1 Sects and gods
The most wholesome religions, like hinduism, biblical judaism or paganism, are strong and mentally fresh. Islam, an abstract, otherworldly and sand-blasted judaism, universalized and purged of its local history and ethnic roots, is vital, energetic and healthful, but arid and straitened. Buddhism is languid but clean and rigorous. But christianity stinks of decay and the soiled fever bed, dank, fetid, leprous and subterranean. It was the noisome and degenerate netherworld of rabbinism, apocalyptic, superstitious, spiteful, sectarian, perfervid, poisoned by maleficent spirits, shoddily theatrical, overwrought and corrupted by its idolatrous cult of personality. From its birth it was prey to a rancid and decrepit excess, too many gods, too many testaments, too many gospels, canons, covenants, mountain tops, priestly peoples, apostles, demons, councils, schisms, sects, sacraments, relics, and too much history. It was an anti-semitic monotheism which set up a jewish man as one of its three gods, and claimed that it was fulfilling the law when it was founded on a flagrant transgression of its first commandment. The gravest sin against God is to bow down to a man, yet many people know no other way to worship him. It sprouted as a rotten offshoot of judaism, to be grafted on a worm-eaten imperial roman stem, and then transplanted to celtic and germanic soils.
The oldest religion and the newest science are best. ‘The best wine is the oldest, the best water the newest,’ as Blake wrote.
Revealed religion is empirical religion. Hence the knowledge that it gives is at best probable and not certain, and the god that it reveals is contingent and not necessary.
In an expanding universe God is receding farther and farther from us.
We call God transcendent as a polite way of ushering him out of existence. It’s a halfway house on the road from being all in all to being nothing at all.
We have not killed the deathless gods. They have turned their backs on this doomed and degraded globe.
Who will absolve God from the sin of having besmirched the timeless silence by engendering this blaring world? He trespassed when he made it. So he had to raise up Satan as a patsy to blame for his own bungling. And then as an atonement he had to send his son to be put to death by the victims on whom he had unleashed it.
Did the Lord set this world spinning to amuse himself, and then lose interest in the show? It’s as if he formed us to be his clowns and zanies, and then discovered that he had no sense of humour. Or did he find our murderous antics too disgusting to be funny?
God made the world by withholding from his creatures his own supernal attributes. The creation was his act of self-negation.
If we are to read God’s disposition in the book of the world, he must be like a schoolboy with a chemistry set, who loves spectacular effects, flares and explosions, but has not worked out what to do with most of it. The universe is a sign of what mischief a bored deity will get up to when left on his own for an eternity.
What pathetic need drove God, a perfect and self-sufficing being, to make a world so far inferior to himself?
‘Man,’ according to Ignatius of Loyola, ‘was created to praise.’ How human of the creator, to make a world so that he might wallow in its worship. He must be like a celebrity whose aim is to recruit as many fans as possible to adore him. Is he so insecure that he needs us to prop up his sense of himself? How could a deity that craves our reverence be worthy of it? What man or woman would be gratified by the veneration of a slug or a fly? What pitiful hunger drove the Lord to create beings so unworthy of his love in the vain hope that they would love him? Whether or not God’s existence gives a meaning to our life, our existence proves that God does not suffice to give a meaning to his own. And if he knows our hearts, how could he want or expect to win our adoration? Is his faith in himself so fragile, that he needs such motes of dust as we are to have faith in him? He too testifies that to act is not worth a pin on its own, if you lack the notice of worthless witnesses. Like everyone else, he cares about none of your opinions save the one that you hold of him. And he put up with the fellowship of the dreariest souls, so they at least claim, on condition that they sing him loud hosannas. Does he too get the adorers that he deserves? His state is indeed kingly. No one loves him, his entourage of lackeys curry favour with him to get what they want, and he is never told the truth.
A personal God would be too paltry to be worth our adoration. An impersonal god would be too detached to have any use for it.
The Lord must be down and out indeed, if he needs to seek out the cramped habitation of a human soul to squat in.
The angels have to sing the whole time, since how could their heavenly sire stand their inanity if they paused to speak?
Having brought forth this corrupt world of matter, the demiurge compounded his sin by breathing into it a yet more corrupt soul.
The cosmos is testimony of God’s surpassing power and deficient wisdom.
The world is such a mess, one could well believe that there’s a god presiding over it. His existence is such an appalling possibility, that one could well fear it might be real.
The god who keeps this world turning must be numb to our sufferings and an accessory in our sins. He acts as the stern warden of our prison-house, superintending all the energy and violence that keeps this pandemonium in a roar.
Superstition is an abject fear of things that are beyond our control, which prompts us to a mad presumption that we can control them.
When Adam ate of the tree of knowledge, he learnt that it was the Lord who lied and the serpent that told the truth.
2 Gods and codes
A faith is cherished not for the light that it gives but for its heat. And hatred and acrimony give more heat than love. ‘Men hate more steadily than they love,’ as Johnson points out. A religion of love won’t last long, if it fails to provide its votaries with some foe to loathe. It wins them by preaching charity while inflaming them to practise hate. But the lambs no longer have sufficient faith to excommunicate each other, or burn schismatics, or put infidels to the sword, or plan ingenious torments for their enemies in the world to come.
They can’t love the world which God has made. So they profess to love a God which they have made.
The gods used to do what the state does now, that is, unite us with those of the same tribe as us and divide us from those of competing ones.
We love God because we know he hates our enemies.
God is there to deal out an indulgent mercy to us and a harsh justice to our foes.
God’s blessedness, like that of a tyrant, would not be complete if he lacked the simpering of the saints and the sight of the writhings of the damned. Heaven is the perfect totalitarian state, in which the saved have no will to resist, and no one cares for the recalcitrants who are racked in the concentration camp below.
We do honour to God by ascribing to him the qualities of the type that we find most enviable, that is to say, the despot. Where a governor is flattered for his mercy, you know that he must be a tyrant. Mercy is the virtue of an autocrat, not of an equal.
