This is an Op-Ed that I wrote for OpEdnews.com. Monicks has been asking me to post it here, so I hope you all enjoy it...
I was raised in a Catholic family, attended Church semi-regularly as a child, and, when I was old enough, was placed by my mother in after-school classes for Communion. After she passed away at the age of forty-two, I turned to Catholicism for comfort and decided on my own volition to attend a Catholic high school. Anyone who knew me at that point in time knows that Faith was a large part of my life, and was a defining point of my existence. I will state plainly now that is no longer the case.
As I was riding the 4 Train from my Upper East Side home in Manhattan to a meeting on Gold Street in the financial district, a man of faith entered my subway car and began to preach. I decided to engage him in dialogue about the nature of his belief for the proceeding twenty minutes after he made a scientifically inaccurate claim about the Law of Conservation of Matter and Energy in relation to our Universe. As our conversation progressed, it became clear to me that his knowledge of the Bible was specious at best. After our conversation was over, I reflected on this point for a while. Had I ever really read the Bible on my own while I was a believer? In my freshman year of high school we went through the first few books of the Old Testament to give background to what Jesus came to fulfill before moving on to the New Testament, and we went over the Gospels at length during my four years of religion class. The teacher explained it fairly straightforwardly, and yet I did not give thought to the possibility that it may have been false. When Pope John Paul II died, I was in college and my busy schedule had left little time and desire to attend regular Church services, but I still considered myself a Catholic. As the buzz began that there was going to be an election of a South American pope, I was excited with anticipation for the merging of an entire new culture with the papacy for the first time in history. However, within months of the election of a former Hitler Youth as the new leader of Catholicism, I left to be Agnostic, a last breath of Faith before studying other religions and, finding complete lack of satisfaction in answers there as well, I turned to the unknown; the Saganesque notion that we are all alone on a pale blue dot floating in the corner of the Milky Way in the corner of an ever-expanding Universe with nobody looking out for us but us. If you believe that life imitates art, you could view my faith as a star, burning bright and constant, yet also dying. When the light begins to wane, it collapses in on itself and explodes with one final burst of energy before crushing into a black hole, devoid of any matter whatsoever. The idea of being on our own evokes a similar fear of being buried alive, especially when you consider who we’re buried alongside. It makes life a little more precious.
Only after I had renounced my Faith years later did my curiosity draw me back to the Holy Book. Here is what I found: genocide, slavery, misogyny, infanticide, barbarism, homophobia, and xenophobia- all stemming from intolerance.
I was infuriated. Not with the book or the writing- those are just words. I was angry at my non-action, my non-thinking, my acceptance that it was true just because everyone I had grown up with said it was true, and at those who had said it was true for the same reasons I had originally believed; because everyone around them said so. I had never examined what I thought was moral, or if the moral, loving, omniscient God that was in my head matched up to the Yahweh of the Bible, or if I had, I had managed to justify it in some kind of mental gymnastics of logic. I allowed my teachers to convince me that Christianity was a religion of peace using selected passages, and I favored completed assignments rather than asked questions. Frankly, looking back, it’s intellectually embarrassing.
So here we are, in the year 2010, with a group of Muslims attempting to build a fifteen-story cultural center in a building that was damaged by the World Trade Center attacks. As a rational person who enjoys religious freedom, or in my particular case, freedom to choose no religion, I must support Imam Rauf in his quest to build his cultural center. However, just because there is religious freedom in this country, it does not mean religions are exempt from criticism, satire, or vehement disagreement. Freedom to speak against such religions is also part of the first amendment as is the freedom to speak against choosing no religion- as Pat Robertson, Steve Harvey, Laura Ingraham, and Sean Hannity have made perfectly clear time and again.
How many times have you spoken with a religious person, and to clarify their position on a certain issue, whatever it may be, preface their statement with, “Well, I’m a (insert faith here), so…” If you have not noticed this self-identification before, you probably were not listening for it. They have labeled themselves under a specific group. With that, comes the responsibility of being judged as a follower of a certain ideology. So, unlike Google and Facebook, you are actually required to read, and understand the Bible’s terms of service if you are a Christian or Jewish, and are required to read the Qur’an if you are Muslim, because I guarantee you that I have and will again. There are plenty of verses in all three books that warrant serious discussion, because there are people using them to inflict pain and suffering on others on all parts of Earth, even in the First World.
If you subscribe to any of these three Abrahamic religions, you are throwing your chips down on the table and saying, “This is the irrevocable word of the Lord my GOD.” The notion, which states you can read any of these books as metaphor or metaphysical, is preposterous. It is a complete retreat from what was held to be dogma by the Catholic Church for centuries, the Sadducees and Pharisees before that, and the Shiites today. The people that put Galileo on trial were not poetically challenged. The Catholics that ran through the streets of Paris on the eve Henri De Navarre was scheduled to wed Margot and slaughtered fourteen hundred Protestants did not miss the hidden message. The people of Israel that wiped out the Amalkalites, slaughtered their children, and took their unwed women as slaves as repayment for defacing Israel did not intercept a message meant for Shakespeare. These books are explanations for how the Universe works in the material world. Period. If you think that the idea that a book written by a group of men with a narrower worldview than a seven year old with an internet connection today can explain everything you need to know about the nature of existence is preposterous, well that’s because it is. If you still think you can interpret it metaphorically, I wish for nothing more than the invention of time travel so that you can go back in time to explain to the rabid mobs present for witch trials that the Bible is not meant to be taken literally. "First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation." (Peter 1:20) If you can accept all of it or none of it, and knowing what we know now with the brilliant invention called Google, then how can you accept any of it?
