My view of nationality is simple: I have the same right to be on any spot on Earth as on any other and to call it home.
God put me on this planet but it was people who labelled the location. And people are fickle and disputatious. The Earth, nay, the Universe is my home because I am a creature among the rest of creation.
Both the artifice of nation, no matter how sublime and just its system of laws and governance, and the artifice of religion, no matter how reasonable and wise its precepts, stir up argument, conflict and envy. The disputatiousness of both discloses their human origin. It is only humans who, as far as we know, maintain these concepts and cling on to them to bolster their sense of worth and belonging.
What is desperately needed is to uncouple associations that serve the power lust of those who ride the tigers of religion and nation; and prove that by excising the tumour you can save the patient.
What are those false associations?
That between, on the one hand, the beauty and wonder of the valleys, lakes and flora and fauna of an area of the planet; aye, and of the songs, discourse and literature of its people and, on the other, the flag which flies on its border posts and on the crest and colour of the pieces of card and plastic which its people are obliged to carry.
What did the thousand year old sequoias demand of
Spain, Mexico and the USA as land now known as changed flags? California
That between, on the one hand, the justice of truly consensual good law and governance which is necessary to protect the weak from oppression, prevent and heal sickness, provide food, water and shelter for all, fight ignorance and promote discourse and amity and, on the other, the pretence that all that is done in the name of a state rather than in that of common humanity.
And let it be stressed that you cannot govern with consent if those governed do not realise what laws are being concocted for them nor if they do not understand and approve their consequences whole heartedly.
That between, on the one hand, the glory of creation, our gratitude and happiness through the enjoyment of our senses, our sense of oneness and of the Hand that fashioned it all and, on the other, the truly ‘blasphemous’ presumption of all religions that claim to speak with the word of God.
Religion is a great enormity against God. Take, for example, the case of religious buildings. These structures are built, allegedly, for the greater glory of God and to be His House. So the Architect of the Universe entrusts mortal creatures to construct His house; for His greater glory? Isn’t the dome of the sky more spacious, more magnificent and more durable than the dome of any mosque or basilica? Aren’t the spires of trees or the towering mountains more glorious than the spires or towers of any cathedral? No. The buildings are in fact built for the greater glory of their human architects and as a home for their flights of fancy.
That between prayer and dogmatic ritual.
It seems to me natural and satisfying to believe in One Hand and One Intelligence that shaped and sustains the Universe. It is an outlet for my gratitude and sense of joy. I perceive a unity and common flavour of all created things and that perception is a beneficial thing. I see no reason to discard it. It is evident from my own experience that prayer works; whether through divine intervention or though some other influence that the mind is able to exert doesn’t really signify. God and prayer are highly satisfactory working hypotheses for my life. Ritual is noisy and involves a lot of talking. The most satisfying prayer is silent and involves listening.
That between the wisdom and indeed, suggestions for good governance that come with religious teachings and the harsh and rigid dogma of the priesthood.
It would, indeed, seem that the authors of most of those religious teachings were critical of the orthodoxy of their day. I suspect that until fairly recently it would not have been possible to propagate revolutionary ideas with any hope of success unless they came with the imprimatur of divine authorship.
That is not to say that the authors did not themselves believe that their thoughts were divinely revealed nor that they were dishonest or deceptive in their assertions.
The scope for mental self-delusion is well known, even in otherwise entirely sane and balanced people. In the milieu of a society where a religious world view is normal it may, indeed, be difficult not to believe that one’s revolutionary thoughts are revealed.
The human brain is extraordinarily adapt at filtering out extraneous external sensory perceptions, as in the often quoted cocktail party effect, so that the conscious mind can focus on what is relevant and important. It is equally adept at filtering out internal mental processes such as the formation of thought and its translation into language.
Most people are not usually aware that thought and language are separate and believe that they think in a language. It is only when the language centres of the brain are temporarily impaired, as in a migraine attack, that we become aware that thought and language are separate processes. The language translation process produces the words that are ‘heard’ in our head and subsequently transcribed by our vocal apparatus or the pen in our grasp or the keyboard under our fingers. Authors and speakers can often wonder where those words come from, so well hidden are our subconscious goings on from our conscious perceptions.
It is a small step for the psychotic or the sane, but socially conditioned, mind to ‘hear’ those words as emanating from an angel or from God.
The fact that the opus of a religious revolutionary may well be extremely complex, detailed, internally highly consistent; that it may present an accurate observation of human society and analysis of its needs and that the words may be moving emotionally, scan well poetically and be capable of sounding melodious and pleasing when recited does not make the opus divine. The human brain is capable of the most extraordinary feats. Beethoven, Shakespeare and Michelangelo did not claim that their works were divinely authored. They did not need to. They did not seek to change or overthrow the existing order.
The divine label at once creates both an irresistible force of great durability and an intractable problem. This is most clearly demonstrated nowadays in the case of Islam. Christianity suffered from this very problem until the Renaissance. It was demonstrated when the immovable rigidity of its dogma came in contact with the irresistible logic of physics. Believers did, and still do, deal with the logical and biological absurdities of Trinity and Resurrection by compartmentalising and encapsulating their fantastical beliefs in one part of their brain and assigning another to deal with mathematics and evidential empiricism. Thus they could, and do, live in two worlds at once. Until the Renaissance they hadn’t developed that ability. What they saw as a conflict between faith and the evidence of their senses caused them enormous difficulties.
Islam is now in the state of pre-Renaissance Christianity. Its precepts are at once both considerably more advanced, more complex, more universally applicable and more logically reasonable than that of any religious revolution that had preceded it and it also is more hidebound, bigoted, susceptible to sectarianism, mass hysteria and the manipulation of its priesthood: the mullahs and ayatollahs. It is imprisoned within two stone walls that it has built around itself.
The inner wall is the claim of divine authority and authorship.
That in itself is not such a great difficulty as it was with Pauline Christianity. Islamic doctrine does not require the adoption of as many absurdities but it has inherited some, such as the virgin birth of Jesus. Large majorities, but not all, have clung onto others such as the long term physical survival of Jesus somewhere in the heavens. There is a similar Shia belief in the long term survival of one of their imams in a cave somewhere. But these absurdities are relatively minor and are easily encapsulated mentally and bypassed on a day-to-day basis.
The far thicker and substantial wall is that of finality.
The Qur’ān is the last law and Muhammad, the last law-bearing prophet. For all except the Ahmadis, Muhammad is the last prophet of any sort, period. The Qur’ān is immutable and indivisible.
A prison has two functions: it keeps the inmates in and it keeps others out. This is the great tragedy of Islam. Either you accept the whole and enter the prison gates and abandon the free air outside or you stay outside and do not taste the fruit of the wisdom that lies within. And many of the Islamic precepts are much needed by the world suffering as it is by slavery to debt interest, intoxication and gambling: the tools by which the few subjugate the minds and lives of the many.
Inside the prison walls the Muslim world, like an old recidivist, looks with envy at the world outside but dare not leave the security and familiarity of its cell; even when the door is open. Its teachings lie dusty and neglected in the prison safe: the prisoner is proud of his property but doesn’t bother with it. He is too busy staring with envy and resentment at the world outside the bars.
crafted Principia Mathematica he acknowledged his debt to those on whose shoulders he stood in order to see just a little further. He anticipated that others would stand on his shoulders to see a little further still. Einstein did just that; and others since and others yet to come will stand on their shoulders too. Newton
When Shakespeare drafted his plays he too stood on the shoulders of others for his material. He generated so much in the way of idiom and plot for others to use that he, together with the compilers of the King James’ translation of the Bible, constitute the largest quantity of quotes used in the Oxford English Dictionary. Countless others have stood on his shoulders. Shakespeare is widely acknowledged as the greatest writer of Modern English, yet his is not the last word: he is a spring from which many other streams have flowed.
