Monday, 27 July 2009

"There is probably no God..."


"There is probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life"
Richard Dawkins


I received an email from a girl I knew back in Baku. A young and pretty girl. A few years ago she illegally immigrated to the states. Last time I saw her she wore tight clothes and talked about a potential marriage to an investment banker. I have not heard from her for a few months.

And then, out of the blue, this email arrived.

At first, I thought it was some weird joke that I just did not get. I emailed her back, politely asking what that was.

It is a poem,- she replied.

She told me she writes poems these days, because they describe the changes in her life so beautifully.

There are two things I found disturbing in this situation:

a) that she believed this could be called a poem;
b) the content.

One day, it stated, she received a letter from a poor African boy. He told her about John’s Passage 3:16. She opened the Holy Bible to check what it was about, and…

Oh, miracle! The book opened right on the very same page!

The poem then described how she was shaking with excitement and happiness. And was telling me I could be just as happy if only I could open my eyes, and heart. I wish I knew her parents address: it felt appropriate to express my condolences.

There are at least four churches in our little commuter village. The one on the hill is famous for the very good school attached to it. The admission requirements are very strict. Your child has no chance of getting in unless you worship in that particular church at least three times a week.

As a Soviet girl, I never thought much about it. We were told "Religion is the opiate of the people".
My parents came from the generations of atheists, and would celebrate the holidays and say Inshallah; but out of habit rather than with the real meaning behind it.

To me, religion is a cultural thing: holidays, presents, stunning cathedrals to visit on my trips abroad and the lovely smell of church candles. And I loved it when my child took part in the Nativity play at her pre-school.

"Come, come, come to the Bethletham!"
- she sang in her sweet little voice, her eyes fixed on the teacher miming in the corner. Cute. When you are three.

And suddenly, I live in an area where almost every other person has an imaginary friend they like to visit on weekends.

I guess, there is nothing wrong with religion as such. Hypothetically, all religions in this world teach us to be good. And there is nothing bad about being good, is there?

I understand some of the reasons. For a lot of people here it seems to be about the social interaction, a bit like joining a club. ( Also, helps if you want to get your child in that church school)

Besides, it is pretty depressing to think there is nothing beyond this life. All the effort to survive and achieve something-for what?

So, I can imagine it must be comforting to believe there is some reason or meaning to it all. Or, at the very least, that there is a bunch of angels (or virgins) waiting for you on the other side. I respect that.

And yet, the extreme cases scare me. I get uncomfortable and want to run away.

And until I moved here, that is precisely what I did. All my life I managed to step gently around the religion, without falling in. Some of the best English lessons were taught by the native speakers, and I attended classes at the American Bible school, as well as the Bahai centre. The Bahai invited us to visit them at home, where they sang beautiful songs and served sweets with tea. I liked them, but I could never join them. And my closest encounter with a mosque in Baku was sitting across the road in the very early hours of the morning, (while all those horny Azeri males still snored peacefully in their beds) so I could paint it without getting harassed.

And now, in this lovely English suburb, religion is everywhere I look. Toddler groups at the churches, school Nativity plays and baby christenings to attend … I suddenly realized something that would have been obvious, should I have paid more attention- There is actually a lot of religion in this country. I hear there is even more in the states. I also hear, there has been a lot more back home, since I left. Is the world becoming more religious, or was I just blind before?

A nice Kazakh girlfriend invited me and my druggie friend for lunch.

She cooked a fantastic Kazakh plov, and we sat around the table, chatting away, relaxed and full of food.

And then she said that demons almost killed her the other night.

- Pardon?

-Yes..-she continued calmly, picking at her fruit- I saw them. They sat on my chest and tried to smother me.

I did not know how to react. It was unfair: I did not see it coming. I did not know she was going to talk about demons. What do you do? Do you laugh and make a joke? Do you nod sympathetically, glancing at your watch?

As I sat there in shock, my druggie friend finished rolling her joint, and lit it up:

- Honey, - she said- That’s just fucked up.

39 comments:

  1. You could ask if demons were male or female?

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  2. yes, similar situations happened to me when i just didn't know how to react... the best is just to listen till the end and kindly change the topic:)

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  3. Confusing religion with stupidity.... and creating straw men. A well-known tactic used by the the likes of Richard Dawkins - the Grand Ayatollah of atheist fundamentalism. I myself do believe in God, don't worry and enjoy my life immensely.

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  4. @Annonymous...

    Why are the critics always without real names? There is no shame in having an opinion, and these days, nobody would shame you for believing in God. You are in majority!

    I did not speak of everyone who has faith. I spoke of extreme and bizarre cases that I find scary. All the best!

