degrading love — part one | how religions distort ‘love’ [cc]


‘I love you’ This simple phrase, expressed
in countless languages down the centuries has performed many roles.
It’s served as a lovers’ mantra; an affirmation of family bonds;
a sex-worker’s roleplay; an emotional blackmailer’s weapon;
a domestic abuser’s justification; a celebrity’s message to fans;
a stalker’s confession; a songwriter’s lyric
…. to name just a few. Clearly, what lies behind a declaration of
love isn’t always love. The proof of the pudding is in the eating and we shouldn’t let a little sugar-coating
trick us into accepting an inferior product. Of the declarations of love
I’ve received in my time a substantial percentage share a peculiar distinction in that they were supposedly made on behalf
of the most loving beings ever to exist. Beings whose love supposedly
sets the diamond standard. Beings called gods. In view of these extravagant claims, it’s reasonable to expect a model of love
that surpasses anything even the most benevolent human being could offer. Instead, we find a phenomenon that in its most innocuous form inspires conflict
just as effectively as comfort, and at its most lethal, is underpinned by corruption, oppression, negation,
narcissism, enslavement and delusion. Folks who’ve approached me over the years
with promises of their god’s love have responded in various ways
when I’ve declined their offer. Some have acknowledged my rejection respectfully. Others have suggested
I must be ‘damaged’ in some way, expressing hopes that I might someday be ‘healed’. Others have nosedived into zealot mode criticising my ingratitude for what seems
to them the most precious gift. In these two videos, I want to set out my
reasons for rejecting this apparent gift explaining why all of us
— including them — deserve better. At school, I belonged to a group
called Christian Union. Besides Bible reading and prayers
to the Christian god Yahweh activities included other
playful, improvisational exercises. I remember two sessions that
focussed specifically on Yahweh’s love. The first one united the group in seemingly
unstoppable enthusiasm. The second was a disaster, creating huge tension
and leaving the group confused and fragmented. In the first session,
one of the teachers, Ms Chapel wrote on the blackboard the unfinished sentence
‘God’s love is like ….’ We were all invited to complete the analogy.
There was an avalanche of answers. ‘God’s love is like an elevator
— it lifts you up.’ ‘God’s love is like a volcano
— hot and explosive.’ ‘God’s love is like the sun
— it lights up the world.’ ‘God’s love is like a rock
— it’s solid and reliable.’ And so on. High praise indeed. And yet not a single one of us had ever
experienced Yahweh or his love — a fact that was admitted months later when I pressed the whole group
for details about their experiences. So how could we produce
this stream of glowing analogies? The term ‘creation ex nihilo’ is often
used in reference to the belief that the universe was fashioned
from nothing by gods. But, in a universe devoid of detectable gods,
the term applies in reverse. We have to create gods from nothing.
We have to animate absence. How this is done is no mystery. We see the same principles
in action after bereavements. When loved ones die many of us continue to behave ‘as if they’re with us.’ We talk about them. We talk to them. We reflect on physical reminders of them. When we do these things
with enough frequency and focus the ‘as if’ seems to fade, and we can
lull ourselves into a powerful fantasy that they are indeed with us. What we’re really doing
is keeping our memories vividly alive. We use exactly the same methods
to breathe life into non-existent deities. We keep physical reminders of them to reflect on. We talk to them in prayer — in some religions, this is required several
times every day, maintaining frequency and focus. And lastly, we talk about them. But here, there’s a problem. We have absolutely no memories to draw on. It’s no good pointing to some
wizened old deity in a dusty old book, depicting some bygone magical epoch
when stupefying public miracles, angelic visitations and even divine interactions were commonplace. Plainly, we don’t live in that world. We see no grand suspensions of the physical laws. No angels come knocking on our doors. And no divine voices rumble across the globe. Just resounding silence. Simply put, if we honestly reported
our actual experience of gods we’d have precisely nothing to say. So we have to create something out of nothing. To do this, appropriately enough,
we flip concepts into their opposites. Beings that are nowhere to be found get magically flipped into beings who are everywhere found in every moment and every location in the universe. Beings with no detectable existence get magically flipped into
beings that constitute all existence. If human love is expressed in the actions of humans of humans then divine love is expressed in the actions of the universe — the day-to-day events that we call ‘life’. With this distorted concept in place,
we can now claim as much love as we want. If we get a new job, this apparent gift from
the universe can be claimed as divine love. If we lose both legs in an accident, we can
claim divine love here too — the universe didn’t let us die. If we die after a drawn-out, agonising bout of cancer even this can be spun into a claim
of divine love by those we leave behind — the universe ended our suffering. Every experience becomes
a potential win for divine love — either because of what did happen
or what mercifully didn’t happen. Branches of some religions give particular
focus to more negative experiences. In his ‘Revival of Religious Learnings’,
Al-Ghazali — a revered Islamic theologian and philosopher
born in the 11th century — conveys the signs of love from the Islamic
god, Allah: ‘The Prophet said: When God loves a servant.
