Aug 31 2010

Islamic Idol

One Merriam-Webster definition of “idol” is “an object of extreme devotion“. Wikipedia defines idolatry as the “worship of any cult image, idea, or object“. Idols can take many forms. These forms range from the revered icons  of a church/temple (e.g., Madonna and child, crucifix) to that of an adored entertainer (e.g., Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson). The leaders of the ancient Abrahamic tribes knew the power and danger of idolatry. Idols were powerful tools, divine simulacrums, foci for the spiritual energies (and devotion) of followers. The danger was that anyone able to create an idol was armed with a tool that could be used to manipulate the population and erode influence of the incumbent priesthood. The most famous example of this conflict is the “Sin of the Calf“. The golden calf is an interesting example because Aaron and the Sinners (rock band name?) weren’t necessarily abandoning the god of Abraham, they just wanted an image to follow and so adopted a form that the refugees were familiar with, the lunar bull. The practice is now called syncretism, but that’s an article for another day. So in review: sanctioned idols = good (i.e., ark of the covenant… unless you’re a Nazi), unsanctioned idols = bad (i.e., Aaron’s earring sculpture).

All of this is prologue of course. Let’s fast forward about 2,000 years. The year is 632 CE and a man named Muhammad ibn `Abdullāh (Peace be upon him) has died. His adherents call him the Messenger and / or Prophet (his youngest wife might have had other opinions, but again… another article). His greatest work (though never a New York Times Bestseller) is called the Qur’an but he can’t take full credit since he was really just a stenographer for the angel Jibrīl (i.e., Gabriel) over twenty-three years. Talk about a hand cramp! Apparently gods and angels can’t write their own stuff. Raining hellfire, flooding the world, and raising the dead are no problem… applying quill to parchment however, not in their bag of tricks. *shrug* Anyway, as a messenger of Allah, the Prophet is highly venerated (see Shahadah). Soon, the tradition (i.e., hadith) was adopted that his image should never be displayed for fear of it encouraging idolatry; he is after all, just a messenger. It is worth noting that this prohibition does not appear in the Qur’an. Fair enough… for a society that believes in all that. Fast forward another 1,300 some years and people are threatening death to anyone who draws a stick-figure Prophet. What happened?

I don’t want to use this article to bash Islam. I have a lot of friends that are Muslim. That being said, every religion has its nut-jobs. These are usually people who have clung to a particular idea or passage to the exclusion of all other evidence and ideas. You can’t judge all Protestants based on the rantings and pyrotechnic picnics of the Ku Klux Klan. I get that. What I don’t get (or accept) is any group that dictates what I can and cannot do, so long as no else is harmed. If you’re insulted, too bad. There’s a little thing called “free speech” (in the United States at least) that trumps your fragile sensibilities. Another thing I don’t get is the indignation and animosity generated by depictions of the Prophet, whether respectful or otherwise (see Everybody Draw Mohammed Day). The irony here is delicious. Many Muslim groups don’t want images created of Muhammad for fear of creating an idol, but in the process have imbued such power and passion into all images of the Prophet that they’re willing to kill in his name (Peace be upon him). Welcome to Islamic quality control.

As the world community grows and the influence of cultures come into contact like a global Peep Joust, there will be more and more of these conflicts. Islam is currently the fastest growing religion in the world (PBS’s “Islam Today” claimed over 1.2 billion followers in 2010), almost 1 out 4 people on the planet. Whether they admit it or not, those that take offense to images of Muhammad are imbuing them with power and meaning, thereby creating the same idols that their traditions forbid. Do not take that fact lightly. According to the Bible, the tribes of Abraham swept into Canaan in the 15th century BC and slaughtered untold thousands in the name of their god, carrying before them the ark of the covenant, the earthly representation of Jehovah’s will. For the time period, this was an extraordinarily bloody campaign. As the centuries advanced, so have the zeroes on the body count… When the next holy war erupts, don’t be surprised if one or more zeroes are added. So what should we do? Moses was on the right track, if not a little self-serving. We need to undermine the power of idols. “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” was a good step in that direction. Maybe an “Everybody Draw Zombie Jesus Day” would be a good follow-up? When they’re able to dismiss these demonstrations as trivial, the power and threat of their images will be diluted. It’s a small win but even small battles are worth winning.

