Wednesday, January 2, 2019

A Very Subjective Post On Other Religions

The Catholic Church is the One True Faith. All other religions are false. The best charity Catholics can show to members of other religions is to evangelize them.

Now that I've made that clear...

Today I found myself thinking about my attitude to other religions, over the years. 

I've generally taken a favourable view of religions, of whatever kind. This post is going to be completely subjective, a series of memories.

It occurred to me to write it because I remembered how much I enjoyed looking through a selection from the Bhagavad Gita which we had at home. It was very lavishly illustrated, with pictures of the god Krishna, purple-faced and many-armed. I imagine it was a free copy given out by Hare Krishnas.

I can't remember how old I was at this time, but I must have been pretty young. I believe this book played a part in forming an association in my mind between religion and exoticism. I never saw religion as dull or dreary-- quite the opposite, in fact. The fact that I was very interested in horror, science fiction and fantasy worlds probably encouraged this attitude.

Strangely, there is also an association in my mind between the Bhagavad Gita and the alcohol shelves in my local supermarket. I must have found myself thinking about one while looking at the other, or simply thinking about them both at the same time-- one image is superimposed over the other. Alcohol labels and bottles always seemed very classy and elegant to me. My brother collected them, for a short time, and I took a keen interest in his collection. I still like looking at alcohol bottles, especially bottles for spirits. I think there might even have been a connection in my mind between the distilled nature of alcohol and the "distilled" nature of a religious tradition-- since religious traditions have evolved over centuries, and have generally attained a certain depth and insight into human nature.

Another book which somehow ended up in my home was Your Right to Know by Darwin Gross, one-time leader of the rather obscure Eckankar new religious movement. Eckankar began in America in 1965. As a kid, I read everything I got my hands on, so I read Your Right to Know with some interest, though I didn't believe any of it. I found the book aesthetically appealing. It included line drawings of the "Eck Masters" of the past, who are still supposedly living in various out-of-the-way places despite being centuries old. 

I also liked the photographs of Eckankar events. Although they featured robes and garland necklaces, they generally had the air of a seminar in a hotel conference room-- an atmosphere which I find quite pleasant. This, in fact, is a piquant contrast I have often noticed with regard to American religiosity. Americans are both practical and spiritual. The well-groomed, square-jawed Billy Graham in his business suit is a symbol of American spirituality that I find immensely appealing. I've never shared the common distaste for American televangelists. Perhaps it's because I come from a "smells and bells" religious tradition myself that I find the opposite paradoxically exotic (although that reaction seems unique to me). Or perhaps it's because it makes faith seem unified with ordinary life.

I must admit the banality of Eckankar rather appealed to me, as well. Although I didn't believe it for a moment, and I have no doubt it's little better than a scam, it was rather pleasant to imagine the cosmos being so cheerful and straightforward. As far as I can remember, you simply had to cut out negative thoughts and chant the sacred syllable. There was no need for stress or trauma. Such spiritual insipidness cannot satify in the long-term-- which explains why liberal religions never survive for long. They can, however, please in the short-term-- which explains why liberal religions continually come into being.

I remember Hare Krishnas chanting in their colourful robes were a fairly common sight in Dublin when I was growing up. Then they disappeared for many, many years. Then, a few years ago, a couple of them were active here again, but only for a while. In any case, I was always rather well-disposed to them, thinking they added colour to everyday life, and pointed to the transcendental.

A kid in my brother's class was a Jehovah's Witness. I was somewhat envious of him. I've always liked the idea of belonging to a minority. In fact, I can even remember envying kids with food allergies, for the same reason.

I had a few encounters with Mormons in my teens. I was very attracted to the female Mormon missionaries, finding their air of wholesomeness appealing. I admired the earnestness of Mormon missionaries in general. In my twenties I developed quite a strong interest in Mormonism, and read several books about it. Once again, I didn't take its claims seriously for a moment, but I was fascinated that such a religion should have come out of nowhere, practically speaking, in nineteenth-century America. Its claims were so startling; Jesus had come to America, the Trinity were three separate entities, God was once a man, men could become gods, and so forth. The entire thing came from the claims of a farmboy who said he had been shown some gold plates by an angel. The story of the Great Trek to Utah also intrigued me.

I have long contemplated writing a story on a Mormon theme. This is the basic idea: a female Mormon missionary loses her faith after a door-step conversation with a young cynic. She comes back the next day, shattered by the experience, telling the young cynic that she can't go home to her parents, and looking to him for guidance. The young man (who is not such a bad fellow) is alarmed at what he has done and tries to argue her back into her faith, telling her that it's as likely to be true as anything else. I think it might make a good story or play.

I was especially interested in Mormonism in my twenties, but I was also reading a lot about religion in general. I was fascinated by their traditions, rituals, histories, organization, and so forth-- the human element in them. Catholicism was the one religion I avoided reading about, perhaps out of an intuition that it would demand more from me than casual interest.

I was especially interested in Judaism. When it comes to writing about Judaism, however, I feel a little apprehensive. It's a sensitive subject in Catholicism, especially conservative Catholicism, and I am in danger of alienating somebody whatever I write. There are conservative Catholics who seem perpetually poised to shriek "anti-semitism!" if you say a critical word about the Jewish tradition, and other conservative Catholics who apparently can't bear to hear a friendly word about it. Therefore I will tread softly, and briefly.

