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Articles > Up Against the Believers

Up Against the Believers

Fernando Savater

Fernando Savater is well-known for his social critiques as well as his characteristic sarcastic style. In the present article, he targets not believers in general ─"in the warmest sense of the word, we are all believers," as he points out─ but rather those who lay claim to their faith as a type of personal right, which leads them to feel it´s their duty to convert everyone else. In other words, he targets those who believe themselves to be secular, but still continue to confuse religion and politics, thereby provoking consequences that are suffered by peaceful citizens every day.

Even regarding eighteenth century Enlightenment, this anti-superstitious cultural pronouncement par excellence, superstitions have been conceived. One of them maintains that the enlightened thinkers, whose epitome is Voltaire, persecuted believers. This is not true, or at least, it's not true unless we specify, precisely and counter-intuitively, the believers to whom we are referring. Because in the broadest sense of the word, all of us are believers... in the eighteenth century as well as nowadays.

Well-founded knowledge was and is too scarce for what is required by our longing to understand life and act at present. As Wittengenstein said, even when we have all of the scientific answers, we still will not have even begun to answer the questions most important to us. So, we will always need to believe, in addition to know, in order to be able to rationally organize our human existence.

This paradoxical platitude never escaped Voltaire, Diderot, or the rest of the most distinguished members of the encyclopedic crusade. When they condemned and fought the "believers," they never intended to do away with those who conjecture beyond what can be proven ─they themselves constantly did so─ but instead do away with the people who, in the name of their unverifiable certainty, pursue and coerce those who live according to different convictions. Because the dangerous believer is not someone who claims faith as a personal right, but rather someone who intends to turn this faith into a duty "for all men and women," as they say nowadays. Voltaire characterized dangerous believers with the slogan "think like me or die," still literally in force today in some sinister theocracies, though in our democratic societies it has been substituted by a less bloodthirsty formula: "Think like me or die...socially."

The secularism of the State, one of the pillars ─though threatened, alas!─ of contemporary democracy, does not intend to do away with personal beliefs, but rather eradicate those that attempt to prescribe and proscribe them. That is, the State is secular so that the citizens can be secular, or not, according to their criteria.

And each individual's convictions, thus protected, do not refer only to religious or metaphysical questions, but also to lifestyles. The latter are the most difficult to bear for current believers, who only feel comfortable with an unanimity of behavior and are prepared to demand this in accordance with noble moral principles... principles that stop being noble, of course, when they are imposed by decree. Democratic institutionalization must not try to establish heaven on earth -the ideal of human dignity, decency, and edifying habits- but instead allow for a political framework in which, within a regulated coexistence, each individual  can go to heaven or hell on his or her preferred path, as proposed by Voltaire. The opposite means returning to theocratic practices ... though nominally in order to undermine and prohibit them.

Unlike what is intended by believers, the secular State must not enter into any type of religious controversy. No faith can turn into grounds for acquittal in breaching civil laws, but it can neither turn into a motive to penalize behaviors that are not explicitly vetoed in secular practice. If a Muslim bus driver (this case has happened in the United Kingdom) does not allow a blind person accompanied by a guide dog to get on the bus, it is not the time to begin a discussion about whether or not the animal's saliva is truly impure, according to some orthodoxy or the other: the law regulating the assistance to the handicapped must be enforced, period.

Likewise, a young woman of legal age should be able to buy the morning-after pill at a pharmacy without a problem, regardless of the moral opinion about this transaction held by the person running the establishment.

Yet, there is no right either for banning veils or headdresses for anyone because they hold undesirable religious significance according to the persecutory believer of the moment (some of them are very erudite, that's for sure) when they would not be a cause for suspicion if justified in the name of fashion or extravagance.

The unquestionable superiority of secular democracies over theocracies is that, in the first, women can wear whatever veil they want and in the second, in contrast, women cannot take off the veil. As for theological disquisitions, they are left for academic circles and days of religious observance.

Because believers exert their holy coercion to benefit the souls of others, their preferred prey are usually women, whose souls have traditionally been considered more vulnerable than the spirits of men.

Whether they cover themselves up too much or they offer themselves, naked, to the highest bidder, they must always be repressed and guided because they will only arrive at freedom when they're convinced of the harm in doing what they want to do.

Before, when the female was always a revival of the temptress Eve, after every masculine delirium someone warned: cherchez la femme!; now, as they are only authorized to be victims, as soon as they speak too openly or are too brazen, believers cry out: cherchez l'homme!

This is because it is taken as a matter of fact that it is always a man who leads women astray from the straight path of reason and decency. Unfortunately, it is commonplace that it is men who intimidate and boss them around, and therefore it will be these less than grand tyrants against whom action must be taken, all the while acknowledging that women also have their own will.

That there is no place for slavery, not even for voluntary slavery? Happy slaves do not exist -be they female or male- except in Arriaga's opera and nevertheless, all of us gladly enslave ourselves in a thousand ways due to devotion or ambition. Beware the moralists who, without listening to our opinion, feel legitimized for emancipating us with decrees...

Throughout their history, believers sometimes improve their dogmas and move from communism to social democracy or liberalism, from theological orthodoxy to scientism and evolution, from teenage addictions to public health. There are even ex-cannibals who end up being vegetarians or against bullfighting.

Yet, what they never lose is the persecutory zeal that assures them of their rush of political adrenaline. Everyone else is an obscurantist reactionary, and they are the enlightened champions, beyond discouragement.

They practice what Michael Oakeshott, in a memorable essay, called "the politics of faith," meaning, they try to governmentally impose social perfection according to guide of those who have already seen the light of truth. In other words, they continue to confuse politics and religion... despite believing themselves to be secular.

El País, August 11, 2010

Translated by Jennifer Brooke Hoge

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