German Ghost Border

I’ve just seen another map shared by the Twitter account, @onlmaps, which I felt compelled to discuss on here.  You can see it at this link.

As anyone who is familiar with maps of Europe between 1945 and 1989 can testify, this divide is almost exactly along the border between the former Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the communist, Soviet-puppet German Democratic Republic (East Germany).  Less than 30% of the population of former East Germany is religious, compared to an average of 60%-90% in former West Germany.  The reason for this seems fairly clear: after 12 years of Nazi rule, West Germany allowed its citizens to continue worshiping freely, whereas East Germany’s government advocated an atheist, secular agenda.  According to Wikipedia, one way it did this was by organising secular coming-of-age ceremonies to replace the Catholic equivalent, and largely discouraging church attendance in general.  As with the Polish Ghost Border, I find it incredible how long-gone borders between countries can continue to have a social and economic impact upon the territory they divided.

The main reason this divide surprised me is that I had always assumed that the Soviet-Communist governments had largely failed in bringing religious observance down.  But I’ve done some research into the former Eastern-bloc countries and the results seem to be mixed:

Country: (proportion of people who do not believe in a God)

Estonia: 71%
Ukraine: 63%
Belarus: 41%
Russia: 38%
Latvia: 21%
Czech Republic: 34%
Slovakia: 13%
Lithuania: 10%
Bulgaria: 9%
Poland: 5%
Romania: 0.2%

So actually, incredibly mixed.  Some area were successful, such as Estonia, Ukraine and Belarus.  These three countries were formerly part of the Soviet Union, yet Lithuania, also in the Soviet Union, still sees high religious observance.  Meanwhile, Poland and Romania have incredibly low rates of non-religion; I can only presume that their Cold War governments did not push an agenda of atheism.

For comparison, here’s the rates of some Western European countries:

The Netherlands: 51%
Sweden: 34%
France: 31%
Norway: 29%
Scotland: 28%*
Belgium: 27%
England and Wales: 25%
Spain: 25%
Denmark: 24%
Luxembourg: 22%
Finland: 21%
Switzerland: 20%
Italy: 15%
Portugal: 7%
Ireland: 6%

So actually, the cases of East Germany, Estonia and Ukraine aside, the Soviet-Communist governments of the Eastern Bloc don’t seem to have had that significant impact in reducing religious observance compared to the natural decline we’ve witnessed in the West.  Perhaps my original assumption was correct, and that East Germany’s government was the exception.

*This is from the 2001 census, as the results of the 2011 census for Scotland don’t seem to have been published yet.  I imagine it will be at least 30% now, considering that England and Wales lept from 15% to 25% between 2001 and 2011.  If Scotland had a similar jump, we might even see 38% of Scots claiming no religion.  It’s curious that Scotland is less religious than the rest of the UK.

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American Gods (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

Neil Gaiman is one of those authors who I’ve somehow managed to become a fan of without having read a single book he’s written.  I first became aware of his existence upon watching the Doctor Who episode, The Doctor’s Wife, which despite its name turned out to be one of the best episodes I’d ever seen.  Soon afterwards I watched the film adaptation of Coraline, which also proved to be a very well-written story.  I’ve enjoy reading his insightful Tweets on his Twitter account for over a year now, and so I decided it was high time I came into direct contact with one of his books face to face.  American Gods (2001) has sat on my shelf for a while since I spontaneously bought it in a bookshop,  making it the obvious candidate to be my first foray into his work.  I had high expectations which, I suppose, were never going to be met.

The first thing I noticed was that the characters were well developed and instantly engaging.  Shadow, the protagonist, is a very likeable and unassuming character who undergoes real development throughout the novel.  Beginning as a broken, lifeless ex-convict, through the events of the story he rediscovers his soul and manages to move on to a newfound sense of life.  This progression felt convincing for the most party, although I don’t entirely understand the effect the Passion on the Tree had upon him.  It took death to discover and partly resurrect his father to metaphorically bring himself to life?  Sounds very Biblical!  I imagine it would become clearer upon a second reading.  I did enjoy the Tree sections however, even if they did lose some credibility by the fact that Shadow, seemingly inexplicably, volunteered to be tied to it for nine days.  Again, would probably require a second reading.

The other characters which particularly impressed me were the more minor ones, such as Sam Crowe, whose attitude was enjoyable to read, and the majority of the residents of Lakeside – their diversity creating a village which felt very full of life.  I also liked Laura’s character, though her unexplained state of being undead irritated me slightly (which applies to most of the business to do with coins, in fact), though it was described to gory satisfaction.  It was an interesting decision to make most of the Gods decrepit, unhealthy, corrupt old men and women, but one which perfectly makes clear the idea of these Gods being ancient and abandoned.  I think Gaiman may have overstated this point, though – I tired of the drugs, crude dialogue and general sense of “disgusting adultness” which pervaded the novel very quickly.  Wednesday was an interesting character, characterised well enough so that when he is revealed to be the villain of the novel, sacrificing the other Gods for his own gain, it’s a surprising plot twist without being an unbelievable action for the character to take.  The contrast to the ‘new’ Gods is well established: the new Gods are chic, technological and efficient, wielding a deadly charisma – precisely as you’d expect modern Gods to be.

