Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Arguing With Inspirational Quotes Written On Little Pictures #2 - Gwyneth Paltrow

Back in October 2012, I declared war.

It didn't make many headlines, if I'm honest. I'm not sure the thing I declared war on actually noticed that I'd declared war on it. And, as wars go, it's not seen a lot of action. Kind of a cold war. Except without the cold.

Writing Inspirational Quotes on Little Pictures and then disseminating them across the interwebs like some sort of Contagion has seemingly become The New Normal approach to discussion. Where once we listened to debate, now all we hear are the clattering footfalls of a stampede of editors, Running with Scissors outstretched, ready to extract, redact, reduct, and slap on pictures - and beneath that, the softer, almost inaudible shuffling gait of The Pallbearers, carrying the creaking coffin of conversation towards the Shallow Hallowed ground of ignorance.

I had High hopes that my one-man crusade against these pithy little parcels of propaganda would result in the great Shout of revolution, but alas, I am but Flesh and Bone, not an Iron Man, and my Great Expectations were met only by the deafening Hush of indifference.
Nevertheless, today is the day I Bounce back, revolution or no, to deliver a faintly stinging slap to this particular Quotey Picturey thing:

Many thanks to www.Truth-Saves.com for providing this image. They've culled the quotes from an interview that you can read here, if you are the sort of person who likes to check their sources. If you can't read the teeny text on the image, fret not, here is what it says:

Religion is the cause of all the problems in the world. I don't believe in organised religion at all. It's what separates people. One religion just represents fragments, it causes war. More people have died because of religious conflict than any other reason.

Stirring words from the Infamous Gwyneth Paltrow, a woman who, if I can say this without Malice, would appear to be a much better actress than philosopher.
In the interests of fairness, therefore, rather than simply deriding her views, I shall simultaneously attempt to pay homage to her acting career, by mentioning all 47 of her acting credits, as listed on this page of the Internet Movie Database.

I'll do it subtly, so it won't interrupt the flow of the argument. Much. We've done fourteen already, and I bet you hardly noticed, right...? And, as silent movie heart-throb Rudolph Valentino famously said, "         ".

"Not that I'm complaining, but I have no idea what I'm doing in this post."

Broadly speaking, Paltrow's argument is that religion is currently running the show, and messing it up, and the world would be fixed by putting something else in charge. Basically "Religion makes a riSky Captain and the World of Tomorrow would be better off without it."
Is she right? Let's dissect her claims one by one.

"Religion is the cause of all the problems in the world."

That's a bold assertion.
The world has a lot of problems. In the Bignell household at the moment, for example, we're currently facing the intractable issue of where to keep our wine-rack. Does it look okay on the shelf by the TV, or should it go on the floor somewhere? It's a problem. I guess if I didn't work for a church, perhaps we could afford a house with a wine cellar, but I think it would be stretching the idea somewhat to assert that religion is behind our alcohol positioning difficulties.

Religion has undeniably caused some problems. Perhaps even lots of problems. But all? Tsunamis, earthquakes, forest fires, death, flooding, cancer, falling out of Love and Other Disasters - none of these can be pinned on religion. To do so is to accredit religion with God-like power. Which is slightly ironic, really, for someone who presumably doesn't believe in a God with God-like power.

"I don't believe in organised religion at all."

Odd choice of word, there. "Believe".
I assume she simply means "approve of". Otherwise she's claiming not to believe in the thing she just claimed was responsible for a vast percentage of her experience. Which would be a little bit muddled.

Though this does illustrate something for us: that truth does not depend on belief. Something is either true or false - Gwyneth's belief in it is neither here nor there. She may not believe in organised religion, but it still exists. There is plenty of evidence for it. And if something is true, then it is true, whether you - to use the phrase coined by The Talented Mr. Ripley - "Believe it or Not!" [From Ripley's Believe it or Not? No? Come on, how else was I going to get it in?]

I know Miss P isn't seriously suggesting that organised religion doesn't exist - but this fuzzy use of language is indicative of our society's current confusion between truth and belief. Somehow we have it in our heads that belief influences truth, rather than the other way round. We decide what we want to believe, and then assume the truth will fall into line for us... it's the very opposite of science, which attempts to discern the truth, and then uses that to inform our beliefs. I could rant for some time about this, but instead I will refer the reader to a rant I prepared earlier, here.

For example, Gwyneth clearly doesn't believe the Weeping Angels in Doctor Who are real.
She's either right or wrong... which is it? BLINK AND FIND OUT, I DARE YOU...

Moving on:

"It's what separates people."

Religion does, undeniably, separate people. The Church of Scientology certainly has a lot to answer for. I've seen a marriage torn apart by Mormonism. I know of Muslims who became Christian at the appalling cost of separation from their family and friends. It happens.

A community builds itself around a set of doctrines, and if an individual dares to question, or contradict, the teaching that underpins their society, then the Sliding Doors of social acceptance will slam shut on any limb they are careless enough to leave in the opening.

We should be grieved by cases like these - but let's not pretend such separation is the exclusive prerogative of religion.

