Religio Ad Verbum: How Literal Interpretations of Holy Books are Destroying Our World, Pt. 2

Churches and religions pride themselves in having compiled in volumes all the rules by which humanity is supposed to live by and what our roles in society should be. However, what little morality can be found in the Quran can also be found in the cheapest crime novel you can find at your local gas station. The rest of it can be derived simply from common sense and from the connection people form with their fellow human beings. Unless a serious mental illness is preventing someone from acting rationally, there is no way to miss simple moral acts that enrich human experience, i.e. being kind to others, helping those in need, minding others’ fears and feelings, etc. Why? Because we can relate to all these things solely by our own experience of being alive.

Unfortunately, there are those who don’t see it this way and for them, their own interpretation of things is the only interpretation. Belief, based on these interpretations, becomes a dangerous tool to wield. Ideas can be molded into anything, and detrimentally to everyone, in the minds of those whom religion already provides a preemptive answer to everything, interpretation is not born out of logic of differentiating patterns, but rather it is the mental equivalent of muscle memory, a learned behavior with only one intended consequence- hegemony.

In religion, mainly the monotheistic Abrahamic religions, when a bad idea is sanctioned by the text from which it comes from, it is standard procedure not to question it or its origin, but rather accept it and love it as having providence in the mysteriousness of a deity almost as obscure and unknown as the people who claim to have been the messengers of it. When does it become inconvenient for us to question it or outright reject it? How far must things go before we realize that the things we are made to believe really cause pain to people? Certainly not far enough if people truly believe in this day and age that the actions of Abraham were appropriate and warranted simply because it was god’s word. How far can we go if people will be made to believe that subservience is the way to heaven? After all, not more than half a century ago people still believed that the separation between races was divinely mandated. This is an example of how diluted our common sense can become when we are made to believe things that many generations before us could not concretely explain. Must we destroy the entire world before we start to question things?

Christianity has “evolved” over thousands of years from a small insignificant rebellion to the leading form of organized “consciousness” (for lack of a better word in this context) that humanity has ever participated in. It is essentially the most deadly self-imposed psychological experiment that in one way or another has changed the world, sometimes for the worse. In its infancy Christianity was harmless, just another cult, but as its numbers inflated violently for the very first centuries, Christians were known as terrorists, rebels, and racially inferior beings (sound familiar?). They were despised, persecuted, tortured and executed. It should be funny to note that during those first centuries, the desperation of pagans seeing their gods being replaced by a foreign one must have been quite a culture shock.

Following the Constantine decree that Christianity was to become the official religion of the Roman Empire, the cult then sought to infect nations and radicalize them either by “the word” or by the sword. Early Christians experienced a sort of either-you’re-with-us-or-against-us attitude and committed atrocities in the name of unreason. Of course I can’t say this is exclusive to Christians, for earlier religions much did the same, imposing their own mythologies onto other groups of people. This new mythical thing of incredible proportions became faith. Faith then turned out to be the invisible lighthouse in the shores of reason, a place where all sailors wanted to be drawn to but that clad in obscurity it took an enormous amount of effort to find. Not surprisingly, over the centuries many ships have capsized in this place.

Star and crescent icon

Much in the same way that Christianity spread its message by blood, and occasionally by peace, Islam and radicalized Muslims do the same today. Historically speaking, the spread of Islamism was much quicker and much more brutal than Christianity ever was, at least in the first centuries of its creation. Compared within the same time period, no doubt Islam would have been far more effective at indoctrinating the masses. But that is only possible admitting that Islam was born out of the sword of an illiterate warlord who sought to conquer over his oppressors come what may.

The thought that Islam under the caliphates was at one point the better of all evils, and that it advanced mathematical and scientific advancement, is one of the most recycled untruths (not lies) that we tell ourselves during our time. It is no more true than saying that we now have a deep knowledge of the universe because of Christianity. People of science and logic can be found anywhere and everywhere, it only takes the right incentive to provoke them to share their curiosity with the world. However, I cannot overlook the fact that indeed thinkers under ancient Islam were not as restricted under the banner as Christians were under Christianity. Sadly, I can’t say that about “modern” Islam. The brutality with which purely Muslim governments enforce Shari’a Law is the same with which Inquisitors enforced the canon of the Catholic church, and as a result what we have is a new inquisition period, the new Dark Ages. What’s so surprising is that heads are still rolling for imaginary crimes in an age when we can peer into the darkest spots of the known universe. Seeing the events unfold, we have the responsibility to ask ourselves and each other, “How can this possibly still be going on?”

Under the current modus operandi of Islamic nations it seems that the Quran is not taken out of context, as some might believe, but something much worse, it is understood by the most literal interpretation it can be given. If at some point we thought it was a hypocritical thing to cherry-pick the Bible to find passages that conveniently suited our moral needs, then I suggest we go back to that and try to convince our Muslim brethren to do the same. At our demise, the phrase “Beware what you wish for” comes to mind. Then again wishing that it wasn’t so is basically the secular equivalent to praying it wasn’t so.

Islam it seems has inherited the proverbial scepter of unreason. But let me clarify before I start receiving hate-mail. It is not Islam that I have a problem with, but rather literal Islam that I hate. Before we begin to convince ourselves of the fairy-tale illusion that there are many moral passages in the Quran to constitute a moral rule-book to follow, let me tell you that often in the same passages of the hadith where a moral passage can be found, an equally immoral one can also be found. The greatest problem we come across it seems is recognizing what is moral?

As if it wasn’t enough to see women clad in black and knowing that they have been genitally mutilated as children (prominent practice in some Muslim countries and also in some Christian ones), it has become the job of some cynics to declare that the people doing this sort of thing are just radicals and misunderstand and twist the word of the Quran and the Bible. What they continually fail to realize is that these “radicals” are not a band of illiterate sheepherders as they sued to be, or warriors as Mohammad himself was, but rather people of broad-reaching influence such as heads of state and religious leaders. It is not the ignorant who dictate policy, it is the learned. The radicals that we mention command armies and lead nations, these are not gangs, these are people who truly believe every word they read down to the last punctuation mark and they use it to maintain a strict control upon their populations. Whether or not this oppression exists solely for the purpose of near-total hegemonic social control, such as in the case of societies like Saudi Arabia, is something that changes from country to country, from tribe to tribe, and even within the same religion (i.e. Shia Muslims vs. Sunni Muslims, Catholics vs. Protestants, etc.) The fear that we have is not with moderate Muslims, although we should be cautious of their beliefs much in the same way that we are cautious of the beliefs of others such as Christians, Jews, and indeed my fellow atheists- our fear should be grounded in the radicalizing of these moderates as ISIL and other warring factions have effectively managed to do by spreading propaganda with the message that to wage holy war against infidels (everyone who is not a Muslim) is glorious. And what’s more, that to die is immensely better than to live. This is a highly dangerous position to take and defend. As philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris has said, “These people love death more than we love life.”

 

And if none of this convinces you of the severity of the problem then perhaps you will be more sympathetic when you realize that ISIS tortures and kills children, and all we can do is impotently watch in our computer and television screens as it happens. Does any reasonable person dare say that this is not the work of Muslims but rather the work of psychopaths misled to think this is the path to heaven?

This oppression that exists, not only of the body but mainly of the mind then becomes like a poison that kills the fertile ground of thought, and lets nothing grow. The most passive verses of the Quran are continually ignored while those which spell out in detail how to punish and control people are followed to the letter, and they work very effectively. If you thought Communism was bad, theocracy is much worse. Children are brought up thinking that this sort of behavior should be tolerated, celebrated, and repeated. In consequence we have generations upon generations and waves upon waves of faith-fighters willing to die as martyrs in defense of their twisted ideals. Teaching kids that infidels are only good for killing, or that the opinion of a woman is only half of that of a man, does not make children moral, it makes them immoral, or if anything it makes them amoral. To push the envelope a little bit further (perhaps not exaggerating), whole generations are being indoctrinated and groomed as reserves for some future holy war that some are praying, and praying hard, that will one day come. How can we hope to win a war against those who willingly walk to their deaths to defend nothing more than the right to die gloriously as we fight to defend life? It seems almost impossible. Within those circles, the interpretation that is given for men to follow has perpetuated an endless war with the perfect breed of warriors willing to die happily.