He throws him into dangers and difficulties. ‘When he loves him with full love,
He purifies him making him sincere.’ Later on, I’ll return to this curious term
‘making him sincere’. So even though we have
no actual experiences of gods, by interpreting arbitrary life events
as signs of divine love, we can create a limitless supply
of fantasy-based pseudo-experiences of gods to help sustain the illusion that they’re with us. Which is how, one lunchtime,
a group of children in a London school were able to generate a torrent of analogies
about the gigantic love of a god that every one of those children would later
admit they’d never experienced. But this big, big love brings
some big, big problems. In Davis Grubb’s thriller ‘Night of the Hunter’ Preacher Harry Powell roams the American countryside,
murdering widows. As he drives, he thanks his god for sending
him money to preach his word — money taken from his victims. Harry Powell believes his god loves him too — and that his god demonstrates that love
by lining up victims for him. By inventing a bogus love that can be found
in any life event with no standard of verification, we don’t just create a resource to comfort the meek. We create a resource for anyone — including bullies, demagogues, supremacists, murderers — who can and do use it to justify their belief that the gods are on their side. The potential for abuse here is especially underscored when believers are instructed
to find signs of love in ‘dangers and difficulties’, as Al-Ghazali indicates. Dangers and difficulties are often warning signs to stop what we’re doing
because it’s harmful to ourselves or others. We also have to ask: is this
a veiled invitation to martyrdom? After all, if we commit abusive and illegal acts dangers and difficulties will swiftly come our way. Is that a sign of divine love? Moreover, if we reduce our dangers and difficulties
by living in peace and harmony with our fellow humans is that to be taken as a sign that we’re not loved? This is the mess we get into when we attempt to satisfy our
human longing for love by illegitimate means. In that first Christian Union session, we were all
too swept up in the moment to notice any problems. But in another session a few weeks later, the problems were painfully obvious. A Christian guest speaker — I’ll call him Bill — had been invited to talk about his faith. I later found out he and Ms Chapel attended
the same evangelical church. Bill was an actor. We recognised him from
a beer commercial on TV. So it wasn’t surprising that
he was a great storyteller. He recounted his spiritual journey
with contagious humour and passion. And things might’ve been okay
— if he’d stuck to his script. But he decided to improvise. He’d been talking about his experience of Yahweh’s love and in a moment of inspiration he announced that
he could feel that love in the room right now. He looked around at each of us in turn. Then he uttered four deadly words: ‘Can you feel it?’ I was stumped. I couldn’t say ‘yes’; that would be a lie. But I couldn’t say ‘no’, for various reasons. First, on the most basic level, it seemed rude. Bill was clearly going for a moment here and saying ‘no’ seemed to stomp all over it. Second, we’d been very effectively
trained in Christian Union to always agree with and affirm experiences of Yahweh. Third, if Bill could actually
feel Yahweh’s love and I couldn’t maybe that meant there was something wrong with me. Gradually I became aware that none of
the other children were answering ‘yes’ either. When I looked round, I saw they were all just as confused. Faced with a circle of mute mouths,
Bill started repeating his question and began targeting specific individuals. Still no one answered.
His tone became impatient and interrogating. The tension became excruciating. I remember looking over at Ms Chapel,
sitting on the sidelines and noticing that her face had frozen in a sickly grin. I realised she could see the problem. Gradually, more members of the group
started looking over at her until eventually the only person
who wasn’t was Bill. When he finally followed suit,
Ms Chapel announced we were out of time. The room emptied with uncharacteristic speed
and the incident was never mentioned. There was something odd about Bill’s behaviour
that I couldn’t pinpoint it at the time. Some time later I realised what it was. When we see that someone’s
confused by something we’ve said we instinctively try to rectify the situation. We enquire about what’s confusing them.
