Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Au contraire, Religion IS the problem

Philosopher and author Ophelia Benson shared on Twitter today an article about Ms. Sahar Taman, a founder of Journeys to understanding, a non-profit organization trying to open up the understanding of the Arab world amongst the rest of the world, especially the US. The article reported on an interview of Ms. Taman taken by the Connection Point blog of a non-profit organization, Peace X Peace; Ms. Taman talked about her work in Egypt, trying to promote what she terms as "interfaith dialog". According to her, this is about bringing a reconciliation amongst the practitioners of various faiths - Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist or any other - so that everyone can realize their essential humanity, and find common ground that way.

No doubt, a noble goal. But will this enlightened end justify the means Ms. Taman embraces, with her inordinate insistence on faith as the panacea? Ever curious, I left a few questions after the blog post, but it is caught in moderation for the past several hours. I don't have much hope of having it live, and so I decided to go ahead and ask the same questions in my post. The quotes in italic are from Ms. Taman, based on her interview.
Religion is important. For too long we have understood that separation of church and state and freedom of religion means keeping religion personal and private. It isn’t. It is public and in-your-face.
Is that why religious folks become crazy upset when they meet atheists/non-believers? Because they can’t readily or comfortably compartmentalize the non-believers in their worldviews? If Ms. Taman declares religion to be 'in-your-face', she would be entirely agreeable to atheists pointing at the religious and laughing at the latter's weird, irrational belief systems and dependence on myths and superstitions, wouldn't she? As, I suppose, would be the gaggle of the faithful and the devoutly religious she mingles with?

Sadly, the religious appear to feel otherwise; the brouhaha (not to mention, unimaginable violence) over cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad and the recent defacements of atheist billboards speak volumes.
Religious adherents from all faiths are proud of their beliefs, raise their children as co-believers, and seek to build religious communities. It’s a big part of all of our identities.
Do these children ever get a choice to examine their parents’ belief systems critically? How many of these children will ever be rid of the influence of this involuntary indoctrination and lead a guilt-free, happy life?

It is a real pity, a shame, that the believers choose to base their 'identities' on the rather shaky foundation of religious belief, when religion has been the single most divisive force in the history of humankind. Forget about the Crusades in the medieval times, or the calls to Jihad by several Islamic leaders between the 7th and the 20th century; the Thirty years War in early to mid-17th century were between Christian sects over doctrine. Sunni and Shia Muslims are engaged into terrible, violent hostilities even today, because of a disagreement over religious leadership that dates back to the 10th century! In the middle ages through modern times, Christianity in its various forms has been a major driving force for virulent anti-semitism. Is this the kind of identity Ms. Taman is content to advocate for?
For too long religion has been seen only as a source of divisiveness and conflict. I am not sure how much truth there is to that, when there are most always other factors such as wealth and power involved.
Given what I pointed out above, Ms. Taman is either completely blind to the strife that religion has created in many different parts of the world, or she is deliberately ignorant of the fact that the absolute requirement of unquestioning adherence to religious tenets makes religions convenient tools to manipulate people and gain power/wealth. Religion is all about control; Through inducing either fear or guilt, it aims to maintain authoritarian domination over people and their lives. Even today, that is exactly what is being done by the Taliban in Afghanistan or Al-Shadab in Somalia; by violently enforcing their narrow, parochial, warped interpretations of religious law (which, not being based on reason, lends itself to easy manipulation), they aim to maintain control over people. The same is the motivation behind those devoutly religious Christians who destroy representations of anything they find disagreeable. That very same idea of control is behind the century-old practice by the Christian orders of imposing a burden of guilt, remorse and fear over their flocks.
We don’t say often enough that religion is what keeps civility going in our world. Societal laws only enforce what our religions teach us: decency, graciousness, and generosity.
Ms. Taman is deliberately engaging in the old – and disproven – trope that only religion has a stranglehold on ethics and morality. Morality is intuitive and innate, and is reinforced by reason. In contrast, the 'decency, graciousness, and generosity' that Ms. Taman imputes to religion have been - time and again - cast aside by the religious, through their mindless faith in Scriptural diktats. Readily jump to mind the following: scripturally-sanctioned, immoral and violent acts in the Hebrew Bible, including slavery (Leviticus Chapter 25; Deuteronomy Chapters 15, 23), mass murder and genocide (Exodus Chapters 11, 12; Deuteronomy Chapters 7, 20; Psalms Chapters 9, 21; Joshua Chapters 6, 8, 10, 11, 14), the killing of homosexuals and those accused of adultery, and the stoning of brides who have lost their virginity prior to marriage (Leviticus Chapter 20; Deuteronomy Chapter 22), the theological justifications of extreme violence scattered throughout the Qur'an, and so forth.
I have seen women honored and empowered because of, not in spite of, their roles as nurturers and caregivers, as mothers, daughters, and wives. Women grow and change because of their experiences and societies change for the better. Regardless of what we often see, all faiths teach respect for women.
In other words, Ms. Taman describes the 'honor' and 'empowerment' of those women who operate within the traditional definitions of womanhood as defined by the religion-driven, patriarchal society - and I say this with all due respects to the nurturers and caregivers. But Ms. Taman, "all faiths teach respect for women"? BWAHAHAHAHA!

Sorry about the uncontrollable mirth, but that's just too hilarious! Are you intellectually dishonest as well? Religion is, and has long been, the single most important and insidious instrument for misogyny and oppression of women on the face of the earth! Oh, I could have so much fun quoting from various parts of the Qur'an, Hadith and the Sharia, not to mention Leviticus and Deuteronomy, whose teachings portray women as sub-human, inferior species. I could mention the instances of religion-motivated honor killings from recent news items. However, I am going to restrict my enthusiasm, and simply point to a recent report of extraordinary, macabre savagery by the Pakistani Taliban, who came across a woman breastfeeding her child and cut off her breasts. I was in shock when I read that. Ms. Taman, SHAME on you that you choose to overlook the vicious and despicable misogyny that religions engender and encourage.
The poor would be poorer without the generosity of money and time from congregants of churches, mosques, and synagogues. While these efforts are too often perceived as underhanded opportunities to proselytize, there is generally little truth in that, as the motivation is to give. In the end people who need help get it.
How about the immense wealth the Roman Catholic Church has obtained and stored? How about the trappings of wealth that religious leaders of various Abrahamic religions put on display? How about the obscenely wealthy Hindu temples in India, whose financial resources are many times more than what can effectively wipe off India's debt in the world market? Clearly, these religious institutions are not dependent upon the congregants for their subsistence. But how far really have their efforts been directed towards eradication of poverty? Ms. Taman dismisses as 'little truth' the claims of proselytization under the guise of charity, in exchange for food and shelter. Is Ms. Taman acquainted with the saga of Mother Teresa of Calcutta?

Forgive my curiosity, Ms. Taman: What exactly is "religion" to you? The various faiths, amongst whom you appear to be promoting a dialog, all undercut your claims to an enlightened society. What good, then, do you expect to come out of a society saturated with religion, which seems to be what you aim to accomplish?

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