Much like the Roman Catholic Church in the Dark Ages, these Muslim theocracies appear to be highly organized even in the face of auto-radicalism. Is there a shred of doubt that they would all wish to see Israel, or the U.S., or the E.U. in ashes rather than form a peaceful world? Of course not. And it seems that money is basically the only thing keeping some of these societies at bay from erupting into war. But how long will this strategy of showering these countries with gold last? When the oil dries up and there is nothing more to sell, what will happen then? If greed fails, what other cards do we have to play?

Even within our nations it seems that the squalling within misinformed liberal groups is giving the enemy the advantage of ideological warfare. While we question what constitutes criticism of religion and indeed freedom of speech, radical Muslims have no problem using social platforms created by Western countries such as Facebook and Twitter to shamelessly (and cowardly) recruit among our own populations. For now it seems their strength lies solely in pushing propaganda, not in their numbers or even in the hope to fight established nation. But for how long? Can we allow this to change? These are questions that must be asked now.

Morality is a tricky thing sometimes. Occasionally it’s difficult to assert correctly what is moral, after all not all moral decisions are good and not all good decisions are moral. But in order to enjoy the benefits of living in a society where its citizens are happy, the freedom to speak one’s mind is paramount to the contribution of that happiness and the cornerstone in building that type of nation. Although I believe that morality is rooted in what we find pleasurable and good without the need to affect others, I also believe that it is corruptible. Some moral things that were considered good and moral before are not any longer and so we have to be able to make that distinction correctly. In that sense, morality has to derive at least in part to the freedom to let your mind be known, for only then can people be aware of other people’s true intentions. And when that right is infringed upon, it creates a domino effect that is very hard to get away from unscathed.

Before the European Enlightenment brought reason back into the minds of people, awakening them from a long slumber, nations had to fight each other for ideological supremacy but also for freedom from oppression which they themselves created. History became a vicious cycle hard to break away from, and men perpetuated this cycle by fueling it with ideas that did not benefit the group en masse, but that only satisfied their own desires. It would be unfair to say that collective reason was completely absent during these times, for even during the Dark Ages there were people who dared to think. If that sounds surprising to read it’s because it is. Yet, from the heap of garbage that myth and unreason originate, sometimes we can find something of great value there.

But while we waste our time looking for these scattered moral passages, ISIL (or ISIS or IS) will have already executed several thousand people, most of them innocent, most of them Muslim, and some of them foreign nationals. ISIS will have also brutally  killed thousands of children and tortured many more people for crimes that should only be judged in an Inquisition court. All of it done in the name of Islam and to defend the honor of a “prophet” long gone. We can go on and on how Islam is a religion of peace, but until we get our hands dirty and dig into these passages ourselves will we know just what exactly is being taken out, or read into, context. And if you are religious, I urge that you do not make comparisons between your religion and Islam, for if taken literally, the Bible is just as violent and damaging as the Quran, and perhaps even more.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali speaking at a conference.  photo credit: RA_Sun_286 via photopin (license)

Ayaan Hirsi Ali speaking at a conference.
photo credit: RA_Sun_286 via photopin (license)

It is true enough that we must not blame the wrong people for these atrocities, and it is equally true that only those who commit these crimes must be held accountable. I believe we can all understand that no person wants to be blamed for the crimes of another- even if they subscribe to remotely the same beliefs. But what is imperative for us to realize is that these crimes are not perpetuated in defense of reasons that are beyond their control (race, nationality), instead they are the deliberate result of manufactured beliefs that unfortunately are also shared by those whom are affected most by them, innocent people who also read the Quran or the Bible whose innate morality leads them to reject the obvious immoral passages of these books. The most effective way for moderate Muslims to distance themselves from those who use their religion as a scaffold to greater crimes is simply to weed them out. I admit, it is only simple in theory. The responsibility falls on the moderates to reform Islam, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali has declared, or to edit the Koran itself to reflect 21st century views. Muslims should not fear for that portion of history to be lost, like the Magna Carta- another very important ancient text, and one of the many documents from which the Constitution is based on- the original Quran will never be lost, but it can be updated.

