In this post I want to discuss the difficult decision to christen our baby. Difficult because although my wife is religious, I avoid any dealings with either theism or spirituality. If anything, I have in the past been anti-religious, though recently I have turned, much like G.A.Cohen, anti-anti-religious; that is, a non-religious person with a growing adversity towards militant atheists. In any case, it is my firm belief that this world would have been a better place had religion never been invented. Yet I conceded to christening our son.
Let me give you some background here. I have always been an atheist and my wife has always been a religious person who grew up in a deeply religious family. That much we knew before we even got together. The points of potential conflict were known to us much before we got together. Our joint life has, in fact, been evolving around and even defined by our main disagreements. She is religious, I am not; she is politically conservative, I am a democratic socialist; she eats meat, I no longer do; she likes rural areas, I like urban settings; she likes spending her free time reading, I like going on long bicycle rides and runs; and so on, you get the point — we don’t much agree.
These disagreements have only been possible because of our shared values and beliefs — freedom of speech, equality, autonomy. Inevitably, we disagree about a lot of things and to an outsider our life may seem like an ongoing negotiation. But as a matter of fact, our only true points of contention and genuine disagreement have to do with religion and nutrition.
Sunshine was rather forthcoming about her religious beliefs from day one. When things were about to get serious between us, she made herself clear: she did not have a problem with my atheism, regrettable as it may have been for her, but she could not imagine herself having children that would not be baptized into her faith, the Christian Orthodox religion.
I obviously did what any man who wants the girl would do. Not thinking about it, I said whatever would please her; in this case, I promised that if we ever had kids, we would christen them. But to be honest, at the time I did not realize the take-it-or-leave-it character of Sunshine’s proposition. Not that it would change much — I would still say yes, but I like to believe that, had I realized the gravity of the commitment, I would have stuck to my guns a bit longer. In fact, I only realized that I actually made a proper commitment years later when that promise kept on coming back to haunt me. A proper conversation stopper: “you promised!”
My agreement to baptize our baby does not mean that I softened my stance towards religion. If anything, I am even more convinced that the Orthodox denomination of Christianity, and Judeo-Christian religions in general, should not merely be ignored but actively opposed as an occasional source of evil and misery in this world, particularly when their elites and followers attack the rights of women, LGBTI persons, and other minorities, as they usually do.
What has changed over the years is my attitude towards and the perception of religious people, including my ability to engage with them. In the past, whatever argument included references to the divine I immediately discarded it no matter if it could stand without the religious references, and no matter whether it touched on a social issue for which a religious angle could add a new dimension. I never bothered translating a religious argument to secular language. Likewise, in the past I arrogantly disregarded religious people from the get-go. I was obviously wrong. The vast majority of religious persons I met in my life are decent people who just happen, for one reason or the other, to believe in the supernatural.
I am digressing. Back to the issue in discussion. I am a man of my word and I will be keeping the promise I made to Sunshine about baptizing our baby. Actually by the time this goes up, Johnny should have been already christened. But my consent and complicity comes with two preconditions, the second of which will be met in this post.
First, I need to make clear that my consent comes at a great personal cost. Let’s be clear about what this is, frankly, a blatant violation of a long-held moral conviction of mine, which came to define my moral and political outlook in life. It is consent to a practice that I consider abusive in itself as it entails violently submerging a crying baby into water and then covering him in olive oil and keeping him unwashed for three days. It is also a ritual of membership to a religion, which, as it is commonly practiced today, can occasionally be both racist and hateful of gay people, women, and all-around opposing non-binary manifestations of love. Obviously, enrolling my kid in this institution will be detrimental both to Johnny and to the society as a whole. Thus, my first condition is the acknowledgement that this is no small deal. This is profound and my agreement comes at great personal cost.
The second condition is that I maintain the right to my own version of the story, starting with the following letter addressed to Johnny. He needs to hear his dad’s take on religion in order for him to be able to make an informed decision. As a general note, I think children should be given the dignity of the truth, and no matter whose version they decide to endorse, witnessing the diversity of opinion within their own home is in itself a life lesson that will hopefully make them less pig-headed upon adulthood.
