Between Stockholm Syndrome and Lima Syndrome
Part 39: The Tyranny of the Demagoguery and Totalitarianism
If a human disagrees with you, let him live.
In a hundred billion galaxies you will not find another.
-CARL SAGAN (1934-1996)
Perhaps the best case against the significance of "I" was made by American astronomer, cosmologist and astrophysicist, Carl Sagan (1934-1996) in his famous piece, Pale Blue Dot.
"Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves," said Sagan. Furthermore:
“How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?” Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”
Thus, religion and astronomy.
Astronomy, as defined in the Oxford dictionary, is "the branch of science that deals with celestial objects, space, and the physical universe as a whole." Since ancient cultures identified celestial objects with gods and spirits, historically the first astronomers were priests. In fact, until the 17th century astronomy and astrology were intertwined and only separated thanks to the 18th century Age of Enlightenment. I have always wondered why a tiny little country like Vatican has a world-class observatory and astronomy library. A Google search confirms that the Vatican Library collection of astronomical books and scientific journals, transferred to the Observatory in 1910, includes a collection of rare antique books written by astronomy giants such as Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and Kepler, to name just a few.
So significant was the influence of religion on astronomy (and vice versa) that the motions of celestial objects have been used to keep track of time to observe religious holidays, for example Easter and Eid al-Fitr. The Gregorian calendar that we currently use is a solar calendar (synchronized to the motion of the sun); the Islamic Hijra calendar is a lunar one (synchronized to the motion of the moon); while the Hindu and Hebrew calendars are lunisolar (synchronized to the motion of both the moon and the sun). Indeed the Gregorian calendar is named after Pope Gregory XIII (1502-1585), who introduced it in 1582 to replace the Julian calendar.
Yet ironically throughout centuries, time and again, religion after religion have failed to perceive, what Sagan so eloquently described, that the Universe is much bigger, grander, more subtle, more elegant than what our prophets said. Yes, with their lips, believers scream their minds to the heaven that God is the greatest, omnipotent, almighty, omniscient and so on, but their bigoted, prejudiced and intolerant acts fall short to walk the talk. While the motions of celestial objects have been used to determine religious holidays, lessons learned from astronomy have failed to instill humility among Homo sapiens as well as to eradicate their delusional self-importance. Instead of inspiring holism, the utilization of astronomy generates nothing but reductionism.
Simply look at those endless holy wars and perpetual sectarian violence. Organized religions have always divided insiders from outsiders, in-groups from out-groups, "us" from "them", the "chosen" from the "unchosen", "my" God from "your" Allah and "his" Yahweh. Derogatory terms—for example kafirs, infidels, heathens, heretics—only proves that believers are constantly taught to suspect outsiders with contempt. Pluralism is a taboo. "If my own father were a heretic," Pope Paul IV (1476-1559) declared, "I would personally gather the wood to burn him." The Bible states: "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?" (2 Corinthians 6:14). Likewise the Qur'an declares: "You will find others who wish to obtain security from you and [to] obtain security from their people . . . So if they do not withdraw from you or offer you peace or restrain their hands, then seize them and kill them wherever you overtake them. And those - we have made for you against them a clear authorization" (Surah An-Nisaa 4-91).
This naked demagoguery and totalitarianism raises the question: If a believer thinks that the merely existence of infidels, skeptics, cartoonists, and scientists can destroy his faith so easily, then isn't his faith quite fragile? In other words, does such believer even pass the acid test of being a true believer? Not surprisingly, reductionism practiced in organized religions has promoted primordial tribalism. "If you scratch any aggressive tribalism or nationalism, you usually find beneath its surface a religious core, some older binding energy of belief or superstition… that is capable of transforming itself into a death-force, with the peculiar annihilating energies of belief…," American journalist Lance Morrow wrote, "Religious hatreds tend to be merciless and absolute." In closing, allow me to repeat the introspective parable written by no other than a Jesuit priest, Anthony de Mello (1931-1987) in The Song of the Bird (1982), as cited in Part 10 (The Pope who would have Burned his own Father).
My friend and I went to the fair. The World Fair of Religions. Not a trade fair. But the competition was as fierce, the propaganda loud. At the Jewish stall we were given handouts that said that God was all-compassionate and the Jews were his Chosen People. The Jews. No other people were as chosen as they.
At the Muslim stall we learned that God was all-merciful and Mohammed his only Prophet. Salvation comes from listening to God’s Prophet. At the Christian stall, we discovered that God is love and there is no salvation outside the Church. Join the Church or risk damnation forever.
On the way out I asked my friend, "What do you think of God?" He replied, “He’s bigoted, fanatical, and cruel.” Back home, I said to God, “How do you put up with this sort of thing, Lord? Don’t you see they have been giving you a bad name for centuries?”
God said, “It wasn’t I who organized the fair. In fact, I’d be too ashamed to visit it.”
[To be continued.]
Johannes Tan, Indonesian Translator & Conference Interpreter