Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Religion, Deadly Contagion And Other Afflictions

Imagine a pandemic which claims a death toll so high it staggers the mind. Millions upon millions dead, suffering and dying from a plague which knows no cure. Every single human being touched personally by the hand of death, suffering and tragedy. Everyone who survives, perhaps the last remaining member of a large and happy family, standing alone and wondering where to go from here? Far fetched? 

Not really. It already happened once in recorded history. In Medieval times, bubonic plague took nearly half the population of Europe, some scholars postulate up to two thirds. And what could medicine do about it at the time? Nothing. They couldn't even ease the suffering of the victims. The contemporary art reflects the ever present um, presence - of death in the conscious and sub-conscious, particularly in portraits and other art of the day. The fabled Dans Macabre is just one example. At the time, the science of medicine was in its infancy. With hardly any contrast at all, the prognosis for such a massive and virulent outbreak of some new or resilient disease today is not much better.

A week or so ago I watched an interesting doccy about the Black Death. It was pretty relevant, considering that if anything similar were to happen today, the global medical capacity to handle such a crisis would be nil anyway. Hospitals would be swamped. Handling capacity would be overwhelmed. In recent weeks, medical testing to confirm such cases as "swine flu" or H1M1 blah, blah, blah take anything up to a week - and some cases were even misdiagnosed completely. The death toll today even in so-called advanced countries stands at a total in excess of 1000. Oddly enough, the spread of this disease seems to have affected modern countries more - where transportation is far more effective than in rural non-urbanized places.

The thing that interested me most though was the way such a pandemic affected human civilization and culture from that time. Particularly interesting is the religious perspective. People at the time in Catholic Europe had confidence in God and in the Church to save them, and to do something to thwart this disaster - and instead, God wasn't answering any calls either; I suppose they just got some kind of divine busy signal and the Church found itself powerless to do anything. And don't think people did not notice. In fact, soon after the epidemic hit, church authorities began (not un-typically) passing the buck by claiming that it was because of the sinfulness of the people that such a "divine judgment" had been handed down by god. In short, "God is angry and it must be YOUR fault", and on came a liturgy of "turn from sin", "repent", the meteoric rise and fall of the Flagellant movement and the purges of the scapegoats that go hand-in-hand with the religious hysteria of a civilization on the edge of total collapse.

The Plague passed after a few deadly years, but not long after, there were religious nut cases running around burning people at the stake to satisfy God's obvious anger as the reason behind their being "punished". People viewed to be "sinful" were accused of "witchcraft" and murdered wholesale – including, prominently – Jews and gay people.

I wonder how indeed modern religion would handle a similar plague? We already know how much the religious right hates gay people - would they focus on the pink community as the "cause" for global misfortune? Well, they already do that. During the last big storms in the USA the religious right there blamed the devastation of New Orleans by hurricane on the gay community there. Oddly enough, as it was pointed out afterwards, the "gay village" was the ONE area spared the utter devastation visited on the rest of the city. Now how about that? Either their conservative right-wing version of God has really lousy aim - or exceptionally good aim. They sure can't have it both ways.

Would we see similar situations in a post-Plague 21st century as those who survived the anguish and horror of the last Plague a thousand years ago? Would gay people be rounded up, accused of all sorts of rubbish - and murdered? 

Seventy years ago the Nazis accused gay people of "weakening the Master race", rounded the up and put them into forced labor and extermination camps along with all the other people they saw as a threat or as "undesirable". That is the story of the pink and black triangles which have become symbols of our battle for human rights and equality. It can be argued that the mystical aspects of Nazism and the influence of Nordic mythology and how it became willingly intertwined with Christian doctrine under Nazi rule in itself constituted a form of religious cult on its own. Even today in places around the world there are similar ideologies and theologies practiced by pseudo-religious groups such as the "White Power" movement which infuse racist theories originated by the Nazis with misapplied Christian teaching. It comes as no surprise that they don't like Jews - or gay people either.

A scant twenty five years ago the AIDS pandemic broke, and the world began to descend into a blind panic. 
They called it a "homosexual disease", and they claimed it was "punishment from God". In the USA self-proclaimed "experts" on homosexuality and darlings of the right wing anti-gay establishment such as "Dr" Paul Cameron advised Congress that "it may become necessary to exterminate all homosexuals" in order to bring the pandemic under control. As an interesting point, Cameron is heavily influenced by Nazi pseudo-science and principles of eugenics - and an ardent gay-hater famous for his "studies" which "prove" gay people live shorter lives, are unhygienic, are prone to pedophilia and a host of other slanderous fallacies. One of his pet projects was suggesting that gay people be marked with a facial tattoo to make identification easier. In fact, Mr Cameron earned the displeasure of the psychiatric authorities in the USA and was turfed out on his derriere for his prejudice and consistent misrepresentation of science. I dare say he got off lightly.

Currently in Iran and Iraq people are being murdered for the "crime" of being gay or transgender. Yet the West still openly and unashamedly does business with these two blatant human rights abusers. In Iran gay people are hung publicly. In Iraq they are abducted by specialist militia, tortured to reveal the names and whereabouts of others, and brutally killed. According to the US State Department Stanton Report, this can already be classified as genocide – and yet has any government yet even used this word to describe what is happening today, right now, despite prior knowledge of that genocide seventy years ago and more recent examples such as Rwanda? These people either do not know about history, its judgment, or they do not care - or they know history only too well.

Even today ultra far-right religious groups around the world vie for the opportunity to mete out what they see as "biblical" justice - the extermination of gay people. That'll teach them to be born homosexual! How about the far-right groups in the USA and European Union (of all places), and of course, right here at home in South Africa, where cowardly people claim "morality" and innocence by pointing fingers at their holy scriptures saying "It isn't I who says so, but the bible..."?

It seems some people have learned nothing from history, except how to go about committing atrocities more efficiently. And what have we as a race learned in the intervening millennium? A greater appreciation for diversity and life? Or have we just devised better ways to end it?

What would happen if a far-right ultra-religious movement at the head of a technologically advanced and highly mechanized society had a free hand in the aftermath of such a devastating pandemic in this century? 

We can only wonder.

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