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One of the telling moments, when you seek to be a detached and cynical atheist, is when you open a copy of the New Testament to read the account of the Last Supper and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ – just for research purposes.
For you may have disregarded the myth since you left school and stopped going to church – which in my case was 40 years ago – but there is no escaping the hold of this powerful and moving story. Especially, the version according to John.
This is one of the stories that we learnt as children and it survives in our imaginations with a potency that Red Riding Hood and Santa Claus just don’t have.
And in a rapidly secularising Ireland, Easter retains a magic and enthralls like few other times of the year.
Part of that, of course, is because it is bigger, for most of us, than the Passion. We have our own rituals around eggs, bonnets and the flight to Donegal which have nothing to do with Christian heritage.
Easter is the first holiday of the Spring. April sunshine — when you get it — awakens a nostalgia for freedom and romance, the best parts of Springs past. The sap is rising. Something of our own selves, overshadowed by winter, is resurrected at Easter.
When we were children, we went to the church to pray at each of the stations of the Cross and to contemplate the suffering of Jesus. There was a bit of guilt-tripping going on there too. It is still the message of most churches that we are to blame, ourselves, for the suffering inflicted. God had to become a man and suffer as a man because we were sinful.
There is actually very little sense of that burdensome idea in the Gospel itself. Jesus never says, I have to go off and get flayed now, because Adam ate the apple, and you’re no better yourselves.
It is clear from the Gospel accounts that Jesus was crucified because he had rebelled against the Temple. He was – like myself – profoundly anti clerical. He is my anti-clerical hero.
I personally think the story has been damaged by the mythologising in the Christian tradition.
Without any interpretation added on to it, the story of the Last Supper and the arrest and crucifixion in John’s gospel evokes deep feelings. I suspect that this story would still be with us as a piece of treasured ancient literature, engaging our fascination still, even without the gloss. In a secularising Ireland, where fewer and fewer people take the church interpretation literally, it would be a tragedy if this story was lost to us because it was dismissed as only having Christian significance.
In most of the Christian tradition, Jesus is understood to have known himself to be the son of God, on a mission to lay down his life for the sins of humanity. What is lost in that version, is the earliest heartbeat detectable in world literature, of a man agonising and struggling.
Some of the Christian churches have gone back to the text, stripping away the ritual and theology of, say, the Catholic Churches, to find a simpler Eucharist.
The Last Supper is remembered by Roman Catholics as the establishment of communal sacrament, exclusive to true believers. The evangelicals read the story more truly when they offer the bread more freely. After all, Jesus did not refuse it to Judas.
But their conviction that Jesus was God makes much of the story unintelligible. Why would he have gone into the desert for forty days? Usually such a pilgrim is trying to draw closer to the divine – what need would Jesus as God have had to do that?
There are some elements of the story which are perplexing. When Jesus rode on the donkey into Jerusalem, in Matthew’s version, and reached into a fig tree for something to eat, and didn’t find fresh fruit, he cursed the fig tree never to bear fruit again. What was that all about? The modern Christian perspective allows little room for the petulance of Christ.
The story lends itself more to creative rereading than to ossification in doctrine.
There are numerous little flashes of temper, and even sarcasm, in the gospels. ‘The poor you will have always with you.’ There just isn’t an interpretation of those words available to us that does any credit to him. But they ring so truly that they tell us that they are the words of a real man; just not the man Jesus as envisaged by Hollywood or in the little holy pictures I used to have in my prayer book.
Nowadays, I am more likely to encounter the story of the Passion in literature and music than in church. There have been numerous novels retelling the crucifixion, from Kazantzakis to CK Stead. The body of music continues to expand, from the passions of Bach to the Seven Last Words of James MacMillan, religious music that sells to cultured secular people.
This story will not die so long as thier are minds to engage with it and retell it. It might even have a better chance to flourish when the churches have lost hold of it altogether.

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There are two separate articles attacking me in the current issue of Humanism Ireland.

The humanists are always having a bash at me; it’s because I am a humanist and they are not.

It seems that fundamentalist movements like this are always more annoyed with people who nearly completely agree with them, but won’t go all the way, than they are with the people they declare to be their real target.

I write about religion from a premiss that makes no sense to a fundamentalist atheist. That is, that some religions are better than others; that there is diveristy and much to be fascinated by in the history of religion; that religion is human and that you can not be a humanist without caring to understand religious motivations – given that religion is not a fringe lunacy in human culture but has been, for probably ten thousand years and more, practically all of it.

