Notes

The revolution that takes place in your head, nobody will ever see that.

Tag Archives: Religion

Super selfie love story

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Venice EveningSometimes I feel unworthy of living in Venice. I don’t pay enough attention to details, especially now the numbers are slowing down. Walking back to the hotel with my headphones on, I feel guilty for not listening to bursts of opera or cutlery exchanging hands in restaurants. Spotify is a generic experience. Play, pause and repeat your songs over and over again.

Collectively we are going through the first phase of hyper acceleration, an unprecedented boom of global fertility all wanting the same photograph of the Grand Canal. Likewise I’m just a temporary EU migrant passing through the loveliest city in the world. It was an opportunity I couldn’t let pass.

Gondola Couple VeniceEveryday I see newly married couples snuggle in beautifully crafted gondolas and it’s very much a case of play, pause and repeat. Same posed smile, loving tilt of the head and furrowed brow, I’ve witnessed a thousand honeymoons upload their story underneath a bridge. Seen through the prism of light, it’s a unique private moment, one shared with loved ones and marvelled over by long distance friends.

Only I see the same love story every single day.

Away from the watery parade, I remove my headphones, the plastic grooves gnashing onto my collar bone and enter an inverted baroque church. Squashed inside the Venetian back streets, I step in a chaste world of silence and reflection.

Despite being militantly secular in my global politics, I took comfort in this beautiful refuge. Photography is banned in Venetian churches and the circus of life takes a deferential pause. With my rucksack weighing on my back, I stood in silence amongst elaborately carved tombs and dead wooden benches.

It’s one of the few places in Venice where you can share a private moment, a world without flashing cameras and streamed playlists. Outside the craziness goes on oblivious, and I have to get back to my hotel; shower, get changed and go online again. My smartphone might vibrate with loving messages.

There must be something about human nature that turns everything into a routine.

Cherchez la femme

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“Their only crime was being young, arrogant, and beautiful.”

Patti Smith

Pussy Riot are the most perfect rock band in history. Even the Sex Pistols in their 77′ prime never looked this fucking good. Formed last year in response to Vladmir Putin’s third (and ultimately successful) presidential run, Pussy Riot are creating a pop experience that goes far beyond mere aural sensation.

Back in February 2012, the Russian feminist punk collective performed a ‘punk prayer’ against Putin inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour wearing multi-coloured balaclavas. Rallying against “evil crooks of the Putinist junta”, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alekhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, now face seven year jail terms for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is extraordinarily pretty and I want to sleep with her for all the wrong reasons. With Pussy Riot facing up to seven years in jail for singing in a church, having a crush on one of the accused seems completely inappropriate. It feels glib and trivial to fancy someone so unbelievably brave and intelligent.

Fortunately lust and intellectual admiration have never been mutually exclusive and sapiosexuals will appreciate that Pussy Riot have created a parallel universe that goes way beyond sonic thrills.

On being locked up like princesses in a cage, the Pussy Riot collective inevitably stoke up references to the Situationist International 68’. But unlike the liberal havens of Western Europe, modern Russia is a frighteningly oppressive regime and this Stalinist show trial only serves to remind people how many journalists in Russia have gone missing in the last twelve years.

And for all the talk of revolutionary politics and feminism, I find myself deeply conflicted by the case. As while I genuinely admire their intellect and courage, they are utterly, utterly brilliant, I feel ashamed that I have become infatuated by Nadia’s physical beauty.

However, I have to consider that many of the world’s greatest political movements were served by having a striking and iconic figurehead. Pussy Riot are all about symbolism in many respects – the glamour quotient of the Anonymous  hacker movement.

Pussy Riot have achieved their goals of becoming famous and their profile in Britain exploded after this brilliant article by Carole Cadwalladr, which is journalism worth paying for but you can read it here for free.

Pussy Riot are not individuals, they’re an idea. And that’s the thing that has gripped Russia and caught the attention of the rest of the world, too: that the Russian government has gone and arrested an idea and is prosecuting through the courts with a vindictiveness the Russian people haven’t before seen.

