A Small Dose Of Poison

I’m coming to the end of my three week vacation back home in dear old Blighty (England, and You Can Google The Reference), and it has been a very interesting time for me. Although my family has long known I was kicking against the traces of Holy Mother Church (Roman Catholicism, and YCGTR), this was the first time I had re-united with the whole clan in the years since I came out as an outright atheist. One of the little clashes I experienced is no doubt familiar to other newly openly irreligious.

Dramatis personae:

My mother is an old-school Irish Roman Catholic. She’s no theologian, but she knows every one of those interminable professions of faith and associated prayer formulae by heart. (The creepiest thing I ever heard was when my father was taking his literal last breaths, and Herself and her sisters began chanting in unison some complicated Catholic prayer for the dying. Da Himself was a lifelong IRC so I hope it was a comfort to him, but I don’t mind admitting it gave me the willowing yamtods.) She knows I’m an atheist, she respects my opinion while disagreeing with it, and she’d genuinely love me even if I was a kitten-torturing Satanist. (She’d keep the kittens away from me though.)

My older brother is a born-again Christian, sincere and well-meaning if somewhat unready to question. He’s smart enough to know that he’s not going to win any theological arguments with me, and wise enough to realize that it isn’t at all important that he do so. He takes the good values Christ taught and mostly he lives them, and he switches off his considerable intellect when there’s a conflict.

My younger brother is a reasonable agnostic type who simply doesn’t swallow the unreasonable dogmas Christianity presents him with, and sees no reason why he should be required to get up unreasonably early to praise a God whom reason would indicate a) doesn’t exist and b) wouldn’t require praising at unreasonable hours if He did.

His girlfriend is… well, actually I have no idea what her religious beliefs are, except that she’s not Catholic and she doesn’t believe in anyone forcing others to live by beliefs they don’t hold voluntarily. Quite apart from her myriad other stellar qualities, that alone makes her a fucking genius in my book.

Anyhoo, on the occasion of my mother’s 75th birthday party, celebrated on a Saturday, my sister-in-law had made a big deal of saying that she was retiring early so as to be at (Catholic) Mass with my mother in the morning, using the phrase “We won’t disappoint you,” and asking pointedly whether my younger brother and I would be there. My older brother drunkenly echoed along with it (his description, by the way, from a couple of days later when I gently remonstrated with him about it. Understand, you’d have had to go quite some distance to locate a sober individual that night).

As a result, my younger brother and I, who along with his girlfriend stayed up later with her, were put in the unenviable position (for hours after everyone else was in bed) of trying to talk my mother out of guilting us into attendance at Mass.

Now, understand, this wasn’t a question of us being forced to attend. Mother could not do that, we being grown men, and would never deny us our dignity by ordering us to do anything, least of all in a matter of conscience. No, it was a subtler thing; she would be disappointed if we didn’t attend. Neither of us had been to Mass in decades, and our irreligious viewpoints were common knowledge, but suddenly our nonattendance would be a disappointment.

My younger brother is a plain and blunt-spoken fellow, honest to a fault, but he’s also a peaceful soul who doesn’t want to fight about nonessentials (which, for him, appears to include anything involving imaginary people – a weird but strangely attractive attitude I may take up myself one day). He was very reluctantly willing to go through the motions, having made it clear that that was what he was doing, and how very very reluctantly he was doing so.

I on the other hand am a stubborn, fractious and prideful ass who won’t budge an inch on anything I see as a point of honor. (I freely admit that my brother’s a damn sight smarter than me in many ways.) There was and is no way I was going to make any gesture even suggesting a kowtow toward a God I didn’t believe in and wouldn’t approve of if I did.

My older brother finds this a particularly incomprehensible attitude of mine, by the way. If I’m an atheist, he argues, why can’t I just go through the motions in order to make my mother happy? Well, I joke about my pridefulness but that in truth means owning a sense of integrity; I value truthfulness and honesty above any simple lack of conflict, even if it’s familial conflict. I won’t lie simply in order to maintain the peace, and increasingly I find it difficult even to maintain a partial silence. I find on reflection that I am most disappointed with myself when I don’t speak out.

I’ll always be grateful to my younger brother’s girlfriend for being the diplomat between my mother and myself on the night of my mother’s party. As I said, my younger brother’s a smart cookie, and he picked a terrifically empathetic partner who somehow, in the course of a long late-night chat, brokered a deal whereby my mother went to Mass with my older brother and his wife, I did not but met them all for a token coffee and biscuit afterward, herself and my younger brother stayed home altogether, and most importantly nobody was mad at anybody else. Such a result would have been way beyond my meager diplomatic skills.

Except it was, of course, exactly what the situation would have been had my brother and my sister-in-law just kept their traps shut and not meddled, only maybe I would have gotten a bit more of a lie-in as well. (Grumble, grumble…) So no harm done – except for some totally unnecessary heartache for me and my little brother and my mother, on a night when there was no need for any of us to have experienced anything but joy at a wonderful near-complete family reunion celebrating my mother’s 75th birthday.

Now, some may wonder why we – my younger brother and I – couldn’t just go along with the program, and make my mother happy. It’s almost certainly true that she’d have been happier if we’d done so, but it’s also true that she was (pre-meddling) perfectly okay with us the way we were, and that our own happiness was markedly lessened by the prospect of an absurdly early rising in order to hypocritically partake in a pointless ritual. Even the happiness Mother would have felt at our attending Mass – surely minimal, since she knew of our overall philosophies – is only due to her having been essentially brainwashed from an early age into thinking it a desirable thing, a position not shared by myself or my younger brother.

The point of the story to me is that while religion was not the cause of the discomfort – that being my older brother and sister-in-law’s interfering – it provided a ready excuse and vehicle for it. Even an eminently reasonable and tolerant person like my mother – tolerant particularly toward her muleheaded sons – can be easily led into behaving in unattractively manipulative ways for religion. I don’t know why my brother’s wife became the kind of unattractive manipulator she is, but I strongly suspect that religion was deeply and intimately involved.

Christopher Hitchens may have very slightly overstated things when he said Religion Poisons Everything, but I can attest that it is a powerful amplifier of the poisonousness that exists. It may also amplify goodness – I won’t deny the possibility – but oh, the poison and the stupid! It burrrnnnsss!!!


~ by B.T. Murtagh on February 7, 2008.

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