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The Third Option

Denis Solomon • 1,479 words

The famous mas-designer Peter Minshall offended several religious groups by calling a Carnival band “Hallelujah” and using the figure of the deity Shiva on one of the headdresses. This column was published by the Express with the unsubtle title of “Get Stuffed, Pastors”.

Peter Minshall seemed to think, and no one seemed to disagree, that there were only two ways to react to the Hallelujah-Shiva controversy. Either to convince everybody that he, and his designs, were as pious and God-fearing as his accusers, or to give in to their demands. The first he attempted to do with his astonishing appearance on “The Issues Live”, a performance rivalled in pure corniness only by Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”. The second he did by removing (or re-naming) the figure of Shiva on the headdress.

But there was a third option, which no one seemed to consider for a moment.

Why couldn’t he simply tell them all to get stuffed?

Let them know where they could put their bells, books and candles, their signs and their scriptures, their condemnations and their anathemas.

Not a polite response, but a healthy one. And necessary. The mushrooming band of purveyors of religious ecstasy, instant salvation and guaranteed miracles, the swamis, gurus and saddhus, the johnny-come-lately Muslim coverers-up of the female face, the Spiritual Baptists and Pentecostals wailing and speaking in tongues, the fat women in panty-hose labouring up the hills of Cascade and St. Ann’s to spread Jehovah’s word, the charismatic Catholics striving to stem the inroads of rival ecstatic cults, the freshwater Yankee pastors infesting weekend television, the baptismal parties floundering daily in the Gulf of Paria, that have flourished in the atmosphere of “tolerance” (for which read ignorance and despair) in our society need to be brought up short with a little plain speaking.

What is most saddening is not the ethno-political rivalry that underlies much of it, but the sheer tawdry vulgarity of it all. Why do we need it? What gap in our individual and collective psyches is filled so easily with mumbo-jumbo? Minshall spoke truer than he knew when he said he had been playing mas with God for years. Not only he, in the two days of Carnival, but thousands of others throughout the year, as they desperately seek an identity in the spiritual mas-camps of the revivalist tents. From the UWI student who won’t attend a Saturday lecture because he is a Seventh-day Adventist, to the Muslim women courting tuberculosis by veiling the faces of their pre-pubescent children, to the elderly middle-class women gathering in Wildflower Park to pray for an end to the war in Bosnia so that they can go again to Medjugorje...to pray! What are they doing but saying “Look at me; this is what I am.”

Of course we are not the only country where religion flourishes. But worldwide there is a direct relationship between the level of economic and psychological desperation and the retreat into religion. The degree of integration of a people into Western industrial society is inversely proportionate to the incidence of cultism. In the words of the anthropologist quoted in Naipaul’s The Crocodiles of Yamossoukro, if people cannot live in the day they will live in the night. In Poland, that most Catholic of countries, the church now commands the allegiance of only 53 percent the youth, as opposed to more than 90 percent when the Communists were in power, says the Financial Times. They now have more hopeful things to do. Whereas in the Philippines, sunk in every kind of distress, the figure is close to a hundred percent and people take their Catholicism to the length of crucifying themselves at Easter, with real nails, and spice up their devotions with psychic surgery in which adepts rip diseased tissue with their bare hands from the bellies of their “patients”. In Britain, a Church of England vicar’s statement that he does not believe in God causes no more than a minor stir, either in the church or outside, and the London Times prints a leader which claims that, as so few people take the church seriously, the only way to save religion as a meaningful force in society is, paradoxically, to disestablish it. Reading between the lines, this means leaving religion to those poor and ignorant enough to need it.

Or think they need it. Few people are rational enough to see that the argument for the social utility of religion is of a different order from the argument for its truth; from which it follows that the separation of the first from the second places a premium on hypocrisy. And those who are rational enough don’t always go the whole hog. Morgan Job, enemy of cultism and fervent advocate, in these pages, of syllogistic reasoning, nevertheless talks of a metaphysical proposition as a “religious truth”. By definition, there is no such thing. Truth is fact, religion is not fact but hope, or perhaps, in Pascalian terms, a metaphysical insurance policy. Socially, it goes one of two ways: toward the sanitised “civil religion” that Professor Blau of Columbia University claims exists in the United States, albeit with extremist minorities on the fringes; or towards Jonestown and Waco, fatwas and poison gas. One is necessarily hypocritical; the other, necessarily manipulative. Hypocrisy is better.

The most disturbing aspect of all this is the brainwashing of children. I once provoked one of the more incoherent of the Trinidad Guardian’s editorials by saying, in a UWI panel discussion on religious fundamentalism, that religious education is child abuse. I hereby repeat that statement. How can you hope to inculcate in a child the kind of rational and inquiring mind that is essential to his development and that of the society while at the same time inviting him to believe in myths and controlling his behaviour by the exploitation of guilt? When Molly Ahye was inducted as the high priestess of the Orisha cult, I did not know whether to be more disturbed by the hours of television time devoted to the ceremony or by the sight of uncomprehending children drafted in to sway and chant in support of their elders’ fun and games.

To governments bereft of ideas or moral legitimacy the mushrooming of religious cults is a godsend (to coin a phrase). Every government, from the atheist Williams to the born-again Manning, has encouraged religious cultism (to the great financial advantage of the pastors and evangelists) in the belief that while people are on a religious scene they cannot be on revolutionary one. Until the Muslimeen came along. The followers of Lennox Phillip, for their part, do not realise that achievement of the Islamic republic he seems to want would put the country firmly outside the mainstream of world development. Francis Fukuyama of the RAND Corporation in his book The End of History and the Last Man claims that history has reached its point of culmination, in a final and irreversible movement toward parliamentary democracy on the political plane and liberal capitalism on the economic plane. The only exception are the parts of the world where “Islam has defeated liberal democracy [...] posing a grave threat to liberal practices even in countries where it has not achieved political power directly.” But “it remains the case that this religion has virtually no appeal outside those areas that were culturally Islamic to begin with [...] While nearly a billion people are culturally Islamic [...] they cannot challenge liberal democracy on its own territory on the level of ideas”. For Vidia Naipaul, the power of Islam is the power of oil, which enables the sheikhdoms to acquire the products of capitalism without exercising the skills of capitalism, skills only fully achievable in the context of freedom of thought.

Religion of the kind we see all around us is therefore not a solution but a problem. This is hard for people to admit, for several reasons. First, the brainwashing that has formed part of the education even of religious moderates makes them fearful for their own “souls”; secondly, it is regarded as bad manners to criticise others’ religious “faith” (except, of course, for the extremists, who don’t stop at criticism). As a result, Morgan Job, from the right, separates “refutable hypotheses” from “religious truths”, and includes the various scriptures among the works he advises the young to read to open their minds; Maureen Cain, from the left, speaks of the “deep spirituality” of the people of this country. I would like to see a difference, in people so irrational in everything else, between deep spirituality and deep desperation, but I cannot.

So there has to be a counter-current. Minshall could have started it by telling the pastors to get stuffed. He didn’t, so I will.

Are we going to live in the day, or in the night?

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomonPage Top