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Column: Why are the Catholics being bailed out by the Protestants?

In Europe, it’s the Catholic countries that are economic basket cases – and maybe that’s no coincidence, writes comedian Abie Philbin Bowman.

Abie Philbin Bowman

WHY ARE THE Catholic nations of Europe being bailed out by their Protestant neighbours? Looking at the financial crisis, why are Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy in trouble? And why do we expect Germany, the UK, Holland and Scandinavia to come to our rescue?

Admittedly there are some exceptions to this Catholic/Protestant dichotomy. The French are nominally Catholic – although anyone who’s been to France in the past 30 years will tell you that the French are institutionally atheist. And also full of themselves. (Much as it pains me to say it, I don’t think these two things are completely unrelated.) And of course the Greeks are neither Catholic nor Protestant. They’re Orthodox. Although their system of accounting is not particularly orthodox.

In Protestant culture, you get into heaven by following your conscience, reading the Bible and telling the truth. Whereas, in Catholic culture you get into heaven by following orders, feeling guilty and saying the magic words. When you translate that into finance, Protestants hear “Play by the rules, work hard and you’ll become rich.” Whereas Catholics hear “The rules are impossible. Everyone sins, everyone gets into debt… But if you want to consolidate all your sins into one simple, monthly confession, dial this number.”

I don’t have a problem with God. I have a problem with God’s customer support team.

Of course, people in Europe don’t take God nearly as seriously as they used to. A thousand years ago, Europeans truly believed in God. People born as serfs were persuaded, and convinced, that God wanted them to work in crappy jobs. They accepted dreadful leaders, because they believed in the Divine Right of Kings. At one point Europeans even invaded the Middle East, because God wanted them to reclaim the Holy Land… even though God had clearly given the land to the Arab people living there at the time. (This suggests that God is somewhere between a dodgy estate agent, and a flirtatious, high-maintenance girlfriend, shrieking, “Fight over me! Fight over me!”)

Fast forward a thousand years and God has been largely removed from European politics. We won’t do things for God any more. Instead we do things “to help the economy”. And what do we do? We work in crappy jobs, accept dreadful leaders and invade the Middle East… because we need the oil. Essentially, we’ve replaced God with a vague, nebulous entity that “moves in mysterious ways”.

‘If you walk around worried about God, God will exert power over you’

The good news about money and God is that their power is consensual. If you walk around constantly worried about what God thinks of you, or how much everything costs, then God and money will exert extraordinary power of your life. However, if you choose to worry less about God, or to place money lower down your list of priorities, their power over you diminishes. Gandhi said “If you wish to overthrow a dictator, see first that his throne within you is toppled. The rest will follow.”

In 1650, Europe received a fabulous gift from the Islamic world: the coffee shop. For the first time in Europe total strangers could meet in public, and have a private conversation about whatever they wished. (More importantly, as they were sober, they would remember it the following day.) As people sat down to debate the affairs of the day and compare notes, they started to question authority as never before. Modern European atheism began in 1650.

In 2011, the Islamic world received a slightly less fabulous gift from the Europeanised West: Facebook and Twitter. For the first time in many years, total strangers could have private conversations about whatever they wished. (More importantly, as they weren’t being watched by the secret police, they wouldn’t be ‘disappeared’ afterwards). As people sat down to debate the affairs of the day and compare notes, they started to question authority as never before. Modern Arab democracy has begun in 2011.

The lesson in all of this is that communication is powerful. Given its centrality in our lives, we very rarely talk about money. When was the last time you asked someone “How much do you earn?” or “What’s your bank balance?” It’s a deeply personal question. But then, so is “How often do you sin, in the eyes of God?” It’s only when we start talking openly about the effect of money in our lives that we realise how arbitrary, unfair and irrationally powerful it is – and what absurd things we do in pursuit of it.

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We have replaced our desire for heaven and our fear of hell with a desire for riches and a fear of poverty. And we have allowed those in power to exploit our greed and fear for their own ends. Personally, I would love to see the people of Ireland rise up against the IMF and the ECB as the Egyptian people rose up against Hosni Mubarak. I would love to see the jubilant scenes on Tahrir Square repeated in St Stephen’s Green. But I know it’s never going to happen. We just don’t have the weather for it.

Abie Philbin Bowman performs Pope Benedict: Bond Villain at the Lir Theatre as part of ABSOLUT Fringe, until Saturday September 24.

His previous shows Jesus: The Guantanamo Years, Eco-Friendly Jihad and Sex, Lies & the KKK are being filmed for DVD release in Dublin next month. To pre-order copies, or to attend the live performances, check out indiegogo.com/AbiePB

About the author:

Abie Philbin Bowman

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