Theology for Losers

Anthony McIntyre 🔖 Religion – for those too fearful to live and too terrified to die. No pleasure in life, no release in death. An existence of trepidation and timidity cowering in fear of the sky daddy’s wrath and endlessly apprehensive about what lies in store at the other side of death. If there is a reason for not wanting to believe in god just read Frank Sheed. Totally delusional.

Not that it is a new work. Sheed died as far back as 1981 and had penned Theology for Beginners twenty three years earlier. He was writing at a time when I was incapable of reading. Despite his longings he still has not made it to heaven. He’ll get there the same time as I do. One of the more prominent street preachers of his day Sheed was a man of considerable intellect. Why he should have devoted it to a pretty useless theology was best known to himself. While never his intention Sheed confirmed his status as theologian of bunkum.

The religious life seems so desolate and stripped of those things that characterise humanness; a life unable to sustain itself on the beauty of the natural and which needs to plug into the supernatural is in itself life-denying. This is not to argue that all religious people are unhappy. Many derive solace from religion. But there are those who can only get by on trying to drain the contentment out from the lives of their fellow human beings. Look no further than the Scottish clowns who recently protested at a ferry service being run on a Sunday or the Sephardic idiots who blocked Saturday motorists because they objected to a car park operating on their Sabbath. Whether the god of Sunday or the god of Saturday it is all man-made. One of man’s least useful manufactures to boot.

I like books and am not deterred by the age of one. It is always useful to see what people were writing years ago and use it as a gauge of how far thinking has moved on. In this book Frank Sheed related an account of an exchange with a street ‘heckler’ while he was busy preaching from his soapbox. Sheed was labouring to explain the spirit but only managed to prompt the challenge of ‘that’s the best definition of nothing I ever heard.’ The book is memorable for that alone.

Another question from the street that Sheed tried to deal with was ‘who made god?’ The answer has become no easier or convincing with the passage of time. The modern atheists have popularised scientific belief so successfully that faith head attempts to overcome the logic of the question with the illogic of theology have made heavy weather of it all. The contradictory assumptions at the very heart of the god concept are laid all the barer.

Sheed frequently provides the very evidence in support of his claims that an atheist would find affirmation in. For example when it is stated that god is utterly changeless Sheed goes on to tell his readers that some would view this as stagnation. Why wouldn’t they? Nothing persuasive emerges. The contorted reasoning reminded me so much of the born again bible thumping types I would occasionally have the misfortune to meet in the North’s jails.

Sheed asks a question that still does the rounds today – for what were people made? The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins answers this much better than theology does. Evolution is not teleological; there is no goal. It just happens in the struggle to survive. To his credit Sheed never sought to foist the creationist myth on his readers. He regarded as rubbish the idea that the world was a mere 6000 years old and pointed to the work of Augustine 1400 years before Darwin as evidence of a Christian thinker who believed in evolution. Catholics are ‘allowed to believe in an evolutionary process by which the first human body comes from the earth by way of other animal bodies.’

Even where reason prevailed the ridiculous was never far away. Lucifer figured in Sheed’s world of theology. Hell is described as ‘all hate; hate of god; hate of one another …’ Yet, hell is nothing more than a figment of human imagination. It is not a place where man hates god but one where man hates man and much of the hating is done by religions. Is there really a more hateful concept that that of original sin? In order to nourish it readers were subjected to the nonsense of Adam and the fall. Is there anyone who attended the birth of their children able to deign so low as to denigrate that momentous event and dehumanise the child by thinking that it comes along with a voucher for original sin? And the heaven of the loving god is closed off to those children for evermore if they do not go through some ritual of baptism.

All sounds pretty strange stuff these days. Yet there are people who believe in this type of thing. Some of them serve as ministers in the Stormont Executive. That people like that can make decisions for the rest of us is truly frightening. My idea of hell.