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  5. I believe in God, too. Church, on the other hand, I'm not that sure.
    I always prefer to leave religious matters aside. Unless you know very well the person you are talking to, you never know how they will react.
    As you say, some extreme cases can be so scary!

    PS: the drawings at the top of your posts, are they all yours? They are good.

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  6. I think a better translation could be "opiate FOR the MASSES".
    We may be permanently damaged by our Soviet upbringing & can’t just submit to the simplistic view that church, mosque or temple equal faith. Religious institutions are very much man-made and are as fallible as any other human institutions. I don’t go to church or mosque not because I don’t believe in God, but because I don’t believe that God dwells in buildings with crosses or half moons or “you name it” on them. I’d LOVE nothing more than to seat with real theologians and have a great conversation about the nature of faith and history of religion. Few times I went to church, mosque or temple, I found no theologians there, just religious bureaucrats. In my unsophisticated view, the only difference between them and the bureaucrats at the village hall are the fancy outfits. No thank you.

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  7. Have your Kazakh friend search for Sleep Paralysis on Wikipedia. I would paste the link but my browser won't let me do it for some reason.

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  8. I loved your story. I am getting ready for bed, and somehow I linked to your site. I almost stopped reading because I did not understand some of the words. But the rhythm of your words kept my attention. Talking about things that I know nothing about and a life so different. But with some commonality that seems surprising. And the ending. I laughed. And I am smiling still.
    Thank you for sharing.
    Good night
    Do it again. Please

    Brian Iverson, Lansing Michigan

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  9. Gabriella,
    I think blogs should be about what you really want to say. I do like to talk about things that otherwise considered a tabu in modern society.

    I know religion is a sensitive topic. But why?

    There isn't anything wrong with saying: OK, I believe in God. It should also be possible to say "I don't", without causing a huge insult. We are all different, and that's what makes it interesting.
    Yes, those little sketches are mine, thank you!!!! :))

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  10. @Brian Iverson,

    Thank you and welcome to this crazy place. Glad it kept you awake! :)

    @ Nata: I Googled the correct translation to be honest, as I myself thought it should be "for the masses". But it came up with the expression I used here. Have to rely on Google, right? Google is my Bible. :)

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  11. Google shmoogle... trust me :)
    The idea of atheism or agnosticism is anathema for most people. People are sensitive to it because faith is not something rational; it's just that, faith. So having a rational discussion about it is impossible. You can't logically argue your way out of something that has no logic.

    On a separate note. Your friend is potentially having chest pains or panic attacks. Either way she may need to see the cardiologist.

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  12. ScaryAzeri,you will be proud (I am)of the fact that unlike Americans or Britons, we, Azeris are among the least religious nations of the world. We are actually the sixth out of 143 nations in the list of "the least religious" and the absolute leader among muslim countries. I believe in God, but I don't need mediators.look here:
    http://www.gallup.com/poll/114211/Alabamians-Iranians-Common.aspx

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  13. Sofisticos....

    Thank you for the link, that is fascinating.
    Someone else told me that fact about Azerbaijan. However, having just had some discussion with my Azeri friends here, I realized it is changing fast. I was told there are some very radical muslims in Baku now.

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  14. Hi, I though it was interesting, lots of food for thought in it. My personal opinion of religion is that it is a dangerous thing, most of the conflicts throughout history have been because of religion. The Roman Catholic religion, which I was brought up in has vast riches yet most of its congregation are dirt poor, The church of England which owns lots of properties in UK are closing down small shopkeepers by putting up their rents. I feel that schools should not teach religion but should let pupils knows of the various faiths and then let them make their own minds up.

    If your posting offended anyone then there is something wrong with them.

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  15. Good to see that we have a mostly atheist/agnostic crowd here. In fact, our ranks are growing - at least here in the US (who knows, we even may someday have an openly atheist president).

    However, the important question in Scary's post is how do we survive in a society obsessed with religion? I know many people who succumbed: some converted to Christianity, others "realized" their Jewish or Muslim roots. And it must be hard to resist, because religious groups offer a sense of community and support. Also, should we tell our children that religion is "opium for the masses" knowing that we are probably setting them up for a conflict with their peers?

