In terms of a public figure well practiced in the art of reinventing a good argument, the late, great Christopher Hitchens was second to none.
I’ve no doubt I would have enjoyed his inevitable column, following the recent news that the Vatican had elected a new Pope. Hitchens was a staunch atheist, and passionately outspoken about Catholicism. Who knows what his particular narrative on the appointment of Pope Francis would have been last week?
Having watched countless hours of him in action on youtube – Hitchens that is, not the new Pope – I used to find myself, for the first time, understanding the type of lure and addiction that those with strong religious faiths must experience when in front of their local preacher. The same, only with Hitchens’ flavour of persuasion being that of the anti-theist, promoting instead the vital role that the arts, science, and disciplines such as free-thinking play in society.
Hitchens was an expert in putting perspectives forward without prejudice (most of the time, bar, to be fair, several highly amusing clips where he lost his patience and wiped the floor with the unfortunate rabbi or academic sat opposite him).
He used to deal with the facts of the issue, as opposed to the beliefs, hopes and fears from which, often, those who believe in a religious omnipresence centre their faith.
To have a “faith” of any description was not the issue for him. It was because of how some religious people chose to behave and use their particular faith – negatively, and very often at the misfortune of others – which saw Hitchens go to great lengths to highlight and, over his distinguished career as an international writer and political commentator, debate.
That so much of my current job for CARE International looks at statistics, to help highlight issues – the percentage of the world’s rich, the percentage of poor, of vulnerable, malnourished, of those exposed to the risks of climate change, those facing social exclusion, without access to basic services (I could go on) – I am not sure why, but it really struck me when I read last week that as many as 1.2 billion people on the planet are Catholic.
Perhaps it is the thought that this sizeable population figure actually describes a “cross-border” footprint of fellow humans. Living as they do in every country of the world (pretty much), joined in sentiment, and between them representing the same, or similar, set of values and beliefs.
This feels and has the potential, on the surface of it, to be a very powerful cohort of hearts and minds.
And, of course, this is exactly why so many people, as Christopher Hitchens did, rally against the extreme impacts of the Catholic church – the ‘powerful cohort’ indeed that it might be, capable of doing “good” but also, and as seen with other religious movements, capable of inciting wars, and popping up time and again throughout history as an underlying cause of social unrest.
Whilst many hundreds of millions of Catholics will continue in their celebrations of Pope Francis (also the first Pope to hail from Latin America, which is a coup in itself) there are likely to be many other Catholics feeling quite the opposite. Those, for example, whose faith desires no more than the odd quiet moment to contemplate life, safe enough in the knowledge that they don’t need to attend church, pray, nor overly worry about an after-life.
They believe in something “out there”, perhaps something spiritual, but I imagine they aren’t motivated to google Pope Francis and read up on his CV.
So, to what extent does the 1.2 billion following actually follow anything, or something, at all?
And is there a hierarchy to consider in terms of with which particular cohort in life we should attach ourselves and be schooled in? A political party? A religion? Where should we start? The arts, science, philosophy, human interest groups, gender specific institutions? Or, should it actually be enough to be educated by life’s “School of Hard Knocks,” in order for each of us to have purpose, drive, direction?
Living in Vietnam, a largely ‘neutral ‘nation in terms of religion, with no main faith group dominant, has offered some refreshing and new societal ‘norms’ to which I am growing accustomed. The lack of religious undertone in Saigon, and elsewhere around the country, is very apparent.
This is not to say that life in Vietnam, and people’s well-being and motivations, are “better” than in other countries. It is more a learning about how – here – peoples’ choices are prioritised, made, and responded to. Cultural practices, superstitions, family oriented principles, good humour, saving “face”. These are all things which characterise the Vietnamese much more than their political or religious preferences.
Which doesn’t always mean how people conduct themselves over here makes any sense to me at all! On the contrary. I am often left completely flummoxed by the daily Saigon scene, and the laugh-out-loud funny moments which ensue (as I have written about in the past)…
What some of this makes me question, however, is just what it is that really matters when you are comparing people’s lives? Where should you place your value when the subject matter is someone else you have never met before?
Who is ultimately ‘right,’ and what might be ultimately ‘wrong,’ become less meaningful for an Englishman living in Vietnam. Things get lost, in literal as well as in cultural, translation. And it is the same the world, and people, over.
Instead – surely – our emphasis must be on the spiritual capabilities we all have.
Not in the religious sense of the word, but in that less tangible, but wholly powerful way in which, intuitively, the best choices we can make in life, each day, are drawn from a combination of heart, mind and soul – helping us see from the inside, out – no matter what our faith, our class, our ethnicity, our gender or our wealth.
And, as we know, it is our our actions and not our thoughts, which define us.
That in itself, it would seem to me, is not a bad mantra to follow.