2008/04/23

Atheism? Why bother?

An article in New York Magazine, If God Is Dead, Who Gets His House?, reminds me of why I'm so much more comfortable outside the U.S., a land where non-belief is considered so odd it has to be defended. Here in Spain, non-belief isn't a movement, it's simply a very common reaction to the excesses of the Church (or of any church, mosque, synagogue, etc.). Which doesn't prevent Spanish nonbelievers from participating in Church ritual sometimes (weddings, processions), as community and folkloric events. That is, your neighbors may expect you to participate, but they don't really expect you to believe all that stuff and probably don't themselves. Maybe if I were a Spaniard I would feel more oppressed by the wild pronouncements and silly costumes of the Spanish clergy. But I'm not, and their shenanigans strike me as just strange, distant and sometimes amusing. I suppose each of us is most vulnerable to criticism from his/her own native community. It's the pervasive belief in spirits in the U.S. that gets me spooked.

4 comments:

Dirk van Nouhuys said...

Your note reminded me of one of my few experiences of what I think people describe as empowerment. We visited briefly in St Petersburg in the Yeltsin era. St. Petersburg has many churches some of them quite remarkable. I remember visiting the tomb of Marshall Kutuzov, the savior of his country in War and Peace, and feeling quite odd about it. Anyway most of the churches were not used for worship but run by the state as museums. I was looking at the guidebook pondering that fact when suddenly it hit me that I was in an officially atheist country. I had a lovely light feeling. I gladsomely noticed a weight that, as an American, had rested on my shoulders all my life, was absent. Of course there has been some backsliding in Russian since.

That reminds me of an odd story about religion and politics in nearby Lithuania. When Lithuania freed itself from Russia a conservative Catholic party came to power headed by the conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra. They had an elaborate Catholic ceremony at the installation of the new government. In the due course of democracy they were voted out and succeeded by the former Communists, now called Social Democrats. The new government had a problem about ceremony. They did not want a Catholic ceremony because that was the base of their opponents. They did not want no ceremony because that suggested atheism, which suggested Russia, which was bad. It happens Lithuania was the last country in Europe to convert to Christianity. It was the object of some crusades in the later Middle Ages, which meant that the pope licensed some German knight-thugs to rape and pillage. It only formally converted in the 14th century when a Lithuanian Duke wanted to marry a Polish princess, and probably the practice of the mass of the people did not change much on that occasion. So the Social Democrats dug into their folklore books and held a Lithuanian pagan ceremony.

gef said...

Tell us more! What did they do for a Lithuanian pagan ceremony? Play Wagner? Bonfires? And how did people react?

Dirk said...

I think it must have been in the 1992 elections (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Lithuania#Political_developments) and I vaguely remember it form a news item of the time, but I can’t track it down. The music was certainly not Wagner, Baltic mythology is quite different from Germanic, and more important, Germany has been the enemy longer than Russia.

There is an active revival of Baltic religion, called Romuva, which is allied with neopaganism. You can check it oust for instanced at http://altreligion.about.com/library/faqs/bl_romuva.htm and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romuva_(church). And there is is a Yahoo discussion group (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Romuva/).

I was researching all this stuff for a novel I set in the medieval Lithuania.

Here’s another interesting bit of religious – political lore. For a while around the 14th century Lithuania was a big power, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea and including a large part of what we now call Poland, the Ukraine, and Belarus. This little empire included Christians (Catholics, Russian Orthodox, and Ukrainian Catholic) Muslims of various stripes, and Jews, all ruled over by a minority pagan aristocracy. As a result, unlike any other state in Europe, there was no state religion. As a result many Jews migrated to Lithuania seeking a tolerant environment. That led to the high concentration of Jews in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, and parts of what’s became again Poland, which were not so comfortable in Catholic times and of course led to disaster under the Nazi’s.

gef said...

Thanks! Another piece for understanding the great puzzle of European, and thereby World, history.