And it is the job of reasonable people to collectively denounce injustice wherever we see it. We should speak out the truth in defense of reason and common sense and be fearless in our resolute goal of condemning censorship of any kind. Admittedly, there will be times when there is little we can do in the adversity, but when we prove to them and ourselves that we are united in this goal, we can surely make some kind of change, even if it’s in our own communities.

Like Christianity, Islam will eventually be reformed. One should hope that it happens by “the word” and not by “the sword,” as religions have done to spread their message. But that, it seems, for now at least, that is our of our control.

Personal interpretation based on our own understanding of the contents of whatever it is we’re reading sometimes is not much more dangerous than blindly following someone else’s interpretation of it. But it is a good place to start. It’s possible we will never rid the world of unreason, of violence and fear, of injustice. But if we shake the foundations of everything we know- or rather everything we think we know- perhaps we can make this one world we have a better place. To question everything should be a mantra to follow.

.

.

In Memory of the victims of Charlie Hebdo and the victims of radicalism.

.

.

For more information please check out the following interesting links:

http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/01/02/islam-will-not-have-its-own-reformation/

http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/fgm/fgm_reinfibulation_central_Sudan/en/

http://nation.com.pk/blogs/28-Dec-2014/jack-in-a-box

http://www.pewglobal.org/2010/12/02/muslims-around-the-world-divided-on-hamas-and-hezbollah/

Advertisements

The Crusaders of Reason (?)

 As you may remember, a few weeks ago, Bill Maher and Ben Affleck had a little spat on Maher’s show Real Time with Bill Maher, where Maher denounced Islam for its anti-progressive, sometimes brutal, nature and where Affleck got all 5-year-old on Maher for being- as he (in)famously put it- a racist. Now, there was a player in there that most people (who are not atheists) don’t recognize but who has for some time been making some serious waves in the public discourse about why we need a more secular America, and indeed a more secular world for that matter, and that man was the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris.

During the debate, which you have probably already seen on YouTube, Harris sides with Maher and denounces Islam as basically a modern 14th Century Christianity, in reference to the ways the Catholic Church brutally and greedily maintained the status quo and wanted to convert  everyone to the faith Inquisition style. During the debate, Harris makes some pretty incendiary, but true, claims about Islam and about Muslims  who cowardly hide behind the Koran and its texts to justify bloodbaths and acts of terrorism. As it went on, Harris remained completely cool and collected while he talked about the punishment for apostasy in Muslim countries, the treatment of women and homosexuals, and the overall thinking of the majority of Muslims outside the Middle Age… East. Outside the Middle East, excuse me.

For the most part, the other invited guests, contributed little to the discussion although they made one or two good points worth remembering but not worth mentioning here. The whole exchange was mostly between Affleck and Harris, where Mr. Harris said something along the lines of Islam is bad for women, progressives and people wanting to leave the religion and where Affleck usually cut him off or sneered at him without contributing much of weight to the conversation beyond calling him a racist or a bigot. I’m sure that Affleck was speaking out of the kindness of his heart having never heard of Sam and his extensive work and history on the eternal battle between reason and religion. And if you are also not familiar with Harris’ work then maybe it is also reasonable to you take the position Affleck took, after all, outside of context, what Sam Harris and Bill Maher were saying does sound a bit bigoted. But again, put in context what they were advocating was that Liberals have not taken enough responsibility to denounce Islam for its failures as they have done with other religions like Christianity and Judaism.

