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