To other readers. One of my “resolutions for 2009 is to complete a book dedicated to my five grandchildren. It’s tentatively titled THE BABO GOSPELS (“Babo” is the sobriquet my grandchildren call me). Since they live in San Francisco and Connecticut, I don’t get to communicate with them in person as much as I would like. But I want them to know my views on faith and religion because they will grow up in a world, both domestic and international, in which religion will play, in my view, an inordinate roll in public life. They may not be able to understand much of it now, but they will someday. Meanwhile, through eventual publication, I hope to make it available to others. The following preambles the book and explains my reasons for writing the book.
To my grandchildren,
Babo wants you to know at the very outset that one of the reasons I have written this book for you is that, while we are obviously not from the same generation, or share many of the same life experiences, we are also markedly different in terms of religious upbringing. I was deeply “immersed” in religion as I grew up, but you have been raised with little or no metaphysical environment in the home or school. Nevertheless, religion, belief and faith are all around us. Not just at Christmas, or Easter, or Rosh Shoshana, or Ramadan, but in between these times, in too many ways and forms to enumerate. No matter, you would have to be bereft of senses not to know that.
Religion, faith, and belief raise big—and importantly—questions and issues about life, death, and the way we should conduct ourselves in between. You will not be able to escape these questions, not just because there will be people around you who will raise them, and there will be other people who will want to persuade you to accept how they have answered them, but also, because these questions have a metaphysical dimension, they extend into the realm of what is unknown and unknowable. So, by just being human, you will come to wonder about such questions. Questions like “why am I here?” Or, “does my being here have any purpose?” And, “what happens to me when this life is all over?” And a lot more questions.
I wrote above that we come from very different religious experiences. You were brought up like your mothers, in what would be called “secular” homes, homes where the answers (or at least responses) to life’s questions were addressed and discussed from the perspective of therational, not the mystical. We did not seek answers in scripture and revelation, but in science, history, logic and reason. This is the kind of home in which you are being raised, too.
That is a good thing, and I applaud it. But it also means that you are a further generation removed from familial contact with someone with my experience, that you will not be exposed—at least in a proselytizing way—to indoctrination by institutionalized religious thought. But outside the home such thoughts and influences will be all around you; in some of your friends and schoolmates, people with whom you work, teachers, bosses, political representatives, even people who might become dear to you. Some of them might think they have the advantage of you, that their “faith” makes them special, even superior to you. At their worst, some will consider you “unholy.” You will know from reading history—or even the Bible—what this can lead to.
That is why I have written this book for you, because I have the “advantage” (although it seems odd to express it in that way) of having been raised as a Roman Catholic. Having been educated in Catholic schools from first grade through college I grew up believing that I was of the “one, true” faith, the faith that God intended that we all believe. I pitied, or mistrusted, or was suspicious of anyone who was so unfortunate as to not have been baptized a Roman Catholic. So I know how religion can engender prejudice, and separate people rather than bring them together. I also, from the first, seem to recall a nagging, and unexpressed, sense of indoctrination. I knew that I was supposed to believe what I was being told to believe, but I knew my mind was unsettled. I felt like I was “going through the motions” of being a good Roman Catholic.
I quit the Roman Catholic Church in the early 1960s. You don’t really “quit” as such, there is no resignation form or anything like that, you just stop showing up and putting money in the collection basket (that, they really care about). My last sufferance was the bumbling homily of a local tongue-tied parish priest that was just too much to bear. I felt so sorry for the guy. He should have been a Trappist monk; they take a vow of silence and I am certain he would have served out his days in aphasic contentment.
The next Sunday morning I slept in. I had a tremendouse sense of guilt, but it got easier, like quitting a bad habit. I was in grad school, living, literally, in a garret room, with nobody to record my failure to make my Easter Duty, no parents around to please that they had done their duty and raised a nice Catholic boy. The closest I have since got to a Eucharist is a pepperoni pizza (1).
The next time I was compelled to go to church was to get married, more than a year later. Your grandmother, Patty, who attended Catolic schools as well, went to mass for a while, attending the campus Newman Center with other liberal and attenuated Catholics, but she soon joined my “fallen away” status of her own and complete accord. She was an artist, and spending her Sunday’s covered in clay, or paint, or exploring creation with a camera, was a better “spiritual experience” than listening to some hackneyed homily.
