This week, bulldozers were running over 3,000 year-old treasured remains of the ancient city of Nimrud. I remember it from my university studies and visits to the British Museum, as containing very powerful symbols of a civilisation that dominated the region that is now Iraq. I always found it quite absorbing imagining the people who actually made the statues, built the temples, walls and gates, used the artifacts in their daily lives but also in their rituals. 3,000 years in one way is relatively recent, but in another is really ancient. The same artifacts that I could recall, then appeared this week being pounded under sledgehammers by men from the so-called Islamic State or ISIL.
It isn’t new though. Throughout history, histories have been obliterated, and religious extremists of all kinds have destroyed things precious in our eyes for secular reasons. In the Reformation in England, iconoclasm, or the removal of religious symbolism, was every bit as destructive. In 2001 the Taliban destroyed the 1,700 year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan because they were considered idols. In Nimrud, the destruction was again because significance was perceived to exist in objects we might just see as art. The same has now happened in Hatra. So what is an idol, that deserves such treatment?
We don’t have them much around here – do we?
An idol, even in biblical times, was an object invested with power. It doesn’t mean that the stone or wood, once chiselled and shaped, actually had any power, only that it was believed to have such, and therefore influenced people’s behaviours in relation to it. At the extremes, of course, such objects can become fetishes, and through suggestion are seen as being very powerful supernatural objects. Believe in the magic, or power, juju or voodoo, and real things do happen; charms, enchantments and curses really can affect people. But if you or I were innocently to find such an object, it would just be at most a sinister-looking piece of handcraft.
It is peculiar how as humans in societies, we create these things out of nothing, and then fear them, curse and bless with them, and render them dangerous enough to destroy again. And it’s all in the human mind. Religion, in this sense, still intrigues me. How is it that we can construct the edifices of a very wide variety of supernatural and superstitious beliefs, which necessarily must be limited by contemporary awareness and understanding and context, and then invest them with such infallibility that they become immutable doctrines, dogmas, rules, beliefs and faiths?
Essential to this activity is that the ‘knowledge’ has come from beyond, not from within, despite all evidence to the contrary.
That every divine being elucidated in literature has chosen to communicate with mankind through chosen individuals and mysterious beings, ending up being written down and susceptible to mistranslation and misunderstanding, may seem suspicious. (Is there really no better or more certain and secure way?) Even more so when this divine knowledge is expressed in temporally-bound terms. And yet here we are, in a world flooded with religions purporting to free us, whilst drowning us in guilt, self-destruction, rigid principles, and immune to improving knowledge and understanding. Copernicus and Galileo are stark reminders, but have we really moved on?
I had a slightly testy conversation recently over social media, that had been evoked by religious influence in a legal case. A judge had expressed his opinion about same-sex parenting, in court, and had been reprimanded, and a petition had been raised by Christian people to reinstate him. I objected to personal faith in a courtroom, but also to the underlying assumption that I was now unworthy of being a parent simply by virtue of being transsexual and also lesbian. Love, it seems, is not the same thing in a family with me as parent, as it would previously have been. Out trotted the usual mantra: ‘God made man and woman and marriage for the procreation and stable upbringing of children and this is the only natural way.’
Well, I went back with them over the definitions and current state of scientific understanding of the origins and meaning of sex and sexuality, explaining that you can either believe the man/woman binary system in the face of all evidence to the contrary, or you can see that in fact it isn’t quite as simplistic as that at all. And if the man/woman binary thing is unsafe, and you stop believing in it in the face of the facts, where does that leave you with concepts of marriage and parenting, families and households? The trouble with religions is that you can’t let them out of the bottle. So am I unfairly hitting back at religion, because it is so prevalent in the misunderstanding and bigotry against LGBTQI people? I began with a religious situation destroying the secular, in the belief that it was not secular but idolatrous. And now I am saying that religions easily make their own beliefs iconic and protected from secular understanding. Is it just that religion of any kind gets into a muddle, because it is not based on knowledge, and an understanding what knowledge actually is?
Having ranted and explained, I then came across a vlogger patiently going through some very interesting material on how presupposition affects perception (example: generally, we think male babies are bigger and stronger than female babies, not because of what we observe, but simply because we have been told a particular baby is male or female.) There are many researched examples that demonstrate our perception is skewed easily. Interview a person with your hands round a warm drink, and you will feel better towards them than if you hold a cold drink. Yes, that basic. So if you have a set of strongly-held beliefs or opinions, of course the world is a different place, and you actually think things are different. You have a faith? Then in your hands it has a supernatural power and changes the way the world is, around you. Even if you have an iconoclastic faith, your faith itself is an icon.
But this vlogger was even more interesting, because she vlogs as an atheist, experiencing atheist transphobia (a small percentage of transphobes whose attitudes cannot be attributed to religious cultural conditioning). Her conclusion was that the atheism itself had become a faith, and that the problem of the transphobes is that they have closed their understanding to new knowledge, to learning, and new ways of looking at things.
It all makes you wonder what ‘faith’ is. Is it just the ability to think without thinking about thinking?