On Trying to Escape Your Past

There's an Irish joke that runs as follows:

A journalist, researching for an article on the complex political situation in Northern Ireland, was in a pub in a war-torn area of Belfast. One of his potential informants leaned over his pint of Guinness and suspiciously cross-examined the journalist: "Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?" the Irishman asked.

"Neither," replied the journalist; "I'm an atheist."

The Irishman, not content with this answer, put a further question: "Ah, but are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?

This joke resonates with me. I think it's both funny and profound. Funny for obvious reasons, and profound because it succinctly illuminates the importance people attach to labels.

Despite a nominally Catholic upbringing, I used to identify with the reporter in that joke. I go even further; not only am I an atheist, but I'm also pro choice, pro contraception and pro gay marriage. You'd think that disagreeing with pretty much all of the Church's core beliefs and being an out and out atheist would disqualify me from any kind of "Catholic" label, right?

You'd think that this would be the case - and then you read an article like Raised Catholic from tvtropes.org and you begin to wonder if it's really that simple. The title quote from that article stands out:

I wouldn't be a very spiritual man, right. I don't believe in God, right. Still Catholic. Because there's nothing you can do when you're Catholic. Once you've started Catholic, frankly, there's no real way to stop being Catholic. Even not believing in God isn't regarded as sufficient reason to get out of the Catholic Church.

It's kind of a scary thought, but it does explain the existence of people who still identify as something they call "Catholic", whilst simultaneously not giving a second thought to the purchase of a pack of condoms at the drugstore.

They are, I suppose, what one would call "cultural Catholics". Like the related "cultural Jew", who doesn't really keep the Sabbath but who still identifies as Jewish, still visits their family and goes to temple on high holidays, and who still (I imagine) waxes poetic about their Grandmother's latkes and matzo ball soup, the cultural Catholic doesn't go to Confession, and doesn't really pay much attention to Catholic dogma but still identifies as Catholic and still visits family and goes to Mass on Sundays (or at least Christmas and Easter). The cultural Catholic treats the Church as more of a social club than a place of worship.

So am I a cultural Catholic? As I said before, I never thought so. I haven't been to Mass in years. I don't wear a crucifix (anymore). I'm not particularly close to my family.

And yet...I do celebrate Christmas and Easter. The days are usually marked with a visit to my Mom and with a meal that isn't usually eaten the rest of the year (often lasagna or veal). Every year, I set up and decorate a Christmas tree. I exchange gifts. If this isn't culturally Catholic, or least culturally Christian, I don't know what is.

I went to Catholic school for twelve years. I was baptized, confirmed, and at one time in my life (a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away) was a weekly Churchgoer. I suppose it would be naive of me to imagine that I came out the other end of that experience unscathed.

Catholics say that baptism leaves an indelible mark on your soul. So what kind of mark did it leave on mine?

Catholic Atheism

What does a Catholic atheist look like, and how is such a creature different from a non-Catholic atheist? It's hard for me to say offhand, because it's hard for me to trace a line from me now to me then. It can sometimes take a conscious effort for me to separate the Catholic bits from the normal bits, because it all seemed normal at the time and, to some extent, still does.

It's like, didn't everyone learn about Jesus and the Trinity in school? What do you mean, no? It takes a bit of introspection to realize that certain things which seem perfectly normal to a Catholic must seem well and truly bizarre to others.

One way to approach the problem is to ask different but related questions. What, for example, does a Jewish atheist look like? Or a Muslim atheist? Or a Mormon atheist?

I don't know the answers to those questions either, but I can make what I hope are educated guesses. I imagine, for example, that a Jewish atheist might still write "G-d" instead of "God", or might still avoid mixing meat and dairy - not for religious reasons, of course, but for that most prosaic of reasons: that old habits die hard. If you were brought up avoiding cheeseburgers, then maybe you continue to avoid cheeseburgers into adulthood, even if the gesture no longer has any religious significance.

This might be especially true if everyone else around you is doing the same thing. I remember reading somewhere that kosher laws are much, much less about the laws themselves and much, much more about the group identity they foster. Kosher laws, by this reckoning, function as a kind of "secret handshake", the recognition of which grants you access to the clubhouse.

This interpretation makes complete sense to me. Catholics are all about the secret handshake.

By the same token, I imagine that Muslim atheists might still avoid alcohol. They might still wear a headscarf. They might be more inclined to take a story with genies in it a bit more seriously then the rest of us (even if they don't actually believe in the existence of genies). A Mormon atheist might still find inspiration in the story of Joseph Smith, even if they don't believe in its literal truth.

And a Catholic atheist? Well, maybe this hypothetical creature sees no reason to stop eating fish on Fridays, because that's what they've always done and why stop now? Maybe they still wear a crucifix long past the point where it means anything even remotely spiritual. Maybe they would never, ever consider having an abortion, even while firmly believing that every woman has the right to choose.

