Saturday, 23 January 2016
Religion Up Close
I apologise for the length of time I’ve taken in getting another post out. I was away for Christmas, and then we were moving house, and have been living like benighted savages, hunting with stone-tipped spears, avoiding sabre-toothed tigers and living with no internet access whatsoever. However, the internet has been restored to us, and we have thus returned to the folds of civilisation. This being so, I hope that you had a very happy Christmas, and I would like to wish you a happy and prosperous new year, belated those these wishes may be.
So much for the preamble and excuses and pleasantries. What I actually want to write about in this post is a vague realisation that I had before Christmas. I’ve sort of mentioned it before, I think, but I believe it bears closer examination.
It is this: When atheists and antitheists attack religion, what they very often attack is this vast, nebulous, faceless, monolithic entity called Religion. It looks a lot like militant Islam crossed with the worst excesses of American right-wing fundamentalism, and is an oppressive, repressive, greedy, grasping, diabolical entity responsible for jihads, pogroms, inquisitions and persecutions. It is a vast weight on history, dragging people down and back and allowing the evil to rule the ignorant through fear and superstition.
And do you know what? Standing at the distance that they are, that is certainly what it does look like, in a certain light. But then, from a distance, a mountain can appear to be a vast, barren rock. From high above, a rain forest can appear to be a single, homogenous blob of green that could be swamp or jungle or even just a vast expanse of moss. A beach appears to be an empty stretch of dry sand. Seen from a distance, such things appear almost lifeless. You have to get up close, or even get inside and underneath them, before you realise that they are full of life.
I frequently read the tirades of online atheists, and wonder whether they’ve actually spent any time around ‘everyday’ theists, the kind that inhabit their local parish church and run the coffee morning or the jumble sale or hand out the hymn books. You get the impression that if they have ever met a theist in the flesh, it’s been a door-to-door Witness or a slightly spittle-flecked street preacher. They rage not against the vicar or the minister or the church steward or the chap sitting at the back of the church with a newspaper when it’s open for people to wander about in during the week. Their bile is reserved for Religion. If they think about those people at all, it is only as cogs of the vast homogenous oppressive machine of Religion.
And this is it, when one looks back at the past from the distance of centuries one sees the inquisitions and witch hunts and jihads writ large in the pages of history. You look at the newspapers and websites today and you see ISIS and the Taliban and Westboro Baptist Church, and church sex abuse scandals. What you do not see, what was not considered history-worthy, what is not considered newsworthy, are the hundreds and thousands and millions of small acts of kindness and charity and generosity and mercy and humility and self-sacrifice, of hope, faith and love that are the result of individuals’ religious beliefs.
But in order to see these things, you have to get up close. You need to put down the telescope and actually walk up to the mountain, and talk to the people living on its slopes, to understand what life is like there. Unfortunately, to do such a thing is not only daunting, I suspect that many would think it unnecessary. They don’t need to talk to religious people to see that Religion is evil, any more than they need to dig up the crabs and worms to know that a beach is lifeless, or walk beneath the trees to see the many animals living in the forest.
“Oh, of course there are some good religious folk,” some may concede, but Religion should still be banned. What they fail to realise is that there is no such thing as Religion. Only religious people. I’ve said in a previous post that there’s no such thing as Christianity, but that goes double for Religion. They rage against a thing which does not exist, and ignore the people that actually make up what they think they oppose.
And of course these footsoldiers and factory floor workers aren’t perfect. Many, maybe even most of us are hypocrites and recidivists, wrapped up in our own holiness and how much better we are than others, by sheer dint of being us. But that doesn’t mean that those acts of goodness that I mentioned aren’t being performed and a billion ways, in a billion places, every single day.
A machine is just the aggregate of its parts. A society is just the aggregate of its members. A religion is just the aggregate of its people, and their actions and their beliefs and their opinions. There is no such thing as Religion, there is only us, and as a result we each have the responsibility to make sure that what we are adding to that aggregate is something positive and worthwhile, even if the people who think that they oppose us never see it.