Wednesday, 7 September 2011

How religion appears to outsiders like me.

I originally wrote this back in 2010, but I want to reproduce it here as it's the only piece I've ever written that really did - I believe, based on reactions - help a couple of believers to understand how their beliefs (and religious belief in general) appear to a person who simply does not have them. Having said that, the believers whose responses were equivalent to "huh - OK, that sort of makes sense and I hadn't thought about it like that before" were the decided minority; I got many more responses along the lines of "but belief in God X is DIFFERENT!" and the usual screams of "DISRESPECT!!!". One aspect that did amuse me was that even though I'd deliberately and explicitly been at pains to draw parallels and form analogies that could be applied to any of the "big three" Abrahamic religions, each and every respondent who reacted badly had interpreted what I wrote as a direct attack on their particular belief system.

This really only works if you can consider it dispassionately, and in fact in the original post I suggested that any believers reading it might mull it over in relation to a religion other than their own in the first instance.  Anyway, for what it's worth here it is; as with my previous post, it's been subject to minor cosmetic amendments:

"Imagine to yourself that you go to visit an old and dear friend, someone you've known for years. After you've gone through the usual pleasantries and made a cup of tea, your friend eagerly shows you a book he got out of the library a little while ago; Aesop's Fables. You know a little bit about it, that it's a very old book of stories that are designed to teach lessons, but as your friend talks you're surprised to find that he seems to be taking them as fact – even though most of them deal with talking animals and can't possibly be true.

As you probe the subject, you discover that the Librarian suggested the book to your friend and told him that Aesop is not dead but all around us, ever present, ever watchful, and knows everything that everyone in the world does, says or even thinks. The Librarian told your friend that the book of Aesop's Fables – the divinely inspired word of Aesop – is proof of this, and that your friend would suffer misery in Hades for all eternity after his death if he didn't believe in the absolute truth and sanctity of the Aesop's Fables and live his life according to His lessons.

Your friend is eager to show you the book and encourages you to have a read through it. It contains hundreds of lessons on different subjects, but the Librarian has told your friend which are the important ones, such as:

“Don't do to other people things you wouldn't like them to do to you.” (The Fox and the Stork)
“Pursue pleasure only after your work is done.” (The Ant and the Grasshopper)
“Be grateful for what you have.” (The Plane Tree)
“Gentleness achieves more than force.” (The North Wind and the Sun)

Some of these you consider to be reasonably sound lessons, although you wonder why your friend feels he needs an ancient storybook to teach him these things. Some of the Fables, on the other hand, strike you as out-of-touch and even dangerous:

The Fox and the Monkey, which teaches that it's acceptable to physically hurt somebody in order to make a point.
The Man and the Serpent, which teaches us both that an enemy's transgressions may never be forgiven and that violence should be met with violence.
The Bat, the Bird and the Beasts, from which the moral is “that which is neither one thing nor the other shall be unloved”.

Your friend assures you that he knows these lessons are dubious and says that common sense must be applied. This puzzles you, and you ask him how – given that all the fables are the infallible Word of Aesop – he is able to reconcile the total faith Aesop demands with choosing to ignore some of His commands. Surely if Aesop, in His divine and infallible wisdom, gave His followers these lessons it is very presumptuous for His followers to amend or abridge His sacred Truth? Your friend tries to explain that cultural context for the Fables has changed since they were written, and that what is morally abhorrent to us was perfectly acceptable when the Fables were written more than two thousand years ago. You think about this, and then ask your friend how he knows, while acknowledging that some of the lessons are wrong, that the rest are correct and divinely inspired. You want to know, in fact, why – if some of Aesop's teachings can be disregarded in favour of personal ethics and values – your friend does not feel free to take it one step further and live according to his own ethical choices without reference to Aesop at all.

Your friend's answer to this baffles you; he states that without Literary-mandated laws to tell us right from wrong, humanity would have no morals and would descend into Sin and chaos. When you point out that humanity had justice and ethical values long before Aesop's Fables were penned – that the ancient Egyptians, for example, had courts of law and condemned and punished theft and murder – your friend answers that Aesop gave the ancient Egyptians consciences. This, of course, raises more questions for you; if Aesop created the conscience so that humanity could tell right from wrong, why then does that conscience disagree with some of the Fables that also come from Aesop? Why are some acts morally acceptable in some cultures but not in others? Why, in fact, did Aesop need to write down His lessons at all if He'd effectively built them into us? Your friend answers that Aesop loves His children and will not force us to believe or to do his will; for that reason, some people stray from Aesop's will and need the Fables to guide them and save them from eternal misery in Hades after death. You, of course, reflect that giving people a choice between obedience or eternal suffering is not really giving them free will at all, but your friend's only response to that is that Aesop is a loving Storyteller but that He works in mysterious ways man is not meant to understand.

This becomes a bit of theme as the conversation continues; you find that when you ask your friend a question that he cannot answer, you are very likely to be told either that man cannot comprehend Aesop's divine plan, or that something's metaphorical, or that you have closed your mind to Aesop, or even simply that you will be go to Hades if you don't believe – this latter is particularly confusing when it seems you are supposed to simultaneously believe two things that contradict each other. When you point out that you yourself fulfill many of Aesop's demands even though you don't believe in Him, your friend tells you that you've missed the point. It is not enough just to live a good life – you must do so because you are following the teachings of Aesop, or you will suffer for eternity anyway. Even more confusingly, it comes out that a believer in the Fables who lives an evil life can still be taken up to the Elysian Fields – as long as he repents and apologises to Aesop – where a non-believer can't no matter how good person he may be. It occurs to you that this means no one in the whole history of humanity could have made it to the Elysian Fields before the Fables were written – which seems a little wasteful, not to say utterly unfair - but by this time you're beginning to see that logic has no place in your friend's thought processes.

