On the 10th of January, 1610, an Italian scientist named Galileo Galilei made a startling observation. He had been looking at the planet Jupiter through his homemade telescope, and noticed that four smaller dots that accompanied it were actually moving around it, orbiting it. Until then, the prevailing view was that everything - everything - orbited us. We were the centre of the universe, everything revolved around us, thus everything that existed was for our benefit. The impact of Galileo’s discovery can’t be overestimated - it was one of those defining moments of human history - even though humanity didn’t realise it right away. As other discoveries piled up, we realised that, in fact, not only were we not the centre of the universe, but that the cosmos was much, much bigger than we’d imagined. Our entire world was but a tiny dot, smaller than the faintest star.
It was also one of the first big clashes between religion and science. The idea of the earth at the centre of the cosmos – the geocentric model – corresponded perfectly with the Biblical account of creation, where man is placed in charge of everything. Galileo’s discovery undermined that. It was one of many widely believed “truths” that would come to be disproved.
Newton’s theory of gravity explained why the planets orbit the sun, not held there or moved by any deity but rather by an impersonal force of nature. The Montgolfier brothers, a mere two hundred and thirty years ago, enabled man to truly reach the skies. Until then our world had been very two-dimensional. We were stuck to the surface. Anything higher than a mountain was out of reach. Nobody thought it was odd that, in the past, people had believed that a sufficiently tall tower could reach heaven and God himself. But now we could be among the birds, above and beyond the clouds even. Eventually, one hundred and fifty years ago, Charles Darwin’s theory of Evolution provided an explanation for the many forms of life we see around us; even life itself was no longer a black box, a mystery left to the gods.
Until relatively recently, gods were often used to provide an explanation to things that we could not otherwise understand. Lightning was a weapon cast by Zeus. Thunder was Thor banging his hammer. Rainbows were colourful reminders by a forgetful God not to drown the entire world again. We used gods to plug the gaps in our knowledge – hence the “god of the gaps” argument so commonly used, albeit unknowingly, where a god is held to be responsible for the things we don’t understand fully. They were as good an explanation as any in those times. Since then however, science has changed that by providing alternative explanations, backed by evidence. Most importantly, science has a willingness to admit to, and correct, past mistakes – something that religions are notoriously bad at doing.
Consequently, religion lost its long-held role as ultimate provider of explanations. Romanticism aside, those explanations did not stand up to scrutiny. Science took over and has proven itself reliable ever since. Some religious groups, such as the Catholic Church, have adopted a system that allows them to coexist comfortably with science. Others have not, and to this day keep trying to undermine the attempt of providing a full education to future generations, because they perceive science to be anathema and don’t want it taught to children. Eventually however, I believe that the opposition that still exists towards science will disappear in the same way the opposition towards Galileo’s discoveries did.
The Good Book
Another of religion’s roles is that of moral compass. For a very long time, morality was dictated by religious leaders: “Thou shalt not kill… thou shalt not steal.” Quite sensible rules really, which is why they worked for so long and are so universal. Except that, even here, people started noticing problems. Was it really necessary to stone to death all those who picked up firewood on the Sabbath? Is bacon really that bad? And what is it about the bloodshed found throughout the Old Testament?
From the chronicles of Lot (and his daughters) to the widespread cruelty of God to even the supposed moral lessons, certain stories found in the Bible have troubled believers for a long time. Film maker Cecil B. DeMille was so uncomfortable with God hardening the Pharaoh’s heart and then punishing him, along with all the Egyptians, for what he had done, that he invented a new character – a jealous woman – and blamed her for it. What an indictment that is of the Bible and its god (and what a slap in the face for women).
The fact is that what counted as morality 3,000 years ago is so far out of date that it has become immorality. Even basic principles like the idea that one can be punished for whatever their remote ancestors did is seen to be immoral and unjust. So the Catholic scriptures, and many scriptures that provide lessons for a plethora of religions worldwide, fail today not only as providers of explanations for the things we see around us, but also as a moral foundation. Most religions and religious people tried to find a way to get around this, but it’s difficult to go directly against some of the explicit and unequivocal statements taken either from the Catholic scriptures, for example, or even from past religious leaders. Today, many religions are up in arms against homosexuality. Some refuse to accept the fact that sexual orientation is innate. Others accept this, but insist, for no good reason, that gay people have to remain celibate. Very few have found ways to put this behind them and accept gay people as equals.
