives solely on eating the eyeballs of children.
3. It’s Judgemental, Oppressive and Dangerous
The restrictive and divisive laws to which religious practitioners must adhere to are at best foolish and at worst dangerous. The moronic parents of terminal ill children who choose prayer over modern medicine, the thugs who attack gay men and women, the protesters outside an abortion clinic are all following an archaic, inflexible and highly contradictory doctrine that has absolutely no place in contemporary society. Any institution that teaches blind acceptance and encourages its followers not to question or demand substantiated evidence stunts capacity for reasonable inquiry and oppresses the natural human instinct to understand and learn. Confused teenagers being taught masturbation is wrong, parents of babies who died fearing their child will suffer in limbo or people stifling their sexuality are just examples of people for whom the Church offers not guidance but judgement, fear and oppression. This woman’s experience highlights how religious regulations, in this case the ban on pre-marital sex, can be highly detrimental to a person’s natural development.
As the article points out, religious obsession with controlling the woman’s body is a crucial instrument of oppression and serves to perpetuate the Church’s patriarchal and misogynist ideologies. Religion restricts women’s rights so vehemently because an educated, enlightened woman is less likely to conform than a woman preoccupied with her many children and who is dependent on her husband. Sanctions on pre-marital sex, birth control and abortion are all ways to reinforce the belief that a woman may not own or control her own body; that she is in some way subordinate to her father, husband and religion.
4. It’s Hypocritical
Shouldn’t loving Christians be accepting of all creeds, races genders and families and seriously, why does the Pope live in a gilded palace? I’ve been to the Vatican and it is decadent. Shouldn’t the Church sell or melt the solid gold effigies and donate it to the poor?
That of course only scrapes the surface of Church hypocrisy. There has been so much written on rampant pedophilia and abuse within the Church that I feel it sufficient to ask just one question. Why did God allow children to be raped and abused by the people supposedly closest to him? For me, that question is all I need to deny any existence of God.
5. I Don’t Need To and I Don’t Want To
A lot of people find comfort in their religion and I understand that a great deal of reassurance must be found in believing that an all-knowing authority has pre-ordained the course of your life. Accepting that your hardships are the result of a higher power’s plan may mean that painful situations become more bearable but to me, this has always been unsatisfactory.
For me it is enough to say that the pain, anger and sorrow in my life are accompaniments to the joy, love and laughter and, as part of the human condition, should be experienced fully and not passed off as the machinations of a divine entity. I find it disappointing when someone preservers through hardship and then attributes their strength to God instead of crediting themselves for their effort. Situations and people cannot ever be controlled but I find comfort in knowing that I have a choice in how I react and I also find comfort in knowing I, and I alone, will have to take responsibility for those choices.
I cannot, no matter how much I try to suspend my intellect and cynicism, believe that there is a cognisant entity existing on a transcendental plane overseeing my every movement on this earth and more importantly I don’t want to. I don’t want to spend my fleeting life preparing for what may come when I die. I want to take ownership of my actions and spend my life free of restrictions and judgement. Despite the wars, diseases, natural disasters and countless tragedies that befall the world I remain, without any semblance of faith or religious belief, convinced that it is a good and beautiful place and I am grateful that I am alive in it. Fry describes a life without God as “simpler, purer, cleaner and more worth living,” and for me living without arbitrary restrictions, without guilt, self-abasement or believing that another life awaits is liberating and reminds me to take time to find wonder in and appreciate the life i have as much as I can.