Thursday, February 16, 2006

The sacred and the profane

A (British) friend whose musings about his travels in Iran I have previously posted here has been good enough to send me the following. I thought I should share.


An attempt to unpick some knots that have become even more intransigent in the past decade or so.

Secularism vs. Monotheism.

It has become commonplace in universities nowadays to interrogate what is called ‘The Enlightenment Project’. How enlightened have we been, here in the West? At our best, we have merely exploited the weak. At our worst, we have subdued, oppressed, slaughtered, and eliminated. The depredations of our empires have left deep scars on myriad people across the globe. There is huge anger felt by billions of people toward the countries that treated them either as savages or children. We would arrive with a bible in one hand and a gun in the other. Britain’s wealth was created from the bodies of slaves, and the labour of serfs. Our major cities pay testament, wherever you look, to our imperial past. Liverpool and Bristol, London and Manchester, all our major cities grew from the constant infusions of slave, or exploited blood. Communism was an enlightenment project that ended in pogroms, walls, terror. National Socialism, some claim, was also an enlightenment project, and we know how that ended. Scientific racism was an enlightenment project, the splitting of the atom ditto.

So, what did the Enlightenment give us? Tools with which to conquer less enlightened peoples. We had the means, we willed the ends. And were our imperial adventures any worse than earlier imperialists? Probably not, give or take a generous gesture here or there. Whenever we read about earlier empires, Persia, or Greece, the Mongols, the Islamic Empire, we hear of either wholesale slaughter, or assimilation. That ruler was more benign, this less so. Empire building has been a constant in our history, and it is usually the nation that has the greatest and most effective arsenal of weapons that has prevailed. The desire for space and power seems to be hardwired into our beings.

When Galileo first de-centred the earth, he put the fear of god (sic) into the Vatican. It wasn’t until 1990 – yes – 1990, that the Vatican conceded that Galileo was correct when he claimed that the earth moved round the sun, not vice-versa. This knowledge unleashed a genie that can never be stuffed back into its bottle. We are a species that is, on the whole, curious. We want to know.

Is the idea of enlightenment, in itself, a bad thing? Is it wrong for us to want to know? No, of course it isn’t. Was the world a better place before Galileo used his telescope? No, of course it wasn’t. We work something out, we discover something, and then we find ways of employing it, usually to our own advantage. We often use this knowledge unwisely, and without forethought, but the knowledge itself has no inherent value system attached to it. Perhaps more crucially (if fitfully) when new knowledge supersedes an old model, we accept this, and work within the new parameters. This is the crux of the matter: enlightenment thinking is, at its best, empirical. It constantly challenges what is perceived as a given to see if it merits such loaded words as ‘truth’, or ‘fact’.

Of course, historically, what the Enlightenment ushered in was a questioning of the role of god in our universe. The Vatican perceived this instantly when Galileo made his startling claims, and they were horrified. Which is why they had to suppress his teachings. The last four hundred years have seen a gradual loosening of the ideological ties that bound us for so long to Christianity. It was only in the twentieth century that people comfortably, openly, and without fear of reprisal, started to question the basic tenets of the Christian faith. And those adherents to the faith would point at the horrific slaughter we perpetrated on each other as a consequence of this movement away from the faith. It’s simpler than that – we had the means to massacre in great numbers, and we used them. There were plenty of people who claimed to have god on their side. As they have always done. The presence or absence of god made not a jot of difference to the instigation or outcome of any of the wars fought over the last two hundred years.

I feel shame when I think of much of our history over the last centuries. Wherever I look across the globe, I lament our foolishness, short-sightedness, our relentless self-interest, our savagery. We have blood on our hands, and we are mightily guilty.

But, but, we can work for change. We have the intellectual tools with which to do that. We have the power and knowledge to combat poverty, to combat global warming, to work towards a just and equitable planet. Whether we actually do any of that is up to us, and judging by our world history, it’s unlikely. But the knowledge is there, even if the will is weak.

Now, let’s look at our monotheisms. If we were to begin with the radical premise that these are man-made texts, without divine inspiration, what do we have? Why has our planet moved from a plethora of polytheisms towards this insistence on a single god? What is the politics behind this? Before looking at these questions more carefully, it might be worth pointing out that there is still a major world religion that is olytheistic. Hinduism suggests a level of ultimate reality which is cosmic in nature (Brahman) which is reflected in each of us as an essence – the Atman, or soul. Enlightenment for a Hindu consists in realizing that Atman, and Brahman, are one and the same. We have god inside us. (On a more frivolous note, it is interesting how the polytheistic faiths have produced the most captivating stories.)

