I was watching Bill Maher recently, and, as usual, he was clobbering his favorite target –religion – yammering away about religion’s being responsible for war and the deaths of millions of people.
Somebody on his panel said, “What about Communist Russia?”
To which Maher shot back,
“Communism is just state sponsored religion.”
That’s when I jumped in. In my head. I imagined myself a panelist on Maher’s show. Though I’d been noticeably quiet to that point, I had suddenly found my voice.
“You know,” I tentatively began, “My cousin Herschel used to joke that “There are two kinds of bald people – those with hair and those without hair.”
The audience chuckles politely. Maher immediately steps into the void.
“What does that have to do with anything?”
To which I reply,
“You just said the same thing: “There are two kinds of religious people – those who believe in God and those who don’t.”
Maher had been careless in his computation. He had lumped godless Communists in with religious people, when Communists, and the millions of deaths they inflicted, rightfully belong on Maher’s side of the ledger, the side headed: “Murdering Atheists.”
I won’t trouble you with the subsequent “give-and-take.” Suffice it to say, Maher wiped the floor with me with his well practiced sarcasm and derision, making me look boring and ridiculous in the process.
But not wrong.
I may embarrass myself in my fantasies, but I always have a point.
My point, in this case, being this. Religion is indeed responsible for many wars, centuries of intolerance and countless deaths. If there’s an afterlife, I hope those champions of religion have to face a very angry Maker who stares them straight in the eye and says, “What the hell were you thinking?”
Religion is merely one, albeit a major one, of a subgroup of culprits, all of which reside under an overarching umbrella of hate-causing and destruction, which, in fact, is the primary culprit. That culprit is the seemingly universal concept of
Religion is simply one category that distinguishes the good, righteous and deserving “Us” from the disgusting, subhuman and undeserving not “Us”, which is “Them.”
There’s only one “Us” – the perfect, special people – but there’s a boatload of “Thems”, alternately known as “The Other.” Throughout human history, the “Uses” have made the “Thems” targets, scapegoats, receptacles of our darkest and most shameful impulses, which we can’t accept in ourselves – because we’re so wonderful – so we project them onto “Them.”
And then we kill them. Or treat them to a lifetime of discriminatory damage.
You know who “Them” are. I’m not going through the list. Generally, “Them” is anybody who isn’t you. Or people like you.
I once heard this psychoanalyst named Vamik Volkan speak at a psychoanalytic conference Dr. M was attending. Among other duties, Volkan serves as a mediator in international disputes. He participated in the Begin-Sadat get-together at Camp David during the seventies.
Volkan spoke about Cyprus, an island shared by the Greeks and the Turks, but they hate each other. Over the years, the two sides have developed a number of identifying distinctions. Each side loops their belts in a slightly different manner. And each side smokes a different brand of cigarette – I believe one side smokes Camels and the other, Lucky Strikes, though I can’t remember which group does which, which would be injurious to me if I lived there and I smoked.
Volkan believes that the idea of “Them” is inherent to our natures. We need “Them” to define what it means to be “Us.” If he’s right, this issue is not going to go away.
I didn’t need Volkan to introduce me to the concept of “Us” and “Them.” No, I am not going to regale you with the ways I’ve been discriminated against, which continue to today, with people remarking, not entirely benignly, that, at my age, a lot of my hair remains mysteriously brown.
I will talk, instead, about Danny. A kid I hated in Hebrew school. For no reason whatsoever.
It seemed like in our Toronto Hebrew Day School schoolyard, everybody hated somebody, and they took considerable time and pleasure in torturing that person mercilessly. I didn’t want to be left out. So I decided to hate Danny. ”Decided” isn’t the right word. It just seemed to happen.
Now we’re not talking about a maximum-security prison here; we’re talking about Hebrew school. Our school motto could easily have been “Where Harmless Children Study Hebrew.” Yet even that benign venue seemed to be a veritable hotbed of visceral hatred.
There was Danny. The nicest kid in the class. The model student. Never spoke without raising his hand. Never got “the ruler.”
Danny, the “Goody-goody.” Danny, the “Couldn’t do anything wrong if he wanted to.” Danny the “So damn perfect, he made the rest of us look bad and unworthy and deficient and depraved.”
I punched Danny, I believe, in the face. I only did it once. But I remember that punch to this very day.
If you’re reading this, I’m sorry, Danny.
Volkan says it’s natural. I needed a “You” to make me become “Me.” Not that it excuses anything, but I couldn’t have punched you very hard, because in the middle it, I could hear myself thinking, “What are you doing?” Besides, I didn’t have any muscles.
I know one thing, Danny. My violent act had nothing to do with religion. In fact, though it’s unlikely to make you feel better, when I nailed you in that schoolyard those many decades ago, I wasn’t really punching you.
I was punching Bill Maher.