Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Moonraking, atheism, and raki to come

I was talking to an old Baha'i friend, during the Moonrakers' festival in Slaithwaite, about Robert Alter's new (and excellent) translation of the Book of Psalms, and the friend said she was always surprised by how many atheists seemed to know more about religion than the religious practitioners themselves.
It occurred to me afterwards that I really don't like being called an atheist. It implies that subscribing to a large and unwieldy structure of belief, in something for which there is not the slightest evidence, is the natural condition of humankind, and that those who don't are lacking something.
I know some religious practitioners take an even more extreme view. Orhan Pamuk in Snow paints a subtle and disturbing picture of the gulf between madressah students and secularists in a run-down city in eastern Turkey. The Islamic students regard "atheism" not even as a position, but as a positive affliction; a virulent mental disease from which, with luck, one can be cured - a bit like the fundamentalist Christian/Muslim take on homosexuality.
But in fact not subscribing to a body of superstition is the condition of modern humanity, and that condition can only be described as a lack, a "being without", from a world view that supposes that the privileging of whatever religion, sect, cult or whatever, that the user of the term "atheist" happens to subscribe to, is the norm. This is patently not so. It's not just not so epistemologically, it's not so statistically either.
So the term atheist is redundant. You do not normally go round characterising yourself by the things you are not - as for instance a non-drug addicted non-Scientolgist non-marathon running non-member of the Royal Family or aristocracy; because this tells me nothing about who or what you actually are. If you want to describe a human being, surely it is more honest, as well as more economical, to describe their qualities and attributes, not what they are not.
Except, of course, in the context in which my old friend described me as an atheist at the Moonrakers' festival in Slaithwaite; there, it was necessary to adduce two groups, one of which had "a faith"; and priviledged it above all others, which were in error to a greater or lesser extent; and the other group which was fascinated by faith, as by literature or music, as an aspect of human behaviour; the origin of all such phenomena being within humanity itself.

The Moonrakers' festival? Illustrated above. And putting the photo up I notice a coincidence. I have just come back from Turkey, and of that amazing country there will be more. But for now, Slaithwaite, like Turkey, traditionally knows much about "woollen manufacture, the spinning of cotton and silk, and silk-weaving". And it is no doubt in honour of this knowledge and skill that two of the lanterns occasionally, and contingently, move into the configuration on the left of the photo above, the star and crescent of the Turkish flag.

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