Consider this an apology for finding myself in an impossible situation whereby I have to give up on what I genuinely believe to be your best interest for the sake of my commitment and love towards your mother. I’m referring, of course, to the decision to baptize you in a Greek Orthodox Church. In trying to keep a balance, I will give you my own take on religion. But you should always know that no matter which way you decide to go, and knowing that at times in your life you may find yourself jumping from one side to the other, be assured that this will in no way affect the strongest possible affection and love that I feel towards you.
I believe religion is an irrational proposition. The idea that there is only one right and one wrong that takes you either to paradise or to eternal damnation, and this applies not only to what you do but also to what you think, is not merely simplistic but rather deeply authoritarian as it represses freedom of thought. This is not how the world works, at least not how I experience it. People’s decisions and perceptions of right and wrong are deeply entrenched in their cultural surroundings and in their own individual embodied experiences. The most intellectually honest people I have met in my life were people who pursued the logical extension of their thoughts and convictions to their absolute extremes. True convictions are those that can sustain the logical scrutiny of arguments and facts. The penalization and attachment of guilt to “heretic” thoughts is morally and intellectually dishonest as it encourages passive loyalty rather than a genuine pursuit for the truth. I urge you, my son, not to let anyone, no matter how powerful he or his office are, tell you what you can and cannot think, or to assign blame to you with the objective of guilting you into their religion, cult, party or organization. Constantly challenge your beliefs and convictions, as well as the views of those around you, including those held by your dear father and mother.
My gripe with religion goes beyond the dishonesty and charlatanism of their practitioners who deviously try to proselytize the weakest of humanity’s herd by criminalizing freedom of thought. Behind the very concept of heaven and hell, and behind the preaching of the mythical Jesus who is all too eager to turn the other cheek in order to be compensated in the after-life, lingers a deeply-engrained conservatism that discourages any form of resistance. Religion is therefore utilized as a form of crowd control. For if the hardships one may encounter, including the abuse of others, are to be borne in private as badges of honour, as bonus-points that will get you into heaven, the religious person becomes a pawn in the hands of the powerful, which typically are the religious elites who set or redefine the canon. Religion then becomes nothing more than a tool for the subservience of the masses. This, I oppose. One should have the moral fortitude to stand up for what they believe, here and now, in this life. The oppressors, the dictators, the bullies, all those who assert an unduly authority over others, should be confronted and apprehended. For neither a free person nor an equal society with similar opportunities for everyone can ever exist whilst the bullies are calling the shots.
Let me also tell you a word or two about “our own”, Cypriot kind of religion. For as you will realize, religious membership is as much an accident of geography, as talent is an accident of nature. As luck would have it you were born in a Cypriot family in a country which is unapologetically theocratic. In a country where the Christian Greek Orthodox church is deeply political and influential, enjoying wide-ranging access in local schools and is able to set the national education curriculum. A gatekeeper of morals, as they like to present themselves, with children as their primary pray.
What typically distinguishes the Orthodox branches from the rest, is that they accept what is written in their holy texts as is — there is no “what the author meant..” or “at the time the norm was..” Rather, the Christian Orthodox church claims that their holy texts speak for themselves. They are in no need of interpretation. In fact, those who interpret religious texts, i.e. the Anglicans, are considered cults who dilute religion for the sake of acceptability in light of modernity.
Of course, this perception that they are not interpreting the texts is rather misguided. All understanding includes some degree of interpretation. What the Othodox mean is that they take an a-historical approach to interpretation, whereby they disregard the historical and political context in which the texts were written, as well as the background, abilities, intentions and target audiences of their (male) authors. They therefore take texts written millennia ago, detach them from their context, and then serve them to their flock as eternal truths, no matter how racist, exclusionary, chauvinistic or homophobic their implications in 2018 may be.
