The Argument from Suffering

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A misplaced Google search hijacked my mind for almost twelve hours; even the internet has a disturbing Christian undertow – an undertow in which Aquinas is still revered. To my disbelief there are people who still believe the ontological argument to be the final word in any debate regarding the existence of a benevolent chap sat in a cloud armchair. Now I’m going to make something of an assumption, a large percentage, if not every single person who reads my scribblings are atheists – not just this blog, which no one reads; but my essays, short fiction, and stand-up comedy which no one reads or listens to. All those nobodies together could pack a laundry closet with a powerful display of their agreement; on a dull, wet Monday they can reach double figures.

Contact with those of an imaginary-friendship bent often leaves one feeling like the sole rational being in a room full of toddlers, screaming, kicking and crying over the loss of a blue stuffed bear. That only exists in their minds. At these moments it is easy to feel a kinship with Richard Dawkins – shouty defender of reason from people who view rationality much as I view the smoking ban. Dr Dawkins is intelligent, eloquent and so smug looking that I almost wish there was a deity just to wipe the smirk from his Oxonian chops.

Where Dawkins goes wrong, as so many of us do, is by using reason to argue a matter of belief. While reason is the perfect tool with which to crush Aquinas’ rational proofs of existence, it has little impact against cherished beliefs which have no more rational basis than Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and leprechauns. This argument is itself a rational one, but I find it difficult to construct an irrational argument (or to imagine the structure and purpose of one). I’m sure the nearest religious believer will do so for you. All this has been said countless times before, however, I do have a vaguely original point to belabour: the size of the argument is unreasonable.

While reason remains the key in constructing larger arguments against god’s existence, as has been admirably done by minds (e.g. Hume, Mill, Russell) greater than mine or yours. If I’m truly honest, while the large arguments are responsible for my atheism, it’s the small things, the everyday occurrences that confirm it. Today I’ve had a headache for the entire morning and a good chunk of the afternoon: that’s enough for me to deny the existence of a benevolent God. As far as I’m concerned no benevolent creature, be it deity or mollusc, would allow me to suffer from a condition that appears to be worsened by caffeine, nicotine, and music – the three things that make day to day existence bearable, the problem of suffering is much similar to the problem of evil, scaled down to a personal level. If God not only inflicts headaches upon me, but also denies me coffee, tobacco and music; then he either cannot rid me of headaches (is not omnipotent), does not know I have a headache (is not omniscient), and/or is willing to let me suffer (is not benevolent).

To those who think it a sign of self-importance to write an entire blog about my headache, I must say I think you look rather silly now. My headache is not just a problem for me; major theological issues hang in the balance. The fact that it refuses to shift is sufficient to convince me that God does not exist, or is a cruel bastard. Unless Rowan Williams makes me jam sandwiches with hot whiskey and lemon. Maybe God can use his supposed omniscience to find the remote.

BLASPHEMY, BLAS FOR YOU, BLAS FOR EVERYBODY

Coops x

Pot Noodles and Potted Plants

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A pile of blankets began to stir, slowly disentangling one part from another until a single hand turned towards such light as managed to bully its way through a blind and a heavy curtain. The fingers, bruises on the knuckles, nails stained a shade of yellow rarely seen outside of retirement homes, found first the carpet and then an open tin of tobacco. The fingers expertly gripped the rim of the open tin, lifted it towards the pile and made it disappear. A box of matches and pipe followed and with a groan and a barely murmured expletive the blankets themselves began to smoke.

Had the blanket creature eyes, it would have witnessed an event previously unknown to any earth-bound physicist: light itself slowed to a visible speed, and then stopped. After a few decades of diligent effort and a lot of expensive equipment, light had previously been slowed to a visible pace in a lab, for a few seconds. Had they known this would be exceeded using window fittings, old socks and takeaway food wrappings, the majority of the physicists would have retired to a monastery. (Of course one of them did so in any case, but as he played the bongos this was no surprise and everyone was pleased to see him go).

Oblivious to all of this, the blankets began to cough, splutter and spray glowing embers over itself. In a burst of evolutionary prowess that would have left Darwin breathless, it quickly developed four limbs, a head and a fine vocabulary of four and eight letter words which it swiftly weaved into a dazzling tapestry of annoyance. Once several small fires had been extinguished and an upright position reached, the blanket creature revealed itself to be a male member of the apelike species known as homo sapiens. It was for him the work of a moment to exchange the blankets for clothes chosen at random from the floordrobe*, and begin the search for nourishment.

As soon as the apelike creature left the room, the sunlight, with one heroic push, made it past the sock and briefly illuminated the green wallpaper of the far wall before realising there was no one there to appreciate it. Startled by finding itself on the wrong side of the curtain, it went back through the window at roughly the speed of, well, light. Kevin, for that was the creature’s name, continued his slow progress down a staircase which had one step which didn’t creak and a bannister which one used as a guide rather than an aide to balance.