At this point you give up on making sense of the Fables themselves, and gently remind your friend that many of the tales attributed to Aesop are believed to have been written by other people, or even to be simple folk-tales that eventually got written down. In fact, you point out, many scholars have questioned whether Aesop – as a single, historical figure – ever existed at all. Your friend gets very angry at this comment, and tells you you're being very disrespectful to question his belief in Aesop and His teachings. In response you explain that you've got nothing against Aesop in particular, and in fact that there are also discrepancies in the stories attributed to Homer, for example, and Shakespeare too. Weirdly your friend is quite happy to acknowledge flaws in historical accounts of other Storytellers, but remains adamant that Aesop is somehow, by His very nature, different and above question.

Your friend has a young son, and you ask your friend if he's been allowed to read the Fables too. You find that in fact the son has been actively encouraged to read the Fables and to understand that they are the divine Word of Aesop. He asked a lot of questions at first, but once your friend explained to his son that if he asked too many questions or didn't believe everything the Fables have to say he would spend eternity in Hades away from his mother and father, that stopped and his son is now very devout. In fact, he reads passages from the Fables every night! Your friend's wife is an unbeliever and that troubles your friend, but he tries to explain to her why she's wrong and in any case he's made sure their son knows he's right and she's wrong, so the son knows to believe him.

A momentary expression of concern crosses your friend's face as he tells you that his son has interpreted the Fable of the Bat, the Bird and the Beasts to mean that people of mixed race are unloved of Aesop, and that therefore people of different races shouldn't mix. In fact, he also stood up in his sex-education class and told the teacher that bisexuality is a Sin under Aesop and should be punished; your friend is a little uncomfortable with these values, but very proud of the level of faith they demonstrate. He certainly wouldn't want you to think that all Fablists hold such values, and feels he can hardly be responsible for his son's somewhat fundamentalist approach just because he was the one who taught him to believe unquestioningly in Aesop and His teachings.

* * *

I hope you've been able to read all that calmly and without feeling like I'm picking on you or your specific religion; what I've written above is just an analogy to help you understand how religious belief appears to people who are on the outside and it doesn't target any religion in particular - hopefully you've been able to set aside your own convictions long enough to understand the point I'm trying to make with this story. But you may be thinking – quite reasonably – that the beliefs held by the friend in this story, while certainly odd, are harming no one; after all, he seems to be a moderate in his beliefs, and able to set aside the bits of Fablism that aren't compatible with what we now consider reasonable behaviour.

But I want you to take it a stage further, and join me in imagining a society in which Fablism has grown steadily over several hundred years until it has reached the point at which many people are followers of Aesop...

In this society, the influence of Fablism is so pervasive that bisexual people are ostracised, regarded as freaks and perverts, and many feel unable to be honest about their sexuality even to their friends and families. Fablists are powerful enough to make interracial marriage illegal as it's seen as a sin against Aesop; purists even insist that their children be educated at Fablist schools where children are segregated by race to remove the temptation to sin. Some parents object to their children being taught that animals cannot speak, and the Fablist versions of natural history and biology are already taught exclusively in some schools. Snakes, as agents of Aesop's wrath, are revered and there have been several cases of fundamentalist Fablists refusing antivenoms when they or their children have been bitten.

Fablists have split into many groups and factions over the centuries and decades, but they still unite to ridicule and even attack other faiths like Just-Soism, Bozism and the Shakespearians which, despite their many similarities to Fablism, are just obviously and undeniably wrong. Over the centuries, some of the worst wars in history have come about because of people's beliefs in different Storytellers, and even today more atrocities are committed in the names of the various Storytellers than for any other reason. In fact, because the faithful have been so strenuous for so long in demanding respect for their beliefs, the faiths have become a convenient excuse for all sorts of actions – every years acts of war and terrorism are committed with Storytellers as the justification. Many Fablists are uncomfortable with these acts, but ultimately they believe in the same Fables as do the terrorists and war-mongerers, and have little argument to make when a fundamentalist refers them to the Fable of the Man and the Serpent.

Please try to think about this as calmly as you can, and to understand that none of this – NONE – is a specific attack on any one religion; I have been careful not to say anything that cannot be applied to more than one faith. I have some questions for you now, and I would like you to consider them honestly:

Does the fact that the Fablist faith now has millions of followers make its basic tenets any less bizarre?

Would you be willing to accept that the Fables are true for no better reason than that someone told you they're true?

In my story, the friend has discovered Fablism as an adult. This was deliberate, and designed to provoke incredulity as it is rare for an adult to spontaneously become religious. But this incredulity prompts two important questions: firstly, does the fact that the son – unlike his father – was taught about Fablism from a young age make his beliefs in themselves any more rational? And secondly, if you are a religious person and were taught your beliefs in childhood, what does your skepticism about a person becoming a believer in adulthood suggest about the source of your own convictions?

Is it acceptable that children are segregated by race because of a 2,500-year-old book?

Is it acceptable that bisexual people are denied equality and basic rights because of a 2,500-year-old book?

Is it OK to commit acts of war and terrorism on non-Fablists in the name of a 2,500-year-old book?

Is it right that Fablists should have such power in society when they cannot prove that anything contained in their book came from a Storyteller, or even that there is a Storyteller?

Is it reasonable that Fablists should expect your compliance when they want to restrict your freedoms?

Would you stand in silence if your life, and the world as a whole, was being adversely affected by Fablism?"


  1. Excellent post, well thought out and delivered. I will raise this with several religious friends to see how they respond to the challenge of such a good line of questioning!!