I just had a visit from the Jehovas Witnesses. It seems such a long time since I have seen one of these ever smiling peddlers of heaven at my door. I almost thought they had become extinct. There was a time when they were forever knocking on our doors and disturbing our dinner but I haven’t seen one for years. Needless to add, they never change. The same group of ultra polite bible waving believers, the same beautifying smile and irritatingly patronising expression of contentment. The same condescending and slightly unsettling attitude of people who thinks they possess some “truth” that you don’t and the same urgent insistence that they share it with you. The same opening lines. “hello, have you thought about the meaning of your life?” I brushed them off with a lame “sorry I’m busy” but on closing the door I instantly regretted not taking 5 minutes to talk with them a little, if only because I felt a pang of nostalgia for my student days when, as a philosopy student, I would use them for intellectual sparring practice. Nevertheless, as they retreated to annoy the next neighbour on their list, I thought about them and their message and considered what it was that irritated me about them the most.
While I greatly respect the religious faiths of the world, I struggle to respect faith which arises from religious conversion in the west. Religion is nothing if it isn’t culture and tradition and shared history. How can someone just simply make an intellectual or emotional “choice” to believe something? One moment you don’t believe and the next, through some sort of spiritual experience you fervently embrace a whole host of dogmatic and theological beliefs as the truth. The very idea of choosing faith in this way negates the very meaning of religion and the very thing that I respect in belief, that it is the expression of and a lens through which a community give meaning to the world. You don’t “become” a Buddhist” in Cambodia, you just are. You don’t make an intellectual decision to become a Hindu or a Sikh in India, it is part of your identity. Even in religions that historically accept conversation it is usually done for sound economic and political interests of communities. Low Caste Hindu’s convert to Islam for example. In the West People who choose a faith are grasping for coping mechanisms for their neurosis or following fashion or group pressure and how can anyone reconcile that with faith?
And It IS a choice and it is the saddest most bankrupt choice a person can make. It is the choice of fools and one made of loneliness, neurosis, desperation, emptiness and fear Yes, it is driven by cowardice and fear in the face of uncertainty and doubt. It is nothing less than the fear of freedom itself. A neurotic coping mechanism in the face of a world without order and a desperate demand for a return to the unquestioned truth and purpose of an authoritarian past. It is a sad and tragic reaction to a pluralistic society and a rejection of the greatest gift of the enlightenment. Our reason and our free thought and our capacity to think for ourselves without the chains of dogma and obedience.
It is the rejection of a society that celebrates uncertainty and doubt and it represents a rose tinted nostalgic yearning for a return of the shackles of certitude where meaning and truth are given and unquestionably followed. It is the longing for the herd. It is cowardice of the worst kind. A desperate clinging to the lifejacket of dogma held tightly by a drowning man unable to live with freedom and the terrifying results of free thought, namely doubt and uncertainty.
It is the emotional and intellectual equivalent of the lonely child afraid of monsters under the bed hiding under the bedclothes clutching his teddy and calling for his mommy in the dark.There is nothing more pathetic and sad than someone whose life is so empty and whose heart so filled with fear that they have to fill their lives with a car boot sales worth of tatty moth eaten dogmas and pious truths spouted from a half understood book and a handful of pamphlets with pictures of clean cut white people stroking tigers on hilltops in Switzerland and Ted Nugent look-alike Jesus sitting on a sunbeam.It is like prostrating yourself in front of the universe and screaming uncontrollably to be let off because the ride is going to fast and you are going to puke your candy floss.
Born agains are the Tesco carrier bag dragging bag ladies of thought. The care in the community outcasts of rationality. Clapping their hands and smiling their empty transparent grins and begging the cosmos to please put back the comforting chains that were broken by free thought and reason. They are the servants hanging around the empty house long after the master has died and the shutters have closed up the windows. Like the Peter Sellers character in “Being There,” they are the the Chauncey Gardeners of our intellectual life. They are the office employee who goes through the motions of going to the office months after he has been made redundant, unable to admit to themselves that they are living a lie out of fear of the truth.
