All of us have heard by now of the poisoning of schoolgirls in Afghanistan. Ophelia has a short post on “Poisoning schoolgirls for god.” Of course, this is a heinous crime: poisoning girls for the offence of wanting to learn; but it must not be thought to be a distinct crime from the offence of poisoning the minds of the men who committed the act. Religion is an intellectual and social pathology, and should be recognised as such. Of course, the same kind of pathology is evident on occasion in the atheist movement, as the discussion over at RDF of the Women in Secularism Conference demonstrates. Some idiot calling himself “The Ghost of Mr Emmeline Pankhurst” has taken it upon himself to trash the whole discussion thread for his own amusement. It is the institutionalisation of this kind of brainless misogyny that constitutes at least part of religion’s pathology. (And RDF had better start cleaning up its house if it doesn’t want to be painted with the same brush.)
You can see the pathology neatly at work in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:
Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called. Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever. For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. [1 Cor 7:20-22]
Paul simply reads slavery as freedom and freedom as slavery. Because you are a freed person belonging to the Lord your outward circumstances make no difference. “You were bought,” as he says in the very next verse (23), “with a price.” Life doesn’t count. Your situation or condition now is a matter of indifference. What matters is your belonging to the Lord. You are property, so stop worrying about what you do or do not have. Don’t worry about the injustice of slavery: that would show worldly concern, and you are already set apart from the world. Your earthly life is an irrelevance, because you have been raised with Christ, and that new life is not something of this world, worldly, but it is a foretaste of heaven, of what will happen at the resurrection of the dead.
So, of course, as Paula Kirby points out in a Washington Post piece that Ophelia linked yesterday, and that I had missed when it was first published (15 February 2011 — or perhaps I just forgot, but it’s such a powerful piece that I shouldn’t have), nicely turning Paul on his head:
Religion is the ultimate slavery: it is the slavery of the mind, slavery to the fear of divine judgment and damnation. The devilish irony consists in the fact that ‘divine judgment’ and ‘damnation’ are themselves the inventions of religion: religion creates and exquisitely perfects the fear, then cynically declares itself the sole and indispensable liberator from it.
Being bought with a price means something. It means that you are a slave. ’Islam’ means submission, and it too enforces god’s possession of his earthly creation. All human beings can do is to submit, for who knows better than god how we should live, how our societies should be ordered, how our lives should go? No one, of course, but that is lost on those who purport to speak for god. And that’s a pathology. People who have hallucinations have a mental pathology. How about people who claim to speak for god? How is that not a pathology?
These religious injunctions would all be a kind of mindless fatalism, if the command wasn’t also that we should embrace our slavery, and do our utmost to fulfil the role in which we have been placed. This is not our doing, rather, in whatever state we find ourselves when we “are called,” we must make the most of what we are given in that state. If we are slaves, that means serving our masters more faithfully, and with true devotion, for that is to be truly free. Clearly, Paul went to school with the Stoics, but he turns Stoic fatalism regarding the present into a fatalism about the future. He urges us to embrace whatever future seems indicated by our present situation. I can recall my father quoting to me, at a point of crisis in my life, Paul’s words to the Philippians (4.11), in the Authorised Version (KJV): “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” (Italicised words in the KJV are interpolated by the translators.) Hence his admonition to slaves not to seek their freedom, even if they can acquire it. You must be content with what you have. Are you ignorant? Then stay that way. I did not find my father’s intervention particularly helpful.
But this illustrates quite clearly the pathology of religion. Religion is a form of submission to tyranny, and those who are unwilling to submit must be made to do so. Girls want to become educated! For allah’s sake! What could prompt them to put themselves forward, when that is not the role assigned to them by the tyrant god? They are, as the New Testament says as well, to subordinate themselves to men, just as men subordinate themselves to god. And men are to be as gods to them. If they do not take direction (in this case, if they are wives), then they can be refused sex. If they still will not submit, they may be beaten. If they are not married, and will not do as they are told, then they may be poisoned or killed outright. (The religion may not say this, but religious misogyny makes killing to preserve male honour possible.) And these are the creatures who dare to think themselves capable of learning?! Of bettering their condition?! They should recall what they were when called (born), only questionably human; there, as Richard Holloway says, to be fucked, not to seek to learn, not to contribute, not to think themselves the equal of men. There are atheists who still think like this, because they still haven’t got over their religious indoctrination, and the social pathology that results from it. Having a Women in Secularism Conference! Who heard of anything so absurd?! Women are for fucking, for bearing children, for caring for them, for keeping the home fires burning, not for philosophy, science, politics, or the expression of opinions. That’s reserved for men.
So, poisoning schoolgirls is normative behaviour for religion, for religion is a deeply pathological, primarily patriarchal system of tyranny and lies. Let’s not pretend. Just as Paul could call slavery freedom, so religion, as Paula Kirby points out, is the bearer of lies, calling it truth, and of slavery, calling it freedom, monstrous human claims masquerading as something transcendent and divine:
And yet we are invited to credit religion as the source of true freedom? It is a laughable claim, a disgraceful claim, a claim that makes a mockery of language as well as of truth and of human dignity. As such it is on a par with other religious claims, such as those that define perfect forgiveness as something dependent on the barbaric sacrifice-by-crucifixion of an innocent man, perfect justice as consisting in the innocent being tortured to death so the guilty can be let off scot-free, and perfect love as something that would damn us to hell for all eternity if we refuse to accept such grotesque monstrosities as evidence of a perfect and loving god.
It’s time — nay, far past midnight already — to take up arms and sack the city of god, as P.Z. Myers said in his speech to the Melbourne Global Atheist Convention. And if you haven’t read it yet, now’s as good a time as any! It’s eloquent and inspiring, a great affirmation of the power of ideas, and a mordant denunciation of the pathology of religion.
But it has a sting in its tail. Here it is:
Read the pronouncements of popes and archbishops, read the newspapers and web columns, look to the priests in their pulpits, and you’ll see something wonderful: they are reacting to the rise of the New Atheists in the same way the Roman establishment reacted to the Visigoths appearing on the horizon. I cannot blame them for being fearful; we are galloping towards the central ideas of their identity, and we aim to tear down their walls and replace their obsolete myths with change and something more vital.
Deep in their heart of hearts, they fear that a sequel to St Augustine’s City of God is in the works, and it’s going to be written by an atheist…and it will speak of a brand new world and new opportunities, it will create a new ecumene of people united under something other than the folly of faith.
So how do you kill an idea? How will we sack the city of faith?
By coming up with a better, more powerful idea. That’s the only way we can win. [my italics]
This is crucial. Blog posts are all very well, and they contribute, I think, to a changing of the guard. But they’re not enough. We need to big, powerful idea, one that will, like Augustine’s City of God, provide a new vision of a truly human society, one that has escaped the pathology of religion, one that calls upon people, as Wordsworth said ecstatically, contemplating the French Revolution,
… to exercise their skill,
Not in Utopia[n], subterranean fields,
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us, — the place where in the end
We find our happiness, or not at all!