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
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
I think religion is very
much the problem.
There is general agreement about the definition of religion
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
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.
while religion is distinct from politics, how it is defined is determined by
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
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
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
Not long after settling down
as a Lutheran, though, I found faith had left me as surely as it had once found
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.
we talk of religion, increasingly we do so in connection with Islamic
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 t
o 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
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.
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
I don’t want to spend more time on the Trump phenomenon,
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.
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.
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:
their knavish tricks
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
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.”
the FBI hasn’t messed up somehow, would appear to be working with some powerful
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,
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Metcalf, of the Reno-based National Security Forum, has referred
to the Qur’an
as “the catechism
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
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, c
hildren 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
"(Women) have rights similar to those (of
men) over them in kindness, and men are a degree above them."
"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
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
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
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.
: colander as religious accessory