This is an essay by Salman Rushdie titled-Imagine There’s No Heaven: A Letter to the Six Billionth World Citizen, which can be found in the book The Portable Atheist ed. by Christopher Hitchens. Rushdie is truly a great writer and offers the valuable perspective of a person raised in the Muslim minority of India. But I will Rushdie speak for himself and add a few minor thoughts of my own at the end.
Christopher Hitchens introduces this essay saying:
Born a Muslim in the year that his Indian homeland was fatally sundered by religious partition and war, Salman Rushdie has achieved global renown for his novels and for the way in which they illuminate cross-cultural migrations. In 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini publicly offered money in his own name to suborn his murder, adding the inducement of a ticket to paradise for anyone willing to take the bribe. Ever since, Rushdie has come to symbolize the defense of free expression and unfettered literary activity (it was his novel The Satanic Verses that was also the object of Khomeini’s mad rage) as well as the right of any person to apostatize from religion. In 1997, Rushdie contributed a letter to a UN-sponsored anthology, addressed to the six-billionth human child who was expected to be born that year. In consequence of Rushdie’s contribution, the ever-courageous Kofi Annan, who was at the time Secretary-General, withdrew his own introduction to the volume. Mr. Rushdie very handsomely agreed to update and expand his letter for this collection.
Dear Little Six Billionth Living Person,
As the newest member of a notoriously inquisitive species, it probably won’t be too long before you start asking the two sixty-four thousand dollar questions with which the other 5,999,999,999 of us have been wrestling for some time: How did we get here? And, now that we are here, how shall we live?
Oddly—as if six billion of us weren’t enough to be going on with—it will almost certainly be suggested to you that the answer to the question of origins requires you to believe in the existence of a further, invisible, ineffable Being “somewhere up there,” an omnipotent creator whom we poor limited creatures are unable even to perceive, much less to understand. That is, you will be strongly encouraged to imagine a heaven with a least one god in residence. This sky-god, it’s said, made the universe by churning its matter in a giant pot. Or he danced. Or he vomited Creation out of himself. Or he simply called it into being, and lo, it Was. In some of the more interesting creation stories, the single mighty sky-god is subdivided into many lesser forces—junior deities, avatars, gigantic metamorphic “ancestors” whose adventures create the landscape, or the whimsical, wanton, meddling, cruel pantheons of the great polytheisms, whose wild doings will convince you that the real engine of creation was lust: for infinite power, for too-easily-broken human bodies, for clouds of glory. But it’s only fair to add that there are also stories which offer the message that the primary creative impulse was, and is, love.
Many of these stories will strike you as extremely beautiful and, therefore, seductive. Unfortunately, however, you will not be required to make a purely literary response to them. Only the stories of “dead” religions can be appreciated for their beauty. Living religions require much more of you. So you will be told that belief in “your” stories and adherence to the rituals of worship that have grown up around them must become a vital part of your life in the crowded world. They will be called the heart of your culture, even of your individual identity. It is possible that they may, at some point, come to feel inescapable, not in the way that the truth is inescapable, but in the way that a jail is. They may at some point cease to feel like the texts in which human beings have tried to solve a great mystery, and feel, instead, like the pretexts for other properly anointed human beings to order you around. And it’s true that human history is full of the public oppression wrought by the charioteers of the gods. In the opinion of religious people, however, the private comfort that religion brings more than compensates for the evil done in its name.
As human knowledge has grown, it has also become plain that every religious story ever told about how we got here is quite simply wrong. This, finally, is what all religions have in common. They didn’t get it right. There was no celestial churning, no maker’s dance, no vomiting of galaxies, no snake or kangaroo ancestors, no Valhalla, no Olympus, no six-day conjuring trick followed by a day of rest. Wrong, wrong, wrong. But here’s something genuinely odd. The wrongness of the scared tales hasn’t lessened the zeal of the devout. If anything, the sheer out-of-step zaniness of religion leads the religious to insist ever more stridently on the importance of blind faith.
As a result of this faith, by the way, it has proved impossible in many parts of the world to prevent the human race’s numbers from swelling alarmingly. Blame the overcrowded planet at least partly on the misguidedness of the race’s spiritual guides. In your own lifetime, you may well witness the arrival of the nine billionth world citizen. If you’re Indian (and there’s a one-in-six chance that you are) you will be alive when, thanks to the failure of family planning schemes in that poor, God-ridden land, its population surges past China’s. And if too many people are being born as a result, in part, of religious strictures against birth control, then too many people are also dying because religious culture, by refusing to face the facts of human sexuality, also refuses to fight against the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
There are those who say that the great wars of the new century will once again be wars of religion, jihads, and crusades, as they were in the Middle Ages. Even though, for years now, the air has been full of the battle-cries of the faithful as they turn their bodies into God’s bombs, and the screams of their victims too, I have not wanted to believe this theory, or not in the way most people mean it.
I have long argued that Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” theory is an oversimplification: that most Muslims have no interest in taking part in religious wars, that the divisions in the Muslim world run as deep as the things it has in common (just take a look at the Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq if you doubt the truth of this). There’s very little resembling a common Islamic purpose to be found. Even after the non-Islamic Nato fought a war for the Muslim Kosovar Albanians, the Muslim world was slow in coming forward with much-needed humanitarian aid.
The real wars of religion, I have argued, are the wars religions unleash against ordinary citizens within their “sphere of influence.” They are wars of the godly against the largely defenseless: American fundamentalists against pro-choice doctors, Iranian mullahs against their country’s Jewish minority, the Taliban against the people of Afghanistan, Hindu fundamentalists in Bombay against that city’s increasingly fearful Muslims.