“Religion is the greatest idolatry of all time and, in many ways, the most dangerous also.” – Diarmund O’Murchu

Mar 30 2010

Marriage vs. Unions

Marriage is an ancient institution whereby two or more people (generally one man and one woman) are officially pair-bonded in the eyes of the church and/or state (see also polygyny and polyandry). People that are married typically inherit legal, cultural, economical, moral, and spiritual rights and privileges withheld from non-married couples. Sometimes these benefits are intangible (i.e., social pressures), at other times they are very real (e.g., tax benefits, insurance premiums, health plan coverage, legal considerations). Most religions (that I’m familiar with) promote marriage as a foundation for stable and productive communities that are presumably more suitable for raising families (and future followers). Whether this is true or not is irrelevant due to the laundry list of benefits a couple can gain by Tying-the-Knot. Marriage has therefore become an entrenched institution within our society, despite ending in divorce 40% of the time (as of 2008).

Somewhere along the line, a politician got the idea that money could be made on licensing marriages. These laws may have initially been introduced as a way of prosecuting adultery (evident among 50% of males and 26% of females, according to Kinsey). They may have also been instituted to facilitate the probating of Wills. Later they were used to prevent miscegenation (as late as 2009). Whatever the reason, today in the United States, people wishing to marry are required to register with the county/state and then after a short wait period (often longer than is required to buy a handgun, and perhaps sensibly) either go before a Justice of the Peace or an official of whatever religious flavor they prefer. This final ritual is what makes the marriage official. This is ridiculous.

I am in no way against marriage. In this society, marriage has its benefits. At it’s heart, marriage is a legal contract. We can’t erase 1000s of years of historical precedence with one shuffle of the eraser, nor is that necessary or desirable. What we should do however, is sever the connection between church and state (as famously referenced by Thomas Jefferson in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists). Counties and states should retain the ability to issue Civil Union licenses to whomever seeks them. Restrictions based on age, kinship, and current marital status should probably be retained. After a reasonable waiting period, the interested parties should reappear before a state authority to be officially recognized. If the bride and groom wish to be married by a religious figure, there should be no problem with that, but no religious ceremony should be granted binding powers by the state. In order to make the change seamlessly however, all prior marriage ceremonies (religious ones included) should be given Civil Union status.

Why bother? Because the term “marriage” carries with it several millennia of unwieldy baggage. Many Christians for instance, insist that marriage should never join two people of the same gender. Since many religionists believe that morals stem from a supernatural source, the use of their terms are forever encumbered by the tenets of their faith. People that are not of that faith should not be similarly encumbered, especially by the laws of an allegedly secular nation. Before same-sex marriages were legalized in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Washington D.C. (and counting) many claimed that their legalization would destroy the institution of marriage and unravel the fabric of our society. It hasn’t happened yet. If it happens, same-sex marriage won’t be the cause. While the current trend of legalization is encouraging, it doesn’t solve the underlying problem. The state should get out of the marriage business and concentrate on Civil Unions as the basis for determining a couple’s  legal standing. Leave marriage to the churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples.

“There’s no reason that the government should prevent homosexuals from entering civil marriages because some religions object to the concept, any more than the government should ban atheism because some religions object to it.” – Lisa Pampuch

Dec 18 2009

Lies and Propaganda


“Jesus is the reason for the season”. I saw this message on a bumper sticker the other morning while driving to work. The sticker included a silhouette of the nativity crèche, an image familiar to most Christians and anyone else who has passed by a church (or city hall) around Christmas time. I must admit, the bumper sticker made me laugh. The reason for the season has more to do with axial tilt and the earth reaching perihelion, but I get it… it’s a cute rhyme, quick message, and it sticks in your brain (it stuck in mine). Propaganda and disinformation have been bedfellows from way back. If you can’t support your position, lie about it… repeatedly.

