a better future…

On a track from Heathen, David Bowie demands “a better future”, and after watching Jesus Camp yesterday, I’m inclined to agree with him. The movie isn’t great, as the basic message could have been conveyed in an 45-minute documentary rather than a feature-length film, but it still serves as a powerful reminder of the insidious and growing power of religious fundamentalism in society, and politics in particular.

One of the many disturbing scenes has early-teen (and younger) children praying to a cardboard cut-out George Bush for him to rid their country of the “evil” of abortion. Another has a young child in complete meltdown, as he tries to deal with the fact of not being able to feel the presence of god around him. Of course, there is no-one around to tell him that it’s okay to let go of your imaginary friends – only a significant amount of peer-pressure reminding him that his life will continue to be empty and meaningless until he gets his Jesus-groove back.

These children are being abused. They can’t help but trust what their parents and charismatic preachers tell them, because they don’t yet have the knowledge and acumen to discern truth from lies. And by the time they are old enough to possess those tools, most of their minds will have been putrefied to the extent that shaking these dogma will no longer be possible. Then, they become parents themselves, and pass the virus along. In the meanwhile, large numbers of the voting population take very important decisions on the grounds of spurious arguments and poor evidence. An army is being created, and that army fights for conservatism and prejudice.

But seeing as the current generation of parents were victims of the same process, it’s difficult to know who – if anyone – to blame. It’s difficult to find anyone who is actually intentionally misleading these children. The parties involve are sincere in their belief that they are spreading truth and righteousness, and we are left with being able to blame only the system, rather than any actual agent involved in reinforcing that system. This powerlessness makes me angry, as a system is less easy to fight than individuals. So what can we do, to try and secure a better future? First, we can present an attractive alternative to religious world-views, by demonstrating that atheists can be happy, moral people, who are capable of as much wonder at the world that surrounds them. In fact, we can probably be more so, in that we have more agency in the actions we take, seeing as they aren’t filtered through the intermediary of the spirit-world. Second, when we get the chance to allay the sorts of troubles and confusions experienced by the child mentioned above, we can embrace our responsibility to remind them that their confusions are generated by falsehoods, and that it really is okay for her to not suffer the same delusions as the god-botherers around her do.

In the meanwhile, my future is looking pretty damn fine. After starting on such a perplexing and traumatic note, it’s ended in the best way possible. An old friend has become a partner, after our wedding in November, and we’ll make sure to protect each other as best we can from assorted threats to reason and happiness. Some true friends have been discovered, and some baggage cast aside. It’s not that surprising how much fun was had along the way – more so that it was so effortless, in that genuine trust and understanding of others feels very different to what I thought it did. And once you know that feeling, the liberation is indescribable.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.