“My God, my God, why hath thou forsaken me?” These are the words attributed to Christ on the cross, as recorded in two of the Gospels (Matthew and Mark). It is one of what are known as the ‘Seven Last Words’. An editorial in today’s Irish Times waxes lyrical about their apparent continued relevance: “Workers who have lost their jobs, families who have lost their homes, emigrants, migrants, the struggling people of Libya and the Middle East, all can echo the cry of anguish from a Christ who wonders whether he has been forsaken.”
Oddly enough, it always sounded to me a lot like a prophet who, in the course of being put to death for the beliefs he so earnestly held and professed, suddenly realised that this was it: he was about to die, just the same as every other flesh-and-blood human being. Frankly, this altogether human story is, to my ear, far more plausible and compelling than the more fanciful fables that have come to dominate our understanding of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.
One of the Founding Fathers of the US, Thomas Jefferson put it thus in 1823: “The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” Jefferson clearly underestimated the power of myth over reason, a power that seems to not only have weathered the Age of Reason, but to be positively flourishing in the second decade of the 21st century.
Religiosity and reason, at the best of times make uneasy bedfellows. Religions demand that we cast aside our critical faculties and slavishly submit to one or other dogma, based on the supposed sacredness of some very old book or other. As for organized religions, Jefferson’s experience in France just before the revolution left him in no doubt: “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government”. In that phrase, he could have been describing the first 70 years in Ireland since it gained independence (from England, if not from Rome). “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”
Jefferson would doubtless have been horrified to see the extent to which the US has turned its back on rationality and is now infested with high-profile religious fundamentalists. For example, a 2009 Gallup poll found that only 39% of Americans “believe in the theory of Evolution”, while 25% outright reject it and a further 36% have no opinion, one way or the other. This, in a country made mighty by scientific advances, is deeply troubling.
And it is no coincidence that those same religious fundamentalists almost universally reject the overwhelming evidence of man-made climate change. The ultimate irony is that those wedded to End Times Christianity may well get their wish. The problem is of course that they will take the rest of us with them into an entirely human inferno of runaway global warming.
Take Pastor Terry Jones. For many, he is the Bad Guy straight from Central Casting. He looks mildly demented and hates the Koran with a passion. Not enough of a passion to have actually read the book in question, but sufficient to offer his followers (via the Internet) the choice of having a copy of the Koran either burned, shredded, drowned(!), or shot by firing squad. And yes, this is a paper book we are still talking about.
Sure enough, the gang plumped for a burning, which Pastor Terry filmed and thoughtfully streamed live online in Arabic. The stunt drew little attention initially in the US but, in the words of German poet, Heinrich Heine, “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.” Sure enough, the incident triggered a wave of rioting, whose victims included seven UN staff in the Afghan city of Kandahar.
“The desecration of any holy text, including the Koran, is an act of extreme intolerance and bigotry,” according to president Obama. “No religion tolerates the slaughter and beheading of innocent people, and there is no justification for such a dishonourable and deplorable act”, added Obama, proving himself not much of a scholar of either the Bible or Koran, both of which are gleefully bloodthirsty and equally imaginative in describing the numbers of ways and the many offenses for which unbelievers can be slaughtered.
Oddly, the strongest condemnation arising from this whole sorry incident appears to be aimed at the publicity-hungry Pastor Terry, who is clearly enjoying his role of matinee villain who hisses more loudly each time the crowd boos. Condemnation of the actual sectarian murders this incident has provoked has been oddly muted.
You may well find the actions of Pastor Terry repugnant. Most people do. But was the reaction (rioting, lynching of the innocent, etc.) in any was commensurate to the ‘offense’ of setting fire to a few hundred sheet of paper, the contents of which you admit to having not read, but don’t much like? I imagine that Scientologists find the writings of one L. Ron Hubbard deeply meaningful, and earnestly believe old L. Ron held the keys to eternal life.
Over 14 million Mormons are equally passionate about the ‘Book of Mormon’ penned by one Joseph Smith in the US in the mid-19th Century. And of course, worldwide, nearly one billion Christians, of many hues and with widely varying degrees of intensity, believe the Bible to be a divinely inspired document, or “holy text”, to use Obama’s phrase.
Whatever religion you subscribe to, there is one pretty much universal certainty: your one is right; all the others are flat wrong. Logically, of course, given the hundreds, even thousands of religions on offer, each mutually intolerant and dismissive, then it is little more than a spiritual lottery as to whether (a) your religion, uniquely among the apostates, is correct or; (b) they’re all makey-uppey and, whisper it, there is no Big Guy In The Sky who frets over whether each and every one of us lowly sinners are sufficiently grateful to him (and it’s always a Him) for his, well, Greatness.
Complicating the lottery further is that vanishingly few of us ever get to actually research or choose our given religion. Society, via our parents, is sensible enough to sign us up at birth, or precisely 18 years before we are legally old enough to consent to any contract. Speaking of contracts, in October 2010, I wrote to the Archdiocese of Dublin notifying them of my intention to ‘defect’ from the Catholic Church (hardly a radical step, since I never gave informed consent to ‘join’ in the first place).
