Saturday 4 April 2009

If this is Knowing, ignorance really is bliss

Anyone who's spent any amount of time talking to me will tell you that I'm a guy who takes religion pretty seriously. It's a Catholic thing. Sure, I'm lapsed these days, but if you're brought up in a faith as crazy as Catholicism, it's something you have to grapple with for the rest of your life, for purposes of psychic self-defence as much as anything else. I mean, I practised ritual cannibalism for years and thought that was a good thing. That kind of thing takes working out.

Now, I could have gone down the dogmatic atheist route, like Richard Dawkins , but, well, to me it seems as crazy to believe there is definitely, provably, no God whatsoever as to say that there is definitely, provably, only one God and that, coincidentally, that God agrees with you on everything, and especially on what should be done with the women. Well, okay, the latter view is actually crazier.

Personally, my thinking on religion is that it's impossible for one religion to know everything. Muslims say allahu akhbar - 'God is big' - but very few people of any religious persuasion actually bother to consider how big God has to be, if God does indeed exist.

Think about this: if there really is one God, then that God has to encompass and go beyond the knowledge and experience of not just every human being on this planet, but every animal, every plant, every microscopic organism, every living thing on this world and any other world which supports life. That's what omniscience means. If God is all-knowing, God knows at all times what it's like to be you, me, Hamid Karzai, Lindsay Lohan, the brothers Hitchens, the cat sitting on my garden wall right this minute, Tim Berners-Lee, a lion killing a gazelle, the gazelle being killed by the lion, the vultures watching the kill and waiting their turn at the flesh, the grasses and trees growing all around them, and the bacteria that will multiply in the rotting flesh of the gazelle when even the vultures want no more of it.

It is highly unlikely that so sophisticated and all-knowing a being gives a rat's arse where you put your winkie. Or whether you eat meat on Fridays. Or, indeed, whether you have faith in it or not.

This is why I've never really went along with religions of the book. Sure, there are a lot of things I do read religiously, but the Bible isn't one of them. It comes back to the point I made above: whenever some self-appointed prophet starts telling you what God really, definitely wants, it always seems to coincide exactly with what he wants. The technical term for this is 'revelation of convenience,' and it's this above all that led me to question my own faith and, indeed, those of others. I mean, if the Pope was infallible all along, why did the church only discover this in the 19th century - faced with a variety of challenges to its traditional authority? Hmmmmm.

No, for my money, the religions that get it right are what I would loosely term gnostic religions, faiths that stress not dogma but direct engagement with and knowledge of the divine. Sufism , for example, or some forms of the syncretic vodoun-derived religions. In such traditions, subscribing to a bunch of moral dogma isn't the key, what matters is that you follow a set of practices which lead one to an experience of the divine - a 'knowing' if you will.

Ideas of religion and 'knowing' have been on my mind since, last night, I watched the film Knowing , which I expected to be a pretty dull Nic Cage vehicle and which turned out, in fact, to be an actively dislikable piece of religious propaganda.

For those fortunate enough not to have seen it yet, 'Knowing' stars Nic Cage as, essentially, a godless scientist who has became estranged from his extremely godly family following the death of his wife. After discovering a series of odd numbers in a time capsule unearthed at his son's school, the godless scientist (who's called Koestler, in a move which the film's writers doubtless think is clever but, crucially, actually isn't) discovers that said numbers predict every major disaster to befall the world since 1959, up to and including a fiery apocalypse caused by a major solar flare (which, apparently, goes unnoticed by any of the many other godless scientists Koestler knows for much of the movie - seriously, nobody notices the big-ass solar flare until Koestler informs them of his divine revelation). Meanwhile, Koestler's deaf-but-apparently-not-actually-deaf son has started seeing visions of mysterious figures who tell him he must choose to 'come with them' to escape the world-annihilating conflagration to come. Koestler witnesses a plane crash, then a subway crash, in the process hooking up with the daughter and granddaughter of the writer of the mysterious numbers, then tries fruitlessly to escape the imminent armageddon. By the film's end, Koestler has renounced his godless science and returned to the bosom of his family to await the end, while his son and the number-writer's granddaughter have been rescued by the mystery men who, it turns out, are actually angels, you see, or possibly, er, aliens, and been deposited - along with many of the other pure young children who are, in a very real way, aren't they, hmmmm, our future, - on a new world which looks, oddly enough, a lot like the biblical Garden of Eden.