Mercy is in the realm of morality what miracles are in the physical realm. God lays down rigid laws, and then demonstrates his goodness or power by disobeying them.
God is a devil’s notion of a supremely felicitous being, who has the unchecked power to do his will with impunity.
The difference between God and the devil was in origin one of relative power. Satan was a subject, and so his duty was to obey. God is a king, and so his privilege is to rule.
God must be as innocent as a child, who still takes joy in torturing kittens and demolishing ants’ nests.
The best we can hope is that the gods will care no more about our sins than they do for our sorrows. What deity would deign to take thought for our dirty little souls? If they stoop to that, what small-minded spitefulness might we not have to fear from them? Since God can’t forgive us, we had better pray that he will forget us. ‘O that thou wouldest hide me in the grave, until thy wrath be past.’
If God is all-knowing, then he must be all-pitiful too. But he is clearly not all-pitying.
Even the most devout people dread the condemnation of an unknowing by-stander more than that of an all-observing God.
We don’t blush to do in God’s sight the indecorous acts that we would squirm to have witnessed by the world, and he doesn’t blush to be privy to them.
We are told to hate the sin but love the sinner, yet God whips the sinner through the vast tracts of the next world and leaves the sin to flower in the foul marsh of this one.
Was the Lord corrupted, first by his elation at his own omnipotence and success, and then by his despair at how we broke what he had made? Whatever he feels for us and this sad world, it can’t be love, or his heart would break a million times a minute. Was he dumbfounded more by the resilience of human kind or by its depravity? Having failed to drown it in the flood, he then failed to redeem it on the cross. He found that it cost less bother to make a world than to save it, at least when he had made it so ineptly.
The God of the Old Testament slaughters his foes, and we derogate him as a vindictive tyrant. The God of the New Testament tortures them till the end of time, and we dote on him as a merciful father. They form a cruel dynasty. ‘My father hath chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.’ Who could love such a God? ‘Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell.’ People love Jesus because they believe either that he didn’t mean the anathemas that he vomited forth or that they were aimed only at his enemies and theirs.
God seems to have been an absent-minded father, unsuspecting for most of time that he had a son. It may be he was so disappointed in the milksop, that he gave him no thought till he had the chance to dispatch him to this world to have him lynched. Having seen how he dealt with his own firstborn, we might pause before claiming to be his sons and daughters.
It seems that gods and mortals, though harmless on their own, rile one another like a mismatched couple, and bring out each others’ genocidal tendencies.
The Lord had no choice but to wipe us from the face of the earth, as soon as he found that we share his own incorrigible propensity for violence.
God couldn’t find it in his heart to forgive us for eating his apples till we had splayed his son on a cross. Such is the ineffable logic of divine charity, which looks much like a crazed mortal cruelty.
A religion is a set of precepts for morally and intellectually straining at gnats and swallowing camels. It makes its adherents harmless as serpents and wise as doves.
God alone, the theologians say, has the true freedom not to do wrong. But he has kept it back from us, in order to prove how right he is to damn us.
How the devil must smirk, to see how the sects have spread their smudge over the clean earth. The gods were shipped round the globe like germs, decimating whole populations that had not yet been inoculated against them. Jesus came as a scourge to the first americans to chastise them for their incorrigible innocence. He let loose his fiends on them, to show them in what dire need they stood of his saving grace. How the Lord must hate the sinlessness of indigenes and animals, and prefer us and our rapacity, duplicity and machinery. So he has called us up as his death squads to hunt them from his earth.
When the most high made mortals in his likeness, how horrorstruck he must have been by what he saw. It was a fit reward for his narcissism. If we are in fact made in the image of God, is that not one more reason not to worship him? Would it not be beneath our dignity to bow down to such a sorry being?
God is a flawless being. To exist is a glaring flaw. Hence God does not exist. He is a necessary entity who in consequence has no place in this contingent world.
A perfect being would have to be boundlessly evil as well as boundlessly good, or else it would be deficient in some respect.
God manifests his compassionate grace when he plucks his favourites from a cataclysm in which he dooms multitudes to die. ‘A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand, but it shall not come nigh thee.’ When predestination makes up its mind to set the world to rights, you can be sure that there will be slaughter.
The job of providence is not to make everyone happy, but to make me and mine more happy than everyone else. I would know only half of God’s love for me, if I didn’t see him persecuting those whom I hate. It’s as clear that it is at work when it rains blows on others as when it heaps blessings on me. A god that fails to take our part would be no god at all.
Providence is the power that preserves my life, God knows what preserves the lives of others.
God’s failure to ensure that justice is done in this world is taken to be an indisputable proof that he must exist in order to see that it’s done in the next. We assume that he must have made a heaven above, since he has let loose such a mad chaos down here.
God is an all-controlling but distant autocrat, and we are like those peasants who at each new enormity would cry out, ‘If only Stalin knew about this.’
God’s providence may rule your life, but dumb luck must choose which god’s providence it will be your lot to be ruled by. In the old principalities religion was a mere tool of statecraft. Now it is an outdated name for the caprices of demography. ‘We are christians by the same title that we are périgordians or germans,’ as Montaigne wrote. Faith cometh by breeding. In matters of religion God proposes but man disposes. Divine grace is no match for the feeblest circumstance.
We needs must forgive God, since he so conspicuously knows not what he does. If he had a skerrick of foreknowledge of the consequences of creating this world, he would not have done it. And if he were all-powerful, he would have contrived some means to undo it.
God is a sentimentalist, who weeps for the fall of a sparrow but winks at mass extinctions.
If the cosmos is a contraption designed to rescue castaway souls, why is it so ill-fitted to its purpose? What a world of blood, waste and wonders God has made for us to ply the starved christian virtues in. ‘Did he who made the lamb make thee?’ Why so broad a stage for so paltry a play? Why fourteen billion years of starburst and carnage for a few dingy centuries of salvation?
