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In 1994, Christopher Hitchens (1949 – 2011) made a documentary for BBC called Hell’s Angel. It was a bold and highly controversial investigation of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, vaunted by many devotees as a saint. Prior to Hitchens’ critique, almost every book or film about Teresa portrayed her as a holy icon, worthy of reverence, a hero of charity on behalf of the wretched of the earth. But the great iconoclast Hitchens, in his book The Missionary Position – Mother Teresa in Theory and in Practise, dared to ask some inconvenient questions about Mother Teresa.
Seeing beyond the mist of idealization and deification, which had turned Teresa into a religious celebrity of worldwide prominence, Hitchens attempts to reveal the nitty-gritty of her actions and relationships. He especially focuses on her campaigns against contraception and abortion, and her questionable relationships with right-wing political leaders.
Hitchens discovers that Mother Teresa’s career was far from spotless and
“Charles Keating, for instance, donated more than $1 million bucks to her – much or all of it gained from his avowedly criminal activities in the savings and loan scandals of the 1980s. (…) Perhaps some of this can be excused by her need to drum up charitable contribuitons from all possible sources for her Missionaries of Charity. But there seems to be much more to it. Why was she so keen on hanging around such lowlives as the vicious dictator Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) Duvalier of Haiti? (…) This behaviour might be forgiven if the charity work that Mother Teresa was doing in Calcutta for decades were actually worth doing – but of even this there are strong doubts. Her devotion to the poor, the diseased, and the friendless would seem to be exemplary of the best that religion can do. Why is it that, even though one of her many bank accounts (this one in Utah) contained the sum of $50 million, her hospitals around the world were so poorly equipped?” (JOSHI, p. 237)
Teresa belief in her God-given mission to fight the two world’s most horrible evils – abortion and contraception – is also a theme which Hitchens explores with fierce criticism, especially considering that India has a population of more than 1 billion and 200 million people (and with a massive problem of undernourishment and widespread hunger). “It is difficult to spend any time in Calcutta and conclude that what it most needs is a campaign against population control” (HITCHENS, p. 24).
Teresa’s missionary endeavour had also as one of its main goals, of course, conversion. As Joshi points out, she believed it was her duty to convert “as many non-Catholics as possible so that hell is not filled even more than it already is with benighted heretics and unbelievers.” (JOSHI, 238) She tried to convince agonizing Hindus and Muslims to consent to baptism by asking them: do you want a “ticket to heaven”? Susan Shields, who worked with Mother Teresa, revealed also that those who didn’t consent to be baptized Christians were secretly baptised anyway: Teresa used to pretend she was cooling the forehead of the diseased with a wet cloth, while she said quietly the necessary words of baptism. Perhaps she truly believed she was saving them from burning in the ever-lasting fires of hellish torture for the terrible sin of remaining faithful to Hinduism or Islam.
I would argue that to worship such a woman, as if she was sacrosanct and morally irreproachable, is a dangerous attitude we should avoid as highly pernicious idolatry. We only need to remember the preposterous claim she made about the AIDS (SIDA) epidemic – “it is just retribution for improper sexual conduct” – to be aware of how questionable is her purported saintliness. She and many other people of the cloth “have maintained that AIDS is a punishment meted out to homosexuals for their sinful behavior.” (JOSHI, p. 241). I ask you, fellow earthlings: do you believe that homophobia and sectarianism deserve to be celebrated as saintly virtues? Should we worship a nun who went on a Cruzade against condoms, even though we know of the millions of lives that could have been saved if safe-sex campaigns were not boycotted by religious leaders?
In the last decades, we have seem an upsurge of best-selling books from atheists and agnostics, from sceptics and freethinkers. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, Michel Onfray’s Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and André Comte-Sponville’s L’Esprit de L’Athéisme are among the more widely read and discussed of them. Christopher Hitchens has joined this wave of atheistic literature with his highly controversial God Is Not Great – How Religion Poisons Everything, in which he “draws keenly upon his world travels as a political journalist and sometime foreign correspondent, revealing at first hand how religion actually operates in the real world” (JOSHI, p. 239). This, in a nutshell, is Hitchens’s conclusion:
“My four irreducible objections to religion are: 1) it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos; 2) because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism; 3) it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression; and 4) it is ultimately grounded on wishful-thinking.” – CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, God is Not Great
The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice
Christopher Hitchens (1995, Verso, 96 pgs)
Synopsis: “Recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, feted by politicians, the Church and the world’s media, Mother Teresa of Calcutta appears to be on the fast track to sainthood. But what, asks Christopher Hitchens, makes Mother Teresa so divine? In a frank expose of the Teresa cult, Hitchens details the nature and limits of one woman’s mission to the world’s poor. He probes the source of the heroic status bestowed upon an Albanian nun whose only declared wish is to serve God. He asks whether Mother Teresa’s good works answer any higher purpose than the need of the world’s privileged to see someone, somewhere, doing something for the Third World. He unmasks pseudo-miracles, questions Mother Teresa’s fitness to adjudicate on matters of sex and reproduction, and reports on a version of saintly ubiquity which affords genial relations with dictators, corrupt tycoons and convicted frauds.”
FAITH & DOUBT
by Jean-Marie Guyau (1854-1888)
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“Doubt has long enough been accused of immorality, but the immorality of dogmatic faith can be equally maintained. To believe is to assert as real to myself that which I simply conceive as possible – sometimes as impossible. This is seeking to build up an artificial truth… At the same time it is shuting one’s eyes to the objective truth, thrusting it aside beforehand without knowing anything about it. The greatest enemy of the human progress is the presupposition… Faith from that point of view becomes indolence of thought. Indifference even is often superior to dogmatic faith. One who is indifferent says: ‘I do not care to know.’ But he adds: ‘I will not believe’. The believer wants to believe without knowing. Therefore, whatever may be the question, doubt is better than the perpetual affirmation, better than the renunciation of all personal initiative, which is called faith. This kind of intellectual suicide is inexcusable, and that which is still more strange is the pretension to justify it, as is constantly done, by invoking moral reasons… “The dignity of believing!” – you reply. Man has too often, all through history, rested his dignity upon errors… The truth is not always so fair as the dream, but its advantage is that it is true. In the domain of thought there is nothing more moral than truth; and when truth cannot be secured through positive knowledge, nothing is more moral than doubt. Doubt is dignity of mind. We must therefore drive out of ourselves the blind respect for certain principles, for certain beliefs. We must be able to question, scrutinize, penetrate everything…”
JEAN-MARIE GUYAU (1854-1888).
French philosopher and poet.
In: “Esquisse d’une morale sans obligation ni sanction”. Pg. 62. SHARE.You might also enjoy:
COSMOS – A SPACE-TIME ODYSSEY
“Friedrich Nietzsche was a preacher’s son, brought up in the fear of the Lord. It is the ideal training for sham-smashers and freethinkers. Let a boy of alert, restless intelligence come to early manhood in an atmosphere of strong faith, wherein doubts are blasphemies and inquiry is a crime, and rebellion is certain to appear with his beard. So long as his mind feels itself puny beside the overwhelming pomp and circumstance of parental authority, he will remain docile and even pious. But so soon as he begins to see authority as something ever finite, variable and all-too-human – when he begins to realize that his father and his mother, in the last analysis, are mere human beings, and fallible like himself – then he will fly precipitately toward the intellectual wailing places, to think his own thoughts in his own way and to worship his own gods beneath the open sky. As a child Nietzsche was holy; as a man he was the symbol and embodiment of all unholiness. At nine he was already versed in the lore of the reverend doctors, and the pulpit, to his happy mother – a preacher’s daughter a well as a preacher’s wife – seemed his logical and lofty goal; at thirty he was chief among those who held that all pulpits should be torn down and fashioned into bludgeons, to beat out the silly brains of theologians.”
HENRY LOUIS MENCKEN (1880-1956).
The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.
3rd Edition. Tucson, AZ: See Sharp Press, 2003.
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Some of Nietzsche’s works in e-book (free download):
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Eduardo Carli de Moraes
“L’infinie variété des formes sous lesquelles la matière nous apparaît, elle ne les emprunte pas à un autre être, elle ne les reçoit pas du dehors, mais elle les tire d’elle-même, elle les fait sortir de son propre sein. La matière est en realité toute la nature et la mère des vivants.” — GIORDANO BRUNO (1548-1600), quoted in Histoire du Materialisme, by F.A. Lange, pg. 213.
Back on the air, all dressed-up with fancy hi-tech special effects, and with Neil deGrasse Tyson as the spaceship’s pilot, the Cosmos TV-trip has descended once more among us.