Yes - 'Knowing' isn't a sci-fi film at all, it's a christian allegory. Only not a gentle, C of E, CS Lewis style Aslan-is-actually-a-bit-like-Jesus-isn't-he allegory, oh no. 'Knowing' is a godawful hybrid of the ideas of Erich von Daniken and the Left Behind novels, and is the kind of christian allegory whose authors seem intent on beating you repeatedly about the head with the sheer bloody allegorical christianity of it all. And that christianity, allegorical or not, is actually pretty nasty.

The angel/aliens, for a start, obviously have powers vastly beyond our own world's godless science - yet rather than, say, stopping the solar flare, or saving everybody on the planet, they save only the pure (and, of course, caucasian) children. Because only the children are pure. The adults are all foul, dirty sinners, corrupted by godless science and probably secular humanism to boot. But the children, ah, yes, the children, they're lovely and pure and innocent and they get to frolic in the meadow while God watches - seriously, am I the only person who finds that a bit, er, how to put this, paedo-riffic?

Scary, alien, quasi-religious child-catchers aside, another disturbing aspect of this film's smug dispensationalism is what happens to the female lead, the daughter of the woman who originally wrote down the numbers. At a crucial point in the plot, she is without faith in the numbers, and refuses to follow the will of the faithful male. As a result, of course, she is punished, in a car accident which comes completely out of nowhere. I mean, seriously, why not just go the whole hog and turn her into a pillar of salt, why don't you?

Of course, we're not supposed to be questioning. We're supposed to have faith. We're supposed to cry sentimental tears when Nic Cage says goodbye to his deaf-only-not-actually-deaf son, when the pure and innocent ickle children frolic about in the new Eden, watched over by benevolent intelligent designers who, honestly, really, aren't necessarily anything like God, and when the godless scientist returns and is reconciled, prodigal son-style, with his godly kin, in a rousing scene of family values. I know, I know. It takes a heart of stone not to vomit.

My wife actually came up with a much better ending for this film when we were driving home. Basically: don't have the world end. Have everything turn out to have been a set-up, a way of fooling humanity into parting with their children. The day after the end of the world, Nic Cage wakes up, and stumbles through a world in which new broadcasts aren't filled with talk of solar flare apocalypse, but of strange ships seen in the sky, and reports of missing children from around the globe. In the final scene, Cage opens the door of his family home. His sister looks at him and asks him where his son is. We close on Cage's shocked, stunned, silent facial expression, and then a brief shot of the armada of alien/angel ships, headed to...wherever. They've done this before (it's in the bible, people!) They come, they create panic, they harvest the children...and there's nothing we can do. A disturbing, Lovecraftian ending which might actually give the film an emotional impact beyond weird Christian/new age space brother types.

Of course, the writers would never have gone with that idea, because, really, isn't that kind of saying that God is a bit of a bastard? To which one can only reply: in your version, God kills almost everyone on Earth, except a few kids, and he isn't meant to be a bastard?

Myself, if there is a God, I prefer to credit said deity as being a tad more enlightened than that. Shame his followers can't show him the same generosity. Even more of a shame that they feel the need to show us how little they really think of their idol by making shit films about it.

Last I saw, you could pick up a copy of Dogma on DVD and get change of a fiver. It'll cost you at least three times that to go and see 'Knowing.' My suggestion: buy Dogma and spend the rest of the money on booze. Because altered states of consciousness are a path to the divine, and because Dogma is a more intelligent filmic examination of religion than 'Knowing.' And Dogma has a monster made of shit in it.