The sublime writers, mathematicians, natural philosophers, composers and artists of every tradition have both taken and given. Through discourse, experiment, criticism, emulation and development humanity has stored up for itself a treasury of thought. There is no seal on it. It will continue to grow, to evolve and develop.
I will go out on a limb and say this: religious movements are not primarily about the relationship between God and man. If they were they would be rather pointless. We all have a sense of the transcendental. We can all feel wonder, awe and gratitude. We all turn instinctively to what we perceive as a transcendent spirit when we find ourselves at a loss. We all have a sense of right and wrong. Prayer and conscience are part of our make up.
Religious movements are primarily, if not wholly, about the relationship between people. Their precepts are entirely political and social theories. And I use ‘theory’ in its best and noblest sense.
Religions are revolutions against the oppression of the existing social order where a minority hold sway over the minds, property and lives of the majority. In this the religion of Marx and Engels was no different from any other except that they did not need to claim divinity in order to propagate their theories.
In order to effect change you need support. To gain support you need to convince people of the power that they have over their oppressors: the power to organise and to refuse. No argument is stronger than to say that God is on their side and to prove it by standing up to the enemy and surviving.
Sooner or later, when the oppressor state is weak, stretched or senile, fat and corrupt, the religious revolutionary will survive, the followers will be convinced and the new ideas will take root.
Years after the death or disappearance of the founder the name of the religion will become established, its bodies revered and a new hierarchy of scholars and acolytes take over the administration and become the new state oppressors; claiming succession of the founder and obedience to the sanctity of their trust. They heap praise on the (thankfully dead, ascended or occultated) founder and elevate him to the status of demi-god or God incarnate. The new oppressors now control the mind of the people so thoroughly that the people dare not presume to question whether their new masters might be acting in exactly the way the founder had dedicated his life to oppose.
Now there is much wisdom in the precepts of all the religions, including Marxism, and a huge amount in that most complex and detailed of religions, Islam. Islam, most clearly, did stand on the shoulders of its predecessors. But the difficulty we have in daring to assert that wisdom as valid is the insidious association between the name and the corrupt orthodoxy which usurped it. There is un-wisdom too. There are precepts in religion which later advances of thought can see beyond. All thought is human and prone to error and religious thought is no different, whatever may be claimed.
Secularism has its own prison. It too can become a dogma, usurping the name of rationality and turning it into an orthodoxy with as much rigidity as any religion: Thou shalt not wear a headscarf nor any symbol of any religion.
Arthur C. Clarke, the fashioner of future myth and progenitor of the concept of geostationary communication satellites, was an ardent secularist who had a passionate belief in the non-existence of God. He gave strict instructions that no vestige of any religious ceremony should be permitted at his funeral. Was this an ironic joke? I hope so, for if he had no belief in a spiritual afterlife or the influence of religious ceremonies on his progress into it, what had he to fear?
In any event, Mr Clarke, whether he likes it or not, is condemned to, if not immortality, then certainly a prolonged life after death because of the works he has left us. God rest his soul.
So how do we free the valuable resource of social and political thought from the prison walls of dogma and make it, like Shakespeare,
and Beethoven, available to all and subject it to the same criticism, analysis and emulation that works which admit their humanity enjoy? Newton
Geert Wilders suggests at the end of his film, Fitna, that Muslims tear out what he regards as verses which incite terror or oppression.
As it happens, I disagree with his analysis of those particular verses he quotes. I do find other difficulties, most obviously in relation to Hudood punishments and state murder in particular. Capital punishment is theologically inconsistent with the value and encouragement of repentance.
Heer Wilders knows that as long as Muslims regard the Qur’ān as immutable and divine they cannot do that. To tear out one verse they must abandon everything. According to the cruel dogma of the mullahocracy, they thereby render themselves liable to be put to death for apostasy.