The 1960s were a time when there was an abundance of metaphysical energy to fill the self-induced void. There was plenty of company in my apostate status, and some were doing the “inner- searching” thing with various forms of pharmacological assistance. But drugs were not for me. I never liked not being fully conscious and in control. Some friends experimented with the newly popular LSD in the “Church of the Perpetually “Stoned” founded by the high priest of altered states, Dr. Timothy Leary. Others tried to go native with the “Yaqui way of knowledge,” (2) induced by peyote and mescaline. If there was a god to be found, he would be in some tripped-out haze and probably look like a drummer for The Rolling Stones. “Joints” were routinely passed around at various social gatherings. But I wasn’t about to exchange one opiate for another. The word at the time was what are you “into.” People might be into something one week and into something else the next. “Trip” was the term for being on drugs. A lot of people were “tripping,” but few of them seemed to be getting anywhere.
There were other potential substitutes for my discarded Catholicism. It might have been “encounter groups,” people sitting around spilling their guts out to strangers who would rush to hug them; or diving into hot tubs at the Esalen Institute up in Big Sur, a warm-up to hooking up with some complete stranger for the search for the big orgasm. It could be sitting in a room full of dim-wits at an EST training session (3), squeezing your legs together to keep from pissing yourself, and calling one other “assholes,” and paying big money for the privilege of re-casting yourself into really fitting that appellation. It could be dozens of other spin-offs in the rollicking self-awareness movement that rolled over California like a tsunami of psychobullshit. For some, it filled in the void left by the unmooring from the traditional faiths that took place in the liberating 1960s, a period that conservatives still regard at the Lexington and Concord of America’s “culture wars.” The first “shot” in those ongoing wars was literally a little pill, the birth control pill invented by Dr. John Rock, that was fired across the bows (or would that be balls) of the Roman Catholic Church. Liberating it was, but many people were clearly disoriented by its centrifugal forces and quickly set about seeking cosmologies and lifestyles to ”re-center” themselves. It was the early “new age,” a period that is now in its second flowering, fertilized by the “tapping into the inner-self” nonsense of an assorted cast of self-anointed gurus, phonies and fakes hawking the snake oil of easy self-fulfillment and material riches.
Traditional religions were disintegrating. There was a new and profitable relationship between God and mammon. In the 1980s, Reaganism made it OK to be greedy and get rich (sort of a retro-Calvinism that reasoned that if you were rich then that’s what God wants you to be). Millions joined in the resurgence of Christianity a la the television “prayboys” like the Bakkers, Swaggerts, Falwells, Dobsons, Warrens and Robertsons. This was the great counter movement against the liberal legacy of emboldened minorities, the women’s movement, sexual liberation and media’s fracturing of the (mythical) solidarity of the American family. Men were seeking out their “fire in the belly” manhood rites to counter their emasculation on the sharper edges of feminism. Sexual swingers, it was turning out, tended to more conservative people than liberals. Many liberals, not sure that there really was going to be an eternity, set about perfecting their bodies to make them last as long as possible. As usual, true to the essence of American culture, there was a buck to be made everywhere; the core faith—capitalism—seemed well intact and thriving on the novelty of it all.
Somehow my inborn skepticism shielded me from it all. It took long for anything to “take” with me, and by the time I finished reading and thinking about the validity of a new cosmology or lifestyle it was usually out of fashion or replaced by the next one. But there was no going back to my Catholic roots; I had worked too hard to be free of their entanglements. Yet there is never being totally free of them either. They are my roots, and as you can never resign from the Church, I could never not be Catholic. There is a certain indelibility to being educated and indoctrinated within the Church—once Catholic, forever Catholic. Even today I can meet complete strangers who have been “raised” Roman Catholic, even from other countries, and there is an affinity with them, a Catholic connection, that transcends almost all other cultural dimensions. It is the indoctrination at an early age; other religions have it as well. I am glad that you are being spared it, but you need to know about it.
It is not so much the “sacramental” or the ceremonial that sinks into one’s spiritual marrow, but the “culture” of Catholicism, a culture that is captivating in many respects and owes much to its theatricality. The Roman Catholic Church has costumes, and rituals, music and art, and that greatest of all dramatic theme—the battle between good and evil. The essence of drama is conflict, and the battle for the soul of humankind is perhaps the greatest dramatic theme. That’s entertainment, and the new Christian churches are doing their best the emulate it. They will never match the Sistine Chapel, the Ave Maria, or Audrey Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman, and Gregory Peck and Spencer Tracy playing nuns and priests in movies I knew the Protestants would never really understand.
