Tag Archives: religion

Jeremy Bentham Could Do With A Hug

altruism

Hello and welcome to this year’s gazillionth bank holiday Monday!  I hope that you’ve got some lovely activities planned.

Altruism is a very tricky business, and lots of people don’t really believe that it exists.  The philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued that humans exist to maximise their own pleasure and minimise their own pain, and that supposedly selfless acts are nothing more than our attempts to feel good via other people’s gratitude, social status, smugness, etc.  (Does anyone else get the feeling that poor Jeremy hasn’t had a lot of love?  Someone give him a cuddle.)

Bentham’s bleak assertion may not sit well with some of us, but it actually taps into something that we’ve all experienced in some way.  We all know the phrase “nice guys finish last”, and that’s a pretty fair summary of how we feel about unrewarded kindness: it’s not fair, and if it’s not fair, why should we bother?

Firstly, life is not fair, and we already know that.  We’re working within an unfair system where hard work is not always rewarded with promotion, love is not always requited and people don’t always say thank you when you hold a door open for them.  Therefore, choosing how to treat others based on what’s ‘fair’ is arbitrary and a bit useless, and deciding whether or not to perform a selfless act based on the injustice of the world is ridiculous.  “I will not help that small child get safely out of the path of that speeding car, because last week a child just like him bashed into my knees at the supermarket.  Fair’s fair.”  Fair is stupid, so forget about it.

Secondly, if you’re that fussed about getting rewarded in the first place, then you’re not being altruistic.  That’s not a criticism of you personally, by the way: after all, who doesn’t like to be rewarded?  Altruism is essentially being kind, generous etc. without any notion of reward: a truly altruistic act is performed by someone who does not even think about the pay off, let alone seek it.  This is sometimes difficult to imagine, and it can get very complicated when we have the best of intentions: making some we love feel better when they’re sad isn’t even altruistic, because their happiness makes us feel happy, because we love them.  Aren’t we selfish gits?

So it may not be real selflessness, and it may be that altruism doesn’t exist at all, but being kind and generous without requiring anything in return is very important.  This is partly because we all have systems of morals, and the one thing that just about every religion in the world can agree on is that being kind to people is important, but also because it means that we can be proud of who we are and how we behave.

Let’s be honest: showing someone love, kindness, sympathy and support can be very demanding, and if the gesture is either refused or ignored we end up feeling foolish.  I don’t know about you, but one thing I hate is being made to feel like an idiot (largely because I can do it just fine by myself without any help from others, thank you).  But showing someone love does not make you an idiot: it makes them the idiot if they don’t appreciate it.  And why would you want gratitude from an idiot?

If you’re still feeling a bit under-appreciated, I could always make you some biscuits.  How’s that?

Have a spectacular Monday.

Happy Egg and Controversial Rabbit Day!

easter-bunny-2

Hello and a very Happy Easter to you!

When I was a child my parents were extremely strict about observing the Catholic faith.  Nowadays my siblings and I don’t so much observe it as comment absent-mindedly when we catch a glimpse of it, but it hasn’t always been that way.

I am grateful for the thorough religious education my parents gave me, although I must confess that I absolutely hated it at the time, and that a lot of it made no sense to me.  With the exception of a few small things, I think I’ve grown out of my aversion to and confusion over Christianity.

What are these few small things?  Oh, nothing, just, you know…Easter.  I’m sorry, I know lots of people love it, and I don’t hate it or anything; I just don’t understand it.  We have a rabbit delivering eggs – not even real eggs, but eggs made of some fancy Aztec concoction called “chocolate” – to small children.  Let me try to disentangle this ridiculous chain of tradition:

