To the reading world, Karen Armstrong needs no introduction. She is best known for her seminal works in the field of comparative religions like ‘A History of God’, ‘The Battle for God’, ‘A Brief History of Myth’, and ‘Transformation’. But it is her second autobiographical account, The Spiral Staircase — My Climb Out of Darkness, that merits your attention above everything else.
Apart from being a prolific writer and an outstanding public intellectual to others with at least a nodding acquaintance with her story, she is known as a runaway nun. The first part of her biography, Through the Narrow Gate, documents her life as a nun. This autobiographical sequel that we are interested in begins once she has left all that behind and is a scholar at Oxford.
Bear her religious background in mind because, on campus, she repeatedly encounters hallucinations in the shape of the devil himself. These hallucinations are often coupled with fits and seizures. When after such a seizure, she is taken to the neurology department, she is immediately diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy. She then proceeds to seek help and gets on with life. Stylistically alone, the book is unputdownable. However, it is the meat of the story, her candid retelling of her trials and tribulations, her bravery, her thirst for knowledge, and her self-deprecating humour that keeps your eyes glued to the book.
Now think for a moment. If it were anyone with delusions of grandeur, inflated self-worth, or a superstitious mind, he or she would probably have jumped to the worst possible conclusions. But not this author. Where some would have gone scurrying back to the convent or, worse still would have weaponised these experiences despite the illness she battled on, sought help, and made something of her life. Consequently, we got a host of beautiful books and no further distortions such as a pseudo-spiritual grift.
In history, there has been no dearth of such grifters. As you move closer to modern times, it gets more noticeable because you get ample documentation to support your thesis. I have mentioned Kurt Anderson’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire more than once. It catalogs a series of such grifts. Podcaster and extremism expert Robert Evans just concluded a multi-part expose on the life of Helena Blavatsky, the co-founder of Theosophical Society. You will be shocked by some of these stories. Who would have thought that history could be more enjoyable than fiction?
Remember, none of these arguments are meant to challenge any organised religion. We are critiquing here the convenience with which some have used their delusions or the superstitions of the simple-minded folks to make incredible amounts of money. And then there was the political use of such elements. Growing up, you might have heard about the seances in Lincoln’s White House or Hitler’s reliance on seers before new military campaigns, one of which took him straight to hell. There is a chance that some of these stories might be embellished or exaggerated in hindsight. But one thing that cannot be denied is the ability of the rich and powerful to make absolute fools of themselves at the hands of such con artists. Putin has his Alexander Dugin, and Silicon Valley is full of shamans and gurus. And someone conned the former CEO of India’s National Stock Exchange via emails in the name of a fictitious Himalayan Yogi.
The grift gets more sophisticated and elaborate, even more, enjoyable when a few historians, philosophers, or for the lack of a better term, social scientists get involved. Have you ever wondered why so many insist that the mundane day-to-day developments follow a pattern and some insist that these random occurrences resemble geometric shapes no less? History is cyclical. No, actually, it is a spiral. Yeah right. As if any of these hair-brained weasels can tell you what will happen tomorrow. The truth of it all is that there is no evidence that there is any pattern to these random events in our lives or our lives. None whatsoever. Karl Popper does a great job of taking these exalted con artists, these so-called “historicists”, to task. But when do such honest critiques deter blind followers?
This problem gets further complicated by way of interpretation. If there is a pattern, there must be a meaning to it all, a destiny, a preferred way of life, and perhaps a chosen people. Mind you, we are still talking about secular con jobs. Not sure anymore? Have you read Huntington’s clash of civilisations or “Who are we?”
When the fuel of religion is poured on this fire of make-belief, it takes two ugly turns—one substituting action with superstitious rituals. We shall illustrate that later. The other turn is about endism. Every faith presents some version of the end of times. Now the exact time of that end is wisely kept from us. But we mortals force ourselves to believe that we are a part of it. Consequently, Christian Zionists are trying to build a stronger Israel, later to be destroyed by the second coming, and Muslim radicals want to start the end of times wars. Spencer Ackerman helps us greatly in his book Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump by explaining the unintended consequences of such story arcs.
Let us go back to rituals replacing concrete action. In his book Ghubar-e-Khatir, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad has a few valuable anecdotes. In his 14th letter, he quotes a French Crusader, Jean De Join Ville, to illustrate when in the 13th century, Muslim and Christian forces Muslims had technological superiority manifested by petraries and swivel crossbows forcing their opponents to pray on their knees. Technology prevailed. Then Maulana presents a contrasting picture from the 18th century. When Napoleon invaded Egypt, the scholars at Al Azhar recommended to the rulers that rounds of Sahih Bokhari recitation would get rid of this ordeal. But within no time, the invader had prevailed. Maulana then says prayers indeed work, but those who employ the best methods to succeed. Sadly in our dogma and the superstition-driven world, policies and actions are replaced by exceptional reliance on ritual and blind faith. The result is in front of our eyes.
When today, religious scholars tell us that one-third of Pakistan is under water because of the victims’ sins, one has to pause and wonder why this punishment doesn’t extend to the affluent and better-managed areas. We can further dishearten badly broken people whose world has been turned upside down by this natural calamity, or we can hold our peace and help them out. Dogma and conjecture can never replace empathy and pragmatic policies.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 3rd, 2022.