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  16. @Riyad...This is precisely how I feel. You said it so well...In fact, you said it BETTER THAN ME. And that is NOT allowed here. :))

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  17. I enjoyed your yet another fantastic and very honest read and I truly admire your openness and courage to discuss things that are considered tabu for most people. To me, I don't really care if a person believes in God or doesn't. I have good friends who believe in God or who are agnostic or atheist. What's important is that he or she is a good person and is not evil hearted. I am staying away from any time of religious fanatism. As to Azerbaijan getting more and more religios, I don't know how true those stats about the country being the lest religious are, but I think the number of fanatics is growing there - I see it every time I visit. About the US being religious, I would say some parts are very religious, some are not so much. California is probably half and half. Have you ever brought up this kind of conversation in Azerbaijan?:) I wonder what the reaction would have been:)

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  18. Hey scaryazeri,

    so glad I found your blog. I am an atheist myself and I'm losing my patience with religious people... really. I struggle with my tolerance, because they're the most intolerant, teacherish, condescending and stupid... And I'm particularly talking about the 3 monotheistic religions, because they affect my life in the West.
    Many many of these so called religious people are nutcases. And that's my opinion. I just don't get it. I won't post a million pages long list here about how they are wrong and that there is no difference between Santa and god... You can check my blog, I have some posts about atheism as well (check the label cloud).

    In the beginning man created god.

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  19. @Nata: Exactly right about the reason vs. faith. The symptoms of the friend however exactly describe a medical condition known as sleep paralysis. While not a doctor, I do know a bit about it because I suffer from it (being an atheist minus the demons of course :-) ).

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  20. You are lucky you don't live in the United States. The evangelicals here are quite militant. Christian soldiers indeed!

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  21. who said that "religion is neurosis that heals any other neurosis"? I think it was Freud, not so sure, though.too many neurotic people around:)

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  22. "An imaginary friend they like to visit on weekends" - priceless!!

    And, yeah, I hate it when the demons sit on my chest and try to smother me.

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  23. People have as much right to believe as they do to not believe. I don’t think imposing any one position is a good thing. I don’t go to Church and no one bothers me about it. My neighbors go to Church or Mosque and no one bothers them. The problems arise when any one group starts forcing the other into compliance. I for one don’t feel pressured in any way living in US. Religious zealots have every right to express their views, however irritating they are. That’s the beauty of an open democratic society. Everyone has a voice.

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  24. Interesting, some of those who left comments on this post are atheists and some agnostics. I'm probably one of the few of your readers who not only believs in God but is adherent of a religion. I'm a Baha'i and believe that the true religion is one, it's the faith in God and submission to His will. God created us all equal yet people created distinctions and made religion exclusive. Also it's been often used as means of power and to control masses, and when it becomes corrupted to extreme, people rebel and choose to have no religion at all.

    Here is one of my favorite passages from the Baha'i Teachings:

    "The divine teachings are intended to create a bond of unity in the human world and establish the foundations of love and fellowship among mankind. Divine religion is not a cause for discord and disagreement. If religion becomes the source of antagonism and strife, the absence of religion is to be preferred. Religion is meant to be the quickening life of the body politic; if it be the cause of death to humanity, its nonexistence would be a blessing and benefit to man".

    (Abdu'l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, p. 22)

    In another passage Abdul Baha states:

    "Religions are many, but the reality of religion is one. The days are many, but the sun is one. The fountains are many, but the fountainhead is one. The branches are many, but the tree is one".

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  25. Sevda,
    I personally, always liked the Bahai principles. And I wish I COULD have faith. My life would be easier then! :)
    I just find it impossible. And the worst thing one can be- is a hypocrite. So I chose to tell the truth.

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  26. I don't think your life would be easier though :-)) Joining religion for the sake of a nice school for kids or for the social factor (to have a sense of belonging and a social network) is not having Faith! And I don't know of any religion that approves of hypocricy or selfishness. Yet we are not perfect and to me having faith is accepting the fact that I'm not a centre of universe, we are all children of God with lots of shortcomings yet are loved and gently guided by our Creator. God's Messengers have always promoted truthfulness: "Honesty is the foundation of all human virtues". (Baha'u'llah) And religion is organic too and it changes as the needs of humanity and its maturity level change, but it seems that a lot of folks have negative stereotypes about religion, I'm sure for a good reason too. When it's used by authorities to control and manipulate people, masses, it becomes satanic instead of being divine guidance.

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  27. What if there is ONE. You will regret when you pass away. This world life is not long, enduring some restriction set by religion (in my case not eating pork, not drinking alcohol and etc.) and worshiping are not so hard as many think...
    A needle cannot be created without a skilled workman and a village without headman. Scaryazeri's nice pictures implies there is a painter behind the scene...
    We should not be able to think that this well organized world is maintained by accident. I say "we should not be able to think", because I was also atheist some time and was making fool of my friends who believe in a Creator...
    Scaryazeri, I congratulate you because of your courage and sincerity. You fight against taboos and search the truth.
    Please, do not get involved in activities of Church just because of socialization. It will hinder your search of truth.
    Good luck to you.

