Yesterday I was paddling a kayak on the Dnieper River. I was in the back seat, Tamara was in the front. Out of the blue she asked me about my religion. I replied that I was an atheist. After a moment’s thought she said, “So what do you love?” She gestured upward, as much as one can while paddling a kayak, so clearly “My wife” or “My family” would not do as an answer.
Not really us – our kayak was red.
“Truth and justice,” I said eventually. That seemed too short a list and I searched for more things that I could express in Russian. But even in English I decided those two were enough.
Ashore, I pondered my answer. Does loving truth and justice necessarily mean hating untruth and injustice? After all, untruth and injustice encompass ignorance, superstition, indoctrination, exploitation, tyranny, cruelty… all things to be hated, surely.
Then today I was listening to a podcast: Phillip Adams interviewing US journalist Glenn Greenwald, who when practising as a lawyer had defended extremists’ first amendment right to express views that most people found abhorrent.
“What about hate speech?” asked Phillip. I found myself agreeing with Glenn when he said that freedom of speech cannot be qualified. Who defines ‘hate speech’ – the Government? Facebook? Google? He cited German cases where criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians has resulted in prosecution as anti-Semitic hate speech.
But is there a distinction to be drawn between hatred of abstract ideas and hatred of the people who subscribe to those ideas? We all (I hope) hate what is done in Daesh’s name: murder, kidnapping, rape, slavery and the rest. But is it alright to hate the perpetrators? And is it alright to express that hatred publicly?
From kayaking to cognition. From paddling to pontification. What do you think?
During the past week Mrs SG and I have attended two carol-singing events organised by local councils. People of all ages brought folding chairs and picnics and sang along with some very talented choirs and bands. Santa Claus found time to drop in on both occasions.
I am an atheist, but brought up in a Christian cultural environment. I don’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God, any more than I believe in the existence of God, but I was moved nonetheless by The Christmas Story and even felt my eyes moisten during Good King Wenceslas.
The same moistening happened when I read the last chapter of Watership Down, when the Black Rabbit of Inlé came for Hazel. I was on a Liverpool-bound train to visit my mother for the first time since my father died. And I was shedding tears for a dead fictional rabbit.
It also happened every time I read the last chapter of The House at Pooh Corner to our elder son – the chapter where Christopher Robin tries to explain to Pooh that he’s going off to school and things won’t be the same. It’s the end of childhood, the end of innocence.
So I sort of understand people who have been brought up in other religious and literary traditions for whom the stories they heard when they were very young resonate deep within throughout their lives. Sometimes that resonance cause them to do irrational and even – in my eyes – wicked things.
I just read an alarming article in the Guardian Weekly. It was about a series of murders of Bangladeshi atheists by Muslim fundamentalists. Mrs SG and I met and married in Bangladesh (or East Pakistan as it then was) so we have a soft spot for the country.
We also have some understanding of Bengali cultural traditions, which are characterised by love of learning and literature, intellectual inquiry, openness to ideas. It is especially painful, therefore, to read that intellectual fascism is gaining ascendancy in that land.
Horrible though the murders are, the effect of intimidation on others is just as serious. People emigrate, stay silent or pretend belief they do not hold, to protect themselves and their families.
Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” This is an eternal truth. All of us, whether writers, politicians, judges, police officers or teachers, have responsibility to resist evil wherever we find it.
This is easy for me to say, of course. I live in a leafy suburb in Adelaide. I do not meet terrorists, murderers or drug-dealers on my way to the post office. The only religious fundamentalist I know is Peter, the Jehovah’s Witness who comes to chat to me once a month in the dim hope that I will one day see the light.
But I hope that, if confronted by raw evil such as now afflicts Bangladesh, I will find a kind of courage that I have never had to call on before.