I also wish to convey my sincerest sympathy to all the millions of muslims who were NOT wielding kalachnikovs yesterday, but will have to answer for this tragedy anyway.
We worked for different media, yet the people who were killed yesterday, were colleagues of mine, and they make me proud to be a journalist. It doesn’t matter whether I share every opinion Charlie Hebdo ever expressed, but it does matter, a lot, that it expressed them. The freedom to express any opinion is the basis of democracy. (The only exception to this, is a call for hate and violence, of course.) The freedom to laugh is an important part of that. Nothing should be too sacred to be made fun of. Not even religion. Quite to the contrary, something which is so important to so many people as religion, should be criticized, and if need to, mocked. Because it is the only way to avoid or stop abuses of power.
“I would rather die standing than live on my knees”, said Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier, the legendary cartoonist and editor in chief of Charlie Hebdo. And he stood by it. Charlie Hebdo did not flinch, not when they were threatened, not even when a molotov cocktail was thrown into their offices. These people died standing.
I admire Charb, Wolinski and their colleagues more for their bravery than I can ever explain here. But at the same time, they make me feel ashamed. Because I usually don’t take the trouble to express my opinion. Well, sometimes I do, usually while leaning on a bar, but I tend to keep my opinions far away from social media. So this time, in honor of Charlie Hebdo, I will speak out and share my opinion about religion.
(*Rant alert* – if you think this text is too friggin’ long and life is too short to read it, I have put some key phrases in bold for you.)
This is probably going to cost me some followers, but I can only hope you will read though to the end of this post, and try to understand my point of view, even if you don’t agree with it. It is not my intention to offend people, if you do find this post offending, I have failed to express myself clearly.
I am an atheist. I have not always been one. I was raised catholic. And although I have never been fiercely religious, I did once believe in god (yes, I dropped the capital on purpose here). I have never chosen to drop my faith, I just lost it.
That I do not believe, does not mean I don’t have values, as some religious people seem to assume. Actually, quite to the contrary, I assure you. Allow me to explain why.
If you are religious, let me ask you one question: Is the only reason why you are quietly staring at a computer screen right now, instead of being out there somewhere murdering and raping and pillaging, because your god/bible/koran/priest told you not to? Of course not. You try to avoid doing terrible things because you have a conscience. Because you try to treat other people in the same way you like to be treated yourself. And not only because the bible says so, right?
Being an atheist is not as easy as it sounds. It does not only mean I get to skip church and write god without a capital G. Actually, when I first started to lose my faith, I felt frightened and sad.
Sure, if I do a bad thing, I am not afraid it will catch up with me when I’m dead and face my maker. But it works the other way too. If someone else does a terrible thing to me, and they are not caught by the law, I believe they just get away with it. I don’t believe there is something or somebody up there who has a purpose for me. Or who protects me. I do not believe there is a heaven, nor a hell. If I ruin my life, I don’t get an afterlife or a reincarnation to make up for it, I have just missed my chance. If I suffer a lot during my life, I cannot comfort myself with the thought I will be happy in the afterlife, I just suffer. If some idiot with a AK47 show up at my office tomorrow, I will just be dead and gone. In a way, I’m on my own. And at the time when this insight started to dawn on my, well, it scared me.
I can understand you perfectly if you might think me the poorer for it. Maybe I am. But becoming an atheist was not really a choice, it happened to me.
A couple of years ago, my best friend killed himself. He had had a severe drug problem for years. Of course, I was left not only grieving, but carrying a huge sense of guilt. I will wonder for the rest of my life whether I could have done something more, or something differently to help him. Since I don’t believe in heaven, I don’t cherish any hope of ever seeing him again someday. I don’t think that he’s still around in some way, and he “knows” that I love him. He’s just gone, and I will have to live the rest of my life without him.
If I did not do enough, I don’t get to make up for it later. I don’t get to make amends later. If I love somebody, I need to make that clear here and now. That’s why, being an atheist, makes it so much more important to be a good person right here, right now.
This world, with all its beauty and all its love, but also with all its suffering and all its cruelty, is all I’ve got. And I don’t think it’s necessarily leading somewhere. Our reason for being is in our origins, and those should not be mistaken for our future, or our purpose.