This is all old-news to you, but here’s where it gets interesting. In the aftermath of the debate, weird things in the political circle started happening. Many News shows, some of them Fox “news” programs- came to the aid of Harris and Maher, known secularists and liberals whom Conservatives and its subsidiaries (Fox) often view with untrusting eyes.

Panelist Greg Gufeld- a self-described agnostic and Libertarian- and part of the the Fox News chain program “The Five” said during a recent airing of the show, “What you see is the crises that takes hold when liberal orthodoxy faces off with real attacks on liberal orthodoxy.” Which I find odd, since it is hardly liberal orthodoxy to want a society that is reasonable and devoid of bad ideas. He goes on to say, “Yes, we get that it’s wrong to stereotype but then we study the facts…” He then ends his segment with a rather funny and contemptuous remark about Maher saying, “…and in a shock to even himself, Maher becomes the sanest man in the room, how’s that?”

Bill O’Reilly in his own Fox News Show “The O’Reilly Factor” also remarked Islam’s isolated ideology, but not because of the dangerous  influence a literal interpretation can cause but rather because he still holds an outdated, crusade mentality that Christianity is the right answer in this whole conflict. “Islam is  a destructive force in the world…”, he says without offering a better alternative other than his own religion. Surprisingly, O’Reilly turns a bit more objective and logical even though the evangelist message, although subtle, continues to be implied.

Not only did all these guys side with Harris, but they went so far to denounce Affleck- a known liberal- as stupid or as someone who didn’t know what he was talking about. It was hilarious for me to see that because in virtually NO other context but to denounce Islam as a religion for which war and death is the path to eternal salvation would they have sided with Harris on that matter. And while the debate between the movie star and the scholar was clearly lopsided in the direction of Harris, it was entertaining and informative to see the way that secularists think about the different angles of religious freedom not just here in the U.S. but abroad, and especially in the Middle East.

While Affleck is a smart guy and very knowledgeable and entitled to his opinion- as Sam Harris himself put it in an essay he wrote days after the exchange- he is no authority or an expert on religious fundamentalism, freedom of religion, or rather lack of, especially regarding Islam and Islamophobia and the history and rise of militarized Islam and its influence on the modern world. It seems Affleck sees the argument through the eyes of a romantic defending a bunch of misled young boys. He was obviously not interested with anything Harris had to say or even familiar with his work which, I’m sure, he would have agreed with a lot of it had he given it a page-through.

But this is exactly where the fabric of time seems to disintegrate as logic dissolves. If you know anything about Sam Harris, he is one of the men some Christians call one of the “Four Horsemen”, this of course in reference to the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The brilliant Christopher Hitchens famously mocked the eponym by saying they were in fact “The Four Horsemen of the non-apocalypse.” Harris, as was Hitchens, is a man who is an atheist to his very core going so far as to even hating the word itself for its presumption that to be anti something, it must exist.

photo credit: jurvetson via photopin cc

photo credit: jurvetson via photopin cc

Over the years, Dr. Harris has written many books about the uselessness of religion in today’s society and other philosophical concepts. He has also debated with dozens of religious apologists from different religions and various politicians from either side, using honest and verifiable rebuttals, while also making his point. But it’s not all Dr. Harris has managed to do since he wrote the New York Time’s Best Seller “The End of Faith”, in his books he not only takes the path of the rank atheist, he steps up the game and proposes alternatives to religious doctrine, something which many before him wouldn’t do. Sam Harris has openly declared that the way towards true equality is not religion, but reason. This is where Fox, Republicans and most serious Christians come in.

The Republican Party- that’s the guys with the elephant- is, as you know, a political organization (1 of 2) that has a very strong Christian base. Ironically, the Republicans want a smaller government in theory but in reality they expand the government  more than Democrats have done, logically from their close attachment to corporations and corporate interests (which tend to favor big government), most staunchly decline the idea of man-induced global warming- or global warming itself- and they are big on weapon rights. I say this is ironic, because according to Christian principles, these do not align with Christianity or the teachings of Jesus. But among their many accomplishments, they have successfully re-branded Christianity over a generation to fit their own agendas. In a sense, they use the name of Christianity and the Bible, sometimes illegally, to justify injustice at the grandest scales to fit an outdated way of thinking. It’s not about traditional American values, it’s about slowing down progress. I’m not saying that Democrats don’t go down the same road also, but statistically speaking, not in the record numbers that Republicans do.

