David Waywell responds to Hamish De Bretton Gordon’s article from Tuesday arguing for air strikes in response to the Paris atrocity.


talkingWill the world ever be the same again?

We ask ourselves this after every major atrocity.

We wonder how we will cope with the ‘new reality’ as it’s often called. How can we go back to living the life we previously led knowing that such horror can be committed here in our civilized midst.

The truth is that most people do go back to their lives. There is no ‘new reality’, just a continuation of the old brutal reality which we now think we understand fractionally better. When Joseph Conrad warned that London was once one of the ‘dark places of the earth‘, he might well have been speaking of any city at any time. He could have said the same about Paris in 2015. All civilised places have in them the potential to return to darkness.

We carry this double nature within us; the dark and the light fighting for that which we might once have described as the moral dominion of our soul. Perhaps it’s only right to still call it that. The soul remains one the last unexplored frontiers of science and all we can really say about it is that the light largely prevails. Most of us are rational creatures, broadly humane and liberal. Most of us do not kill people, though some are happy if their government does that for them. Most of us are tolerant and, alongside our resilience, tolerance is going to be the great defining virtue of the twenty first century. It is right that it should. In the aftermath of the Paris atrocity, there was a great surge of voices saying the same thing: do not blame Islam for this heinous crime.

It is admirable that people could say that even as innocent blood lay still wet on the streets. We cannot say that enough. Islam is not to blame.

It’s worth repeating. Islam is not to blame.

Religion is to blame.

Religion remains the retardation of our species, elevating misery in the name of purification, penance or sacrifice. Religion asks us to forgo the common bonds of our humanity and replace it with an uncommon bond with an unseen God or gods. Religion is ignorance promoted over knowledge. Religion is a willing vessel for every petty hatred, human envy, and indoctrinated lie. Religion is the weapon used by the cunning few to motivate armies of the bigoted and gullible. Religion is to tribes what law is to civilisations. Religion was the cause of our dark past; might yet be the cause of our dark future.

Across the globe, religion continues to kill people in the name of ancient superstitions. We wrongly single out Islam when the world is burning hot with hatred born out of every outlandish myth the human mind is capable of fashioning from nothing. Kashmir could well be the scene of a nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India. In Myanmar, the Buddhists are at war with Muslims. Across Africa tribal conflicts rage in which all manner of heinous brutality is committed by people who practice animism and old-fashioned witchcraft.

Take a step down from war and you find religion behind some of the worst practices of human kind. Female genital mutilation bears the authentic stamp of ritual as abhorrently practised across North and Central Africa and into parts of the Middle East.

Another step down, sectarianism is still evident in Northern Ireland, pitting Protestant against Catholic. Most Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t accept blood transfusions because it is prohibited in their faith. Meanwhile, Scientology continues to attract attention because of its links to Hollywood but it is really a grubby modern cult that divests people of their individuality whilst building up the golden edifice of its deeply materialist temples.

More generally, religion still crushes free thought and independent spirits. Religion lies behind the restrictions of the individual, represses children’s intellectual growth, a woman’s right over her own body, the gay man or woman’s rights over their own lives. Religion is the source of the denial of science, the one evidential factor behind the improvements we’ve enjoyed in the last two centuries in health, living, and knowledge.

People ask how we counter the poison of Islamic fundamentalism without victimising Islam. It is the wrong question. What we should ask is: how do we defeat religion in all its ridiculous guises?

We do not defeat it by going to war. Whilst you can bomb people back to the stone ages, you cannot bomb them into modernity. This is not even war, even if it is understandable that Francois Hollande described it as such. There is no nation with whom France can fight. Bombing ISIS territory might, in the short term, produce tangible results. It inflicts pain on the perpetrators, reduces their numbers, and assuages the impotence we all feel at this time. Yet in the long term the effects are less permanent. Killing martyrs feeds the jihadist monster, producing more fighters willing to annihilate themselves for their medieval cause.

Other solutions are equally outlandish. Some have advocated the right of civilians to carry arms but guns do not protect against suicide vests. Even if they could and were expertly handled in every crisis to take out only the terrorists and save multiple lives, the corollary would be that you exchange a few lives for the many lost to gun crimes, suicides, and accidental shootings which would rapidly escalate across any nation so foolish as to liberalise gun ownership.

The long term solution to radical Islam is to counter all superstitions that restrict our freedoms, whilst avoiding new superstitions created in the name of revenge. All superstitions are lazy and quickly attained, like believing all people who follow Islam are evil, that we need more state surveillance to protect our freedom, and that drone attacks, Special Forces, and surgical strikes are the answer.

None of those are objectively any more demonstrable than the lie that all religious people are bad. Because, make no mistake: Pope Francis is no doubt a good man and so too is the Dali Llama. All religions have their paragons and saints. People of all faiths, all ethnicities, backgrounds, classes, creeds, and colours can have kindness in their souls. If religion were all bad, it would not be the source of many of our greatest accomplishments. We would not have Michelangelo’s Pietà or Bach’s St Mathew’s Passion. Yet we must always remember that it was Michelangelo who carved his Pietà and Bach who penned his Passion. Such goodness, genius, and, yes, even godliness, lies within and not beyond the sphere of human activity. To advocate any religion is to advocate a long outmoded habit of thought that demeans us all by placing faith before reason and gods before people.

In that respect, today is no different to yesterday and it is no different to tomorrow. We move forward by keeping our minds open to scepticism and our hearts clear of dogma. Educating the world to this simple truth is the only way we defeat the kind of barbaric thinking that left 129 people dead in Paris.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at The Spine.

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15 Comments on "Paris, 2015: One of the World’s dark places"

  1. Whilst I enjoyed this well-written piece, I cannot help feeling that David has mixed up the expression of religion in the public sphere (which, as he rightly points out, is a recipe for disaster and the practice of atrocities against others in the name of religious dogma) with privately held personal beliefs which go no further than the front door and are generally acceptable in whatever form they take (as long as they aren’t used as an excuse to oppress or harm others). Religion isn’t the problem – using religious dogma to gain power over others (whilst hypocrically putting on a pious mask), is. As an example, and there are many, the religion that gave us St Matthew’s Passion, also gave us the Inquisition. The glorious Angkor Wat was juxtaposed with the Killing Fields of the last century. The literary masterpiece known as the Koran has been used as an excuse to murder untold thousands. The common thread of all these examples (and those in David’s piece) is the use of religion as a tool to gain political power.

    • Stacey, thank you for your kind words. I absolutely agree with your comment. I have no problem with people holding whatever beliefs they wish to believe. My argument is all about personal freedoms. You are right that I should really make the point you make about people projecting those beliefs onto the public stage. However, I really doubt that religions fanatics have it in them to be so restrained. I am, believe it or not, very interested in religion and I often wish that I could believe in a god or gods. It would make life so much easier. The problem is that we cannot have a bit of religion, or just the good parts. We have to have it all and, in that case, I would rather we have none of it. I would also add that I don’t believe in imposing atheism on people. That is crucial. I believe that with education and the advances we make as a civilization, people will grow out of superstitions of all kinds as we already see religious worship diminishing in many countries. What we replace it with it, of course, a different matter…

  2. A very arrogant diatribe, dismissing and demonizing the culture and history of billions of people while putting on a pedestal of perfection only the pet ideology of the writer. Secular ideologies can be just as sectarian, repressive and lethal as religious ones can be. The twentieth century saw many more people murdered by secular totalitarian ideologies than religious ones and still today, secular dictatorships kill and enslave billions. The desire for absolute power, racism, tribalism and xenophobia, brutality and institutionalised psychopathy are not limited to the religious. Religion which builds community, promotes empathy and the spreading of universal good *can* also be the antidote for backward sectarian ideological violence.

    The target remains backward repressive and violent ideologies, not all ideologies on the other side of an arbitrary demarcation convenient to the prejudices of this columnist.

    • Thank you for your comment, Rafi. The argument your present against secularism is familiar and largely unconvincing. Its only virtue is the rather forceful way you phrased it, which itself, I think, expresses the problem we have discussing religion in any meaningful way.

      I accept the accusation that my point of view might be my ‘pet ideology’ though, really, you don’t know me well enough to make that accusation. ‘Pet’ is a provocative word, implying a pampering satisfaction in being right and then patronisingly displaying my virtue for others to see. I doubt if I am right but I’m pretty certain that supernaturalism of any kind is wrong.

