I was down in Jakarta when the 13 May 2018 church suicide bombings in Surabaya took place, followed by similar attacks the next day on police stations. These were cases of parents and children, young children, strapping explosives to themselves and attempting to kill as many people as possible. The perpetrators may have been returnees from the conflict in Syria or Iraq, and they may have been part of a local fundamentalist group. But all that, for me, is irrelevant.
For me, there is only a single question: what would it take for a parent to do that with their child?
I am a parent, with 2 kids who are both adults now. I can imagine, with a sense of horror, conditions that could exist where I would help them to take their own lives. In the case of painful, untreatable illness; if faced with the prospect of brutal death or torture; and I would offer it as an option if they were faced with being enslaved, but I can’t think of any others.
But these parents, whom I am sure dearly loved their children, felt that the best way to treat them was to ensure their place in an everlasting paradise. Where they would be guaranteed to never be sick, or hungry, or unhappy ever again. Just follow what is in the holy book, as interpreted by your religious leaders, and you are guaranteed a place in paradise.
The Hebrews didn’t have a concept of paradise in their original religion, except for YHWH’s heavenly court, for angels and such. So there is no description of it. Also, no one seemed to understand that Jesus was really YHWH too, otherwise I am sure someone would have asked him what it was like up there in heaven. If they had, or if the Hebrews had thought of it, I am sure they would have come up with a description not far removed from that which is in the Quran. Its of a garden with plenty of water (no mention of wifi, jet skis, or Thai cuisine, however) and is the sort of thing that a poor people in an arid setting would aspire to and think of as divine.
I remember years ago, I was with a poor family in the Philippines, whose son had been very ill. I had given him some books; he must have been about 9 years old. I told him he’d been very brave, and he answered me that he could go to heaven, but he didn’t want to go just yet. I asked him what heaven would be like. For him, it was fresh fruit every day, and as much rice as he wanted, and a TV that worked all the time (his family had no electricity). He also wanted to see his little sister, who had been killed two years before in a road accident. Many years later, I tried to find him, but local developers had claimed the area his village was in, and all the people had all been moved out years before.
So, heaven is what the author can imagine at the time he or she is composing their “vision”. For Muslims, Jannah (heaven), is a garden with many flowing rivers (Quran 2:25, 3:133, 9:72, and 13:25-26), you get a throne like a king with cups at hand, and carpets and pillows (Quran 36:56-57, 52:20, and 88:10-16), and as with any people who have faced times of hunger and starvation there will be plenty of the best food (Quran 69:24). I am skipping the parts about wealth, carnal pleasures, and wine, none of which would sound very good to a child. But being happy, safe, comfortable, and with plenty to eat of your favourite foods would have been heaven enough in those days, and even today for a large number of people.
And heaven in all Western religions is eternal. Hindus and Buddhists (those that have heavens and hells) and some Chinese religions view heaven more as a nice place to be rewarded while on the way to enlightenment – which is oblivion. You did a good job, so take a day off, and then in the next life continue the struggle for final enlightenment or union with the ineffable.
But an eternal heaven? Eternity is not the same as infinity, as you can have many eternities within an infinity. An eternity is a measure of time only, so conceivably there can be many different time cycles within an infinity of space/time. But let’s leave that issue for the physicists, mathematicians and jobless philosophers.
In any sense that we humans can appreciate, our life span when compared to eternity is nothing. It’s not a dust mote on the table top of existence. Parents are always concerned about their children’s future, so if their children will exist into the future for eternity, then forget worrying about college admission scores, all you need to be concerned about is the change for heaven, especially if there is the added disincentive of hell.
Most people really don’t believe in their religion at that level, however. Most children spend more time in classrooms than in churches, mosques or temples, and this is true in most places to a significant degree. It’s just like getting sick. People may believe in god and miracles, but they don’t just pray to get healed, they go to the doctor. The ones that don’t, well, just think of it as the magical hand of natural selection at work.
Religions know that this is a dangerous thing, as if everyone were to be able to go to heaven upon death, because of sincere beliefs, then the religion would be in danger of losing adherents (the people who pay for the temples and the head priests’ lifestyles). Thus, most religions have an admonition against suicide (although some, like Jainism, see self-denial leading to death as the ultimate step in religiosity – but very few follow that course, and when they do it’s usually later in life).
Religions want to keep their believers alive, so you are told to wait for heaven. That ensures that the religion will benefit from its believers’ life-long support and vassalage. But there is one case that is an exception, and it’s been indoctrinated into every major religion I know of, except Buddhism: the idea of the martyr.
