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An Open Mind is a Learning Mind.

I’m one of those people who needs to write. I’d go so far as to say my health – perhaps my very survival – depends on it. That isn’t me trying to sound melodramatic.

No, I, like many other writers, consider writing not simply a hobby or a method of making money, though it can and does fit easily into those categories. When I say I’m a writer, I’m saying it is as important an activity as eating or sleeping; to go without it for too long leads to moodiness and agitation.

Naturally with writing, one also ends up reading. To write means to record ideas on paper, and one can’t do that unless you’ve first gathered inspiration to form ideas worth recording. Ideas, information and knowledge are things I’ve treasured along with writing from a young age. In more recent years I’ve also become passionate about the importance of establishing the difference between ‘opinion’ and ‘fact’, whether historical or current, and the methods by which we go about establishing said distinction. Do you believe stuff based on evidence? What, in your mind, constitutes evidence? Hint: it isn’t always what people try to say it is.

To think about this is, I think, especially vital in the age of the Internet, where we’re exposed at ease to many opinions often presenting themselves as fact, and vice versa. Unless you want to believe everything, or nothing, or just stick to the inherent bias you grew up with, then you had better develop an eye for what constitutes evidence and a good argument. There’s a lot of bullshit out there, but that’s not to say I don’t value the Internet extremely highly; it has led to my generation becoming arguably the most open-minded of any generation before us. Growing up with so many easily accessible ideas around us has, in general, been healthy.

I find it hard being around people who do not care about these things, who may accept ‘truths’ just based on bias rather than applying critical thought; I find it offensive, and insulting, to see and hear that kind of thing in my presence. I’m not easily offended but this, you could say, is one of my ‘triggers’. Journalistic integrity and freedom of speech are two of the absolute pillars of a free-thinking society, while censorship lies at the opposing end of the spectrum (to be clear, by censorship I do not mean age ratings on products like movies and video games, which are often helpful and entirely necessary).

In my mind the acts of writing and critical thinking go hand in hand, though I know this is not the case for everyone – as I have read plenty in which it was clear the writer was not a critical thinker. Nor must one be particularly intelligent to write a lot, though to be a good writer (volume written doesn’t necessarily correlate with quality content) requires knowledge, not only of your craft but of the world around you.

Naturally then, the best writers also tend to be among the smartest, though it would depend on your point of view pertaining to how we should judge this kind of thing. Do we judge a writer by how clear and concise their style, or by how much knowledge they communicate through it? I suppose the best of them have both qualities. I certainly like to strive for both.

I grew up in a relatively ‘free’ family environment, with parents who weren’t overly strict and didn’t force any particularly weird rules upon me. It was an environment in which I was free to play video games, watch films, and read books without having to worry about which ones were ‘banned’, though at the same time neither of my parents were especially interested in those things and did not therefore instil any inherent bias for or against either. Each medium played their part in helping me grow up relatively open-minded and with an understanding that the world was bigger than my own little bubble.

To an extent, I do consider an open mind to be a privilege; one that many other people who grow up in different family environments aren’t encouraged to have (not that I was particularly encouraged towards it, but it wasn’t heavily discouraged either). Would I really have had the same learning opportunities, the same privilege of experiencing different sides to the world at an age where my mind had not yet grown hardened to them, had I grown up in a strict religious family for example? Likely not.

I find it a great shame when parents take it upon themselves to mould their children into who they want them to be (“for their own good!”), rather than allowing that child the space to discover themselves as an individual. This doesn’t just happen within fundamentally religious families either, and it isn’t always obvious. But as the subject of religion is a sore point for many, including to an extent myself (which I will explain a little further on), let’s stick on it for a moment.

Looking across the history of Western civilisation, our society and culture in the UK, US and Europe have been moulded by Christianity to the point where people have grown up believing – often subconsciously, before coming to ‘know Christ’ and being ‘born again’ later – in God, particularly the version of him portrayed in the Bible. Horror movies and literature in the West often portray demons or the devil himself as the source of all evil. In a court of law, people must place their hands on the Bible in some vague appeal to their conscience; a reminder that God is watching and they’ll be somehow punished for not telling the truth in front of Him.