  • Sometime between 33 and 39 AD: Jesus and the disciples are celebrating the Jewish festival Passover when Jesus decides to turn the whole shindig into the Last Supper.  He is crucified, resurrected three days later and has fun for a while reappearing and scaring the crap out of his mournful disciples.  At the same sort of time Pliny, Plutarch and that whole ancient intellectuals gang are going around thinking that hares are hermaphrodites, and can therefore have babies without losing their virginity.
  • Sometime between 100 and 200 AD: Earliest Christians are recorded as celebrating Easter the same way as Jewish holidays are celebrated, i.e. based on a lunisolar calendar.  This makes sense, since a lot of early Christians were converts from Judaism.  Oh, also, Mesopotamians start staining chicken eggs red to symbolise the blood shed by Jesus at the Crucifixion.
  • 325 AD: First Council of Nicaea (i.e. a party of head honcho-type bishops) decide that Easter will always fall on the first Sunday after the full moon following the March Equinox.  Good for them.
  • Sometime between 500 and 1500 AD: Plutarch and his gang’s belief that hares could reproduce without loss of virginity has led to hares being associated with the Virgin Mary, and so images of hares sometimes show up in illuminated manuscripts.  There is also an argument that hares and rabbits are a symbol of fertility pre-dating Christian times, which is why they get a look in on this festival, but I prefer the idea of Plutarch and that lot having their crazy theories accidentally adopted into lore.
  • 1610 AD: Pope Paul V officially adopts the Mesopotamians’ egg-staining thing, making eggs a Christian symbol of the resurrection.  Didn’t he have better (or less weird) things to do in his papal capacity?!
  • Sometime during the 18th century: German immigrants in Dutch Pennsylvania tell their American hosts about the “Osterhase”, a hare which brings those traditional (by now) coloured eggs to good children at Easter.  Some regions of Germany also had an Easter Fox (“Osterfuchs”) for the same job.  The Americans pick it up and run with it.
  • Modern day: Despite the traditional coloured eggs being perfectly edible, we live in a world where things made of chocolate are infinitely superior to all others.  Hence: Easter stuff is made of chocolate.

I hope that you enjoyed your crash course in Easter history, and that you have a brilliant time eating your Osterhase (or Osterfuchs) goodies.

Weird and/or Wonderful

bill-teds-bogus-journey

Hello, dear reader!  How’s your week going so far?

Today’s blog is about how we respond to weird and/or wonderful things that happen around us.  (Don’t panic.  I’m not on a mission to convert people to anything, I’m just curious.)

We live in a very peculiar world where strange things happen all the time, but we call them different things: some would say “miracle”, others would say “coincidence”, a few could say “fate” while many would say “bollocks”.  People respond to phenomena in very different ways based on their upbringing, religious background and even the extent of their experience with strange stuff.  For example, an atheist might be  inclined to convert to a religion that included miracles in its doctrine if he or she had a near-death experience and felt “saved” from a perilous situation.

Some people ascribe inexplicable events to aliens, others to an undefined set of spirits, and some think that we are responsible (but that our horoscopes are essentially dictating our movements).  I find it fascinating that there are so many ways for human beings to react to the illogical things that happen around us.  I have my own (fairly  strong) opinions on some of the interpretations, but I think it’s more interesting to consider why we feel the need to have so many different options in the first place.

Firstly, if something odd happens to you, it’s an incredibly personal thing.  It will be very memorable, emotional and probably quite disconcerting.  Miracles/coincidences/moments of destiny will stay with us for the rest of our lives, and they might even change how we look at the world.  A couple of years ago, I was travelling home via the Circle line when I remembered that a friend of mine worked in High Street Kensington.  I hadn’t seen him for a while and it was lunch time, so I popped in to surprise him and take him out for food.  As it turned out, his grandmother had died the previous day and as I walked through the door he had just been thinking about how much he wanted to talk to someone about it.  He believes that his grandmother was watching over him and making sure that he had a friend that day.  I don’t know whether that’s the case, but it really doesn’t matter what I think.  This was my friend’s experience, and the person who needed to adjust to it  was him, not me.  When the weird experience is so personal, of course people come up with their own explanations: how could anybody else completely understand what you went through?

The second reason that we have so many interpretations is that we are all only human, and nobody trusts anybody else to know more than they do about the universe.  How can they?  None of us have super powers, a time machine or have been to the afterlife (except Bill and Ted, obviously). We don’t even trust people who are experts in their fields, such as historians, religious leaders, physicists and psychologists.  They might have perfectly sound explanations up their sleeves for why the world is weird, but they don’t get complete support from us because how can they possibly know (or indeed prove) that their explanation is the right one?

So our emotions and our sense of intellectual equality prevent us from agreeing, as a species, on just what the heck is going on in the universe.  Thank goodness.  Can you imagine how awful it would be if we conclusively found out what the source of coincidences/fate/miracles is?  That would just ruin it for everyone.  There’d be no mystery left, and no need for science fiction or fantasy writing.  There’d be no Bill and Ted!  Now that’s a disturbing thought.

Have a fantastic Wednesday, everyone.  If you’re wondering who on earth Bill and Ted are, click here.