Frying tonight

Listening to this brief clip of Stephen Fry talking about God on the Gay Byrne Show reminded me (at approximately the halfway mark) of a very similar sentiment presented the equally dazzling ~ though much less avuncular ~ intellect of the late Gore Vidal. Messrs Fry and Vidal share a number of traits in common, not least their avowed atheism - both in the sense of doubting there is any evidence for a deity but also in the notion that the monotheist vision of Him is so unappetising and hypocritical that both men preferred to eschew the idea of having to crook their knee to Him.
Both men also made the same claim in favour of the Ancient Greeks (was Mr Fry influenced by Mr Gore here?) The American author once stated that, if he were obliged to choose a religion, it would be that of the Olympian Gods - and for much the same reasons as advocated by our erudite Englishman in the above interview.
Regardless of whether we look at the deities of Olympus, Asgard, Tian, Aaru, or most other polytheist conceptions of the Divine Realms, we are invariably presented with a rather cantankerous bunch prone to behaviours both benevolent and destructive. There is no real attempt to present these beings as either omnipotent or all-loving, which removes the stumbling block of accounting for the terrible suffering endured by far too many people within a world ruled by a supposedly all-powerful benevolent deity.
Stephen Fry cites the damage done by eye-burrowing worms, a species also presented by Richard Attenborough as an example of why he too is an atheist. My polytheist take on such creatures is, perhaps, rather different. Undoubtedly a child being rendered blind by such a parasite is horrific to any reasonable human. However, the prospect of a human child munching down on a lamb chop is probably no less horrific to the mind of a sheep. If we think of a deity as essentially pro-human (which most monotheist sacred scriptures present him as being), then the experience of our own species as food suggests an almost demonic malevolence permitting it to happen. Alternatively, if there are innumerable Presences and many/most of these are just as (or more) interested in dogs, cattle, trees, viruses etc. as they are humans, then we can start to accept that one species evil and suffering is another species dinner time, and that our notion of morality is quite bound up with our own human experience. Cosmic morality must, by its very nature, go way beyond the bounds and benefits of one species.
On a planet where the vast majority of creatures survive at the expense of the things they are consuming, the morality of killing must be revised. Some religions have argued that world is of the Devil, thus explaining why there is so much suffering within it. Within the polytheist religions, this explanation doesn't wash. Some tribal religions have argued for absentee deities, who make the world and then just bugger off and leave us to screw it up to our hearts' content. It certainly feels like that some days, though my own experience suggests at least some other-than-human benevolence is at play in the world. If we are not abandoned (nor mollycoddled), then perhaps we need to consider that this world has evolved in such a way that death and predation is integral to the flourishing of biodiversity. Whilst few polytheist faiths argue for Creator Deities, many accept the idea of the deities being integral to the world ~ so they may not have made a world in which killing was deigned vital, but they are part and parcel of the world in which it is. If it is so necessary, can it really be a wickedly sinful thing? In much the same vein, we might ask if sex is so central to most earthly lifeforms, how can it be a moral stain to be avoided? As pagans we deem the world to be good, and therefore the processes of the world must also be morally appropriate. I'm not advocating that we all run around eating everything that moves (though, in practice, that is pretty much what humanity does do). However, consider death. If death is the absolute end, then killing can scarcely be a good thing - shortening the one and only chance another spark of life has at existing.
If death is a transition to something else - reincarnation, say - then shucking off a body may, from a cosmic viewpoint, be about was immoral and terrible as changing your shirt. The rabbit eaten by a fox becomes something else (partially it becomes the fox, of course). The deity who sits around and allows the rabbit to be devoured may not earn much thanks from the bunny, but can it be condemned as a cruel and unjust Being anymore than a person who sits and watches someone chuck away one set of clothes before putting on another? The morality lies not so much with the death as with the suffering that precedes it, and it is difficult to argue an ethical context to an action that causes more suffering than needs be - at least when humans engage in the action. Arguing morality for the actions of a rat or a spider gets too bizarre for words!


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