Informed people live longer
16 September 2014 19:19 (South Africa)
Opinionista Styli Charalambous

Tis the season to be jolly, so hush about the church's lolly

  • Styli Charalambous
It is incongruent that people today spend more time researching what car to buy than they do which organised religion to invest their faith in – and it is an investment, both financial and spiritual. A debate that’s very relevant at this time of year when matters commercial and clerical clash so profoundly.

I have a confession to make. At a recent family gathering I broke the cardinal rule of dinner-table conversation and engaged my siblings in a debate about the furore caused by the Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain and the subsequent investigation into the Vatican Bank’s alleged money-laundering activities.

I use the term “debate” loosely, because when presenting contrarian arguments to “believers” they invariably run out of logical points rather quickly and fall back on the George Michael defence of “just having faith”.

Be that is it may, I posed the question whether the British backlash to the Pope’s visit and investigation in to the Vatican Bank’s activities would herald the beginning of the end of blind faith in Catholicism and Western religion in general. I generally tend not to stir this little hornets’ nest, but I was in the UK at the time of the Pope’s visit and was surprised to see the amount of negative press and public backlash that arose. And it set me thinking about religion and the propaganda that had been peddled to me over the years.

When the Pope was due to speak, almost as many people marched in protest against his visit as those who went to see the holy MC spin his decks, live in Hyde Park. Critics of the visit were up in arms over the fact that more than £12 million of taxpayers’ money was being used to host the Pope on a state visit (in a time of recession, no less), when only 12% of the UK’s population are church-going people and an even a smaller fraction are Catholics. The holy chosen one did himself no favours when he immediately expressed concern at the disturbing increase of support for the “aggressive secular movement of atheism” which he felt was unjustifiably attacking the Christian faith. I felt at this point someone should have pointed out to him that the atheists were only using words instead of the swords the Crusaders used on non-believers in the middle ages.

Adding to the controversy of the visit was the Catholics church’s poor record on sexual abuse of minors, the refusal to allow female priests to practice, the outdated notion of opposing the practice of birth control and refusal to advocate the use of condoms in the fight against Aids.

What gets me wound up more than anything else about religion is the hypocrisy it seems to breed. For example, most Catholics I know vehemently oppose all these public policies of their church, yet continue to blindly support the church without question. Years of propaganda and preaching the mantra of conformism are the tried-and-tested mechanisms that ensure dissension in the ranks is kept at bay. Presumably, believers should be seen and not heard.

Throw in a dose of particularly dodgy Vatican banking history, that now includes allegations of money laundering, and I wondered aloud whether people would now see through the indoctrination of religion and start asking serious questions of their chosen faith and not candidly accept what is being preached from the pulpit. Adding further credence to my arguments was the church’s condemnation of the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Medicine to Robert Edwards, creator of the test-tube baby. I could almost see the Vatican spokesman waving his crooked little finger (no altar boy jokes please) in the air shouting at us to stop playing God.

Reading the church’s objection, I couldn’t help but feel this was an institution stuck in the dark ages, with a business model hopelessly outdated and sales material in need of a serious overhaul.

Now before I get tagged as a Catholic basher, I did, as an Easter-and-Christmas member of the Greek Orthodox Church, also question some of its practices. Top of my list of grievances is the need for this church to make profits. Is the church’s ownership of bowling alleys, cinema chains, breweries and distilleries really going to help me get into heaven? Is the hoarding of gold and the ownership of land really the best use of my donations to help spread the business, er, word of God? And do priests really need to drive the latest model Land Rovers to get around?

To see the full splendour of the economic mastery of the Greek Orthodox church in action, one only needs to read Michael Lewis’s account on the scandal of the Vatopaidi monastery, as reported in Vanity Fair. By abusing the position of the church and with the collusion of a corrupt government, a couple of Bin-Laden-bearded monks managed to fraudulently accumulate a commercial real estate portfolio valued at billions of euros. All this made possible because of the perception of a compliant congregation of the church.

The repercussions of the monastery’s economic malpractices were so grave that, in January 2008, the scandal brought down the presidency of the time in debt-stricken Greece. Not a bad effort for a few good men of the cloth who would make our own sushi-eating tenderpreneurs appear decidedly amateurish.

I still believe some of the objectives of religion are admirable. The erection of schools, food programmes for the poor and the establishment of care facilities for the sick and elderly are just some that spring to mind. As a cultural cornerstone and communal gathering place and dare I say it, moral compass, religion is not all bad. My issue is rather with the methods religious institutions employ to get people to, yes, let’s say it, give them more money. Strike the fear of God and eternal damnation into people, so they can purchase what is effectively an insurance policy? One where there is no way to check whether the underwriter will deliver when it comes to claim time. If only Old Mutual had it so lucky: collect the premiums and never have to pay out.

Am I really expected to believe someone turned water into wine, walked on water, hoarded all the animals in the world on a boat for 40 days and parted a body of water the size of Madagascar? Imagine for a moment, if someone made all those claims today. We wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to have him committed. Even David Copperfield, who I saw walk through the Great Wall of China on live TV, doesn’t proclaim to be the Son of God, and he performed way cooler tricks than the late JC.

There are so many biblical inconsistencies with archaeology and science and yet we are supposed to accept these fable-like stories without question. Evolution and dinosaurs are facts of life yet somehow don’t seem to enter any religious equations and sermons. As Toby Shapshak so eloquently put it at The Gathering conference: “God created all the animals of this world, but just forgot to tell us he put the dinosaurs there.”

And when last did you read the Bible as an adult, cover to cover? I decided I wanted to see just how different my take on things would be, compared to my childhood perceptions of the holy book. The first 20 pages read like something put together by the editorial team of The Sun newspaper. Murder, attempted homosexual rape and drunken incest soon made me realise exactly why Ms Stokes skipped over these passages in the Grade 3 Bible class. Imagine what young, impressionable mini-me  would have thought of religion if I read a passage that attempted to condone incest.

So when I put all these facts and arguments together I can’t but question the motives of a society that has out-of-date policies and won’t tolerate criticism of some of its sales material, that is quite clearly false. For a book that is supposedly the direct word of the omnipresent, all-knowing CEO in the sky, there is just way too much inconsistency with what we know to be true today, to believe that it isn’t just a collection of man-made stories. Stories told to ensure people conformed. And paid over their donations.

As you can imagine, I wasn’t the most popular guest at this particular gathering of my family. And I soon realised why so many people sidestep issues of politics and religion, because getting stabbed  with a blunt butter knife is not fun.

In future, I will consider refraining from upsetting my siblings with this crazy notion of asking logical questions about something as important as faith. I doubt that will be the status quo for long, however; most people will continue to do more research on buying a car than choosing a religion. DM

  • Styli Charalambous
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With a high-school prize for best supporting actor in a one-act play and as captain of the chess team, Charalambous qualified to join the esteemed ranks of the Daily Maverick opionionistas.

After being expelled from the halls of finance houses for possessing an inkling of wit, this budding entrepreneur spends his days bird watching and writing subtle, yet moving social commentary pieces for South Africa’s bastion of journalism excellence (that’s The Daily Maverick, in case you were wondering).

Having escaped the Port Elizabeth mis-education system, Charalambous now resides in Joburg and can often be spotted quality-control testing the water in many of the city’s watering holes.

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