4 The messiah
A redeemer must have sounded the soul to a lower depth than a mephistophelean tempter, so how could he grant that it has any right to be saved? ‘O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I suffer you?’ Hell hath no fury like a saviour scorned.
Anyone who aims to save the souls of others is lost. A saviour must try to save the world, seeing that he is too attached to it to let it go. Jesus, unlike Buddha, never laughs.
How could we have faith in a god who cares whether we have faith in him or not? And yet this is the sole kind of god that we can care for.
We know Jesus was a fraud from how eagerly he touted for disciples and how fiercely he insisted that we must have faith in him. His personality type was not that of a self-effacing sage but of a manipulative and self-aggrandizing cult-leader.
The incarnation is a more ridiculous miracle than the resurrection. Is it not more ludicrous that the great God should be born and die as a mere man, than that he should come back to life? But we are more impressed that he should do what no mortal could do than that he should have done what no deity would deign to do.
The idea that a god would take on the shape of a man is so flattering to our human vanity, that it never occurs to us how degrading it is to his divine dignity.
A messiah is a heretic and blasphemer come to unshackle the elect from the old sire’s hard justice. He brings the glad tidings that by his merciful intercession no more than nine tenths of us are damned to burn in ever-living flames.
In two thousand years there has not been a single born christian, not even the one who died on the cross. He was too drunk on his messianic calling to be a sober pilgrim. He is each one of us, a frustrated solipsist, God’s loveless and forlorn child, sure that he could heal the multitude if they would have faith in him, and that the cosmos could be saved if it would love him to the exclusion of all else, a self-believer who needs us all to believe in him, one who would curse a fig tree if it failed to yield him fruit out of season, a bad actor, fanatical yet evasive, all the time playing to the gallery and permitting the momentary effect to trump the truths of eternity. If you aimed to follow his lead, you would take up faith-healing, exorcism and millenarian ranting.
Perhaps the true Jesus of self-forgetting wisdom was left in the tomb, when the false megalomaniac was raised up by Paul and the evangelists.
We ought to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt, and not blame him for instituting the cult of his personality.
‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Jesus died in lucid despair, sure that God had deserted him. Then he was raised from the grave by his disciples’ hopeful delusion. And when in this world does greedy mortal gullibility fail to win out over divine despondency? From then he was doomed to live on as the false idol of all that his soul detested and that the world loves, a triumphant usurper who stole God’s place in the hearts of the faithful. The cost of his success was to have the gold of his message melted down to cast one of the most brazen of the world’s idols. He had to lose his soul to gain the world.
When God took on man’s flesh, the sum of all he learnt was that he was abandoned by God.
5 Thrones, dominations, powers
The gods are at their root power, not truth or goodness. They are the creations of our impotence and of our craving for power. We bowed down to them, not because we believed that they were good, but because we believed that they were good for something. We propitiated them because we feared them or hoped to gain some benefit from them, not because we loved them. No matter what gods we may pray to, it is brute power that we covet and our own selves that we adore.
The one proof by which we are all persuaded is the proof of power.
The pious trust in the authority of their god only because they see it incorporated in mortal institutions, edifices and customs. They are led to have faith in him by the pomp and prestige of his worldly assets, his lands and monasteries, his processions and domes and cupolas and robes and mitres.
The gods are one of our obsolete technologies. Having made them to get what we desired, be it prosperity or victory, we have now unmade them, and have become as gods. They are worn-out tools which we have sold to fund our shiny new ones. We have at last come of age, and can do all that we want by our own hand, even bring an end to all flesh. Our machines are poised to seal God’s work of wiping us from the face of the earth.
Theology is the science of imaginary causes. So till recently it has had more real effects in this world of illusions than the rest of the fields of thought.
6 Myth and misreading
Where a religion is inscribed in a book, how could faith be more than a misreading?
The New Testament is true only if the Old Testament is true. But if the Old Testament is true, then the New Testament must be false. The new covenant boasts that it fulfils the old one, but the old one gives the lie to the new. If Jesus appears in the hebrew Testament, it is as one of the strange gods or false prophets which the one Lord warns the children of Israel to beware of. His cult was one chapter in the long history of misreading. The evangelists had to twist what the Old Testament meant so as to make it seem a christian book. Then believers had to twist what the New Testament meant so that they might keep on their false path which they had mistaken for christianity. And theologians act like callow critics, who treat a character in a book as if he were a real person, and a real man as if he were a god, that is, a character in a book. Since Jesus really did exist, how could he be God? The Lord has ceased to hand down new scriptures, since he has seen how we keep garbling them. Like all fastidious authors, he found that his books were wasted on those who read them. Religion is a misuse and distortion of literature.
Fundamentalists insist that every word in the Bible must be read literally, and so are forced to ignore nine tenths of it.
When they die, the gods go back to being what they were in the beginning, that is, to mere literature.
A lutheran must first of all be a literary critic. Salvation begins with an act of interpretation. And since all such acts are partial and provisional, our salvation must be exceedingly precarious. ‘Thou read’st black where I read white,’ as Blake warned.
Is the Lord, like a prickly author, vexed that his far superior first book is overpraised at the expense of his much inferior second one? Or is he like all writers past their prime, who are sure that their best work must be their latest?
Mysticism is a rhetorical genre, which, like all rhetoric, begins with the trope of rejecting rhetoric and all mere words. Yet even for the most god-intoxicated mystics the point of their intercourse with the divine is to blather about it to mortals.
Why did the Lord delegate a rich mind like Pascal to act as his apologist, and then fit him out with the fatuous arguments of a ninny?
Myths are sacred fictions which tell deep human truths. We drain them of their wisdom, when we read them as if they were reports of dry fact. Myth is a form fit for the gods, parables and harangues are for small-minded moralists. The hebrew Testament is a grand and savage myth of a great people. The christian one is the parochial fraud of a small sect. And the only good things in the New Testament are the quotes from the Old. It is a transcript of the pathology of a few fanatics and their febrile time. Like all sequels, it lost a lot in freshness and imagination.