In addition to making sacrifices and donations, building monuments, and following orders, religions also occasionally need people to die. And because the institution of monarchy1 is a facet of religion, many of the loyalties that are claimed by religion are also claimed by the State. This can be overt, as when the Roman Catholic Church used to promise paradise for soldiers who go on crusading campaign, or pernicious as when the rebel leaders in Masada convinced their followers to die rather than lose to the Romans (or they were killed by the zealots among them – there is of course no way to tell), or passive as when the holy Icons were carried before the Orthodox armies of Russia and Byzantium.
But the idea is always the same, however expressed. Do work for the god, and then you get to go to heaven when you die. And if heaven lasts for eternity, then you would be foolish not to take up such an amazing offer.
Imagine a similar offer here in our real world. A company says that if you work for them for one day, a single 8-hour shift with an hour for lunch, they will pay you every day for the rest of your life. And they will pay you far more than you make now, indeed it will be enough for you to enjoy whatever pleasures you like.2 Sounds like a good offer to me. But most people would say its too good to be true. I’ve always wondered why they don’t say the same thing about religions that promise an eternal heaven?
And it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, because heaven will always be better. I suppose that this works because some of the richest people I’ve ever met have also been the most greedy and venal. Promise them a way to get more, and if it doesn’t cost them much, they will be all for it.
So, if you are a good parent, and you love your kids, and someone told you that there is way to ensure that they get to paradise, and that they can go now, and not risk encountering some “sin” in the future which might make them ineligible for entry, then you would be a fool not to take that course of action for them.
I am sure that the parents who just murdered their children loved them as much as I love my kids. And they did what they believed would ensure the best “life” for them; namely, immediate entry to heaven. Which, for some religious groups, means killing other people. No Western religion is free of this stain. Judaism’s holy books revel in it unlike any other I’ve ever come across. It’s a positive duty to kill unbelievers, take their land and kill or enslave their people. That is why Richard Dawkins famously noted it as: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” If Hitler would have been Jewish, and been slaughtering Lutherans, there is no doubt he’d have been taken straight up to heaven by YHWH.3
So we have a case of religion, being believed as true, showing a course for a family to reach heaven together, and doing some good along the way. Were they terrorists? Were they trying to scare away the Christians, or to drive them into a conversion to Islam? I doubt it. They were trying to do the best for their kids and themselves, based on their understanding of the world. They did not develop this understanding because they were stupid, although they may have been ignorant of science and other philosophies and religions. Ignorance seems to often go hand-in-hand with strong religious beliefs, even when we are talking about intelligent, well educated people (Ted Cruz, a Senator in America comes to mind here – as there are few other people I’ve ever encountered who were so deserving of the epithet “ignoramus”).
Religion, by being the “answer” to all questions, admonishes its followers to eschew knowledge from unapproved sources (think of the Roman Catholic list of banned books, especially the ones on cosmology and science). Religions fear science, when they are trying to sell stories from thousands of years ago as being “real.” Any simple reading will show that all holy works are incompatible with our current scientific reality, but people either ignore the science, build a mental wall between science and religion, or just sit in the back row and hum quietly while trying not to think about it. Because believers really, really hope that there is a heaven where they can relax all day, drink beer, and not get fat. (And you won’t need Viagra anymore either.)
So when we talk about these people, who sacrificed themselves and their children on the altar of hope for a religious paradise, let’s not call them terrorists. They loved their kids. They wanted the best thing imaginable for them: an eternity of happiness. Until we recognize that this is the problem, it will never be solved. We will still have “just” wars, and executions with prayers being said before the killing is done, and politicians who open the day with a prayer and proceed to authorize funds for the murder of civilians in some far-off country that none of them have ever been to, etc. It’s all part of the same mindset. That any crime, when justified by religion, and validated and rewarded by paradise, is no crime at all. The families who killed themselves in Indonesia were merely at one end of the spectrum, in that they had strong beliefs, while most people still have some doubts – at least enough to prevent them from acting as if the whole heaven deal was real. Let’s hope that level of doubt continues to prevail for the vast majority of people.
I can’t be angry at the family. Only sad for the damage they did, and the loss of life all around. But if you really believe this religious nonsense, then they acted as good parents. Think of what they could have done with their lives and the lives of their children if they had been atheists instead.
2 Except for Jello orgies with racoons; that is not included.
3 I just broke my own admonition. Bad Dean!