      Too many people say that they understand the world and that things fall into simple classifications. My argument is that the world is complicated and often unknowable and the problems are caused by people who do generally approach things without a sceptical habit of mind. Believers of all kinds tend to lack scepticism, make assertions that they cannot demonstrate, and (most importantly) producing actions which harm the freedoms of others based on those assertions.

      You write: ‘The desire for absolute power, racism, tribalism and xenophobia, brutality and institutionalised psychopathy are not limited to the religious. ‘

      That might be true but, as we look around the globe, they are very largely limited to the most religious states. Look at the number of nations considered ‘democratic’ and how many would you identify as fiercely religious nations? Then look at those considered ‘authoritarian’ and make the same judgement. Where religion doesn’t play a part, people are governed by some other warped ideology that replaces ‘god’ with ‘state’.

      Hitler and Stalin are the two people usually presented as counter arguments to those of us who hold atheist or agnostic views. However, neither had much to do with the argument. The murders they committed were not committed in the name of non-believers, atheism, or agnosticism. Hitler was, I believe, a lapsed Catholic but the Nazi ideology was heavily influenced by German romanticism, particularly the völkisch movement, which viewed German history in the context of old Teutonic myths. Nazi German was a temple to a neo-paganism.

      Stalin was the other big name presented as a counter but, really, his purges had nothing to do with religion or non-religion. The purges were political and ideological and, surely, the point about this whole debate is that nobody should be in thrall to any ideology. And, yes, I would include in that atheism, if treated as an absolute truth.

      Incidentally, you wouldn’t argue that both Hitler and Stalin has moustaches and they killed millions, therefore all people with moustaches will kill millions. However, when it is evident that people who believe in God or Gods routinely kill people in the name of god, then we should question the validity of holding superstitions.

      You then write: ‘Religion which builds community, promotes empathy and the spreading of universal good *can* also be the antidote for backward sectarian ideological violence.’

      Again, that might be true (and I honestly would hope that it is) but I would like to see examples and evidence that such communities are not exceptions to the rule. Indeed, you overlook the point I made saying that the majority of people who practise religions do so for good reasons. However, I don’t see how spreading one form of untruth really solves the problems of another form of untruth. Why not simply free people from those restrictive ways of thinking about themselves?

      Whether it is religion, politics, science, or art, if you enter into the debate with an open mind, willing to consider the evidence and arguments, then you should also be equally willing to leave the debate with your opinions changed. I hope and believe that I am always willing to do that. I would hope you are too.

      • I was not attacking secularism and neither did I make any supernatural claim. My position is entirely in the realm of rationality that religion and myth per se cannot be dismissed and condemned to eradication as being the causes of violence, because sometimes they are and sometimes they are not. There are many reasons for violence of which certain religious claims are some, but as you amply enumerate in your reply, German romanticism and political expediency can be equally murderous. So are capitalism, communism and just about any ideology you may care to think of. And liberal relativism that will stand by while the other ideologies kill each other and or actively persecute those it deems to think wrong. Indeed one could also say that people with mustaches are want to murderous or not or for the opposite to be true and all you are doing is to reinforce my thesis that religion is not the cause of the World’s evils. Only one of them, and the opposite.

        And if you want to count repressive regimes in the world and their level of theocracy take a look at the Freedom House map of free states in the World (https://freedomhouse.org/report-types/freedom-world). The number of states under theocratic oppression are remarkably small.

        • Thank you, Rafi, for your considered reply.

          I have been looking at the Freedom House data for a couple of weeks now, as well as other UN data which talks about happiness, though, that not particularly helpful because it too loose a term and generally defined by western standards. I’ve written a longer piece about tribalism but haven’t decided to published it because it was getting too long. However, my conclusion was that the West wrongly interfere in areas in which tribal allegiances remain. Maps of the Middle East from the 1900s are much closer to the reality on the ground that recent maps, with those long straight borders which cut across tribal allegiances.

          However, I would point out that most (perhaps all) of the least democratic nations are those in which religion plays a role in the affairs of state. Of course, China and Russia are exceptions but plagued by other problems which are nominally ideological but, in reality, probably down to the power games of the ruling classes. God or atheism has nothing to do with it. It’s just down to some flaw of human nature.

