We have a blind spot in this country that gives religion a free ride instead of calling it out for what it is, the chief motivating force behind much of the violence in the world. To say nothing of keeping gay people in the demon category and women subservient to men. I’m speaking in particular of the three abrahamic religions that are at the foundation of our civilization – and to a large degree still determine our actions.
I contributed to that folly when I posted a blog entry some months ago titled “Religion is not the problem.” That was, I’m now thinking, part truth. But it was also part lie by omission. I’d like to revisit the issue.
Since I wrote that defense of religion I’ve been struck by the number of times I’ve heard people declare, usually when describing the problems in the Middle East, and ISIS in particular, “Religion is not the problem, politics is.” I think that is dead wrong. I think religion is very much the problem.
There is general agreement about the definition of religion in general. Google “definition of religion” and you’ll come up with something like “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.” Good enough for government work.
Defining particular religions and establishing who speaks for those religions is more challenging. Each organized group lays claim to the authority to define it as they will, defining themselves in and those who disagree with their basic tenets out. So while religion is distinct from politics, how it is defined is determined by power. Hence the pomp and circumstance that often accompanies religious office. I noticed recently that New Zealand has decided to accept as a religion the Pastafarians, who wear a colander on their heads as a religious symbol and worship the Great Spaghetti Monster, an “airborne spaghetti and meatballs-based being”. You can get married in New Zealand by an official Pastafarian. That’s not the case in neighboring Australia. A judge threw out a recent attempt to extend the same right there. On the other hand, in Massachusetts, the woman in the photo at the left has persuaded authorities to allow her to wear her colander as a religious accessory in her driver's license photo. Different strokes for different folks.
In the end, religion comes down the way pornography comes down – I know it when I see it.
When I was growing up just about everybody around me went to church. There were a couple Jewish families in town but they kept a very low profile. If there were atheists around, they kept an even lower one. I went to one of the two Congregational churches. There was one on each side of town, so none of us descendants of the Pilgrims would have to travel too far.
We went to church on Sunday to sit on comfortable cushions in a well-lit round space to hear the preacher tell us it was only polite to keep your lawn mowed so as not to embarrass the neighbors. Most of my friends were Catholics. They went to a cold dark place with gorgeous Gothic arches and prayed on their knees to the smell of incense, the sound of tinkling bells and the sight of flickering candles. I decided at some point their deal was more real, somehow, and began to yearn for ritual and orthodoxy, but I was too Protestant somehow to convert to Catholicism. In the end I found a lovely place, mid-way, in the Episcopal and Lutheran Churches. Not long after settling down as a Lutheran, though, I found faith had left me as surely as it had once found me. One day, my grandmother, familiar with my habit of church hopping, and more to make conversation than for any other reason, asked me, “What church are you going to these days?”
I’m an atheist, grandmother.
“As long as you believe in God,” she responded, reflecting the values of the day. For all she knew, atheists were something on the order of Quakers.
Europeans have largely left religion behind, and Americans, I expect, will tire eventually of the endless Bible-thumping we are subjected to and follow suit. Nowadays, when we talk of religion, increasingly we do so in connection with Islamic terrorism.
And where the discourse level dips down into the pits you get assholes like Donald Trump suggesting that we should keep Muslim refugees from seeking asylum from war and chaos in Syria and elsewhere. With masses of Republican lemmings following him off the cliff of reason to bar an entire group of people who can be gathered up under such a large and diverse umbrella term as “Islam.” Americans, like others of the human species, can become seriously mean-spirited when jerked around by their fears.
The lazy thinkers who make up the Trump/Cruz/Bush/Huckabee/Jindall base can’t or won’t take the time to recognize that while most terrorists these days are Muslims, most Muslims are not terrorists. They've simply got the wrong category designator. What makes it not just wrong but cruel is that it’s Muslims who suffer the most death and destruction at the hands of Islamist terrorists. We blame the victim who is running for shelter. Progressive people of good will know this and are fond of saying that Trump is a clown or an idiot and we should stop giving him so much media attention and just let him pass quickly and quietly into forgettable history.