The major feature of Kevin’s living room was the lack of anything that could be considered a major feature, aside from a bookcase containing a large number of books, as one might expect, and a slightly smaller number of mugs, which one only expected if one had seen the bedroom. Like many of his kind, Kevin seemed to consider it a sin to drink from the same mug twice in a month, and as a result not only the bookcase but also the floor around the solitary armchair was decorated with numerous mugs of coffee and glasses of water. All were of varying ages, perhaps a day or two on the table to the immediate right of the chair, a few days on the floor directly in front of it, of indeterminate age on the bookcase. As with the rings of a tree, increased age was indicated by distance from the centre; the centre being a comfortable looking chair with a book or two positioned on either arm. The small television hidden in the corner was a nod to inevitability rather than a form of regular amusement. Kevin watched as a spider slowly attached one end of a web to a corner of the screen and began the process of coaxing a fly down from the lightshade. Oh yes, Kevin thought with equal parts relish and trepidation, breakfast.

The reason for his trepidation confronted him the moment he sneaked, almost unnoticed, through the door into the kitchen. A pile of plates, kept aloft only by its private gravitational field and dotted with stray cutlery, towered above the sink and dared him to tackle it. As a boy, Kevin’s sensible nature had been mentioned in several school reports. It was his inherently sensible nature which led him to turn on the hot tap, add a squeeze of washing up liquid, and leave things to soak for another week or so**. The philosophers’ knot of cables around the plug socket yielded both the toaster and kettle within less than ten minutes, proof positive if proof were needed that the day would be a positive one. A day like this, Kevin decided, needed careful handling if it was to continue as well as it had started. With this in mind he chose the least stained of his mugs, and afforded the pile in the sink another apprehensive glance before spreading peanut butter on his toast with the edge of a playing card which providence had placed next to the kettle.

Once he was settled in his armchair, with everything in easy reach, Kevin felt able to begin the tasks of the day: he set one of the volumes from the table over his lap and began to read. Good, bad or indifferent, all days were essentially the same for Kevin: words, words and more words. He introduced match to tobacco and when they had become fast and fiery friends, he sank into the aged leather and allowed the words to work their magic. Books were by no means limited to the shelf; they were to be found on the window sill, the table and even on top of the television: Kevin’s sole lasting relationship was with words. Unsurprisingly, his major ambition was to contribute in some small but lasting way to the volume of words that cluttered every available surface and several unavailable ones (such as the top of the fridge, which currently providing a resting place for two volumes of Asimov short stories and a vegetarian cookbook). Kevin was of course a writer; no day was allowed to pass without the production of a few thousand words, in a doomed attempt to balance the tens of thousands which he absorbed in his armchair.

All writers as a matter of course have a delicious sense of irony, as is displayed by their choice of profession. Of necessity, they are sensitive souls and, solitary folk by choice, their self-confidence is rarely high. Nonetheless, they choose a profession which more or less guarantees frequent rejection, thus demonstrating the high levels of irony and lack of practicality for which writers are famed. Once a month, no more no less, Kevin would review his crop of words and send them to a number of magazines along with a cover letter and all the hope he could muster. Invariably, he received in return a number of rejections and a crushing sense of failure. Over the years this sense of failure had had something of an effect on his writing. The optimistic tales he had churned out with impressive regularity in the first few months after university were a thing of the past, exchanged for a series of lengthy misanthropic descriptions of dystopia and destruction, squeezed with all the malice of a giro from the DWP, and almost as infrequent.

The clunk of his letter box distracted him from the work of others and directed his thoughts to his own; specifically last month’s crop of words which, in a rare burst of enthusiasm, he had sent not only to the usual magazines, but to an honest to Hades publisher. The chair creaked in protest almost as much as Kevin himself did as he raised to his feet and strode towards the front door with an unexpected optimism, and returned with four letters and an unaccustomed spring in his step which (coupled with the pipe and dressing gown) caused him to resemble a tartan flamingo.

The first letter did nothing to dissuade Kevin from his optimism, despite the DWP postmark: an apology for late payment and TWO giros for a hundred quid each. The next three however, performed the equivalent of a jab and uppercut followed by a swift, unprovoked kick to the testicles. If a moment before Kevin had looked like a perky, if oddly coloured, flamingo, his expression now was that of a bulldog who has been refused a piece of cake. He was used to rejection letters. The first two were similar enough to give rise to a long-nurtured suspicion that all magazines had, several years ago, drafted one standard rejection letter for use when dealing with talentless squibs such as him***. That last letter though, there was no doubt that it had been written specifically with him, Kevin, in mind. A publisher, he thought, the unforgivable arrogance of it, the boundless stupidity. He screwed up the letter and then smoothed it over his knee and read it again.