Critics were apparently divided over this dress. Does that make this dress a religion?
(Dresses also, in general, help to separate underwear from outerwear, which is
sometimes considered to be quite a good thing.)

Separation on the societal level is at work everywhere - just go to any party. As the novelist K J Parker put it: “It never ceases to amaze me how adaptable social geometry can be. Within a couple of days I went from being the centre of the circle to an indefinite point outside its circumference.”

In other words, separation. We operate in circles, vicious circles, with insides and outsides, and K J Parker's vicious circle is in operation in every sphere. Every sphere has its circles.

The point that Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle are illustrating is that separation is fundamental to the human condition. Why? It is the inevitable consequence of our innate selfishness. What do Paris Hilton, Thomas Jefferson, Rudolph Valentino, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, me, Britney Spears and Mother Theresa have in common? Selfishness. You will find it in me, in Valentino, in Jefferson, in Paris Hilton, in Mozart, in Muslims, in Christians, in Buddhists, in Gwyneth Paltrow, in Britney... We are all, to a certain extent, curled in on ourselves - inward looking - selfish.

Here's a brief aside: the theory of evolution is inexplicable without a concept of selfishness. "Survival of the fittest" depends on there being an outside and an inside - the fit and the unfit; those on the inside become fitter as those on the outside become fodder. You can't explain evolution without acknowledging separation.

Which means, I think, that an atheist blaming religion for separation is a bit like a cheese sandwich blaming cows for milk.

Evolution separated man from the animals. (Allegedly.)
Face-paint helps us find the way back.

Separation isn't just a societal problem, of course - it operates on a much more personal level too. Let me tell you an all-too-familiar story.

It begins with Two Lovers - let's call them Emma and Mortdecai - and all is fun and laughter and Glee and the singing of soppy Duets; he buys her an expensive Tod Pashmy bag, she introduces him to all her Deadly Relations, they are on top of the world and the View from the Top is all fluffy bunnies and unicorns and rainbows... and then, somehow, Cruel Doubt sets in, the Pashmy Dream crumbles, she starts throwing away his most treasured Possessions, he starts eyeing up his secretary (Sylvia) and before they can even make it to the The Anniversary Party the Good Morning has become The Good Night, the romance is dead, and she ends it all by hitting him in the face with the Iron. Man. 2 or 3 times.

What happened?
It wasn't caused by religion.
Atheists gets divorced too.

Somehow, deep down, on the inside, humans are broken creatures, irrevocably separated from each other, no matter how hard we try to cling to each other on the outside.

Any religion which is a product of these broken creatures is going to cause more breakage; but the problem was ours long before organised religion evolved its first rotas.

"I still have no idea what I'm doing in this post."

"One religion just represents fragments, it causes war."

What is it good for?
Yes, there have been wars fought on religious grounds. Not very many though. If you have a spare $285 and some free time, you could spring for this book - which, apparently, lists 1763 different wars. Of those, 123 are categorised as being religious in nature. (I've not read the book myself, I'm getting these stats from this post here: but I'd welcome correction if anyone thinks they sound a bit off.)

So, yes, occasionally - in less than 7% of cases - people went to war for religious reasons. But mostly they go to war for other things entirely. Like love. To quote the great Shakespeare: "In Love, who respects friend?" (Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act V Scene IV, oh yes.)

People go to war for love of oil, love of money, love of power, love of land... One Country Strongly desires what their neighbouring country has, crosses a line or two, revenge is declared, armies are mustered, Avengers Assembled, and, hey presto, people are dying in the mud, all without needing any help whatsoever from organised religion.

I presume Gwynth Paltrow thinks we could abolish war by abolishing religion, but it won't work unless we also abolish oil, borders, race, power, money, love...

"More people have died because of religious conflict than any other reason."

You only need to think for a microsecond to realise this isn't true. Aside from the fact that 93% of wars weren't religious conflicts, war itself has killed comparatively few people. While the two World Wars carved ghastly swathes of destruction throughout our civilisation, most people die without any help from war at all.
I beg anyone who unthinkingly agrees with Gwyneth to do just the teensiest tiniest bit of research. You could start here:

The first link is outdated, but is still a very revealing list of causes of death, arranged by mortality rate. The top cause of death, fairly unambiguously, appears to be heart disease. War is pretty far down the list. Amazingly, "intentional injuries" (war, suicide and violence) rank quite a long way below "unintentional injuries". In other words, more people die by accident than because of religious conflict. So unless Dame Gwyneth wants to blame religion for all the rotting floorboards, slippery step-ladders, badly labelled rat-poison jars and precariously balanced bath-side toasters in the world, she doesn't really have much of a case.

(Having said which, some of those accidents were indirectly caused by religion. Apparently 31 Britons have died since 1996 because they watered their Christmas trees while the tree lights were switched on. Yes, the Royal Fir Trees - or, as the Germans might say, The Royal Tenenbaums - were lethal long before Doctor Who came along.)

Everyone knows that a real killer robot tree would just spray poisonous pine needles everywhere.
We've still finding the damn things all over our flat, three months later.