Not that I want to get too deep into that issue here; what I’d rather do is illustrate how our ability to be open-minded about stuff can be inhibited simply through the culture or environment in which we grow up. If you grew up in the UK like me, you’ll be familiar with our inherently Christian culture. The US is similar, if not worse when it pertains to a Christianised culture, though the secular/ religious divide is arguably more extreme (or at least, more vocal) there as well. The UK, while moderately liberal, is also less willing to voice concerns over things like our monarchy, when we really should.

Now, I think it’s fine for people to acknowledge they’re not ‘open-minded’ about certain things, so long as they are aware of it. PC culture would dictate that we need to be respectful of everything, to the tiniest detail, but we’re all inherently different to begin with and naturally aren’t all going to see things in the same light. Some people don’t like swearing, others do. Some of us like eating meat, others don’t. People on either side, or somewhere in the middle, should be able to live how they want. Don’t rely on the approval of others for that. Equally, don’t expect everyone to be fully accepting of it.

Each of us have our inherent biases; open-mindedness is being able to recognise that bias and acknowledge there are people who’ll be coming from a different point of view. So long as that point of view doesn’t cause or advocate harm to others – which, again, is where religion can pose a bit of a problem – there’s no reason we can’t all respect each other as fellow humans while acknowledging our differences and not getting offended over stupid shit.

My own bias plays in to how I’m writing this article. Why is it, for example, that I feel the need to say swearing is okay, when really most people don’t need to be told that to do it anyway? Or why I focus on the importance of respecting points of view other than your own? Well, it comes back, again, to religion, more specifically Christianity; a religion that did not dictate too harshly how I should live my life growing up, but did at least subtly hold me back from fully expressing myself. Looking back on it, and seeing the effect it has on others as well, it’s clear this is what it does.

The unique thing about Christianity – at least, the Protestant side of which I have direct experience – is that it does not say you must obey its rules, and yet you kind of do, because if you don’t, it means you don’t really love Jesus and will go to hell anyway. A little slip-up is okay, but you must live the correct lifestyle consistently if you’re a ‘proper’ Christian. And boy, being told you’re “not a true Christian” is regarded as the highest form of insult. It’s something they’ll use against me, to discredit my own experiences, because in their eyes only someone who was “never a true Christian” could ever wish to turn away from it.

In many cases, Christians will use that one line as an all-encompassing excuse not to truly engage with issues raised by those who disagree with them. In fact, in my years of being around Christians, I can say in hindsight that many of those relationships, in the interest of ‘accountability’, involve carefully examining each other to determine whether one is a ‘proper Christian’, and each will make their determination, whether privately or publicly, about whether someone else is.

Christianity is supposedly about choosing to do the right thing through your own free will. But free will, of course, only goes as far as our inherent bias lets it – and this religion knows that all too well. It teaches the ultimate form of bias – that when we get to heaven, we’ll want to obey God without question, out of free will, because that will be our inherent nature. For now, on earth, we must deal with our ‘sinful’ nature, which wants to do bad things against God.

I’ll continue on that diatribe another time – there is so much more to say – but for now rest assured I’ve managed, though it has taken a lot of work, plenty of inner conflict, self-justification and thorough research, to largely let go of the hold Christianity had over me growing up and even up until a couple of years ago. Which isn’t to say, of course, that I have anything against Christians as people, though they can’t seem to help but take it personally (and I suppose one can’t blame them, if they believe with honest conviction) when others tell them they think their religion isn’t true.

The single biggest factor in breaking free from the confines of certain aspects of a religion, or anything else, relies on someone being open-minded enough in the first place to even consider whether they might be wrong. Of course I’m not saying that one necessarily leads on to the other (plenty of open-minded Christians have helped carry it out of the dark ages – while many conservatives/ traditionalists/ fundamentalists would claim that’s precisely the problem), but it’s certainly rare for anyone to leave their religion unless they’re open-minded enough to consider something other than what they’ve been conditioned to believe is true. They could, having considered everything else, still settle on Christianity being the truth, and I wouldn’t begrudge them that; it’s their prerogative to believe what they want, just as it is mine.

But if you consider it impossible for yourself to be wrong about something as ‘big’, as important as this, then you’re going to see opposing viewpoints through that specific lens. And naturally you’re going to shut yourself off from learning specifically why people might hold different points of view, because in your mind, in your version of reality, they’re already wrong and you – say, through the Bible – already have all the answers you’ll ever need.

