Against Religion (Letter)

Hi! It’s been forever! I know, I know. I can only hope Y’all missed me. Here’s something new, a letter I wrote to one of my very good writer-friends. Enjoy! And drop your comments. Merçi.

Dear Kunle,

Three days ago, from the balcony of my house, I saw a little girl strolling down the street. She was thin and dark-skinned. She wore a pink long-sleeved shirt over blue jeans, both shaggy. Her head of faded-black hair bobbed as she walked. Perhaps her mother had sent her to buy something. What struck me in seeing her was her gait, swift and light. And after every four or so paces, she did a 360, stumbled a bit, regained her balance, and continued walking. She didn’t appear to be particularly having fun: the expression on her face was blank, as though she was doing the most normal, natural thing in the whole world. I tried to imagine someone else walking like that, someone older – me, perhaps – doing a 360 after every four paces, but that image didn’t come. It was then that the ultimate understanding of the poem “Birches” by Robert Frost came to me: that look on that little girl’s face – more deeply, the carefreeness that produced that look – was a gift that was exclusively for little children like her. Older people can’t go about with that carefreeness, no matter how much we might want to. If those little demons you described in your letter don’t beat our minds back into shape, friends and strangers surely will.

I love what you said about knowing being a trail of breadcrumbs leading down a dark hole, but I have to disagree. And it’s funny, because for most of my life, I’ve held a belief much similar to that. There’s a popular saying in religion – or, at least, in Islam – that man should seek knowledge even if it be as far as China. (You quote similar statements from the Bible in your letter.) For me, this is one of the most hypocritical statements of religion, since, as soon as one begins to seek out that knowledge, the great defenders of religion come around and say, ‘You’re seeking out the wrong sort of knowledge.’ Now, that is not to say that I don’t recognise that there’re certain things we wish we didn’t know, but isn’t this because knowledge steals away our innocence – and we always want to be innocent, even when we shouldn’t be? Consider that little girl in the first paragraph. Wouldn’t you agree that that ‘carefreeness’ I mentioned is, simply, ignorance – oblivion? Older people can’t have that carefreeness because we no longer have that oblivion. We already know. 

Now, it’s easy for us to say, after having known, that we wish we didn’t. That ‘ignorance is bliss’, like you wrote of the Scholar matter. I believe you. I’d like only to draw your attention away from the ridiculously obvious to the less apparent: knowing gives us a choice – or the possibility of a choice. If you hadn’t found out that you were the Scholar, you wouldn’t have known that you’d rather not know. The world (read: universe) would have decided for you that you shouldn’t know, stealing that decision away from you. Not having knowledge – ignorance – snatches away choice.

Imagine this very typical Nigerian scene – or just ‘scene’, generally. A man’s father is dying. He gets a call from his mother. ‘Your father is dying,’ she says. The man is shocked. ‘What do you mean he’s dying?’ he asks. His mother tells him the father has been ill for about a month now, and has even been hospitalised. ‘What!’ the man exclaims. ‘Why didn’t you tell me before? Why are you just telling me now?’ ‘Well, with your divorce and all the trouble at work, I didn’t want to give you one more thing to worry about,’ the mother says, already close to tears. ‘That was my decision, mom! You should have told me. It was for me to decide!’ Now, I’m sure I’ve painted the phoniest scenario, but it doesn’t fail to underline my point. Knowledge is sacrosanct; without it, all is lost. And with great knowledge comes great responsibility. It is only a matter of embracing those responsibilities.

Now, I suppose it doesn’t need any special announcement that I’m a lover of knowledge (a philosopher, as it were). And while I don’t think that it is possible to know everything, I find it thrilling to try. I want to know as much as I’m capable of knowing. I want to follow that trail of breadcrumbs, even though I know I might never reach the end of it. Somehow, as writers, that’s what we do, you and I, don’t you think? In writing our stories, or essays, or even letters, we follow tiny bits of ideas, even though we’re not exactly sure where they’d lead us – or if they’d lead us anywhere at all. We take that risk. (I suppose this is an unforgiveable biaz, but I often think writers are the best sort of people in the world. In my mind, knowledge is connected to the idea of freedom, and the idea of freedom is connected to being a writer. Art is freedom.) 