In a recent radio debate on KPCC, Muslim scholar, Reza Aslan, Ph.D., said, “People of reason understand that there is historical and cultural context. There is a literary tradition that influences scripture- that there are profoundly diverse ways in which over the last thousands of years people have interpreted scripture and they can interpret it however they want to.” I think I have sufficiently covered my response to such a quote, but what truly irks me more than anything about Mr. Aslan’s stance, is that it excuses man from writing violence into the word of God, and tries to sidestep the issue of the kinds of violence written in the Qur’an. For example:
“Make war on the infidels living in your neighborhood.” 9:123
“Maim and crucify the infidels if they criticize Islam” 5:33
“Punish the unbelievers with garments of fire, hooked iron rods, boiling water; melt their skin and
“When opportunity arises, kill the infidels wherever you catch them.” 9:5
I would like to hear Mr. Aslan’s explanation on the profoundly diverse ways I can interpret those pieces of scripture. I understand that there is historical and cultural hostility that may have influenced those writings, but I do not see how there is any other possible way to interpret those statements. It is not unreasonable to realize that these are violent writings. It is also not unreasonable to recognize that a large amount of Muslims in the world today are practicing this as dogma. It is easy to dismiss savage practices as a relic long past in this country, because we do not come face to face with the fact that people actually believe them on a daily basis. The idea that people practicing this type of religion, and other barbarous activities (such as genital mutilation of women, killing those who leave the faith, honor killings), is not the real Islam is a fallacy. It is the real Islam, because it is written in the holy book of Islam. This text is written as a philosophy for how a society should be ruled given to Muslims by Allah. If there is anything that Al Qaeda is right about, it is the fact that those who would take a more “moderate” approach to Islam are not practicing Islam. For the same reason, fundamentalist Christians, who truly believe that “God Hates Fags,” because it is written in Romans, and Corinthians, and shoot abortion doctors using Luke 19:27 (“But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them--bring them here and kill them in front of me."), are right in saying that they are the real Christians!
I do not want to be accused of discounting all the positive passages of the Qur’an, so here are a few of my favorites:
“Hold to forgiveness, command what is right; but turn away from the ignorant." 7:199
"Allah is with those who restrain themselves." 16: 128
“Whoever kills another one without justifiable cause, surely he is killing all of humanity. And whoever saves the life of another one, surely he saves the lives of all of humanity.” 5:32
Aslan goes further, “A bigot is someone who stereotypes an entire people based on the actions or the beliefs of a few, who paints an entire religion, in this case, one of 1.5 billion people, the second largest religion in the world based on the actions of people who live in tribal areas of Saudi Arabia or Pakistan.”
Is it bigoted to call Mein Kampf a disturbing book and those that follow its author sick and twisted individuals? Is it bigoted to call Communism the biggest perpetrator of human suffering in the history of the world and the tens of millions who proudly follow Marx’s writings sadly disillusioned? These books, while not being religious, are followed with a religious fervor, and should not be regarded as incomparable. Islam is not 1.5 billion people. Islam is an ideology subscribed to by 1.5 billion people, and those people accept responsibility for their ideology when they identify themselves as a follower of the faith. I wonder how Mr. Aslan would respond to polls that show a staggering amount of Muslims support suicide bombing in defense of the faith (Pew Polls, 2007), or consistent reports of violent protest any time Islam is satirized, criticized, questioned, or when a man in Texas kills his two daughters in an honor killing this past New Year’s Day. These events and opinion polls are happening in the First World. This is not specific to those areas he mentioned. It would be nice if it was, but the immense diversity of a faith does not excuse the writing held by all branches of that faith to be sacred.
The apologies for religions need to stop. For thousands of years it has been Philosophy with a license to kill and continues to be so today. If you are a believer in a particular faith, and are reading this, I ask you to do a harmless exercise. Write out your morals; what you hold to be fundamental tenets for living together in a civil society in peace, under God. Then, go through the Bible and see where your God or your prophet or your messiah comes into direct conflict with your moral tenets. If that does not happen, well, I think no further conversation is necessary. If it does, ask yourself why.
There is a great potential for what religion could be. Previously in the debate, Reza Aslan firmly rejects the notion that scripture can be edited. Preservation of such behavior is the opposite direction we need to be going in order to establish a humane society. Prior to his death, Thomas Jefferson did exactly what, Aslan rejects for the Qur’an, to the Bible, where he took the pen and cut out all, at least what he considered to be, immoral practices, and established the Jeffersonian Bible. You, reading this essay, or I, could go through any ancient holy book and find beautiful tenets to live by and use that philosophy to be moral human beings, but until those who use words to identify themselves as a certain faith take an axe to the barbarism, the barbarism will define them.