Or maybe it’s more that, deep down, you’re terrified of realising you were wrong, having to admit it to others, and the damaged relationships that would inevitably result from that. I can understand that concern. I’ve seen it before, in people who stick with the Christian lifestyle not because they passionately believe in it, but because they perceive it to be simpler than the alternative, especially if they have a family of their own or friends who look up to them for spiritual support. The amount of Christian pastors hiding this kind of secret – feeling the weight of responsibility to ‘lead the flock’ and fear of letting them down – would shock the everyday church-goer.

I have realised I may need to pad what I say a little here, for those who may not know the full context surrounding my current opinions. First, if it seems I am overly negative towards Christianity, now or at any point to come, this is not necessarily an attack on its principles or even on the faith itself. Many Christians I’ve known are the liberal type who do not adhere strictly to everything the Bible says, or take what it says literally in the face of all scientific evidence to the contrary. Those people are Christian simply because the lifestyle makes most sense to them, and that’s fine.

However, let’s bear in mind what I said about bias. I am a UK citizen, yes, but more than that: I was born and lived in Belfast, Northern Ireland up to the age of 18, at which point I moved over to England for university.

Now, I’m going to assume any potential readers won’t quite realise the significance of that, so I’ll divulge some more. In Northern Ireland, as most people will know, we have a bit of a history of conflict; a kind of Irish ‘civil war’ as such, originating from when Ireland joined the UK a few centuries ago largely against the will of the Irish people. Long story short, back in 1922 the Irish Free State was formed as Ireland won some measure of independence from Britain (though they still had to abide by an ‘oath of allegiance’ to the UK until achieving full independence via a referendum in 1937).

At the same time, the predominantly unionist (that is; loyal to the union of the United Kingdom) six counties of Northern Ireland decided they wanted no part of Irish independence from the crown, and this country itself was technically formed in 1922 as well. Republicans (that is; those who are committed to seeing a fully independent Irish republic) have always held issue with this, just as unionists held issue with southern Ireland trying to take what they saw as their British identity. Even today, Northern Ireland sits in a unique position, in which its residents can claim to be Irish or British and neither would be lying; we are, after all, entitled to dual citizenship from birth should we so wish to claim it.

A large part of the origins of that conflict between Ireland and the UK was this: Ireland was largely a Catholic country, whereas the UK, at that time in the 1700s and continuing since, was protestant. So while technically you could say that means they were both ‘Christian’, no. Trust me, growing up in Northern Ireland it’s impossible to see ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ as equally Christian. You’re either on one side or the other, and our version of ‘peace’ is tolerating the other side while those old grievances still reside in the back of our minds.

For me growing up in a predominantly Protestant area, I naturally also grew up with that bias. But now, at this stage of my life, I see it all for what it is. Some others of my generation – usually those who have not ventured outside Northern Ireland to live for any sustained amount of time – still hold that strong sense of bias, and probably always will, as I firmly believe it becomes harder and harder to let go of built-in beliefs the older you get. None of us want to feel we wasted years of our lives being wrong about something after all, so as time goes on we’re more likely to make excuses to ourselves that help us keep believing it, partly also for the pride of being known as someone who ‘sticks to their convictions’ rather than someone who ‘flip flops around changing their mind’.

The elephant in the room when it comes to religion and conflict in Ireland, of course, is the claim I made to myself and others for many years: that the violence perpetuated in the name of God was committed by those who “weren’t truly Christian”. This is like what I said before; Christians justifying actions they don’t like by those who seemingly share their faith by simply disregarding it as “not the God I believe in”. If other believers aren’t acting the way you think they should, just keep yourself happy by saying they’re not ‘proper Christians’ and move on, free of any guilt and/or responsibility on the part of your own personal faith in God. Something similar is happening on a more global scale with Islam currently, but I won’t be touching that hot topic here.

Obviously we shouldn’t paint everyone with the same broad brush. We’re individuals, and we’re human, which means we all have different tendencies. Some of us gravitate more naturally to violence, though again there are environmental factors influencing that. Still, it’s undeniable: the Irish ‘troubles’ have their origin firmly rooted not just in patriotism but in the religion that goes hand in hand with it.

Christians on the outside looking in may try to justify their own belief in the loving nature of God by claiming they don’t represent him, but that’s precisely why they were fighting. Unionists would resist Irish rule “for God and country”. In their place would you not do the same to defend your own deeply rooted convictions/ beliefs? The men on the ground, murdering each other for a higher cause, were doing it because they believed it was God’s will in both cases, on either side – and it would not have been uncommon to see those same men in church on a Sunday morning, having taken part in terrorist acts during the week and planning more for the week to come.