Curiously, my departure from the Church engendered a new interest in religion, not so much a search for a new one to replace Roman Catholicism, but a liberated, critical-historical interest in the nature of belief, into the uncritical credulities of faith. I read works by biblical scholars such as Hugh Schonefeld (The Passover Plot), Donavon Joyce (The Jesus Scrolls), Elaine Paigels (The Gnostic Gospels), works on the “historical” Jesus, by Michael Graves, historical novels such as Gore Vidal’s Creation and James Michener’s The Source, Malachi Martin’s The Final Conclave, even edgy stuff like Holy Blood, Holy Grail, the precursor of The Da Vinci Code. I looked at religious art, listened to the music and missas, read of the lives of saints and popes, long monographs on Mary and Mary Magdalen, even the writings of Josephus, the First Century Jewish turncoat. It was almost all very interesting, but there were no accounts of, from, or about anybody who had been to “the other side,” who had had a real audience with The Deity, the Father or the Son, or the flaky one, the Holy Ghost. Not one, single, sane, person. Nobody, not the Pope, the Dalai Lama, the Ayatollah, or Sister Ignatius, my first grade teacher, knew one single shred of evidence, knew anything more than me. Everything on which the great faiths were based was made up, conjured, imagined.
I never recovered my faith—if I ever really had it in the first place—but I did get some insights that gradually evolved into a sort of modus vivendi composed of bits and pieces from here and there. A good part of it came from that First Century radical Jewish rabbi, Yeshua bar Yusef (a.k.a. Jesus Christ). We shared a liberal-progressive spirit, and a feeling for the underdog. My concoction was neither entire, nor communicable enough to comprise what passes for Christianity today, or this essay would be a solicitation for funds, an urging to bomb and woman’s clinic, or an email to a congressional page asking him if he likes to play leap frog in the shower.
Much of my metaphysical odyssey took place before the resurgence of Christian Fundamental Evangelism in America. I had come to my accommodation with the believers: they can leave me alone, or I would do my best to make them wish they never brought up the subject. They could have their faith and I would even fight for their right to have their faith, but I would try to be an evangelist’s worst nightmare–a prince of doubt-ness.
Why? Because evangelists just can’t live and let live, believe and not aide un-belief. No, they have to take their faith into the classrooms, into the legislatures, into the streets, into the media. America has to be “a Christian nation” and our laws have to become subject to Christian principles (which, if they were true Christian principles, might actually make us a better nation). Our leaders have to pray in public and proclaim their faith, and wear cross pins next to their lapel flag pins. They have to plant giant white crosses on our public hilltops. They want to tell women what they can do, and can not do, with their bodies, they want our kids to believe the world was created in six days, and Noah could actually fit all fauna on a barge, they want to judge the worthiness of science with the mumbo-jumbo of people who speak in tongues and see the face of The Virgin in the guano deposits on the side of a parking garage. They want to deprive homosexuals of their rights and keep public monies from being spent on condoms for the HIV-ravaged African states. They want to take us back to the Dark Ages, before the age of Enlightenment. And when they do that, they aren’t just people of faith anymore—they are the enemy of reason. I realized that it no longer mattered if I went to church on Sundays, but it did matter very much to me that there were people who wanted to make my whole country a “church,” and this “church would be open 24/7.
In short, I have “been there,” to a place where you might consider going, or be evangelized into going. That is your decision, but I want you to read what I have written before you make that decision. I want you to read the thoughts and opinions of someone who loves you, who is concerned with your happiness, and who wants you to make your decision as an informed person, not out of fear, coercion and certainly not out of ignorance. The only thing I wish to gain is your happiness, peace of mind and a good life. As you will see, I think that you can define this for yourself and do not have to accept what has been prepackaged for you by various religions. This may take some courage on your part because religious belief is, as I also maintain, rooted in fear, fear of the unknown and, sometimes, you might feel that it is easier and safer to join the crowd than to go it alone. But you will also see that there are plenty of people with questioning, independent minds. You will not be alone.
I am not out to snatch your soul, or convert you to anything other than open-mindedness. As I have said, there are many big questions to which there are no knowable answers. Of these I cannot offer, as no one can, any proofs. But there are also many questions in religion and faith for which there are answers, different answers that are offered by scripture, revelation and outright myth. I will address both types of questions in the following pages. Since my essays on these topics have been written at different times and different moods you will find them ranging from satirical to angry. You will also find that I give the greatest part of my attention to the “faith of our fathers,” Roman Catholicism, because I was raised in that religion, and I as had the most profound effect upon me. But I probably will also offend (sometimes intentionally, I must admit) other religions as well, in my quest to be, as some might say, “ecumenical.”
You certainly have heard the adage that “knowledge is power.” It is, but so is ignorance a source of power. Ignorance often leads to fear, and fear, as we know, is the fundamental impetus to religious belief. This is not just some benign observation. Let me cite the instance of a circumstance that began right here in California, in the San Francisco Bay Area, in the 1970s when a church called The People’s Temple was founded by a madman named Jim Jones. The details are all part of the historical record, but the end of this was that the rhetorically powerful and psychologically paranoid “Reverend” Jones eventually removed his flock to French Guiana where he got hundreds of them to commit mass suicide, some of them slitting the throats of their own children. This might seem shocking in the late 20th Century, but it is only one, a minor, example of the closeness of religious beliefs to delusion, madness and murder and mayhem throughout history. Do not underestimate the power of religious belief in the lives and behavior of some people and the blurry lines that they can draw between what they regard as “good” and “evil,” the authority they can arrogate to themselves to act on what they believe is “the will of God.” Religion is about power; never forget that. And your best defense against the sinister use of that power is knowledge.
