Monday, April 16, 2007

Revenge of the Godless Freaks

The long Easter break last weekend gave Godless freaks such as myself an opportunity to reflect upon their position both in Indonesia and in the world in general. Atheism is all the rage at the moment and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and Sam Harris's The End of Faith have both hit the tops of the bestseller lists. Reading both books, as I and various friends have done, seemed to crystallize arguments that have been knocking around the dusty alleys of my mind for many years. However, neither book is likely to be translated into Indonesian soon. If they were, then no doubt the FPI/ Betawi Brotherhood board of censorship would be hitting branches of Gramedia with their fire lighters before one could say, “Peace be upon him." The anti-Communist knee-jerk reaction remains strong here.

Dawkins, in his book, reflects on how owning up to atheism is something akin to coming out as a homosexual in many societies. In Indonesia, it is perhaps even worse than this. At least your homosexual can put on a dress, bang a tambourine and assume a position in the social system, however marginalized. However, when Indonesians, such as my students, occasionally ask me what religion I am and I reply, "Erm... none actually," their reaction is largely one of utter alienation and incredulity. Religion is a major tool in the highly conformist, mind control culture of this country and indeed it is (still) compulsory to have a faith printed on your ID card.

So, hard as it is for my students to get their heads round my beliefs, or lack thereof, the fact remains that your average young(ish) European is more likely to be an unbeliever than a believer. This is a very different story from Indonesia and indeed the US. I guess the rejection of absolutism in Europe after the Hitlerian excesses of World War II has sunk deeply into the mindset of the baby boomer generation’s offspring.

So why be a godless freak? Well indulge me for a few moments and allow me to thrash out the issue this Sunday. By the way all letters pointing out my future tenure in hell should be addressed to the Jakarta Post, and don't forget the stamp.

As someone interested in science, my lack of belief is partly guided by biology. Religion, although obviously in denial about this, hit the buffers in a serious way when Darwin first proposed his theory of natural selection in the 19th-century and then again when Crick and Watson first discovered the DNA code for organic life in the 1950s. The theory of evolution has been proved way beyond all reasonable doubt from fossil records and from biological research through to actual evolutionary trends themselves being set in motion with insect populations in laboratories. Natural selection, however, is currently under attack like never before from western creationists (re: intelligent design) and in Indonesia, the hypothesis that we descended from monkeys is an utterly ludicrous blasphemy.

In fact, a contemplation of evolution is perhaps more conducive to egalitarian society than the tribal partisanship of the monotheistic religions that dominate the planet. All life has a common origin, says the science. Not only that but all human beings are genetically 99.9% identical. Yes, we really are all brothers (well, cousins actually). In fact, humans also contain 60% of the genetic material contained in bananas, a fact more apparent in some of my acquaintances than others. Only the bottom-up mechanism of natural selection can logically explain the emergence of life. Belief in a top-down, divine creator only raises the perennial question that any eight-year-old comes up with, "Who made God?" Explaining the implausibility of life with something even more implausible is not any kind of explanation as far as us Godless freaks are concerned.

Science aside, other godless freak arguments are more social and metaphysical in derivation. Religions purport to be a force of social cohesion needed to structure society. Unfortunately though, our monotheistic religions: Islam, Christianity, Judaism, all proclaim themselves the one true way, a fact that leads directly to a clash of civilizations and the various wars that blight this country. Previously, religions were much more inclusive. "Thought of a new God? Well we'll pray to him too!" However, the Jews, followed by the Christians and Muslims put a stop to all that with their parochial exclusivity. The result is that the broader themes of religion are so often subsumed by suspicion of the other and endless vendetta. This is especially true here where religion (like politics) often seems to be little deeper than a football match i.e. "My team's better than your team," with any debate about our common humanity being swept aside in a cacophony of ritualistic shouting.

In fact, our monotheistic religions seem to be mainly prescriptive as opposed to descriptive and thus produce a rather insubstantial, shallow type of morality. They have reduced life to a set of rules to be followed. In contrast, as Sam Harris reflects in his book, older belief systems such as Buddhism were far more eloquent on the subject of individual consciousness and of the eternal, internal dialogue of the mind. It's only by understanding yourself fully as a conscious, mortal creature that one can respect other beings as the same and thus a deeper morality and ethics can emerge. Ordinarily though, being the only animals that know they are going to die one day, humans seem to need the opiating qualities of religion, their shiny eyes transfigured by the light of heaven and reductive systems of reward and punishment.

Moderate religious voices contest that their religions do not advocate violence and murder. In fact, all the biggies do. From the unbelievably vindictive and vengeful God of the Old Testament to various verses in the Koran, for example: “Those who deny our revelation shall be punished for their misdeeds" [6:49] Religious texts are often self-contradictory in ways that can be used to justify war and terrorism as much as peace, and thus moderate religious voices, being bound to the same texts as extremists, really have little to offer as a mediating moral force. In Dawkins's scientific view, human morality is, in fact, also a process subject to evolution and is not essentially based on several thousand year old works of literature.

Finally, of course, our religious texts say little about CO2 emissions, stem cell research, overpopulation and all of the other important issues of the day. If we have to have religion then a bit more contemporary resonance would be nice. I wouldn’t like to be the one trying to set up a new faith in Indonesia though; you’d be dead or in jail before you could even hold your first prayer meeting.

Well it's been fun to be able to think philosophically and, most importantly, openly about these issues even though there may be people of faith reading who are this minute cursing me as a Western, heathen son of Satan who probably spent Easter weekend drinking vodka and watching pornography (in fact I did do that; but that's all by the by). Us godless freaks deserve our say too though I think. I'll see you all in hell.

Simon Pitchforth