Sunday, February 18, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0452 - The Cure for Free Thinking

Imagine my surprise when I read this excerpt from a letter sent to the editor of Freethought Today magazine:

"Satan worshipping scum . . . Please die and go to hell . . . I hope you get a painful disease like rectal cancer and die a slow painful death, so you can meet your God, SATAN . . . "

The extract goes on a length with some of the most vicious and vitriolic language imaginable, all in the name of what the author of the diatribe called "the LORD JESUS CHRIST'S omnipotent power." (Quoted in Richard Dawkins recent book The God Delusion, pp.212-3). I picked up the book last Sunday after writing my blog entry about Lazy Sunday Mornings and have since been grabbing moments to read as much as I can.

It had never occurred to me before that some might think rectal cancer was a particularly apt form of punishment to impose upon a free thinker, a skeptic, an agnostic, an atheist, or perhaps even a nontheist. It didn't seem plausible to me that there were people, perhaps in my own neighbourhood, who would secretly applaud the onset of rectal cancer as divine retribution for rejecting the dogmatic assertions of fundamentalist Christianity. But I guess that just illustrates my own naivete.

Over the course of my bout with cancer and now with my march into recovery, I have seen absolutely no correlation between faith affiliation and kindness. Those whose faith affiliation is very important to them no doubt attribute their own compassion to their love of God and God's love for us. But those without a strong affiliation with a faith community don't seem particularly perturbed that their own kindness cannot be attributed to God.

My experience has been simple and straightforward. People showed their compassion regardless of denomination or affiliation. The kind were kind, the selfish remained selfish. Yes, the language used to express sympathy and kindness differed somewhat depending on the particular faith tradition (or lack of one). There were some surprises along the way.

But now that I have some distance and some time to rethink, I'm beginning to wonder about the relationships between belief systems and compassion. Perhaps reading Richard Dawkins has brought the issue to the forefront for me. For him, we are good, or evil, because of issues closely related to natural selection and other evolutionary processes. Altruism is never very far removed from biology and genetics. But there is a cultural component too.

Religion is, for Dawkins, very much a by-product of other processes which participate in evolutionary development. One of the features of religion that sometimes surfaces in the face of a threat like free thought or skepticism is virulent hatred and animosity expressed in the language of a specific faith community, even sometimes acted upon.

It makes me wonder whether others afflicted with colorectal cancer have ever had their faith or lack of faith mentioned as a direct cause of their illness.

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