So you see, being an atheist can be very rough sometimes. In the beginning, it comes with a lot of doubt and a feeling of purposelessness. It felt a bit like letting go of something and falling into thin air. Or at least it did for me. So I had to find my own purpose. And when you start to think of it, there is only one possible purpose left for me: Since this very world is all we have got, we should try to make it the happiest possible place. I can only try to treat the earth, with all the people (and animals and nature) on it, with the respect I like to be treated with myself, and hope everybody I encounter does the same.
And, ironically, this feeling that letting go of my faith, of my trust in a higher purpose, was so scary, was exactly what made me lose my faith. Because I feel now I understand why people believe. Because this world can be very dangereous and cruel sometimes, and believing in a higher purpose helps us to cope with that. Faith can give us a sense of control when facing situations that go way beyond our control. And we have to do that all the time. Believing in a god, gives us something to trust when the world is bein fickle. But personally, I think it’s an illusion. I’m not a hundred procent sure, of course, that’s impossible, but I am pretty convinced.
Every kind of faith is part of that same illusion. All those different religions on this planet are merely different ways of coloring in that need to trust something in a very fickle life. We have developed different religions to fill one and the same need, like we have developed different languages to fill one need: communication. The rest is filling.
Also I’ve travelled a bit, and everywhere you go, every religious person you meet, is convinced that his or her religion is the one and only true religion. Christians, muslims, hindus, buddhists… they all think the same. They’re right, and everybody else is wrong. Except for you, of course, dear reader, I ‘m sure you happen to have picked the true one true religion. Right?
Now, don’t get me wrong, if you do believe, I respect that. When going through a rough patch, I might even envy it sometimes. I do respect faith. Faith is a very powerful thing and it can be a very beautiful one. It gives people strenght, trust, direction. The fact that I don’t share it, does not mean I oppose to it. But I do think it should be a personal thing.
I do not, however, like religion. And by religion, I don’t mean faith. I mean the social structures, and especially the hierarchy, that are built on faith. Because that’s where the power play comes in. If I believed there were a god, I could believe faith is something divine. But not religion, that is definitely man-made. Like in every group (a traditional village, a work place, a family, a religion…) leader types emerge. And like in every other kind of group, it is not necessarily the wisest one, nor the most idealistic one that ends up on top. Actually, usually aggressiveness works better than wisdom to climb up in a hierarchy. And those leaders will use faith, which in itself can be very pure, as a whip to make their command unquestionable.
Sometimes the power thus gathered, is used for a good thing. A lot of religious rules are very practical, if you think about it. Think of the Ten Commandments. They do help to make a bunch of people who are condemned to live together, get along. And a lot of those kosher/halal/whatever rules of food do make a lot of good sense in a pre-refrigerator situation. Other rules have a purpose, but are a product of plain egocentrism. For example: female circumcision. If sex becomes torture for a woman, that does seriously diminish the chance she’ll sleep with another man. This trick only works, of course, if you are a man, and you don’t give a rat’s ass whether a woman is happy or not. And than other rules are just plain madness (and I’ll stop here before I go into a feminist cramp).
The real problems start with this feeling I mentioned before, that all the other religions are wrong. Religions often come with a feeling of being “pure” and everything that doesn’t fit it, is “dirty, evil, unclean”. Maybe those other religions tend to shake our illusion of trust. Maybe the people in charge of one religion just feel threatened in their power because of the others and the whole unclean-thing is just an example of brilliant marketing. I don’t know. But sadly, for most religions, just turning their backs and doing their own stuff, is not enough. They need to make this other religion go away. Especially when it allows things that one’s own religion forbids, and it creates temptations.
Please don’t think I am aiming this at the islam. We from the western world are pretty fierce in imposing our beliefs too. And personally, I do feel some of our beliefs would make this world a better place if they were universally respected. For example the idea that all people are equal. Or freedom of speech. Or non-violence. (And yes, I am aware of the fact that we do not live up to our own beliefs all of the time. Or even mostly. Or even reasonably.)
But I think the reason why religions tend to attack others, is exactly why countries have invaded others throughout history: power. The sense of being unquestionably right.
And that’s where voices like Charlie Hebdo come in. Nothing should be unquestionable. Nothing should be above ridicule. Ever.
We are all Charlie.