So, I argue, if you want to set yourself up as a critic of the baneful influences of religion on people and society, it helps to read about religion, talk to religious people and think about religion. It is not enough to simply sneer at it.

And if they want to attack my articles and books, they should try to understand the motivation behind them and not just read them through a filter that says: he thinks Dawkins is a prat, therefore he must be a prat himself.

I do think Dawkins is a prat. I do think that fundamentalist atheists are as annoying and simplistic as any other kind of fundamentalist.

I don’t believe that religion can be identified as a failure to grasp the theory of evolution or the Big Bang; that it is only a primitive mind’s response to lightning.

One article corrects me with the assertion that Dawkins and the new atheists broke a taboo on talking seriously about religion in the public domain. This is nonsense; they did perhaps break a taboo about celebrating atheism and sneering at religion.  And there is value in that. A religious idea is still just an idea and has to be defended in frank and open discussion or it has to slink coyly away.

But the new atheists are wrong about many of their charges against religion, and they are wrong because they don’t empathise enough with religious people to have any sense of what drives them and divides them.

That’s how they end up with nonsense like Christopher Hitchens’ claim that a revulsion at menstrual fluid is part of all religion. It isn’t.  For all we know there are Irish presbyterians who drink the stuff – it’s just not something they talk about.

Then there is the review of my book, Empty Pulpits.

I am happy when people review my books. I would rather have a frank attack that makes its point well than a sychophantic review that doesn’t, and I have had both.

So, fair dos.  Nail me where you can.

But to attack me for name dropping because there are lots of sources cited! Usually having a lot of sources and interviewees is a credit to a book.

‘I came away dizzily wondering if this was the literary equivalent of one of Hollywood’s Biblical epics, with their “cast of thousands”‘. Really? Too many people quoted in my book? I must remember to keep the numbers down next time to please humanists, for if there is one thing a Belfast Humanist can’t stand it is diversity of opinion and outlook.

‘Malachi adds a dose of mysticism to the brew and decides that the Irish know more about it than the new atheists..’.

No I don’t. I make no claim to their being a particularly Irish insight into anything other than into their own experience. That experience is of being saturated in and dominated by religion until recent times. If you are Irish and middle aged and were once a Catholic, you can remember a religious childhood that precedes the liberation of attitudes in the Second Vatican Council.  What’s contentious about saying that?

Why shouldn’t the memories of those who have lived in a religious culture feature in the discussion about religion?

So it turns out that I am a ‘daylight atheist’ and ‘a lapsed Catholic who can not completely shake it off’ and be as confidently free of religion as the humanists are.

Well maybe I am still immersed in ideas about religion and tilted in different directions by those ideas from day to day.

That is not about a failure to have the courage to stand on the solid ground of reason; it is about the clearest understanding that there is no solid ground.

Humans disappoint the humanists, with their superstitions and diverse religious cultures.  Humans will only measure up to Humanist expectations when they are as logical as Humanists are.

There will be time enough to be logical when we really do understand the universe we live in.

Neitzche said that ultimate truth, if we could grasp it,  might turn out to be of no human value.  What is a humanist to hang on to then but humanity? Revere that, in all its complexity and colour and you might be on safer ground than revering a logic that is still not fully informed.

In the mean time, let’s give the fundamentalists a hard time and be wary of flattering them with imitation.

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Bishops discussing the BVM

Here’s one I enjoyed doing for Sunday Sequence: a debate at the Church of Ireland Chaplaincy at QUB on whether Anglicans or Roman Catholics (‘papishes’) have the better understanding to the real nature of Mary of Nazareth.

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BBC discussion on religion

The BBC has been running a series of items on the decline of religion in Ireland. They invited me onto a podcast panel and this is the end result. I thought they had pulled me in because they had read my new book, but no; just a coincidence.

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Vox Pop

I was at the premier of the Steve McQueen film Hunger last night in Belfast and recorded this vox pop with people coming out. I think their fresh responses to the film give a sense of the power of it and the readiness of audiences to believe in its integrity.

Many questions have been raised about whether this is IRA propaganda. In fact, the suicide of Bobby Sands is depicted as the fanatical resolve of a man who is past being able to share the concerns of the outside world, where even other republicans want to avert a hunger strike.

