We hear a lot in the world today about terror. There is terror in the newspapers, terror on the news channels, terror when leaders speak, terror warnings if you travel anywhere in public. Terror, terror, TERROR! I'm suffering a bit from terror overload. Apparently, I am meant to live my life ever vigilant that, at any moment, some person may decide to make his or her bid for eternal glory by killing me. Well, its unlikely to be me because I hardly ever go out and I doubt I live anywhere that a terrorist has ever seen on a map. But that selfish point aside, you get the picture. If you live in London, Paris or New York it might feel a bit closer to home. Terrorists are hardly ever likely to strike in Buttfuck, Arizona (which is not a real place).
Yesterday I was minding my own business and just sitting thinking. It occurred to me how many of these blogs I write are tinged with my own existentialist, nihilist beliefs and these inevitably seep into the narrative. My mind built on the thought and I considered a meaningless world without purpose that ends in a nothingness of death. I then pondered that for many people this comes across as a dour and hopeless creed that takes all the joy out of life and maybe even strikes fear into the hearts of some, those who need meaning in their lives in order to go on living. There are people who this vision of life actually frightens. But I am not one of them. For me the idea that life is basically purposeless, we are here for no reason at all except it just happened and that we die and that's the end are, perversely, things that strengthen me and bring me some comfort in the void that we call our existence.
But then I considered another side of the story, the religious one. I am not a stranger to religion. Like many, I was a victim of my parents' good intentions as a boy. My mum tried to get me to go to Sunday School. I found it boring but they had cakes and the stories were kind of interesting - for a 9 or 10 year old boy at any rate. And did I mention they had cakes? Later in life I went to university and there I studied the Bible in an academic way. (I should point out that my university was set up by atheists who banned the teaching of religion when they set it up in the 19th century). I was very good at studying the Bible - linguistically, historically, as literature and ideologically and I am no stranger at all to its ideas. Indeed, I have letters after my name which I don't really like to talk about and am now somewhat embarrassed by. I studied The Historical Jesus as part of my doctorate.
So I know a bit about the Bible and this guy Jesus. Jesus, we are told, was thought of as The Son of God. There is some debate as to whether he ever said this of himself though and references are very sketchy. It is thought to be more something others said of him. Jesus is often painted as a peaceful fellow who loved the little children and healed sick people. But even his own followers report that he said things like "I have not come to bring peace but a sword" (that's in Matthew's Gospel if you care to look) and that doesn't sound very peaceful to me. This same guy is reported to have gone to the Temple and tipped up tables and caused a hassle. Imagine what would happen if someone did that today in our world of security cameras and armed guards. But apparently it was all for some great religious reason and so, you know, its OK. By the way, Jesus is also regarded as one of Islam's highest prophets. And he was put to death by the Romans as a (possibly religious) criminal.
You have to question this guy's "dad" though. God seems to do a lot of killing and smiting. Perhaps that's why many of his followers do the same thing? If you read the Old Testament (which is what the Christians call a collection of books they stole from Judaism because they claim its really their story and not Judaism's) you find that this guy God (I assume its a guy) loves wiping people out. Usually its Egyptians or Hittites or Assyrians or Midianites or people like that. Arabs basically. If you were an Arab reading the Bible for the first time I would think you'd find this God a bit anti. He certainly doesn't seem to much like people like you. So, coming back to Jesus meek and mild, you have to worry about a kid who has a dad like that.
We move forward to the modern world. We find that hundreds of millions of people now believe in Jesus as if he were a god himself! (Although its not quite clear how this works. Christians have something called the Trinity but it makes no sense and no one has ever adequately explained it.) There's another religion called Islam and they believe in a god too. I'm not sure if its the same one or not. Now many of the people who believe in these gods (or maybe just one god) are quite tame. They are people like my mum who has believed in god for 35 years but basically knows nothing about her religion or its beliefs and doctrine and can barely explain what or why she believes anything at all in the first place. Ask her about the Bible and you get the blank stare of someone who has barely read it for herself much less understood it. I'm quite willing to believe that pretty much anyone who says they "believe in god" in first world countries is much like her. They hold a largely inconsequential belief they can barely explain, probably for reasons of imagined metaphysical comfort.
But if only it were that simple. Because the problem with believing in an almighty super being is that it sets up a context for everything you do. Why do ISIS killers brag and laugh on camera as they chop off heads? Its because they think Allah awaits them in glorious paradise. And the beauty of their belief is that should some bomb drop from the sky and spread them across the desert in pieces they will never know any different. The reason for this is that they hold a belief that can't be defeated. You can't prove a religious belief wrong. Why do white, Christian Republicans all across the USA shoot guns at New York Times editorials advocating gun control (I saw this on Twitter on Saturday night) and talk about "the land of the free", a land they think is protected by Jesus' dad? Why do people ask you to pray to their god to help them kill their enemies when their enemies might be doing the same thing and even to the same god? You see, it doesn't matter to these believers, militant or passive, that a lot of what they say and/or do doesn't make sense and can't be explained. They have a belief and it sets up a context. The details, well, "god moves in mysterious ways" just about covers how they go about explaining it. Which is to say they don't explain it. They excuse it, ignore it and obfuscate about it. Because much of what they believe doesn't make any sense. It was never meant to be explainable because it was always meant to be unquestioned.
So, you see, for me the terror is that there is a god or that people would think there was one. If there is a god right now who made everything and everyone then he is responsible for the life I've led. He's responsible for the mental trauma and illness I've lived through decades of. He could have stopped it. Or maybe even created a human being that didn't have the defects in his brain that I probably do. He could have stopped children being kidnapped, women being raped and innocents being captured and slaughtered. He could have stopped slow, painful diseases and people starving in cardboard boxes in the middle of winter. But he didn't. So that means we have a god who is OK with suffering.
Some Christians have a neat little discussion that covers this that they call "the problem of evil" or "the problem of suffering" but I don't really think that covers what I'm discussing here. The problem, if there was one, would be why all these gods (or god) happily allow or even cause pain, suffering and death. All the believers agree their gods are powerful enough to stop it. But none of them can explain why they don't. Pardon me if I find the idea here that gods are much cleverer than us and their ways are beyond me more than a little insulting. To my mind, if there are all-powerful super beings in charge of things then the only explanation for why they allow or cause pain and death is because they want to. And that makes them malicious not gracious.
So that is why, to me, it is not that life is meaningless and without purpose that is the terror. I find nothing to fear in the fact that things happen at random and are largely beyond our control. There is, if I may say so, a kind of poetry to that. Bad things happen but not for any real reason. Its just that they can and so sometimes they do. But if you make someone in charge of all that it changes everything. Then someone can stop it, change it, make it better. Or at least different. But they don't. They just watch on never correcting or challenging anyone, never stopping people from committing atrocities of pain, suffering and death. I find it hard to believe that any being like that could be moral, or just or a lover of peace and harmony - or even almighty or powerful. And its because this god or gods does nothing that people kill other people, innocent people, that people decide they need to start wars or claim territory or declare flesh and blood people, in most other respects just like them, as their enemies. Believing in this theistic, putrid, undemonstrable, undefeatable belief, in the existence of some almighty super being, now becomes the line that you need to decide which side you stand on.
And believing in it is what I would truly call terror.
PS Why do believers in almighty super beings always seem to think that their almighty super being of choice needs them to stand up for him? Is not being an almighty super being enough?