A standard rejection letter it was not, mentioning as it did several shortcomings in the plot of Kevin’s story, not to mention the purposelessness of his characters and the complete and utter lack of interest in, not only this story, but any future work Kevin was strongly advised not to bother wasting the letter-writer’s time with. Three pipes and a cup of coffee later, he managed to screw up the letter for the final time before hurling it towards an overflowing paper bin. It overflowed a good deal more once he’d finished kicking it around the room. Cretins! Morons! Each and every one of them. He had provided them with not only a story, but a world; an entire fucking universe, populated with races who had not only purpose but nobility and heart. And did they thank him; did they get off their editorial arses and make the tiniest leap of imagination? Did they balls, they asked for a more believable narrative; every day characters and a plot people could “relate to,” This publisher’s letter was only the worst symptom of an all too prevalent disease: “Fantasy”, this literary Samaritan had informed him “is dead.” In order to publish what was apparently needed was realism, dull, grey everyday fucking driv… Kevin’s foot stopped a quarter inch from giving the upturned bin an almighty wallop and a smile formed around the stem of his pipe.

This smile had almost nothing in common with the bright, optimistic grin that had dominated Kevin’s face prior to the arrival of the postman. This, it must be said, was more grimace than grin, and as Kevin flung open the back door and made his way towards the shed it widened considerably. The shed was where Kevin worked. All writers find it necessary to have their own space free from distraction, and Kevin’s shed was a perfect example of such a spot. It contained a single deckchair and a table which served as a burial ground for half empty biros, scattered with several sheets of cheap writing paper. Kevin tore one such sheet from a notepad and flopped down into the deckchair. If they wanted reality, then every day he would give them exactly that. He re-lit his pipe, picked up a pen and began to write: “A pile of blankets began to stir, slowly disentangling one part from another until a single hand…”

-

*A type of bedroom furniture preferred by single males due to its cheapness, easy availability and because it doesn’t require an allen key to construct.
**The phrase “leaving it to soak” is one used instead of “leaving it for someone else (female) to deal with”. In houses where no female is present, Roman Silver has been found still soaking.
***This suspicion is one which has occurred to most writers at some point in their lives. It is, of course, paranoid, conspiratorial, and absolutely true. Blah.

Black Dogs and Bum Notes

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I am aware that the metaphor in the title is a much overused one. Churchill’s black dog is mentioned so often in printed words as to raise questions about how many bastard puppies the thing ran around siring, or birthing, its sex having never been made clear. Over time I’ve learned to accept that the mutt will occasionally come to visit, wrap around between my legs and make itself comfortable beside a water bowl filled with bile. However, I object when it jumps up and bites my fucking balls off – this it is in the process of doing. I have relatively few weapons in my arsenal: quetiapine, writing and music, of which (as I’ve made abundantly clear) writing is by far the best. Quetiapine is a poor third place.

I have written a great deal on the effectiveness of writing as a…..mood stabiliser/anti-psychotic/anti-depressant/inflatable mind hammer, etc. Therefore, tis to the second weapon that I turn my attention: music. As a result of reasoning so convoluted that it not only loses me, but I find myself behind it wondering how the hell it got there – and in a traffic jam – many a humanoid will inform you that the best thing to do is listen to cheerful music. Happy, jumpy sort of things, possibly with tunes you can whistle. Bobbins. Drivel. Shite. When in such a mood there is, for want of a better word, the canon: Cohen, Reed, Drake, Curtis, Cobain, Buckley. It would be all too easy to dismiss this half dozen as “troubled young men”, even more so as four of them never became troubled old men. Cohen and Reed have, against the odds, achieved elder statesman status.

The “troubled young men” tag, along with “depressive music for depressed kids”, is first of all moronically simplistic. The odds are that you have at least one record by the above in your collection; play it now. All six have a ragged, austere beauty and complexity in both verse and music which leave their public image as pied pipers of self-destruction seeming one-dimensional, lazy and ignorant. It’s only fair to point out that a good deal of their fan bases are indeed teenaged/in their twenties, although several generations of such people have taken them to heart at a tender age… and love them still. The idea that one progresses inevitably to a comfortable dotage with Bruce Springsteen, Chris DeBurgh and Dire Straits to settle you back into an armchair, is one that I shall hurl my black metal collection and Zippo at for many a year to come. Those angry young men who bought Nevermind on release are in their thirties at least, and their kids are raiding their record collections.

I assume the theory behind those jumpy, bouncy songs is that they “cheer you up”. I am afraid, sir, I take issue with your reasoning. The last person you wish to have around when playing host to the aforementioned hound is a cheery, outgoing and bouncy companion, or as their more commonly known, a chirpy twat. What you really want is a friend, someone to talk to and who (you feel) understands you. A record will almost always be a one-sided conversation and it is a cliché that the most beautiful art comes from the deepest pain. Like the one about the snozzwanger, this one became a cliché by being true. (If you haven’t heard the one about the snozzwanger; it’s often floated around at the kind of parties you’re never invited to, the ones with fudge brownies AFTER the first ten minutes and no vegetables or questionable dips to spoil the palate.)

A small part of me (the part that worked in record shops for several years, and is thus a music snob) would like to include recommended listening at the end of this. Fortunately, a far larger part of me remains the sort of chap who eats custard from the tin (with a fork if the dishes have piled up), and that part realises that such an undertaking at the end of a blog would be even more pretentious than the phrase “such an undertaking”. I’ll bring this to a conclusion now, before my vocabulary denigrates entirely to the level of a sixth form poet.

The deepest blues are black.

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