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Letters from Downunder

Fundamentally flawed

Submitted by Lindsay
Melbourne Australia!

Human beings are perhaps never more frightening than when they are convinced beyond doubt that they are right.
- Laurens van der Post, ‘Lost world of the Kalahari, 1958)

(8/2014) One of the most fundamental rights for any citizen anywhere in the world is the right to hold an opinion. It does not matter if the opinion is based on evidence, experience, whimsy, illness, prejudice or foolishness, it is everyone’s right to have one about anything and everything at any time.

We treat each other’s opinion with the attention, disdain or nonchalance we feel they deserve. We go ruefully on our way (or angrily to court) if a trusted, or paid for opinion is no better than junk; after all, experts used to be little drips (ex-spurts, that is), and there are an awful lot of them around. There are ways to sift the chaff, of course, and most of us who make it through the labyrinth of living to a certain age are generally wise enough, at least in the things that matter to us. We stop believing in hokum early on, we know that things too good to be true are just that, and recognize the guise of the con.

We also know that two and two equals four, no matter where we are or what we do. Likewise that the earth is round, that water consists of two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen and that if we do not breathe we’ll die. These are facts, not opinion, and can be tested over and over, holding true at all times for all people. Things which indeed no one doubts or argues about, and are just a few of the uncountable number of facts that are known. Then there are the things that are neither opinion nor fact. They are called beliefs, and are firmly grounded in tradition, culture, writings and teachings, and are generally passed down through society, system, and family. Some beliefs are patently silly – unswerving belief will not win me the lottery – and some are vital: for instance, If we believe we do not need to look after our children, we and they will have a miserable life; If we believe our food will somehow come from heaven we will surely starve. Beliefs are the fabric of society, for while we may know the facts and have opinions, what we say and do is largely based on the things we believe; these are often told to us by parents, friends, and organisations to which they belong, and, heaven help us, the media.

Many beliefs are by now so entrenched, so powerful and so important in the lives of great numbers of humans that they have become the source of conflict, mass slaughter, hatred and fear. The problem with such viewpoints is that their adherents cannot, or will not admit that differing ideas have merit. This is because many beliefs are not rational, not open to discussion, and are the power bases of their leaders. The most irrational are held by those we call fundamentalists, who believe their teachings are not only directly fundamental to the teachings of their God – or his representative - but are also fundamental to life. They are to be found in most belief systems, but the two most notable are from opposite cultures: Islamists and Christians.

The atrocities in the middle east and Afghanistan are appalling examples of the first. The two strands of Islam, Sunni and Shia, have been antagonistic to each other for many decades; this has escalated to a terrible degree, and to an outsider the reasons behind it are puerile. To an adherent, however, they are vital, and a cause for the worst kind of retribution. It has led to the formation of groups that are determined to not only see their own sect become the rulers of the faith, but of all faiths; hatred of everything not toeing the line to their particular version is fostered, all criticism is ignored, all pleas for reason and mercy fall on deaf ears; fear and loathing develop in all who are targeted by them, dismay and anger from everyone else.

This because they know they are right. It is not opinion, fact, or supposition, to them it is unerring truth taught from childhood, based on tradition and encased in writings that, so far as they are concerned, can have no other interpretation. This is so powerful that Holy wars are being conducted to establish an area in Iraq, Syria and possibly Iran that would see a return to the religious state of a caliphate where only one law has rule. A Thousand and One Nights gives a romantic view of this old culture, but overlooks Scheherazade’s many unsuccessful predecessors. I do not believe we are ready to return to the days of the Harem, but that’s their aim, among others.

The other side of this ignorant bigotry stems from similar views of the fundamentalist Christian sects. Fortunately they are usually far from violent, (although they are often ardent supporters of the gun lobby), abhor the taking of innocent life, and are prepared to live peaceably within the community. But they too rant and rave, have beliefs based on no more than superstition and selected verses, and have built up a power base so strong that politicians bob their heads in regretful submission - that is, if they want to get reelected. They get their ideas from yesterday, a strange yearning for the good old days when they ruled the roost and had their own version of a harem, and pick out bits of the bible to support their views. Social progress is out, intolerance is in, those who do not belong are villains who need to be kept in chains, literally as well as metaphorically.

They have what the Muslim world can only dream about: a world-wide beaming of their services, government indulgence, exhortations, sugar-coated beliefs, and hoopla to all who tune in. As well, news coverage, prominent people as urgers, and a glitz that is straight from Hollywood. They also have at least one thing in common with their Muslim brothers: They despise women. In fundamental Islam women are servants, hidden away and used as child bearers as required. In fundamental Christianity women are honored but kept down, the progress made toward equality with men in the past century undermined and subverted. The women in that situation seem to have lost their voice; those not in their situation are becoming increasingly strident, but have a male dominated culture in the media to overcome as well.

Support for this comes from the very top of the tree, normally a model of discretion and dialogue with other Christians – the Pope himself. This new pontiff goes back to the old testament and the outcome of the garden story – no, not the temptation, but the serpent aka the devil. We should be aware of his presence, be on our guard, and have nothing to do with him, he says. Shall we stone adulterers also? Or extend an eye for an eye with guns? Certainly Eve’s descendants will continue to be blamed for the ills of mankind, patriarchal dominance will be reinforced and the role of female as servant preached. I doubt the fire and brimstone will reappear, except, of course, as a byproduct of global warming, but exorcism is on the menu, and I can feel the witches shaking in their boots already.

Unlike Islam, Christianity is supposed to speak of love and tolerance. Fundamental adherents do not speak of this, any more than do the fundamental Islamic groups. The Pope is playing into the hands of the fundamentalists with his ‘back to the original sin, back to a vengeful god’ ideas.

With Islam, the numbers are startling, and scary. It is about to become the religion of 29% of the world’s population. There is no analysis of the number of militant fundamentalists in that percentage, but even if it is one in a million, it is still an enormous number. The percentage of fundamental Christians, nearly all in America, is much greater, but the actual number is very much smaller. The teaching and example of intolerance and subservience is nonetheless more powerful, and beheads the ideal of all being equal under the law.

I know many Muslims, and find them without exception to be interesting, smart, engaging, and so happy to be here. Many are great people, decrying the way their faith is headed at the behest of militant groups. I know many Christians who have the same problem. We did not get to where we are today by trying to annihilate all those who differed with us, or by inducing government to wear blinkers. Aren’t we supposed to love our enemies? That’s something always ignored. No one professing to be Christian has ever done it, making hypocrites of all adherents. At least militant Muslims don’t pretend to love others, but are terrifying because they know they are right.

Their beliefs are indeed fundamentally flawed. Let our beliefs in tolerance, love and care be the counterweight.

Lindsay, in Melbourne Australia.

Read Past Down Under Columns by Lindsay Coker