Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Football and God

It may be apocryphal but David Beckham, legendary English footballer and all round nice guy was once credited with making the following statement about his son Brooklyn "I definitely want Brooklyn to be christened, but I don't know into what religion yet."

Cue jokes about footballers not being terribly bright etc. but frankly I don't particularly care if they're smart or not. We don't expect our academics to be good footballers so why should we expect our footballers to be intellectuals? "Jeez, that Stephen Fry's a clever bugger but have you ever seen him take a penalty?" My point exactly. So, on the whole, I think we should leave our footballers to concentrate on putting the ball in the onion bag and we should leave the reciprocation of pi and the quantum physics to the people who are so inclined to such matters. We, the punters, are only really interested in the end result - plenty of goals and the answer to the meaning of life - and we don't much care how our footballers and boffins get there, simply that they do.

But I think Mr. Beckham raises an interesting point. People are not born religious. Religion is a man-made concept. It is now, in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Beckham, apparently simply something of a lifestyle choice. A person may live in a society that is pre-disposed to affiliate itself with one particular religion and it may be somewhat inevitable that in the absence of any other belief system, that is the religion a person gets drawn into, but if that same person, before gaining an understanding of their local predominant religion is taken elsewhere, they may adopt an entirely different set of beliefs from a different society. We're not born and naturally inclined to adopt a particular religion, any more than we are born intuitively French and with an appreciation of good coffee just because we were born in France.

Religion was initially a means of getting a naïve population into believing that, for example, if nobody could reasonably explain where the sun and the stars came from, then the only logical explanation was that someone must have put them there and they had better be careful not to upset that person. Diss the big man up there and he'll be looking for vengeance. This suited religious leaders who could claim they had a hotline to the Gods and could ease your passage through life if you showed them enough respect. A cosy existence if you could get enough people to buy into it.

Nowadays we can pretty much explain why the sun comes over the hill every day and that leaves religion in a tight spot. Every day it seems, one of their core values is explained away by the scientists as simply an inevitability of the passage of time and a lot of atoms pinging around in interesting but pretty random ways. It also means that some of the more new-age, out-there religions have to come up with new ideas to draw in the customers. Cue the Scientologists and Kabbalah crowd, eager to fill the vacuum created by an increasingly cynical congregation. Better still if you can get a few celebrities on board because celebrities are now the new icons. If you can get a few of them to buy into your ideas then, with luck, they'll bring their fanbase with them. The whole Hare Krishna movement was famously given a huge kickstart in the sixties through the patronage of The Beatles.

Where am I going with this piece? I don't really know. You may have gathered that I'm not a religious person but I'm vexed by the idea that,although I know we're not born and naturally inclined to a particular religion, we may be somehow genetically wired to want something like religion in our lives. Not because the alternative of nothing is unbearable but, hopefully perhaps, because we like abstract ideas. Let's face it, we're all a little bit superstitious about something, even if we declare absolute atheism.

Faith is, by definition, belief in something for which you have no proof. I'm happy to say I'm not interested in any of it and don't have that genetic wiring (if it in fact exists) but I'm frankly amazed by the number of people that are.

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