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This Holiday Season, Let's Ignore the Pope

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This weekend, the National Post published several articles responding to a poll they commissioned determining Canadians' religiosity versus their spirituality, among other things.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it showed the older generation is more religious, with a pronounced drop among the youth. The youth are spiritual, but they avoid the dogma of formal religion. How encouraging! In response, churches are trying new things -- anything -- to draw people in. I wish the church the worst of luck.

Father Raymond J. de Souza's article responding to this poll is typical of what I find is religious people's inability to understand how someone can be spiritual without being religious, which is to say it was condescending and obtuse. Though I agree with de Souza from time to time on other issues, on this topic he is apparently allergic to rationality, and rather than break out in hives or a rash, he has developed an article. But at least he wasn't as bad as the Pope, who in a neighbouring piece (which apparently isn't online, but this story is basically identical) rebuked world leaders for their attempts to introduce same sex marriage.

After describing Christopher Hitchens' type of secular spirituality -- "encountering beauty in art, music and architecture" -- Father de Souza still seriously doubts that it is even possible to be spiritual without being religious. A god fearing person himself, he can't bring himself to imagine what it's like for people who take for granted that there is no god (at least not the one from any of the so-called holy books). Once god is eliminated, being religious becomes impossible for honest people, yet we're no less hard-wired for spirituality than before.

Blind evolutionary processes have made us prone to "spirituality," which I define as the sublime, thrilling indescribable feeling that washes over us when looking at an imposing mountain chain, "encountering beauty in art, music and architecture," or what some people get from imagining god. It can be explained chemically, it does not require anything supernatural. It is no less wonderful or awe inspiring because of this.

That people from around the globe and across time have independently (before these pockets of people communicated to each other) created their own religious myths, or built up those of their predecessors, suggests that our species has an innate tendency to make up and believe any story, no matter how absurd, that give us meaning, purpose, and hope. But reality and popularity are not the same thing. Actually, perhaps the strongest evidence that these divine stories are fictional is their universality. The best ideas usually come from a single person, which in turn causes a whirlwind of repression and bloodshed before their truth is taken for granted by everyone else.

Father de Souza speculates that spiritual, but not religious, people are perhaps "thoroughgoing materialists," or we have turned our back on philosophy. Perhaps in some cases, and I do think it's vile that advertising has replaced religion in giving society guidance, status, meaning, morals, and generally something to do. But that doesn't make de Souza correct on the bigger point. He will laugh at me when I tell him that I feel the same rapturous shiver his god gives him any time I hear Coltrane at his best (who felt he was under divine influence, but wasn't), or read my beloved authors, or eat a fresh bagel with lox and cream cheese.

And what else is an orgasm? He will consider this blasphemy, perhaps, or think I'm vulgarly exaggerating. No, I mean this quite literally. From his perspective, the divine heights he worships are immeasurably higher than these lowly pleasures, but from my perspective his rapture comes not from heaven but solely from someone else's ideas residing inside his own head.

Nothing begs the question like god declaring god's existence. Minus divinity, his notion of spirituality falls apart. In my favour, nobody doubts the existence of Coltrane, sex, or smoked salmon. More to the point, humans would have died out ages ago if we didn't experience indescribable joy when eating, mating, and sharing stories that give us survival tips and existential satisfaction. The sublime joy ("spirituality") accompanying these things led us to do them. We couldn't have got here without being spiritual, but religion has nothing to do with it. Booyah, de Souza.

"Spiritual realities are realities, and religious truths describe what those realities are," de Souza says. I'm with Nabokov who finds the word "reality" one of the few words utterly meaningless without quotation marks around it. Is Santa Claus "real" to a boy who plays with the fire truck the former has apparently left under a tree? In a sense, yes, of course. It would be impossible, and also cruel, to shake him from the innocent euphoria he feels as he puts out make believe fires with his real truck given by a "real" Santa Claus. But this boy is less endearing when he grows up and writes in a national newspaper that my rejecting the premise underlying the source of his spirituality makes me either not as introspective as him or simply a vulgar materialist.

He does point out the beneficial things religion can do for communities. Well, ok. I am not one of those atheists who find it necessary to eradicate any trace of religion, and actually I am sorry more people aren't acquainted with religious texts, which are wonderfully beautiful and brilliant so long as they are not taken literally.

I am for Homeric hospitality, but not because Zeus will be angry if I fail to burn for him choice offerings. I am for certain tenets from the new and old testament whenever they coincide with reason and decency, which I admit happens occasionally. But whatever good comes from religious texts does not make the existence of a supernatural supreme being any more real.

And de Souza fails to mention the considerable drawbacks. In some circles, religious practice correlates positively not just to community involvement, but to racism, homophobia, and coerced child buggery. But, remember, the point isn't that religion is beneficial or harmful, it's that the underlying premise is bogus. Hitchens quipped, "that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence." And anyway, bringing up the long list of religion's historical peccadilloes is unnecessary when religious abominations are conveniently found in the adjacent article.

Dinners and drinks with family and friends, gifts and well-wishing is my idea of Christmas, a lovely time of year, but some people can't get into the holiday spirit without gay-bashing. The Pope is such a man. His Christmas address was devoted to the theme of family, and he rebuked world leaders for introducing same-sex marriages. The article states, "In his most outspoken comments on the subject yet, he denounced what he described as people manipulating their God-given identities [sic] to suit their own sexual 'choices.'"

He believes gay people are actually heterosexuals who choose to be gay, possibly because gay people are so celebrated around the world, and nothing makes life easier than coming out of the closet. However unwarranted, the Pope still holds influence over some people. There are places -- today! right now! -- where gay people are buried up to their heads and stoned to death.

The Pope is in a position to help change this, but perhaps he is secretly applauding. He's dangerous! The Pope -- the so-called exalter of the poor, wearing custom made Prada shoes, traveling freely among the people he loves in a bulletproof car whenever he is dragged out of his impossibly gaudy (pun intended) palace -- is the crystallization of religious hypocrisy. That Canadians are increasingly rejecting this stuff is a credit to our intelligence and basic decency.

There is cause for spiritual rapture in the things we know are all around us--in our food, chess, art, and sometimes even in people. How uplifting! Rapture is accessible! Vladimir Nabokov, who I doubt de Souza can seriously reject as an unthinking vulgar materialist, in Ada states the case in the way only he can: "who cares about all those stale myths, what does it matter -- Jove or Jehovah, spire of cupola, mosques in Moscow, or bronzes and bonzes, and clerics and relics, and deserts with bleached camel ribs? They are merely the dust and mirages of the communal mind." It's time we stop being guided by these dusty mirages.

That said, merry Christmas everybody! And have a happy and healthy New Year.