Toward a better understanding of religion: Muslim edition

I rarely talk about my personal religious beliefs, because they’re, well, personal. They’re supposed to be, too, according to most religions. Just saying…

Basically, I don’t believe in religion. I’m not a full-fledged atheist, because I admit I don’t know enough. None of us does. For Chrissakes, people; after millions of years, we just discovered the universe a few hundred years ago, and we haven’t even begun to explore other stars or planets. As I suggest in my novel, “Not Another Savior,” how do we know we’re not part of some experiment in a lab by a “creator” named Phineas? How do we know we humans don’t keep blowing up planets, and this is our third or fourth try? The answer is, we don’t, which makes strident religionists and strident atheists roughly the same to me. You don’t know anything, really, so stop pretending you do. The “Big Bang” is as valid a possibility as any, and evolution is just a fact of life; one we see every day. Like I said; we don’t know anything, really.

When I first heard the Ben Affleck vs Bill Maher and Sam Harris exchange on “Real Time” last week, I found myself disagreeing with both sides. First of all, I have to admit to being sick of adding the suffix “-phobia” to everyone who sports an ignorant viewpoint on something having to do with other people. Given the hysteria in the press regarding Islam, is it any wonder people are afraid of it?

I did find myself agreeing with Maher about the hypocrisy of many liberals when it comes to religion, but frankly, he’s one of the biggest hypocrites on that score. I love “Religulous,” because it set just the right tone, and it discussed the absurdity and lack of originality in most of the stories. Religion that takes an absolutist view of a book like the Bible and treats it like a history book is ridiculous, and most beliefs are silly to me. Key words: to me. I regularly challenge “born agains” on their absolutist judgmental beliefs, and I have made more than a few cry. But they only hear from me when they try to judge me or other people, when they try to force their beliefs onto me or others, or they start talking about the Bible as if it’s “fact.”

Remember when I said I don’t believe in religion of any kind? Well, I also don’t care what anyone else believes in, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. If it works for you, and you feel it makes your life better, you’ll find no greater supporter than me.

This is the problem with the argument that any religion itself is the cause of evil in the world. The evidence says otherwise. For example, there are approximately 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, and a scant few of them are “Islamists,” jihadists and “radical fundamentalists.” Now, if Muslims are required to commit jihad against non-believers and infidels, as atheists like Maher and Harris suggest, then explain why is there not a lot more carnage. Could it be that most Muslims think, as most Christians, Jews and other religionists do, that the religious texts they’re supposed to follow are simply guidebooks and they don’t take them as seriously as Maher and Harris would have you believe? That seems likely, really, given that so many muslims live peacefully and don’t commit terrorist acts.

And just as an aside, when Harris cites “polls” of Muslims, my eyes glaze over and I find it difficult to not laugh.. Polls here are usually wrong, and most of us have phones, are literate enough to read a newspaper and we’re all from the same culture. So, pardon me when I don’t buy “polls” that claim “78% of Muslims” thought that the Danish cartoonist who drew pictures of Muhammad should be prosecuted. They’re meaningless. First off, where were these Muslims? Were they in Saudi Arabia, and did they they think the poll might be a trick by the Saudi royal family? How about those in Iran, who might consider such a question a trap by the Mullahs? Isn’t it possible that many of such answers based on the fact that they didn’t trust the pollster, and they were afraid the authoritarian government might get hold of the answers? Give me a break. To poll a few thousand people with a common religion but diverse cultural differences is about as bogus as it gets.

Which leads to the other problem with Maher’s and Harris’ generalized critiques of Islam; which of their complaints are based on religion, and which are based on their culture and/or their form of government? Those are valid factors, and to dismiss those in favor of anti-religious fervor is wrongheaded. Muslims in Bahrain, Qatar and Indonesia live very differently than those in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria, because of different approaches to government. Many of the countries in which the worst atrocities happened are authoritarian, and less-authoritarian governments don’t seem to have the same problems. The worst violations of the liberal principles Maher and Harris claim to be defending mostly occur in authoritarian countries, or countries with ineffective governments that allow radical groups to flourish. What does any of that have to do with Islam? Back when we were allowing slavery to flourish, slave owners used Christianity as a rationale for owning black people, but abolitionists also claimed Christianity as a rationale for ending it. Would it have been fair to blame Christianity for slavery? Even today, Michael Brown’s family was probably Christian, as was Darren Wilson’s. Would it be fair to blame the police shooting in Ferguson on Christianity? Also, how do you square blaming these atrocities on Islam, when most of the victims are themselves Muslim?

