Friday, January 07, 2011

Skeptics and true believers

A few more thoughts on Orhan Pamuk's novel Snow.

The story takes place in the snowbound provincial town of Kars in Eastern Turkey. The place is infested with radicals of every stripe: secular kemalists, theocratic Islamists, Kurdish separatists. Each group is utterly convinced of the righteousness of their cause, and willing to inflict torture, maiming, assassination and suicide bombing on their rivals.

Here in the West, the so-called New Atheists have been quick to point out the horrific violence throughout history perpetrated in the name of religion. Religious commentators have responded by listing the atrocities committed by 20th-century "atheists" -- Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot. And so the argument has swung back and forth, going nowhere. The terms are wrong. It is not a debate about whether believers or atheists are more prone to violence. The culprits are true believers of any sort.

Religious people can be true believers. So can atheists. Religious people can be charitable and tolerant. So can atheists. Time to put away the tallies of murder by believers and unbelievers. The enemies of civilization are those who are so convinced they possess the truth that they are eager to inflict their "truth" on others, by rack or bomb if necessary.

Poor Ka, the protagonist of Pamuk's novel, is a man of sincere but fragile convictions, muddling his way through, knowing love is more important than politics, wanting nothing more than getting the hell out of Kars and off again to Germany with the beautiful Ipek. He bumbles between the radicals, the true believers, inciting suspicion in all of them. His violent fate, alas, is sealed.