Sheed wondered how other Christian religions could function without the canonisation of Saints. It just meant that he needed a bit more make-believe in his brand. Others could get by on less. Sheed also defended the ludicrous concept of papal infallibility. Yet if there ever was something that could be regarded as papal bull it is this. Society hardly needed Hans Kung to explain that much although it was welcome when he did. So on and on it goes with Sheed wrestling with such theological niceties as the Son being older than the Father and the Son who could choose his mother.

One thing that did strike me was his definition of justice as meaning ‘a really profound concern that others should have their rights, driving us to do something about it.’ It is so unfortunate that the rights of children were not considered a just cause worthy of something being done about it by the legions of god lovers in the Catholic Church. For them doing was covering – up.

At the end of it all Frank Sheed dismissed those who didn’t believe what he did as not living in the real world – of saints, angels, miracles and demons.

FJ Sheed, 1958, Theology For Beginners: Sheed and Ward Stagbooks, 


  1. No cultural gulf here, Doc! The saddest thing that I have read on the situation in the beautiful land that you live in is the religious nonsense which has promoted such evil for so many years. Wonder what the culture that existed for about 9,000 years before the Celts arrived was like--do you?

  2. I'm a 'reluctant atheist' myself. I know there's no heaven, but I still wish there was.

    Mind you, being an atheist doesn't automatically mean you're going to live a fuller life... or face death with any more courage than a religious person (the opposite in my case I'd say).

    As Woody Allen once said (I think)... I'm not afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens.

  3. As an old born again blasphemer I concur with much you have written regards religion. However, my thinking has been really challenged by the writings of the late John Moriarty -

    I hesitate to describe John as religious, Catholic or spiritual.I find the word "spiritual" to be such a cop out. It reminds me of friends who describe themselves as "nationalist but not republican". Spiritual but not religious!?

    Moriarty, steeped in Darwinism and all contemporary scientific thinking, pushed himself to explore what it means to be alive on this planet. He walked the talk - gave up the cozy, well-fed academic career, returned to Ireland in the early 70;s, worked like a dog on the land and pushed himself to profound mental extremities.

    However, this was no religious "nutjob". He was a real, red blooded Man with everything that comes with it. He asked questions and never came to "The Answer". He looks to the past for clues of how to move forward trapped in the "survival machine" of the human form (as Richard Dawkins would put it).

    His writings are amongst the most powerful and challenging that I have ever read. I strongly recommend his books for a mental workout. In particular, his autobiography "Nostos" is truly Homeric!

    John was also a wonderful speaker. Two video links here:

  4. uilodomhnaill, there is plenty of religious nonsense here but that is not behind the conflict.

    Seán Mór, there is no one size fits all so it figures that some will face death better with religion and others would not benefit from it. I don't care how the religious go out. If they want last rites or clerical comfort, that's their choice. So long as I don't have to be lumbered with it.

    Jim, I might read him at some point. I simply have no time to read the stuff that is already in front of me. But whatever it is he has to offer there are no invisible men.

  5. Anthony,

    I've lived a life of religious weirdness, including my father being involved in 'evangelising' to prisoners on both sides in the blocks.

    I have no love for any religion, while respecting many deeply involved in all kinds of them. Many people that get drawn in end up doing decency they would never have considered. Though,I do not 'believe' - not the tiniest smidgen.

    However, while in my youth (under 30 - that is youth isn't it?) I'd have been a militant aethist, middle age has resulted in considered relaxed agnosticism.

    I can't prove it, none of them can - score draw.

    Some beliefs lead to people doing better than they'd have done otherwise - I'll not begrudge that for a second.