But to return to monotheism. What all three major world religions share is the notion of an all-powerful single godhead. He- and it is a he – sees all, hears all, knows all, is, was, and ever shall be. He is responsible for, and cognisant of, all that we are, both personally, and universally. In exchange for obedience to his law, we will be rewarded after death with paradise. If we do not obey his law, we will be punished for all eternity. He is, in essence, a stern, but loving father. The deal is – if we love him, he will love us back. Of course, he’s sad when we don’t love him, because he feels that we are missing out on all the good things he can give us – especially that wonderful afterlife – but his sadness can easily turn to anger if we persist in not recognizing his all-mighty power. Each of the three faiths feels favoured with his intervention in the petty affairs of men. He spoke to Moses, and told him that his tribe are the chosen people. He gave birth to Jesus, who now sits on his right side. And he sent the Angel Gabriel to the prophet Mohammed to fully, and finally, clarify his word.

Each faith claims to be in possession of the truth. This truth is eternal, immutable. Not a single word that has been passed down from god through either his prophets or his son (in Jesus’ case) is to be challenged. How can one challenge the truth?

Of course anyone who spends five minutes thinking about this knows that these so-called truths are nothing of the sort. If there is a god, is it likely that he would produce three versions of himself, and then watch as the adherents of these three versions spent the next millennia slaughtering each other in defence of their versions?

So why are these constructs there? What purpose do they serve? What made certain tribes at certain points in history want to create these monotheistic stories?

I think the simple answer to that is power. We have seen how much more effective totalitarianism is than democracy in bending the will of people to totalitarianism’s ends. Totalitarian leaders get things done. Be it empire building, war machines, education, water supply, you name it, totalitarians have done it, swiftly, sometimes brutally, and not always for all time, but they have done it. We seem to like our leaders ‘red in tooth and claw’. Even in the most advanced democracies, we still love our ‘strong’ leaders – the iron lady is an obvious example. Totalitarian leadership, be it religious or secular, gives people a sense of belonging, of identity, of purpose. It strengthens our sinews, renews the vigour in our killing arm, anchors us in certainty, binds us together in its seductive chains. Given the specific historical circumstances from which the three faiths emerged, is it any wonder they chose a totalitarian model to emulate.

With the added bonus that this was the truth, for all time.

And over the past thousand odd years we have seen the consequences of these totalitarian ideologies – the messianic certainty amongst certain Jews that they have returned to the chosen land, and that those not chosen are inferior. The certainties that created martyrs, prompted the crusades, led to the conquest of so many countries still wallowing in darkness, to inquisitions, burnings, fiendishly clever torture machines. The certainties that fuelled the first great Islamic empire, conquests that told the adherents of that faith that god was pleased with them. Atrocities committed in the name of god, excused in the name of god, justified in the name of god.

Now, without the three great gods, these atrocities, these conquests, these colonial adventures would probably still have happened. But god oiled the killing machine, wiped the blood off the swords of the righteous, allowed them to sleep at night, safe in the knowledge that they were doing god’s work. All the believer needed to do was submit to his will, and he would see them right.

Whose will? Well, the will of the powerful, the keepers of the book, the interpreters, the ones who were placed here on earth, in loco parentis, to see god’s will triumph. Because, if we continue to work from the self-evident premise that the three great gospels were in fact man-made, provisional takes on the most basic ontological questions, who benefits the most from perpetuating their so-called truths?

So, it is the very rotten core of these religions that we must try to expose. Look at the outcomes, and one can see that they have almost never been a force for good. How can they be, when their basic values are rooted in a lie?

Don’t get diverted by racist ideas, notions of inferior people. Argue about inferior ideologies, bad consequences. Acknowledge historical grievances, take responsibility for crimes committed, work not to repeat those crimes against less powerful people.

But don’t be silenced. These world faiths are a canker in the world. We may love certainty, consolation, fairy-tales, but we all need to grow up and put away these childish things. There is one dawning certainty that is now almost indisputable – if we continue to wreak havoc on our planet, our parochial faiths will be history soon, and a history that will be washed away in the tides that will engulf us, and the deserts that will yield no grain. And you can bet that there will still be humans huddled around a fire somewhere who will hold a non-existent god responsible for everything.

No comments: