[From Free Expression Is NO OFFENCE, edited by Lisa Appignanesi. Penguin 2005]
ONE of the wisest people I have ever met was an old Turkish gypsy, a horse-groom in a circus. One night he and I chanced upon each other, together with our respective friends, at a tavern in a village by the Bosporus. As often happens in Istanbul, we joined our tables and drank through the night in an intense spirit of brotherhood. Inevitably, we argued about religion and politics, burning issues in a Muslim country that, not long ago, had risen from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, abolished the Caliphate and embraced secularism.
The old gypsy made no distinction between religion and politics. For him, humanity was divided into two groups: those who wanted to dictate to the masses and, therefore, cuddled up to despots, and those who, seeking to tend their orchards freely, bent their necks to no one. And since both politics and religion sought power over the people, they were the same Devil with two different – and interchangeable – faces, a fact amply proven by their lust for blood.
Then, at first light, we staggered down the cobbled streets to the sea to watch the dawn. The old gypsy, barely holding back his tears, pointed at the emerging sun. “There is God, our Mother, giving birth to a new day!” He knelt down and scooped up some sand. “Never forget: just this handful of earth contains the blood of thousands. All killed in the name of some Great Father! But how could a male god have created this soil? And which male God?” He sighed and let the sand trickle out of his hands. “Yet every religion says: Our God! Our King of the Universe! Our King over all gods! And to prove it, they send us to kill or get killed!” He turned to the rising sun again. “So when you next pray to God, pray that She saves us from religion!”
MUCH as I thought that the old gypsy’s conviction of a female God was inspired, it was his view of what religion meant that preoccupied me over the years. As with all nebulous concepts, it would be prudent to define it as clearly as possible. The Oxford English Dictionary offers two principal definitions:
1. Action or conduct indicating a belief in, reverence for, and desire to please, a divine ruling power; the exercise or practice of rites or observances implying this.
2. Recognition on the part of man of some higher unseen power as having control of his destiny, and as being entitled to obedience, reverence, and worship; the general mental and moral attitude resulting from this belief, with reference to its effect upon the individual or the community; personal or general acceptance of this feeling as a standard of spiritual and practical life.
At first glance these definitions induce a sense of relief; more importantly, a sense of freedom from individual conscience. Beyond this, they suggest that we have the ability to perceive the ubiquity of ‘a divine ruling power,’ and accept that it is a compassionate presence that will look after us as our birthright.
But a deeper reflection soon disturbs that sense of complacence. Some questions, simple yet as old as humankind, gnaw at our minds. Who or what is this deity? And if He is an ‘unseen’ power, how do we know He exists? (I use the gender ‘He’ because ever since patriarchal societies hijacked the affairs of mankind God has always been seen as masculine.)
View of Vatican City
For those who embrace religion, there is a simple answer to these questions – an answer that constitutes a principal precept of that religion and, therefore, must be accepted as an act of faith. Creation, wherein all the forces of Nature are integrated, the answer states, is the work, therefore the proof, of this power’s existence. And if that were not conclusive enough, it adds, further evidence has been provided by countless prophets who witnessed the divine existence through mysterious manifestations known as revelation. Whether this divinity is conceivable in images of the human male (as in Christianity’s Trinity) or inconceivable, albeit still masculine (as in Judaism and Islam), his presence is constantly felt because he is always by our side, judging us, exhorting us to restrain from sinning, but persistently forgiving us.
However, for those who cannot achieve such a leap of faith – of whom I am one – these answers are not good enough. We ‘doubters’ see the phenomenon of Creation as the evolutionary processes of cause and effect, as happenings that have incontestable – and sometimes predictable – scientific explanations. Even more analytically, we look upon revelation as the fiery visions of theopathy wherein the hyperactive imagination of the ascetic fuses with hysteria, emotional turbulence or delusion.
Moreover, for us ‘doubters’ yet another disturbing question arises. If we cannot accept the existence of a ‘divine power’ – ‘higher and unseen’ – why should we believe that this divinity has control of our destiny and is entitled to obedience, reverence and worship?