I don’t want to spend more time on the Trump phenomenon, though. I want to focus on the false claim that progressives seem to be bending over backwards to make, that “Islamic terrorism is not about religion; it’s about politics.”
That is simply not true. People who say that are trying to defend Islam – or religion generally – by filtering out the bad parts and claiming it consists of nothing more than its most laudable aspects.
But religion is not only about singing “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam.” It’s also about the stoning of adulterers, the handling of snakes and the withholding of the sacraments of marriage and the Eucharist from gay people. To reduce religion to a few carefully selected doctrinal statements is to describe a horse by its mane and leave out the fact it has four legs. It’s not the whole picture.
Religion is a broad portmanteau word. It covers doctrine, ethical codes, clerical brotherhoods or sisterhoods, rituals, Mozart requiems and stained glass windows, the Crusades, the Reformation, the connection between the Civil Rights Movement and the Hebrew people’s exodus from Egypt, and much more. Its many faces include the institutions which house it, the damage it does while it dashes forth to do good, and the prayers and dreams of the faithful. Sometimes, as with “make me an instrument of thy peace,” those prayers are lofty. Sometimes, as in the British national anthem, they are unabashedly self-serving:
God Save the Queen
O Lord our God arise
Scatter her enemies
And make them fall
Confound their politics
Frustrate their knavish tricks
On Thee our hopes we fix
God save us all.
People have been searching for why so many young people should decide to leave their homes and go off to fight for ISIS, and wonder why the brutality and harsh conditions don’t put them off. A young man named Adam Shafi, from Fremont, in the Bay Area, made the headlines this morning in the San Francisco Chronicle. He was arrested last July while trying to board a flight for Istanbul, intending on crossing the Syrian border to join the al-Nusra Front. He is only now coming to trial. Whether the authorities have the facts right is highly disputed, but according to court records, shortly before he was arrested his phone was tapped and he was heard to say, “I just hope Allah doesn’t take my soul until I have at least, like, a couple gallons of blood that I’ve spilled for him.” Shafi, if the FBI hasn’t messed up somehow, would appear to be working with some powerful religious motivation.
I believe we make a big mistake when we allow well-intentioned Muslims to claim that theirs is a religion of peace, and overlook the fact that what drives the government of Saudi Arabia, or a fellow named Bagdadi and his many real and would-be ISIS followers, is religion that is anything but peaceful. Religion in its political mode, to be sure, but no less religious for being political.
So how do you get to what religion actually consists of? Do you reach for your catechism? If you follow the general Lutheran maxim that Christianity is sola scriptura, and throw out the need for clerics and the saints to intercede with God for you, you still have to deal with the problem of which scriptures you follow. Do you cite the parts where Christ’s earliest followers were urging slaves to obey their masters, and women to remain silent in church? Or do you limit yourself to those verses (printed in red, in the Bible I had as a child) attributed to Christ himself where he urged you to turn the other cheek and be meek? If you follow Catholic teachings, you place the magisterium, the traditional expansion of original teachings as the church evolved over the years, right up there alongside the Bible. And then, if you follow the orthodox literalists in either camp, you end up at odds with other literalists. Absolutist evangelicals insist you're only a real Christian when born again into their mindset. Absolutist Catholics will tell you St. Peter gave them the keys to the kingdom and if they say you're out, you're out. Defining religion is largely a question of power.
With Islam, authority is more diffuse, but that doesn't mean they don't play I'm right and you're wrong. In centuries past, righteous folk in Saudi Arabia would sneer at the Ottomans as al-dawlah al-kufriyya (a heretical nation), and the feeling was mutual. Shia and Sunni today are still at each other’s throats, and Muslims abroad have to contend with no end of embarrassment as Pakistanis and Egyptians and Moroccans find themselves vying to define Islam the way it's defined back home. And then there are the practical Muslims who want to circle the wagons, insist the differences are trivial, and stress unity against hostile outsider groups.
Literalists, in any religion, commonly lash out at those who “cherry pick” the parts of their religion that suit them. In response, non-literalists criticize their critics for “worshiping the Golden Calf of Literalism,” as a theologian friend of mine so poetically put it. Of course we cherry pick. There’s no choice when faced with all the contradictions.
The reason we have nothing to fear from a billion Muslims or a billion Christians, is that most religious people cherry-pick. They know how to distill the essence of love or peace or justice from the raw material known as scripture. And, in doing so, they are influenced by the secular communities they live in and increasingly governed by modern humanistic values such as gender equality and non-violence. Those of us who live in historically Christian countries still wish each other a Merry Christmas, even if we don’t believe in a Big Daddy who walked on water, and joke the Wise Men should have brought diapers, not myrrh, to the folks in the manger with the new-born. We are “culturally Christian,” just as the folk of Jewish heritage living in Israel and the diaspora who have discarded religion remain “culturally Jewish.” John F. Kennedy was able to declare that in any conflict between his church’s catechism and his country’s Constitution he would follow the latter with no difficulty. Americans understood that they could trust him to follow through on that promise, because most of us have hollowed out our religious traditions and given priority to modern cultural values over religious ones.
Imagine a world where cherry-picking does not take place and you have the kind of world which ISIS is trying to create. Religion is acceptable in modern life only when it has been spayed or neutered. We choose compassion and generosity and peace and harmony not because they are religious virtues but because they are virtues shared by religious and non-religious alike. We don’t have official prayer in schools, because such endorsement of one particular religion over another would be divisive. We keep religion from getting out of control.
In the Roman Catholic Church, modernists since Vatican II have been calling for reform, and urging more emphasis be placed on pastoral care and less on ritual and strict doctrinal adherence. They want recognition of the religious legitimacy of other faiths. Clerical loyalists, on the other hand, insist there can be no bending of the rules against women priests, no allowance for gays or adulterers at the altar, and no approval of non-reproductive sex. Will the true Roman Catholic Church please stand up!? Is it the one governed by the College of Cardinals? Or the one lived by the people in the pews who practice birth control, approve of stem-cell research and love their gay brothers and sisters? Both groups are marching to the tune of a different catholic drummer. Both are motivated. By religion, but to different ends.
Hamed Abdel-Samad, the son of an Egyptian imam, and an outspoken opponent of religious Islam, still calls himself culturally Muslim. But he insists that the so-called “Islamic Golden Age” is misnamed. The flourishing of learning from the time of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid up to the time of the Crusades happened despite Islamic influence, he says. Art and scholarship was multi-cultured, rather than Islamic. Jewish and Nestorian Christians were major contributors to learning and it was largely the translations from Hellenistic civilization and Roman cosmopolitan scholarship and the ideas they led to, as well as open debates, including criticism of Islam, that made the age “golden.” What was Islamic about it was the rigidity of thought characterized by Mecca and Medina temporarily held at bay during the Golden Age. To sweep the entire enterprise under the rubric of “Islamic,” i.e., “religious” is to credit the detractors, not the contributors to the age, says Abdel-Samad.
This is a radical notion and many would argue that Qur’anic encouragement to learning should not be underestimated. Given the arid nature of cultural life in Saudi Arabia today, though, and the propensity for orthodox Muslim organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS to destroy the contributions to world culture of the Middle Ages, methinks Hamed Abdel-Samad has a point.
The distinction between “religious” and “cultural” is admittedly muddy at times. There is a wonderful line in the movie Munich, where one of the guys the Israeli government has recruited to assassinate the killers of the Israeli Olympic team gets his opportunity. Face to face with the guy he is supposed to kill, he cannot bring himself to finish what he came for. He hears his grandmother’s voice saying, “It isn’t Jewish.” Those who respect the Jewish tradition (I am in this number) whether they are Jewish or not, might want to proclaim, “Now that is the real Judaism.” But all that means is we're declaring Judaism to be what we'd like it to be, with practices we'd like all Jews (and everybody else on the planet) to practice. But to allow religionists to define their religion only by its ideals (even if they could agree on what those ideals are) would be to turn a blind eye to how religion is lived in the real world. It would be a fantasy definition of religion. A pretense.
