Saturday, October 25, 2014

Apologists for Religion are the Problem

Bill Maher, Reza Aslan, Richard Dawkins (Credit: HBO/Malin Fezehai/AP/Akira Suemori)
Throughout history religion has unleashed untold hate, misery and bloodshed.   Yes, some religious groups engage in charitable works, but even then many engage in proselytizing at the same time.  It's always about winning others over to their belief systems and often punishing those who don't yield - e.g., the Salvation Army's anti-gay policies and past rejection of gays needing shelter.  Meanwhile, we see ISIS demonstrating just how evil fundamentalist religion can be even as anti-Muslim Christians forget Christianity's own ugly past that has included the Inquisition, the extermination of the Cathars in France and many other acts of genocide against those deemed to hold heretical beliefs.  Yet despite this horrible track record we still see apologist defending religion, including Reza Aslan whose book (which I read) calls into question some of the main manufactured storyline of the Christian construct of Christ.  A lengthy piece in Salon looks at the refusal of apologists to open their eyes.  Here are excerpts:
Bill Maher’s recent monologue on “Real Time” about the failure of liberals to speak out about the routine atrocities and violations of human rights carried out in the name of religion in the Muslim world has unleashed a torrent of commentary, much of it from progressives advocating more, not less, tolerance of Islam.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who sided with Ben Affleck against Maher in a follow-up segment a few days later, calls ISIS rebels, in an op-ed, “barbarians” who “give all Islam a bad name,” and asks us to take into account the religion’s diversity, lest we slip into “Islamophobic bigotry.” Fareed Zakaria, in his Washington Post column, cautions us to recall that Islam, Christianity and Judaism once peacefully coexisted, but acknowledges that Islam suffers from a “cancer” – extremism that incites acts of terrorism. This he views, though, as a problem of “Islam today.”

One pundit in particular, though, has busied himself opining on Maher and nonbelievers in general — Reza Aslan, Islam’s most prominent apologist of late. Delivered via multiple media outlets, his remarks, brimming with condescension, tinged with arrogance and laden with implicit insults to thinking people, deserve special scrutiny for one main reason: among well-intentioned liberals who don’t know much about religion, his words carry weight.

Aslan accuses the benighted critics of religion of a far more grievous misapprehension: the assumption that words mean what they actually mean. Here I’ll quote him at length.
“It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives. . . .  After all, scripture is meaningless without interpretation.
 Aslan is essentially taking a postmodernist, Derrida-esque scalpel to “scripture” and eviscerating it of objective content. This might pass muster in the college classroom these days, but what of all those ISIS warriors unschooled in French semiotic analysis who take their holy book’s admonition to do violence literally? As they rampage and behead their way through Syria and Iraq, ISIS fighters know they have the Koran on their side – a book they believe to be inerrant and immutable, the final Word of God, and not at all “malleable.” Their holy book backs up jihad, suicide attacks (“martyrdom”), beheadings, even taking captive women as sex slaves.

Moreover, the razor-happy butchers of little girls’ clitorises and labia majora, the righteous wife-beaters, the stoners of adulterers, the shariah clerics denying women’s petitions for divorce from abusive husbands and awarding sons twice the inheritance allowed for daughters, all act with sanction from Islamic holy writ. It matters not a whit to the bloodied and battered victims of such savagery which lines from the Hadith or what verses from the Koran ordain the violence and injustice perpetrated against them, but one thing they do know: texts and belief in them have real-life consequences. And we should never forget that ISIS henchmen and executioners explicitly cite their faith in Islam as their motive. Tell that to Derrida – or Aslan.

Not just belief in the Koran leads to mayhem, though. Open the Book of Leviticus (in the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament) and read the prescriptions of death (often by stoning or burning) as punishment for, among other things, cursing your parents, committing adultery, practicing bestiality (with mandatory slaughter of the unwitting animal as well), engaging in prostitution or sodomy, worshipping another god or taking God’s name in vain, and being the (female) victim of rape. The New Testament is somewhat less vicious, but even gentle Jesus, meek and mild, warned in Matthew (10:34): “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword,” and preached “unquenchable fire” and damnation for sinners.

That the faithful have always been acting on the words in their holy books may not accord with how Aslan would like us to see religion, but it is hardly news.

[I]ntentionally trying to obscure cause and effect where faith is concerned, as Aslan does, is morally reprehensible, is insensitive to the victims, and provides cover for their butchers

The problem with religion lies not with, as Aslan would have it, interpretation – postmodern or otherwise – but with, for starters, the founding texts themselves. The canonical writings of Islam, Christianity and Judaism all contain a plethora of macabre fables and explicit injunctions for vile, sadistic behavior that no civilized person would or should accept, but which far too many do take as literal truth.

The so-called “New Atheists,” including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, have tried to do the opposite: get people to examine religion and help them understand it as innately backward, obscurantist, irrational and dangerous. Their aggressive secularism has, of course, stirred controversy and resentment. It was bound to do so. For millennia, the faithful have held the high moral ground virtually unopposed.

Aslan said much more in his interview worthy of refutation, but what transpires through all the rhetorical dodges, whitewashing and clever distortions of fact he (and others defending religion) have offered us since Maher delivered his anti-Islamic monologue is not that one faith is better or less violent than another, but that religion itself is to blame. Religion, in interfering with the free exercise of our critical faculties, in setting out an outlandishly untrue history of the cosmos and humankind’s position in it, and in purporting universality that some are willing to die and kill for, is more than just what the physicist Steven Weinberg called “an insult to human dignity;” it is, in our age of weapons of mass destruction and increasing global instability, a threat to us all.

[R]eligion must be dumped, ushered out of the public arena and back into the private, personal realm for those still inclined to harbor it or too weak to do without it. No thinking person need feel pressured into condoning or excusing faith-based brutalities out of well-meaning but incorrect liberal sentiments.

Nonbelievers need to approach faith as a subject like any other, one we can talk about and criticize without fear of causing offense – or, in the case of Islam, concern for our physical safety.

This is in fact our constitutional right. The First Amendment forbids Congress from establishing an official religion and protects free speech – including speech that offends the sentiments of believers. If we disbelieve what religion’s canon tells us, we need to say so openly, and in mixed company, pointing out that no rational person could believe it or accept it as true and valid, were it not for indoctrination, immaturity, willful abandonment of reason, fear, or simple feeblemindedness.
We can also cease displaying knee-jerk respect for those who propagate faith. 
There's more, but in sum, the piece makes a case that I have tried to make often: religion deserves no deference nor do its adherents regardless of their particular faith.  Logic, reason and intellect should hold the "godly" accountable for their atrocities and daily abuse and discrimination against others. 

1 comment:

Eric Linder said...

"[R]eligion must be dumped, ushered out of the public arena and back into the private, personal realm for those still inclined to harbor it or too weak to do without it."

This blanket assessment includes, I have to assume, Dorothy Day (Founder of the Catholic Workers' Movement in the depths of the Depression to assist and speak for those at the bottom of the heap), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (pastor and theologian whose burning contempt for Naziism and care for its victims led him to a rope in 1945)' Desmond Tutu (among the leaders in the anti-apartheid struggle and who now speaks up for GLBT Africans wherever he goes), and Dr. Martin Luther King--to whom even you need no introduction.

Really, Mr. Hamar. You sound daily more and more like those you so often rightly oppose. Don't damage your cause with such sweeping vituperation.

Eric Linder, a regular reader and frequent appreciator of your blog. But not one prepared to abandon his own critical intelligence.