Well, many of us do not. Though it can be said that for most of us the belief in a divine power is inculcated so very early in our lives as to seem to be innate, we soon realize that the teaching that this divinity controls our destiny and that, therefore, he must be worshiped, has been imposed by the very institutions created around that divinity’s persona. Anthropological studies have shown that in many polytheistic societies the relationship between people and their deities has been, in the main, fairly accommodating, sometimes like a practical business arrangement, at other times like an essential element of a person whereby he or she can establish a mystic, respectful, even if somewhat bewildered, coexistence with the vagaries of the collective unconscious. But the moment this relationship is taken over by an intermediary – a religious institution – the personal rapport between the individual and his/her inner life becomes undermined.
The institution, claiming to base its authority either on its own ‘profound understanding of the deity’ or on the putative ‘direct’ (and therefore sacrosanct) teachings received by that deity’s luminaries, elevates itself to the status of the deity’s representative on earth. Thenceforth, it is the institution which exacts the obedience, reverence and worship not only to the deity, but also, and particularly, to the institution itself and to its functionaries. Examples of this obligation can be found in the Pauline doctrines; in the total obeisance Shiite Islam commands for the clergy it has designated as Allah’s intermediaries; and in the similar self-abnegation Orthodox Judaism expects from its adherents in the execution of its laws, many of them archaic.
When institutions and their rulers take upon themselves the control of humanity’s destiny, they soon curtail notions of free will – or worse, of evolving enlightenment. Not only can progressive developments not be accommodated, they are also anathematized as heretical. Strategies of obedience, reverence and worship, if they are to prove effective, must be structured in such a way as to touch every person within their reach, to take cognizance of their lives, aspirations and concerns. Such structures need myriad tentacles; and each tentacle needs not only to address the spatial and spiritual needs of the people, but must also be seen to be vested with the authority of its ‘higher, unseen’ power – a power which can be nothing less than omniscient and insuperable.
Homage to the Owl at Bohemian Grove
By their very nature, such structures cannot be created by any one individual. Consequently, they have to be assembled as tenets of an oligarchic institution. And such an institution endeavours to establish itself not only as superior to secular and political bodies, but also, and particularly, to other religious institutions. Even more alarmingly, it seeks to elevate itself as a body that possesses ‘the absolute truth’ and, therefore, is untarnishable by revision. To achieve this objective, it is prepared to crush any dissension mercilessly, if need be with punishments which violate its original clement doctrines. An institution, in effect, which, stretching its ostensibly devotional aims to limits that are virtually limitless, seeks to evolve as a sole and inviolable monolith.
That is precisely how every religion has endeavored to establish itself throughout history: as an omnipotent monolith. Even more irremissibly, as in the case of theocracies, they have sought to rule as the unchallengeable and unaccountable representatives of an indomitable god who is ‘seen and reachable’ only by their sacerdotal order. (In our time, Iranian exiles who have fled the ayatollahs’ rule have chilling stories about the period when dissenters and intellectuals were being systematically executed. On occasions when a particular intellectual was proven to be innocent of the charges against him, the presiding ayatollahs would often declare that if the accused were indeed innocent he would go straight to paradise and should therefore be grateful to the regime for ending his inconsequential earthly life ahead of its allocated time. History, of course, is full of similar crimes perpetrated by all religions.)
Though it is in the nature of ruthless individuals and institutions to wield power absolutely, this is not always an easy undertaking. Absolute power has always had one redoubtable adversary: humankind’s ability to reason. Moreover, humankind is also blessed with an intrinsic essence of ‘natural justice.’ (Whole tracts can be written about natural justice. Suffice to say here that the concept is universal, that in all probability we are born with an instinctive, if as yet unformulated, awareness of its truth. This awareness is essential to our development as moral individuals; and provided that indoctrination and fear of freedom have not distorted its core veracity, we carry its sense throughout our lives. (Some may dispute this contention, yet psychological studies of infants have shown that, unless impinged upon by their parents’ insecurities, infants will develop this moral sense from within.) Natural justice is, in effect, our awareness of our ‘ethical self,’ the self that struggles against the injustices of limitless power. Indeed, it is the innate basic philosophy which, seeking a temperate way of life, produced the set of rules that became the foundations for morality, and imposed itself as commandments on most religions. In many countries, this sense of justice has led to procedural practice stipulating two primary rules: (a) to hear out the accused; (b) to be judged by an unbiased body of people.)