All of this leads up to where Northern Ireland stands today. Belfast itself is an impressively modern city, attracting tourists from around the world and parts of it, particularly the city centre, looking a world away from the depressingly grey colours associated with the 1970s. I truly enjoy being back for the most part.

But it’s not all great. Our government serves as a stark reminder of our recent history, not only in its finely balanced unionist/republican divide (to get into the intricacies of it would be too complicated a matter to delve into here) but in the hold that religion has over us. Gay marriage is still illegal and our majority party, the DUP, have vowed to continue blocking it (while consensual gay sex was only decriminalised in 1982). Abortion is only legal under extremely strict criteria, and Northern Irish women often need to travel to England for private treatment to carry one out. Bars and clubs are forbidden from serving alcohol before 11.30am (whereas in England you can grab a beer from 7am in Weatherspoon’s if you feel so inclined).

Whether you feel strongly about the above issues or not, it’s indisputable that Northern Ireland feels a little left behind, even when compared to other regions within the United Kingdom. Of course, we have enough conservative Christian unionists living here that our population is generally happy with things as they are, as they see it as sticking to the rules set out in holy scripture. For me, I feel almost embarrassed by this stuff, and can’t see myself ever coming back to live long-term in Belfast unless certain things change.

Living in England introduced me to many Christians who were more open-minded than the kind of Christianity I’d always known in my homeland. And well, I’ve simply carried on from there, never really wanting to stand still, always keen to learn more. I don’t feel any blind loyalty to one way of thinking, and I don’t consider myself a nationalist in any sense of the word.

There’s one other element that went into all of this that can’t be discarded; in fact it may be the most important one of all. I mentioned earlier, near the beginning, how films and video games had been an important part of my childhood. One can’t be truly passionate about either of these mediums without encountering other cultures in the process. Two of my favourite video games, for example, are the survival horror game Silent Hill and its classic sequel on the PS2 (both developed in Japan), which first introduced me to the subtle elements of atmospheric horror unique to Asia.

Around that time, J-horror was also starting to take the film industry by storm, with Hideo Nakata’s Ringu inspiring a 2002 Hollywood remake starring Naomi Watts. That ended up being rather short-lived, with Ju-On: The Grudge (2003) and its 2004 American remake coming along at the tail end of it, but it can be attributed to sparking my interest in Japanese cinema and, more broadly, Asian culture. Why is this significant? Well, naturally, the more you see of the world, the less you feel you lie at the centre of it. Perhaps something I read recently can help sum it up; “A stolid attachment to a monolithic set of institutional forms becomes much more difficult when one is constantly faced with the beliefs and disbeliefs of many other traditions” (from Ghosts and the Japanese, Michiko Iwasaka and Barre Toelken, introduction).

This, I believe, is why many Christians steadfastly refuse to openly engage with other ways of thinking; deep down they know it could lead to them questioning themselves and ultimately ‘losing face’ should they begin to doubt their own faith. So they build caricatures and stereotypes of other worldviews and belief systems, because that makes it easier for them to paint themselves as the ‘enlightened few’ who have the One truth. Martin Scorsese’s recent film Silence summed up the inherent cultural differences and conflicts between East and West quite succinctly I think.

Sure, Christians may go on ‘missions’ with a view to ‘evangelising’ to those caught up in cultures they see as less enlightened, but they do not truly engage with the existing culture they meet when they get there, aside from the actions one must take so as not to appear awkward – such as taking your shoes off at the door when entering a home in Japan, for example. Even at the peak of my faith I could not help but feel a little awkward and uncomfortable at the idea of ‘mission’ to spread the gospel to those we see as less fortunate than ourselves. They’d return talking about how they ‘learned so much’… but I wonder how much they did learn, really?

I wanted to set this context so that anyone reading may understand my point of view a little better. I’m not saying others who were to go on a similar journey to myself would come to the same conclusions. I know some may read what I say about religion or Christianity and say “well, that’s not my experience”, and that’s cool. This is just me. Find your own way, but don’t let that way be dictated by blind loyalty, dodgy reasoning or a fear of changing your mind. Who knows… letting go of those things may help open the doors to something new.

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