I was fascinated by Judaism because of its antiquity, the fact that it had existed in parallel with Christianity for so many centuries, and because it appealed to me aesthetically. I liked the sound of Hebrew words and the look of Hebrew letters. I liked its intellectualism and the fact that it was so devoted to the study of sacred texts. I also admired what I saw as its temperance and sobriety, compared to all that seemed excessive and world-renouncing in other religions. History of the Jews by Paul Johnson was a book I read over and over. And that is all I will say about Judaism, except that my interest in it played a large part in leading me to Catholicism.

Eastern religions never appealed to me very much, except in their external trappings. The doctrine of annihiliation of self, of the oneness of everything, is almost the most horrible thought I can imagine. I love differences and distinctions; the thisness of this and the thatness of that. A Hindu or Buddhist might insist that my understanding of the Eastern tradition is defective, that its underlying principles do not in fact abolish difference or specialness. Well, perhaps. But this is always the impression I've received, at any rate.

Buddhism has always been the world religion which appealed to me the least, perhaps because it has been trendiest world religion in the West for many decades, or perhaps because it hardly seems like a religion at all. (I imagine that is why it has been so trendy in the West.) I do, however, understand why Buddha statues and statuettes are so popular-- the image of the meditating Buddha is very peaceful and comforting.

And so we come to Islam.

I'm almost reluctant to say anything about Islam. On the one hand, I have no desire to be counter-jihadist or anti-Muslim. I cannot find it in myself to take an antagonistic attitude to a religion of a billion people and a centuries-long tradition. On the other hand, the liberal virtue-signalling attitude towards Islam irritates me quite as much as the bullish anti-jihadist attitude. I roll my eyes at people on social media who delight in sharing stories about Middle Eastern Muslims forming protective cordons around Christian churches on Christmas Eve (which I agree is a beautiful gesture) but who stoically ignore all the less heart-warming aspects of the religion, such as the persecution of Christians in many Muslim countries.

I recently watched a YouTube video in which a Muslim academic was interviewing Roger Scruton. The Muslim academic, who was a conservative, made several positive references to his religion, and Roger Scruton himself made several polite references to it. Predictably, there were withering and hostile comments in the comment section. I find this kind of thing  boorish and embarrassing. Let us at least be civil and gracious. (Although I'm a fan of Milo Yiannapoulos, I think he is too harsh on Islam. However, since he is holding the door of free speech open, perhaps it is necessary for him to be so abrasive.)

I think the sheer scale of Islam has inhibited me from investigating it. A religion such as Mormonism or Judaism, and certainly a new religious movement such as Eckankar, is manageable. Islam is overwhelming. Perhaps the most interest I've taken in Islam has been my visits to the Chester Beatty Library, a wonderful museum in Dublin, which I haunted in my twenties. (It's always the first place I recommend when people ask about places to visit in Dublin.) The calligraphy and art-work of Islam is undoubtedly beautiful, and my visit to the Islamic section always brought home to me how Abrahamic Islam is. They have many of the same stories as we do, but with crucial differences. Seeing something familiar in a different way is always a strange experience-- disorienting, but stimulating.

How about the New Age, paganism, the occult? Being a lifelong fan of horror, I've always been aware of these, but regarded them with caution. There is no time in my life when I would have dreamed of playing with a ouija board or using tarot cards. However, as with other religions, I do find all the trappings quite appealing. On the couple of occasions I've stepped into a New Age shop, I've greatly enjoyed all the sights and smells and sounds. Whenever I've listened to New Age doctrine, on other hand, it seems like the purest mush, not even having the minimal cohesion of an organised religion, however false or shallow.

I haven't mentioned the Church of England, but I wrote an entire post about that previously.

I can't finish the post without mentioning the "plain living" sects of America, such as the Pennsylvania Dutch and the Amish. Today we all live in terror of romanticizing and sentimentalizing anything, so I must avoid romanticizing these. In truth, I don't know a whole lot about them. But I find their dedication to tradition, community and plain living entirely admirable as far as it goes. I think we could all learn something from it.

Perhaps that is enough. I haven't mentioned the Orthodox, or most of the Protestant sects, or Shinto, or Confucianism, or many others. I have to stop somewhere. This blog post has been a ramble through my own memories and associations, without any vestige of a moral or purpose aside from that. I hope it has interested somebody.


  1. The Zoroastrians are the ones outside of Christianity that I always found fascinating.
    Even the former SSPX TransAlpine Redemptorists included Graham in their obituaries. They seem to respect the fact that he was happy to lead Catholics to their own priests.
    I was looking through an old book by two evangelical leaders, Dan and Steve Peters who took a very hardline view of rock music, certainly very staunch in their beliefs

    1. Yes, Zoroastrians are interesting, though I have heard one person complain that they don't really deserve their status as a major religion-- Wikipedia says there are estimated to be less than two hundred thousand in the world, at the most.

      I personally don't see anything un-Christian about rock music in itself, but I rather approve of those who do-- I like stick-in-the-muds.