I Believe in…………….
What do I believe in? Who do I believe in? Does it matter? Probably not. I’m an atheist. That much I’m sure of. Ever since I understood what agnostic and atheist meant I knew I was one of them, probably agnostic just to be on the safe side. I remember praying when I was a child, but only when I desperately wanted something. I’m pretty certain that even if I believed there might be ‘something’ up there, he wasn’t really doing that good a job if my prayers weren’t being answered. And I never really remember being in fear of the concept of Hell or sinning, or believing that Heaven was real. Not deep down anyway.
In the late 80’s and early 90’s, I got into rock music, metal, grunge, wore black, grew my hair and became pretty much the poster boy for the depressed, moody teenager. At the time, the likes of Tipper Gore and the Christian right were crusading against Judas Priest, Ozzy Osborne, Iron Maiden and anything else that was considered subversive and un-Christian. I rebelled against this instinctively without really considering my faith as such. It was just part of being against the establishment, authority, the mainstream, the system, the man, and anything else that was in the unwritten adolescent manual. I didn’t embrace the anti-Christianity stance that saw the growth of a sub-genre of heavy metal that used Satanic imagery and revelled in the hysteria. I was more likely to mumble “you don’t understand me” and sulk in my bedroom for hours than scream “Fuck You!” and carve a pentagram in my arm.
As I emerged from the other side of the horrible teen fog that I’d been living in, I discovered Bill Hicks, cannabis, books and wonderful creatures called girls, not that I had any luck, but they were nice to look at. A moment of clarity I think it’s called. The seed of doubt had already been sewn by now, and roots had taken hold. I was a cynical non believer, and snorted at the very thought of there being a God. Not only this, but I’d decided that religion was in fact a bad thing.
Finding my position politically, and actually taking an interest in current affairs during the 90’s meant seeing the IRA cause havoc in Ireland and Britain, becoming aware of the ‘situation’ in the Middle East, the first Gulf War, Lockerbie, the Tamil Tigers, the break up of Yugoslavia, as well as hearing about the Holocaust, South African apartheid, and corruption in the Catholic church. Place names like Belfast, Beirut, Gaza, Palestine, Lebanon, Baghdad, Tehran, Sarajevo, became synonymous with death, violence, destruction and lawlessness. In my mind religion was the root cause, it was obvious. Religion was divisive, used to manipulate and subjugate people; therefore if religion didn’t exist, the world’s problems would be solved. Simple.
Throughout the 90’s and 00’s, the only time I noticed religion in the news it was negative press. Child abuse, corrupt televangelists, terrorists, wars and civil unrest. The link was clear. I’d formed the opinion that anyone who followed a religion was conservative, ignorant, bigoted and a little bit weird. They were also weak, as they needed a belief in a supernatural being to give them a sense of purpose, and instructions on how to live righteously.
In around 2007 I read Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’. At roughly the same time I’d become aware of the Creationist movement and the hilarious Creationist Museum in the US. Having been a bit of an amateur naturalist in my youth I was familiar with the theory of evolution, Darwinism, the Big Bang theory etc. from a young age. Dawkins’ work was like atheist porn for me. It resonated so strongly, and further enhanced my opinion that religion was illogical and unnecessary. I became almost evangelical in my atheism, and treated believers with contempt, condescension and a complete lack of respect. I wasn’t even an atheist, more of an anti-theist if there is such a thing. Everyone needed to stop the delusion and get a grip.
So how does someone with such a strong stance against religion end up spending a year reading about Islam? The religion I’d been led to believe was the most archaic, oppressive, violent, and fanatical of the lot. Why does this person spend hours arguing with right wing bigots on the internet, defending Muslims and Islam? I mean, look at Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Mujahedeen, 9/11, 7/7, Al Qaeda, Bin Laden, Abu Hamza (he even had a hook! That’s how evil he was!). Incontrovertible proof that religion was dangerous, and Islam was the daddy.
I’ve found myself asking these questions on occasions. I don’t believe in God or Allah, it’s not my problem. They’re all as bad as each other, leave them too it. But it’s not that simple. My atheism was trumped by my liberal guilt. As I’ve blogged previously, the emergence of the EDL led me here. It doesn’t take a bleeding heart liberal to recognise that you can’t judge 1.6 billion people on the actions of a lunatic fringe. Does it? It’s easy to let our emotions be clouded by atrocities carried out by Islamic extremists. Even easier when the tabloid media keeps reminding us how ‘they’ are taking over/getting preferential treatment/being different. But you don’t need to be an expert on Islam to see that this is wrong. You just need common sense. You also need a sense of perspective, a modicum of intelligence, and a bit of critical thinking. But common sense is a good start.
The problem is, not everyone possesses all of these requirements, and some don’t have any of them. Unfortunately there are also people who are quite happy to perpetuate the misconceptions. Call them racists, Islamophobes, bigots or whatever. These are the types of people that make up the EDL. They are fed scaremongering misinformation, and urban myths, and don’t question the veracity for the reasons outlined above.
What I have discovered during my time as a lap-top activist, having dipped my toes into the cesspool that is the EDL’s online presence, and interacted with the pond life that inhabit these murky waters, is that you have three options.
- Expose them.
- Mock them.
- Challenge them.
Mocking them is easy. The majority don’t need much help in looking foolish, as they are cliché parroting parodies that resort to insults without much prodding. In the long term though, this doesn’t really achieve anything. As amusing as it is, it doesn’t address the problem, descends into a slanging match and ultimately is a waste of my time.
The option I decided would be the most fulfilling and rewarding would be to challenge them. Not with aggression or insults, but facts. Facts are EDL kryptonite. They have no response as they only know what they’ve been told. Proving them wrong, or presenting a factual counter argument confuses them, and they either stop engaging or bark insults. Terrorist sympathiser, apologist for Islam, Muslim appeaser, dhimmi, paki lover, I’ve had them all.
The only way to be able to do this is to learn. I thought, if I’m going to take this stance, I need to be able to back it up. There’s no use engaging if you have no answer to the smears they throw. I decided to research as many authentic and reliable sources as my time would allow. It was heartening to find an infinite amount of information that would give me the ammunition I needed. Although depressing that it had to exist in the first place.
Without even noticing, my stance on religion softened. Reading work by Muslims, Jews, Christians, atheists and secularists, all exposing and debunking Islamophobic propaganda was an eye-opener. Not only was I learning the truth about a religion that had been unfairly demonised, but also that maybe these God bothering weirdoes weren’t the ones being ignorant. Surely a lefty wouldn’t fall into the trap of tarring everybody with the same brush? It dawned on me that as someone who encourages and celebrates freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of thought, I should surely also include the freedom to practice a religion without prejudice.
The more I read, the more I realised that religion has been with us for over 2000 years and it isn’t likely to go away, so I needed to get over it. It was also blindingly obvious that faith is as important to people as the food they eat and the water they drink. It gives them strength, and peace of mind. The texts they follow teach valuable lessons, virtues and a greater understanding of their purpose in life. It makes no difference how we reach this point, whether it’s with the help of faith or without. The important thing is we reach it. Who am I to patronise someone for reaching out to religion when they’re vulnerable? I realised that when all is said and done, I have the same values, morals and wishes as the vast majority of people of faith. That’s the important thing, not how we came to possess them.
I’m not an academic, a scholar, a theologian or sociologist. I’m not a journalist or a reporter and have no qualifications above HND. I’m a layman trying to make sense of the world, and the society he lives in, and his children are growing up in. The only way that’s possible is through understanding. I’m still a cynic, and an atheist, but with a different perspective on religion. Catholicism isn’t to blame for child abuse, Judaism isn’t to blame for Palestinian children being killed, Islam isn’t to blame for 9/11, Christianity isn’t to blame for the persecution of homosexuals in Uganda, Sikhism wasn’t to blame for the death of 329 people on an Air India flight in 1985, Hinduism wasn’t to blame for 68 Pakistani fatalities on the Samjhauta Express in 2007. It goes much deeper than this, and is more to do with human nature than what is written in ancient scriptures. There’s a maxim common to most of the major religions. It can’t be taken out of context or misinterpreted. It’s one we’re all familiar with, and one we should remind ourselves of every day.
THE GOLDEN RULE
Brahmanism: This is the sum of duty: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.: Mahabharata 5:1517
Buddhism: Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.: Udana Varga 5:18
Christianity: All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.: Matthew 7:12
Confucianism: Surely it is the maxim of loving-kindness: Do not unto others that you would not have them do unto you.: Analects 15:23
Islam: No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother what which he desires for himself. Sunnah
Judaism: What is hateful to you, do not to your fellowmen. That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.: Talmud, Shabbat 31:a
Taoism: Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.: T’ai Shag Kan Ying P’ien
Zoroastrianism: That nature alone is good which refrains from doing unto another whatsoever is not good: for itself. : Dadistan-i-dinik 94:5