I captured this scene during a press trip to Israel at Qasr el Yahud, near the city of Jericho, along the Jordan River, where Christians believe John the Baptist baptized Jesus roughly two millennia ago.
During my visit, hundreds of Christian fundamentalists from the southern United States queued up eagerly to be baptized by enthusiastic pastors or priests. They were dressed in white for the occasion and waited with anticipation to be submerged in the river. Some were even jumping up and down in line, ecstatic for their near “salvation.”
The level of fanaticism I witnessed there was only matched by what I would see and experience a day later at HaKotel HaMa’aravi (also known as the Western Wall) and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the holy mosque, both located in Jerusalem’s Old City.
The experience by the river was, to say the least, a peculiar and somewhat frightening one. After a few minutes, the shouting and the speaking in tongues (glossolaliaI became overwhelming, and I felt it was time to leave the frenzied ceremony.
To exit the baptism area, I first had to walk through an enormous souvenir shop filled with all sorts of religious memorabilia, including bottles of holy water, a wide range of crucifixes, and several racks of T-shirts adorned with colorful Jesus illustrations and Bible verses printed in bold.
The perverse level of commercialism made the experience even more absurd, if that’s even possible. To claim that this visit heightened my skepticism about religion and religiosity would be a considerable understatement.
The escalating conflict in Gaza has left me exceptionally distressed today. When I consider the potential powder keg that the situation represents, nothing else seems particularly comforting or even relevant.
I usually find some kind of solace in the thought that misery has always been a part of our world and that stepping away from the news for a while can improve my mental and emotional well-being.
But today, it’s challenging to do even that.
Why is there so much hatred among us humans? How can other animals live in a relatively symbiotic peace with each other, even across species, while we, humans, can’t seem to manage it?
The simple answer is glaringly apparent: religion.
How can belief in ancient fables, stories, and imaginative tales be so potent that it drives people to commit acts of violence, including rape, murder, arson, and the destruction of lives of those who don’t believe in the same ancient fables, stories, and imaginative tales?
The more complex answer involves a combination of power, tribalism, and territory. The hypnotic force of religion compels people to accept and defend violence as a means to assert claims over ancient holy places and territories. It’s utterly mad.
It’s profoundly disheartening that we haven’t evolved beyond this trivial, childish behavior. We are like children in a sandbox, except instead of playing happily with plastic shovels and colorful buckets, we wield guns, grenades, and rockets to annihilate one another.