The gods are essential fictions, which quicken our imaginations and curtail our boisterous appetites. They are poetically fruitful and politically useful. A faith is to be prized not for the pedantic and delusional catechism which it promulgates, but for the terrific and stark myths which it breeds. The best were made by freedom and vision, the worst by a crabbed fanaticism. The God of the israelites is the paramount deity of order and uniformity. The hindu gods are unequalled emanations of creative fire and multiplicity. They are the perfect reconciliation of the local and the pagan with the universal and transcendental.
The gods were begotten by imagination, but are kept alive by the shortage of it.
The gods are the hammers that have forged the souls of their peoples on the anvil of affliction and imagination.
God, like all the great anonymous artists, is operant as a tradition, which is a far more precious thing than a mere living being.
Salvation is by faith, that is, an imaginary reward for an imaginary virtue.
A creed is doomed to die out once its partisans start to care whether or not it is true.
Any prejudice that needs to be fortified by reason will in the end be felled by it. ‘To give a reason for anything,’ Hazlitt says, ‘is to breed a doubt of it.’ A faith that could be brought down by countervailing evidence would scarcely be faith at all.
The soul soaks up faith as a dry rock soaks up rain, but won’t soften or breed a thing from it. Faith is sterile, till it has been fertilized by hypocrisy.
Faith is the flag of God’s withdrawal. We’ve had to call on its aid, since the hidden God has turned in disgust from the earth and ceased to speak to us face to face. The Book of Genesis tells the story of his aghast evacuation from the horror that he had made. He left it like a man in flight from an inferno. ‘Allah has created nothing more repugnant to himself than the world,’ according to the muslim holy man, ‘and from the day he made it, he has not glanced at it again, so much does he loathe it.’ How was such a botched and aborted world brought forth by a perfect begetter? How did a loving father sire such a detestable lump? And what gruesome memories of it must turn his paradise almost to a hell. Is he more indignant with us for the mess that we have made of his earth? Or is he more ashamed of himself for having made it?
The two sources of faith are scripture and tradition, and yet anyone who made a study of either of these would lose all grounds for faith.
A sect proves that it is the true one by how many minds it convinces or conquers and by how long it lasts. Its success in this world is what demonstrates its divine favour. We don’t have faith in the Lord, we have faith in certain mortals who declare that they have faith in the Lord. It’s not ideas that we believe or disbelieve but people that we trust or distrust. But who now could muster enough trust in the human race to credit its puerile forgeries of the godhead? Belief in God calls for too much faith in man.
The chief appeal of a creed is the zeal of its believers. And yet when you know what coarse and silly chaff feeds their fervency, you’re apt to be made sick by it.
In epochs of strong faith people were prepared to fight for their beliefs which they were willing to change a year later at the behest of their prince.
Wilde notes that ‘truth, in matters of religion, is simply the opinion that has survived.’ The gods, like all living things, are subject to the laws of natural selection. An extinct religion must be a false religion. Who these days could do homage to the deities of Egypt or the aztecs? A dead god can’t be brought back to life, as Julian the apostate found when he tried to resuscitate the divinities of Rome. We taunt a defunct god like a cashiered dictator, who has lost the power to hurt us.
Like the rest of our productions, the gods are hopelessly mortal. We launch them on the broad sea of eternity, but they sink shipwrecked and forgotten a short way through their everlasting voyage.
Mortals can’t touch a god without transforming it to an idol. Our greedy creeds taint its transcendent purity. Belief turns truth itself to a lie. A god enters the brain, and comes out an idol. A truth goes in, and comes out a lie. The heart is a furnace that casts an unwaning file of fetishes. And the mind is a lush equatorial wild, in which fabulous superstitions bloom and fester. Many venerate the Lord with their lips, but all enshrine shibboleths in their soul. Our mouths gape to praise God, but then gulp down the world.
An idol is an image which lives in stone or wood. A god is a character who lives in words. God made the heavens and the earth by an act of speech, and we made him in the same way. Idols are carved with hands. Gods are conceived in hearts.
Idols are the works of peoples who excel in the plastic arts. Gods are the works of literate ones. Idols don’t last long in the poetic ether of a lettered age. And gods don’t last long in the dry air of a scientific one.
God is what I worship, idols are what everyone else bows down to.
9 Faith hates faith
Even more than reason, faith hates rival faiths, and the faith next to it most of all.
Converts assent with such fire and zeal not so much from love of their new creed as out of hate for their old one. The persecutor’s cold fury mutates into the convert’s crusading fanaticism. No views strike us as so baneful or absurd as those that we once held as our own.
Martyrs die for their creed, which they love more than life, as they lived for their creed, which they loved more than truth. Laodiceans love the world more than their faith, and zealots love their own zealotry more than their faith, and believers love their faith more than they love their god.
A sect that begins by revering martyrs will soon be revelling in carnage. If truth is proved by blood, it can be proved as well by the slaughter of its opponents as by the sacrifice of its adherents.
Why do those who claim to put their trust in the spirit hold that truth is best attested by the shedding of blood?
‘Faith cometh by hearing.’ We don’t believe because we see but because we hear the professions of those who do believe, and then we begin to see once we believe. ‘Ghosts,’ says Scott, ‘are only seen where they are believed.’ Faith is a derangement of the senses. Believing is seeing. The saved don’t have faith because they’ve seen miracles, they see miracles once they’ve got faith. And if they don’t see miracles, then they have no real faith. ‘And he did not many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.’ Thomas is not the patron saint of tough-minded sceptics but of the hysterically credulous, who are able to work themselves up into hallucinating the fantasies which their creed has told them are real.
The sole proof of the Gospels is the miracles, and the sole proof of the miracles is the Gospels.
Miracles used to confirm faith, now they confound it. Would the true messiah stoop to fool us with the sort of shabby stunts that would lure the credulous to greet him as the messiah?