Thus, any institution that seeks power must devise strategies to defeat reason and refute this deeply personal sense of natural justice. Moreover, power is a Moloch; it needs constant feeding. And the more it is fed, the more insatiable it becomes. Consequently, the thrust for incontrovertible power, the corruption that invariably ensues, compels that institution to use any means to consolidate its existence. Thus whilst the institution may appear to uphold a benevolent morality – or at least speak in its language – it does so conditionally. And the condition is the imposition of total compliance to the particular religion’s dogmas, hierarchies and, above all, to the God-given, therefore, immaculate, revelations it professes to possess.
In pursuit of this objective, it proceeds to promulgate strategies that, more often than not, amend or reinterpret the precepts originally inspired by natural justice. It creates doctrines that become all the more codified, all the more rigid, all the more blinkered, all the more authoritarian. As a last resort, it creates ‘irrefutable’ dogmas that subvert our sense of the ethical self. And, of course, by so doing, it soon loses its moral base.
One would be inclined to think that these strategies are subtly devious, the sort one would expect after serious deliberation. In fact, more often than not, they are quite simple: just crude doctrinaire ‘truths’ of ‘divine authority’ which exploit individuals’ insecurities and destabilize their life-long struggle in search of a personal truth. For these strategists know, from schemes established over the centuries, that people’s primordial fears over survival, confusions about the meaning of life and uncertainties about the existence of life after death, offer them the perfect vulnerable underbelly.
And thus they manipulate our cravings for the final resolution of these deeply personal conflicts as a vehicle to sustain their rule. Their guiding principles to secure eternal survival for our souls are invariably licences to intensify the codification of life and guarantee continuous and incontestable governance. Hence damnation becomes the weapon which threatens the dissident, with salvation and paradise the respite from the struggle for a personal life. Unquestioning submission is established as the ultimate resolution for the sense of a life that feels personal.
Consequently most religions – certainly the three monotheisms – teach us that our lives are of relative unimportance, that they are simply a test of merit for eternal salvation that will come with the Last Judgement. In effect they instruct us to worship death instead of life. The doctrine of an eternally exultant existence after death to which only the righteous will be entitled has poisoned our earthly life and promoted suffering as a fundamental goal, as the justification for being. Its most extreme policies have even condoned the extermination of so-called pagans and unbelievers so that in death they would attain salvation because their souls would be automatically purified. The Spanish Inquisition and the genocide of Amerindians in South America at the time of the Spanish Conquest are horrendous examples of such principles.
Today, there is a fast-growing faction among the Christian fundamentalists of the USA obsessed with impending salvation. These believers keep an eager eye on what they call ‘The Rapture Index.’ As reported by Jon Carroll in the San Francisco Chronicle of 23 February 2005 and accessible via the internet, this index ‘based on 45 prophetic categories, things (sic) like drought, plague, floods, liberalism, beast government and mark of the beast’ heralds the return of the Son of God and the advent of the Last of Days –‘The Rapture’ – when the Index will exceed 145. At this time – all true believers, meaning all those worthy of ‘The Rapture,’ will be transported to heaven. They will sit by the right-hand side of God whilst the rest of humanity – Antichrists, every one of them – will be ‘left behind,’ condemned to hell for eternity.
The concept of ‘Those Left Behind’ is one that all dogmatists have exploited throughout history in many tongues. It is a concept which leaves no room for mercy. It affirms endless bliss for the believer and eternal damnation for the rest.
