I hate my brain…

Category: Books

Whatever works: An atheist’s view why disproving God leads to no good

Some days ago the world paid its farewell to Christopher Hitchens. That was right about the time my interest in literature and books was being rekindled so I thought why not get to know more about the man. Finally, I wound up doing merely some superficial reading on the web and the entire enterprise sank among the number of daily chores, but one thought stayed. As those in the know may realise he was an avid critic of religion, questioner of God’s existence and the like. I myself had a “problem” with religion several years back, pondering its sense, nature and role in one’s life. Eventually, I went to the other side, became a ‘reverse’ convert and abandoned my faith in God, making diligent Sunday mass attendance and prayers a thing of the past for me. If you’ve read my About section you might have noticed that at some point I even attempted to go further than being a mere atheist and remove the concept of God from my vocabulary. Since that’s turned out too difficult and time-consuming I decided to swing with it (hence About needs a bit of an update.)

On another blog, which has passed away some time ago due to natural causes, I tried to come to a conclusion as to what religion really meant to me. Having ascribed every unfortunate event in my life to being unkind to people, swearing and masturbation I somehow started thinking if it is possible for any supernatural entity to be out there, overseeing and judging all our deeds. The conclusion I arrived at, and that’s the point where the strength of my faith started to wane a bit, was that the Bible as we know it was not put down by God, but a group of people, who one by one wrote all the letters, scriptures, gospels, etc, and then compiled them into a single volume to provide themselves and future generations with a coherent set of rules to follow to be good and righteous people. This, obviously, is a gross oversimplification and the views expressed here are those of my own, just to let the reader know. Anyhow, that was my realisation, which pushed me into thinking “Surely you don’t need to believe in God to have a strong system of moral values and be a good man. Aren’t there any other options? What about non-believing parents who do not introduce their children into the world of faith but still manage to raise them to be fantastic and worthy human beings?”

This point of view grew even firmer in me once I came to the London, where the main religion is money and the god is Pound Sterling. This kind of environment where churchgoers are in a vast minority is a very fertile ground for atheism. This is certainly not to say that I simply soaked up the views of the people among whom I lived, just like in “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” but my arrival in the UK simply coincided with this particular turning point in my spirituality and only accelerated a process which was bound to take place nevertheless. I don’t even remember how it happened exactly but at some point the rational, down-to-earth side of mine became preponderant in my perception of the world. Helpful in this transition was also my frustration with the position of the institution of Church in Poland and how powerful it is in influencing public opinion, which undoubtedly leads to many violations. This topic is too long and complex of a story deserving a separate post but let it serve as an indication.

This was the beginning of my non-believage, about which, curiously enough, no members of my family found out for my four years of being an atheist. This was  down to the fact that I didn’t allow myself to shove it down their throats, mainly due to the combination of moderation in expressing my views and my respect for them as the people who raised me, maintained me and generally helped me throughout my entire life.

And so it went on, slowly losing in the anti-religious angst and turning into widely understood tolerance and open-mindedness. But the departure of Mr. Hitchens actually nudged me into thinking if is it really so important, necessary and desired to do one’s utmost best and forcefully rob those who believe of their entire dogmatic cradle which has rocked them for their entire life? People grow attached to their beliefs not only because what they represent but probably also due to the fact who they endowed them from, they associate certain good moments with acquiring those values. If you grew up believing in something and that helped you do good, be a valuable member of your community what right does anyone have to come and calmly and rationally, with a smirk on their face lay out indisputable arguments why you should be wrong?

There was a brilliant double-episode of South Park called “Go God Go” (and if you are not aware of the existence of that show you must be who Plato got the idea of his cave allegory, and should go and see it immediately.) Thereby, Cartman is too impatient to wait three weeks for the release of the Wii console and decides to freeze himself in the snow to be unfrozen by Butters around the time when Wii comes out. Unfortunately, Butters’s memory fails him and Cartman remains asleep for hundreds of years, waking up in the times dominated by three factions fighting over which one is right as to the answer to “The Great Question.” The main twist of the story is that all three answers are fundamentally the same but are formulated in slightly different ways. That,  however, does not prevent the three organisations from combating each other brutally and ruthlessly. What Parker and Stone try to show there is that human beings have fundamentally hard-wired separatists tendencies and that long-term peace is never possible, and this view is even more reinforced at the end of the second episode. As a kid I had many opportunities to be a front-seat observer for ideological clashes between my father and uncle, father and grandma, grandpa and grandma, ad nauseam.  Dawkins, explaining the theory of evolution in the second chapter of his “Selfish Gene” tells about a spontaneous occurrence of molecules with a unique ability to replicate themselves. And nothing, as he explains, would be so extraordinary about them if it was not for two factors: namely that they just “appeared”, which illustrates that change sometimes is unaccounted for, and even if it is we can never be sure as to the accuracy of the explanation, and that they learned to replicate themselves, which at that stage in the formation of the universe was something astonishingly improbable and somehow illustrated the first, primitive form of intelligence oriented at prolonging its own kind. Maybe the selfishness promoted as Dawkins as the main vehicle for self-preservation which has pervaded to our times manifests itself as constantly proving ourselves right in front of others. And maybe that behavior remains in the sphere of unconsciously surfacing fits, animal-like instincts, until the time when some widely understood education and social grooming helps one realise that it’s not necessary to shout and throw fists every time they encounter a conflicting point of view.

