Teaching them young

Most of us don’t change our minds about anything important after the age of 20. We get set in our ways early. One of the earliest mindsets to form is about religion. Kids baptised in the Church of England and sent to a CofE church when they’re too young to understand religion usually end up as church-going Anglicans for life. No young child says to a parent, “I don’t want to be an Anglican. I think I’ll be a Buddhist.” There are always a rebellious few who stray, but the majority stay.

The training or indoctrination of young people can be good or bad but whatever it is, it usually sticks for life. In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler, playing on the resentment some Germans felt toward the financial success of Jews in their society, formed youth groups that taught hate. It was those German young people who became Nazis. They weren’t born Nazis.

If all the children in Neasden (a town I pick at random), had been brought up as Muslims instead of Catholics and Protestants, they would be Muslims now. There wouldn’t have been a lot of 10-year-olds stamping their feet saying, “I don’t want to be a Muslim. I want to be a Presbyterian.”

One of the greatest dangers to the survival of a civilisation is the rise of hatred within the culture. Yesterday’s horrific events in Woolwich have once again put focus on those who combine a philosophy of hate with education in murder. Radically indoctrinated young Muslims like the ones involved were never going to grow up trying to win the Noble Peace Prize, were they? They will have been convinced in their youth that Westerners are evil and that the right thing for them to do is kill as many of us as they can. There’s no hatred like the hatred based on religion. You can bet that there are more potential terrorists willing to die for Allah (peace be with him) today than there were a year ago.

The majority of peace-loving Muslims may be as opposed to these incipient terrorists as we are. However, it’s more likely they ignore them, the same way we ignore our fringe lunatics – like those of the English Defence League, for example, who are always eager to use tragic affairs like these to promote their own brand of hatred within the society. And so it goes on.

It’s not easy to understand why the races on earth are so different and so unable to get along. We don’t know whether there was always some basic, genetic difference between Eskimos and Africans, Asians and Europeans, or whether racial characteristics developed as a result of the differences in the environments in which humans with originally similar characteristics flourished over the centuries.

However it happened, there’s no doubt that now there are fundamental differences among races. Our philosophies of government, our personalities, goals, religions and even our beliefs in old wives tales differ. And those differences aren’t going away.

It’s hard to know what we should do about all this hatred. Spending more on weapons certainly doesn’t seem like the best way to eliminate it. Nuclear weapons are no deterrent to a few crazies with homemade bombs.

I remember a once reading a dialogue between two philosophers. One philosopher expressed dismay over the possible end of civilisation as a result of the invention of gun powder. The other said, “At your age, why are you so bothered by the possibility of the end of civilisation?”

I’m not too old to worry about it myself, but even if I were, I wouldn’t be so selfish that I’m ready to have this great world end with a biological or nuclear bang just because I’m not going to be around to see it.

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The threshold between hope and fear

After watching a debate about religious fundamentalism on BBC1’s The Big Question this morning, just before heading out to enjoy the sights and sounds of London, I was reminded of this commentary I wrote just over a year ago…

Late at night in the A&E reception, my tired eyes kept tripping back to the three children playing.

One white and two black, all aged around five, they fooled around and squealed as if nobody was sick and the whole world was a playground. As one mother went to help the nurses move her husband, the other mother kept watch.

“You know, I think we can get beyond race,” a Jewish friend whispered to me while watching the children. “It’s religious differences people have a hard time getting over.”

Religious differences, he reasoned, lead to all kinds of wars; the military conflicts that are all over the globe at any given time as well as the “culture wars” that infuse domestic politics. Religious differences stir up anger, he said, because one person’s rejection of another’s beliefs is perceived as an insult.

When you don’t subscribe to someone else’s religion, they perceive that you’re declaring their beliefs to be wrong or stupid. Faith, by its very definition, involves things that can’t be proven. But people are always trying to prove their faith is the right one. They “prove” it, one might suppose, by shunning and, in some cases, eliminating those with different beliefs.

That might be true. I don’t know. The problems of race and religion both are complicated — complicated by class, economics and opportunity. Complicated by culture. Complicated by history. In sociological circles there’s a theory that race is a “social construct.” The idea, as I understand it, is that racial differences are based not on biological distinctions but cultural ones, differences of language and socialisation, experience and expectation.

Considering the migrations and interminglings that have made up human history, I can see the logic. Each of us learn what it means to be black or white, Vietnamese or Japanese, and we relate to the rest of the world accordingly. That’s why it’s possible for people with barely a trace of African ancestry to identify as “Black” and for the world to relate to them as such. It’s why, in places such as Africa, the Middle East and Bosnia, tribal and religious divisions transcend biological similarity.

In hospital waiting rooms, these differences tend to be suspended. There, love is vulnerable and raw. Worry settles like fog, and death lurks in the hallways. Families look across a room at one another and what do they see? They see themselves.

The only way we can live together is if we say the celebration of our differences requires us to say that our common humanity matters more.   – Bill Clinton

Merry Christmas!

I was raised to the ideal of Christmas being a general sense of goodwill to all people. Christmas was meant to be merry, not a merry fuck you.

A season of generosity marked with presents and a general tolerance for the slightly drunken ramblings of family, and the rumblings of mountains of food getting demolished.

And it was good. Much like Diwali is good, or Tabish Svat is good, it was the sort of festival where you didn’t need to actually believe the foundational story to enjoy.

Then the cultural and religious/secular wars took off, and saying Merry Christmas is becoming a coded way of telling people to go fuck themselves. It seems that for many people, the phrase has come to represent an aggressive, mean-spirited version of Christian nationalism that asserts that it is defending a cultural value, while simultaneously raping it. I saw it first-hand yesterday, in a department store here in America where I’m spending the holidays, when a clerk wished a customer “Happy Holidays”. He responded with a belligerent “Merry Christmas” before launching into a tirade about people not wanting to acknowledge the birth of Christ.

It didn’t even occur to him that the clerk may not have been Christian or even religious, and that this was her compromise. Happy holidays, and various other formulae have been introduced as much for the sake of political correctness as for variety.

But I think more than one person would point out that the almost obligatory nature of Christmas is anything but – I mean, do we call someone a Grinch if they don’t particularly enjoy Eid? Do we have the three ghosts of past, present and future visiting grouchy old men who don’t like Passover in TV specials? Do we have major atheist comedians singing about how they really like Vesak, despite not buying into the Buddhist conception of enlightenment?

We massively favour Christmas, because at the heart of it all the meaning of it has morphed. For many, it is no longer so much about Christianity as it is a vision of a better humanity.

So say “Happy Holidays” if you will and I’ll happily accept it. But I can still say “Merry Christmas” with a smile, because for me there is no hidden agenda. I will not sully the greeting with the identity politics of politically incorrect copy pasting – which generally confuses xenophobic cowardice for courage.

Merry Christmas to all my friends and readers, with no obligation to repeat or agree with anything I say, because this is not the season for taking offence, but rather giving goodwill to all.