(Note for techos – the vox pop was recorded on a Marantz PMD 620 using the built in stereo mics and the manual recording level control to reduce the back ground. I think it worked well.)

I am reviewing the film for Fortnight. Here’s a clip of that review:

We see a new prisoner being admitted to a shit smeared cell and feel ourselves almost sickeningly present with him.
We follow this new prisoner through his induction into the practice of smearing the wall, pouring urine under the door, channelled by a wall of greasy foetid food, to his first secretive wank in a shared cell and his first hammering by prison officers who are trying to get the place cleaned.
This prepares us to imagine that we are going to follow the stories of these individuals through to the end but we are not. We will see the prison officer stand sweating in a light snow shower, suggestive of Auschwitz ash. We will see the prisoner learn to exchange messages and parcels in the visiting area, where they are concealed in mouths, rectums and vaginas. In one scene, a woman shuffles under her skirt to withdraw a parcel and passes it across to a prisoner who shuffles it deftly up his own hole. And the woman smiles, enjoys a joke, perhaps even imagines that this is intimacy.
For her this is novel and even fun; he is only thinking about the practicalities.
When we get to the allegedly interminable scene in which Bobby Sands debates the morality of hunger strike with a Catholic priest, it comes as a relief from the audience’s own sense of confinement in the ghastly world of filth and violence.
Sands, joking about the wounds on his face implicates the priest unwittingly in a joke about the man who has been murdered by the IRA.
There are a few difficulties in the exchange between Sands and the priest. Sands’ recollections of Gweedore include barley fields and woodland. Mine don’t. These are local incongruities, like the prison officer leaving his home in Gransha off the Glen Road, details that won’t trouble foreign audiences.
The priest tells Sands that he has become an obsessive fanatic, unable even to love his own child. He accuses him of planning his own suicide. He throws every argument a sane compassionate person could muster against a ruthless man who is prepared to march boldly to his own death and take, potentially, dozens after him.
When the camera then turns to close-up on Sands the effect is almost unnervingly intimate. Then Sands delivers his reply with a story from childhood to illustrate his own courage and individual moral conscience.
From then on we are into the story of his grotesque deterioration.

***

Just got home from Dublin to read the tirades against the above on Slugger.

Republicans will not use the word suicide to describe Sands’ decision to die because the word was used accusatively against him and was central to the argument with the church about the morality of what he was doing.
But it was a decision to die, made in the light of an understanding that Thatcher would not move before at least one hunger Striker had died. So, if I am not concerned about the need to defend the morality of the republican cause or to make their case to the church, why should I avoid the word suicide?

Because it implies despair? OK, but I don’t think it necessarily does imply despair. Is Hari Kiri suicide? It is the ending of one’s life in acceptance of a principle and may not necessarily entail despair.

We have similar pressures from Jihadis to avoid the use of the word suicide in relation to what they call ‘martyrdom operations’. Many of them are motivated by strong conviction and don’t see themselves as discarding their lives and hopes.

Maybe we should equally avoid the term suicide to spare the feelings of those people too. Indeed, maybe we should avoid it altogether since families of all people who kill themselves are entitled to consideration.

I was rebuked recently – and I take the point – for using the term ‘commit suicide’, the word ‘commit’ implying sin or offence – presumably on the understanding that the word ‘suicide’ itself doesn’t but is just a technical term for taking your own life.

Whatever – I am not going to contort language to defend the reputation of Bobby Sands.

As for whether I have simply sold out to take money from some notional master – who is this master who pays me so well? Where can I pick up the money?

And bitter? I don’t think so. I write very little about republicanism these days. But I got an invitation to this film out of the blue and went along and thought that is was really good. Worth commenting on.

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The Catholic Church and the Orange Order

They haven’t exactly settled their differences but they are trying to be friends.

When Cardinal Brady thanked the Orangement for their efforts at conciliation, the Orangemen – some of them – were positively chuffed.

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Healing Services

Belfast has been on a spiritual high for the past couple of weeks with miracles attributed to the Clonard Novena and Elim Christian centre, where enthusiasm is hitting the roof.

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Waking the Dead

You can’t expect children to know what to do at an Irish wake.

Wee Fergus inched gingerly through the room to the coffin for a look at his grandad, found the waxy corpse interesting for about a minute then went out to play with his ball in the garden.

Katie, being older, comprehended that she had lost someone and was crying.

The discovery of Pat dead in his bed that morning was like an emotional bomb blast. Sons and daughters would hurry home from half a dozen cities.