Final Thoughts

Well, there you have it.

But we can't quite stop yet, because there are still a few more Paltrow acting credits to crowbar in. Eight, in fact. Don't worry, it won't take long, it's not an especially Hard Eight. Sorry, Se7en. Sorry, six. And it will give us a chance to think more deeply about what's going on here.

If we go back to the interview from which the quote-on-a-picture was scissored, we learn how Miss Paltrow thinks mankind can get off the Hook:
Everybody needs to change their consciousness and realise we are all one and let go of the ego that's involved. That's the only way to solve it.
Salvation through Higher Learning, you could call that.
Ignoring, with some difficulty, the breathtaking incongruity of a Hollywood A-Lister suggesting we need to let go of our egos, what I think this boils down to is: try harder to be nicer.

Remember we are all one, says Paltrow - me, you, Britney, Rudolph Valentino, Mother Theresa, the Jews, the Muslims... Black and white all look the same in the Moonlight and Valentino is one with the Dalai Lama.

"Ah, so that's what I'm doing in this post. Disappointing.
Also, what the hell is this thing on my head?"
Trouble is, we are not all one. Clearly. The Muslims aren't one with the Jews. Valentino isn't one with the Dalai Lama. I'm not one with Britney. Gwyneth would say that's the fault of religions splitting us apart - if there were no religions, and we all thought like her, we would all be one.

So, let's get this straight:
If we all agree with Gwyneth, and we all try harder to be nice, then the world will be fixed.

Can you see the irony?
What we're describing here is a religion. Almost all religions, in fact. All religions, as far as I can tell, but one.

Islam says "Think like us and try hard to be good."
Judaism says "Think like us and try hard to be good."
Catholicism says "Think like us and try hard to be good."
Buddhism says "Think like us and try hard to be good."
Paltrowism says "Think like us and try hard to be good."

There's a bit more to it than that, of course, but - in essence - what these religions say is that "Mankind is basically okay, and can earn redemption by doing what we say."

And what these religions do... is destroy.
Our skinny blonde philosopher is both right and wrong:
She's right that mankind has a problem.
She's wrong in saying it was caused by religion.
She's right in saying that most (not all) religions cause many (not all) problems.
She's wrong in thinking that her approach is any different.

"The first rule of Paltrowism is that you do not talk about Paltrowism.
The second rule of Paltrowism is that your head needs to be able to pick up Sky TV."

Any system of thought that says "Mankind is basically okay" is dangerous. Because it's overlooking a terrible truth:

In all of human history, there has been precisely one perfect man. One man who didn't have that whole inward-looking, selfish streak. No one likes to be shown up... so he was murdered. The only execution of a truly, fully innocent man that has ever happened. A Perfect Murder, in a sense.

And he is the central figure of the one religion that says something different. The one religion that doesn't say "Mankind is basically okay, so think like us and try hard to be good."

Christianity says "Mankind is broken, and no amount of trying to be good will ever fix it."
Christianity says "Stop trying to do things... just believe in Jesus... and you will be changed."
Christianity alone provides the answer to the things Gwyneth Paltrow - and all of us - instinctively know we need an answer to. Selfishness, war, violence, separation... and it's not do something - it's believe something.

John's Gospel describes this encounter between Jesus and the crowd:

Then they asked him, 'What must we do to do the works God requires?'
Jesus answered, 'The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.'
(John 6:28-29)
That's it - just believe. And he doesn't ask us to take it on trust - the way Gwyneth Paltrow expects us to believe her own ill-informed cockamamie theories about saving the world. By living and dying, and rising again - in front of eye-witnesses, who wrote it all down for us - he left us with Proof.

This matters, because there is one final thing we need to mention about separation.
The underlying assumption in Gwyneth's quote is that separation is a bad thing. But we rely on it. We rely on our skin separating our insides from our outsides. We rely on our roofs separating the rain from our wine racks. We rely on our police force, our courts and our prisons, separating the wicked from the vulnerable. Deep down, we long for the day when the wicked are finally, completely, permanently separated from the good.

And there will be no more implacable evil golden robots creeping up
behind unsuspecting starlets to rip their Oscars right out through their hearts.

Gwyneth is looking forward to that day. She thinks that it will come when religion - the bad - is abolished by everyone else - the good.

The Bible says it will happen when Jesus returns as judge, to separate those who believed in him from those who didn't.

Two conflicting views; they can't both be right, and all heaven and hell is at stake. Who do you trust? Miss Paltrow, or Jesus? You may choose what you want to believe, but as we said earlier, what matters is what is true. At least do some thinking. It's fairly obvious, from a momentary examination, that Gwyneth's words - which you will find gleefully parroted on any number of atheistic websites - don't stand up to the facts. Do Jesus'? And don't just find a Bible quote stuck on a picture and think "Hah, thought so, it's all nonsense." Check your sources.

Well, there we have it. The wisdom of Gwyneth Paltrow, fabulous actress and terrible philosopher. Thank you, Gwyneth. Thanks for Sharing.

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