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Respecting Faith

By WizenedSage (Galen Rose) ~

My latest offering for the ‘Letters to the Editor’ page of a local weekly newspaper was published yesterday. Because it dealt with such an extraordinary incident, I wanted to share it with readers:

‘Perturbation to fascination’ revisited

Sally Gardiner-Smith is to be commended for writing the fascinating article which appeared in the November 29 issue of the News. She is the high school exchange student who wrote “Perturbation to fascination” about her adventure in Thailand.

Gardiner-Smith described a bizarre parade that she and her fellow students witnessed. The chaperone explained that they “were going to see a traditional Thai parade where men were possessed by god.“ As she described, these men had mutilated themselves, making slits through their cheeks through which they placed knives or other objects such as umbrellas, guns, or fruit.

Apparently, the point for the mutilated men was to appear unaffected by the pain. They even allowed bystanders to throw firecrackers at them.

Gardiner-Smith wrote that her “feelings went from perturbation at the beginning of the parade, to respect and fascination by the end.”

While I can appreciate her amazement, I think she took the wrong lesson from this bizarre parade. Her initial reaction was revulsion, and I think this was the proper reaction. Self mutilation is ugly, and our self-preservation instinct kicks in when we see it. It gives us the “willies,” as it should. That’s nature’s way of saying don’t go there.

What did these men prove by mutilating themselves? That they could withstand pain? Yes, fine, but that does not prove that they are “possessed by god.”

A dictionary meaning of “faith” includes the following, “belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion . . . firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” Even in our own society, we are used to people admiring others who are said to be “of great faith.” But this merely means that they believe strongly in a particular religious tradition. It doesn’t mean that tradition is necessarily based on any facts; it only means they believe strongly in “something for which there is no proof.”

Why should believing in something that can’t be proven be admired? During the Crusades, warriors of both the Christian and Muslim sides believed strongly that they were doing god’s will, and they risked their lives and frequently killed others in service to their faith. But did any of them prove who was right or wrong? Of course not, they merely proved to what dangerous and damaging extremes men will go in the cause of faith.

She wrote, “These men weren’t attempting to heighten their manhood or impress others. Their goal was to show that they had such belief in their religion that they would relinquish anything to prove it.” But, wait a minute, this was a parade; these men made a public spectacle of their bizarre behavior in order to “show” the strength of their belief. They weren’t doing this in private.

When Gardiner-Smith says she came to “respect” these men, she holds them up as somehow being praiseworthy for their extreme devotion to their faith. But, think about it, wouldn’t that make those “martyrs” who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center towers praiseworthy as well? How much faith did they have to have in order to sacrifice their lives for their beliefs? Their actions took extreme faith. . . but totally lacked rationality or compassion, things a modern, moral society should value above faith.

She wrote of the men in the parade, “Some were slowly cutting off their tongue with a saw.” What do you suppose was the effect on the Thai youth watching that parade? That this was something to admire and to emulate, maybe? And thus such nonsense, the lionizing of extreme belief in things which can’t be proven, is passed from generation to generation.

Thank you, Sally, for writing that fascinating article, but I hope you will think more on what that very singular experience should mean to you. Personally, I do not believe those men parading their self-mutilation deserve anyone’s respect or praise. Their actions merely serve to propagate damaging nonsense onto another generation.