Tuesday, December 01, 2015

The Things We Choose to Believe

It has been said by people wiser than I that there are subjects one should never discuss. Politics is one. Anything to do with guns (other than worshipful praise) is another. And religion is a third.

As you know, I don't mind discussing politics, although discussing is not always the right word when one's points are often rebutted with ad hominem attacks, non sequiturs, and blind nonsense. Nevertheless, I soldier* on.

As you also know, I have decided no longer to get into the national "debate" on guns, because the rationality train on both sides of the argument sailed a long time ago, and I'm tired of thoughtful discourse being replaced by stupid memes, accusations of my personal stupidity, historical irrelevancies, and arguments of false equivalency. Go ahead and ignore reality if you like, just leave me out of it.

That leaves religion, and depending on how this post is received, it may be the last time I choose to chum those most dangerous of waters.

In the aftermath of the horrific terror attacks by Islamic lunatics in Paris and Bamako, and the murder of several people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs by a man who was apparently an anti-abortion Christian zealot, the level of hysterical rhetoric has reached levels that surprise even me. Lunatics like Donald Trump advocate building databases to track Muslims, political figures who should know better advocate creating government agencies to advance "Judeo-Christian values"**, and more than half of the nation's governors have demanded that no refugees from Syria or other middle Eastern countries be resettled in their states.

Between the religious crazies of Daesh, Boko Haram, and other radical Islamist groups and the religious crazies of the American Christian far right, it looks like a race to the bottom to see who can espouse the most foul and despicable expressions of religious belief.

With that as an introduction, let me say by way of disclaimer that I am not a religious scholar, nor am I even a "religious" person in the generally accepted sense. I was baptized as a Byzantine Rite Catholic, grew up in a Roman Catholic household, and attended Mass regularly (also serving as a lector) all the way through my college years. As I grew older, traveled more, and saw and experienced more of the world, I gradually fell away from organized religious belief and adopted a more spiritual (for want of a better word) approach. We can discuss the grand philosophical implications of this another time ... what I want to do now is make some comments about the ugly and angry religious fights that make our current world so dangerous. In a series of occasional posts, I want to talk about why I see little difference between the worst Christians and the worst Muslims, beginning with how practitioners of both faiths approach their holy scriptures.

In his great satirical work "The Devil's Dictionary," writer Ambrose Bierce defined Scriptures as, "The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based." This is about as true as it gets.

For Christians, the Bible is the final, complete, and unerring word of God, true and complete in every detail ... devout Christians spend countless hours in Bible study, seeking deeper understanding of the text.

For Muslims, the Quran is the final, complete and unerring word of God, true and complete in every detail, with every letter of every word exactly as it was passed (in Arabic) from God to Mohammed by way of the angel Gabriel ... many devout Muslims devote themselves to memorizing the entire Quran as an expression of faith.

It seems fairly clear to me that both books can't be the final, revealed word of God ... and who's right depends on whether you are a Christian or a Muslim.

But regardless of how deeply each religion believes in the absolute and complete truth of its scripture, the real truth is that Christians and Muslims must each learn to read and accept those books selectively. The Bible of the New Testament is the story of a loving God of peace and acceptance, whereas the Bible of the Old Testament (see the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus in particular) specifies some fairly savage punishments for transgressions of The Law*** ... in order to accept Christianity as a religion of love and tolerance, modern Christians learn to believe around these parts of the Bible. Likewise, Muslims - in order to live with their picture of Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance - must read the Quran selectively, ignoring the verses that, for instance, allow men to beat their wives+ and tell believers to fight and subjugate those who follow other faiths++. Few good Christians nowadays kill adulterers or stone their rebellious children to death; likewise, few Muslim men (outside of ultraconservative garden spots like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan) beat their wives or randomly murder their Christian neighbors+++.

Consider the argument about whose religion is one of peace and compassion. Muslims like to point out that the Quran begins with the words, "In the name of God the merciful, the compassionate," and yet some Muslims manage to wreak horrible violence on innocents through selective reading and interpretation of the rest of the text. Christians point out the beauty of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5: 1-12), the peaceful and beautiful story of the Nativity (Luke 2: 1-20), and phrases like "Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, you do unto me" (Matthew 25:40), and yet some Christians manage to shoot up abortion clinics, rail against social programs to help the poor, and scream in outrage at the admission of Syrian refugees into this country.

People of good will, mercy, and compassion will find verses in both the Bible and the Quran to which they can point to justify their deepest beliefs. People who wish to use God as a weapon with which to force their beliefs on others can find the same. Belief tends to be selective.

I realize that I am - to use a religious expression - preaching to the converted. If you understand my point, you're probably nodding your head in agreement; if, however, you are a devout believer, you are probably shaking your head in disbelief that I fail to grasp the total, ultimate truth of the (insert your choice of holy scripture here). It's a matter of perspective.

Have a good day. Read your chosen scripture with an eye toward the Golden Rule, and you'll help to make the world a better place.

More thoughts tomorrow.


* No offense intended to sailors, airmen and Marines.

** I realize that the only part of the Constitution that many Americans care about is the Second Amendment, but we do also have a number of other Amendments, including the very First, which begins with the words, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This seems pretty clear to me, if not to some of the bozoheads running for president.

*** For example: "And the man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death" (Leviticus, 20:10); “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear" (Deuteronomy, 21: 18-21)

+ "Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great." (Quran, 4:34)

++ "Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Messenger have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection." (Quran, 9:29)

+++ It is a crime in Saudi Arabia to adhere to any religion other than the Wahabi version of Islam, and Pakistan is not noted for its gentle tolerance of other faiths.

Offer not applicable in much of the Middle East and the American Bible Belt.


eViL pOp TaRt said...

Your comments make incredible sense. There should be enough compassion found in religion, whatever it might be. And all religions should practice the Golden Rule. The Constitution expressly forbids "the establishment of religion."

John Hill said...

It is obvious to most people that not all religions can be right as come contradict one another.

What is less obvious is that it is possible that all religions are wrong.

Study of what one believes and knowing why one believes it is important. Bilbo's rule of don't let anyone do your thinking for you applies to religious beliefs as well as politics or anything else.

Mike said...

"It's a matter of perspective."

Ain't that the truth!

Kerrie Hollihan said...

Well said, Bill.

Grand Crapaud said...

Very effective points!

allenwoodhaven said...

There you go, using logic and common sense again. You expressed it well, but some people are immune to logic and sense. That's extremely unfortunate because they really need it!

Alice Sycamore said...


Kate said...