The principle of the Gods is probably the best crafted idea in the novel.  Having physical manifestations, personified figures of these mythical beings is genius.  Gaiman’s research is clear, with each character based on a ‘real’ God.  It’s fascinating to examine the idea of immigrants to America bringing their Gods with them, effectively replicating them (as the original stays in the homeland).  The Gods feed on faith and sacrifice, becoming weak and withered when these dry up.  In this way, Gaiman has achieved the extraordinary feat of making the human condition appear desirable in comparison to Gods.  The Gods in America are particularly weakened, because, for some mystical reason, although America is a good place for humans Gods do not survive well there.  Which is a fine idea, although doesn’t ring true.  The USA is one of the most religious developed countries in the world -often fanatically so.  Which, in turn, makes me wonder about the lack of the Christian God? Or Jesus?  What about Allah?  None of the ‘Big’ Gods make a presence, which is quite a major omission, if you think about it.  This blog post discusses the omission well.

 

Another criticism I have is that the novel simply drags on for too long.  I read “The Author’s Preferred Version,” with several thousand words added in which weren’t included in the original publication.  Considering at least 50% of the novel is spent travelling around the US on a ‘road trip’, advancing the plot or very little as they do so, I would really have preferred the edited down version.  This kind of story isn’t necessarily bad – for example, The Road achieves it marvelously – but American Gods lacks the substance to make it engaging, despite how well written it is.

I really wanted to like American Gods, which is why it’s paining me to criticise it so much.  Have I been to harsh?  Not given it a chance?  Certainly, there’s much to enjoy and it did pick up towards the end, but on the whole, I was a bit disappointed.

Final rating: 6.5/10

The New Pope

Cardinals locked away in the Vatican today successfully voted on the 266th Pope.  Jorge Bergoglio, 76, a relatively unknown Argentinian cardinal, has become the first man from the Americas to be elected to become the Pope.

As someone with no religious beliefs, I was surprised to realise I was actually experiencing some anticipation once the white smoke began to billow out from the Sistine Chapel’s chimney.  It wasn’t because I particularly cared about the Pope – although I was hoping for someone with more progressive views than his predecessors – but more down to watching history in action.  Rather boring history, maybe, but history nonetheless.

Unfortunately, despite the unusual circumstances regarding his election (the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, him being a non-European, creating his own Papal name, etc.), his beliefs appear to be nothing revolutionary.  He recently described homosexuality as a “destructive attack on God’s plan”, and a quick bit of Googling shows his views on traditional issues such as abortion and euthanasia remain just as conservative.  Couldn’t find much about his thoughts on contraception, but I don’t hold out much hope in having a Pope who’d actually contribute towards progress in fighting diseases like AIDS.

I expect this brief surge of interest in the Catholic Church is only temporary; unless Francis somehow manages to bring it into the 21st century, my normal criticisms should resume shortly.

The Amber Spyglass: A Religion For Me

(Contains spoilers)

The His Dark Materials books by Philip Pullman are an incredible trilogy.  I first read them at the age of 13, and they were the catalyst for my final abandonment of my religious beliefs (which I shall discuss in a future blog post).  I’ve recently re-read the trilogy; my third reading of the books.  This post will largely focus on The Amber Spyglass and the alternative approach to religion which it presents.

The Amber Spyglass can be seen as an utter rejection of Christian values and beliefs.  This is obvious by the point Lord Asriel has founded the Republic of Heaven and is waging war against God, but should be obvious even before then by scathing comments towards the church and its hold over power.  However it is in subtle allegories that I feel Pullman creates parallels with religion most effectively, which sets him up to reject it and create a new set of beliefs which I would actually like to believe in if they weren’t fictional.

These allegories focus around the world of the Mulefa, which is never named but I believe may symbolise Eden.  This may seem a strange comparison considering the imperfections which exist (chiefly the Tualapi) and that, as Pullman explains, this world came to be out of evolution and natural processes, but that’s not the point.  A central theme which develops throughout the book is the need to build a metaphorical ‘Republic of Heaven’ in people’s own worlds, where they are, by living full lives and building stories and living in harmony with one another.  The world of the Mulefa is an example of this put into practice.  They are in harmony with nature, using the seed pods to elevate themselves to a position of dominance, given to them by their ability to travel over the lava-roads and, most importantly, through the seed oil which gives them consciousness.  In return their use of the seed pods crack them open and allow the seeds to germinate.  They live a rustic lifestyle, taking from the earth what they need and in turn giving to the earth what it needs.