Why have the omniscient gods stultified mortals with miracles, instead of enlightening us with their insight? Do they know us so well, that they’ve gauged what shoddy dodges we deserve to be deceived by? Marvels are an index of how gullible we are, not of how powerful God is. They stun our reason but don’t stir our wonder. If they were real, they would prove God’s lack of wisdom. But since they are not, they prove our lack of brains.
A true genius is at least half charlatan, and judging by the accounts of his miracles, so is God.
Jesus held in his palm the power to cast out devils, but lacked the plain sense to grasp that they’re not real. Anyone now who set up to cure the insane by exorcising evil spirits would be judged insane or else a cunning quack. If Jesus was not God, then he must have been mad, or he may have been both, or not quite one or the other. If he and his disciples were not insincere, then they must have been insane.
God providently sends each age and place the type of miracles that it is ready to be taken in by. We have eyes only for those signs and wonders that we are attuned to. Pagans used to see capering satyrs or the god Apollo, catholics see the virgin Mary.
Each sect is sure that it alone holds the key to life and truth, since it alone is in a position to elucidate the inane mysteries which it has trumped up.
Christianity was a hysterical apocalyptic cult whose first and last miracle was to live on through the world not ending in the way that its founder had foretold. ‘This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.’
11 The church and the elect
The Lord is not a lamb. He is a prowling tiger. To love him would be to be torn limb from limb. The church is his cage, where his keepers feed him milk and clover and see to all his needs. A timid flock needs a tame god.
The pious keep God pinned like a butterfly in the inlaid cabinet of the church.
Divine grace falls on the soul like a bolt of lightning. It chars it but won’t change it. Believers would go mad, if they held for real what their creed tells them is true. Real saints are martyred by their faith. Plaster saints are canonized by the credulity of pious sheep. Faith comforts a tepid disciple, but would crucify a true one. False disciples use it to crucify their foes. It is the good news only for smug half-believers.
A saint is a lunatic inflamed by fanaticism and stupefied by orthodoxy.
The godhead is a vast poetry which we shrink to the meagre jargon of a creed.
A religious tradition smothers the fire of its founding revelation in the foul rags and blankets of dogmatic pedantry, as vain interpreters do the text of Shakespeare.
A creed is betrayed by its most devoted disciples. Would a true prophet be more appalled to be crucified by his foes or to be deified by his followers? It is a fearful thing for a living god to fall into the hands of his or her most loyal adherents.
Jesus could have made shift without the rest of his disciples, but he did need one to betray him and one to betray his message by publicizing a false version of it.
Even a messiah needs a promoter to popularize and distort his glad tidings. Jesus mediates between us and his father, but we still need a mediator between us and him.
The Lord left a lot to chance when he sent his son into the world to be crucified. If Judas was free to act or not to act, then the salvation of the world was a contingent fortuity that might just as well not have taken place. But if his act was foreordained, then God was complicit in the one transcendentally evil deed in history. Judas was pivotal to God’s plan, and yet he was moved by the prompting of the devil.
To save mankind, Jesus had only to lay down his life. Judas had to lose his soul and be damned for all time.
We are a credulous but faithless breed. We boast that we have won through to our faith by a bold lunge into the unexplored, whereas we have just relapsed into the pusillanimous assumptions of our flock. Even most converts reach for the faith that lies closest to hand. A true faith would be a free personal relationship with God, yet a faith can be transmitted only by precluding a free personal relationship with God. If we had real faith, we would have no need of religion. And if there were a god, we would have no need of faith. Religion is a heritable disease. It spreads by contagion, and then is passed on by inheritance. ‘When a religion has become an orthodoxy,’ says William James, ‘its day of inwardness is over. The faithful live at second hand exclusively.’ Creeds last so long, because most people can’t be budged from their conventional allegiances by an inward movement of the spirit. A true faith would be all astonishment, but religion is numbed routine and repetition. Our religions are an affront to faith, and our faith is an affront to God.
A faith begins in hallucination, but soon dwindles into hearsay.
The world takes its revenge on God by instituting religions. A sect is the desolation of the sacred. A faith needs a church to pervert it into longevity.
‘Faith cometh by hearing,’ that is, from mortal mouths, not from God, by convention, not by revelation. After the first divine visitation a revelation is mere hearsay. Faith without words would be dead.
The gods are part of culture not of nature, and like all cultural products, such as language, the idea of God needs to be drilled into us. No child is born with it.
A church is kept alive not by the zeal of its acolytes but by their cold compliance. It is founded by fanatics, administered by careerists, and populated by laodiceans.
We never come to the end of our worldly credulousness, but we quickly wear out our capacity for true conviction. Did God lend us faith as a blindfold, so that our eyes would not be seared by his shining?
A nation that won’t periodically change its gods will find that it has to change the grounds on which it believes in them. God is an infinitely elastic illusion, a single name for a succession of fantasies. Jews and christians pray to a divinity whom father Abraham and the patriarchs would not recognize.
Jehovah unrolled his law to polygamists and slave-holders, and seemed to see nothing amiss in polygamy and slavery. And though we claim to comply with the least of his behests, we now count these as the most abominable sins.
A culture is bound by hoops of illusion, and would be blown apart if it got hold of the truth. An individual may thrive with no help from a real faith. But a state can’t last if it lacks an established clergy and communion, with its seasonal feasts and yearly calendar of ceremonies, its network of shrines and holy places and its canonical rites and liturgies.
To chasten us for presuming to build the tower of Babel, the Lord sent a confusion of tongues. To chasten us for expecting the kingdom, he sent us the church.
12 The unredeemed
We pin our hopes on a saviour, so that we need pay no mind to our salvation. The priest transubstantiates wafers of bread into the body of Christ, so that we don’t have to do a thing to change our souls. If we could be saved, we would have no need of a saviour. And if we could be redeemed, we would have no need of creeds or religions. They keep our bodies busy with prayers and litanies and pilgrimages and fasts and vigils and penances, so that they won’t have to deal with our unredeemed hearts. They prove that our souls were not made to rise above earthly things.