Religious choice is is a ear splitting scream in the empty darkness of the night and a desperate cry for the soothing return of dogmatic servitude and the certainty of slavery.Worse, the religious convert actually shackle himself and he applies the chains with gusto and relish and he celebrates his new found slavery as truth He rejoices in the peace of his self imprisonment and demands it be seen as not only truth but the only truth for all.
Born agains claim to be sole possessors of truth but the real truth is the one they are deaf to and that is that they don’t have the courage to be free. That would be fine but for one thing. These peddlers of self imposed slavery and servitude, have to nerve to knock on my door and attempt to sell this prison cell of fools to me as truth. No thanks I take my freedom however frightening that may be sometimes
This is how religious conversion works in the West. If it isn’t the result of community and culture it is an empty and meaningless lifestyle choice based on fear, neurosis or vacuous fashion. It is a hollow shell, a fad of no more value than the style of a new haircut or the latest model phone. And it can be nothing else because the very act of choice negates the meaning of religious belief itself. Religion is nothing if it isn’t an expression of the shared cultural values of community.
When taken out of this it is a fad and a fashion and a lifestyle choice nothing more and of no more value than the latest music fad or clothing style. For how do you choose? you decide to “like” this faith? You find it attractive? It fills a gap? Or it is fashionable and all the rage. Are your mates into it. Did you see Madonna on the Telly? Did Tom Cruise mention it once? Is it the “in” thing this year?
And not only Christianity, though they tend to be main culprits for knocking on doors and preaching in the streets. There is a whole host of faith by choice options out there, depending on your lifestyle, fashion sense or the depth of your neurosis. Hare Krisna, Islam, crystals and pyramid power, wicca and earth mother worship, tarot cards, UFOs, astrology, Hollywood Buddhism, trendy Kabbala, scientology, the list of fads goes on and on and on and on.Religion devoid of culture is a tacky shopping mall of fads and fashions and the latest big thing and has no more value than the latest handbag or cutesy cartoon logo from Japan.I am questioning the validity of that choice and saying that in the very act of choice it loses all value as either belief or faith. Choice itself makes it invalid precisely because it is choice.
In a society of inequality and vested power structures all cultural forms take on such patterns and are used to justify the eternal in the status quo. That doesn’t negate the fact that religious belief is embedded in the shared history of communities. In times of struggle against those very power structures it can be turned against them and become a revolutionary force and struggles can be framed in the language of those cultural norms. Islam for example was a force for empowering low caste Hindu’s in India by preaching the idea of equality before god. An idea that struck deeply into the desperate needs of the lowest caste in that society and gave them a language and a cosmology with which to answer the ideologies that oppressed them. The point is it fitted into a cultural world view of a community receptive to the message precisely because it gave expression to the real needs of a community at a given time and place in its history. It can’t be seen as merely an intellectual individual choice.
I am talking about the choice of religious belief in the West, in pluralistic liberal democracies. The rejection is of the uncertainty inherent in the liberal ideology of freedom defined as “individual choice” itself. The insecurity that comes with a world view based on Cartesian doubt and uncertainty. For sure you can critique the value of that so called “freedom” It is a freedom from not a freedom for. it presents us as free to choose but gives us no basis on which to make that choice. There is no basis on which to make choices and of course economic realties make real choices impossible for any but the privileged and powerful. It is precisely this freedom from and its resultant uncertainty that is so terrifying to those who choose the comforting certitude of religious faith. In choosing faith they are explicitly seeking to reject uncertainty. What they don’t understand however is that in the very act of “choosing” faith they are actually validating the very liberal freedom they so desperately wish to reject and invalidating the certainty they seek precisely because they are basing belief on choice. They are choosing to believe.
What is wrong with this is that they are in no way attempting to move beyond this freedom from that so terrifies them by positing a freedom for, a concept of freedom that seeks to empower people with real choices over their lives, but on the contrary they are attempting to escape into the fictional certainties and universal truths offered by pre-enlightenment concepts of religious faith and at the same time they are unwittingly beholden to those very liberal enlightenment ideas they are running away from. They are literally reactionary in the very real sense of the term.
