In the first half of the twentieth chapter of The Science of Discworld II, we discuss how religion has shaped humanity. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of homophobia, religious abuse, brief mention of child abuse.
You know, I’m always aware of the fact that I’ve talked a LOT about personal stuff that’s affected me, or told stories about myself, and I am never quite sure if the people reading something I’ve written know these things. Sometimes, I assume there’s a sort of shared knowledge about me, and other times, I feel like I’ve got to repeat myself just in case. I’m existing between these two at the moment, as I know I’ve spoken candidly about the role religion has played in my life, particularly when I was reading His Dark Materials. (And I never feel like anything I write is “perfect,” or that I don’t have flaws in my analysis of books, but I still remain very proud of those reviews and how I connected to that series. They still remain among the only books I’ve ever regularly re-read in the years that followed.) So, it’s neat to come to this topic after years of being open about it because the context is so different than what I’m used to. Religion shaped me, and I can’t deny that. I don’t know who I would be without it, and it’s something I brought up recently, too. What would I have been like if I’d been raised as an atheist? As a non-believer? An agnostic? What if I was born into Catholicism rather than came to it as a teenager? What if I had not been exposed to a monotheistic religion but a polytheistic one?
I don’t know how to answer those questions, but in the context of this chapter, it’s fun to imagine. It’s true that religion, for me, was an attempt to answer questions. I say that knowing that those questions weren’t answered for me. But as a kid, and for a lot of time during my teenage years, those answers were provided to me. The world was created by God. That world was one of sin and corruption, and it was our job to behave to please God or risk losing our eternal soul to damnation. But, as I’ve talked about in past posts, there were exceptions. And growing up knowing that one of the “worst” things in the world was being gay was… weird! Like, I don’t know how else to describe it! I lived with a cognitive dissonance in my life for over a decade, fully aware that there were things FAR worse than who I was attracted to, but I still believed I was the worst. And that brings me back to my development and the development of our culture. How would I have developed without that message? How would my decisions have been altered?
I’m drawn back to the joke from Rabbi Lionel Blue that’s included with this book, one which I find hilarious because for me, it digs into a very, very dark place. And I know that a great deal of my humor comes from that dark place, too, and it’s absolutely a means of coping. (I have this ongoing joke with my close friends where if they ask me why I am the way I am or why I’m so dark sometimes, I say in a jokey voice, “It’s because of childhood trauma!!!”) The reason it hit me so hard is because that’s who I grew up with. I grew up with people who believed literally that they worshiped God correctly and others did not. It’s a question that plagues a lot of us; how do we follow a specific faith or belief system? I’m glad I’ve gotten away from that toxic environment because I’ve had so many more fulfilling conversations about religion as an adult than I ever did as a kid. I know people who are very straight-up about the fact that having a religion makes them feel like they can cope with the world. I know others who are religious because they have found peace in a specific faith, or because a specific faith explains the world to them in a way that makes sense. I don’t see a flaw in that, and I don’t see how that’s ever an inherently bad thing. I think harm has to start playing into it for me to even entertain the notion that faith can be a terrible thing. Usually, it’s human actors within a belief system who are making it horrible, not the belief system itself.
And that’s what I got from a lot of the analogies that Stewart and Cohen use, like the Rain Goddess one. For me, that describes the ways in which humans can take a belief system and twist it for their own needs and their biases. I survived such a system, you know? My childhood was full of contradictions in beliefs. Swearing was sinful, but my mother swore up a storm. God judged all except for the parents, who were exempt from such judgment. Forgiveness can be achieved through Jesus Christ, but here’s the one thing you can’t ever do and ask forgiveness for. Does that make Christianity inherently flawed? Well, that version of it, so specific to my upbringing, certainly was. And I think I have some larger issues with basic tenets of the religion in general, but aren’t they just stories, too? Deeply meaningful, powerful stories, ones that have stood the test of over two thousand years, but still stories, too. Sometimes, I think it’s what we choose to do with them that can affect us more than the stories themselves.
I remember liking a lot of stuff in the New Testament, even after I was estranged from my own family and seeking out God on my own. There was a radical power in the way Jesus stood up for those who were voiceless, who existed on the margins of society. Those narratives have stuck with me for a long time, and I know they still resonate with millions of people around the world. It’s a trope that’s old, yet still means something. That’s incredible, isn’t it?
Anyway, I’m VERY excited to see how the book address altruism. LET’S DO THIS.
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