Why atheists laugh at us

2012-04-05 00:00

I THOUGHT it was a lame April Fools’ joke. I was a fool for thinking so. A religious war of words was being fought over the humble hot cross bun. Is this entire story an example of sensational journalism that seeks out the lunatics, fanatics and extremists in our midst, and portrays their rantings as if it represents broader opinion? Or does this bizarre case of confectionary conflict reflect real rifts in our ability to live obligingly, peacefully, and tolerantly among diverse groups of people, whose requirements to fulfil their beliefs might sometimes intersect with our own?

Surely, I asked myself, while laughing at the report, most Christian people cannot be boycotting baked bread because it was declared halaal by a Muslim authority? And surely those few people who do object understand that halaal buns merely mean they contain no Islamically forbidden ingredients. Nobody recited Arabic poetry or scriptures while the buns baked. So it’s a technical error, I hoped, and once the well-meaning complainants found out that what halaal buns actually meant they would apologise and share their food. Not so.

Woolworths fanned the fires, promising to package its buns separately in the future, so that the moon and star symbol does not offend its Christian fundamentalists, I mean consumers. Is Woolworths just being capitalist? I think so. I doubt any supermarket cares half a buttered hot cross bun whether or not there’s an ideological war or existential crisis in aisle five. After all, Easter is more about profits than prophets.

Perhaps we should reflect on three questions in order to learn from this experience. Firstly, why should it matter whether or not a food product has been certified by a religious body as permissible to be eaten by people of a certain faith? The certification is merely a comment, not an intervention or an impediment. It tells Muslim people what’s okay to eat if their Christian neighbour invites them over for tea. Simple. And let’s say for argument sake that some Imam did recite a few lines of Arabic before the dough was slaughtered into neat little buns. Would the sky come crashing down and would bolts of lightning strike the disobedient to a fiery death? Aren’t basic values like sharing and kindness more important than rigid dogma? Is it not our largely shared belief and adherence to a set of common norms and values that lubricates society to exist harmoniously among diversity? Or am I naïve, and is the superficial unity merely a fake smile suppressing darker feelings towards thy neighbour?

Secondly, perhaps more seriously, is this representative of broader Islamophobia that is rife across the world, fuelled by the West’s war on Islam? Is the bakery just an object to displace the real anger and fears of fickle followers living in an increasingly secular society, struggling to adapt to a decline in religious affiliations in general, and an ongoing tension between Islam and Christianity in particular? If so, then we should spend a lot more time analysing and talking about incidents like these, for the reason that laughing it off may trivialise an issue that actually requires concerted intervention. But by whom? And to what end? These are not easy questions, but conversations for change need to be triggered. I propose an interfaith tea party, with local churches and mosques inviting each other into their spaces.

Lastly, where do we draw the line if we begin entertaining these kinds of “problems”? Do atheists claim to be offended at the very sale of hot cross buns and Easter paraphernalia in their secular shops? Do we ignore the specific dietary needs and requests of our Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, vegan, and vegetarian friends, because we are unable to differentiate which foods will suit them if we are cooking lunch for a diverse bunch of people? Do I request the church down my road to install sound-proof walls so that their early morning Sunday service doesn’t worsen my hangover? If the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, shouldn’t we guard against self-imposing barriers to a common humanity, lest religion becomes nothing more than a locked cage? As writer Faranaaz Parker quipped, that’s when the atheists start laughing. And for good reason.

• Suntosh Pillay is a clinical psychologist who writes independently on social issues.

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