I reject the validity of religious faith made by act of individual choice because such choices themselves are acts that are only possible by accepting the liberal ideas of individualism and doubt and choice. The very thing the faithful are seeking to reject.I have more respect for the heroin addict than the born again Christian. At least the heroin addict bases his escape in something tangible like a chemical reaction in his brain. He doesn’t delude himself that Jesus has entered his heart and given him sole possession of truth through some kind of absurd spiritual orgasm
The distinction i want to make between religious beliefs is not a theological one (ie content of faith) but rather a sociological one ( the social basis of faith). I do make a distinction between faith as culture, one that an individual is born into as part of community which I do respect and religious faith followed as the result of an emotional or intellectual decision (the spiritual orgasm) Whatever the content of the particular faith it is the latter that my comments are concerned with and the latter I struggle to respect.
I find proselytising on of the more disturbing aspects of religions, especially from the born again variety.The determined and self righteous conviction that they have the only truth and are duty bound to share the good news with the world is truly contemptible. It is the height of intolerant arrogance and represents everything i have said above about the cowardly certitude and slave mentality of the faithful.Not content to enslave themselves they have to export their prison cell theology to the rest of the world and they do so by seeking out the most vulnerable and desperate in society, offering them false promises of happiness and salvation in the form of an pleading invitation to share their shackles.
Internationally this is even more despicable. Launched from the comfort and wealth and power of Western based churches, it is nothing less than a form of cultural colonialism stamping over the traditions and cultures of others with the jackbooted arrogance oft he religious Gestapo. They care less about the damage they cause to the fabric of entire societies. I have seen them in action. Nothing is too low for these soul slavers, they seek out the most hopeless and desperate peoples in the poorest countries on earth and use power and money to spin their nauseating fairy tales of “the truth” to rob a people who have nothing of their last possession, their culture.
It is cultural theft packaged as a box of magic cures for their misery and wrapped in tempting packages of jobs and money and development in exchange for the betrayal of their culture and heritage. In Cambodia they have a name for this; it’s called “rice Christianity.” A bowl of rice is offered with one hand and a bible with the other.In Cambodia, a country that was almost destroyed as a nation, Christian missionaries offer well paid jobs and educational opportunities to converts. World Vision a major AID donor and employer offers well paid jobs with career prospects. They pay well and a job with World Vision can be a rare career path out of poverty. Needless to add there is always a long queue for job applicants. Can you guess the percentage of their employees who are Christian? Yes, you guessed it, 100%. To work for this rich international NGO you have to be a Christian. Coming from a wealthy powerful American NGO this is a disgrace. Nothing is below them,
Christian “anti trafficking” NGO’s like ECPAT, kidnap sex workers and hold them in “rehabilitation centres” against their will and preach Christianity and sewing lessons in the name of “rescue”They even preach to school children and promise an education and English lessons to kids. In the name of education they teach from only one book. The bible. Even in mainstream schools their deception has no bounds. Children come home from school with Christian pamphlets given to him by teachers who have been paid to hand them out or converted themselves.
Likewise, with proselytising within Islam. It is also launched with the power and money of wealthy nations who prey on the poor and vulnerable. Cambodia has a small Muslim community called the Cham. They are poor fishermen and practice a form of Islam unique in the Muslim world. No call to prayer, no minarets, they have long since fused folk traditions from Hindu and Buddhism into their beliefs They are the practitioners of magic and spells etc.
Recently well paid and educated Saudi missionaries have been proselytising among them and preaching that the form of Islam they practice is wrong. Instead they preach the intolerant conservative Saudi brand of Islam known as Wahabism. They offer money for health centres and school buildings and for new Mosques and in the past few years something never heard before can be heard over the Banks of the Mekong, the call to prayer.Something completely alien to Cambodian Islam. This is nothing less than insidious cultural genocide. Finishing off by subtlety and deception the job that Pol Pot couldn’t complete. The KR killed 100.000 Cham and almost destroyed them as an ethnic group. Pol Pot failed and it is possible that Saudi missionaries may succeed where he failed.