          I accept, however, that I write, think, live and operate in a subjective position that I cannot escape. All arguments (with, perhaps the exception of maths) are subjective. That’s the problem with relativism which I don’t think have been adequately discussed. But isn’t that’s one of the great problems of philosophy which thinkers like Wittgenstein tried to get around with their logical atomism? How to define reality in symbolic language? Obviously, we can’t. However, I don’t think that necessarily counters my stance as an atheist. My argument is simply that: argument. Talk to people, try to convince them with rational argument and evidence, but do not impose your will on others. That, as I see it, is the *only* problem with religion. The moment it goes from ‘I believe’ to ‘you shall believe’ is the moment I stop defending their right to believe in whatever god or gods they wish.

  3. It would be nice to think that it was religion and not basic human nature that was to blame for these kind of atrocities but sadly I think that you are mistaken. If I may quote from the the classic 1939 MGM cartoon short Peace on Earth, where a squirrel recounts the demise of the human race due to it’s constant waging of war against itself.

    “They’d no longer get one argument settled and they’d find something else to fuss about, if it wasn’t one darn thing it was another, when they couldn’t think of anything else to wrangle over the bucktoothed people started shooting at the flatfooted people and the vegetarians began to fight the meat eaters”

    Get rid of religion and you will simply see people committing atrocities against each other in the name of something else. While difference exists then so will conflict, we are very tribal in our nature. Not convinced?, try going into a pub full of football fans whilst wearing the shirt of their biggest rivals and see what happens, the fact you don’t know these people and have never done anything to harm them will mean nothing. Every year young men and women are killed simply because they walk down a street that happens to be somebody elses ‘turf’.

    With regards to action against ISIS, I think any action taken in haste and anger generally backfires as we saw with the US response to 9/11, attacking the Taliban in Afghanistan may have scratched an itch but after the illusion of an easy victory where the majority of the Taliban melted away across porous borders, the US and UK found itself fighting a costly campaign against a foe who they often couldn’t find and hence couldn’t defeat. If and when the reality that ground forces are needed to defeat ISIL sinks in I would imagine we will simply see their fighters taking off their black garb and hotfooting it across the Turkish border, in effect living to fight another day. I think in UK terms we really do need to look at how we handle our border security, I lived in Turkey for a while and I like the Turkish people so am loathe to suggest this as it would certainly hit their tourism, but perhaps people travelling to and from Turkey especially, but also other countries in that region need to be subject more stringent vetting both on the way in and out, indirect routes taken back won’t stop a passport showing a Turkish stamp.

    • Thanks Rob. Sounds vaguely like Douglas Adams, which would be appropriate since I think he’ll be considered one of the 20th century’s great philosophers… 😉

      I can’t disagree with anything you write. It’s why I wrote that we have the capacity for light and dark in all of us. That would be my basic stance. We are all capable of doing both good and evil. However, we are largely children of the light. We haven’t (yet) managed to destroy ourselves which suggests that, from an evolutionary point of view, we have made the right choices. Of course, religion is relatively recent in evolutionary terms and it might be one of the bad choices we make. Indeed, perhaps that’s the ultimate definition of morality: something that doesn’t increase the entropic decay of the universe. If religion could promote peace, order, and prosperity, then it might be considered a moral good. However, if it promotes war, disorder, and poverty, then it could be defined otherwise.

      Interesting that you mention tribalism. It’s something I’ve been writing about in the piece I mentioned to Rafi. I should try to finish it because I think that we wrongly assume that we’re not tribal when, as you point out, we are very tribal. It’s why I quoted Conrad, who is one of the writers I always turn to. His understanding of our primal tribal nature was beyond that of anybody. He understood that we have a brutish nature but have to strive to be better. Marlow, at the end of Heart of Darkness, understands life. Civilisation is a lie but it’s a good lie we would be foolish not to believe.

      I also agree: how we respond should really about how we react from a passive point of view. Border controls but also how we do business with totalitarian regimes. Of course, that sounds easy when we all want jobs in a global market. And there might be a case to argue that we can only influence these countries by being close enough to whisper in their ears. Yet it doesn’t feel right.

      Also, despite how my argument was presented as a counter to that by Hamish yesterday, I’m not so naive to think that we can’t help ourselves by resorting to the military option. Self defense is a reasonable option. However, I don’t think bombs alone can change a person’s mind. Though, they are a fairly powerful incentive to think twice.

