By George Patrick
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1776. Of course, at the time he was writing a kind of manifesto to justify the 13 American colonies’ secession from the British Empire, and some of what he wrote – especially in his first draft – was pretty tendentious stuff designed to justify the colonists’ treason and win support for their cause. Clearly, Jefferson himself didn’t really believe that all men were created equal. He proved it by keeping about 200 black people as slaves on his Monticello plantation, and he stated it explicitly in his correspondence with Benjamin Banneker, the black scientist and scholar. In short, the Declaration of Independence must be viewed as a piece of wartime propaganda. It also just happens to contain a soaring expression of humanity’s noblest aspirations (which Jefferson had lifted from John Locke and other great thinkers of the 18th Century Enlightenment).
Whatever their hypocritical and propagandistic origins, Jefferson’s words have rung down the years and found a home in millions of hearts. The overarching concept – the innate equality of all human beings – has become the bedrock of all progressive thought. All of us – man and woman, adult and child, homo and hetero, black and white, Hindu and Christian, Muslim and Jew, selfless saint and serial killer – all have the same inalienable rights simply because we are human.
There are no exceptions – Heinrich Himmler and Karla Homolka, Osama bin Laden and Pol Pot, they too, no matter how loathsome their actions, have the same fundamental human rights as a Mahatma Gandhi or an Albert Schweitzer. At a formal level, we sort of accept that. What country with any pretentions to modernity doesn’t have some kind of charter spelling out the equal rights of all its citizens?
And yet, in reality the idea so often seems to stick in our craw. We all like the idea of being treated by other people as equals, we just can’t always bring ourselves to extend that same equality to others. Oh yes, most of the others perhaps – but there’s always some group we just can’t quite screw up our tolerance for, and we go through the most absurd intellectual gymnastics to justify the unjustifiable. The hypocrisy of Stalinist thought that Orwell satirized in Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others,” is alive and well in our society. We seem to have a remarkable capacity to come up with reasons why this or that particular group of humans (gays, Jews, Hutu, Serbs, etc.) isn’t quite entitled to have full equality extended to it.
More often than not, the reasons given for disregarding the equality of others are just too stupid for words. Frequently it’s some injustice or crime, which happened many generations before and for which no person alive today bears responsibility. It shouldn’t be a great intellectual stretch to see that I am in no way responsible for any wrongs committed by my father, my grandfather or any of my forebears. Just as, for example, no young German today has any moral responsibility for the Holocaust; no American alive today bears the guilt of black slavery; few Canadians alive today can be blamed for interning young David Suzuki during World War II. And yet many of the bloody, virulent hatreds of today have exactly this absurd basis.
Many years ago, I hitched a ride with a wing commander in the Royal Air Force who had taken part in the carpet bombing of Germany in World War II. I asked him, as politely as possible, if he felt any guilt about what he had done. He said he had been in London during the Blitz and had seen a little girl pulled dead from the rubble of a building bombed by the Germans. After that, he said, he had no misgivings. He was a very nice man, and he was giving me a lift, so I said nothing. But I knew that a dead child in London is one lousy excuse for killing little German girls in Hamburg or Dresden.
People who have been wronged (or feel they’ve been wronged) naturally want some kind of justice, and in their rage and pain find it easy to conflate the innocent with the guilty, to turn their anger on the children or the countrymen of those who have wronged them. I suspect that it is this aching need for justice that causes people to subscribe to religions that promise – most improbably – an afterlife where divine retribution will prevail, where the evildoers will finally get what’s coming to them. Unfortunately, the cure is often worse than the disease. Anyone with half an eye can see that the great religions are themselves the loci of many of the greatest injustices and inequities in the world today.
Most obviously, some of the major faiths are outrageously, eye-poppingly, jaw-droppingly anti woman. They’re so rigged that all the jobs worth having in the hierarchy are reserved exclusively for men.
How many women popes, cardinals, bishops and priests are there in the Catholic Church?
How many female mullahs and ayatollahs in Islam? The very nature of these all-male establishments screams “Women are inferior, they are not worthy of equality!”
Over the years I’ve heard many elaborate theological explanations of why this or that variation of God really wants it that way, but to me, it always comes off sounding like a lot of guys rationalizing their stranglehold on power.
We wouldn’t tolerate any of this all-male nonsense in any other area of society, but because these religions have been around almost forever, because many of us have been subjected to them since we were impressionable little children, and because religion’s all about the Big Guy in the Sky, everybody tippytoes around the subject. Enough already. The reactionary stance of male-dominated religions is an affront to everything that our society stands for.
As a non-religious outsider, I can never understand how intelligent women can bear to be treated as second-class citizens within their own religious community.
Unfortunately, their passive acceptance of such oppression in the religious sphere only bolsters male control in the secular world and sends a really lousy message to every little girl in our society. I have enormous respect for women, but I do sometimes wonder if they quite understand the power game that men have been playing for thousands of years and will continue to play until Kingdom Come – if allowed to. Every woman must understand: All this male monopoly stuff in religious hierarchies is not about theology. It’s about power.
Of course, male religious leaders justify their socially harmful behaviour by citing various holy books written hundreds, even thousands of years ago by people who knew less about life than your average grade four kid, today. Little wonder that much of what they have to say is simply wrong, or irrelevant, or weird, or downright impossible.
It’s fine if people find comfort in believing in a divine being and an afterlife. But it’s not acceptable to use such beliefs to oppress other human beings. It was Jesus who condemned all those sanctimonious religious pooh-bahs who were so keen on finding sin in others when they were themselves gravely flawed. Amen to that.