In the west these power relations are not so prevalent or obvious. Instead the proselytisers of slavery prey on the emotionally crippled and wounded but the process is the same. The sight of some arrogant thought slave knocking on doors and preaching the only truth makes me wretch and you ask why I can’t respect that?
The newly converted Christian these days is newly converted by who? By western missionaries, like Mother Teresa’s cult of death? Who offer aspirins to cancer patients and baptise them against their will? By rich western Christian NGOs like World vision who offer jobs with conditions? By international missionaries who promise English lessons and teach only the bible. By Christian”anti trafficking” groups who forcibly “rescue” sex workers? There is nothing progressive about the proselytising of these modern day slavers. Do they offer a real way out of poverty to the low caste Hindu? Do they offer empowerment?No they preach pap about how they can be poor but happy, offer them a bowl of rice and a bible, on the condition that the rice bowl will disappear if the Bible isn’t embraced.
The theological content of religions doesn’t concern me as much as the sociological validity of faith. Who believes what, not what is believed by whomI respect faith when it is the result of shared culture and tradition. I lose all respect when it is the result of so called “free choice”.I have just as little respect for the Westerner who “chooses” to become a Buddhist as i do for the born again Christian or the prison yard convert to Islam or the Hollywood Cabalist or the bored middle class crystal, flying saucer, dowsing, pyramid power, magic aura reading, tarot card fashionista. I see no difference in value between any of them. They are all fadist choices or neurotic anaesthetics. They are all fake and hypocritical and cowardly retreats from freedom.
That said, I understand the motivation of the third world convert. Due to the depth of their vulnerability and the temptations of the rice bowl, i have more understanding of their conversion than I do the conversion of the neurotic westerner who “chooses” his faith from a fashion catalogue. I understand his conversion but I retain scepticism as to its genuineness and legitimacy. People have to eat and being poor is awful, this is a compelling motive for agreeing to anything said by those offering food, jobs and opportunities in exchange for your soul.
However this is not the case in the industrial West. Societies built on traditions of secular reason and political definitions of freedom defined as individual choice. Within these societies the motives for religious belief take on a radically different form to the motives for belief in either our own past or in traditional countries such as, developing nations where the weight of tradition and culture is still a very strong part of their cultural life
The sociological value of religion as culture and tradition is one we all recognise. We recognise the racism inherent in dismissals of faith in those cultures. We recognise the distinction between not sharing the theology of various faith while still insisting on respect for the fact that they are beliefs held by members of the human family.This automatic or demanded respect simply doesn’t apply to the individual who chooses a faith by intellectual choice or emotional revalation and that has less to do with the content of the faith than with the nature of the adoption of that faith.
A Buddhist in Cambodia doesn’t make a choice to be a Buddhist. Buddhism isn’t merely what he believes. It’s what he is. It is the order and the lens through which the meaning of his entire life is expressed. From the moment he is born, to the day to day duties of his life to the major life steps he aims for, through to the meaning of his death. All is understood and expressed through the language and ceremony of religion and it is this that I respect. This is his culture.**(see footnote below)
However this is not the cultural tradition of those of us in Liberal democratic countries like the UK where less than 1% are religious. (and yes DC I concede that there are religious communities here where this critique doesn’t apply) Indeed it is hard to talk of any definable cultural tradition at all here. Ours is a culture of secular individualism and a myriad of lifestyle choices, and this is a very politicised culture. Our tradition (if it can be called that)is steeped in the very political enlightenment values of individual choice and secular rationality that the religious seek to escape. Therefore religious belief takes on a very different motive to the Cambodian Buddhist and in doing so it loses the very thing that demands our respect, its cultural basis.