The Ka'aba in Mecca
Like all institutions, religions are in competition with each other. Their survival depends on the number – and power – of believers who embrace their doctrines. The larger their flock, the more assured they can be of maintaining authority by defeating the not inconsiderable challenge of rational thought. Consequently, proselytizing is one of their principal objectives. To this effect, they have developed yet another potent principle: exclusivity. Thus those who join them are ‘guaranteed to be saved,’ those who do not join them will be ‘left behind’ and damned. The exception to seeking converts actively is Judaism; the adherents to that religion are ‘saved’ by the notion that they are the ‘Chosen People.’ Even if some of us would question what this ‘favor’ sanctions and what it has secured for the Jews, the belief is equally elitist. And since elitism is exclusivity by another name, Judaism offers a similar syndrome.
Exclusivity has two salient weapons: contempt and hatred.
As proof that their religion has been handed down to them by a supreme divinity – and by so doing refuting the humanist argument that all religions have evolved from our primal fears – religious institutions besmirch each other’s dogmas as fantasy, delusion and falsehood. They strive to establish themselves as the purveyors of ‘the true religion,’ the possessors of ‘the ultimate truth,’ the visionaries who have recognized ‘the real God’ and have come to know Him as the legitimate ‘King of the Universe.’ Such contempt, pronounced as conclusive, holds great sway. It rids individuals of uncertainty and assuages their existential fears; it destabilizes reason even as reason struggles to discern a sense of personal truthfulness.
Should contempt fail, there is an even more toxic weapon: persistent hatred – hatred that is directed at other religions, nations, races, factions, identities; even hatred for the sexually different; hatred that transgresses one of the most important commandments in the Scriptures: “love the stranger in thy midst” (strikingly, a commandment that failed to be listed among the ten that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai). This hatred is rooted in the most paranoid portions of our sacred texts – and not least in the minds of their exegetes. This hatred dehumanizes brothers and neighbors and and creates the non-persons, the ‘others,’ making them the culprit for all our grievances, past and present.
Permit me to refer to a talk I gave some years back in relation to the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie (pictured left with his wife Padma Lakshmi) by one of those ‘good men of God,’ Ayatollah Khomeini. In it I referred to an unpublished article by the psychoanalyst Christopher Hering entitled ‘The Problem of the Alien.’ This paper – analyzing the science-fiction film Alien and its sequels – discoursed on a condition which Hering defined as ‘emotional fascism.’ Proposing that if a force can be mythified as life-threatening or, worse, as an arch-enemy that threatens all humanity, he postulated that psychotic fiction can masquerade as objective truth. Thereafter, he maintained, the most destructive impulses – impulses we would abhor at any other time – would be tolerated, even nurtured as a means of salvation. By the same token, all feelings of compassion, concern, doubt, proscription would be discarded. Thereafter the idea of annihilation would receive the sanction to develop into a justifiable objective, indeed, into a moral imperative.
Psychotic fiction as objective truth is precisely what religious institutions – and by their example, unscrupulous politicians – have often utilized. They have created a continuous narrative wherein other peoples and races are depicted as empty of soul, with no capacity for thought and with only one vision: the compulsion to destroy ‘our values and way of life.’ These people, therefore, they argue, must be subjugated – even exterminated – so that not only the followers of the particular religion, but also the very soul of humanity itself may be saved.
UNDOUBTEDLY my blanket condemnation of religious institutions will provoke strong protests. Many reading this thesis will argue that there have been numerous movements in every religion that have not only endeavored to generate reforms, but also sought coexistence with other faiths. (For example: Pope John XXIII’s convocation of the Second Vatican Council, the present-day US-Jewish organization Tikkun – meaning ‘to heal’ – which preaches, under Rabbi Lerner, a Universal Spirituality. And, of course, the Sufi teachings for total union with Allah that have defied Islamic fundamentalism for centuries.) Just as importantly, every religion has produced countless remarkable men and women who have toiled unselfishly – sometimes at the cost of their lives – to better the human condition.