Astonishingly, they also raise no concerns about the historical accuracy of their founding texts, but that’s another story. What the Orthodox elites are effectively saying is that religion is a comprehensive, take-it-or-leave-it package, arranged thousands of years ago, whose assortment is above the pay-grade of bishops. They are therefore indifferent, or rather complicit, to the thousands of guilt-induced suicides that are a product of this a-historical read of the texts that wants gays going to hell, sex outside marriage being forbidden, masturbation a sin, and abortion the equivalent of murder.
I won’t go on as I do not want this to become a treatise against religion. What I rather want to do is give you a window into my own moral outlook, in order for you to understand where my gripe with religion comes from. Not from stubbornness or arrogance, but rather from reasoned moral disagreement. Following my rejection of religion, you may wonder what have I to offer. After all, rejecting something without an alternative is the route of the coward. But I cannot pretend to have a comprehensive set of morals by which I base all of my decisions; to be frank, I don’t think that this is possible and this is why I am skeptical of comprehensive doctrines, be them religious or all-encompassing political ideologies.
I have, nevertheless, a working list of four core principles that I weigh in, at varying amounts depending on the situation, when I am about to make a decision. I ponder about these four principles for both trivial and important matters. I don’t have a hierarchy so I will just present them to you as they come to my mind.
- The first is to always put myself in the situation of those worse off, having in mind that your many privileges may likely not allow you to completely associate with everyone. Putting oneself into the shoes of someone less well-off, determines how you should treat them, but also generates obligations as to the actions that you need to take towards ensuring that others extend the same level of respect to them. An active duty to not stay silent and passive.
- Autonomy as freedom of choice is key and should be either pursued or preserved, depending on the situation. One should be able to realize the options available to them and be free to decide what life they want to live, so long as they do not harm others. A basic Millean idea. This principle generates substantial obligations as it sets the conditions for a free society — one where ideas can flow freely and most importantly one where individuals are given the material and conceptual means to be able to relate and ponder about those ideas and options. In practice, this determines what position one should take in matters of freedom of speech, on redistribution of wealth, availability of free time, education and, ultimately, on the limits of religion.
- Equality of opportunity, as judged based on the outcomes of different groups in a society. It is worth pursuing a society where all have as equal opportunities as possible, irrespective of their religion or caste, the wealth and status of their parents, or the area where they happened to be born. A level playing field that gives everyone the chance to excel. The extent to which equality of opportunity exists is to be assessed by the relative outcomes of different groups. If, for instance, as a group, African-Americans and women continue to inhabit lesser positions of power than men and white people in general, then the structures are unequal. Equality of opportunity is a substantial value that requires positive steps to counterbalance historical injustices; it is not enough to adopt a universalist perspective of equal access whilst ignoring what Iris Marion Young called the structures of oppression.
- Impose as less harm on other living beings, human and non-human, as possible. This views humans as part of the environment and not merely as inhabitants of the environment. The environment must be protected, not for its value to future generations but rather because it has value in itself. The environment and the living beings on it, are intrinsically important to preserve. Minimizing the harm, pain and destruction they experience is therefore paramount. This, in turn, generates various obligations, not least ones regulating nutrition, purchasing habits, approach to animals, as well as many other daily micro-decisions.
These are broadly the four main pillars of the value-system that I deploy for my decision-making. I do not, for a moment, suggest that you should become like me, or that you should feel the burden of the world on your shoulders for every decision that you make. I don’t even want to discourage you from religion. Religion and basic human decency can be reconciled, however, I believe, not within a strictly Orthodox tradition. But you should know that: it is OK to be the heretic, if need be, in order to promote a humane version of religion rather than the misanthropic interpretations typically inhabiting the mainstream.
Even if you decide to side with religion, I implore you to take this with you. Hell is not something abstract. Hell is here, lived by people all around us, being experienced day-in and day-out by people less fortunate than you and I. Look around you and do your best to alleviate as much of the misery of this word as possible. Deal head-on with the misery that afflicts living beings of multiple leg-count. Paradise is what we make of this world. You have the power to help people and yourself move to a better state of being, both material and emotional.
This is part of a series of entries titled Fatherhood Diaries where I record thoughts on life as a new dad. Click here for all the Fatherhood Diaries.