When choice is made to adopt a religious faith the value of that faith falls apart because of the very fact that it is chosen. Religious faith in this context becomes a meaningless act of choice. As worthless as the choice of movie from blockbusters or the colour of a new shirt. Precisely because it is faith made in choice it can be nothing but a vain attempt to retreat from the very liberal secular individualism that makes those choices possible. It is a retreat from freedom and a craven attempt to sell the soul tortured by doubt to the shackles of fictional certainty and truth and for that reason I find it difficult to respect.
As a footnote it is interesting that when I have argued with Christian missionaries in Cambodia about the immorality of converting a Buddhist country to Christianity it is precisely this argument that religion is culture that they reject. They attempt to universalise Christianity (as the “truth”) while attempting to downplay the cultural role of Buddhism in Cambodian society, which to anyone who knows that country is not only contemptible but absurd
The airport was broken when i arrived, but then, so was the country. Three days of fighting had torn through Phnom Penh, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction and it’s long suffering people exhausted and uncertain. A ceasefire had been called the previous day but my pilot was taking no chances and the plane circled the airport several times before coming in to land.
Apart from myself, my plane carried a Taiwanese film crew wearing body armour and shouldering TV cameras and an American Buddhist monk with shaven head and orange robes. No one spoke as the plane taxied to a stop but everyone looked out the windows. The plume of grey smoke still billowing from the airport building ahead did nothing to calm my fears. Looking around at the solemn and worried expressions on my companions faces, it was obvious that they shared my anxiety. The “ping” of the seatbelt sign made me jump in my seat and I rose from my seat with a feeling of foreboding. I couldn’t help wandering if I had made the right decision.
I stepped off the plane and looked around for my luggage. I eventually found it, dumped in a heap on the tarmac. Shouldering my bag, I weaved my way around piles of debris and oily puddles of gasoline towards the arrivals terminal. I noticed several spent bullet casings littering the ground. The building was gutted, every inch had been looted and burnt. Garbage and office paperwork was strewn across the floor. The walls were streaked with soot and embroidered with bullet holes and every window was shattered. Glass crunched under my feet. Above the doorway the “arrivals” sign hung by one twisted bracket and creaked its welcome in the breeze. It was 8.00am but it was hot and humid and my clothes were already soaked. Sweat was running down my face as I made my way through the building.
The smell of burnt plastic and smouldering rubble hung in the air. Every piece of furniture and every single fitting had been ripped out and stolen. Electrical wiring hung from gaps in the ceiling and the luggage carousel was a naked skeleton with its panels and internal mechanism dismantled and anything of value ripped out and stolen, naked wiring sprawled from its guts onto the floor.. Even the electrical fittings and lightbulbs had been carefully unscrewed and stolen. In this airport, even that which was screwed down was unscrewed and stolen. I later learned that they found a set of roll-up airplane steps in field where it was being used by farmers to collect mangoes.
The fighting was over but foreign aid organisations, NGOs, had ordered their staff to leave in protest at what they were calling a coup-de-tat. Long queues of foreigners snaked across the runway. Middle aged professionals stood in the sun with their wives and children, fanning themselves with newspapers, their shirts soaked in sweat.
Ahead of them, a dozen or so fat bellied C130 cargo planes squatted in the blazing sun, their huge engines roaring and propellers turning. The Australian military had flown in to evacuate their nationals and foreigners of all nationalities were taking the opportunity of getting out. A couple of journalists had positioned themselves melodramatically in front of the planes and were talking to camera of the “evacuation of Phnom Penh.” People were leaving but almost no one was flying in.
I wandered around the airport aimlessly, passport in hand, looking for someone to issue an entry stamp. I walked around the terminal, stepping around snapped timber frames and over torn plastic sheeting . I saw no-one, Officials it seemed, had deserted the place. I soon found myself in the parking lot facing the main road. No stamp, no visa, nothing. There was nothing to stop me simply jumping on a motorbike taxi and heading into Phnom Penh. Thinking better of it, I turned and walked back into the terminal. I spotted a solitary guard sitting at a table on the runway stamping exit visas in the shade of an old passenger bus. It too had been looted and was missing its wheels and furnishings. Taking my passport he lifted his stamp. “No”, I said, waving my hands. He looked up and squinted at me in amusement and disbelief as I explained, “I’ve just arrived.”