The Russian feminists really are a wonderful reminder that if you want to inspire change then you have to capture the imagination of the soul. Listening to their punk demo records, it becomes pretty apparently that you don’t want Pussy Riot to serenade you. They can’t play to save themselves. But glamour on this level is not necessarily a superficial thing. Pussy Riot are an idea and you can’t arrest an idea – not one that has been transmitted across the globe.

In stark contrast to what is going on in Putin’s Russia, political protest has been largely tolerated in Britain during the last sixty years. The Pussy Riot girls would be ironic clothes horses in this wet green island, casually appearing on faux-rebellious street art in Shoreditch High Street. In Russia they have become the only band that matters. Pussy Riot live dangerously so you don’t have to.

The Web is Not Great

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Coming into work with your eyes stinging from the night before doesn’t require a night out to remember. The world is flooded with electronic light and it no longer requires anyone to go outdoors. After spending all day in front of a computer and returning home to converse in the same fashion, there appears to be more and more ways to communicate than things to say.

Cyberspace has become a black hole, where our thoughts and emotions are distributed on Facebook and Twitter, and sold on and repackaged to make a profit. God once commanded his flock to down tools on a Sunday but there is now an even more powerful designer in charge and like the celestial dictatorship of old he is entirely man-made.

With the internet going on strike over proposed anti-piracy laws, the Wikipedia protests only further exposed the excessive amount of time we spend online. Such a powerful new religion now requires a Sabbath. Luxury is a result of scarcity and what leather, travel and prawn cocktails were to the working classes in the early twentieth century, spending less time on the internet will be to the twenty first. As anyone with a compulsive refreshing habit will already realise there is something wrong with having permanently sore eyes.

Online activities are too passive to stimulate and often leaves the mind under-nourished but like junk food served in neon-aisles of 24-hour supermarkets it remains curiously addictive. In a world dominated by Twitter storms and hang outs, there is a never-ending spectre of what the computer industry calls ‘content’. But even the most erudite of web pages will leave you  feeling jaded after clicking the refresh button once too often.

With the Apple Ayatollahs of this world religiously defining their personalities through their digitally branded toys, a dangerous cult is emerging and abstinence is a potential cure. It may involve abandoning your phone and being disconnected for a few hours. Ignoring friends might not seem the most sociable way to re-engage your mind but anything that doesn’t involve being online is time worth cherishing.

Some cellular weary businessmen in the US are checking into ‘black hole’ resorts such as the Black Mountain Ranch on holiday. Granting them a chance to unplug and rediscover their love of literature and human conversation, the resort proudly boasts of having no Wi-Fi or television facilities. A Sabbath luxury of a different kind, these black hole resorts relieve the eyes of tedium by denying access to the greatest communications system of all time.

All man-made religions need challenging and especially one as powerful as the internet.  So when jumping down a black hole feels like a worthy alternative you know it’s time to put down the Kindle and reads as many books as you can.

Quarter of a Century

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Glasgow is a city with a brooding gothic soul. A city I once wrote about regularly, even if it was just the banality of routine. With its violence menace, religious iconography and twee bourgeois sensibility, Glasgow captured my imagination at a particular period in time. Back when I described the insignificant truth of this solitary journey to the cinema on a cold weekday evening. A melancholy love letter so to speak. I had just turned twenty-five. 

Tuesday, 10th January 2006

Moth to a Flame

I go the cinema when I’m bored and lonely. It all begins with an over familiar route through the West End and after several twists and turns I will magically stride through Garnethill down towards the largest cinema building on Planet Earth.

The beginning of the journey is arguably the most comfortable upon the eye, it is invariably dark and rectangle shades of affluent light can be seen frozen behind coloured glass. I walk across the Byres Road up towards Great Gibson Street, where mercenary cranes hang over an underdeveloped patch of soil; it is a docile but rapidly changing stretch of road.