Here I need to make an important distinction. My quibble is not so much with faith as it is withreligion. Faith, I think, comes somewhat naturally to humans. I see it as somewhat primal, an urge to put some kind of “known” on the unknowable. So where there is a vacuum in knowledge, we seem to readily substitute belief. So, if somebody wants to believe that, say, rainfall is the saints crying, I don’t have a problem with that. Belief can come from that wonderful human capacity for imagination, and from the gift of narration, that enrich life. Believing in something can be comforting to some people. I, personally, like some of the stories that come out of belief, but they are not as satisfying as the joy of discovery, as enriching of life as real knowledge. I prefer realism to fantasy, knowledge to superstition, truth to faith. Let me be clear about one thing; I have no interest in trying to destroy anyone’s faith. Faith in a god is not a bad thing; it’s like when kids have imaginary friends. But people pushing their faith into other people’s face is not about faith, it’s about power, the power to control and exploit. Never forget that when somebody approaches you with a smarmy halleluiah smile, and a “Wow, have a got a great new God for you,” answer with Babo’s favorite epithet—Bahfungool! (4)
My quibble is with religion, which in some sense is the “business side of belief,” the economics of metaphysics. Religion happens when belief becomes codified and a “professional” class of intermediaries creates itself. This is when you get people who claim to talk directly to god or the gods, or who claim to have been “called” by their deities to reveal to you what God really wants you to do with your life, one aspect of which is to provide monetary and material support to these self-anointed priests, rabbis, gurus, pastors, lamas, shamans, and such. From the beginning of wonderment these types have squiggled themselves in between people and their beliefs the way a virus gets into a cell. And, as I will allege later on, they wedge their way in with fear. This fear can allow the virus to infiltrate every aspect of your being, body, mind, and they will allege, soul. If you allow it, they will own you, body mind and soul. It will control the way you think and act—out of fear.
But I am getting a little ahead of myself here, because I will elaborate this theme in many of the following pages. My purpose here is the distinction between faith and religion, because sometimes people use these terms interchangeably. As I wrote above, I have no problem when somebody believes that rainfall is the “saints crying.” My problem begins when another religion says that rainfall is the saints peeing. Even that doesn’t bother me much until one or both of these religions say that the other’s rainfall belief is blasphemous to their belief and sets about putting the others to the sword. You will recognize this human tendency runs wide and deep in our brief and sordid history. War has many causes, but religion trumps all others.
So, I am not out to destroy faith; I’m not even out to destroy religion, although I wish they would all just go away. We probably can’t be human without the first, but we could be better humans, I maintain, without the second. My intention is to be a cognitive antibody that takes on that fear-mongering virus, gives you a fighting chance to be your own person, to be curious rather than submissive, to use your own mind to search for truth. The packages (religions) are all out there and I don’t want you to ignore them. Look them over, because I believe that the more you do, with scrutiny and without fear, unafraid to laugh at their inherent silliness and their delusional liturgies, and you will see that none of them, not a single religion, from Animism to Zoroastrianism, knows anything, I mean anything in an epistemologically valid way, more than you do at this very moment. They made it all up!
If I can get you to open your mind to that starting point, I shall have done my job as your Babo. And, of course, a curse will be called down upon me, and I will not know salvation and be raised into the heavens at the “end times,” but and my evil seed will be cast to the depths where the incubus and succubus writhe and burn and . . . well, you get the idea; there are ways they try to frighten you. If it wasn’t so scary to some people, it would be funny. I hope I can show you the funny side, seriously. I will resort to it frequently in the pages to follow. Religion, you probably have already discovered, is not big on humor and laughter.
©2008 Sebastian Gerard (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 1.4.2009)
1. If I recall correctly this is the requirement—under pain of mortal sin—that you make a confession and receive communion at least once a year. Or am I confusing that with the requirement that you not bite the ears off your chocolate bunny until the angel has rolled back the stone on Jesus’s tomb?
2. A boring exegesis by Carlos Casteneda, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (1985)
3. Erhard Seminars Training, a scam conceived by a guy named Jack Rosenberg who changed his name to Werner Erhard.
4. Actually, this is an Italian-American ghetto bastardization of the Italian va fa en cul. Literally, it means “go shove it.” Accent on the last syllable.