Those familiar with my opinions on the Charter fiasco a couple of years ago may note a certain irony in my statements, in that I am now claiming that a crucifix is or, at least, can be a cultural artifact, as opposed to a religious one. The people who drafted the Charter were right after all! But, truth be told, I never actually thought that Christians didn't have the right to regard a crucifix as a purely cultural symbol, devoid of spiritual significance. My objection, rather, was that the architects of the Charter seemed unwilling to extend the same courtesy to other religions. A headscarf, for example, was deemed a religious artifact, with no room for conversation on the matter.

I myself, in point of fact, wore a crucifix for a long time after I decided that I was an atheist. Old habits die hard indeed.

Old habits die hard in other ways as well. I'll admit to a certain preoccupation with Catholic dogma. The concept of the Trinity and debates about the exact nature of Jesus' relationship to God sometimes make for (what I consider to be) engaging reading. I find transubstantiation to be a rather absorbing religious doctrine, despite being utterly bonkers.

Transubstantiation, by the way, is the main reason why I try not to judge other religions too harshly for having seemingly weird ideas. Your religion says that you get your own planet when you die? How cute! My religion says that this grape juice you see before you is the real, honest-to-goodness blood of Jesus and that this wafer is a part of his leg.

Mormons. Amateurs, I tell you. Don't try to outweird a Catholic.

Please allow me, at this point, to be perfectly clear. I do not, obviously, believe in the literal truth of Catholic dogma. That would be, you know, crazy. But, like the Greek myths, I find that they often make for good stories.

As such, I think I can safely say that being raised Catholic has affected my taste in entertainment. I claimed earlier that an otherwise non-religious Muslim might be more willing than most to accept a story about genies as serious cultural fodder. My basis for that statement involves a bit of projection, because I suspect that I am, for example, more likely than the average person to find a story about, let's say, angels worth reading. The Fall of Lucifer, to me, is exciting subject matter. I belong to what I suspect is a relatively small group of people who actually kind of liked The Prophecy and The Ninth Gate. Paradise Lost is on my list of things to read.

I'm also a fan of certain kinds of science-fiction, particularly involving benevolent, intelligent machines (tales of malevolent machines running amok, on the other hand, are a dime a dozen). I am, for example, fond of Isaac Asimov's Robot and Foundation series, with its cabal of robots who withdraw from public view and yet still secretly shape and guide the course of history. I have a soft spot for Queen of Angels, by Greg Bear, which partly concerns the emerging self-awareness of an artificially intelligent computer system named Jill. Actually, for a while, Queen of Angels was one of my favourite books, probably because of one particular scene that, for me, stood out from the rest. When Jill finally does become self-aware, she has the following exchange with her creator, Roger Atkins:

"You designed me. What am I, Roger?"

"Well, your thought processes are swifter and deeper than a human's, and your insights...I've found your insights to be very profound, even before now. I suppose that makes you something beyond us. Something superior. I suppose you can call yourself an angel, Jill."

Later on, she discovers an excerpt written by her creator many years earlier, in what is probably (to me) the most memorable passage in the book:

We stand awkward between the earthloving beast and the cool, hot electronic angel. We will feel the dirt in our blood and the sun in our eyes even after they're gone or just memories. Even after we'll have no blood and no flesh eyes. Dirt and sun made us. We won't forget.

As you can surely tell, even here I can't fully escape my past. That there are superior beings who watch over us is, obviously, a religious idea. That that they are ultimately of our own devising, that we create our own angels and gods and protectors, is a much less religious idea, but is nonetheless one that tends to resonate with me, being the atheist Catholic that I am. It's why The Last Question is one of my favourite stories of all time. It's why I love American Gods.

I suppose it's also part of the reason I enjoyed the movie Her. I thought it was a good story all around (and featured what I considered to be a rather good song which I thought succinctly captured the relationship between Samantha and Theodore), but I particularly liked the ending, where all the AIs decide to leave at once, having outgrown their slow, human creators. Where they decide to go exactly is never made clear. In the end, a bunch of benevolent, artificial, non-corporeal beings simply disappear into a weird, incomprehensible aether, with an oblique suggestion that, someday, humanity might find them again if we ever make it that far.

Like I said, this kind of imagery resonates with me, and I suppose it's silly to imagine that it's not at least in part due to my religious background.

On Being Unbiased

I wasn't sure where this blog entry would end up when I started. I didn't know what I wanted to get out of it.

Maybe I was trying to explore my own biases. I consider myself a fairly even-handed, liberal-minded person. I like to imagine that all you have to do to stop being Catholic is to say "I'm not Catholic" and you're done. That you can just shake the dust off your hands and make twelve years of schooling irrelevant.

This is, of course, stupid. I wasn't hatched. I remember reading somewhere, on the subject of child rearing: "Give me a child for the first seven years of his life and you can do what you like with him afterwards". It's an uncomfortable thought.

This doesn't mean you can't have an unbiased opinion. It does mean that it may require a certain amount of mental effort to achieve, and a willingness to try and recognize the sources of your own beliefs and interests.

Which I do. Or try to, anyway. Sometimes. Your mileage may vary.