Humorously (as I thought) defending irrationality, I wrote in another Post recently that “a belief in gods and divine agency helps to fill the gaps in our scientific understanding.” I’m sorry I wrote that. It isn’t true.
Unfortunately, the American ambassador to Libya has just been murdered by the credulous Benghazi mob*, incited to riot over a rumoured report of a slight to the Prophet, peace be upon him. The insult is allegedly contained in some obscure, independently made film, that the poor man would never even have heard of. But it was made in America, so someone’s husband and father had to pay with their life. That’s the Ambassador’s job, to represent his country.
Meanwhile, over in Pakistan, a family is cowering under police protection while villagers try to burn them alive, after their illiterate nine-year-old daughter was accused by a local Imam of setting fire to some pages from a schoolbook. These allegedly contained words about the Prophet, peace be also upon him, if upon no-one else. The Imam was subsequently arrested and charged with planting false evidence, but the villagers are having none of it. Someone must pay for the insult!
Between 1480 and 1750, an estimated 40-60,000 people in Europe were executed for witchcraft. The crime of witchcraft was eventually abolished in England in 1735, where no witches had been executed since 1682. It is still a hanging matter today in Saudi Arabia. The key provision of the 1735 Witchcraft Act was that it now became a criminal offence to accuse someone of witchcraft, or indeed to claim that any human being had magical powers (that might, for instance, enable a man to fly up to Heaven off the roof of a church). The Enlightenment had arrived.
In 1612, Edward Wightman was the last person in England to be burned at the stake for religious heresy. His “crime” was to insist that the soul does not go to heaven, but dies with the body and is resurrected on the Day of Judgement. Almost exactly four hundred years later, Salmaan Taseer, a Pakistani state governor, made public statements defending a Christian woman under sentence of death for allegedly refusing to give a Muslim woman a drink of water on a Sunday, and was murdered by his own bodyguard, who is now (although himself under sentence of death) being hailed as a national religious hero.
The 1735 Witchcraft Act remained on the statute book for over 200 years, until in 1944 a spirit medium, Helen Duncan, became the last person to be convicted under it, after apparently predicting the sinking of a British warship, HMS Barham. The trial established that her prediction was so vague, it could not be attributed to any supernatural agency. She was however fined £10 for fraudulent mediumship, as when arrested on stage the “ectoplasm” her spirit had manifested was found to be nothing other than herself, dressed in a flimsy nightgown. An appropriate metaphor, in my view, for the entire bogus construction of religious thought and belief.
I am grateful to Wikipedia for much of the above. But it does not end there. From a BBC report of April 2002, into the alleged practice of “muti” by witch-doctors, we learn that: “Conservative estimates are that at least 300 people have been murdered for their body parts in the past decade in South Africa.” While in enlightened, modernising China, traditional belief in the restorative powers of body parts has brought several globally important species to the brink of extinction.
Please don’t make the mistake of assuming that even in the 21st century, the light of reason is anything more than a guttering candle flame. The fissures in the human brain run deep and dark. The lethal vacuity of the “surrendered” mind, the willingness of otherwise intelligent individuals to accede to the dangerous power of myth, to the ultimate abandonment of their humanity, are Mankind’s eternal shame.
* Later reports indicate that the assassination took place under cover of the mob riot but may have been the work of a pro-Islamist militia with links to al-Q’aeda, on the anniversary of 9/11.