So, yes, I want to know. And if there’s something I can’t know, there should be a genuine reason, not just that God doesn’t like me knowing it. Don’t you think it’s funny, Kunle, why religious people are always so defensive of their religions? It’s almost as if religion is a crate of eggs in a jalopy. (Islam goes as far as preaching that apostates should be killed because of their apostasy.) In my experience, people get defensive when they’re trying to hide something. And this begs the question: what is religion trying to hide? Perhaps that God doesn’t exist in the way it preaches? That religion is, as Einstein opined, manmade and naïve?  

Before I go too far, let me say, for the record, that I know that religion can be very beautiful. I’ve seen people transformed by it. I know Muslims whose lives are beautiful because of their religion. I know a bit of that myself, and, really, but for certain reasons – some of which I will now try to state,  – I wouldn’t mind still being in it. The reasons are:
1. Religion supports discrimination. This is perhaps the most duh-provoking thing anybody can say about religion. It decides what ‘should’ be, without any consideration at all for what ‘could’ be, and says everything else ‘can’t’ be. In other words, it promotes homogeneity and criminalises diversity. 

2. Religion is too conservative. Conservatism appals me. I can’t for the life of me understand why certain people so adamantly want to stay in the past. Some of the most common religions today were founded thousands of years ago, and the world is not today what it was then. I remember a conversation I had with my former boss in which he suggested that had the Bible and the Koran been written in this age, they’d be much different than are now. I agree. But this isn’t so obvious to many people. There’s a saying of Prophet Muhammad that goes something like this: ‘Whoever brings something new to this religion of ours shall have it rejected.’ By ‘something new’, what is meant is a new way of seeing things; a fresh perspective.

3. Religion is based on fear – and feeds off it. Einstein maintained that the idea of a God that protects, punishes, and rewards man arose from the fears of primitive societies. The world was too vast and daunting, and they needed assurance that there was someone watching over them. And for this to work, they needed other people to buy into it. That’s where the ideas of heaven and hell emerged: if the promise of eternal pleasure did not bind people to God, then the fear of eternal suffering would. And this works, a bit too effectively. 

4. There’s culture in different religions. I don’t know much about Christianity, so I’ll use Islam as a case study here. Islam was set up by Arabs. Now, here are some Arab cultures that are fundamental to Islam: wearing of the Hijab by females; circumcising of children; giving children Arabic names; antifeminism; even the language: every Muslim in the world is expected to learn Arabic. The Koran is written in Arabic. Here’s my theory: when Prophet Muhammad was setting up Islam, it was essential for him to put in the practices of his people. (Think of it as the reason why a writer who’s lived all his life in a particular country will always set his stories in that country.) I’m sure this is the case in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, etc.

5. Being in religion is like living in 1984. Especially in a religion like Islam where every – and, trust me, Kunle, I mean, ‘every’! – aspect of one’s life is dictated. Islam tells you that if you yawn and don’t cover your mouth with your right hand, you’re sinning. Islam tells you that you can’t tell people jokes if the jokes are not true (that is, if they’re fictitious). It also instructs you on how to eat, and laugh, and even make love to your wife. And if you don’t follow these instructions, then you’re a sinner. If so, God and Big Brother – what’s the difference?
Like I said before, Kunle, if I had to write everything I think is wrong with religion, I’d write a hundred pages. But let me rush and say now that I’ve not completely left religion. No, I like to see myself as taking a break, trying to figure out things. For all I know, a few months from now, I could be back in it. But it’s important for me to take this break. Distance makes things clearer, don’t you think?

I’ve spent so much time writing this letter, partly because I’ve been thinking, and partly because I’ve had to review my schedule a bit – and I must apologise. I must apologise also for having not opened the link you sent in your letter. My data finished. And, to answer your questions: school work has been going fine; no, I’ve not been able to suppress the fear, but I’m trying. I’m not a swimmer, and so I wouldn’t know what swimmers do, lol.  And, you’re right, Sultan is lying on his bed, pressing his phone again. It’s almost midnight, and there’s no light. 



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