My most familiar faith

By David Walsh

Over dinner last night Elizabeth, Kirsha and I chatted about my recent blogs and I remonstrated with myself that they focused on death, darkness and injury. Although that seems to not entirely be my fault I thought it might be time to court some controversy instead.

Another topic of conversation was the significant number of comments appended to Diary of a Disaster that offered prayers on my behalf. That’s curious, as I have made plain my opposition to belief without evidence but, on the whole, I understand that those who made the remarks have my best interests at heart, and prayers are unlikely to do me damage. I say ‘unlikely’, but if I were a devotee of the power of prayer, harm might well have ensued. A widely reported study of the efficacy of prayer determined that there was no difference in recovery rates of cardiac bypass patients between a group that was prayed for without their knowledge and a group that was not prayed for. However, a third group, members of which were prayed for with their knowledge, performed significantly more poorly than the other two groups, presumably because they assumed that if their condition required divine intervention things were going very poorly indeed. This might be analogous to the nocebo effect.1

Anyway, the dinner table conversation reminded me of the odd things I used to believe. I was raised by my mum to be a devout Catholic. Mum was tolerant of other religions, she could only feel sympathy for them; after all, non-Catholics were headed for damnation. What didn’t occur to me then, but has occurred to me and many others before and since, was to query the value of belief in the ridiculous. So that’s the subject of today’s sermon.

After considerable indoctrination, and a quick refresher from www.catholicbible101.com, here’s how I remember the Ten Commandments.

I am The Lord Thy God.
1.     Thou shalt not have other gods besides me.
2.     Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord God in vain.
3.     Remember to keep holy the Sabbath Day.
4.     Honour thy father and your mother.
5.     Thou shalt not kill.
6.     Thou shalt not commit adultery.
7.     Thou shalt not steal.
8.     Thou shalt not bear false witness.
9.     Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s wife.
10.   Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s goods.

Curiously, the first commandment originally didn’t seem to be because there was only one God. One rendition goes on: ‘(For the Lord thy God is a jealous God among you) lest the anger of the Lord thy God be kindled against thee, and destroy thee from off the face of the earth’ (Deuteronomy 6:15). Jealousy, by definition, involves more than two. And promising retribution reeks of attention monopolising. Early Jews were monolatrous, not monotheist.

Violating the first three commandments would cause no obvious harm. They are rather stupid and apparently unnecessary rules, really. But nevertheless, they are at the top of the list. Christ got in trouble for violating the Sabbath when he fed his disciples. A couple of centuries before that, the Hasideans initially refused to fight on the Sabbath:

We will not come forth, neither will we obey the king’s edict, to profane the Sabbath Day… Let us all die in our innocency: and heaven and earth shall be witnesses for us, that you put us to death wrongfully. So they gave them battle on the Sabbath: and they were slain with their wives, and their children, and their cattle, to the number of a thousand persons (1 Maccabees: 2).

Could there be compensation for this suicidal commitment to arbitrary rules?

The first three commandments are, in fact, deliberately ridiculous. At a time when those who weren’t your friends were your enemies (nearly every time before modern secular states), recognition of those within your group and those outside your group was paramount. The compensation comes from un-counterfeitable in-crowd recognition. Those who share your beliefs are part of your tribe. And those who won’t contemplate them are clearly not your friends.

Rules that make sense, like ‘Thou shalt not steal’ and ‘Thou shalt not kill’, are cross-cultural and therefore do not serve to differentiate between friends and foes. So the most pointless rules are, oxymoronically, the most valuable, as far as in-group recognition goes.

As I said, I believed in all this stuff when I was young. It seems that our capacity to learn quickly as children is enhanced by initial credulity. When a young child is shown how to do something with a few unnecessary steps, he or she will mimic the demonstration with the extraneous steps in place. Chimpanzees don’t do that, and for a while their constant questioning accelerates their learning. But, as tasks become more complex and thus not obviously amenable to analysis, human children surge ahead. It seems that a kid’s willingness to accept what they are told, from the rational to the resurrection, is co-opted by religion to bind us to our tribe. And the effort required to stop believing costs us; often, isolation results. That can cause suffering when one leaves a cult, and it can cause death when one loses one’s support system.