What I’m trying to say is that change is spontaneous. Even if we lived in a world without religion, as it was the case back in the time of the primitive people, somehow, somewhere ideas would start to sprout (as they did,) bred out of desires, caused by void in existence that yearned to be filled. Is it going to be scientifically true? Probably not. Is it going to be harmless? Not necessarily. It’s not very pedagogical to downright forbid. Did prohibition prevent people from drinking? Does legislation prevent web users from download copyrighted content? Do your stern expression and a waving finger prevent your kid from going to your closet to look at pinup girls? Obviously, there’s appropriate time in a man’s life for everything, but curiosity heightens with limitations. It is probably another result of our selfish race for self-preservation, that when we see something intentionally put out of our reach, our automatic reaction is the assumption that the obscured item will help us increase our chance of widely understood survival. And it’s so obvious that people seem to forget it, as they forget to look left and right before crossing the street to check if I’m not cycling right at them. What I just said may run counter to what I wrote in one of my earlier posts, The Tale Of The Protester, claiming that it is that imposed political schism which prevents people from coming to an agreement and ceasing the perpetual argument about superiority of one political option over the other. Here it is important to make a distinction between a rational moderate and an extremist. I see the former as an educated supporter of a particular point of view who instead of seeking differences between his position and that of the others, looks for similarities which allow him to be a mature and conscious contributor to the intellectual progress, whereas the latter… Well, you get me. I believe there is a very thin line between keeping people disoriented as to what to believe in and maintaining that variety in balance so that they don’t kill each other. Just give them their warm and cosy bubble of life-long values, and make that bubble opaque enough so that it’s not possible to see that there are actually other people with other points of view, with other solutions to the same problems, and who actually live happy and peaceful lives. Whatever works, just no abusers, no liars, no fanatics, no money-hungry sect leaders, no close-minded seniors, etc. Live and let live.

Everyone who read Oliver Sacks’s “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat” remembers Hildegarde of Bingen and her “visions.” It was one of the first women to reach the highest echelons of the catholic Church, and to be later on beatified. From the age of three she was said to receive visions from God himself, which she later would put down on paper as pictures. As Sacks, and earlier Charles Singer, admits, those pictures accurately resembled images which afflict migraine sufferers. An atheist would say: “That’s phony, those were not visions, she was just ill!” Okay… and? She was also a composer and a healer, whose faith led to self-fulfillment and happiness. Probably everyone in Poland, believing or not, knows the story of the St. Maksymilian Kolbe. As a young man he claimed to have had a vision of St. Mary holding white and red crowns denoting purity and martyrdom respectively. Being incarcerated in the Auschwitz concentration camp he volunteered for starvation in lieu for a sentenced inmate, to ultimately be killed by a phenol injection. Look at all the God-inspired music, at Bach, Haydn, Mozart, look at all the art, all the incredible architecture you eagerly go to see whenever visiting Vienna, Prague, Barcelona or Tokyo. Does your god-rejecting nature prevent from admiring all that? From appreciating how much intellect, commitment, talent and effort went into it?

OK, this is the fifht day I’m writing this post and there’s tons of other stuff I have to lay my hands on so I better wrap up. There’s never only one solution. There may be one truth, but different ways of arriving at it. I am a proponent of a semi-scientifically-based answer to the ever-pervasive spiritual question of “What is the meaning of life?” Well, once there was nothing, then there was some gas. These gases were involved a reaction which resulted in a massive explosion which gave beginning to stars, planets, galaxies and so forth. On one of those planets started to appear small living organisms, which then evolved into bigger, more complex ones. Then after a long, long time our ancestors appeared and they were confused, just like primates – their ancestors. They multiplied, hunted, gathered and wandered to, subsequently, populate the earth. They developed social codes, conventions, somewhere along the line language emerged. Suddenly they realised that they can more. Their lives and their surroundings grew in complexity. The rest, I reckon, is history. THERE IS NO MEANING TO LIFE. However, human beings realised at some point that in order to make their lives a bit more meaningful they have to make something of themselves. Spend the time a bit more productively rather than instinctively kill for food, copulate and die. The meaning of your life is what you make of it. And as long as you do not cause harm to your fellows make your life whatever you want. We are an indirect result of gas. And you know what else results from gas? Farts. Then, this is what we are. Farts, accidents in the history of the universe we are ignorant to claim we’re the only ones populating it. Just crack on with your life and don’t sweat…

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Akira Yoshimura, “On Parole”

I realised that a book should be reviewed fresh. I finished it on the 25th December but my memory of its details has already started to fade. Hence, I thought that we should fold the Christmas laziness neatly and store it in the drawer until the next year and get cracking with the review.

