Wherein Lies Salvation?

One day the great moral counsellor Zarathustra was out for a drive in his Maserati with his friend Ziggy, the rift between them having healed following the recent difference of opinion about Cultural Appropriation. Ziggy, as was his wont when they went for such drives, was musing out loud to see if he could provoke his friend into a discussion or, as it frequently turned out, an intractable dispute about an obscure ideological matter.

“So, Zara, you know how old Charlie Marx used to say religion was the sleeping draft of the proletariat?”

“‘The opiate of the masses’ is I think the phrase he used,” corrected Zara.

“Whatever. But to what extent does that still hold true in this day and age?” Ziggy paused just long enough to let his question sink in, but not quite long enough to allow Zara to formulate an answer before getting in his preemptive strike. “You see, I think things have moved on, haven’t they?”

Zara was always a sucker for this tactic, reacting to the implication of the rhetorical question and allowing himself in the process to be distracted from the original issue which had piqued his interest. “No, nothing has really changed,” he intoned dismissively. “The fires of injustice continue to burn everywhere and the ‘faithful’ fiddle with their rosary beads.” Zara allowed himself a brief, smug smile here, congratulating himself on this clever little bit of allusion (or was it metaphor?). But not without having been observed by the ever-astute Ziggy who took the opportunity to complement him on his apropos witticism:

“Very droll, Prime Minister.” He needed to seize back the initiative quickly before Zara started elaborating on his theme. “But isn’t it the case that the masses are a lot better educated these days and that the role religion plays in their lives has changed.”

“Oh, yeah, and what role would that be?” Zara had taken the bait hook, line and sinker and, although, he remained at the wheel it was his friend who was now doing the driving. He immediately took full advantage.

“Well you see, if you think of the moral life as a Christmas tree it becomes clear.” To Zara it was not clear, so Ziggy continued. “The point is, whereas religion used to be the trunk around which people built their identity, it nowadays serves a role much more akin to the tinsel and shiny baubles which adorn the branches.” This was a provocative observation which merited some consideration. Ziggy paused accordingly to allow his friend to reflect and appreciate before responding.

“Absolute tosh! The role of religion is and has always been to offer gullible people false hope of salvation by cloaking themselves in the purported righteousness prescribed by a supposedly beneficent deity in obscure, archaic texts.” A robust response had been needed at this point to seize back the initiative and Zara had come up with the goods. Ziggy was frankly quite p***ed off that his Christmas tree lights had been so peremptorily extinguished. But his friend was on a roll by this point and not to be stopped.

“You know that story about the Good Sumatran?” Names and places were not Zara’s strong point when he was in full throttle like this. “The one that was told in the Bible to the rich twit who wanted to inherit eternal life? That’s the point. The same nonsense is being peddled today to dupes trying to cloak themselves in righteousness and alleviate their bad consciences about the social injustice all around them. What Charlie said back in the day is as true now as then. This stuff acts on them like a drug that sends them to sleep. What they need is…to be woke!”

Zara was now on familiar territory. On this theme he could hold out for hours. Ziggy resigned himself to his fate and settled back in his chair to enjoy the ride as best he could, awaiting his chance to steal back the initiative if the occupant of the pulpit faltered.

“If you ask, what do I need to do to achieve the nirvana of wokeness, the answer is to follow the two great commandments.”

“Remind me again.”

“The first is that that you should despise with all your heart, soul and mind those who enjoy privilege and power, including yourself. The second is like it: that you should show solidarity with members of all minority groups professing to be oppressed by privileged majority groups.”

The script was well familiar to Ziggy. He also knew well his own lines and his cues. “But what is true solidarity?” he intoned uninterestedly.

“Good question.” At this point in the narrative it was usual for Zara to segue into his Good Sumatran Parable, which the reader familiar with his sermons may have previously encountered. On this occasion, though, he realised that he was probably repeating himself so he substituted an alternative version, aligned more with the theme originally introduced by his friend. Alas, this turned out to be his undoing.

“Well, you know how these religious-minded busybodies like to go about pretending to provide help to those they judge as ‘needy’ according to their superficial bigoted moral standards? But how engaged are they with the real problems of society? The homophobia? The Islamophobia? The racism against people of colour?”

At this Ziggy saw his chance and he needed no second bidding. “But is it not the case, good teacher, that there are more gay priests in the Church of England than there are gay postmodern-day prophets? That Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the country? And that Black Pentecostal churches are the fastest-growing Christian denominations? Are not the prophets of woke who disparage religious belief themselves open to the accusation of participating in bigoted moral standards? And in the process of looking to cloak themselves in purported righteousness?”

In the face of this unexpected barrage of questions fired off in response to his own, Zara found himself speechless. The initiative was squarely back with him, but what answer could he give? He was hoist by his own petard. Eventually he spoke, in quieter and more measured tones than previously. “You remember that thing you were telling me about the Christmas tree? How does it go again?”

Disclaimer: references to Zarathustra in the above are an allusion to the eponymous protagonist of Friedrich Nietzche’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and not to the Iranian religious reformer and prophet, traditionally regarded as the founder of Zoroastrianism.

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By Colin Turfus

Colin Turfus is a quantitative risk manager with 16 years experience in investment banking. He has a PhD in applied mathematics from Cambridge University and has published research in fluid dynamics, astronomy and quantitative finance.

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