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January 2014: I believe

January 7, 2014

A bizarre letter to the editor appeared in my local paper this week. Although it was at times completely unintelligible, the gist seemed to be that anyone who denied some form of supreme being employing Intelligent Design to populate planet Earth was an idiot. The proof, apparently, can be found in the mating dance of a spider. Okay.

Humans – like dogs – are by nature pack animals. Given our lack of sharp teeth or claws and our relative lack of speed for outrunning predators, this made sense in ancient times. There was definitely safety in numbers. Fire helped, as did the wheel. Neither helped agrarian man when crops failed. The only thing that might help then was to accept that the drought was a punishment from the sun god (or some other). Whatever the religion was, wherever it developed, the goal was common: wrongs would be forgiven and righted in return for atonement and sacrifice. It was a comfort to believe that survival was less precarious and random than it seemed. As the gods evolved from the sun and moon and thunder, whether it was the Egyptian, the Greek or the Roman gods, it was clear that, when crossed, they could be vindictive. The gods, including Jehovah, required obedience and constant appeasement.

Then a carpenter’s son from Nazareth came along with a new story. Jehovah was not a vindictive God. On the contrary, He was a loving God who would welcome the righteous, no matter how humble, into the Kingdom of Heaven. (In fact, he said, rich men were very unlikely to be allowed into Heaven.) Unlike the eye-for-an-eye God of the Old Testament, the carpenter’s son spoke of turning the other cheek, of loving your neighbour and of “he who is without sin” casting the first stone. This was the message he shared with his enslaved people: no matter how bad life on Earth was, a better life awaited them. It was a message which spread quickly to other enslaved and disenfranchised groups.

Do I believe that Jesus existed? Yes, I do. (Although before his name was translated into Greek, he would have been known as Joshua of Nazareth.) I believe he existed and was a prophet for his time – just as centuries later Ghandi emerged as a prophet and leader. Or Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela. I believe his message of peace and love and tolerance and equality is a good creed by which to live. (I also believe in Ghandi’s call for non-violent direct action in the face of oppression.)

Do I believe in life everlasting? No. I believe heaven and hell are here on earth. The never-ending wars we wage on one another are more than enough proof for me of hell on earth.

I believe in right and wrong and the innate ability of every human born to know the difference – before they are inculcated with prejudice and hatred.

I believe that both Jesus of Nazareth and Mohammed (whom I also believe existed) would be horrified by how bastardised their messages of peace, love and charity would become, and by the wars that have been and continue to be fought in their names against others or against factions of their own followers.

Although I am a humanist, I would never attempt to deny anyone the comfort they may find in their faith.

However, I do believe that clinging to a literal interpretation of the Bible or the Koran (or any other ancient text) in the modern world is dangerous. For all these reasons – and more.

I believe prophets are people who can envisage a different future, people whose vision inspires others to strive for a better world for all.

Religious fundamentalism on the other hand is at best stagnant and at worst entirely backwards-looking. I believe it is the enemy of creativity and rational thought – the two greatest gifts bestowed upon humanity. Wherever they came from.

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