A German pianist, upon news of the tragedy in Paris, packed up his portable grand piano (which is apparently a thing) and travelled the 400 miles to Paris to play John Lennon’s* classic song Imagine in front of the Bataclan theatre.
I hate that song.
In Part 1 of The Problem of Rhetoric, I Aint A-Scared of No Oliver Twist, I addressed the divisive rhetoric of a certain stripe of Christianity that would rather not grant asylum to, or if forced to would begrudge Syrian refugees safe haven. Since I’d like to be an equal opportunity offense to all of my friends I’d like to discuss another unhelpful rhetoric I’ve seen going around this past week:
Yes, the Bible has some extremely unpleasant stuff that makes my modern mind cringe. And, being a Christian, I know my history is far from innocent. Horrible things have been perpetuated in the name of the Church – the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, Jim Crow laws, Salem Witch Trials…
And how about the Egyptian subjagation of the Jews in the Old Testament, or the Jews’ subsequent campaign led by Joshua. Consider the bloody feuds between Israel and Pakistan, or Irish Protestants and Catholics. Or, the obvious and more recent example of the religious violence of ISIS. It’d be naive to say that ISIS is not motivated by holding with a certain kind of literalism and fidelity to the Quran. Boko Haram, another extremist Islamic terrorist organization, has been reported as being the deadliest terrorist organziation over and above ISIS.
So, wouldn’t we be better off without God and religion? What’s so wrong with imagining there’s no Heaven? What’s so wrong with imagining no Hell below us and above us only sky? I mean Lennon’s right, it is easy if you try.
Religion only divides, religion is to blame for human suffering, religion is oppressive to women, religion only seeks to claim power for itself by subjagating the weak, religion is the opiate of the masses, religion is the disease of those too stupid to think…
The only acceptable religion is the irreligion of Kurt Vonnegut’s Winston Niles Rumfoord in The Sirens of Titan:
‘The name of the new religion,’ said Rumfoord, ‘is the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent.
‘The flag of that church will be blue and gold,’ said Rumfoord. ‘These words will be written on that flag in gold letters on a blue field: Take Care of the People, and God Almighty Will Take Care of Himself.’
But the problem with an exclusively irreligious worldview, though easy to think about, is it offers no solace for human suffering and we’ve proven time and time again that we won’t “Take Care of the People…”
But, for funsies, let us entertain Lennon’s thought experiment for a moment and say beginning today going forward in human history it is empirically proven that God does not exist and all religions – major and minor – have conceded this point and disbanded.
Are we all imagining this?
What do we do and say now that we know beyond the shadow of any doubt that there are no gods when one godless human inevitably takes another godless human’s life? What do we say when one group of irreligiously motivated people takes the lives of another group with zero religious affiliation? What is impetus for human on human violence? We’re agreed there are no gods in this situation so the causation of all this heartache must be that humanity has the capacity and willingness to make itself violently suffer. Haters gonna hate.
Truth is we don’t need no gods to make each other suffer, we’re happy to do it regardless of what the wheel in the sky says.
Again, I’d be remiss to say that religious violence doesn’t exist or isn’t important to consider and resist because it does exists and must be fought when it’s as obvious as ISIS or as subtle as WASPy culture. What I’m suggesting rather is that religion is just a vehical of the violence – physical or otherwise – we’d anyways certainly commit.
But after a religiously motivated tragedy, like in Paris last week, dismissing religion is the wrong response. Doing so hinders our ability to understand the motivations of the perpetrators and divine possible solutions. Not respecting the worldview that would allow and delight in such horrors creates opportunity for wrongly assessing how best to respond.
We’re seeing this play out in a very real way on the world stage right now. How does one fight an idea? And what idea is being fought? All of Islam? Or, the Salafi movement of Sunni Islam? And which of three very different adherents to the Salafi movement? How do we know which is which?
The generally dismissive irreligious rhetoric is just as unhelpful as the ultra-“fundamentalist” rhetoric that would deny Syrian refugees compassion. Saying “your God has no place in this particular tragedy” is wrong because somebody has in fact started this conversation by inserting their god. It is necessary to have sociotheological conversations in light of sociotheological events.
Dismissive irreligious rhetoric in light of the negative realities of religion also dismisses the positive realities of religion. It disregards the historically humanitarian progress made by religious peoples. Who before the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Galatia that, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” was writing egalitarian literature? Or, how about our daily used Hindu-Arabic Numerals?
Like all human endeavors religion is a mixed bag. You don’t have to subscribe to one to recognize that beyond all the good and bad comitted in the name of Whoever there’s relatively no harm in expressing sympathy in the colloqiual language of “My thoughts and prayers are with you” and that you don’t have to participate if you’d rather not. What compassion is there in using this, or any, tragedy to take that particular nonsaying and by proxy all religious activity to task?
The problem with our rhetoric is that the inability to communicate compassion on one side and the dismissive irreligion on the other serves only to divide us. Creating more lines of division is exactly the goal of ISIS and every other violently self-interested person and organization – religious or otherwise. This caustic rhetoric is symptomatic of my own and everybody else’s naval-gazing, violent self-interest.
But, hopefully, we can begin to disagree without such hostility because we’d profit greatly if everbody put their fingers down for a moment – and aren’t they tired from all the pointing anyways – and tried empathy and patience.
For good measure: You may say I’m a dreamer but surely I can’t be the only one.
*John Lennon is great but we can all agree that George Harrison is the best Beatle. Do I have any friends left?