by Sara Robinson
Richard Dawkins has done several hour-long TV shows for the BBC in recent months, premised on an idea so politically and culturally unthinkable in the US that they would never be shown on American TV. His preposterous proposition? He argues openly, pointedly, and persuasively that monotheistic religion has outlived its usefulness to humankind; creates far more problems than it solves; and therefore must be recognized as a failure and mercifully put to rest in history's dustbin.
Of course, this realization is hardly original. The need to either radically re-structure or entirely scrap the authoritarian underpinnings of all three major monotheisms has been dawning in liberal minds everywhere since the first moments of the Enlightenment, and progressing in fits and starts -- two steps forward, 1.9 steps back -- ever since. But watching Dawkins' shows has inspired me to do a little scenario play. This post is a conversation with myself and you about how monotheism's endgame may be upon us even as we speak.
We have a brand-spanking-new torture bill that allows the President to arrest and torture anyone (American or not) whom he believes may be giving any kind of aid or comfort to "the enemy" -- and, for the perfect tyrannical touch, leaves the definition of such enemies at his sole discretion. If recent trends continue uninterrupted -- and that's really up to us, and the outcome of this election -- the Bush Administration will almost certainly use these new powers to expand the ranks of the condemned well beyond the 14,000 languishing in the American gulag now.
Four years ago, when Mr. R and I started planning to our exodus from America, we had a scenario in our minds that we found so preposterously unlikely at the time that we didn't even discuss it with close friends, because we knew they'd think we were crazy. "This is how it happened to my grandparents," he kept telling me. "It was frogs in pots. The Czar came, and their rights were abrogated. The Cossacks came, and there were progroms. Isadore and Bessie left Kiev around that time -- but for their relatives who stayed, the Nazis came, and there was Baba Yar and Auschwitz. Frogs. In. Pots. It may only feel tepid now -- and I'm not going to hang around, adapting and denying, until the day comes that we're cooked." In the privacy of our own conversations, the potential for disaster was enough to keep us going, one foot in front of the other, until we found ourselves all the way up in the Great White North.
And so, from our sunny perch on a hillside in western Canada, we've watched the pot get warmer down there in the lower 48, as every horror that seemed so insane to imagine in those early days has come to pass. Remember how outraged we were when just 1400 Muslims were rounded up and held in the days after 9/11? Now, we've got an order of magnitude more such prisoners, in far worse conditions -- and we passed that stupid law anyway. Which, as long as we're drawing trendlines, means that the next order of magnitude -- 140,000 -- will be reached by 2010, and their conditions will be far more dismal yet. And the next -- 1.4 million -- will be just a couple years beyond that. As the numbers increase, and more people become complicit with and invested in the evils being committed, the travesty we unleashed week will only gather momentum -- and become far harder to stop.
We may, in fact, be watching our last easy, bloodless chance to avoid this outcome slip by us this fall. If you reward the people who passed this outrage by returning them to Congress, my beloved ones, you will officially be on boil.
If you assume a logarithmic progression (a big if, admittedly) and map the trend out all the way, some time in 2015 or so, we could have 14 million people in a system well beyond Hitler's dreams. And, of course, along the way someone will do the sensible cost/benefit analysis and realize that it's much cheaper to kill these people than it is to hold or torture them. So, of course, we'll need death camps. And when a horrified world closes ranks against our treachery -- another trend that's already begun to emerge -- and starts imposing sanctions against us, we'll be forced to justify our actions and quash dissent by taking the battle to all of them, as well. No declaration of war will be needed. That's as quaint as the Geneva Conventions, now that the US President has full permission to torture and kill anyone on the planet on his say-so alone. It'll be a robust and festive beginning to World War III.
Watching Dawkins, though, I'm also thinking: Maybe this is how monotheistic fanaticism ends -- not with a whimper, but the biggest possible bang. Maybe it will consume itself in a reign of terror, a global clash against Islam and the domestic infidel, that rises up to wield more power and create more havoc than the world has ever seen -- for 15 or 20 years, anyway. And then, like the Nazis, their thousand-year Millennialist Reich will fall to ashes, spent at last, despised by its victims in every time zone, remembered and revered only by a few unstable people on the lunatic fringe.
Popes and pastors have been waging war against the likes of Dawkins since the days of Galileo. But over the last century and a half, they've sustained serious blows that have undercut the very foundations of the ancient edifice, and accelerated the erosion. Still, religions that have been around for thousands of years are not likely to vanish from the future without one hell of a fight -- and, perhaps, without one final attempt to bring on the doomsday they've waited and prayed for all that time. Mr. Cheney has made a worldwide joke of the idea of "last throes," but this may be in fact what they look like.
After the fall, what will be left to history is a few new names for ultimate evil to be inscribed next to "Nazi" in the history books. When our grandchildren speak of the basest instincts of humankind and the unleashing of unimaginable horror, the shorthand word they will use might be "Christian." Or "Muslim." Or "fundamentalist." For, of course, these 21st Century fascists will make sure that everything done -- the burning, the torture, the killing, the bombing -- will be done in the name of Our Lord, with the cross of Jesus or the crescent of Muhammed going on before. Nobody will be allowed to forget it. After they're done ravaging the planet, nobody will be able to -- not for centuries to come.
As our grandparents did, this future generation will spend decades in a searching inquiry of What Went Wrong, reconstructing (perhaps even from blogs like this one) the path that led to the future they'll be living in. Where WWII taught us about the dangers of child abuse, the banality of evil, the true costs of political and economic instability, and the perils of authoritarianism, the scholars of our grandchildren's generation will look at the effects of religious fanaticism, and decide with a unanimous certainty that such delusions are a luxury neither the Earth nor her people can continue to afford.
In this scenario, they'd probably pin a good share of the blame on our generation -- the Boomers and Xers who now hold power. If we allow history's greatest democracy to degenerate into a rough fascism in a fraction of our lifetimes, our most-remembered legacy will not be weaving the Web or decoding the genome, but our complicity in the epochal evil about to occur. More pointed yet will be the blame belonging to liberal, moderate, and evangelical Christians who fully understood the true meaning of "whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me" -- and still kept their silence while a fearful, violent minority rose up and walked off with their good name.
There's no hope or wish here. It's not a prediction, or a forecast. It's just a quick sketched-out projection of where things might end up if current political and social trends continue where they're headed.
Fortunately, the future is made of far more complex stuff than mere current trends. It's also built of events, visions, and actions. Change happens partly because it just does, and partly because we will it to be so. There's still time to re-direct the trendlines, embrace other visions, and take other actions. We still have choices -- at least for the next while, until the moment comes we're finally too far cooked to jump out of this pot.