The Mulefa are unique also in their harmony with one another.  Two Mulefa are never seen to argue, and everything they do is done in cooperation – such as tying nets which requires two to work concurrently on the same net and in gathering food.  There are very little politics in Mulefa society; councils exist and some Mulefa appear to have elevated positions, but every member of the society has a voice and will be listened to.

The Mulefa have their own creation story.  They believe the first Mulefa – a female, in contrast to Genesis’ Adam – discovered a seed pod and a serpent told her to put her foot through it to achieve knowledge.  This is very similar to the tale of Adam and Eve in Christianity, but where humanity see this as ‘The Fall’ and long to return to the bliss of ignorance, the Mulefa celebrate this event.  Christian doctrine goes that as a result of The Fall humanity became alienated both from God and from nature, yet the Mulefa have somehow kept the union unbroken – perhaps due to their different interpretation.  This adds to the idea that the Mulefa world is, allegorically, Eden.

It is somehow fitting then that, when Lyra and Will create an exit for the prisoners of the World of the Dead, the world their atoms are scattered into is Eden.  There is no Heaven nor eternal paradise, but in becoming one with nature conscious life can reach a form of contented harmony.  To reach this state one does not need to sacrifice their lives and freedom for a Deity – this would in fact keep them trapped forever in the World of the Dead.  People need to lives worth talking about, create stories, and strive for fulfilment.  These are healthy morals, in my view.

Another theme of the entire trilogy is opposition to authority.  The head angel is never referred to as God, but as ‘The Authority’, which shows the nature of his rule.  The fact that The Authority is a wizened, weak angel needing to be kept in a crystal case for safety, whose existence is scattered by the force of the wind, sums up the futility of his role.  All throughout the novel characters are encouraged to question authority, though this most often equates to challenging the church.  While this is most definitely a theme I would agree with, it does not seem to extend to other authorities.  When the angel Xaphania tells Will and Lyra that every window between worlds must be closed to stop Dust leaving the world, and the Subtle Knife destroyed, they blindly accept it.  They have reason to, until Xaphania tells them one window could be kept open, which would be used to allow the dead to continue flowing into ‘Eden’.  If one window can be afforded to be kept open, surely a second window would not be the end of Dust either?  Surely Lyra and Will are owed the opportunity to be together after everything they have done for the rebellion?  I love this book dearly, but this is a major flaw.  In accepting Xaphania’s words, Lyra and Will are rejecting Pullman’s message that all authority should be questioned.  Clearly, only ‘bad’ authority can be corrupt.

This brings me onto the role of Dust.  Dust is an elementary particle which has a symbiotic relationship with consciousness; one cannot exist without the other.  The Magisterium fears and hates Dust, believing that it is the cause of all sin.  It is my belief that Dust is meant to symbolise sin itself.  Christian belief states that as a result of The Fall, sin entered the world.  How this happened is not explained, but it is a very similar image to the Dust Mary Malone, Lord Asriel and others see flowing out of the world, out of the universe, into the Abyss.  But once again Christian belief is subverted.  Where Christians, like the Magisterium, fear and hate sin, the message of The Amber Spyglass is that Dust ought to be celebrated.  Dust brings conscious life to the Mulefa, due to keeping the seed-pod trees alive.  It does the same for humanity, and all life which is self aware.  Once more I agree with Pullman’s message that anything which brings greater knowledge to humanity, be it Dust, the Tree of Knowledge or science, is worth celebrating.

In Christian doctrine God is split into three parts of the Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit.  In the universe Pullman has created, life is also split into three parts: the body, the dæmon (soul) and the ghost.  Upon death the body and the soul, which are considered the most important aspects, dissipate and become one with the world, but The Authority keeps the ghost prisoner in the World of the Dead.  This is contrary to the Christian idea of life after death as being ‘salvation’.  Pullman takes the view that an eternal life, whether in bliss, suffering or neither, would not be desirable.  It is only through Lyra and Will’s actions that the ghosts are freed from this living death.

One final point I have on trilogy’s attitude towards Christianity is the lack of any criticism, or even reference to, Jesus Christ the Saviour.  References to the Magesterium aside, which is clearly based on the Catholic Church, the religion Pullman is criticising could easily also be Judaism.  I would imagine this is due to there being very little in Jesus’ philosophy to criticise, other than the acts done in his name.  Perhaps even, in Lyra’s world, Jesus never existed, or his doctrines never extended beyond cult status.  He is certainly a major omission, but most likely a deliberate one.

As I read The Amber Spyglass I thought this is a religion with such great messages, morals and stories that I actually wished it were true.  Dust, Mulefa, parallel worlds, death, authority… The book presents all these themes in ways I believe they should be treated.  And the ultimate theme, the idea of creating a Republic of Heaven where we are, ‘because there is no elsewhere,’ is a wonderful message.  Basically, don’t squander or waste you life because you only live once and the world is there for the taking.  The world is your oyster, if you like.  This is a positive message to take upon finishing the book, and my most significant reason for wishing that the beliefs of this fictional story are worshipped across the world in Christianity’s place.