The psychology of the Republican party is led by the status quo. Which is why progress in areas like gay marriage and gay rights, immigration, the integration of minorities into the political scene, global healthcare coverage and the environment, among others- is rather slow.Republican elephant over bright background

America, being the melting pot that it is with its thousands of religions, thousands of languages, and hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world, is, in a sense, no place for Republicans. For example, more than freedom itself, most Republicans wish that America was an officially Christian country, which is kind of like saying, “You can have freedom of religion as long as it’s Christianity.” Most also wish to make English the official language of the U.S., and limit the inflow of immigration. And while I am inclined to agree with some of what they propose in these and other areas, most I think should be rejected outright. It is, I think, safe to say that most Republican voters would support a bill to amend the part of the Constitution that grants us all, not only freedom of religion but also freedom from religion. I think you can see where this is leading.

So in one corner, we have Sam Harris, a man of reason and science, and in the other we have the Republican Party, staunch defenders of the faith.

I believe that we as Americans, and within a smaller circle we as atheists, are placing the emphasis on the wrong argument. It shouldn’t be whether Affleck or Harris were right, I think the bigger question is whether Harris or the Republicans are right. Ben Affleck is indeed a hothead, but for all practical purposes, partially correct about the things he says. I believe that given all the information, he can be persuaded about this issue, or at least he would reasonably admire its assertive points. But the Reps on the other hand only agree with Harris because the flawless Christian nation they want this country to be should have nothing to do with Islam. In other words, the crusaders in Armani suits wouldn’t really be so against the idea of waging holy war in the name of Christianity. The-enemies-of-my-enemies-are-my-friends sort of thing.

The Republican party is not really in the side of reason, they just hate Islam more than they hate Harris. And in the off-chance that one of ’em rascals reads this blog, I write it with the utmost sincerity, and anybody who is willing to dispute that claim they can certainly make a case for it.

Eventually, the debate will blow over in the political spectrum and something else will take its place. But what we can take from it, is that this has opened the debate among atheists, and people of all faiths, about just how far we are willing to go to protect bad ideas. While you may think that the current form of Islam is just another religion taking its course and that it has been hijacked by psychopaths, I am willing to bet that the Islam from a thousand years ago was in many ways much more tolerant and progressive, while the Christianity from the same era was brutal and imposing. It seems the roles have changed.

This brings us to ask the question of just how tolerant we are willing to be about a religion that advocates mass murder, misogyny, and illiteracy? And no I’m not talking about Christianity, although the shoe also fits. This forces us to ask among ourselves, just how long we are going to tolerate many bad ideas that are comfortable for a few good ones that are uncomfortable. Change is difficult, but is it more difficult than human suffering and injustice?

Maybe one day, Islam will go the way of Christianity and reform itself without the help of the rest of the world. Maybe Christianity one day will become as thousands of religions have become before it, simply an interesting myth. Maybe Ben Affleck will one day read the works of Harris and understand that while it sounds pretty bad to denounce an entire population for their beliefs, it is in fact their beliefs we are criticizing. After all, no, we don’t have to respect everyone’s beliefs. I would not be willing to accept anyone’s personal beliefs that racism is a good thing or that women are not equal to men. This type of acceptance is dangerous for a population. But more than anything, I hope that maybe one day, politicians can take this all in and understand that beliefs are not mere political tools, but actual instruments of liberation or repression used by the sane and the psychotic alike in a dangerous game of chess where people die when nations go to war because of them.

 

 

If you would like to know more about Sam Harris and his website, Project Reason, and his blog, here are the following links to both, respectively.

http://www.project-reason.org/

http://www.samharris.org/blog