Lessons from Life 11: People first

I have learnt over the course of my life to reject ideologies and ‘principles’ that take precedence over people. Political, epistemological and religious ideologies that are only interested in their own perpetuation and not about improving the lot of the maximum number of individuals have no intrinsic value. Consequently, and as Paul Simon once put it, I stand alone without beliefs. Largely so, anyway, though of course no one is entirely without belief; what I mean is that I don’t subscribe to any particular ideology.

While politically left of centre, I can’t honestly say I’m a socialist, never mind a communist. Those packages don’t interest me; they have caused, in their own way, too much damage for those they claim to champion. I don’t stand to the right either. As a slogan that was around in my formative years said, society is about ‘people, not profits’. And there is such a thing as society, despite Margaret Thatcher’s disastrous declaration that there isn’t.

Similarly, and in spite of its claims, Christianity does not put people first. They come a long way behind the ideology’s central preoccupations: defending indefensible doctrine, preserving the honour of imaginary beings and, impossibly, having a ‘relationship’ with them. As Richard Dawkins first pointed out in his 1991 essay, ‘Viruses of the Mind’, religion behaves like a contagion that is only interested in spreading itself. It has a willing and effective transmission system in those already infected and has no time for those in whom a new infection doesn’t take. As it has done from the beginning, those who suffer from the virus immediately take to demonising those who are able to resist it. Religion, despite its fine talk about loving neighbours, always creates division and strife: Us and Them, them being the lost, the obstinate, the apostate and, worst of all, the degenerate. Here’s how the strident but tawdry Reformation Charlotte Christian blog referred recently to LGBT people, who, damn them, just won’t leave their deviant ways and let the virus in: 

Of course, nobody – literally, nobody – can walk away from the Scriptures and come away with the understanding that God is fine with men committing shameless acts with men and women giving up the natural relations for those that are contrary to nature (Romans 1:26-27). This is nothing more than an assault on God’s design for humanity by those who hate God and seek to justify their wickedness. But God has words for them – and he will not be mocked.

An ideology that views other people like this is not one worthy of anyone’s time or attention. It is an ideology for those unable to reason for themselves, who have a pathological need to feel ‘righteously’ superior, a condition achieved, despite what its founder may have said, by disparaging others. It needs to be allowed to die like the nasty infection it is. Christianity isn’t, of course, the only virus of this sort; all those that think more of supernatural beings and exclusionary condemnatory ‘principles’ than they do of real people are equally unhealthy. Like every cult leader before and since, the founders of both Christianity and Islam are made to insist that you love them much more than you love your parents, your children or anyone else. How’s that for wickedness?

If Onlys


If Grace hadn’t gone to the dance that night, she’d never have met Johnny.

If she’d never met Johnny, then they wouldn’t have married.

And if they hadn’t married, they would never have had Jean.

If her parents hadn’t then moved to Chester, Jean would never have met Graham.

If Jean had never met Graham, she would never have married him.

If she’d listened to her mother, she wouldn’t have married him.

But if Jean hadn’t married Graham, they would never have had Paul.

If Graham hadn’t married Jean, he couldn’t have left her, and Paul, for Samantha.

If Graham and Jean hadn’t had Paul, then he wouldn’t, later, have gone to the party where he met Anne.

If he hadn’t have met Anne, he couldn’t have married her.

If he hadn’t married her, he might have been happy.

But if he hadn’t married Anne, they wouldn’t have had Tom and Katherine.

And Tom and Katherine wouldn’t have produced Holly and Laurel and John.

If only, he thinks – Paul thinks – if only all of these if’s hadn’t come to pass. If only Grace hadn’t gone to the dance; if only she hadn’t met Johnny; if only they hadn’t married; if only they hadn’t had Jean; if only Jean hadn’t met Graham; if only she’d listened to her mother; if only Jean and Graham hadn’t got married; if only they hadn’t had Paul… then he, Paul wouldn’t exist. And if that were so, he sometimes thinks, things might somehow be have been better. Not for Tom and Katherine, Holly, Laurel and Mark obviously, because they wouldn’t exist. But then, they’d never know. That’s the trouble with if onlys.


If only the Colonel hadn’t taken power, then the rebels might not have started the war.

If the rebels hadn’t started the war, the Colonel might not have retaliated with such ferocity.

If only he had not retaliated, the people might not have found themselves in the incessant cross-fire.

If the people had not found themselves in the cross-fire, then surely, not as many of them would have been killed.