The sharp gradient tightens the muscles on both of my legs and I have reached the peak of the road, where in sudden twist of fate I feel compelled to go down the hill towards Gibson Street. I used to live around here, the car park is still a muddy disgrace, littered with crass aluminium shells and alien sized craters. The park dominates the area, it is a spooky place and lit only by a curved silver moon; its iron gates lie open but I dare not enter.

I stride past fancy Lebanese and Scottish restaurants, it is an ordinary night but they both appear full of people. I cross over the gentle river, there are no grebes or mallards to be seen and only now do I start to accelerate towards my destination. I twist past two Protestant churches and a cold young fox lying dead in the leaves. The road ahead is empty and without a soul, it appears darker now, the motorway is within walking distance.

I head towards Charing Cross, it is very quiet and all the cars have gone. It is not the right time but I prefer to take to the skies than walk alongside them. I adjust my legs and walk over an arched granite causeway; it elevates me above the carnage of the roads and provides access to the mysterious ways of Garnethill.

I am in the city now, there something sinister about this place, something threatening, although my mind is playing tricks on me. It is dark right now and no one is here. The street is awash with neat green lawns and vacancy signs, there are places to stay on my left, while to my right there are scattered bins and graffiti strewn fire exits.

I walk ominously closer and there is a Catholic Church approaching, which is separated by yew, rowan and a piercing iron fence. This secretive place of worship performs mass in Latin and the priest is kept hidden behind a secret silver veil. The church is small but intimidating and I don’t think it likes me at all. I walk on alone and without a God, the winter air is biting my cheeks, my hands are beginning to get cold now.

I walk towards the famous art school and admire its subtle and decorative style, there are no students in the nearby eighties lounge. I am almost there now and feel like a distant stranger, people are on the move down below me, there is a collection of buckfast and vodka sitting alongside a corrugated steel gate. The streets are colliding into one, there are cars passing by me, it is now sparkling with light and the silence has gone.

Beware of the man whose God is in the skies

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The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.

Terrence Malick

Despite being devoutly non-religious from a very young age, I find myself emotionally attached to many aspects of Christian life. Waking up to the carillon chimes of a nearby Anglican Church every Sunday morning, I find myself strangely comforted by an institution I have never once considering attending. There is something graceful listening to a church calling out to their flock. Living in a Stalinist Legoland that is home to many different cultures, church bells feel like a wistful homage to past generations.

Even as a liberal, modern secularist I find listening to them on a Sunday morning incredibly powerful. However, I have never believed in God and find the key tenets of all Abrahamic religions (in practice) to be inherently backward and repressive. On being forced to attend Church of Scotland services as a school boy, I now only enter churches for weddings, funerals or as tourist attractions in foreign countries.

On travelling through Andalucía, I recall the time I spent in Ronda, and watching elderly nuns carrying bags of groceries along cobbled Moorish streets. Once again I found it a fascinating throwback to a more traditional way of life, although I am sure the lives of those modern day Catholic nuns were very real. Not believing in God or the repressive lifestyle it would require me to live, I find myself conflicted on why I wouldn’t like to see it disappear entirely.

Christopher Hitchens once said if ‘I could convince everyone in the world to be a non-believer, and there’s only one left. One more, and then it’d be done. There’d be no more religion in the world. No more deism, theism, I wouldn’t do it. Somehow if I could drive it out of the world, I wouldn’t’. Divided by his own intellectual disdain and personal fear of extinguishing religion altogether, I suspect he also feared what might take its place.

Sentimentality might strike at the heart of my love of church bells on a Sunday morning. As long as I am not forced to conform to something I don’t believe in, then it’s absolutely fine for others to practice their faith. Although on a logical level, I’ve always taken issue with religious institutions holding sway over people’s everyday lives. On living in a profoundly secular country accommodating many different religions, I find myself aghast at how in the twenty-first century, we find ourselves pandering to the whims of irrational faiths.