  4. nehad ismail - United Kingdom | 18th November 2015 at 4:01 pm | Reply

    Let us remember that Hitler and Pol Pot were secular. Bashar al Assad is also secular.
    I agree with the notion that religion can be used as a pretext to kill and oppress others. The contemporary political scene provides us with real examples. As for Islam and the Qura’an, extremists and terrorists misquote verses from the holy book to justify political violence. Political Islam has given us Al-Qaeda, ISIS and Boko-Haram. Such terrorist outfits were infiltrated by dictatorial regimes for their own political ends. The prime example is ISIS which is being controlled, directed and manipulated by the Assad and Iranian regimes. At this moment we hear fiery speeches against the evil of ISIS which is a pawn in the hands of bigger players. The brain-washed cannon fodder don’t know that their top commanders are in cahoots with the Assad’s regime.
    It is like waging a war against the mules who smuggle drugs, whilst the big guys, the drug barons are safe and busy recruiting fresh mules.

    • I agree, Nehad, though I’m not sure about Hitler, as I’ve argued in response to Rafi, in that Nazi Germany was a nation obsessed with neo-paganism filtered through Hitler’s terrible taste in art. Stalin and Pol Pot are always quoted as examples to counter arguments against religion but that argument has been discredited elsewhere at greater length than I can here. Briefly, though, people who live secular lives can always fall under the spell of some other equally twisted ideology. As far as I know, neither Stalin, Hitler, nor Pol Pot committed the evils they committed in the name of atheism. It’s just that they weren’t particularly motivated by theology. You are of course right to point out that religion is often used by people with political motives to influence people of faith.

      The argument isn’t that secularism isn’t without its faults. In many respects, the great challenge to secularism is to replace those positive things in life that religion gave us without replacing God with some awful TV personality, drugs, or rampant materialism.

  5. nehad ismail - United Kingdom | 18th November 2015 at 4:31 pm | Reply

    Thanks David. I am not suggesting that Pol Pot, Stalin and Hitler committed their atrocities in the name of atheism. But recently some people in the West were defending Assad because he is secular viz a viz Daesh and other Islamic groups.

    • Ah, that is a good point. It is noticeable how some people do tend to think that a secular tyrant is somehow better than a religious tyrant but the brutality is all the same. It’s just that some people have fancier excuses for their crimes.

  6. I wish there was no religion…just good and bad people..we are all influenced by the environment we grew up in. Religions are all man made, some to enrich the founders of them. Others to control the masses. The basis of any relationship is communication…we all fail when we cannot communicate…then comes the violence. The solution seems so straightforward in theory and impossible in practice.
    Of course IS is connected to Islam..screwed admittedly…who came up with their ideology? and for what purpose? Control again and money perhaps. I can see no positive elements to their ideas. They might as well all blow themselves up and be done with it.

    • Thanks for the comment, Lesley. I share your sentiments, though I’m willing to be a little gentler on religion, at least up to about the sixteenth century. Religion did give us some degree of order for centuries, if not millennia, and for most of that time, it was a handy way of viewing the world. In fact, most of our best moral philosophy comes out of religious traditions and many theologians were astronomers and scientists. It was only when people like Galileo suggested rival theories which were better but also heretical that all the real problems began. Now religion is little more than one of many coping mechanisms that help people deal with the world. It just happens to be one of the few that pushes a few of those people to kill non-believers and commit brutish acts. I personally don’t think we need it but education and improving people’s standards of living, freedom, and all the rest will bring most people around to realising there are better things to do with their time. I just think it will take quite a bit of time and will be linked to things like reducing our reliance on oil…

      • I was brought up in a strict Catholic family…convent educated..at about the age of 7 I realized most of the teachings didn’t make sense and were based on fear more than anything else. Without getting into the nitty gritty…which believe me could take all year. I saw a lot of what was going on, with child abuse etc. People often do and did not believe a holy priest could do such things. Children when they tried to raise the alarm were not believed. Very sad actually as children lie very seldom compared to adults…but not about abuse as it happens. I never encountered any negative comments about any other religions or people at least during my childhood. Then I became aware that Protestants and Catholics were at war with each other in Northern Ireland..as in my early childhood I viewed that the UK (Scottish initially) were wrong to take part of a country which didn’t belong to it.
        I still feel that way about any country which does the same thing…how can it be right? Well I believe in freedom and democracy for all, but there is precious little of it in our world today…which makes me sad.

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