In the case of ISIS/ISIL, for example, they are extremist Sunni Muslims who seek to commit genocide. Their focus, however is Shiites, who are also Muslim. So how could “Islam” be the problem? That’s easy and it’s convenient, but it’s obviously wrong. Some countries with Muslim majorities actively repress people, like Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran. However, the people they’re repressing are also Muslim. Most of the clashes in the Middle East are actually cultural, not religious. If Maher and Harris would analyze the situation more closely, they’d find that many of the conflicts in the region actually go back before they were Muslim.

This type of thinking goes along with the notion that countries with a majority Muslim population are all primitive, and stuck in the stone age. That’s just a stereotype, and largely inaccurate. Until the Iranian revolution, Iran was actually very cosmopolitan and westernized. And Iraq was that way before the Gulf War. They didn’t live in caves and go to their local “medicine man” for health care; they had hospitals run and staffed by doctors who were trained in European and American medical schools.

On some issues, countries that are majority Muslim are ahead of us. For instance, while Maher and Harris like to point out the fact that women in some majority Muslim countries are oppressed and undergo female genital mutilation, many countries do not. In fact, eight majority Muslim countries have elected female leaders, and we have yet to elect one. If it’s fair to note that some Muslim countries hold down women (and it is), we should also note that Benazir Bhutto was elected Prime Minister long before any woman in the United States was elected president. We also don’t pay women the same as men, and it’s only been recently that women were allowed to handle their own financial affairs. We’re not really all that far ahead on some levels. Is that a function of our being a “Christian nation”? We’re not a Christian nation at all, but a nation with a Christian majority, of course.

Why do so many people want to look at religion first, without even considering culture? In the Middle East, for example, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed a century ago, western powers carved up the region into de facto “countries” based on oil reserves without regard to ethnic or tribal differences. They then proceeded to install corrupt regimes in those “countries,” made up of people who just happened to be friendly to the “host country.” So, why would anyone jump straight to Islam as the root cause of the problems in the Middle East region? Might the strife in fact be the result of people over there being sick and tired of being told what to do by Western powers?

That’s not to say that nothing evil happens in countries with Muslim majorities. It also doesn’t preclude criticizing countries that happen to be majority Muslim. The problem comes with lumping them all together, as if all or most members, of a religion are the same. To do so is unfair; just as unfair as blaming Christians for the Holocaust or atheists for Stalin killing 20 million people. Blaming the atrocities on Islam itself defies basic logic. In most cases, Islamic scholars will tell you it is the abuse of religion that is the problem, and that makes sense. If you look at the Christian Right in this country, for example, you’ll find a lot of “Biblical Authority” that is nothing short of complete BS. All of this “sanctity of marriage” talk is just crap. There is nothing in the Christian religion that advocates for Christ’s followers to deny people their civil rights because they disapprove of their “lifestyle.” Abortion isn’t even mentioned in the Bible and, if Christians would bother to read the Bible a bit, they’d find Jesus admonishing them to pray quietly and be humble in their faith. In other words, it’s not Christianity that causes problems here, it’s the abuse of Christianity that does. We treat Islam differently, because we’re ignorant of Islam. Ironically, it’s the “other”ness of Islam that seems to invite scorn on the part of people like Maher and Harris. And I don’t mean atheists. Most atheists are content to simply quietly not believe in a deity. Some atheists, however, seem to feel the need to “prove” the non-existence of God, which we all know is impossible.

Not everyone who cites religion as a rationale for doing something is telling the truth. Quite often, in fact, reality is just the opposite. Politicians and dictators have always used the name of God to hold down dissent. The British Monarchy, for example, claimed to have been “charged by God” to be kings and queens and rule over everyone within their purview, including many in the Middle East. Were they “charged by God”? Some monarchs and other authoritarians have gone so far as to rewrite the Bible to match their way of thinking. Take that “King James Bible” many Christians use as an authority, for example. We all know they don’t have the ear of God, and quite often their actions actually go against their claimed religion. So why would we cite their claimed religion as the reason for whatever atrocities they commit?

Now, I want to touch on Ben Affleck’s contribution. I would consider what Maher and Harris said wrongheaded, as I’ve said. The fact that only a few thousand out of 1.5 billion Muslims seek to cause trouble indicates that Islam is not the problem. When Tim McVeigh blew up the Murrah building, we didn’t go straight to his claimed “Christianity” to explain it. However, as I said, we have to stop calling everyone a bigot or a “phobe” of some kind, just because they take an alternate view on something like religion. Maher has Muslims on his show quite often, and he targets RELIGION, not people, for the most part. He and Harris were wrong, and perhaps a bit ignorant, but not bigoted or Islamophobic.

We need to have discussions about this, and we need to figure out ways to help people solve their problems. But we can’t do that if everyone is speaking in blind generalities and trying to label everyone as “evil.” The problems in the Middle East are very complex, and can’t be solved by focusing on religion alone. But we also can’t help if liberals simply dismiss anyone with a faith, based on the fact that they believe something we don’t.

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