For Muslims who do not wish to abandon their belief in the immutability and divinity of the Qur’ān, the Ahmadiyya Movement seems to provide a partial answer. Its slogan, Love for All; Hatred for None, is extremely seditious since the power of the Mullahs and Ayatollahs relies on sectarian hatred. The spread of such subversive concepts as universal love would fundamentally undermine their hold.
Unsurprisingly, the Ahmadis are persecuted, outlawed and condemned for their daring. As long as it is a persecuted minority, and thereby has the appeal of the pioneer shoulder to shoulder defending its laager, it can afford to promote the reasonable and gentle precepts of its, naturally, divinely appointed founder. The seeds of orthodoxy in the form of a bureaucratic and rigid administration are, however, already established within the Ahmadiyya structure. As it gets larger the administrative hierarchy will get ever more fossilised and also gain in power and influence. There is nothing about Ahmadiyyat that suggests it will not go the same way as all other religious movements. At this stage of its development, as it is aiming for more converts, Ahmadiyyat is far more intellectually open than other sects. It does interpret the faith in a way that reduces the number of absurd entities which must be swallowed. Admittedly, it does encourage its adherents to swallow homeopathic pills, but so far it does not include the practice as an article of belief.
Heer Wilders’ approach is at the same time both useful and negative. If, by focussing on certain verses, he encourages discourse, it is useful. By demanding that Muslims themselves excise the verses he disapproves of, and knowing that they cannot, he polarises.
He attempts to force Muslims to either defend what he sees as indefensible (the verses which he quotes in his film are entirely defensible when read fully and in context) or to ‘protect’ their followers from his film by banning (and thereby promoting) it.
On the other hand, his superficial analysis juxtaposed with scenes of the cruel stupidity of the mullahs and their misguided followers is a blatant attempt to so disgust non-Muslims that they won’t be able to see the baby he would have them to throw away with the bathwater.
Conflict between secular dogmatists, Christian dogmatists and Islamic dogmatists is a mere power struggle generating a lot of heat and no light at all.
What is needed is a new Renaissance, a new awakening of thought without prejudice or spurious association.
There is a disturbing trend nowadays to treat education as a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder rather than as the right and heritage of every member of the human species. This must be fought vigorously. Thought is what makes us human and gives us continuity and, for some, immortality. It is just as much a part of the reproductive mechanism of our species as our DNA. The oxygen of thought is discourse. The food of thought is other thought, usually served up in books.
We govern our societies badly. Our governance is replete with injustice and cruelty. The few oppress the many. We are bound with chains of debt and our brains are rendered impotent by the daily grind and by addiction to inane pleasures and intoxicants.
From time immemorial, revolutionaries have sought to free us from our shackles and teach us how to govern ourselves with equity and justice. They have often taken on the mantle of the divine in order to be heard. Their words and thoughts were dangerous to the oppressive few if they were to be acted upon. So, as soon as the dangerous teachers were safely dead, the oppressors stole the revolutionary mantle.
But books are not so easily burned or their contents eradicated. If you claim to act in someone’s name you can hardly destroy his own words as seditious to his cause. You can just claim the authority as his successor to re-interpret them.
How do we destroy the prison walls of dogma? We do it by diffusion. We study the philosophy, the theory of governance and human interaction. We test and analyse it, free of its divine associations. We compare one with another. We discuss. And we adopt what we see as good. We learn the duty of resistance to oppression and guard against it constantly. We allow no name or person – neither the name of a particular set of precepts nor the name of its progenitor – to become worshipped or revered. The name should never become greater than the idea.
When those inside the prison of their own dogma see that those on the outside have adopted the best of what they have and yet are free, they will cease to see any advantage in their shackles. They will not have to exchange one prison for another – a religious for a secular one, for example.
If I were to concoct a religious precept of my own it would have but one commandment: Thou shalt think.
Anything which endangers free thought would be anathema and would be vigorously opposed.