We rephrase. We offer explanations. Bill did none of this. He saw we were all baffled by his question but, bizarrely, he just kept repeating it
— with escalating frustration. This wasn’t about understanding.
It was about compliance. Bill wanted to hear some yeses
from this group of 12- and 13-year-olds. Pressure tactics are widespread in religion. We see it when children are
pressurised into ‘speaking in tongues’. Children who are quite understandably reluctant
to participate in this ridiculous, undignified babbling are warned if they don’t open their mouths,
the holy spirit can’t talk. And soon the gibberish flows. Thankfully we didn’t succumb to Bill’s pressure tactics. But I know from years of correspondence that many folks have suffered
with tremendous guilt and anxiety because they never felt the sensation
of ‘divine love’ that others claimed to feel. So what exactly does this sensation feel like? Here are just a few responses
gathered from the internet. ‘a wonderful peace and bliss.’ ‘You’ll know it’s the real thing because
mere words will not be able to describe it’ ‘warmness in your chest, peace of mind,
peace of heart, joy ‘numbness in your legs a little bit like electricity’ ‘Sort of a pat on the head.’ ‘…. it’s [sic] beyond words. ‘You will have to experience it for yourself ‘to understand the true feeling of God’s love.’ These responses pretty much reflect the kinds of reactions I’ve had from people in private conversation. What’s immediately striking is that people
are clearly describing wildly different and incompatible sensations. And the feelings aren’t always fluffy. A Christian once told me
divine love felt like fear. This is the chaos you get
when people are urged to identify some physical sensation
without any guiding criteria. So what justifications do people give for
ascribing divinity to these diverse sensations? Some say it’s because they can’t explain them. But failure to explain something
isn’t evidence of divinity, just ignorance. Some say it’s because the sensations
happen when they think about their god. Well, we get all kinds of physical sensations when we think about various significant individuals in our lives — including humans, animals
and even fictional characters — from dull nausea to heart-pounding outrage to sleepy peace to dizzy euphoria. Would we argue that these individuals
are exerting some metaphysical force on us to produce these sensations? Of course not. What’s ironic is that if we look at the argument being presented here the connection between thought
and sensation is already made: the sensations happen when they think about their god. They have it in their own words: thought gives rise to sensation. Some take refuge in the claim
that they just know it for a fact. But claims of infallibility are
extremely hazardous to work with — as the Catholic popes no doubt discovered. Papal infallibility was declared
in formal doctrine in the 1800s. It didn’t mean everything the popes uttered
was ‘preserved from error’ — only certain rare pronouncements on faith. The reason for this rarity becomes clear
when you consider what happens if any new infallible statement is found to refute any previous infallible statement. Infallibility allows no refutation. Every infallible statement made
throughout history has to line up. One single contradiction and the game’s up. Far from offering popes some wonderful freedom
to say what they like and have it accepted as truth papal infallibility walls them in progressively limiting what they’re able to say. Wise pontiffs will make as few
officially infallible statements as possible. In everyday life, people aren’t always so cautious. They claim to ‘just know’ all the time. And fatal contradictions quickly arise
when their supposedly infallible testimonies don’t line up with those of others. Some folks describe divine love as sensations
we’re all familiar with — joy, warmth, fear; others claim that the defining feature of
the sensation is that it’s impossible to describe. A sensation can’t be both possible and impossible to describe. Some folks present divine love as
one specific, distinctive type of sensation; others suggest divine love can be experienced
in completely different ways by different people. A sensation can’t be both one distinctive
sensation and many unrelated sensations. These contradictions demonstrate that at least
some of these people must be wrong. Which in turn demonstrates that it’s perfectly
possible to believe divine love is unmistakable — and yet be mistaken. The major religions have us chasing ‘divine love’ in arbitrary life events and
arbitrary physical sensations. We might as well be chasing clouds. In many species, the offspring’s survival
will hinge on it’s parents’ protection. In these cases, the bond between parent and offspring
is predictably extremely intense. Parents develop muscularly
protective instincts towards their offspring. And offspring develop equally muscular
trusting instincts towards their parents. But sometimes, this bond gets hijacked
by other species for their own purposes. The cuckoo is a ‘brood parasite’ that exploits the parental instincts
