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End of the world?

As America declines, the Bible thumpers take hold.

-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao

America is the land of the brave. It is also a land of the enterprising, the energetic and the intelligent. Alas, it also a land of the very violent, the very foolish and the very susceptible. So, as the Iraq War takes its daily bloody toll, influential and powerful politicians get caught up in a variety of scandals and the per capita debt of about $20, 000 keeps rising, the fundamentalists salivate at the coming of the end of the world and the sceptical wonder if indeed the wild predictions and loathsome pronouncements of Bible-thumpers are coming true. One can see more and more of the "Accept Jesus", "Jesus will save you" and the lame combinations of the same message, appearing all over the landscape: on buildings, on sidewalks, on the roadside and on school and college students' T-shirts. A recent survey by the Anti-Defamation League showed that sixty-four per cent of Americans believe that religion (Christianity) is "under attack".

The poll found fifty-three per cent of Americans believe that religion as a whole is "losing its influence in American life". Of those polled, forty-seven per cent favoured organised prayer in public schools, fifty-six per cent wanted creationism taught alongside evolution and sixty-four per cent wanted religious symbols such as the Ten Commandments displayed in public buildings.

Many of my students fervently and without fail, exclaim, "Bless you, " each time one of their classmates sneezes in class, almost afraid that if they don't God will be displeased. I told them that blessings are usually given by the older to the younger and gave them versions of the Indian response to sneezing: "Sataayush" (may you live for a hundred years), "Dheergaayush" (may you live long) and "Chiranjeevi" (may you live forever!) and that these invocations are always by parents, grandparents, the elderly. But they remain unimpressed and seek to beat one another as to how quickly they blurt out "bless you" as someone goes "aach choo".

A majority of Americans believe that the United States is a Christian nation and wrongly argue that the founding fathers fashioned the state according to Judeo-Christian values. "In God We Trust" says every penny, nickel, dime and quarter, as does every currency note. At the weekly Rotary Club meeting, we repeat the pledge of allegiance, which includes the phrase, "one nation under God". The God referred to here is indeed the Christian God and everyone knows it. Not everyone though is sure that that particular God is the saviour of all humankind, because any monopolistic claim by any individual or group to the unknown and the unverifiable has the hallmarks of ethnocentrism, if not the characteristics of simple and pure balderdash.

A rather myopic and dangerous version of the seeking of God's blessings is when American leaders exclaim at the end of their speeches, "May God Bless America". How narrow-minded can we get? If God blesses only America and leaves the rest of the world in dire straits, how will America then be blessed? In fact then there will be a longer line of visa seekers outside every American embassy and consulate around the world and the already flimsy barriers between Mexico and the US will come crashing down!

To counter this "hot house" Christianity, the wise and sceptical Americans, therefore, have come up with some clever adages: "Beware of the man who prays too loudly in church, " they warn or, "Watch out for the man who prays on his knees on Sunday and preys on his neighbours the rest of the week."

The increased fervency of the invokers of God is no doubt also the result of twenty-four-hour news coverage. We can now listen to and watch what seems to be the drowning of America - symbolised by the flooding of New Orleans and its slow and pathetic efforts to recover. Over and over does CNN and Fox and MSNBC replay the same footage of winds blowing away houses, fires burning down other houses and landslides burying whole towns in slush and mud. This year has been especially dreadful with hurricanes, late season tornadoes, too much rain flooding too many towns and forest fires licking at the seams of multi-million-dollar homes in California. Then we have had the severe earthquake in Pakistan, landslides and flooding in Central America and young Muslim men lighting bonfires all over France.

A good historian should be able to compare, therefore, the fervency of Christian prayers now with their prayers in the past. Surely, one cannot imagine how the world is any worse now compared to the bloodthirsty days of World War II or when the Krakatoa mountain blew its top on 27 August 1883 and darkened the globe for weeks. Is this just then a rather predictable mean season and not the meanest season that twenty-four-hour television makes it seem?

The "true" believers do think that the world is falling apart. They are the recipients of the regular newsletters from churches reminding them about the coming end of the world. There is the very popular (in America) of the "Left Behind" series of "novels", where only those who have accepted Jesus are speeded into heaven in Cadillac Escalades (I am kidding about the Cadillacs), while the rest of us "non-believers" suffer in a slowly burning earth. LaHaye and Jenkins, who have conspired to seduce gullible Christians, say on their website: "It was 10 years ago that the landmark apocalyptic thriller, Left Behind, hit Christian bookstores. Since then, the Left Behind series and its related books have sold over 62 million copies and have cumulatively spent hundreds of weeks on every major best-seller list in America, including the New York Times list. But the real impact of the Left Behind series is on souls. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins receive many letters each month from readers who have had their relationship with Christ strengthened after they read the books. The authors also receive letters from those who were led to Christ because they read the books. The writing duo estimates they've heard from more than 3, 000 readers who have made decisions of faith after reading Left Behind."

Adding to the fears are the scientists warning us of global warming, the ozone hole, diminishing supplies of ground water, increase in carbon dioxide emissions, the vanishing of a variety of plant, insect and animal species, as well as health hazards like the bird flu pandemic, mad cow disease, the exploding girth of the people in America and the increasing hunger in the world. It seems, therefore, that the message indeed is that the world is falling apart because we are sinning: for Christians it is sex outside of marriage, homosexuality, abortions and watching pornography the real sins and for the scientists, Left liberals and environmentalists, the actual sins are over consumption of fossil fuels, pre-emptive wars and Bush's pigheaded policies. In exasperation, Kurt Vonnegut, in his latest work, hopes that the earth will rid itself of the human species.

If prepare you wish for the speculative, willed, or hoped for end of the world, there are some "tool kits" ready on the Internet. The Christian websites advise: "The best way to be prepared for the future is to receive Jesus as your Savior, as He has promised to be with his children to protect & provide for them and be their Guide through perilous times. Jesus will give you the strength and courage to bravely face these future troubles and help you survive until the End of this world, after which He will reward you beyond your wildest dreams in the Heavenly world to come!"

Al Zarqawi, Osama bin Laden and foaming at the mouth mullahs around the world, however, tell you to follow their advise: "Kill the heathens, martyr yourself for Mohammed (PBUH) and 72 doe-eyed virgins will do your every bidding in Muslim Heaven."

The Dalai Lama is more cheery and carefully avoids threats. Indeed, the Buddhists may have something really powerful up their sleeves, or in the forests of Nepal. A news item says that a teenage boy has been meditating in the jungles of Nepal and has not had food for six months. His followers (alas, it is always the nefarious followers) do not let people know what the boy does at night (eats lot of food and goes to the bathroom?). About ten thousand people visit the site, about one hundred miles south of Kathmandu, to catch a glimpse of fifteen-year-old Ram Bahadur Banjan, acclaimed by his followers as the reincarnation of Gautama Buddha. Buddhism teaches that right thinking and self-control can enable people to achieve "nirvana" - a divine state of peace and release from desire.

I will take Buddhism please, fake Gautama and all.

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