Because the consequences of failing to recognise a stranger can be severe, the method employed to recognise strangers can be extreme, as illustrated by the biblical derivation of our modern word ‘shibboleth’ (defined, in part, in The Free Dictionary as ‘A custom, phrase, or use of language that acts as a test of belonging to, or as a stumbling block to becoming a member of, a particular social class, profession, etc.’) Apparently, ‘shibboleth’, which in Hebrew means an ear of corn, is difficult for foreigners to say, viz.:

And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand (Judges 12:5-6).

Throughout history many outrageous (to an outsider) beliefs have defined many peoples. Jared Diamond (in the wonderful The World Until Yesterday) gives some examples:

There is a monkey god who travels thousands of kilometers at a single somersault (Hindu).

A woman who had not been fertilized by a man became pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy, whose body eventually after his death was carried up to a place called heaven, often represented as being located in the sky (Catholic).

Men who sacrifice their lives in battle for the religion will be carried to a heaven populated by beautiful virgin women (Islam).

On a hilltop near Manchester Village in western New York State on September 21, 1823, the Angel Moroni appeared to a man named Joseph Smith and revealed to him buried golden plates awaiting translation as a lost book of the Bible, the Book of Mormon (Mormon).

A supernatural being gave a chunk of desert in the Middle East to the being’s favourite group of people, as their home forever (Jewish).

To this, I append a few of my own, and I start with Buddhism, since it has so far gotten off scot-free.

Many Buddhists in Burma believe that the Islamic sacred number 786 suggests that Islam intends to overthrow Buddhism in the twenty-first century, since 7+8+6=21. This apparently justifies a violent suppression of Islam.

Sadly, desperate times generate even more desperate beliefs. In South Africa in the nineteenth century, a teenage girl, Nongqawuse, preached that if her Xhosa people destroyed their own crops and cattle the spirits would sweep the British settlers into the sea. Improbably, over 300,000 cattle were slaughtered, and the resultant famine reduced the local Xhosa population by about 40,000. Nongqawuse labelled the small minority who refused to kill their cattle the ‘stingy ones’, and blamed them for the failure of her prophecy.

Thirty-nine members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed suicide in 1997 so that their souls could board the alien spacecraft that was trailing the comet Hale-Bopp.

If those last few examples of crass commitment suggest that cults are more way out than established religions, consider martyrdom, the Crusades, the inquisition, and institutional sex abuse, just to use my most familiar faith as an exemplar. Martyrs are a byproduct of strong group identification, whereas the latter iniquities are a pathology of an extraordinarily strong desire to preserve and promote the in-group over others.

In grade six my teacher told me the story of Dominic Savio, who was a member of the Salesians, the order that founded my school (which was then called Savio, but now Dominic). Although Savio died at age fourteen there were, apparently, many indicia of his sanctity, including his ability to remember a page of catechism after one read (plausible), and his ability to be in two places at once (less so). A little research has led me to believe that the latter claim was fabricated by the priest who told us these tales, since it doesn’t seem to be documented anywhere. However, at the time I accepted the veracity of both tales without consideration of Carl Sagan’s (and other’s) dictum: ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. We ignore this self-evident standard since we have a long (evolutionary and societal) history of benefiting from in-group identification. Had I then had reason to question my priests and teachers I would have suffered repercussions. Believing is both easier and more binding than feigning belief.

A couple of years later, after the Christian house-of-cards had collapsed around me, my questioning of the tenets of another priest resulted in me being forced to stand outside, whatever the weather, while religious instruction was given. Despite himself, he did me an enormous favour.

And here I note that contained within my short essay are 83,000 fatalities (not counting the victims of prayer), and a threat to wipe non-believers from the face of the Earth. Next stop, Hollywood.


1I don’t usually feel the need for references but some might wish to follow this one up. H Benson, JA Dusek, JB Sherwood, et al. ‘Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in Cardiac Bypass Patients: a Multicenter Randomized Trial of Uncertainty and Certainty of Receiving Intercessory Prayer.’ American Heart Journal, April 2006.

Consider the Fuhrer

By Elizabeth Pearce

Did you know Hitler was a vegetarian? You probably did – or, conversely, you are spitting at the screen right now: ‘He was not a vegetarian, that is a myth!’ Indeed, type the key words into Google and you will find whole forums dedicated to discussing the Fuhrer’s warm-and-fuzzy or otherwise feelings for furry critters. Wiki says he was one, though (vego, not furry critter). It’s interesting to consider why it matters so much. On the one hand, it throws into starker relief the cruelties he perpetuated on his own species. But on the other hand – and more menacingly – it draws attention to the flimsy and contingent nature of any moral system. We want to draw the blanket conclusion: monster: but his sensitivity (imagined or otherwise) to the lives of some, and not others, mirrors back to us in monstrous form our own hierarchy of species. A question stirs somewhere: is there an inherent cow-ness or pig-ness that throws open the door to these creatures’ slaughter? Or is it just because we can? (The question stirs, but only for a moment. Hitler’s abstinence from animal flesh is swallowed whole by the holocaust, which unites us in our horror.)