Back in the late 70s and early 80s, Carl Sagan’s original series – Cosmos: A Personal Voyage – offered quite a mind-boggling journey through the universe in 13 episodes that did an excellent job in taking science to the masses and instigating mystical awe about such a grandiose spectacle as Nature-As-A-Whole. It remains to be seen if the new Cosmos will live up to Sagan’s, but the first episode of the brand-new Fox-produced Space-Time Odyssey has made in myself a good impression. It’s quite a ride.
The least that can be said is that Tyson doesn’t shy away from confrontation with worldviews that are hostile to the scientific endeavour. To depict Giordano Bruno’s murder by the hands of the Holy Inquisition is certainly quite a controversial point of departure. But it proves that Cosmos starts this new phase with no fear of revealing those episodes in the history of Science in which religious zealots serves as obstacles in the way of those who quest for the truth. Bruno engulfed by the pious flames tells us a quite realistic picture of what Science went through in very Un-enlightned times, where religious leaders – and the masses manipulated by them – would rather reduce a scientist to silence by burning them alive at the stake, for public edification, than let truth out of its cave and into the open air…
To denounce the horrors commited by the clergy in an epoch where their authorities were backed-up by a teocratic State is still a relevant action in our own times, methinks – and let’s hope Cosmos can spread a wave of benign scepticism in the United States, where the hysteria against the right to interrupt pregnancy or the research with stem cells is surround by fundamentalism, dogmatism, fanaticism. Its quite shocking that a country that considers itself developed and advanced there are so many millions of people that still cling to the idea that the Bible’s Genesis is literally true and thus the world is only 6.000 years old and mankind was born-out ready-made from the hands of Jehovah with no need for a single minute of protoplasmical evolution…
The new Cosmos is apt to thrown some more wood into the flame of a discussion that stills opposes bitterly antagonistic world-views: Creationism and Evolutionism will once again clash. And there’s little doubt in my mind about which side of the fence Cosmos will barricade itself in, together with its armies of empirical facts and astronomical observations (exposed with cinematic techniques that’ll take our breaths away…).
The curious thing to witness, as a sociological phenomenon, is how in the 21st century there are still legions of humans who refuse to open their minds to an explanation of the world that doesn’t rely on talking serpents, forbidden fruits, and wrathfuls god. To suggest that Christian cosmology has been proved false by centuries of scientific discoveries, made by generations of colaborating thinkers, is still felt by many as an offense. Some believers will surely refuse to see Cosmos, or will see it and then bully it, or will cry out for censorship against such an heretic TV-show…
It’s no use: the Cosmos powertrip will roll on, and let’s hope it has the courage to inform a wider audience about how Science works, and the discoveries it has made, without sacrificing truth in the altar of superstition or prejudice. Carl Sagan himself had quite a powerful voice in favour of secularization of thought and freedom of expression, and Tyson, it seems to be, truly gets the mood and the attitude that made Sagan’s ouevre so compelling. Science is not easy – it often gets attacked by those who believe they are already in possession of absolute and divine truth, and thus feel they have the right to send the infidels and heretics straight to hell. Baptised with fire right here and right now for daring to explain the world in such a way that contradicts what priests and popes preach.
After millenia believing the Earth was the center of the Universe, and the Sun and all other stars flew around us, this narcisistic delusion crumbled apart, especially after Copernicus, Bruno, Galileo and Kepler, among others. I’ll not venture here to remember this saga – you might consult Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers for an excellent survey on mankind’s changing cosmologies throughout history. The thing is: Cosmos has got its audience reflecting once again upon what Sigmund Freud described as the first “wound” to our narcisism (that was to be followed by other blows by Darwin and by Psychoanalysis). Since Science has shown the Earth as a speck of dust in the infinite ocean of matter, and the star we call Sun was revealed to be just one inflamed star among billions of others stars (with trillions of orbiting worlds), biblical delusions of grandeur tend to get démodé.
What’s intriguing and exciting about Science is its crooked ways, its winding path – it doesn’t follow a straight line, and it doesn’t necessarily evolve. The Middle Ages prevailing cosmology – in tune with theocracy and a powerful clergy – was a thousand-year denial of our true position in the cosmos. When we look back to the past, we discover that since ancient times there were astronomers and physicists who already suspected that theocratic-geocentrism was a delusion of egotistical creatures who were blinded by their self-interested perspectives.