And the real wars of religion are also the wars religions unleash against unbelievers, whose unbearable unbelief is re-characterized as an offense, as a sufficient reason for their eradication.
But as time has passed I have been obliged to recognize a hard truth: that the mass of so-called ordinary Muslims seems to have bought into the paranoid fantasies of the extremists and seems to spend more of its energy in mobilizing against cartoonists, novelists, or the Pope than in condemning, disenfranchising, and expelling the fascistic murderers in their midst. If this silent majority allows a war to be waged in its name, then it does, finally, become complicit in that war.
So perhaps a war of religion is beginning, after all, because the worst of us are being allowed to dictate the agenda to the rest of us, and because the fanatics, who really mean business, are not being opposed strongly enough be “their own people.”
And if that is so, then the victors in such a war must not be the closed-minded, marching into battle with, as ever, God on their side. To choose unbelief is to choose mind over dogma, to trust in our humanity instead of all these dangerous divinities. So, how did we get here? Don’t look for the answer in “sacred” storybooks. Imperfect human knowledge may be a bumpy, pot-holed street, but it’s the only road to wisdom worth taking. Virgil, who believed that the apiarist Aristaeus could spontaneously generate new bees from the rotting carcass of a cow, was closer to a truth about origins than all the revered old books.
The ancient wisdoms are modern nonsenses. Live in your own time, use what we know, and as you grow up, perhaps the human race will finally grow up with you and put aside childish things.
As the song says, It’s easy if you try.
As for morality, the second great question—how to live? What is right action, and what wrong?—it comes down to your willingness to think for yourself. Only you can decide if you want to be handed down the law by priests and accept that good and evil are somehow external to ourselves. To my mind religion, even at its most sophisticated, essentially infantilizes our ethical selves by setting infallible moral Arbiters and irredeemably immoral Tempters above us: the eternal parents, good and bad, light and dark, of the supernatural realm.
How, then, are we to make ethical choices without a divine rulebook or judge? Is unbelief just the first step on the long slide into the brain-death of cultural relativism, according to which many unbearable things—female circumcision, to name just one—can be excused on culturally specific grounds, and the universality of human rights, too, can be ignored? (This last piece of moral unmaking finds supporters in some of the world’s most authoritarian regimes, and also, unnervingly, on the op-ed pages of the Daily Telegraphy.)
Well, no, it isn’t, but the reasons for saying so aren’t clear cut. Only hard-line ideology is clear cut. Freedom, which is the word I use for the secular-ethical position, is inevitable fuzzier. Yes, freedom is that space in which contradiction can reign; it is a never-ending debate. It is not in itself the answer to the question of morals but the conversation about that question.
And it is much more than mere relativism because it is not merely a never-ending talk-shop but a place in which choices are made, values defined and defended. Intellectual freedom, in European history, has mostly meant freedom from the restraints of the Church, not the state. This is the battle Voltaire was fighting, and it’s also what all six billion of us could do for ourselves, the revolution in which each of us could play our small, six-billionth part: once and for all, we could refuse to allow priests, and the fictions on whose behalf they claim to speak, to be the policemen of our liberties and behavior. Once and for all, we could put the stories back into the books, put the books back on the shelves, and see the world undogmatized and plain.
Imagine there’s no heaven, my dear Six Billionth, and at once the sky’s the limit.
Rushdie’s observations ring very true to me though I know just from my own personal journey how horribly misguided they would have sounded not too long ago. But as one takes the time to study world history, religious theologies, ethics, literary criticism, and modern science it is hard not to see the strength of Rushdie’s critiques.
Rushdie believes that it is the internal conflict being battled within each of the “live religions” of today that often affects how each religion ultimately interacts with the rest of the world. And as is often the case it tends to be the extremist and fanatics that speak the loudest on behalf of their religions causing all others who share their name to be lumped in with them. I spent much of my youth trying to separate and explain my version of Christianity from Christian “fundamentalists.” Looking back it is scary to see how fundamental I was. But thankfully I was never the fanatic necessary to seek to gain power (by any means necessary) so as to dictate to the rest of the world how they must live, according to God of course. Whether for good or bad, it really is those people, which stand for a more modern, intelligent and respectful version of their religions who have to do the heavy lifting when it comes to protecting the rest of us from the twisted views and perverted goals of their extremists. Sadly unbelievers (really just believers of different things) will never be trusted enough to be truly listened to on matters of faith.
Fundamentalism is on the rise. When looking at what we know about the world and universe we live in today compared to just a hundred years ago the difference is staggering yet Rushdie fittingly notes, “But here’s something genuinely odd. The wrongness of the scared tales hasn’t lessened the zeal of the devout. If anything, the sheer out-of-step zaniness of religion leads the religious to insist ever more stridently on the importance of blind faith.” This concept of blind faith is truly interesting for I believe Rushdie is right, in light of human knowledge today, to call the faith it takes to maintain so many of the clearly false teachings of religion, blind. If one goes back in history faith was not nearly as blind as it is today because quite simply the faith that was taught and required of people matched up with what they knew of the world and how it worked. Biblical cosmology worked when the world was flat and the earth was the unmoving center of the universe. Biblical history provided a clear picture of the past because it was simply accepted as accurate. No analysis or dating of the texts mattered nor did historical records and information from non-biblical sources rather everything happened as the text said. Biblical laws and ethics were accepted as divine and therefore good before any concept of human rights and equality existed to challenge them. But as our knowledge has grown exposing more and more religious beliefs as fallacious faith had to become more extreme, more hardened and ultimately more blind. It really is an oddity worth noting; it takes more faith to be a religious believer today then it did previously in history. Modern faith must manipulate and ignore so much information that it truly must be “praised” as blind.