Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Whatever Gets You Through the Night

I’ve been struggling with how to frame my reaction to Muslim outrage over the Danish cartoons. It’s easy to dismiss it, as some have, as the typical over-reaction by fanatics and fundamentalists who have no understanding whatsoever of the concept of democracy and free speech, not to mention a complete absence of a sense of humor. It’s easy to caricature Islam since it really has had a bad run of publicity for the last five years or so. I can also understand how people of the Muslim faith see it as typical Western arrogance from a society that puts little value on spiritual elements unless they can impose their own spiritual beliefs in exchange and make money at it in the process. But what it comes down to is the simple fact that fanaticism in any garb — be it religious, political, or fictional — is an addiction and should be seen as such.

I have nothing against the idea of organized religion and I think in some ways it has provided a level of comfort and security to people who are struggling with some of the basic questions of life: where did we come from, what are we doing here, and what happens after? Religion provides answers to those questions and gives comfort to believers because they find a sense of community with others; there’s nothing more comforting to humans than feeling that you’re a part of something larger, be it a church, a nation, or a collection of books. It affirms your own beliefs and validates the idea that there must be something larger than just yourself. And since the mind cannot accept the idea of its own mortality — there has to be something that happens after the body dies — the idea of heaven and eternal happiness earned only after you do exactly what the preacher tells you to do is very appealing. It gives you something to live for and tells you how to live your life. It makes things very simple, and people love it when there are simple solutions to vexing problems.

There is, however, the danger of it getting out of control and letting it run your life to the exclusion of other things such as reality. Just as a glass of wine or a cold beer after work is a good thing and provides a sense of comfort, too much of it can make you sick, overtake your life, ruin relationships, and eventually kill you or others in the process. That kind of addiction can happen with things other than just chemicals like alcohol or opiates; in fact, it can happen with just about anything. Just as there’s a fine line between being a connoisseur of good wine and being a lush, or being an avid reader of Tolkien and a complete nut about The Lord of the Rings (down to naming your kids after the dwarves in The Hobbit and writing love notes in Elvish), it’s not that short a leap between being having faith in a spiritual higher power and letting it possess your every waking minute. It’s even worse if it becomes the only force because, like every addicition, it requires more and more feeding until it is the only thing that matters.

I’m a firm believer in the philosophy of live and let live, and I have no problem with people worshipping God, Allah, Jehovah, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or a 1957 Chevrolet; as John Lennon said, “Whatever gets you through the night.” But when someone tries to tell me how to live my life by citing the tenets of a collection of fables and threatens my rights by imposing their beliefs on me, I have no qualms in telling them in no uncertain terms to get out of my face. I have seen the effects of fanaticism, religious and otherwise, in my lifetime. As a gay man, I am denied certain rights because of religious beliefs, and when you deny me one right, you might as well deny me them all. Rights are binary: you either have them or you don’t. How that is compatible with any religion is beyond me.

Freedom of expression is also a right, and the determining factor of whether or not to express oneself should be dictated not by whether or not it would offend a god but whether or not it would bring physical harm to someone else. To my mind, mockery is not harmful; in fact, it is the great equalizer. The cartoons might be tasteless, crude, or boorish — just as the anti-Semitic depictions are in Islamic papers — but criminal? I think not. But the great danger of fanaticism is that it cannot see any other side, addiction allows for no moderation, and something that is meant to bring comfort and joy ends up as the most destructive force designed by mankind.

Update: I found this quote at the Doonesbury site filed under “Say What?”

“The right to freedom of thought and expression… cannot entail the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers.”
Vatican statement re Mohammed cartoons

Thanks, Vatican, for helping to prove my point.