When someone bombs an abortion clinic and kills the doctors and staff, it’s easy to say they were “misguided” and “not really following the religion.” When nuns put unwed mothers to work in the laundries of Ireland, though, and gave their babies away, when priests give homilies at Sunday mass and tell their congregations not to vote for Catholic politicians supporting birth control or abortion, can we really say these are not religious people earnestly trying to follow the dictates of their religion? What of Saudi authorities, "guardians of Mecca and Medina," refusing to allow members of the Saudi Shia minority access to job opportunities within the kingdom open to Sunni Saudis? Is that purely political and divorced entirely from religion? When Kim Davis refused to do her job as county clerk and marry gay people “because it’s against the Bible,” wasn’t that religion as well? Particularly when you see so many of her fellow religionists lining up to support her and forming a political group to “defend religious liberty.”
When you make the argument that ISIS is “all about politics and not about Islam,” you’re ignoring the fact that Islam is by nature political. It has never separated mosque and state. Progressive people these days, seeking to diffuse interfaith animosity reduce all religions to anodyne toothless versions of themselves. "We're all the same underneath, really - both sides have their good parts and their bad parts."
Well yes, people are all the same underneath. But religions aren't. While Christ spent his time turning water into wine, calming the waves, raising Lazarus from the dead and preaching love for one's enemies, Mohammed was riding his horse into battle to slay his enemies. Correct me if I’m wrong about this but my understanding is that when the religion was growing, and Muslims were in the minority, Mohammed did as most minority people do. He urged caution and emphasized commonality. Passages written in that early period were filled with admonitions to love Christians and Jews as “people of the book.” Once Islam had made some headway, though, the Qur’an then fills up with language urging death to unbelievers. You may want to claim Mohammed meant this only to be applied to those he engaged in battle, and not as a guideline for life in the 21st century. But clearly the scripture sits there like a neon sign, food for a great many lost souls hungering for ultimate meaning in life. They find it, ultimately, in religion. And the restoration of the Caliphate, where non-believers know their place.
Stephen R. Metcalf, of the Reno-based National Security Forum, has referred to the Qur’an as “the catechism for Muslims.”
The Old Testament of the Bible, embraced by Jews, Christians and Muslims, was ostensibly an historic record. The Quran (and its associated Hadiths), on the other hand, is instructional in nature. While parts of it teach tolerance, kindness and peace, other parts teach intolerance, violence and human abuse wildly at odds with 21st Century civilization. That makes it far easier for one violent jihadist leader after another to pop up and recruit angry or frustrated Muslims to follow strict interpretations of the Quran, thinking they are serving Allah in a holy war against whomever the leaders designate as infidels.
You don’t reach these people by preaching to them they need to give up their political goals for new and better religious ones. They appear to be convinced down to the soles of their feet they’ve already got religion. Right religion. All the religion they need. Now and again a Southern Baptist can be persuaded to become a Presbyterian. Turning a jihadist Salafi into a Sufi is another order of magnitude.
I've OD'd now on German talkshows taking up topics like “Is Islam compatible with German values?” The conclusion is generally something inane, like, “Islam is a peaceful religion, just as Germany is a peaceful country.” People making that summation have a vested interest. They want to tamp down the xenophobic right wing in Germany, like those marching in the streets of Dresden with PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamicization of the Occident) and generate sympathy for immigrants, instead. Their heart is in the right place when they think praising Islam is the way to go.
I am convinced the way to go is to leave differences aside and declare Islam irrelevant. It's individual people one has to deal with, one at a time and collectively, not their faith tradition. Immigrants to Germany, not all of whom are religious Muslims, remember, need to follow the rule of law, not the rule of patriarchal individuals; they need to adhere to the notion of gender equality, to universal education, and non-violent ways of resolving differences. It really doesn't matter whether you come from a Muslim background. It does matter that you are lawful.
Easier said than done, of course. Even bio-Germans (love that neologism!) have trouble, some of them, smiling at their gay and lesbian and Jewish neighbors in the elevator. But the rule should be if you can't handle bare-breasted women on beaches you need to stay away from beaches and not harass the sunbathers. Newcomers can learn that brown glass should go into the brown glass recycling container, not the green glass container. They can learn to live with an occasional bare breast.