Humanity grows in morality as it does in knowledge. Today most people accept that slavery is wrong, that women are not to be treated as property, that rape is a terrible crime, that people with a different skin colour should be treated as equals, that two men or two women who love each other and wish to be together are harming nobody and should be accepted. Yet the Bible says otherwise in all cases. In fact, it’s pretty obvious that if anyone were to try to live their life based on the Old Testament they’d soon find themselves in jail.
Praying for Hope
There was a time when people would pray for rain, or for good weather. Today, people check the weather forecast. They’d pray to be cured of an illness; today they go to a doctor. There will always be a few situations in which a person can do absolutely nothing, however. If a loved one has been taken in to surgery and you’re left outside pacing the waiting room floor, you can easily become frustrated, being unable to do anything to help… except maybe pray.
It does no harm and can at least relieve the sense of helplessness. The truth, however, is that prayer does not actually do anything, other than giving the person a sense of having done something. If prayer were effective, there would be a noticeable difference in recovery rates of people prayed for, or people who pray, versus those who don’t. Resorting to prayer instead of going to a doctor – especially when a quick visit should typically remedy a malady – should not be an acceptable thing to do; yet, in some communities, it is.
Perhaps the only area where, so far at least, religion isn’t challenged much is the afterlife. Every religion has some concept of afterlife – either various equivalents of heaven and hell, or some kind of rebirth. We humans have always been uncomfortable with the idea that death is final, so we came up with a number of scenarios that let us deny that it’s over. We don’t die, we “go to a better place”, we “pass on”, or we “go to live with the Lord”. Of course, none of this is based on evidence and yet it’s a refuge that’s unlikely to be invaded any time soon by evidence to the contrary, even though it still requires a willingness to ignore the improbability of our thoughts, emotions or memories continuing while the brain they were held in decomposes slowly. Science and technology will one day render death optional – though that’s a subject for another day – but, in the meantime, many people are coming to terms with their own mortality. Instead of looking ahead at death with apprehension, they look back with satisfaction at a life well lived.
So, what is left for a religion to do? It used to be so central to many people’s lives, especially in Malta. Churches used to be full, with people standing. Now there is much more room for people to sit, with the participants skewed towards the older side. Many people end up attending mass irregularly at best, more out of a sense of obligation or tradition than anything else. There are people who only go to mass and follow, begrudgingly, the bare minimum that this requires in order to get their children into a church school and not have to answer inconvenient questions. They send their children to doctrine lessons because it’s mandatory to get their communion and confirmation, and do the latter because otherwise their kids might feel “left out” as their peers all have a big confirmation party and they don’t. Some are festa devotees but are never seen inside the church. They’re in it for the band club, for the pique of having the best fireworks and the best street decorations.
Like the gods, religion has become redundant. To most people it offers nothing – or at least nothing that’s particularly religious. It’s the family heirloom that has no particular use but no one wants to throw away because it’s expensive and brings back memories. However I don’t think that will last for much longer. To each new generation it will be even more meaningless.
The introduction of divorce – or rather, the debate that preceded it – recently highlighted changing attitudes towards the Catholic Church in Malta. Until then, there were very few people who would publicly disagree with the church, let alone declare their lack of religion. People were afraid of repercussions – of losing their job or losing friends, or even family problems. The divorce debate changed that however. As people heard others open up and speak their mind they started realising they were not alone. In a very short period, the two or three solitary voices in the wilderness were joined by tens, then hundreds of others openly defying the church and in some cases, declaring their doubts about God or making it clear they no longer believed. This development took the church by surprise, and since then the church has never again been unchallenged. Whether it’s same-sex marriage or adoptions, or IVF or other matters, people are now willing to stand up to church decrees and state “That’s wrong”.
Malta is still one of the most religious countries in the world, especially compared to the rest of Europe. However, we have never had such a large proportion of agnostics and atheists in our history. What used to be the ultimate punishment by the church, excommunication, is now being demanded by people, with the church actually starting to refuse to remove people from its list of members. The world has simply moved on, to a present where religions and gods are unrelated to daily life.
I don’t think religion will ever disappear in Malta, but its relevance will continue to diminish with each new generation. Religious people will eventually become a minority, then a curiosity. Gods – already redundant – will become myths. But, just as the death of a mighty tree in the forest will create the space for new saplings to rise to replace it, humanity will flourish and grow.
Written by Ramon Casha
Photography by Matthew Grech
This article can be found in #5 of Patron Magazine.
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