Thursday, July 30, 2015

Satirizing Religion

I saw this satire on religion on Face Book earlier today, and even though I'd seen it before (it comes in several versions) it felt like a fun way to start the day, so I passed it on to my friends.  What landed in my e-mail inbox were several ha-ha’s from like-minded friends, and one comment which I think is worth giving some thought to.  This friend suggested that the slam against Islam was “in a different vein.” 

What he’s getting at is obvious.  There has been a whole lot of anti-Muslim prejudice expressed lately.  Since 9/11 Muslims have been under attack and saddled with the terrorist label by people who don’t know what they are talking about.  It’s cruel prejudice and very ugly.

But here’s the thing.  The satire in that list on the left is directed at “religion,” and not at “religious people.”  It has always been hard to separate people from their ideas.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.  I think people who actually vote Republican have their heads where the sun don’t shine.  But I would never wish them any harm.  They are so much more than their bad ideas.  And just because you love dogs and children does not mean you’re a saint.  I might enjoy being with you more than with a Republican, but you don’t get a free ride from being decent in other ways, either.

Religion is a portmanteau word.  It is used to mean a set of doctrinal beliefs, an organization of like-minded people, a set of cultural practices, a source of inspiration for art and music, and much much more.  It’s not a word we use with precision.  Even the names of particular religious denominations are overly broad.  If you tell me you’re Catholic, the first question that comes to my mind is, “What kind of Catholic – a Salvatore Cordileone kind of Catholic or a Nancy Shea kind of Catholic?”  Cordileone, the San Francisco Archbishop, would have it that in order to be a good catholic you have to believe that gay people are “inherently disordered” and masturbation is a grave sin.  The second of those claims is just laughable, but the first isn’t so funny. I know kids who killed themselves because they had had inculcated in them the self-loathing that logically follows such claims.  The idea that a person with same-sex desires is inherently anything (other than sexually attracted to the same sex, I mean) is wrong. 

I think the idea that a god can come to you by means of a religious ritual in which you eat his actual body and blood in the form of bread and wine is also wrong.  But it does me no harm.  My friend Nancy left her church when her priest told her she should not vote for a democratic senator because he had not voted correctly on the issue of abortion rights.  But she quickly found another church because, as she told me, “I can’t give up going to mass.  Participating in the Eucharist is the meaning of life for me.”  She’s gone now, but she was a wonderful lady.

Satire is by nature reductionist.  It takes something complex, like religion, and reduces it to one of its salient features.  We do this all the time.  We even have a name for it – synecdoche, letting a part represent the whole.  Gays are called artistic because lots of gay men are in theater and fashion.  Never mind that lots are dentists, accountants and ditch diggers, as well.  (And yes, I think it’s possible for a ditch-digger to be creative.)

Hamed Abdel-Samad is a secular Muslim.  His father is an imam.  Hamed emigrated and now lives in Germany.  His latest book bears the title, Islamic Fascism.  His claim that Islam is inherently, by nature, fascistic has made a big splash in Germany, as you might imagine, given their direct personal encounter with deadly fascism.  But he refuses to back down.  The great age of tolerance that permitted religious people to live in harmony, and made what Muslims claim was a golden era, was accomplished not because of Islam, he says, but despite it.  The Islamic religion stemmed from Mecca and Medina, which never produced anything of grace and beauty, he says.  The glories attributed to the culture of Islam are misplaced.  They came because of political regimes characterized by tolerant rulers, motivated by things other than religion.  His suggestion is that one can admire the cultural accomplishments of a secularized Islam without confusing them with religion.

All this is debatable, of course, and I don’t want to debate it here.  I bring it up only to make the point that there is no justification for holding religion beyond criticism.  I am more inclined, actually, to view it as inherently pernicious.  Many think it is the chief source of morality and that it brings out the best in humankind.  We differ on what it means, that’s all.  Whatever it is, it is not synonymous with the people who buy into it.

