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Gentleman’s Agreement

by Chris Volkay

Reflecting on developments since September 11, I can’t help being reminded of the 1947 Elia Kazan movie Gentleman’s Agreement. In that film the people of the so-called nicer circles secretly agreed to not give lodging, jobs, and the like to any Jew who might have the audacity to show up in their genteel Gentile lives. Nowhere was this written down; it was simply a tacit “agreement” between men of prudence and propriety—that is, “gentlemen.”

A similar arrangement went in effect after September 11. This “gentleman’s agreement” provides that no one speak ill of the other person’s religion, lest the other person speak ill of yours. This makes it difficult to deal with the real causes of the tragedy and its aftermath, because—guess what? We are in a religious war. A religious disagreement. A religious problem. Um, did you catch the operative word there: religious?

Islamic fundamentalists hate Americans for being in what they consider their holy land. They hate us for our past actions in Iran and Iraq. And they hate us for our continued support of Israel. Now I don’t say that these views are right, I simply say that these are their beliefs. But so few commentators have been frank about these matters. Why? Because of the “gentleman’s agreement”: Religion can never be the culprit, in anything, even when it’s not your religion. We will blame madmen and zealots who pervert the “true teachings” of this or that religion, but never simply open our eyes and confront the real problem: religion itself. Now this would be horrific and mind-numbing if nothing else were added. But when you consider the fact that none of these religions is true— that they are all simply fictions and fantasies—the irony becomes unbearable.

The vast majority of people in the Western and the Islamic worlds cling to supernatural fantasies because they think life is too harrowing to bear without these crutches. They think their fantasies make them happier, take away their fears, and generally make existence tolerable.

I reject all such fantasies. Someone once asked me, “Are you happier believing as you do?” I said no, then paraphrased George Bernard Shaw: “That you are happier believing lies is no more to the point than saying that the drunken man is happier than the sober one.” Here I stand in a world of religious drunks, trying to emulate Carrie Nation. Will I succeed? Did she?

The greatest irony is that the very thing that the imbibers of religion cling to for succor is the very thing that keeps them ignorant, weak, trembling, unhappy, and fearful to begin with. They then employ their “gentleman’s agreement” in matters religious to keep the status quo in place. Politicians fall in line, adjusting the whys and the wherefores ascribed to events, keeping in step with the agreed-upon lies. But adhering to these lies saps our opportunity to know why things are really happening in the world, and thus, just perhaps, to have a chance to stop them.

So remember, dear friends, that in our war on terrorism we are fighting primarily a religious war. A dispute about money or real estate or diamond mines can always be negotiated, but how can you negotiate on matters

of faith? Battles in this realm cannot

be won, only temporarily assuaged. Even if every fighter on a particular side is wiped out, future generations—bred with the vehemence of religious hatred and the further fuel of avenging their kin—will resume the struggle. Until these cycles of inbred religious hatred can be stopped, we are addressing only symptoms, never underlying causes. That is the harm this gentleman’s agreement wreaks: it keeps us stumbling around in the dark looking for madmen, and not recognizing the real problem.

That problem can be found in the mosques of Afghanistan, in the temples of Israel, and in the churches of Peoria, Illinois.


Chris Volkay is the author of Laughing Gas: How to Live Rationally in the Land of Illusion (www.cyberread.com). 


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