We don’t really believe the dogmas that make up our creed or practise the precepts that make up our morality. By a strange reversal we practise our creed through its rituals of assent, and assent to its morality as a theory good only for some other world.
God wished to hide the kingdom in the one place where we would never find it. So he put it within our own hearts.
The preachers of the good news proclaim the kingdom, and then put a hundred obstacles in our way to prevent us from finding it.
13 Worldly believers
Mortals have faith in the godhead on such weak grounds, that when they cease to have faith, it’s on grounds just as weak. And those who cling to their creed do so because they don’t care enough to doubt. They trust in supernatural things from mundane causes, and they trust in rational things from irrational ones. And the mundane and irrational causes are the same, usage, inheritance, expedience, conformity, slothfulness and self-interest. As Swift said, ‘It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.’
It’s not the incredulous but the elect who show by their frigidity and negligence where their real treasure lies. The most trivial worldly desire or distraction is enough to drive from our hearts the love of God or the fear of eternal damnation. ‘Each day,’ wrote Maistre, ‘even the most submissive religionist risks the torments of the afterworld for the sake of the paltriest pleasures.’ The fiend’s best bluff was not, as Baudelaire claimed, to make you believe that he does not exist, but to assure you that you in fact believe that God exists.
Our worldly hearts take refuge in faith because our mundane trials weigh a great deal more with them than the religious remedies which we unthinkingly take up to lighten their pain. We bandage a sham spiritual sore with belief, so that by curing this we might bear our real workaday ones more comfortably. God served as one of our worldliest fabrications, and the most unworldly faith is made for this world and not for the next. The pious fix their gaze on paradise in order to get through the trials of the here and now, not to score a place in the hereafter.
Where their mere ever-living soul is at stake, people will put their trust in the laziest absurdities, which they would spurn out of hand if it concerned their welfare in this world. The quest for the life everlasting has been one of the desultory pastimes of distracted mortals.
Those who feel sure that they’re at work in the field of the Lord have got their pay in advance here on earth. And those who think that the world will finish in their lifetime don’t seem at all shocked when they come to an end and it has not.
If anyone believed that they were headed for heaven, would they not curse each day that they had to stay suspended here on this low earth? ‘Were the happiness of the next world as closely apprehended as the felicities of this,’ Browne wrote, ‘it were a martyrdom to live.’ But they are by no means keen to loose their grasp on the cheap toys of this life to claim their fabulous birthright of bliss in the next.
Most mortals trust that they will live for all time, since they must outlast the world, or else that the world will soon be consumed by fire from heaven, since it must not outlast them. And they don’t believe in the wrath to come if they don’t expect to be delivered from it.
An apocalypse that’s timed to swallow the earth a second after I’m dead is of no concern to me. If the world does end shortly after I leave it, it will be one last proof that it was made for me. When we have to leave the world, we will find comfort in the thought that it will be losing more than we are.
Our hearts so brim with the world, that they can take in what does not belong to it only by converting it to their own worldliness. They remake their great inventor, so that their faith won’t remake them. How could a kingdom which is not of this world find a place in it, if it weren’t usurped by one that is?
We would desist from hankering for heaven, if we could get our fill of our worldly desires, or if we could at least let go our grip on them. Craving is craving, whether it’s for earthly trash or for heavenly tinsel. Even the search for nirvana serves as one more excuse for clinging to life.
The faithful trust that they will win the Lord over by the mean stratagems that they have used to thrive in this world, and they forge their rarefied paradise out of their gross earthy desires. When they strive to draw near the loftiest, they still have to call on the same shabby manoeuvres that they’ve used to snap up the lowest. They treat the most high as an affable stooge, easier to outfox than the wary world and readier to grant them all that they want. They hope to cheat him with the same toothy self-belief by which they hook their customers. They haggle with him as they would with a business partner. What will you promise to do for me if I take you for my deity? We auction our souls to the highest bidder. Most of us hock them to gain the world. The god-fearing get paradise as a bonus. ‘All this, and heaven too.’
Believers may assert that God is infinite, yet the god that they have dealings with seems a sadly circumscribed being. He needs constant suggestions or reminders of how he ought to act, and even then he plays his part with scant competence.
We treat the Lord as an otherworldly Jeeves, astute and dependable but subservient, who is there to do our bidding and get us out of our mortal scrapes. He serves as a handy adjunct to our faith in our own self-worth.
‘Act as if you had faith,’ said Augustine, ‘and faith will be given unto you.’ That is to say, act as you see those acting who have been at it for so long that they’ve come to assume that they have a real faith. What devious unbeliever could have set out so glaringly the all too fleshly origins of faith?
14 The meek have inherited heaven
The meek don’t doubt that they are due an eternity of bliss with God and his seraphic choir, enjoying the pageantry as each adversary who has triumphed over them fries in inextinguishable fire.
How enormous we seem in our own eyes, when we prevision our souls in the presence of an infinite deity. Faith is a flattering perspective. Our religiosity was a vast cosmic egoism. Now we make do with our vast earth-bound egoism.
Our faith in our own feeble self is as boundless as our reliance on an all-powerful divinity is feeble. And our adherence to our fickle and flighty selves stands as firm as our faith in a changeless deity wavers.
Do pious people show more effrontery in presuming that God loves them or that they are capable of loving him? A god of love is one of the more transparent projections of our own self-love.
God gives us unconditional love on condition that we love him to the exclusion of all else.
The congregation chants hymns more to glorify and fortify its own faith than to praise the goodness of God.
Pray in hope, and your prayers are as good as answered, since the continuation of your illusions is then assured.
The most demure theists don’t doubt that the almighty exists to justify them, assist them, uplift them. Faith is a belief in an entity greater than our own small self which is there to aid and affirm our own small self.
