Monday, March 21, 2005

The essence of religion is the desire NOT to understand

Over on MSNBC, Keith Olbermann has an amusing post on right-wing reaction to attempts to present homosexuals as human beings rather than as <put your worst nightmare here>. The thing that most struck a chord was one of the letters from outraged (or perhaps I should use one of their favourite mealy-mouthed euphemisms: 'concerned') gay-haters. It's so good, I'll quote the email and his comment:

-- With similar obliviousness, Frank from Albuquerque, New Mexico, has been good enough to reproach my “inappropriate toleration of pro-gay groups” by quoting one of America’s great writers:
“The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges, or churches, or parlors, nor even in its newspapers (media) or inventors, but always most in the common people. Walt Whitman 1819-1892, American Poet.”
Um, Frank - I have a historical tidbit about Walt Whitman’s dating habits I think might interest you.

Keith chides the writer rather lightly. In fact, this one short email sums up nicely what's wrong with this particular type of religiosity, and the devastating effects it's going to have on the world.

You see, it's not just that the writer didn't know that Walt Whitman was gay. The problem — the huge, overriding, sick-making problem — is that that particular information was suppressed when Frank from Albuquerque was learning about Whitman's poetry. After all, Walt Whitman is one of America's great poets, so he couldn't have been gay, right? And if he was... well, let's just ignore it. Don't talk about it. It'll go away.

This is the very basis of the construction of the fundamentalist world-view. Gays are odd, strange, diseased, because we are made invisible except when we are being criticised. Our history, our contribution, the parts we played in creating human civilisation, it's all ignored, forgotten, suppressed. Once that's done, we can safely be portrayed as freaks.

It's not just gays of course, the same process is at work with the 'controversy' about evolution. A pseudoscience, 'Creation Science', is manufactured just so that kids can be taught it as an alternative to real science — to the theory of evolution. But in the process, young people's understanding of what it is that makes a theory scientific gets trashed. The priceless jewel of conjecture and refutation is thrown away.

There's only so long that this process can go on before the disease — of not listening to reason, of not looking round at what's actually there rather than sturdily, and stupidly, reaffirming that what we want to be there is there right enough even though we can't actually see it with our eyes, of systematically purging 'controversial' ideas, institutions and people — wrecks our entire civilisation.

So what was the chord that this particular email struck? A few years ago, when I was working as a programmer for a large company, I was half-listening to a conversation amongst the other programmers as I was doing something. One of the people talking was a born-again Christian, and somehow the topic had got around to explaining to your children about gay friends and their partners.

“Oh, we haven't told our children about gays at all,” he said. “I don't want them to know that people like that exist.”

It was chilling, being written out of existence like that in the course of an everyday conversation. It made it quite obvious to me what the stakes were, what will happen to us if those people win.

No comments: