Three days ago, from the balcony of my house, I watched a little girl strolling down the street. She was thin and dark-skinned and wore a pink long-sleeved shirt over blue jeans, both shaggy. Her head of black hair swayed as she walked. Perhaps her mother had sent her to buy something. What struck me as I observed her was her gait; she moved swift and light. After every four or so paces, she did a 360 turn, stumbled a bit, regained her balance, and continued bouncing along. Now, this manner of walking by itself was in no way remarkable to me – she’s a kid, and kids are wont to do silly things – and I might have just looked on past her had I not caught the expression on her face, blank as anything can be blank, no embarrassment, no fear, no worry – not even, as you’d expect, excitement. It was as though she were doing the most normal, natural thing in the whole world. I tried to imagine someone else walking like that, someone older – me, perhaps – doing a 360 turn after every four paces, but that image didn’t come. It was then that the ultimate understanding of the poem, Birches by Robert Frost came to me: that look on that little girl’s face – most notably, the carefreeness that produced that look – is a gift that is exclusively for little children like her. Older people cannot boast of any claim to that sort of charming nonchalance, no matter how much we might want to. If those little demons you described in your letter don’t beat our minds back into shape, friends and strangers surely will.
I love what you said about knowing being a trail of breadcrumbs leading down a dark hole, but I have to disagree. And it’s funny, because for most of my life, I’ve held a belief much similar to that. There’s a popular saying in Islam that man should seek knowledge even if it be as far as China. (You quoted similar statements from the Bible in your letter.) For me, this is one of the most hypocritical statements of religion, since, as soon as one begins to seek that knowledge, the great defenders of the doctrine come around and say, ‘You’re seeking out the wrong sort of knowledge.’ Now, that is not to say that I don’t recognise that there’re certain things we wish we didn’t know, but isn’t this because knowledge steals away our innocence – and we always want to remain innocent, even when there’s no innocence left in the world? (According to Baldwin, “…anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”)
Consider that little girl; wouldn’t you agree that that carefreeness I mentioned is, simply, ignorance – a certain kind of obliviousness? Older people can’t have that carefreeness because we no longer have the luxury for that obliviousness. We already know.
Now, it’s easy for us to say, after having known, that we wish we didn’t, that ‘ignorance is bliss’, like you wrote of the Scholar matter. I believe you. I’d like only to draw your attention away from the ridiculously obvious to the less apparent: knowing gives us a choice – or the possibility of a choice. If you hadn’t found out that you were the Scholar of your department, you wouldn’t have known that you’d rather not know. The world (read: universe) would have decided for you that you shouldn’t know, stealing that decision away from you. Not having knowledge – ignorance – snatches away choice.
Imagine this instance: a man’s father is dying. He gets a call from his mother. ‘Your father is dying,’ she says. The man is shocked. ‘What do you mean he’s dying?’ he asks. His mother tells him his father has been ill for about a month and has even been hospitalised. ‘What!’ the man exclaims. ‘Why didn’t you tell me before? Why are you just telling me now?’ ‘Well, with your divorce and all the trouble at work, I didn’t want to give you one more thing to worry about,’ the mother says, already close to tears. ‘That was my decision, mom! You should have told me. It was for me to decide!’ Now, I’m sure I’ve painted the phoniest scenario, but it doesn’t fail to underline my point. Knowledge is sacrosanct; without it, all is lost. And with great knowledge comes great responsibilities. It is only a matter of the willingness to embrace those responsibilities.
I suppose then that it doesn’t need any special announcement that I’m an admirer of knowledge (a ‘philosopher’, as it were). And while I don’t think that it is possible to know everything, I find it thrilling to try. I want to know as much as I’m capable of knowing. I want to follow that trail of breadcrumbs, even though I know I might never reach the end of it. Somehow, as writers, this is what we do, you and I, don’t you think? In writing our stories, or essays, or even letters, we follow tiny bits of ideas, even though we’re not exactly sure where they’d lead us – or if they’d lead us anywhere at all. We take that risk. (To digress a bit, in my mind, knowledge is connected to the idea of freedom, and the idea of freedom is connected to being a writer. Art is freedom.)
So, yes, I want to know. And if there’s something I can’t know, there should be a genuine reason, not just that God doesn’t like me knowing it. Don’t you find it funny, Kunle, how religious people are always so defensive of their religions? It’s almost as if religion is a crate of eggs in a jalopy. (Islam goes as far as preaching that apostates should be killed because of their apostasy. Imagine the level of insecurity!) In my experience, people get defensive when they’re trying to hide something. And this begs the question: what is religion trying to hide? Perhaps that God doesn’t exist in the way it preaches? That religion is, as Einstein opined, manmade and naïve?
Before I go too far, let me say, for the record, that I know that religion can be very beautiful. I’ve seen people transformed by it. I know Muslims whose lives are beautiful because of their religion. I know a bit of that personally, and, really, but for certain reasons – some of which I will now try to state – I wouldn’t mind still being in it. The reasons are:
1. Religion supports discrimination. This is perhaps the most duh-provoking thing anyone can say about religion. It decides what ‘should’ be, without any consideration at all for what ‘could’ be, and says everything else ‘can’t’ be. In other words, it promotes homogeneity and criminalises diversity. ‘Homosexuality is evil!’ ‘Morality is what God wants!’ ‘The man is superior to the woman!’ ‘Do not make friends with the unbelievers!’
2. Religion is too conservative. Conservatism appalls me. I can’t for the life of me understand why certain people so adamantly want to stay in the past. Some of the most common religions today were founded thousands of years ago, and the world is not today what it was then. I remember a conversation I had with my former boss, a brilliant, progressive and ‘religious’ young man, during which he suggested that had the Koran and the Bible been written in this age, they’d be much more different than they are. I agree. But this isn’t so obvious to many people. There’s a saying of Prophet Muhammad that goes something like this: ‘Whoever brings something new to this religion of ours shall have it rejected.’ By ‘something new’, what is meant is a new way of seeing things; a fresh perspective.
3. Religion is based on fear – and feeds off it. Albert Einstein maintained that the idea of a god that protects, punishes and rewards man arose from the fears of primitive societies. The world was too vast and daunting, and they needed assurance that there was someone watching over them. And for this to work, they needed other people to buy into it. That’s where the ideas of heaven and hell emerged: if the promise of eternal pleasure did not bind people to God, then the fear of eternal suffering would. And this works, a bit too effectively. I have a friend named Olu, a brilliant, progressive and ‘religious’ young woman, and we often have these anti-religious discussions. Each time, we arrive at the same logical conclusion, you know: religion is blind to the present-day reality, there might be no god, etc. But you see, she won’t leave religion, hasn’t even considered it, because – well, hell is really scary. (What kind of healthy relationship, I wonder, can be based on fear?)
4. There’s culture in different religions. I don’t know much about Christianity, so I’ll use Islam as a case study here. Islam was set up by Arabs, right? Now, there are some Arab cultures that are fundamental to Islam: wearing of the hijab by females, circumcising of children, giving children Arabic names, subjugation of women, even the language. Every Muslim in the world is expected to learn Arabic; the Koran is written in Arabic. Here’s my theory: when Prophet Muhammad was setting up Islam, it was essential for him to put in the things he knew well, which were, for the most part, the practices of his people. (Think of it as the reason why a writer who’s lived all his life in a particular country will always set his stories in that country.) I’m sure this is the case in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, etc.
5. Being in religion is like living in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. (You’ve read the book, haven’t you?) Especially in a religion like Islam where every – and, trust me, Kunle, I mean, every! – aspect of one’s life is dictated. Islam tells you that if you yawn and don’t cover your mouth with your right hand, you’re sinning. Islam tells you that you can’t tell people jokes if the jokes are not true (that is, if they’re fictitious). It also instructs you on how to eat, and laugh, and make love to your wife (buh-bye to doggy). What about how you shouldn’t have dogs as pets? Or how you mustn’t eat pork? Oh, and, never speak in the bathroom, that there are djinns there; don’t also listen to music, and don’t photograph or paint humans and animals, because you can’t create them, but nature is fine – that one you can create. Tell me, Kunle, God and Big Brother – what’s the difference?
6. Religion works tirelessly to stupefy us. I have once written that the human race is too smart for its own good, and the purpose of religion is to dumb us down sufficiently. This is an opinion I hold very strongly. ‘Don’t ask how God came to exist, you won’t find answers!’ ‘Kill the apostate, even though there isn’t a tangible reason. Don’t question, just obey.’ ‘Homosexuality is wrong because God says it’s wrong, chikena!’ It takes away our ability to question, so that in the end, we become creatures with no imaginativeness. We become ignorant and, worse still, complacent in our ignorance.
Kunle, if I had to pen down everything I think is wrong with religion, I’d write a hundred pages. But let me rush and say now that I’ve not completely left religion. No, I like to see myself as taking a break, trying to figure things out. For all I know, a few months from now, I could be back in it. But it is important for me to take this break. Distance makes things clearer, don’t you think?
I’ve spent so much time writing this letter, partly because I’ve been thinking, and partly because I’ve had to review my schedule a bit – and I must apologise. I must apologise also for not having opened the link you sent in your letter. My data finished. And, to answer your questions: school work has been going fine. And no, I’ve not been able to suppress the fear, but I’m trying. I’m not a swimmer, and so I wouldn’t know what swimmers do, lol. And, you’re right, Sultan is lying on his bed, pressing his phone again. It’s almost midnight, and there’s no light.