I received a polite reply from one Rev. Fintan Gavin, Assistant Chancellor, offering to meet if I wished, for “…an opportunity for dialogue and clarification”. I chose not to respond to the kind offer. Six months later, and still no confirmation of my defection and removal from the Baptismal Register. Turns out that the Catholic Church, seeing the steady increase in defections, took the only step a rational, forward-looking organization could reasonably contemplate – it altered Canon Law in April 2010 to make the formal act of defection impossible. Nice. (Full details here on the Countmeout website). Still, could be worse. Had I been born a Muslim and then went on to renounce Islam, the one and only punishment for this expression of my free will is – death.
Signs on the lawn outside Pastor Terry’s church read: ‘Islam is the Devil’. In response to the question as to whether this was incitement to hatred, his reply is hard to trump: it’s in the Good Book. “This is actually what the Bible says. Jesus Christ says he is the only way, so if a religion promotes another way, then according to the Bible alone, it ends up it is of the devil.”
Bingo. The source of religious bigotry, intolerance and violence may appear to you and me to be twisted extremists and fundamentalists, but in reality, they are simply more devout at their chosen religion that the so-called “religious moderates” who feign surprise at the things a literal interpretation of various ancient texts inspires, indeed commands the truly devout to do.
Sam Harris’s ‘The End of Faith – Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason’ is a beacon of clarity in this muddy and contentious field. Here, he sets out the core dilemma: “Our situation is this: most people in this world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book. We have the misfortune of having many such books on hand, each making an exclusive claim as to its infallibility…each of these texts urges its readers to adopt a variety of beliefs and practices, some of which are benign, many of which are not”.
He goes on to explain that “the central tenet of each religious tradition is that all others are mere repositories of error…intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed…certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one”. Harris is merciless on ‘religious moderates, who he says “imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others”.
Back in 2000, one Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger described all non-Christians as being in a “gravely deficient situation” regarding salvation. This might sound outrageously sectarian, but in reality the future Pope was simply being honest. Catholics are right, and the rest of youze are going to The Other Place. Bigotry is central to religious belief. It is never sufficient that “we” are right; by definition, everyone else is wrong, and thus, in essence, damned. QED.
There is a dictum which runs: “extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence”. Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity are a case in point. They were radical, almost heretical, to the Newtonian view of physics that had held sway for the previous two centuries, were assailed by doubters, ridiculed, challenged, dismissed and finally, vindicated as the most significant advance in our understanding of the nature of the universe in the last 100 years. Einstein’s propositions, while radical, were capable of being falsified, which is the ultimate test of the likely veracity of any claim. They have pretty much withstood all tests to date; thus, we can have a good degree of confidence in these theories. Ultimately, as new facts emerge, our understanding of scientific theory shifts to adjust to these new realities. And this, in a nutshell, is how the sum of human knowledge (at least in the Western world) has made such astonishing progress in the 500 years or so since the Reformation.
Unreason lies at the heart of religious beliefs, of all hues. “Nothing that a Christian and a Muslim can say to one another will render their beliefs mutually vulnerable to discourse, because the very tenets of their faith have immunised them against the power of conversation”, writes Harris. “It is therefore in the very nature of faith to serve as an impediment to further inquiry. And yet, the fact that we are no longer killing people for heresy in the West suggests that bad ideas, however sacred, cannot survive the company of good ones forever”.
Since our actions are inherently linked to our beliefs, Harris continues, “It is clear that we can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene”.
For reasons too banal to bear repeating, I actually read the Scientology equivalent of our Bible, ‘Dianetics’, by L. Ron Hubbard, in my late teens. It made one outlandish, untestable claim after the other, along the way inventing ‘problems’ to which, surprise, surprise, only Scientology held the ‘cure’. Even as a naïve teenager, it was pretty apparent to me that this was Codology. But then again, Dianetics hadn’t been drummed into me from the age of three.
Apply the same critical approach to any of the so-called “sacred texts” and it quickly becomes apparent that the only difference is that they have been pedalling untestable, improbable and often downright wicked propositions for hundreds of years longer than L. Ron Hubbard.
“Religious faith represents so uncompromising a misuse of the powers of our minds that it forms a perverse, cultural singularity – a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible”, says Harris. He cites the partition of India and Pakistan, which has sparked three wars and over a million deaths. It’s not even about land. At its heart is the hard-wired mutual intolerance and loathing that Hinduism and Islam have for one another, “because they disagree about ‘facts’ that are every bit as fanciful as the names of Santa’s reindeer”.
The reason India and Pakistan are actually different countries is because of the oil-and-water incompatibility between two sets of religious faiths, and the mutual hatred and loathing this inflames. Here’s a sample of the Medieval barbarism such religious fanaticism unleashes:
“Mothers were skewered on swords as their children watched. Young women were stripped and raped in broad daylight, then set on fire. A pregnant woman’s belly was slit open, her foetus raised skywards on the tip of a sword and then tossed onto one of the fires that blazed in the city”.
The above is an eyewitness account, not from the 14th century, but from the winter of 2002. “Imagine a world in which generations of human beings came to believe that certain films were made by God, or that specific software was coded by him. Imagine a future in which millions of our descendants murder each other over rival interpretations of Star Wars or Windows 98. Could anything – anything – be more ridiculous?” And yet, Harris continues, “This is no more ridiculous than the world we are living in”.
Attempting to survive the New Age of Unreason may yet turn out to be humanity’s greatest – or perhaps final – challenge. With your indulgence, I hope to return to this theme shortly.