Try as I might, I could not find a comprehensive biography of Yoshimura. Well, maybe apart from the rudimentary information that he was born in 1927, received the Yomiuri Prize and was a president of the Japanese Writers’ Union. It would be interesting to find out a bit more on the background of a writer whose books are such a good and peculiar read. Having gone through “One Man’s Justice” and anxiously moved through “Shipwrecks,” I was quite happy to see “On Parole” in the post one day so I could see if it lives up to the quality of his other two, much-revered novels. And I must say it did not disappoint!

“On Parole” is a story of Shiro Kikutani, an ex-Japanese teacher who was given the life sentence after committing a murder. The act, whose details we are not given away until about one-third of the book, was murdering his adulterous wife and her lover, before moving on to burning the lover’s house with his mother in it. The story begins with his conditional release for good behavior.

This is the moment we start accompanying Kikutani in his journey through much-changed Japan he hasn’t seen the true picture of for fifteen years. We experience his awe with great concrete skyscrapers, ticket machines in train stations, love hotels in Tokyo. Despite his crime, we get to know Kikutani as a righteous man who through gratitude to his parole officer, Kiyoura, feels obliged to try his utmost best and assimilate within the new reality he was released into. He is offered a position in a chicken farm which he accepts and where he fulfills all his duties diligently. We see him through the process of getting an apartment and dealing with all the peculiarities of it. One cannot help but notice that prisoners released after a long time seem to be in a similar sort of predicament to children, who having lost their secure day-to-day routine of waking-up and bedtimes, meals and spare-time activities, are thrown into an increasingly complex reality with a mounting number of duties, oversaw by the parole officers as their parents/supervisors. Even a prosaic thing like an automatic umbrella elicits a vivid reaction in Igarashi, Kikutani’s fellow inmate released at the same time:

The woman behind the counter pushed a button on the handle, and the umbrella unfolded in front of them. Igarashi’s eyes danced, and he laughed out loud like a small child.

As paroled ex-convicts they are required by law to meet their supervisor twice a month for a casual but detailed chat providing the account of all their doings from the preceding two weeks. Another testimony of this is provided in the part where Kikutani is encouraged by Yoshimura to leave the halfway house (where all parolees are put and which serves as sort of a buffer zone between the prison and the real world) and find an apartment of his own. As much as Kikutani trusts his parole supervisor as someone with a large baggage of experience on the matter of dealing with convicts, he is insistent on staying in the nearest proximity of the halfway house instead of moving somewhere farther away to gain a bit more independence. This seems to illustrate how strong are the relationships of the parolees with their supervisors who act as parents, guardians introducing the newcomer to the world to the real life context.

Kikutani’s story seems to be composed of two parts, the above being one of them. The other, and more important one, is the reason why the entire story happens in the first place. We witness how Kikutani struggles with forgetting the fact that he actually took somebody’s life. The entire re-assimilation into the society serves the role of a therapy, not only of becoming a law-abiding citizen again, but also to break free from the perception of himself as a murderer. This is the aspect of the story that binds the entire plot together. We are guided through the obstacles of his professional and personal life but truly it is his effort that his past remains hidden which he most focuses on, of which we see numerous examples:

– I just wanted to ask you before I start there: does the boss know that I killed someone?

– Of course he knows. I didn’t go into details, and he didn’t ask, but I did tell him that there were extenuating circumstances.

– Do you think he’ll tell other people who work there about me?

or

– Did he know that I just got out of prison?

– Probably, almost certainly. I’m sure what sort of place I run. But if there’s one thing you can say for this realtor, he’s tight-lipped. He won’t say a word to the landlord or the manager. Otherwise, I wouldn’t use him.

As brutal as his crime is, Yoshimura never judges Kikutani, does not evaluate his deed. All that is done through the eyes of the character himself, reminiscing about the event. Whether it’s work, interaction with others, or a simple stroll through the city, initially everything brings the memories of that night. Yoshimura is very scrupulous in describing the process of reintroducing Kikutani back into the society, being very particular with describing his thoughts, fears and desires. Just like “Shipwrecks” and “One Man’s Justice”, here too the author managed to create a psychologically plausible transition of the protagonist from the constrained, gray world of metal bars into the (relatively) free existence in a modern metropolis. The reader feels along with Kikutani, experiences his anxiety, his surprise when a woman leaving a love hotel in downtown Tokio strikingly resembles his wife, his panic when a co-worker asks him about his private life, his pleasure from successfully looking after his pet fish.

Fundamentally, the novel is a story of grief and repentance.  The descriptions of Kikutani at work, moving to his new apartment, shopping, feeding his fish provide the background for what is really the core of the story. At the beginning of the book and in several further points we learn that the primary condition for a man to be paroled is to truly regret committed actions so that one’s re-socialisation can be successful. Kikutani tries his best, just and righteous as he is, to enter the society again, worthy of being able to call himself a citizen. He puts a lot of effort into pulling his life together and reinstating all its elements so that his existence is as complete as possible. However, we learn how hard it is for a man who robbed another of his life to move on, and how much discipline is required to break free from the real self.

Thanks for reading and as a newbie reviewer I would like to encourage you to comment, provide your thoughts and criticisms. Thanks a lot! 🙂

“One Man’s Justice” and “Shipwrecks” by Akira Yoshimura

The therapy is ongoing…

Just finished reading “Shipwrecks“, which I liked. A lot, even. Yoshimura’s style perfectly reflects austerity of lives of the people who are in the foreground of the novel. Without anchoring us in time or space, apart from giving out a hint that the village may be situated somewhere in the south of Shikoku, we get to know the people as leading simple, religious lives, filling their days with working less-than-generous soil and fishing. Almost every event takes place thanks to, for, through, against, and because of “gods.” Decency and composure brings happy life and prompt reincarnation, while the opposite sentences the soul for eternal banishment.

Everything revolves around the laborious every day life of the villagers and their one desire – so that fate sends them O-fune-sama. These are ships, unfortunate enough to have found themselves in the middle of a storm and desperately seeking shore to save themselves and the cargo. The villagers, being fully aware of sailors’ mind-frame while at uneasy sea, light fire under cauldrons whose role, supposedly, is to extract salt from sea water but in reality act as a lure for the crew to direct the ship right at the off-shore coral reef. Once that happens, the ship is looted and the crew’s lives taken away. Grim as it may be, O-fune-sama’s appearance is time of great joy and festivity for villagers as the cargo takes them far away from the prospect of certain starvation. However, as it turns out, not every stranded ship brings the ever-coveted salvation.

One Man’s Justice” in turn, takes place in more contemporary times, subsequently to Japan’s capitulation.  Takuya, a middle-ranked officer from the imperial air force is on the run due to being involved in the execution of a crew of one among many American bombers taking part in the bombardments of Japan.  Having been relieved from duty, he finds out that all soldiers suspected of involvement in executions are sought by the American and Japanese police to stand trial and face possible death penalty. The book is a very geographically detailed record of Takuya’s journey around Japan seeking shelter. He visits his comrades from the army who initially are very hospitable but due to food shortages and poverty soon become quite hesitant towards the prospect of having another mouth to feed. Throughout the entire story he’s being tossed between two conflicting thoughts, of giving in and accepting that beheading two American pilots was fundamentally a crime and remaining a fugitive whose act was a loyal and patriotic thing to do. Traveling across the country Takuya also has to face difficult reality, whereby Japanese girls not only do not contempt American soldiers for their deeds, but openly flirt with them in the public eye. Also, we see how the nation’s perception of those involved in the executions is changed with the aid of the media, from deeming them national heroes to condemning them as murderers who should be given the death sentence.

To me, the first thing which strikes me how both stories are structured. Yoshimura first presents the protagonists in a not very favorable light, to later on, with the provision of some historical background, justify the actions and explain that in reality there was no other choice, along the pattern of “one man’s poison is another man’s cure.” The villagers in “Shipwrecks” did loot the ships and kill people but that was determined by their will to survive, whereas Takuya, being fundamentally a murderer, became one by taking vengeance on those who invaded his land and killed his people.

While “One Man’s Justice” is closer to a ‘conventional’ narrative in third-person,  “Shipwrecks” looks more like a tale or a parable. The entire action is very linear, with no side-plots, full of descriptions of the nature surrounding the village, spanning across three years when the protagonist’s father is away for his indentured service. It reminds the reader of a cautionary tale, where the bad karma always comes back to the wrong-doers, however justified their actions are.

I reckon that both these stories will appeal to readers who are after some non-pretentious reading, with no blazing-fast and dramatic twists-and-turns. In turn, these are full of deep emotional explorations of the protagonists’ psyche in search for rationalisations of their actions. Yoshimura is great at discerningly describing state of minds, and instead of making his plotline overly complex, he focuses on giving us realistic and moving reasons why people are sometimes forced to do frightening things.

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SONG OF THE DAY: Zu – Obsidian

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