If only Alya hadn’t thought she could reach the market before the next air strike.

If only the air strike had started after she had reached the rubble on the other side of the street.

If only Alya had survived the air strike, then she would have had the chance to study, once the fighting had finally stopped.

If she had survived the strike, she would, eventually, have married Malik.

If she had married Malik they would have produced Tariq and Kaley.

And they would have produced Hanah and Leila and Jamil.

If only Alya had survived the air strike.

But she did not.

That’s the trouble with if onlys.


Lessons from Life 10: Probably

Death and taxes aside, nothing is certain. It isn’t certain there’s no God and no after-life. It isn’t certain that we’ll enjoy the average life expectancy or even that we’ll still be here this time tomorrow. It’s possible that these things are the case. The last two scenarios may even be probable.

This is the best we can do. Statistically and on the basis of the evidence, it’s probable there is no God (or improbable that there is, if you prefer it that way round.) It’s likely, again mathematically and provided other conditions are met, that you’ll live to the average life expectancy age in the Western world (if that’s where you’re reading this.) More people live to that age and beyond than don’t. It doesn’t mean you or I will. It just makes it more likely; statistically probable. On that basis, it’s probable, but not certain, you’ll be here tomorrow.

Reality operates on probabilities. Possibilities are more of a gamble, which is not to say probabilities aren’t, but possibilities are, quite literally, chancier. That just how it is, however we might wish otherwise, however much misguided religious zealots might declare otherwise. Probably.

The Pearl: an allegory

The old man lived alone on the edge of the forest. His family had all grown and left home and his wife had died many years ago. He was used to being on his own; he liked being on his own. In his solitude he would often recall the strange wild-haired speaker of words who had visited the village when he was a youth. This speaker of words spoke of a pearl of great price that was waiting to be found, and when it was, he said, the one who sought it would know it for what it was and would abandon all else to possess it. And the old man, when he was a young man, thought he would like to own this great pearl. With it he would be rich beyond his dreams and all of his troubles would come to an end.

Hardly a day passed that he did not think about the pearl of great price. Hardly a week went by that he did not look for it, on his travels into the wide world beyond the village. He began to neglect his family and his other possessions in pursuit of the pearl but alas, after many years he still had not cast eyes upon it. There were, it was true, times when he thought he had caught a glimpse of it and even occasions when treasures of a different sort came into his possession, but these were not the great pearl. He could not rest until he had found it and so he spent years of his life looking for it.

But once he was old, he gave up the search. Moving around was not as easy as it once was and though he had not forgotten the promise of the great pearl, he no longer believed it could be found. He doubted even that it existed and he began to curse the one who had told of it, all those years ago. So the old man lived alone, tending his crops, and fetching water from the well. He spoke when spoken to by those in the village, whenever he had cause to go there, but otherwise, he lived his life in quiet, remorseful isolation.

Until there came a time when, as the cold chill of winter crept over the land once more, he ventured into the forest to collect firewood. There was little to be had in the parts he knew well so he went deeper in, beyond the familiar sights and into the heart of the forest’s darkness. He soon became lost and casting around for a way out, he spied a light in the gloom ahead. As he stumbled towards it, the light shone more brightly, until, finally he reached a clearing in which sat a young man. Arrayed in white, his raiment shining like the sun, the young man raised dark piercing eyes and though he did not know why, the old man’s thoughts turned unbidden to the pearl for which he had once so earnestly searched. As if reading his mind, the young man rose and spoke:

‘That which you seek is here,’ he said in a voice not of this world.

‘I have sought the pearl these many years, my Lord,’ said the old man, a tear falling from his eye. ‘It is not to be found.’

‘You are wrong,’ said the young man. He was tall and dark and possessed of a presence the old man had not encountered since his youth. The boy stretched out his arm and opened his hand to reveal a glowing silver orb that seemed as if it were floating freely in the air. ‘It is here,’ he said.

The old man wiped away tears that now fell freely and stepped forward, reaching for the pearl. ‘Remember, my friend,’ warned the young man, ‘that whoever lays hold of the pearl forsakes all else.’ The old man would not have wished it other. Through the brilliance that emanated from it, he laid hold of the pearl and was, in that instant, consumed by the light. Every thought, every care, every sorrow and every regret that he had ever had was burnt away and he was transformed. No longer himself he was yet more himself than he had ever been.

While the shadows of trees filled the clearing, the darkness enveloped all. Of the old man and the young man and the pearl of great price there was no sign.