I walked out of the airport and stood at the empty road stretching into town. Nothing. It was deserted. Not a single vehicle in any direction. Gritting my teeth, I swung by bag over my shoulder and headed for the main road. I walked for perhaps 15 minutes and was soon soaked with sweat and exhausted. It was 7 kilometres to town and walking there in this growing heat was going to be impossible. It occurred to me too that it was also possibly dangerous. I had no idea what was waiting nearer to town and didn’t want to find out on foot. There was nothing for it. I would have to wait for a vehicle.
Looking around, I spotted a scant bit of shade under a ragged sugar palm tree. Throwing down my bag, I sat in the dirt, and waited for something to happen. Occasionally I looked up and scanned the empty road for any sign of traffic. It was eerily quiet. The blinding glare of the sun bleached the streets white and the highway shimmered in the heat and the dust. Nothing moved. Even the wind was absent. The branches of my palm tree sagged miserably above me, bleeding sweat and dust. They matched my mood.
I waited over three hours under that tree as the morning faded to afternoon. The sun increased its beat with every passing hour. My spot of shadow retreated around me and I shuffled along with it, hugging the vanishing shade of the sugar palm tree and peering through the glare of the sun at the empty highway ahead, sipping my now warm water and mentally willing a vehicle to appear on the horizon.
For three hours, not a single vehicle drove past in either direction, not one. Then I heard something. The faint sound of a motorbike engine. I jumped to my feet and looked down the highway towards the sound. Squinting through the dust, I could just make out a shape, a dot on the horizon heading my way. As it approached it became clear it was a motorbike. Excited and hopeful, I waved my arms frantically to catch his attention and, seeing me he hit his breaks in surprise, swung his bike around and pulled up alongside me. After brief negotiations we agreed a price and I jumped on the back. Finally I was heading into town.
As we approached the suburbs of Phom Penh, the streets remained quiet and empty. The shop front houses on each side of the road were shuttered and locked. The normally busy pavement cafes and kerbside market stalls were closed. The clusters of people chatting and children playing were gone. Phnom Penh street life had completely vanished and the city’s residents remained locked indoors. The fighting may have finished but Phnom Penh’s residents had learned to be wary. They had seen this before and were taking no chances.
My driver began to slow down and looking ahead I could make out a military checkpoint in the distance. A couple of armoured vehicles were parked on the kerb and a makeshift wooden barrier had been placed across the road, balanced on a couple of old oil drums. A blue tarpaulin, strung between two trees, served as a shade and a bored group of soldiers were sitting under it smoking, sleeping and playing cards. A crate of ammunition served as a table and half a dozen rocket propelled grenades and a few automatic rifles lay stacked against a tree.
One or two of the soldiers looked up at the sound of our engine then turned back to their game and ignored us. A young soldier, barely 18, adjusted his rifle and waved us to a stop. He spoke a few words to my driver then raised the flimsy wooden barrier and waved us through. As we drove on, my driver pushed a few notes into his hand. Seeing me watching, the young soldier grinned sheepishly and said, “for cigarette.”
So the end of the world didn’t happen ..again. Of course it didn’t. Let’s face it, it is only when they get it wrong that snotty athiests like myself can smugly say “I told you so” much to the chagrin of the believers. If it did happen we wouldn’t be posting blogs and taking the piss, we would be roasting in the eternal fires of hell or wherever it is the modern athiest winds up these days and feeling very silly indeed. But it didn’t. So as an added bonus for not being thrown into the fiery pit we get to ridicule the absurd believers as they take down their buntings, un-peg their marquis and drag their befuddled rain soaked souls off the hills and out of the fields where they waited in vain with wilting hearts as they head back to their churches and temples, shaking their heads in disappointment and bewilderment and asking themselves what went wrong?