Germans are now debating how to make this happen. The latest policy position from Angela Merkel’s CDU Party Congress is a list of things immigrants need to be prepared to accept. Some won’t be all that hard, like stopping at red lights. Others, like recognizing the State of Israel, are going to be a challenge for a lot of people. Ditto for accepting gays holding hands and kissing in public. The CDU wants Muslims to sign a pledge to that effect. Others in parties more to the left consider that requirement asinine and unworkable, and think it should be enforced by proper modeling behavior, not by written contracts. Lefties insist there should be accommodation on both sides – “We both need to give a little.” Absent specifics, that is an empty affirmation. I’ll try to remember to wear underpants when I go out into the hall, if my nakedness bothers you, but I won’t agree to hide my gay identity. And women should never ever surrender their hard-earned gains to those with patriarchal demands.
If practices incompatible with Western democracy (gender inequality, patriarchy, tribal loyalty over the rule of law) are defended in the name of religion, we should speak out loud and make it clear nobody gets to use religion as a defense. You can put your hand on a Bible, if you like, and swear to uphold the Constitution, but you can't put your hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible. The state is grounded in laws based on equality without regard for race, religion, sex or sexual orientation. By all means go on believing your religion is all about peace, if you are a Muslim, justice, if you are a Jew, and love, if you are a Christian. But allow me to remind your fellow religionists that some of us want more than anything in the world to be free from religious injunctions. And the best way to get around all these differences is to say that religion – however you may want to define it – is not by any means part of the foundation of the actual society in which we all live. It's way past time we shed the taboo against criticism of religion.
In the 60s, when immigrants came to Europe to work, they were called guest workers. The assumption was that they would stay till until they had put some money aside and then go home. No plans were made for integrating them. In Germany, children of Turkish parents would be sent to Turkish language classes to help them on their return and their German was ignored.
Experience has shown that policy to be a disaster. The immigrants stayed, and the policy led to ghettoization. So this time they’re trying to head off a repeat of that mistake, get the Syrian immigrants into German language classes right away and on their way to full integration into German society. The problem is, many Syrian men see no reason to surrender familiar social practices grounded in abrahamic religious patriarchal traditions:
· “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands ... (Colossians 3:18)”
· "(Women) have rights similar to those (of men) over them in kindness, and men are a degree above them." (Sura 2:228).
· "And call two witness from among your men, two witnesses. And if two men be not at hand, then a man and two women. (Sura 2:282)
Fortunately, if you look at any European country – Britain, France, Germany, for example –where Muslim immigration has been going on for more than a generation, you see that assimilation has taken place and there are plenty of people who have taken on the secular values of German life, including loyalty to the rule of law and the German constitution. You can turn on German television and watch people like Serdar Somunçu, or Islam-critics Hamed Abdel-Samad, Necla Kelek, Seyran Ateş, Arzu Toker and Lamya Kaddor, or the Iranian-born German writer invited to address the Bundestag on the anniversary of the German Constitution, Navid Kermani, all of whom have left Islam behind as a religion – at least the literal interpretations of scriptures - and now participate fully in German social and political life as “cultural Muslims,” seeking justice for their fellow Muslims, religious and non-religious alike. Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, we struggle with bigoted presidential candidates blind to the fact that immigrants have always been a major source of cultural enrichment. The proposals to shut down immigration entirely has to be the most highly polished form of self-destructive stupidity.
Religion may not always be the problem, but sometimes it simply is the problem. Nothing is gained by pretending that’s not the case. Muslim individuals are usually not the problem, either, although those who cherry-pick the violent parts of Mohammed’s message need to be recognized as religiously motivated and kept from pursuing their religious goals.
We've made some bad mistakes in the way we govern ourselves. We have allowed corporate entities to abuse the rights of individuals. We have allowed the hard-earned right of blacks to vote in the South to be withered away in recent times. We have misread the Second Amendment's endorsement of militias in the case of emergencies to mean people we don't allow on airplanes cannot be restricted from buying automatic weapons. And we have convinced ourselves that religion should be respected.
Religion is an idea and ideas are to be debated, not respected. People, on the other hand, are worthy of respect. But only if they don't use religion to beat you over the head with.
photo credit: colander as religious accessory