Is the Lord disgusted more by the obsequious truckling of his attendants or by their impudent familiarity? Those who abase themselves in his sight are sure that they know what his wishes are or what they ought to be. Why when they talk to him do they use the imperative mood? ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise,’ and fools have no doubt that they know the thoughts of the Lord. We speak to God as if we were cheeky but irresistibly charming children and he had no option but to wink at our endearing naughtiness. Our prayers are abject yet presumptuous.
We can only hope that God will forgive us all our blasphemous creeds. We will have to give an account at the judgment of all the palaver that we’ve babbled in his name.
The meek love to talk to their infinite designer, as they can be sure that he at least won’t interrupt them. A prelate would cry out in fury, if you claimed that God spoke back to you when you prayed.
Atheists feel sure that they can get on without God. The faithful feel sure that God can’t get on without them. ‘My business is to think of God,’ Weil said, ‘it is for God to think of me.’ What a job for a supreme being, to keep a bill of all our snivelling sins and grudging good works.
15 The world to come
No one believes that they are going to live for evermore, if they don’t behave as if they were ready to die and be weighed in the scale today. But if they don’t expect to die this very day, then they assume that they will go on indefinitely here on earth. We don’t genuinely believe that our souls will live for an eternity after death, because we don’t feel in our hearts that we are going to die. The foremost wonder, as Yudishtira says, is that each day death comes, and yet we live as if it could not touch us.
Each of us is a little town besieged by death, but inside life goes on as if it had never heard of the threat.
Our immortal soul has shrunk to a bustling consumer, bent on reliving its crass fantasies till the world goes to hell.
God has arranged heaven so neatly, that the saved have no need to do good works there. These bought them the ticket of admittance, which they paid so dear for on earth, but which they can throw away once they’ve gone to glory. The watchword of the saints, according to Emerson, taunts the reprobate ‘You sin now, we shall sin by and by.’ Most of the godly, as Spinoza showed, look on devoutness as an irksome burden, which they hope to shuck off when they’re dead and be paid for shunting through life. They deem that they ought to be refunded for painfully upholding faith, hope and charity in this world by not needing to in the next. The banner above heaven’s gate will tell them to abandon not only hope, since they will have all that they want, but faith and charity as well, since they will see their God face to face, and there will be no call for their world-redeeming kindness.
We strut and suffer like players in this world, so that we can sit at our ease as an audience of angels in the next.
The celestial city will need to have many mansions. How else could the just put up with the insufferable virtues of their fellow saints?
How could we presume to sully eternity with our shabby paradise? God is the great exterminator, who won’t want any mortal vermin infesting his immaculate abode. Having seen how we’ve laid waste the spotless earth, why would he let us in to his resplendent dwelling? He’d do well to take out insurance, lock up his supernal silver, and nail down his movables. An hour after we get there, we will have turned paradise to pandemonium.
The next world must be still worse than this one, since it is made to answer our sordid desires.
We hope for a second life, because we can’t break free of our attachment to this one.
To believe that we are immortal is the great blasphemy, since we thereby lay claim to the same status as the divine. When we dared to assert that we would live for all time, we arrogated the prerogative of God, and stretched forth our impudent hand, and took also of the fruit of the tree of life, and ventured to eat up eternity. In the beginning the iron gods laid it down that we must die and return to dust. ‘When the gods made man,’ Gilgamesh was told, ‘they allotted to him death, but life they held fast in their own keeping.’ But now we maintain them as mere rickety automata to ensure that we live for ever. God used to be the withholder of immortality. But now, as William James wrote, he is its producer. We have dreamt up an inhuman and immoral hell, and an irreverent and sacrilegious heaven. We feel sure that each of our paltry doings on this ball of mud will reverberate through the whole of time.
Jesus taught that the self is vile, but that you must efface your own self for your neighbour’s equally vile one so as to gain a reward for yourself in the hereafter. ‘For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye?’ God, who sees the secrets of your heart, commands you to try to dupe him, and to act as if you were selflessly labouring for the sake of your fellows and not coveting an eternal prize. ‘When thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth, that thine alms may be in secret, and thy father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.’ In order that you might be saved, both you and God need to pretend to bluff each other. You feign to hold that you have not earned your place in paradise, and the celestial paymaster feigns not to note that you are feigning. We act out our salvation in this life and the next as a farce of mutual deception. And the entrance to heaven will be an unbecoming crush, with the saints shoving aside their fellow saints in their lust to come first in the kingdom, by pretending to have been the last here on earth.
Godly people don’t much care how many souls the devil may snatch, so long as their own is not one of them. In the struggle for salvation it’s every soul for itself.
What deity would be so careless as to leave the jewel of a deathless soul in the trust of a being as rash and graceless as a mortal? What a leaky tub to stow an ambrosial cargo in. How could we merit or endure a state of grace or damnation? We can’t be redeemed for the same reason that we are not worth relegating to hell. And what should such creatures of an hour do in eternity? Would our littleness not be lost in its immensity? If the next world is proportioned to the breadth and depth of our souls, it won’t be a heavenly manor but a shabby suburban bungalow. The dirty human soul is of all things the least deserving of everlasting life. And if the kingdom of God is within us, it must be a clogged and seedy neighbourhood, never at peace but enviously eying the spoils of foreign domains. The nothingness of death seems a reward exactly matched to our own nothingness. How could our stooped and waxen souls be worth rehabilitation or hellfire?
Most people spend far more care on their clothes than on their soul.
Won’t the sweets of paradise be too fine for our coarse stomachs and too narrow for our roving minds? It has no room for sex or for science. None but an imbecile angel could bear its insipid bliss.
We need a gospel according to Lazarus, to bring to the daylight what he found out in his shroud. But no one seems to have cared to ask him its mysteries, and it may be that they had slipped from his mind too by the time he came to sleep his second sleep.
Salvation ought to be for all, yet who could believe in a salvation that claims to be for all, when most of us are so mundanely irredeemable, and so unmindful of being saved? We have to be herded like geese to a deliverance which we don’t much care for or desire. ‘The fewness of the elect,’ as Baudelaire wrote, ‘is what makes paradise.’