The reason I am compelled to consider the Fuhrer is because I am researching Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 film Olympia on display as part of the Red Queen exhibition at Mona. I heard from someone at some stage during the installation of The Red Queen that Olympia is ‘a documentary about Jesse Owens and Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games’. That’s an interesting distillation, but an inaccurate one. The film is actually not a documentary but a highly stylised work of creative non-fiction. The ‘non-fiction’ part is the fact that the subject of the film is, indeed, the ’36 Games; but these events are shaped by Riefenstahl into a form as exquisite as the bodies on screen: these finely honed fetish-objects, fit for the mythical apotheosis of the human form. Jesse is there, amid the other Gods. Hitler is, too.

If you’re not clear on the significance of ‘Jesse Owens, American negro, the world’s fastest sprinter…’ (as put by the commentator for the men’s 4x100m relay) basically it is this: Owens won four gold medals at the Games and was its most successful athlete. Born in Alabama in 1913, at nine he moved with his family to Ohio, part of the ‘great migration’ of 1.5 million African Americans from the segregated South to more prosperous parts of the country. At Ohio State University he broke track-and-field records willy-nilly but was compelled to live off campus like other black students and also was not permitted to patronise the same hotels or restaurants when he travelled to events with his teammates. (I find myself given to the temptation to rehearse these Wiki-facts with tired shock: we’re well versed in the realities of racial segregation but still that reality has the capacity to amaze me). In one day (actually, according to Wiki, in the space of forty-five minutes), May 25, 1935, Owens broke three world records and tied for a fourth at the ‘Big Ten’ college athletics event at Ann Arbor, Michigan. The ’36 Games were set in his sights.

But here, Wiki and I say our goodbyes: Owens apparently ‘countered’ ideologies of Aryan racial superiority ‘by winning four gold medals’, irking Hitler. But surely his superb athleticism could be conveniently explained away by the belief that ‘primitive’ peoples inhabit their bodies more fully – devoid, as they are (according to ‘master-race’ theory), of the need to direct as much energy as whites to higher intellectual, social and moral functions? Apparently Hitler muttered something like that into his moustache as he turned away from the field in disgust. I made that last bit up. And someone else, apparently, made up the well-known story that Hitler refused to congratulate Owens after his first gold-medal win, storming out of the stadium in a terrible huff and going home to fondle his guinea pigs. (Sorry, it’s just that I saw a bumper sticker yesterday that read ‘Justice for vegetarians: Hitler was no animal lover’).

(And on the vegetarian issue: I have recently partaken of flesh – I think some drama is appropriate – for the purposes of nurturing my unborn child i.e. I’m normally a vegetarian but my obstetrician told me my iron is too low. This is the first of many instances, I sadly concede, when my broader vision will be obscured – obliterated – by my desire to bolster in any way I can the wellbeing of my progeny, in some sort of bizarre, compulsive faith in the belief that as my child thrives, so the world turns. One of the caricatures of a bio-cultural approach to human psychology is that we are puppets moving on the strings of our genes – a caricature, I say, because good bio-cultural explanations do not in any way displace the importance of culture, environment and personal choice in favour of ‘genetic determinism’. But in this case, I feel a bit puppet-ish, I admit. At exactly sixteen-weeks pregnant, which was when I felt my baby move, I started to feel near-hysterical levels of anxiety in regards to its safety – I’ve since been told this will never get better, which is terrific, thanks. And when I say ‘near-hysterical’ I mean signing up to Choice Magazine, itself an appalling act, and compulsively scanning articles on pram and change-table safety, and hence managing to be both a lunatic and hideously boring at once. This new me sits outside of me, somewhere apart, totally disintegrated with what I consider my character. I am not enjoying it. The sensation is captured in a beautiful book by Anna Goldsworthy, Welcome To Your New Life, in which the narrator attempts to take her husband and new baby on holiday ‘from sleep deprivation, from hyper-vigilance… from ourselves’. At their coastal holiday house she is horrified to discover a long-drop toilet, a repository – or suppository, if you’d prefer – of maternal anxiety:

Quickly I close the lid, but it is too late. I have seen how you would fall. That moment in which clumsiness ticks over into disaster. The dense plummet of your body; the viscous splash…
The baby must never go in there!