I appreciate the impulse my friend had to defend Muslims and propose that the implied criticism of Islam was “not in the same vein,” and I think his point is well taken – the satire on Islam has a meaner touch the satire on Catholicism, Hinduism and the rest.   Perhaps I should have modified the list (I did not invent it; I merely passed it on).  But let me explain why I don’t think that is called for.

I don't think I should be intimidated by the fact that people commonly confuse a religion with the people who adhere to it.  They do those people an injustice by reducing them to some of their half-baked ideas.  I'm with those who think of religion primarily as a force for bringing out prejudice, clannishness, silliness and all manner of folly.  Yes, there are decent Muslims, maybe even 99% of them, just as maybe 99% of the adherents of any religion are decent folk.  But decent folk use religion despite its perniciousness, in my view.  It is usually not religion that makes them decent.  It is the love of caring parents and teachers that makes them decent, and possibly their own good human nature.  If they use religion to help that decency along, they do it only by cherry-picking the elements of their religion that match their inclination toward kindness and generosity and tossing the rest of it on the trash pile.

I feel under no obligation to respect a belief in angels and demons and holy spirits, any more than I should respect the belief that trolls live under bridges.  It’s people who deserve my respect.  Not the figments of their imaginations.  The right of human beings to dignity and equity is absolute, in my book.  Religious notions, on the other hand, are subject to analysis, and if they enhance the well-being of our lives in the here and now, help us foster community and lead to justice and fair play, they should be praised.  If they do the opposite, they should be subjected to ridicule and dismissal.

Islam produces great poetry, love of one's neighbor, and some say it has inspired amazing art and architecture.  I'm with Hamed Abdel-Samad in thinking they give it credit that actually belongs elsewhere, but that’s a topic for another time.  I’m willing to allow that Islam has a positive side to it.  It also has produced madmen by the thousands.  I get to satirize it.

Christianity, in that satire, was reduced to "Send money."  That ain't nice, either.  Wasn't meant to be.

We need to keep the distinctions.  Jews pray to a god who advocates bashing the heads of the children of their enemies against a rock. Screw that guy.  Screw that notion.  Most Jews have also learned to white that part of their scripture out and focus on community building instead.  And justice and fair play and decency in their interaction with others.  The religion in and of itself is not what counts; it’s what its adherents have done with it.  I should love a religion that celebrates the drowning of all those young Egyptian boys God lured into the Red Sea in pursuit of the Hebrews and then closed the waters on them?  Did their mothers not ache over their loss?

I should “respect” the stories people make up about how their God loves them better than their enemies?  This is 2015.  I respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Time to put tribalism to bed as a pernicious notion.

As I write this, the news comes in that an ultra-orthodox Jew has stabbed six people in Jerusalem at a Gay Pride March.  That’s the power of gay people to regain dignity on one side, the power of religion to generate fear and loathing on the other.  I’ll take the people any day.

Up with Catholics who feel a connection with their God through the Eucharist.  Down with a Catholicism that generates an erotophobic misogynistic deity who visits the sins of a man upon his children for seven generations.

Up with Muslims who love and care for each other and sacrifice so that their children can have a better life than they did.  Down with an Islam that urges death to those who leave the faith.

Up with Baptists who become great dancers.

The satirical poster "Religions of the world" was copied from a blog from the Philippines.  I have never met its author, Laon Laan, and I have no way of knowing if he shares any of the ideas expressed here.


U-Dig? said...

Sam Harris has talked about this very thing lately. He has a podcast that addresses it because of the fallout from his heated exchange with Ben Affleck on Realtime with Bill Maher.


If we take a broad perspective, we can see religions as just one of the tyrannizing modes that humans seem to want to employ, to answer that basic question: What should I do now? If God tells to hate others, then we can hate with impunity. Or if the Koch brothers tell us whom to demonize, then we can do that, under the aegis of trust in some higher authority.

But even atheism is no easy way out, or nihilism, or lone mass murderers who claim "I just wanted to kill people".

Truth is, there is no easy answer to "What should I do now." Any time we think someone knows all the answers, we can thank Donald Trump to show us how foolish that stance can be.