All propaganda has to be popular and has to accommodate itself to the comprehension of the least intelligent of those whom it seeks to reach” and “By the skillful and sustained use of propaganda, one can make a people see even heaven as hell or an extremely wretched life as paradise.” – Adolf Hitler, Christian <– see what I did there?

What bugs me most about Christianity (aside from the persecution complex) is the relentless campaign of misinformation. I use Christianity as an example, because it’s what I’m most familiar with… not because it’s any worse than the others. It’s also the most in-your-face religion that I encounter from day to day. Jews are only noticeable when they’re walking to the synagogue (doesn’t bother me a bit). Muslims don’t advertise in the United States for fear of attracting too much attention to themselves (no problems there). Hindus are pretty much invisible unless you spot their spots (it’s hard to find fault with vegetarians, more cows for the rest of us). But Christians stand on street-corners with 5-foot photos of aborted fetuses, stuff their holy books in hotel dressers (great coloring books btw), stand around in cemeteries with “God Hates Fags” signs, come to your door on Saturday mornings while your robe is hanging open and your hair is uncombed (“Are you guys here for my boxer-shorts check?”), keep shoving holy books under the hands of witnesses and elected officials (like a mass-produced piece of fiction is going to keep someone from lying? “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.“), erect 50-foot representations of torture devices (crosses) in roadside fields (would electric chairs be hanging in churches if Jesus had been put-to-death in the 1960s?)… I could on, but you get the idea. Everywhere I look, they are peddling a message created 2,000 years ago that they cannot defend because it’s indefensible (unless you count “faith” which could also support the divinity of Cookie Monster).

One response I’ve received is: “Do you really expect me to believe that the Church has been wrong for 2,000 years and that after all this time, you have the right answer?” No. The Christian church (and other religions, I have to imagine) haven’t been wrong at all. What they’ve done is perpetuated a convenient fiction, a lie… and they’re good at it. Priests are not dumb. Throughout history, priests have been some of the most educated people in the world (for centuries they controlled and throttled all learning in Europe). Many of them know the truth; they just have no reason to let you in on it. It’s like the De Beers diamond cartel. There is no shortage of shiny rocks but they have no reason on earth to release their choke-hold on supply. The Church is exactly the same, except that laborers aren’t smuggling Jesus out of South African mines in their asses. Christianity thrives off people believing what the Churches tell them. Today, it’s all about money. In the past, it was about money and power. These were powerful forces in ancient times and continue to be today. How powerful? They were powerful enough to create a religion that could fool and control the masses for thousands of years. Christianity wasn’t the first one and it won’t be the last.

History is a set of lies agreed upon.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

Nov 30 2009

Fear and Indolence


“Man’s inhumanity to man.” – Robert Burns, Man was Made to Mourn

The phrase itself is a cliché. But worse than that, it makes no sense. It implies that to be “humane” is to be human (i.e., infused with human-kindness). I would argue that history supports an opposite definition. As a species, our history is marked by murders, skirmishes, and wars. Recent centuries haven’t seen an emergence from this barbarity, it has instead handed us the tools to commit genocide. What does this say about us? Does it mean we’re “evil”? I don’t think so. I think it means that as a species we are afraid. We fear what we don’t understand. We fear those that are different from us. We fear for our children and our futures. These are reasonable feelings…to an extent. They cease being reasonable when intelligent people refuse to take the necessary steps to learn what they don’t understand. When people embrace fiction (and the institutions that support said fictions) instead of expending the necessary efforts to learn the truth, they set a course for disaster. So why does it happen over and over again? Because humans are not only fearful, they are lazy. I don’t mean to imply that people aren’t hard workers. To this day, farmers (or farmhands) get up before dawn every day to milk the cows. No, that’s not the problem (mostly). People are lazy in the sense that they are unwilling to think about problems when a simple (not necessarily accurate) answer is readily available (and supported by their community). A plausible fiction is often more appealing than a difficult truth, and definitely more desirable than no answer at all. Here then is the seed of most conflicts throughout history. One group creates an answer in lieu of learning the truth and another group invents a different answer. The arising institutions that  support these “findings” become entrenched and invested in their chosen fiction, and soon are willing to persecute and eventually kill non-believers to protect it. Look back across the pages of history. What you see are not wars over the truth; what you are seeing are thousands and millions of pointless deaths over competing fictions. Why would anyone be willing to give their life for stories told thousands of years ago by men who couldn’t take the time to learn: why the sun rose every morning, why the seasons changed, why there were countless species of animals, where we come from?