    P.S. I tried to post it from my Google account bud did not manage to.

    tashchi at google dot com

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  28. If there is one, it probably is nothing at all what any of the religions tell us it is. :) It might be some force, it might be aliens. :) who knows? why worry now? as you said, life is too short. but I think people should be able to believe whatever they want. I think having God in their life helps a lot of people to deal with some very difficult issues, like the death of loved ones.
    Nice pictures implies there is a painter behind? I assume you meant God? Because no, there is no other painter behind this, only me and my little sketches. But thank you. :))
    And thank you for leaving a comment and visiting my blog.

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  29. I also meant that there is a painter behind it and it is you. One cannot argue that these pictures are drawn by accident. Because, at first sight it is understood that it requires some skill.
    And compare your pictures to this world. This world is more complicated than your pictures. It implies a Creator.
    Besides, so many prophets tell us about the Creator.
    I wonder what do you think about the Quran. Did Mohammad (pbuh) write It Himself? He was illiterate.
    Thank you again for this blog.
    I just want to share the link. The source that helped me believe in God.
    http://fgulen.com Sincerely, Tashchi

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  30. I guess it have been too curt to point out "sleep paralysis" as the reason for her so called demon? I would have, and probably ended up loosing a friend (as I have in the past). You were right, this was a good post, and I think that perhaps the world has always been this religious. In fact, I think that religion might even be shrinking, making the believers that much more zealous about their beliefs... its bad to loose members, no matter what the club is.
    Great post!

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  31. @ Jm: Yes, it has been mentioned already. :)

    Did the link work then? I am trying Gary Corby's advice, but so far seems to not work very well (to insert the link in the comment)

    Nice to meet you.

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  32. Count me in:I tried but could not be a proper religious Jew or even semi-proper. I am no doubt Jewish if agnostic Jew is not nonsense:) We are definitely affected by the ways we were brought up but nevertheless some people with the same Bakuvian background became quite religious. Nata said that we are permanently damaged, possibly she is right, but I feel free and happy to befriend people of different backgrounds without reservations of belonging to the different faiths. The worst cases of abuses involving pedophile priests, swindler rabbis and mullahs preaching hate showed that being religious doesn't guarantee decency. A decent person could be a believer or agnostic.

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  33. Hilarious. Beautifully written. My wife only stopped laughing when I started writing this, and she wondered, "Is he going to tell them mean things about me?" Yes, I am dear, get over it. And strop punching me - ow!


    --Mark

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  34. Mark,

    Thank you, this definitely is one of my very favourite postings. :)
    You did not tell us anything mean about your wife?

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  35. She was embarrassed that I even mentioned her. Wife is like a little mouse. With breasts. And fists!


    --Mark

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  36. Thank you for your interesting essay. I think you pretty much expressed the feelings of most post soviet union people.
    I remember visiting mosque only on the big holidays. It was a part of a tradition rather than a conscious choice. We didn't know the meaning or understanding of most ceremonies perhaps due to lack of proper religious education.
    After moving to United States I was astonished by how religious the people in this country are. There are churches on almost every corner. Former schools, movie theaters, grocery store being converted into houses of worship. However more and more I have a feeling that congregation is more about a social club rather than true God worshiping. People are competing in demonstration of their faith or wealth. Sometimes it leads to ridiculous situations... People feel completely normal/o.k to sin all week long but then go to church and have all their sins forgiven.

    Like many I do believe in higher power. However GOD worshiping to me is something very personal/private. I tried to go to church but perhaps I'm just not ready for it. It feels like I'm deceiving myself and most importantly HIM. I feel like I don't belong there.

    Growing up Christian faith always fascinated me. The traditions, the customs were so much more beautiful. I wanted to be a part of it but it was almost impossible to achieve growing up in mostly Muslim country and in a Muslim family.

    But as I grew older and started understanding more about the religion my views have changed a lot. Like many I do not feel a need in a mediator between God and me.

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  37. I am still worried about that strange girl who believes in demons... You cannot leave her like that ! If she doesn't trust web links, and we cannot blame her, maybe you could try giving her this book : David J. Hufford - The Terror that Comes in the Night - An experience-centered study of supernatural assault traditions - University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.
    Also my tribute to you on my modest blog : http://mllecelaneus.blogspot.com/2010/07/my-sister-scary-azeri.html
    Cheers !

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  38. @Miss Celaneus: Thank you, and welcome to this blog.
    I need to check this book,too.

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  39. Thank you for your answer. I've been suffering from sleep paralysis for more than 25 years now, and I found only two books about this specific ailment. This book is a study of a particular witch folklore in North Canada and how it can be explained scientifically. The other is "Wrestling with Ghosts", by Jorge Conesa Sevilla. It's interesting but the author is a bit out to lunch himself. I have read recently a suggestion that the very etymology of the word demon in greek would mean "sat upon". I cannot remember the source, but I will look for it and... blog about it..

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