But the long-term survival of Ptolomaic cosmology shows us how stubborn an illusion can be – especially when it satisfies the inner Narcissus we all carry around with us within our breasts. Sometimes a delusional cosmology sticks with mankind for centuries, transmited for generations, until finally truth breaks through and a leap of consciousness is achieved. By crooked ways, mankind leaps forward into a more authentic awareness of cosmic reality, shedding its religious skin for another cosmology that does more justice to the Universe’s complexity.
In Alejandro Amenábar’s excellent epic Agora, for example, we get acquainted with Hypathia (embodied by Rachel Weisz in one of her greatest performances as actress). The film portrays her life (estimated between 350 and 415 AD) as a philosophy teacher and astronomical researcher in Alexandria at times where religious war was raging. Christians against Pagans, and later Jews against Christian, killed each other savagely and burnt each other’s cultures in bloody rivalry, while Hypatia devoted her mind to deciphering the mystery of stary skies and planetary motions.
Inspired by the ideas of the Greek astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus of Samos (310 – 230 B.C.), this Egyptian woman end-up concluding, a thousand years before Copernicus, that the Sun was at the center of our planetary system and the Earth was but one planet locked in an elliptical orbit around it. But Hypatia lived in troubled times and soon her work in Alexandria would be deranged by the outbreak of war all around her. Centuries of philosophical, astronomical and scientifical endeavours were reduced to ashes and dust by the flames that the Christians set to Alexandria’s Lybrary, where fragile treasures of the ancient world were kept alive.
Hopefully, the Cosmos come-back will be a mind-opening, consciousness-expanding, awe-inspiring trip. The time has come for us to do justice to figures of our past – such as Hypathia or Giordano Bruno, among many others – who ended-up persecuted or murdered for their discoveries and their teachings. We no longer live in times where witch-hunts and genocide of infidels are day-to-day occurences, and let’s hope that Cosmos new encarnation can help us out on our journey to a world with less dogmas and zealotry, and much more awe and dialogue.
Every single atom in our bodies was cooked in the burning belly of a star: we’re all made of star stuff, drifting in orbit around one of billions of suns, a planet bursting with life and newness and locked in a gravitational embrace while we journey through space-and-time at frantic speeds. Amidst this spectacle that defies expression in words, consciousness arises and emerges as a feature of life in this spec of dust, and the whys and hows of consciousness and its way through the evolution of lide are still our task to understand. For Sagan, we are the cosmos finally awaking to itself, witnessing itself, mirroring in on itself – conscious matter awakened to the cosmic soup that whirlwinds its way towards eternity with no beggining nor end.
Well, I confess that I can’t find anything in the Bible as awesome as that.
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GIORDANO BRUNO (1973) – FULL MOVIE – Subtitled
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Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (13 episodes) – DOWNLOAD (8 GB / TORRENT)
“Few forces in the world are as potent, as influential, as religion. As we struggle to resolve the terrible economical and social inequities that currently disfigure our planet, and minimize the violence and degradation we see, we have to recognize that if we have a blind spot about religion our efforts will almost certainly fail, and may make matters much worse… If we don’t subject religion to such scrutiny now, and work out together whatever revisions and reforms are called for, we will pass on a legacy of ever more toxic forms of religion to our descendants.
Religion plays its most important role in supporting morality, many think, by giving people an unbeatable reason to do good: the promise of an infinite reward in heaven, and (depending on tastes) the threat of an infinite punishment in hell if they don’t. Without the divine carrot and stick, goes this reasoning, people would loll about aimlessly or indulge their basest desires, break their promises, cheat on their spouses, neglect their duties, and so on. There are two well-known problems with this reasoning: (1) it doesn’t seem to be true, which is good news, since (2) it is such a demeaning view of human nature.
Everybody already knows the evidence for the countervailing hypothesis that the belief in a reward in heaven can sometimes motivate acts of monstruous evil. (…) This can be seen as an infantile concept of God in the first place, pandering to immaturity instead of encouraging genuine moral commitment. As Mitchell Silver notes, the God who rewards goodness in heaven beats a striking resemblance to the hero of the popular song ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’…”
Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
(Pgs. 38-39 & 279-280)
Available at the Toronto Public Library.
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