Friday 23 September 2016


In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.
Blake, London

I remember being in a panel debate about religion a few years back.

One of the guys on the panel was a New Atheist whom I  slaughtered, absolutely destroyed, so much so that the man appeared genuinely upset come the end and wouldn't meet my eye when I went to shake his hand when we were done. That's not as much of a boast as it sounds. He'd just assumed he wasn't going to get much of an argument and he just hadn't prepared beyond memorising a few passages of Dawkins – that were, he thought, crushing, unanswerable – chapter and verse.1

But one of the things he said, as he parroted Prof. Dawkins verbatim, moving the goalposts like a groundsman at the Liberty, even using that line about fairies at the bottom of the garden, was that he was a "freethinker" and thunderstruck, I sat there and said, never really having thought about that before, "Well, there's no such thing, is there?"

And there isn't. There is no such thing as a freethinker. We are all bound by context. If we're brought up, for instance, Baptist and choose, because we have the privilege to do so, to be atheist, we live in that context, the considered choice not to be religious, and hell, even the conscious choice to be atheist is very much a social, class-bound thing, since religion and the rejection of it are a function of possessing a certain degree of economic and social capital. It's largely a middle-class pursuit.

The fact is, most people in the UK are actually functionally atheist by default anyway; working class millennials on the whole literally don't have time to be bothered with it. Meanwhile, the ruling classes generally hold religion as a thing in contempt (see for example the recent revelation that British policy makers see it as an irrelevance: to them it's "fairies, goblins and imaginary friends."

One of the most shattering experiences of my adult life, as far as my sense of self was concerned, was spending a month in a grass-roots development project in Northern India, far from the Lonely Planet trail. It was made clear to me that I was not working there, I was a visiting guest, there to learn from the locals, and without a Western-run aid agency to ground me in Western terms, I was completely out of my depth. I remember being on a cycle rickshaw in Moradabad, a city not generally visited by tourists, in a traffic jam full of rickshaws and a couple of brand new Toyotas and one actual cow, an honest to god cow, just like every Western movie about India ever, and this twentysomething guy on a shiny Japanese motorbike edged past the rickshaw and glanced at me as I passed, and then did a cartoon double-take, like, what the hell is this white guy doing here? I waved. He waved back as if he wasn't sure even what he was looking at and moved on, and I realised that I was grotesque, a freak, a unicorn, and I didn't have the words even to describe how that felt to him, and my context was far away.

An experience like that is profound, because it forces us to become aware of our preconceptions.

These Blakean mind-forg'd manacles can't be wholly unlocked, but in the same way that people from time to time nowadays have tremendous fun2 with chastity belts, that doesn't mean we can't, in our awareness of them, leverage them for our own pleasure and edification, find ways to circumvent them, and maybe, just maybe, work to find ways to loosen them, find comfort even in our awareness of them.

You can't completely free your mind, but sometimes there's a weird pleasure in knowing that.

1Yes I know what I just did there. (back)

2Apparently. So I am told.  (back)