The multi-faith English school system is riddled with stories of non-religious parents pretending to be Catholic, Anglican or Jewish in order to get their children into a decent school. A ludicrous situation that only fuels my desire to see religious organisations stripped of their ability to participate in public life.

Alas the romanticism of church bells and the beautiful sacrifice of nuns does come at a price. Even with the rise of secularism, power doesn’t go away. It never does. But in the absence of God, there remains a spiritual void in a secular world where biology and science can now explain anything. Perhaps it’s the absence of grace that makes me nostalgic for church bells on a Sunday morning.

Something more profound than mere existence. The carillon chimes are just a metaphor for a way of grace. And despite firmly believing in the power of enlightenment, I do believe we belong to something bigger. Even if it is just the age old question of why we are here.

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

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Adam Curtis’s three-part BBC documentary series ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace‘ explores the notion that humans have been colonised by computers. He argues that humans have lost faith in their ability to change the world for the better. Politics is dead. As the global economic crisis of 2008 has already shown, ordinary people are nothing more than helpless components in a computerised market system, which we are seemingly powerless to challenge or change.

Hope is a false prophet and secular idealism is no more of a superstition than religion itself. Cyberspace is a black hole, where our thoughts, feelings and emotions are distributed on Facebook and Twitter, and sold on and repackaged to make money.

Carmen Hermosillo, an early adopter of online chatrooms, argued in 1994 that our emotions will become commoditised.

It is fashionable to suggest that cyber-space is some island of the blessed where people are free to indulge and express their individuality, this is not true. I have seen many people spill out their emotions – their guts – online and I did so myself until I began to see that I had commodified myself.

Commodification means that you turn something into a product which has a money value. In the 19th Century, commodities were made in factories, by workers who were mostly exploited. But I created my interior thoughts as commodities for the corporations that owned the board I was posting to – like Compuserve or AOL – and that commodity was sold onto other consumer entities as entertainment.

Although what is most disturbing is not the commodification of our inner thoughts but the suggestion that humans are merely biological machines programmed by genetic instructions. One of Britain’s most famous and controversial scientists Bill Hamilton argued that human behaviour is controlled by our genetic codes.

Famously popularised as the ‘Selfish Gene’ by Richard Dawkins, the Oxford biologist explained that ‘DNA is a coded description of the worlds in which our ancestors survived. We are walking archives of the African Pliocene, even of Devonian seas, walking repositories of wisdom out of the old days’.

According to gene theorists, human altruism is a paradox that can be explained as a survival strategy by our genes. Murder, violence, genocide and suicide can also be logically explained as pre-coded behaviour to allow the stronger gene to replicate in an unforgiving survival of the fittest.

Although while Dawkins has never been an advocate of social Darwinism, his late counterpart Bill Hamilton believed nothing should be allowed to interfere with the destiny of the gene. He believed modern medicine affected the stronger gene’s survival and that to keep unfit genes (sickly people) alive would lead to the degeneration of the human race.

In this respect gene theories bear a striking resemblance to the radical Presbyterian belief of pre-destination. Calvinist extremists believe that God knows everything from the beginning of time to the end of time. So it doesn’t matter what you do in your current life as your destiny has already been pre-written by God himself.

Pre-destination was popularised in the James Hogg’s 1824 masterpiece ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’, where a Scottish religious fanatic becomes convinced by the Devil that he is grace incapable of sin, even the sin of murder, and therefore is immune from physical and spiritual punishment.

The religious protagonist in Hogg’s 19th century novel subsequently takes the pre-destination theory to its extreme conclusion. God has since died but Dawkins selfish gene offers a near identical masterplan. He believes we are all controlled by DNA codes, which are buried deep within us and humans are simply machines playing tiny roles in a vast strategic game of survival.

It doesn’t matter what we do with our current lives because our genetic destinies have already been pre-written. Our genes may live forever but according to computationalism there is no spiritual or ethical dimension to our human existence. God, love and family are merely an HTML code.

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