It’s not good to be smug, its not good to point the finger and laugh and say “I told you so” but I never claimed to be a good man. So shallow and vindictive as it is I will enjoy their misery. For the benefit of our Christian friends (or any other poor deluded soul believes the rantings of lunatics and sells their house to await the apocalypse at the top of a hill somewhere. I think I can help. I think I know what went wrong and why the rapture didn’t happen.
You know when you are a bit hungry but don’t know what to eat? And you get up and go to the fridge and open the door and just look at all the food inside. The cheese, the sliced ham, the half opened tin of beans, the yoghurt, the half eaten ginger cake, the individual Tesco’s steak pie. And your eyes roam over the various foodstuffs but nothing really takes your fancy. Nothing really appeals. So you close the fridge door and open the cupboard, you see the cup a soups and the noodles, the chocolate biscuits, the loaf of bread. Toast appeals for a moment but then you realise you have no butter so you stamp on that idea.
There is a packet of cheese and onion crisps at the back of the cupboard but its past its sell by date and, anyway, you have gone off cheese and onion. You give up. Nothing really attracts you, nothing grabs your fancy. So you close the cupboard door, maybe grabbing a biscuit before you do, then you leave the kitchen and slump back on the sofa, but you are still hungry. Not starving, not “god I have gotta eat something” hungry, just peckish, just that nagging feeling of not being full. So you return to the fridge and repeat the process, the same with the cupboard. You briefly open the freezer too but quickly rule that idea out as involving too much effort. Too much like preparing dinner.
So you take another chocolate biscuit and return to the sofa, pick up the remote and tele surf mindlessly for a few minutes but you can’t settle because that nagging feeling is still there but nothing appeals to you. You consider a take away and reach over to the space between the clock with the dodgy hour hand and the stack of charity shop books and national geographic magazines and old copies of the economist on the shelf where you always stuff all your take away menus along with those junk mail ads promising you that you have won their special customer prize and “unbeatable offers to change your broadband company and final warnings from the TV license people and you sort through and grab a handful of menus.
You look at the pizza menu but ten quid for a snack seems extravagant and anyway you remember the last one you bought from “Pizza-IS-You” made you puke like a dog and you recall how you swore you would never order from them again and anyway the memory of that night spent retching over the toilet bowl makes you feel sick again. You chuck that away and read the next one which is for an Indian. You consider ordering a Balti but quickly dismiss that as you remember the heart burn it gave you last time and how you honestly thought you were going to have a fucking heart attack until you did that massive massive burp and drank that yoghurt and felt better.
The last flyer is for a cheap Kentucky fried chicken imitation place, nothing special, a bit grim really, the kind of place that always has like 3 tables near the door and the same couple of Asian blokes sitting at them drinking sprites with straws, the kind of place you just never dream of actually sitting down in to eat your meal, but you know that if you ever did, the owner would rush over and wipe the plastic tables down with a dirty cloth that smelt of bleach while you held your food in the air, but its cheap and its edible and has a lunch time chicken breast special offer for £3.00 with a drink and coleslaw side.Yes that might just hit the spot.
You sit up and reach for the phone then your plans are shattered when you see that it is closed on Sundays. So crestfallen, you toss the take away menus onto the floor, get up go back to the kitchen and repeat the whole staring into the fridge game again Finally you take another chocolate biscuit from the cupboard and return to the sofa, the TV remote and your feeling of malaise, then you realise that the chocolate biscuits you have been munching on have actually filled you up and you are not really hungry anymore.
You know that feeling? That was how jesus felt yesterday when he was feeling rapturous. He took a look around and there just wasn’t anyone who appealed. Just noone who took his fancy. He looked at all the nutters who had thrown a party for him and they turned his stomach. “”God, (or rather, Dad,) he thought, “how could so many people get him so spectacularly wrong”. The idea of eternity with that bunch of losers didn’t bear thinking about. All those tamberines and hysterical emotion, all that self righteous hypocrisy, for all eternity? Whatever they thought of themselves, they didn’t have anything in common with him or his message. No way was he inviting them back to his place. They would turn heaven into hell. “believe me” he chuckled. “If anyone knows what hell is like, it’s me”
He looked at all the followers of other religions and, well, they weren’t going to thank him for rapturing them were they? They seemed happy enough, and anyway Allah and Krishna would be on his case if they saw him nicking their flock again. He remembered the fuss Jupiter made when Christians took over Rome. It had taken an eternity to repair the damage to the pearly gates and the throne of heaven is still a bit wobbly after that little scrap. He shook his head,” No, we certainly don’t want a repeat of that”. he thought. Best leave them to it.