If that wasn’t bad enough, it gets worse. Over the centuries, reasonable people have emerged to challenge the fictions. Keep in mind, Ibn al-Haytham proposed the current scientific method in the 11th century, yet again and again, people willing to dispel the shadows of institutionalized disinformation have been persecuted and killed. Why? Fear. Not only are humans afraid but their institutions are as well. How corrupt must an institution be that places a higher value on fictions than taking the opportunity to move the world a little closer to illumination.

Fear and mental indolence are at the root of all these problems. If fear wasn’t so instinctual, it could even be argued that they are one in the same. Today, we are ruled by institutions that our forefathers erected to explain why we are here, why we are special, and how to get along with one another. The problem is that they are completely wrong. We will never shed light on any of those questions if we hold onto the old fictions. The sad part is that we’ve known what to do all along; we only have to think.

“The constant assertion of belief is an indication of fear.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti

Nov 10 2009

Religious Tolerance

God?Should we tolerate religion? The question itself is weighted toward the negative before the discussion even begins. Why would anyone feel that tolerance itself is a bad thing? The idea of tolerance is typically engaged when the majority decides to abide a minority opinion. Is it likewise incumbent on the minority to respect the general view? What if the majority view is wrong? What if that view is dangerous? What if that view represents a proliferate conspiracy whose purpose is to delude, direct, and deceive the masses? Is it not then in the best interest of concerned citizens to speak out against such institutions? Is it not the responsibility of friends and family, to (at the very least) try and help their misguided neighbors? Is the virtue of tolerance worth allowing others to waste their lives blindly pursuing illusory reward in lieu of more meaningful and tangible efforts here?

All religions benefit from tolerance. Tolerance creates an environment where the tenets of faith are protected from questions, from contrary evidence, from exposure. This allows religions to peddle their mysteries from one generation to the next, without censor, without criticism, without having to produce any answers other than: belief, faith, and tradition. They label non-believers as: heretics, heathens, pagans, because it has always been easiest to label your enemies rather than understand them. Labeled enemies are easily discredited as liars, troublemakers, or just plain ignorant. How simple it is to win a debate when no argument is allowed. Today’s religious and political discourse has been reduced to this. No one argues their points anymore. People simply vomit their positions, discredit their opponents’ opinions with labels (e.g., atheist, conservative, liberal, fascist), and call the argument won. Everyone remains unchallenged within their particular realm, before the ears and eyes of their particular flock, and no progress is made. Within politics, it is fair to engage the other side(s) to a large degree. If you’re lucky enough to find an intelligent opponent, this can even be rewarding. The questioning of religion however is not acceptable. We are taught to be tolerant of others’ beliefs. Why? Why are religious beliefs sacrosanct? Why must I respect someone who believes their god died and was resurrected any more than a man who believes his tennis-shoes are planning to swallow him whole from the ankles, up? Neither can prove that they are right. Both believe things that cannot be proven. But, because one of these people’s beliefs is part of their religion, it’s unacceptable for me to call them delusional. Why?

Tolerance itself is not a bad thing. We should, to some degree, tolerate each other’s faults. We should not however, encourage them. We cannot become better people, improve this world, and hope to achieve peace, if we continue to hold onto divisive and delusional beliefs. This is not to say that people will ever agree on everything, but why hold onto belief-systems that divide us more than is necessary?

“You have two qualities which God, the Most Exalted, likes and loves. One is mildness and the other is toleration.” Prophet Muhammad, Riyâd-us-Sâliheen Volume 1:632