Delma and her daughters set up a production line for sandwiches. Within hours the house would be full of chatter.

Betty and I, while there was a chance, went to inspect the grave and meet the gravedigger. It was a double grave with room for herself later. ‘What side do you want him in?’

She had no thoughts on that.

‘What side of the bed did he lie in?’ I asked.

‘The left’, she said.

‘Left it is’, said the gravedigger.

Pat, for now, was laid out in his coffin in the living room. Betty ruffled his hair to make him look more like himself.

It is a shock that soon passes, seeing someone dead, formally laid out, the beads entwined in his fingers. The corpse is at the mercy of the artistry of the undertaker. My sister, in her coffin, wore red lipstick for the first time since her teens. My father, in a blue jacket I had lent him to be cremated in, looked like a club doorman.

Pat had looked worse.

Wee Fergus was warned again that this was a solemn occasion. He had the best possible defence: ‘But they are laughing too’ . He was pointing at me and big Damien, receiving visitors at the door.

I noted that these visitors were more sombre than we were and I straightened my face a bit.

There were times you would have to suppress a cackle at someone’s joke and turn to another person saying: ‘Isn’t it an awful business, and wasn’t he such a lovely man’.

Which he was. And you’d try to be as sad as they were, as sad as you had been yourself a moment before.

Pat Boyle, my wife’s father, an old country school master and brass band conductor, had survived heart trouble and two cancers to get within a spit of eighty and he had kept his sense of humour too.

He rose to speak at our wedding with a confidence that he could put on a far better performance than I could any day of the week.

At another wedding, Mel’s, he quoted from the gospel: ‘The Lord said, “It is good that we are here”‘.

But what people said mostly about Pat was, ‘Just think of the stories in that man’s head that are lost now.’

I’m not sure that I can comprehend the Irish wake much better than Fergus does. You really only learn the genius of it from going to many of them. The folk image is of old men drinking porter around the coffin, telling stories that get scarier and bawdier as the house darkens.

Blame Dave Allen with his yarns about a dead hunchback who’d had to be strapped down and then bounced up when the strap broke; about corpses taken out and set on the rocking chair.

Father Oliver Crilly tells me that he doesn’t remember a wake with drink, that it is not in the tradition at all, though a large bowl of cigarettes, until recently, was.

Probably hundreds came to the house that day and the next. Every time a priest called there was a decade of the rosary. One prayer leader’s pronunciation of ‘womb Jesus’ had mourners suppressing giggles. Some priests were good on wee homilies to Pat. Some weren’t.

But the things that go wrong in a wake are part of what makes it work, so long as they aren’t calamitous. The point of it all is to distract a family from grief and help the bereaved absorb the shock. It is good that we were there.

Edit this entry.

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At the recent Ottawa book festival, the theme of many of the writers was fear.

This is the report I did on it for BBC Radio Ulster.


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Creationist Ken Ham is coming to Belfast this week to argue that evolution theory is scuppered by such marvels as the discovery of carbon 14 in diamonds. The academy must be quaking before the prospect of having to concede that the Bible is a more dependable source of knowledge than all universities put together.

The interesting thing for me in this clash between creationists and the uppity new atheists like Richard Dawkins is that they actually agree on something; They agree that the Adam and Eve story is history. One says it is accurate history and the other that it is inaccurate history, but both assume that it is to be read as history and judged by whether it is accurate as such.

Now, I would have thought that the talking snake was a clue to another way of reading it; that it is myth or fairytale. I just assume that even our earliest literate forebears had noticed that snakes don’t talk.

And, of course, just to read it as myth does not deprive it of meaning. It may indeed be rich in meaning.

All that stuff about man wanting the knowledge of good and evil – Adam didn’t eat the fruit of the tree for its taste.

And then the discovery of nakedness, the emergence of self consciousness. That must have been a potent moment in the development of the mind.

But the core message seems to be: Don’t listen to women. Especially, don’t listen to women who talk to snakes!

So it is a sexist message and it is a message that is redolent of suspicion of the natural world.

And another thought. Recent research in Northern Ireland by Queens University for Channel Four shows that Protestants are falling behind Catholics in educational attainment. Could this be anything to do with the fact that evangelicals in these schools are teaching children to mock their own science departments and to laugh at the theory of evolution. What university’s science department is going to employ a researcher who would rather look into the Bible for answers than down a microscope?

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