It’s not about religion.
The world is shrieking this weekend as so much news of violence suddenly found a focus in the atrocities in Paris. No-one can ignore it, and so many of us want to say something, anything, to make sense of it, to make a difference, to feel something can change to stop it. And so much has been said that is horribly wrong. We all want to blame, maybe to excuse ourselves. It is not Muslims, it is not Islam. In the name of Christ our ancestors pillaged Palestine. They too killed, destroyed and exhibited massive cruelty. Behind many of the world’s conflicts for the whole of recorded time, the excuse has been religion.
A week ago I was in the British Museum, and two things always strike me there. The first is the massive stones, statues and artefacts that came to be there, that belong elsewhere, and arrived in the context of conquest, of European superiority and dominance. That too was in part excused and justified by Europe being the Christian part of the world, with the God-given right to impose one brand of civilisation on the world as they saw fit. And to impose doctrines, rules, values and laws, a way of life, that was held to be the one true way to be, live and organise. Some of that will forever bounce back at us. One that is close personally, is that we exported homophobia, transphobia and similar beliefs, including to the USA, often in religion, where it still results in legalised hatred, social destruction, and all the way to lazy bigotry.
In the British Museum, we might say: ‘thank goodness; these things at least have been saved from the destruction seen under the Taliban (Bamiyan and Afghanistan National Museum), or ISIS (Palmiyra) where such images are seen as idolatrous under a different religious regime.’ But we would be wrong.
The second thought I have, is that when you admire the tiny, meticulous, cuneiform inscriptions on the stelae, and the intricate bas-relief depictions and hieroglyphs, and wonder at civilisations so old, you are staring as much in the face of violent triumphalism, under power endowed by deities, as you are at simply people living a long time ago. Here, in every stone, is domination in the name of some divine power. For many thousands of years, land has been claimed as given by gods to chosen peoples. Leaders, priests, chiefs, pharoahs, kings, emperors all, have claimed their right to rule from supreme, unseen beings, singular and independent, or multiple but ‘beyond’. Some have claimed deity for themselves. Deity cannot be argued with, or debated.
And the other most obvious observation I make, is how few women are among those who drive violence. Yes, we have queens and empresses, the occasional female tyrants, and some female suicide bombers. But they are not just in the minority because we have a mostly patriarchal world.
Put all this together. Humanity has created its divine justifications in many ways, because to claim this gives power. Power to stabilise societies, authority to reduce dissent, ideologies to create cohesion. Identities to distinguish one tribe or nation from another and claim superiority or precedence. There isn’t much of civilisation that has no dependence or back-story in religious thought. Many western philosophers who have helped us to think rationally and logically, spent a deal of time proving the existence of god. Some did not, but few made any effort to address equality in a way that countered current patriarchy. Society in some ways was the way it was because it was ‘meant to be’ that way, which is another way of saying that it wasn’t for humans to design or decide, but was an (unspoken divine) given. So even if there wasn’t a god to intervene, some things were established by nature as if they had been designed.
And so today we have seen people fleeing the same violence, being blamed. We have had quotes from the Qur’an showing how peace is preached, not violence (the word Islam itself comes from the word for peace). We have had calls to pray for various parts of the world. We have had cultures, nations, faiths, bundled together as roots of evil. We have self-defence and violence preached.
And a man at a piano outside the Baclava concert hall where so many died and three ISIS (Daesh) suicide bombers blew themselves up, playing ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon.
It’s not about religion. It is about a patriarchy, that derives self-endowed power by legitimising itself through creating an authority, that then is said to have elected it to power. Religion does not create itself. Not does it explain anything. Rather, it describes us. Yes, by creating a socially good and supportive ethic, an agreed understanding of what works to the well-being and happiness of all, religion can be a vehicle. But tell me of a religion, a faith, that is based on a mother god, that places women in a position of authority to impose their power violently, that tells men how to live and what they can and cannot do, and that invades any culture that does not share its faith, to destroy it triumphantly.
So is all this global violence about religion?
No. Nor am I saying that women are better, or all good. Clearly they are not. They can be criminals, murderers, frauds, even despots. They can be violent. But rather fewer are. How many wars are fought in the name of a female god? (And historically not all female deities have been good either!) My point is that we must not confuse the actions of men with any objective statement about any god at all. If they act out of a personal belief arising from an interpretation of a particular tradition, that is one thing, but it is not the ‘fault of a religion’, rather a confirmation of why religions have been devised in the first place.
Is the state of the world more about testosterone?
I have to say, from experience, that the removal of testosterone from your body, or the injection of it, changes you powerfully. It gives a particular drive, that can, and sometimes cannot, be contained. It makes men behave the way they do, it gives them their less co-operative characteristics, be that arrogance, strength, sexual drive, a way of thinking, a sense of dominance and right. All of these things can be self-understood, but often they are self-justifying, as if the world should be to their way of thinking. So it is that for some men, an essentialist or a fundamentalist, or an extremist outlook leads to a self-justifiable behaviour, whilst for others a self-critique and self-knowledge tempers that behaviour into a context of alternative views that are more moderate.
So as humans, we do have choices, to be and do what is right and fair. And clearly religion does not always produce what is right and fair to everyone; so should we blame a particular god for that? Or if someone through their faith acts badly, should we blame their religion? No. My argument is quite simply that people seek to gain power, to justify themselves, by creating an authority for their way of thinking. In all our shared thinking, we also know what is good and fair for all. We can work out an ethic that benefits shared living, society and common well-being without recourse to a divine being. It really is within us, and we know that. But to overcome the drives and innate violence, the insistence on being externally justified has to be faced and removed. There is no external justification; there is ourselves and a need to face that and deal with it.
You may think from this that I hate men and blame the state of the world on them. Partly I do. You may think that I am blaming created religions as the vehicle for war and violence. Partly I am. What I really want to say is that whilst it doesn’t give us a quick answer, honest understanding of why we have all our different religions, and then get absolutist about each and every one, should help us drag ourselves out of self-destruction. I do wonder if, left to ourselves, women would have created the same kinds of religions, or whether a protective mother earth leading us to be caring and mutually supportive might have become the norm. Maybe our various goddesses would have looked more alike, or maybe they would end up sisters. This is a male world, captured by the impulses of testosterone, to create religions that justify their dominance, their drive to compete, create and overcome rivals, and to use violence as necessary to do so. That much is ‘natural’ in the sense that it is not deliberate. But since the first inscriptions lying now in the British or Kabul or Syrian museums, we should have learned to see ourselves as we truly are, and how the world just does not need to be this way, to such a degree that extremist views find no nourishment or value, but rather produce infertile seeds that spread and grow nowhere.
So do not pray for Paris, or Beirut, or any place being bombed by extremists or air forces, or drones on any side. There is no-one to hear, no deity to make any side win the day, because we are all wrong in our own ways.
It’s not about religion. It’s not just about testosterone either. It’s about all of us, and being time to wake up to what it means to be fully human.