THE American philosopher Sam Harris speaks of “concentric circles of diminishing reasonableness” — covering the complete spectrum of belief from the bloodied hub where suicide bombers (“bad people”, the likes of Muslims, terrorists and jihadists) and perpetrators of preventative violence (“good people”, the likes of Christians and US and European special forces) consume hearts with fear and revulsion, along the radius of orthodox eisegesis by evangelical zeal and Islamic fervour, to the outer rim of tolerant liberals and moderates.
He writes: “The problem is that wherever one stands on this continuum, one inadvertently shelters those who are more fanatical than oneself from criticism. Ordinary fundamentalist Christians, by maintaining that the Bible is the perfect word of God, inadvertently support the Dominionists — men and women who, by the millions, are quietly working to turn our country [the US] into a totalitarian theocracy reminiscent of John Calvin’s Geneva. Christian moderates, by their lingering attachment to the unique divinity of Jesus, protect the faith of fundamentalists from public scorn. Christian liberals — who often aren’t sure what they believe but just love the experience of going to church occasionally — deny the moderates a proper collision with scientific rationality. And in this way centuries have come and gone without an honest word being spoken about God in our society.”
Following on Harris’s idea of circles, I equate the dear old ladies serving tea at the vicar’s tea party with suicide bombers activating their venomous vests in a busy marketplace.
I think not.
The belief of the smiling saints dishing delicacies and the belief of the snarling savages dispensing death are tarred with the same brush. Hovering innocently and amicably on the fringe of Harris’s construct, dispensing drinks and pleasantries, the dear old ladies cohere the community of believers by social veneer all the way to the horrid core. The old dears, however disagreeable the image might seem, represent the outer layer of an abominable onion, protecting a rotten centre populated by murderous primitives.
Religion is, at bottom, homogeneous. It’s about some god. However disparate religion claims to be… religion is not heterogeneous: it is about some god. Even favouring spirituality over religion does not dispense with fundamentalism and dogma attaching to religious creeds. Even though, as Ben du Toit writes in his book God – is daar 'n ander antwoord?: “[Spirituality does not contain the] formalism, fundamentalism, dogma and structures of religion… it is still aligned with some transcendental metaphysical entity… and provides no credible and/or communal basis for reflection, discussion and conversation in any other discipline of the sciences… except as a researchable phenomenon”.
Religion hides its single biggest threat by numerous manifestations of apparent virtue that protect its odious essence of exclusivity and hubris by denominational answer to God’s will. God is many things to many people. But religion is about one thing: God. Religious distance between “good” and “bad” is a function of zeal only; and not distance in the sense of disparate convictions.
At the centre of my model are the lunatics who detonate human bombs and who attack abortion clinics in answer to God’s demand for absolute self-serving obedience and the elimination of dissenters, and who commit mass suicide in anticipation of the rapture or the second advent, but a certain end of the world nonetheless, and the introduction of “the afterlife” in “paradise”.
Whenever the lunatics strike, believers on the outer layers hasten to declare distance (of diverse measure) and say these lunatics do not represent “true” religion.
“That’s not what Islam is about. Islam is a peaceful religion.”
“The Bible does not teach violence.”
Laagering the lunatics are fundamentalists, who agree to a greater or a lesser extent with at least some of the doctrinal convictions of the maniacs but reject the violence.
These fundamentalists believe, for example, that the world will end but not next Friday; that abortion is to be condemned, but not by assassination; that infidels will be destroyed, but by divine intervention rather than explosive vests. And so on, and so forth.
“Yeah, it makes me very uncomfortable… but (aside, pianissimo possibile) it is actually what the Bible/Koran says, you know.”
And it is, in fact, what the Bible says. And what the Koran says. Before the Potemkin facades are erected.
(In the 18th century, General Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin used to rush ahead of his monarch, Catherine the Great, on her inspection tours of the Ukraine and Crimea, to erect facades of painted board over the bleak street fronts of the villages. Happy faces and waving arms greeted the vision-impaired Catherine, while poverty, gloom and doom were hidden by the dedicated officer and his men. The serene picture was false. It was but an illusion of prosperity. But it kept the queen happy. Religion is such a Potemkin village: a motherhood and apple pie view hiding the rotten core of unspeakable violence, unbearable intolerance and unimaginable inhumanity.)
Fringing the fundamentalists are the scowlers, who hazard objection to the fundamentalists but in reality look up to the fundamentalists in thankful submission of their profound conviction and zeal to stand God’s ground even in the face of them, the scowlers, feigning frowns. The scowlers will shake their heads in bafflement of fundamentalist teaching but do so with a warm heart for the fundamentals of religion.
These are the weaklings of religion. The wimpy kids at school who pretended to hate the curfews and the dress codes but, in fact, felt safe within the boundaries and are now all grown up, in a manner of speaking.
“I’ll pray for you. Why are you so mad at God? The violence is the result of sin. It’s not of God’s doing. It’s not what God intended. It’s not what God wants.”
Circling the scowlers are the reformists who wish to perpetuate the system of belief by emphasising the wonders of the gospel, say, and by distancing the true essence of belief from the fundamentalists, and please God, from the outright lunatics. But it’s still the Word of God, above all else, just not spoken as by the sound of an explosion.
“It’s not what the text really means… Don't take it literally… It’s all, uh, metaphorical… Have you accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal saviour?”
Rounding the reformists are the rabbis, priests and imams, characterised by goodwill and cheer, tending the flock of harmless, good-natured, well-meaning congregants who will hurt not a fly and enjoy plum pudding at Christmas, sufganiyot at Hanukkah and malpua at Eid. This saintly schism is guided in the ways of the Lord, and of the prophets, and of the Prophet, entrenching the pillars of belief in sermon, at Temple and at khutbah; in sacrament and by the Shemoneh Esreh and the Arkan.
“Allahu akbar” sounds familiar to that call from the centre, just before the deafening noise.
“God bless (America).”
“Thoughts and prayers.”
This entire construct, from core to outer layer, is ultimately preserved by agnostics and by individuals not interested in opposing religion, not prepared to “become involved", to “rock the boat", to be seen to be intolerant, to be seen to rise against the principle of free speech and to restrict free thought.
How does one criticise the vicar’s tea party?
Perverse political correctness preserves the most impolitic idiotology threatening society: religion.
Supreme evil, masqueraded by feel-good, lurks in communities bound by confirmed falsity. By failing to oppose religion, its fearful fruits are allowed to ripen and so to feed the odious monster prevailing by tolerance and undeserved respect.
How does one not criticise the vicar’s tea party?
The onion must be peeled from the outer layer. There is no alternative but to breach the outer layer first. Removing the robust skin of tacit protection is key to the exposure of the rotten core and the destruction of religion.
What is needed, what is demanded, is to stop respecting damned nonsense already.
♦ VWB ♦
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