Second coming

ow much difference a decade makes. In the 1990s most Western pundits thought history was inexorably moving toward its end – a cozy, secular end. The Economist went as far as to publish an obituary of God. And then came the September 11 terrorist blitz, unleashing a wave of religious fanaticism that swept the globe. The once-silent atheists have been forced to emerge from their secular bubble and reach for the megaphones. They certainly sound in good voice: «Religion poisons everything» is the slogan that recurs throughout controversial essayist and pundit Christopher Hitchens’s latest diatribe against the Almighty and his followers, «God is not Great.» Richard Dawkins, a British evolutionary biologist, is no less irreverent. The God of the Old Testament, he writes in «The God Delusion,» «is the most unpleasant character in all fiction… a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sado-masochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.» Sam Harris, author of «Letter to a Christian Nation,» argues that the damage done by religion, which he discards as malign nonsense, «is what makes the honest criticism of religious faith a moral and intellectual necessity.» The message comes in a sharp-edged, perhaps artless formulation. But it’s a clear call for a new enlightenment against the superstitious and bigoted musings of religions. Despite their emphasis on reason, enlightenment thinkers knew they could not do away with metaphysical faith altogether. The most they could do was keep it at bay. As a result, secular liberal democracy, the enlightenment’s political reincarnation, has left ample room for religious practice, though mindfully confining it to a near-invisible private space. People can pursue their metaphysical ends at home or in church, but in public such beliefs are to be worn lightly. So lightly, that to many Europeans it has become acceptable to even lampoon God. Needless to say, not everyone feels comfortable with such secular habits. Particularly the growing number of Muslims living in Western democracies. In Denmark, the publication of cartoons depicting the image of the prophet Muhammad triggered violent protests. In the legendary tolerant Netherlands, a filmmaker was murdered by a Muslim youth for making a movie about the abuse of women in Islamic families. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born feminist and politician who wrote the screenplay, also received death threats and, like her fellow apostate Salman Rushdie, lives now in the US under police protection. An Iranian minister visiting the UK last week said homosexuals should be tortured and executed. At least that’s some progress in the light of earlier comments by his president who asserted there are no homosexuals in Iran. Even self-styled moderates have to recognize that Islam is, at least, blind to the West’s much-cherished public/private distinction. And how could it be otherwise? Sharia law governs all aspects of a Muslim’s life and body: food, attire, prayer and sex. Its source is, at best, arbitrary: The Koran (the holy book, i.e. a collection of rules and habits derived from ambiguous texts written and rewritten hundreds of years ago by different people supposedly under the guidance of God), the Hadith (oral traditions relating to the words and deeds of the prophet) and fatwas (rulings issued by Islamic scholars). The outcome is inevitably cruelty: headscarves, forced weddings, genital mutilation, death for apostasy. Cruelty that we are expected to accept as a cultural choice. Is it really a choice? Ask Hirsi Ali. Assertiveness is growing in Christendom too. The world’s most powerful state is led by a born-again Christian. Eighty percent of the Katrina hurricane survivors said that the disaster reinforced their belief in God (paradoxically, disaster appears to strengthen faith). Pat Robertson and other religious conservatives said the floods were God’s punishment for homosexuality. The Catholic Church opposes the use of condoms and used to tell people in countries with high HIV rates not to use them because they have tiny holes that allow the virus through. Christian conservatives in the US – a large chunk of the Republican base – are campaigning for the teaching of intelligent design (thinly disguised creationism) in public schools (in Europe, the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe recently condemned efforts to teach creationism). In Angola and Congo, thousands of so-called child-witches are tortured or abandoned for bringing bad luck to their families. Christian fundamentalist pastors are paid to identify the «possessed» kids and exorcise them, sometimes by pressing a clothes iron on their naked bodies. In Kenya, evangelical Christians who deny the theory of evolution tried to block the exhibition of the Turkana Boy – a prehistoric skeleton found in the area – because it demonstrates that people were around before God made Adam and Eve. «I did not evolve from Turkana Boy or anything like it,» said the local bishop. «These sorts of silly views are killing our faith.» At least the bishop got one thing right. The «silly views,» in other words science, is an enemy of religion. When the Bible suggests that the world was created some 6,000 years ago, the idea that science and religion can go hand-in-hand is a comfortable delusion a delusion with a future nonetheless. Religion will only disappear when the reason for it disappears too. But the reason is intrinsically human. Rooted in fear of the unknown – fear of the dark, fear of strangers, fear of the afterlife – religion will not go away until humans do. People in the West – even atheists – often fail to notice the influence of religion, for they are soaked in 2,000 years of Christian theology (even Hitchens admits that his atheism is a «protestant atheism»). Liberal societies cannot ban religion. But mere shrugging of the shoulders jeopardizes what liberals hold dearest: freedom. Liberals should at least prevent religion from intruding in the public sphere and this requires a return to enlightenment basics: «I respect you; you don’t get in my hair.» Some may slam this as banal liberal individualism – tone-deaf to universal ideas and collective aspirations. But why should we build civic solidarity around metaphysical claims rather than around an earthly, non-exclusive ideal? In an open letter to the pope and other Christian leaders earlier this month, some 140 Muslim religious leaders called for renewed dialogue between the world’s largest monotheistic faiths. That’s all very well, but champions of interfaith dialogue tend to forget that religions are mutually exclusive: Christians and Muslims do not pray to the same God. If one of them exists, the other surely doesn’t. There is no canonical consensus to be reached. Rival cults can at best learn how to ignore each other.