The athiests and secularists were all taking the piss of course. But he forgave them (it’s what he did best)and anyway they had a point. “If I wasn’t jesus, I wouldn’t believe in me either” he laughed. They didn’t want to go anyway. He would have to drag them kicking and screaming into heaven and anyway they are so contrary with all their rationality and requests for evidence. An eternity arguing with the likes of Richard Dawkins and he might begin to doubt his own existance. Anyway, he recalled, rapturing them is against the rules. He reminded himself that he was meant to take true believers only. Trouble is there really weren’t any that he fancied. None of them really appealed. So he mooched about for a bit, had another chocolate biscuit and returned to his cloud.
The rapture happened but jesus just couldn’t find anyone to rapture. There were probably one or two hermits living in caves in the desert somewhere that he grabbed, but noone missed them
No matter what the book. There is something deeply ugly about burning books or words. Literature is one of the defining, perhaps the defining, feature of civilisation. Not all human societies have had the written word but all written words are human. The putting down of ideas on to paper was a revolutionary idea. It meant ideas could be kept and shared and copied and read and most importantly built upon to create new ideas which in turn were kept and shared and copied and read, on and on forever, creating vast tapestries of shared ideas which flowed through time and place across the globe like sparkling rivers, lighting the darkness and affecting and changing everything they touched for ever.
Consider what a book is. If I tell you something, my words are fleeting and you may or may not listen, my words may well impress you or move you or they may not. Either way my words are gone when they leave my mouth and most likely they die with you. But write a book and you speak to the whole world and you speak to the whole world forever, they live beyond your life and beyond the space you inhabit.It they are good they live forever and change the world. Once written down, your words no longer belong to you though you will answer for their worth for ever and for all time.
For this reason an attack on a book is more than an attack on paper and ink. It is an attack on the fundamental feature of human culture. Humanity itself. It is literally barbarism. It is an anti human act. For what does it say, to throw a book in the fire? It says not only is this book not worthy of being read by me, a fair decision for anyone, but I have decided that it is not worth being read by anyone ever. For what else is fire but the total consumer. Leaving only ash. This is the act of a tyrant. To choose for all mankind for all time what can or can not be read. Even as a symbol, a book burnt knowing many remain. It is barbarous. It makes a statement that says fire and destruction is the answer to words and ideas. It says if I have the power and if i have the force I will prevent ideas because I know best.
Some books are of more value than others of course. Herman Hesse (banned by the Nazi’s) is of more value than the 2008 tax law volume 6. Shakespeare has more value than John Grisham. But amongst the most valuable are the sacred texts of faith. The literature of faith are the cultural arteries of human history, they trace the historic and social history of humanity. They are held sacred by billions and are the source of meaning and ethics for real peoples lives. To toss one of these texts into the fire. To burn a bible or a Torah or a Koran takes a particular type of arrogance and a particular type of selfish contempt
So what does this say for the book burner. The man who chooses to throw the book into the fire. What does it say about that person. It says they have contempt for human civilisation. It says they see no value in one of the central developments that make human beings human. Worse it says their own petty regards and offences are such as to deny an idea to all the world forever. This is the reasoning of an magalomaniac. A madman. Or someone mentally ill
For all these reasons Muslims and all believers in humanity should not be offended by the book burners who are threatening to burn the Koran.We should pity them. We should shake our heads in pity at the soul that chooses to turn fire on one of the arteries of civilisation. The Koran will survive as the Torah survived the Nazis. The book burners however will have blackened their souls.They disgrace themselves. They have my pity.
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