That night, so fearful is she that her husband will succumb to the toilet’s ‘sinister gravitational pull’ and offer up the child as sacrifice to its ‘moist and malodorous’ belly, that she builds a fortress of suitcases around him as he sleeps, so that if he wakes he will rouse her as well. Recently David wrote a blog post about his daughter Grace’s accident which many of you read. One comment on our Facebook page in response to his post read: ‘A very nice example of why a scientific world view can, and does, help us deal with shit of the emotional kind’. This made me feel cheerful because it is something I have learned, and I’d like to think that it has come across to those who engage with what we do at Mona. So, science consoles. Something I have always known, have never had to learn, is that so, too, does literature).

Yes: so while it’s true that Hitler did not shake hands with Owens, neither did he shake hands with any competitor that day. Initially he had decided it was appropriate to congratulate only German victors on the podium; the Olympic committee gave him an ultimatum: shake hands with all of them or none. He chose the latter. Which I find a little amusing. It reminds me of a recent failed attempt at a veiled ultimatum for my husband’s eight-year-old: ‘If you don’t go for a walk with Dad, I might find some jobs here at home I need help with’. ‘Good. I like helping’. (His reward for piercing my pathetic attempt at manipulation was that I let him off the hook, which he would have appreciated because no one likes helping. It’s something our mothers made up to wreak revenge on the human race for the pain of childbirth).

The artistic and historical significance of Olympia is twofold. Firstly, it exemplifies many cinematic techniques – such as creative camera angles, tracking shots and use of non-diegetic sound – that were, for its time, groundbreaking. Its release brought widespread acclaim for Riefenstahl, who beat Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to take the grand prize at the 1938 International Film Festival in Venice. During a tour of the United States to promote the film, she was received by Disney and publically praised by him for her achievement. But there in America, awareness was growing of the horrors gathering in Germany. In November that year, Riefenstahl was asked to leave the country.

It seems clear that Riefenstahl was to some extent consciously participating in a Nazi propaganda campaign, especially when you consider Olympia alongside an earlier film, Triumph of the Will, about the Nuremberg Rally, as well as her close personal association with Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. But whether or not she was really conscious of what she was collaborating in – how could we possibly know? In her autobiography she claims that she learned of Nazi Kristallnacht attacks against Jews from American reporters, and was shocked. The historical debate could go on forever and is not super interesting to me. Much more interesting is the relationship between artistic intention and outcome the film generates.

Firstly, is there any propagandist purpose evident in the film itself? I find it impossible to say. I watched it without knowing much about the historical conditions of its production, and I didn’t find that it dwelled in particular on German athletic supremacy. You could argue that the shots of Hitler looking calm and sane in the face of racially diverse athletic success are terrible visual lies, but they are not in themselves propaganda (i.e. they obscure, as oppose to champion, his true agenda). Secondly, and more importantly: does it matter whether or not she ‘meant’ for the film to carry any special message? Is what the artist wants or intends to express a priority, when considering the value of a work of art to us, the human race?

I made out like that was a hypothetical question. The truth is that I’ve already made up my mind. Artist intention does matter, but not that much. I might not have meant to pull the trigger, but I did, and now you’re dead. The fact it was not a malicious murder matters, sure, but you’re still there on the floor, gathering your own meaning as the blood pools behind your head. In less violent imagery: there is no perfect transmission of intent. The space between my words and their echo in your ear is the engine of social interaction, the imperfection that perfects the system. Reading is always misreading, listening mishearing; art is art, by definition, when its message gets lost in translation. Otherwise, it’s just advertising. Olympia is art, then, and not (just) propaganda, because it takes us close to the Fuhrer, and then onwards, elsewhere. Indeed, that is the power of the arts, to exercise the human double-bind: that we are infinitely malleable, amenable to past and future, but also share a common nature, ‘that which binds us,’ and that which ‘literature [and art] has always, knowingly and helplessly, given voice to’ (Ian McEwan). And it is also to remind us, more urgently perhaps, that ‘no one, however smart, however well educated, however experienced … is the suppository of all wisdom’ (Tony Abbott).