Anatomy of a synagogue
I do not dispute these facts. There have indeed been people of religion who have put humanistic values above blind acceptance of dogma. But these people’s eventual fates strengthen my argument, because, tragically, sooner or later, these good people and their reformist movements become marginalized by the conservative core of their establishment’s oligarchic rulers. This core comprises individuals who, to use the old adage of the Soviet Politburo, have ‘substantial tails’ – subordinates in important or influential positions who either through ideological conviction or for personal gain have vowed allegiance to their patron. Though these ‘tails’ are neither homogeneous, nor, having their own internecine conflicts, stable, they nevertheless, in the main, subjugate their ambitions to preserve the status quo in order to ensure their own survival. Indeed, such is the power entrenched in these oligarchic structures that dissidents and innovators are either eventually compromised or find themselves forced to operate as singular voices with virtually no support. (Pope John XXIII’s reforms have drained away like flash floods in a desert through the conservatism of his successors, including Pope John Paul II. No matter how valiant Tikkun’s efforts are, its campaigns stand solitarily outside mainstream theologies. And fundamentalist Islam brutally persecutes the Sufi teachings of peaceful spirituality.)
Moreover, as entrants to religious institutions attempt movement and change with more radical aspirations, they are almost always neutralized by what the political philosopher Robert Michels long ago termed ‘the iron law of oligarchy,’ the state of mind whereby an organization becomes controlled by a small group who use it to further their own interests rather than the interests of the organization’s members. Thus reformists, drawn at first into the institution’s hierarchy as necessary innovators, are gradually rendered ineffective in the institution’s bureaucratic quagmires. By the time they realize that their vitality has been utilized to strengthen the oligarchy’s power and exclusivity, they have either lost their original élan or their credibility; thereafter, they either disappear quietly into oblivion or become what was once detestable to them, conformist strands of the establishment.
As for the heroes of religions – the martyrs and saints elevated to reverence – they are perhaps the most exploited by religious institutions. Much as they are depicted as paragons of righteousness, they are used as armies utilize soldiers – expendable as long as their sacrifices keep their institutions in power. Moreover, the adulation bestowed on them has one principal objective: to endow the institution with fresh blood, to provide, by the example of their heroic sacrifices, the inspiration for martyrs that will be needed in the future. (Examples abound: the slain lay priests of the Liberation Theology Movement in Latin America, calumnied by their own churches during their lifetime, are now seen as Christ-like; the suicide bombers of Islam and Israel’s ultra-Orthodox settlers in the West Bank are glorified as august defenders of their respective splintered faiths.)
YET, the question remains: if we turn our backs on religion, where else would we find the anchor so needed by the human spirit?
Well, it is, of course, imperative that we have secular states that will kowtow to no religion. I say this knowing only too well that even secular states are prey to ‘the iron law of oligarchy.’ But at least secular states provide the individual with the freedom to reclaim his or her relationship with God as a deeply personal communion that has evolved from the ethical self.
If I may, I will go beyond that imperative and offer a wistful thought.
I am an ardent believer in the sexuality that binds together body and spirit. And as my last statement of this thesis, I must highlight the profound antagonism towards sexual desire, and most particularly towards women, promoted by almost every religion.
Women are the other ‘other’ of religions. They are excluded by the three monotheisms from virtually all human affairs. Among some factions they are considered unclean and untouchable, save for the purposes of procreation – their only ‘use’ – undeserving of a place in the human family. The exceptions, exemplified by Lady Macbeth’s desperation, are the ‘unsexed’ women who have become like men – such as the mythic Amazons who cut off their breasts in order to wield bow and arrow. This is, of course, the ultimate exclusivity for patriarchal society’s vision of unalterable dominant norms.
Hence, my wistful prayer.
It is time, as my old gypsy friend in Istanbul declared, to feel God as a feminine force in us all. It is time to free ourselves from the poisoned teachings of patriarchal religions. It is time to seek a society where both the feminine and the masculine are represented as co-creators. It is time to worship life instead of death and go searching, as Fernando Pessoa writes in The Book of Disquietude, “beyond God to surprise the Master’s secret and the profound Good.” That ‘secret and profound Good’ can only be our femininity, chained and incarcerated.
Moris Farhi © 2005