Charlie Hebdo – How Things Could Change…

I put out this simple question to the world? Religion, is it time for fundamental change…?

I want to say this first; that I would fight to the end for not just freedom of speech, but freedom of belief.

For as long as we can realistically delve back in time the human race has developed systems of belief. In more recent times, relatively speaking, these have morphed into what we now know as world religions. Many of these have grown to play a significant part in not just the mores of our lives, but in the states and institutions which structure them.

Throughout history, individuals, states and institutions have all battled for religious supremacy. Those battles have sometimes been fought by extremists. In our epoch it appears that Islam is under the spotlight, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is their sole domain. Islam itself is innocent. Like all religions its motives were benevolent, born out of a desire to understand and make sense of the world.

So please don’t blame Islam, for in a different time and place another religion will be hijacked by its militant wing. Indeed history has taught us that this has happened before.

So how should we react to recent ‘terrorist’ incidents? Rather than blame a religion, perhaps we might encourage open, honest and worldwide debate – on exactly what religion is, and why it exists.

Easier said perhaps than done – because what we find is that even in times of rapid scientific development, and greater all round knowledge, this is not a ‘free’ debate to have. It is one shrouded in caution and taboo. Were that not the case, publications like ‘Charlie Hebdo’ wouldn’t exist, because our freedom to chatter amongst ourselves would be unhindered.

So how have we got to the stage where on the one hand we can send a space ship to explore the possibility of life elsewhere, yet on the other we can’t even openly discuss our own?

The answer lies with education, and it is failing our children. Indeed it has been failing us for so long that generations have been unable to tackle the issue. It is imperative now that we understand what part religious belief systems have played in society’s past, what part they play in contemporary life, and, most importantly, what part they might play in future times.

It is easy to forget that ‘beliefs’, of any form, generate to fill a void. Religious beliefs are no exception, indeed on the contrary, they are a classic example. As humans coming to terms with the intricacies, vagaries and ‘unknowns’ of our world there is an inevitable learning path. Along that path we encounter mysteries, and tend to fear what we don’t understand.

Instinctively we don’t like ‘unknowns’. The unknown might be- why do some mountain tops explode with hot liquid? Or it might be – does life exist amid the stars? We just don’t like not knowing the answer. Only a relatively short time ago we didn’t know the answer to either of these questions, yet many say that soon we might know the answer to both.

What we do when we ‘don’t know’ is believe. We might assume that Gods of Heaven and Earth should be prayed to, to stop a mountain top exploding. We might worship other Gods and Prophets to try and understand origins and meanings of life. It’s not the subject matter that’s important, but the role of belief.

It is difficult for some to accept that on this great learning path our beliefs will inevitably and repeatedly be challenged. Some dig their heels in with cries of disrespect and blasphemy, bedding themselves into the earth like a tectonic plate, refusing to budge. But as we all know eventually those plates shift and collide, causing upheaval. Unless we change, this pattern will never cease.

We have failed to teach this – failed past generations and are still failing our children today. What we have allowed to develop is a recipe for conflict and battle… dogma, persecution, ghettos, isolation, etc. Even in modern times, and in ‘developed’ countries, many promote such isolation. If we continue to send our children to schools where they are encouraged not to question but to ‘believe’ then we will perpetuate the myth.

We all have a responsibility to educate and inform, and those of us lucky enough to be brought up in educationally privileged parts of the world have a greater share of that responsibility. Yet these societies, whether they be in the Americas, in Europe, or elsewhere are the major culprits in letting us down.

Even when I was at school we would start the day with hymns, be read passages from the bible, and be taught reverence to our church. Nobody ever asked me if I wanted to do those things, and had I stopped and asked, and questioned, I probably would have been punished. That is how backward we were, and still are in places. We have a long way to go.

Those who have watched and enjoyed the film ‘Life of Brian’ know how it explores and exposes the ‘void’ of belief. The line ‘You don’t need to follow me – you don’t need to follow anybody’ is the fulcrum of the film. We may laugh, well at least some of us felt liberated enough to laugh, but on its release there was a conservative majority who wanted the film banned. That again, is how far we must travel, from a very recent past.

It would be encouraging to think that one day we might live together in peace, with an understanding that all along we were our own Gods and Prophets – that it is us who shape our environment and have control over our domain. We are one race, and rather than developing religions to fill voids we might perhaps develop a religion to each other – to treat others the way we would like to be treated ourselves. It is not impossible, but it does need worldwide education, and honesty.

My heart goes out to the families and loved ones of those that died in Paris. It also goes out to all that have died in any form of battle, religious or otherwise. I see this as not just about ‘freedom of speech’, but ‘freedom of belief’… because without honest and open debate, any freedom is impossible to achieve.

So let us at least try to understand religion in its full context, without fear or favour. Let us respect current religions and beliefs but at the same time not be afraid to educate and inform. We can endorse that it is okay to ‘believe’, but always wise to try and fill the void with knowledge.

Knowledge is infinite and at times we may struggle for answers, because we will always be a few steps behind. But if we teach our children that it is okay to struggle, to explore, to not find immediate and pat solutions, then we might be able to start to put belief systems behind us.

Long before states and institutions latched onto their power, religions started out benevolently, and in good ‘faith’. We have however allowed them to develop into accepted alternatives to knowledge, with damaging consequences.

It may take many generations for us to believe in each other, but at least that would be a religion without enemy. This surely is our journey. Let us hope, but perhaps not pray for it.