The runners’ running is worth more than their immortal souls. And a few perfect but perishable sentences count for more than the writer’s immortal soul. Their bright achievements are washed clean of the pollution of their life and spirit.
We live as trivially as the gods, so sure that we were not born to die that we can put off life indefinitely and fritter away our time on trifles.
Far from enduring through the whole of time, our souls linger barely till we draw our last breath. Senility is a bad augury for immortal life. Living will use them up as it does our flesh, and at the expiration of seventy years all they’ll be ripe for will be dissolution. ‘What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?’ asked Browning.
If death fails to change us, then we surely won’t have won a home in God’s high heaven. But if it does change us, how could it be we who have won it? Our souls could not be saved without an infusion of grace. But if there’s one thing that this life shows us, it’s that there is no grace.
The damned in hell are accorded the privilege of remaining their cursed selves. The saints must give up their souls in order to gain the kingdom.
The soul dies and is good for nothing. The flesh dies and is at least food for turf and trees.
Cursed by his omniscience and omnipotence, God lacks the two enviable powers which we are blest with, the power to forget and the power to die. Will he have his redress by rendering us sharers in his detestable gifts?
We doze through time, and dream that we will wake for eternity. We die like beasts, and hope to live on like gods.
16 Pagan redemption
Why did Nietzsche, who denounced the nazarene faith for its baseness and decadence, not applaud the dark history which its oversensitive defenders now wince at, its unholy annals of a proud feudal coterie exercising its unpitying sovereignty in the name of a God of mercy and love? Might he not have seen a profane providence in the barren cross blossoming into ferocious violence and unmatched fecundity? The christian state was the leopard that lay down with the kid and devoured it. The prince of peace has ruled over a realm of mayhem and death. Secular humanism has tamed and gelded our kind far more effectually than his cult could have done.
‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’ What vitality could be hoped for from a sect whose sole sacred tree was a dead plank on which a man was hanged? Christianity gave us a few eunuchs, eremites, masochists, fantasists and fanatics. The church gave us Giotto, Dante, Michelangelo, Piero della Francesca. The sole fruitful thing in christianity has been its crookedness, perversity and idolatry. It peevishly damned the world, but the world indulgently forgave and redeemed it. The church has served as the most trustworthy prophylactic to counteract the contagion of faith. It preserved the west from the pale galilean. The Lord showed his care for his fold by sending his church to neuter the christian faith. Then Luther uprooted the prodigal hypocrisy of Rome, and tried to resow the parochial and arid deceits of Nazareth.
Even the most ethereal and austere religion is perpetuated by its paganism, which pays due homage to the multitude of divinities by its multitude of rites. It lives by its dark or gaudy carnality and by its profane superstitions, which are fleshly, local, tribal and enchanted. Like poetry, the gods spring from the soil, and then ascend to the pale firmament. Men and women are such born pagans, that in order to become good pagans, all they need do is follow nature, obey authority, revere the old ways and take part in the rites. But the christian faith so outrages our unspoiled instincts, that it could do no more than bind them to capitulate to an attenuated paganism and follow nature, obey authority, revere the old ways and take part in the rites. But it has now grown so virtuously modern, that it has ceased to be vigorously heathen. The church spent the first half of the twentieth century vainly calumniating the modern world, and the second half vainly truckling to it.
The bright gods were all the things that we don’t dare to be, mercurial, uncaring, caustic, exigent, partial, irresponsible, playful, mischievous. The primordial divinities, more fortunate than Tithonus or the sibyl, were blest with unfading youth, but spared everlasting life. They were too strong to be of help to our feebleness, and so we let them expire. Good gods die young, before they have time to grow old and bitter and putrid.
When the one Lord withdrew into petulant transcendence, what was left to entrance the world but sin? Jesus seldom communed with seraphim, but he was fretted by legions of devils.
We have done our best to drive the savage and the sacred from the earth, and to cram it with the tame and safe. The terrifying angels have been domesticated as chubby dimpled cherubs to sell chocolate.
Art and paganism enchant the world but don’t claim to transcend it. The christian faith sought to transcend it and so profaned its sacred awe and magic. It hewed down the groves, banished the nymphs and the great god Pan, threw down the altars and upturned the hearths, sealed the temples, and dispersed the household spirits. With its maudlin man-god it was destined from the beginning to sink into a decrepit and self-applauding humanism. First the one God killed the rest of the gods, and then the son of man usurped the place of his father. When the one true God took on human form, it was inevitable that humanity would appropriate the place of the one true god. When Jesus told us that the sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath, it was goodbye to all true piety. The mortal animal has grown or shrunk to a baffled god, distracted by joy, or dazed by woe, lost amid the wreckage made by its all-powerful prostheses.
The gods helped to demystify the green world by emptying it of the old spirits. They were indispensable aides in our enlightenment and disenchantment.
To swap theism for the cult of humanity is to exchange a god of imagination for the idol of our self-admiration. Human beings can’t help believing that individually and collectively they are the finest things in creation.
The cult of Jesus was the kitsch of judaism. The church was a plaster paganism. Each embalmed a crude version of creeds and forms whose meaning and majesty they had long lost. And now they have dwindled to the kitsch of themselves. Religion used to provide the poetry of ordinary people’s lives. Now it makes its doggerel. If Bach’s music was a strong proof that there is a God, then contemporary liturgy is a strong clue that he is dead.
Living rites freeze sentimentality, but moribund ones reheat it and dish it up as a spongy nostalgia. The superannuated gods are doomed to spend their twilight years not in a glorious Valhalla, but as pantomime extras in a tasteless Disneyland. Heaven is the attic in which we stash our christmas trinkets and the rest of the kitsch of brotherly love and all the rewards that we hope to get for it.
We frame our faith out of what we don’t know but believe. For how could we bear to frame it out of what we know but don’t dare hold to, our utter inconsequence and the certainty of our extinction and the immeasurable universe with its billions of cold galaxies that care nothing for us?