  6. I forgot you are a political science major. I didn't intend to define your country's conflict,just reflecting a personal view of politics as a form of secular religion--an old anarchist proposition

  7. People usually hold irrational beliefs of some kind. They may abandon the christianity of their upbringing for eastern mysticism. Or they may abandon belief in a deity and take up a political philosophy. They may give up their religious indoctrination intellectually but hold on to it emotionally and transfer it elsewhere. Realistically their rejection of religious indoctrination has created a vacancy that needs to be filled rather than a unique opportunity to grow, however painful that growth may be. For most people belief precedes reality and therefore reality will always take second place. People tend to respond to a situation based on their belief system and act out accordingly rather than take a realistic assessment of what needs to be done. In that sense wild animals have got the edge on us humans! Religion get trashed too often too easily by people who need to question their own equally absurd beliefs. People live their lives in various degrees of denial about what they have done in the past and what they could do in the present. It is not at all unusual for a person or a group of people to rigidly hold on to a belief system that has long since ceased to serve them in any meaningful way. Most people will happily hitch a ride to oblivion on the back of beliefs which require nothing more than dumb adherence while convincing themselves they know what is what and are doing the right thing. It is not God that is the saviour of us all, ignorance is!

  8. uilodomhnaill, political science whatevers are of no consequence here whatsoever. Up to you how you define our conflict.

  9. "At the end of it all Frank Sheed dismissed those who didn’t believe what he did as not living in the real world."

    We are all a little guilty of that.

    It seems to me the religious folk are a lot like the Leninists, it started well, but has been down hill ever since, broken eggs shells all the way and not a sight of an omelet let alone a taste.

    Once the state insists on indoctrinating children with such crap, you can be sure the game is up, no matter what the blind 'faith', the powerful will find a shaman to bless their wicked and often vile acts.


    Once you get past 60 you regard all that went before as your youth and what is to come a second childhood, all be it with aches and pains, happy days.

    Whilst I am expressing the joys of getting older, I have noticed many older folk become 'less,' not more religious with old age, which cheers me up no end as it seems they have no need of such total crap.

  10. You say it clearly,Doc. I am working on learning about your conflict,not defining it. I look for definitions from the participants-history. You're a priceless teacher for your point of view-it's what most PhDs wish they did as well. Mick, I'm near 70 and it's good to hear your POV on age etc. My Native American friends share my view that every day is a good day to die,nothing lives forever-thank goodness-the boredom would be huge!

  11. One thought persists; What if the hokey cokey IS what it's all about. mmm...Perplexing.

  12. I love that comment about moving from militant atheism to relaxed agnosticism - I myself have moved from that militant atheism to a complete lack of interest in even discussing religion because I am too busy to waste time on it or perhaps I have just reached an even more comfortable "don'tcareism"

  13. I suspect many of us (if not doughty AM) are more agnostic than atheist deep down if only as Seán Mór limns it well as "reluctant" to wish there might be another life, another realm beyond this vale of tears. In my reading of "God Delusion," even Dawkins averred as much, however childish or atavistic he regarded this regression.

    AM, your reading of Sheed's remarkable; I admire your knack for giving him as good as he got at Hyde Park. His translation, if anyone's interested, of Augustine's Confessions I still think captured the Latin best.

    I recommend to readers here an Irish agnostic who approached post-war, mid-20 c Catholic Ireland with maturity, critique, and balance, the Waterford-born poet-journalist Seán Dunne's "The Road to Silence."; as one who came of age in the Cork Marxist movement, his spiritual journey as an unbeliever towards a principled interest in--yet detachment from-- a mystical longing filtered through Christianity (and other faiths he could not accept) today may reward you. In very few pages, he sums up what for many of us who grew up the latter part of last century recall as a now vanished monolith.

    For another fair-minded survey of how this happened so fast and why, see also Malachi O'Doherty's recent memoir "I Was a Teenaged Catholic" on 50s/60s Belfast & 70s India and his study "Empty Pulpits: Ireland's Retreat from Religion" for more context. (I reviewed these three books, and Dawkins, on my blog and Amazon.)

  14. Fionnchú, thought inducing as always. It is not a question of my being particularly doughty. I just see no evidence whatsoever for the existence of god. It is all speculative.