A river runs through it, clear water fresh from the mountain rushing over pale stones. At one point this stream forms a deeper pool, in a shaded, quiet moment beneath contemplative trees. The pool is fed by a small waterfall; gnarled and woody roots garland the water, fish and tadpoles flicker through the still depths, beneath the dart of dragon flies.
Visiting this was once the highlight of my walk. It felt like a portal into wild, untouched spaces in distant forests, a reverent place that could bring me back into connection with myself and the earth. A place where I could feel the humility and serenity that comes from knowing you are just one small part of a very big dance.
Until the day I came to find a word spray painted in dayglo orange on one of the trees. And the word was “God”.
Any word would have been a destructive act of vandalism, but I think I would have preferred “Chantal loves Wayne”, or “DOG”, which was what Kennedy thought it was, as he read it from the bottom of the tree. (How thoughtful, he said. A tree especially for dogs, and he proceeded to honour it, as dogs do.) Because far from bringing God into the place, it just crushed its inherent spirituality and shoved God right out.
I don’t pretend to know about God. I don’t subscribe to any formal religion. I’m with the Buddhists in thinking that a God conceived by humans is inevitably diminished by the limits of our imagination. Far from humans being created in God’s image, it seems to me that humans have cast God in their image, and all too often come up with a small-minded vengeful God, a mean jealous God with a fragile ego. A God who is offended by homosexuality, for instance. Seriously? You think that a being who created a universe of which the world is one miniscule particle in an unbounded vortex of stars and galaxies, who spawned billions of life forms, who has watched humans evolve to find ever new ways of destroying the life, is going to be offended by two men wanting to love each other?
I think God would be a lot more annoyed by someone defacing a tree. A lot of work went into that tree. Millions of years of evolution, to get it from a single celled amoeba into a multicellular brachiate and intricately functioning organism.
The Dayglo GOD got me thinking about the phrase “taking God’s name in vain”. There’s a lot of that going on these days. And I don’t mean yelling “Jesus Christ” when you stub your toe. I mean perpetrating acts of cruelty, or abuse, or greed and claiming that you are acting for God. Like kidnapping school girls, gunning down cartoonists*, launching air strikes, or attacking women who choose to abort a pregnancy; Like denying children knowledge of evolution, or robbing people of their homeland and their birthright. Pretty much an endless list, going back way into the dark ages - as long as there has been a formal religion there have been those bandying God’s name about to justify any old thing, from burning women accused of witchcraft to systematically stealing from peasants.
There are enlightened pro-religious thinkers who decry this abuse of God’s name, who claim that it is an aberration, the exception rather than the rule. But when the abuse is so widespread, you have to question whether it is not intrinsic to organised religion. In particular to those religions whose doctrine dictates that God loves only those who subscribe to a particular belief. There is no theistic religion in which believers have not used God’s name to justify atrocities – Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus all have blood on their hands. This calls to mind the quote by Deepak Chopra: “God gave humans the truth, and the devil came and he said, 'Let's give it a name and call it religion’”.
It is nice to imagine old Beezlebub skipping through the Bosky Dell with a can of orange dayglo paint and defacing the tree, but I have no doubt that the devil was invented by priests to rule their subjects with fear, and to absolve themselves of responsibility. As in “The devil made me do it.” It wasn’t the devil but humans who distorted the truth with religion, and infused it with all their self-serving barbarous narratives of righteous warfare and chosen races.
So, speaking as one balanced on that rickety fence between vague agnosticism and stern atheism, I’d like to appeal to all the theists out there to start treating God’s name with a lot more respect. Don’t wave it around to endow acts of barbarism with glory. Don’t shine it in people’s eyes to blind them to atrocities, or to turn lost young men into killing and raping machines. Don’t use it to perpetuate fear and ignorance. And please don’t use it to deface any more trees.
* NOTE: While I condemn the attacks on the French Cartoonists, I am wary of the simplification of this issue and the glorification of Charlie Hebdo. The following articles provide nuanced commentary on this:
The false debate between freedom of expression and religious extremism By Monia MazighUnmournable Bodies By Teju Cole
Charlie Hebdo Is Heroic and Racist We should embrace and condemn it. By Jordan Weissmann