of other species like reed warblers by laying its own eggs in the their nests, fooling them into treating the young cuckoo as their own. When it hatches, the cuckoo is hardwired to push all the other eggs out of the nest so that the adopted parent can focus exclusively on feeding its mammoth appetite. A reverse example, where a false parent
is introduced, is seen with the goose. Within the first few hours of hatching from their egg baby geese will bond with
the first suitable object they experience and then follow that object over land, water and air. In the wild, this first object will generally be their parent. But many humans have exploited
this process, known as ‘imprinting’ to gain amazing video footage of geese in flight by establishing themselves as that first object so that when they later take to a speedboat
or hang-glider, the imprinted geese will follow. Human children are dependent on their parents
for an unusually long developmental period compared to other species. Typically, they’ll display an
unquestioning trust and submissiveness to their parents for a significant part
of that development. In theory, this should a good survival strategy because their parents are likely to be the most fiercely protective adults in those formative years. To mistrust or resist their parents at that early stage might actively endanger them. But sometimes, these survival instincts
are hijacked for other purposes — not by other species, but by ideologies. Religions such as the various branches of
Christianity and Islam attempt to introduce a false father in the
form of an invisible god — a parasitic parent that
will divert and endlessly exploit the child’s natural instincts trust and submission. In healthy human parent-child relationships the growing child develops into
an independent, self-reliant adult. Unquestioning trust and submission resolve
into healthy challenge and mutual respect. Parental hypocrisies are acknowledged and recede. But in the parasitic god relationship the growing child becomes fixed
in an undeveloped infantilised stage remaining psychologically stunted in a child’s mindset Unquestioning trust and submission are
perpetually demanded under threat of punishment. Parental hypocrisies are denied and continue. But the most striking difference is this: In healthy human-child relationships, the parent
gives relentless demonstrations of love to the child — actively protecting, affirming, reassuring,
empathising, nurturing and teaching. In the parasitic god relationship, the parent demands relentless demonstrations of love from the child requiring constant declarations and acts of devotion. In fact, with this role reversal
of the child feeding the parent the parasite that gods
most closely resemble is the cuckoo. The baby bird with the ever-open beak. While these cuckoos don’t themselves have
the ability to kill — being mythical characters — stories in the Bible and Qur’an such as
Abraham’s instruction to sacrifice his own son depict both Yahweh and Allah desiring to have family members ready to kill each other on command. What kind of loving parents want their families
ready to kill each other? This should be the point where families wake up and see that they’ve been taken over by
something extremely malignant. But the cuckoo works
to separate them from each other. We come back to Al-Ghazali’s commentary,
and the curious concept of making a servant ‘sincere’. What’s meant by this is that ‘God does not leave for him his family and property …. ‘He makes him separate from others ‘and God comes in between him
and other people and things.’ And apparently gods aren’t the only ones
seeking to come between family members. Within Islam, the Hadith is a collection of books
written long after the death of Muhammad — the self-proclaimed messenger of the Islamic god, Allah. The Hadith gathers together reports
of Muhammad’s life from various sources. These have been subdivided by Islamic scholars into classifications of
authentic, good, weak or fabricated. In one passage considered authentic,
Muhammad is reported to have said: ‘None of you is a believer till I am dearer to him than
his child, his father and the whole of mankind.’ This stupendous egotism is eerily echoed by the Christian messiah Jesus in Matthew 10:37: ‘Anyone who loves their father or mother
more than me is not worthy of me; ‘anyone who loves their son or daughter
more than me is not worthy of me.’ So we have Allah, Yahweh, Muhammad and Jesus all demanding supremacy over
every other human relationship. And we all know the punishments supposedly
awaiting those who don’t comply. Forget ‘hate speech’. For me, this is
the most dangerous kind of language — the language of totalitarian ultimatums,
that seeks to conquer by dividing, trying to come between us and our loved ones
in order to achieve total subservience. My love isn’t to be had for the asking. My love isn’t to be had on the promise of a gift
that gives nothing but takes endlessly. And my love certainly isn’t to be had
by anyone who attempts to dictate who I love. In part two, I’ll be continuing my exploration, looking at slave mentality, at sacrifice, at shunning and at the process of healing from this degrading love.

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