Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Think You Know Your World Religions? Let's Find Out

A great article which reveals some fallacies with people's general knowledge of religions other than their own.

September 14, 2010, 9:00 PM

The Meaning of the Koran

Robert WrightRobert Wright on culture, politics and world affairs.
Test your religious literacy:
Which sacred text says that Jesus is the “word” of God? a) the Gospel of John; b) the Book of Isaiah; c) the Koran.
The correct answer is the Koran. But if you guessed the Gospel of John you get partial credit because its opening passage — “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God” — is an implicit reference to Jesus. In fact, when Muhammad described Jesus as God’s word, he was no doubt aware that he was affirming Christian teaching.
Extra-credit question: Which sacred text has this to say about the Hebrews: God, in his “prescience,” chose “the children of Israel … above all peoples”? I won’t bother to list the choices, since you’ve probably caught onto my game by now; that line, too, is in the Koran.
I highlight these passages in part for the sake of any self-appointed guardians of Judeo-Christian civilization who might still harbor plans to burn the Koran. I want them to be aware of everything that would go up in smoke.

But I should concede that I haven’t told the whole story. Even while calling Jesus the word of God — and “the Messiah” — the Koran denies that he was the son of God or was himself divine. And, though the Koran does call the Jews God’s chosen people, and sings the praises of Moses, and says that Jews and Muslims worship the same God, it also has anti-Jewish, and for that matter anti-Christian, passages.
The regrettable parts of the Koran — the regrettable parts of any religious scripture — don’t have to matter.
This darker side of the Koran, presumably, has already come to the attention of would-be Koran burners and, more broadly, to many of the anti-Muslim Americans whom cynical politicians like Newt Gingrich are trying to harness and multiply. The other side of the Koran — the part that stresses interfaith harmony — is better known in liberal circles.
As for people who are familiar with both sides of the Koran — people who know the whole story — well, there may not be many of them. It’s characteristic of contemporary political discourse that the whole story doesn’t come to the attention of many people.
Thus, there are liberals who say that “jihad” refers to a person’s internal struggle to do what is right. And that’s true. There are conservatives who say “jihad” refers to military struggle. That’s true, too. But few people get the whole picture, which, actually, can be summarized pretty concisely:
Reading the scripture.Bay Ismoyo/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesReading the scripture.
The Koran’s exhortations to jihad in the military sense are sometimes brutal in tone but are so hedged by qualifiers that Muhammad clearly doesn’t espouse perpetual war against unbelievers, and is open to peace with them. (Here, for example, is my exegesis of the “sword verse,” the most famous jihadist passage in the Koran.) The formal doctrine of military jihad — which isn’t found in the Koran, and evolved only after Muhammad’s death — does seem to have initially been about endless conquest, but was then subject to so much amendment and re-interpretation as to render it compatible with world peace. Meanwhile, in the hadith — the non-Koranic sayings of the Prophet — the tradition arose that Muhammad had called holy war the “lesser jihad” and said that the “greater jihad” was the struggle against animal impulses within each Muslim’s soul.
Why do people tend to hear only one side of the story? A common explanation is that the digital age makes it easy to wall yourself off from inconvenient data, to spend your time in ideological “cocoons,” to hang out at blogs where you are part of a choir that gets preached to.
Makes sense to me. But, however big a role the Internet plays, it’s just amplifying something human: a tendency to latch onto evidence consistent with your worldview and ignore or downplay contrary evidence.
This side of human nature is generally labeled a bad thing, and it’s true that it sponsors a lot of bigotry, strife and war. But it actually has its upside. It means that the regrettable parts of the Koran — the regrettable parts of any religious scripture — don’t have to matter.
After all, the adherents of a given religion, like everyone else, focus on things that confirm their attitudes and ignore things that don’t. And they carry that tunnel vision into their own scripture; if there is hatred in their hearts, they’ll fasten onto the hateful parts of scripture, but if there’s not, they won’t. That’s why American Muslims of good will can describe Islam simply as a religion of love. They see the good parts of scripture, and either don’t see the bad or have ways of minimizing it.
So too with people who see in the Bible a loving and infinitely good God. They can maintain that view only by ignoring or downplaying parts of their scripture.
For example, there are those passages where God hands out the death sentence to infidels. In Deuteronomy, the Israelites are told to commit genocide — to destroy nearby peoples who worship the wrong Gods, and to make sure to kill all men, women and children. (“You must not let anything that breathes remain alive.”)
As for the New Testament, there’s that moment when Jesus calls a woman and her daughter “dogs” because they aren’t from Israel. In a way that’s the opposite of anti-Semitism — but not in a good way. And speaking of anti-Semitism, the New Testament, like the Koran, has some unflattering things to say about Jews.
Devoted Bible readers who aren’t hateful ignore or downplay all these passages rather than take them as guidance. They put to good use the tunnel vision that is part of human nature.
All the Abrahamic scriptures have all kinds of meanings — good and bad — and the question is which meanings will be activated and which will be inert. It all depends on what attitude believers bring to the text. So whenever we do things that influence the attitudes of believers, we shape the living meaning of their scriptures. In this sense, it’s actually within the power of non-Muslim Americans to help determine the meaning of the Koran. If we want its meaning to be as benign as possible, I recommend that we not talk about burning it. And if we want imams to fill mosques with messages of brotherly love, I recommend that we not tell them where they can and can’t build their mosques.
Of course, the street runs both ways. Muslims can influence the attitudes of Christians and Jews and hence the meanings of their texts. The less threatening that Muslims seem, the more welcoming Christians and Jews will be, and the more benign Christianity and Judaism will be. (A good first step would be to bring more Americans into contact with some of the overwhelming majority of Muslims who are in fact not threatening.)
You can even imagine a kind of virtuous circle: the less menacing each side seems, the less menacing the other side becomes — which in turn makes the first side less menacing still, and so on; the meaning of the Abrahamic scriptures would, in a real sense, get better and better and better.
Lately, it seems, things have been moving in the opposite direction; the circle has been getting vicious. And it’s in the nature of vicious circles that they’re hard to stop, much less reverse. On the other hand, if, through the concerted effort of people of good will, you do reverse a vicious circle, the very momentum that sustained it can build in the other direction — and at that point the force will be with you.
Postscript: The quotations of the Koran come from Sura 4:171 (where Jesus is called God’s word), and Sura 44:32 (where the “children of Israel” are lauded). I’ve used the Rodwell translation, but the only place the choice of translator matters is the part that says God presciently placed the children of Israel above all others. Other translations say “purposefully,” or “knowingly.”  By the way, if you’re curious as to the reason for the Koran’s seeming ambivalence toward Christians and Jews:

By my reading, the Koran is to a large extent the record of Muhammad’s attempt to bring all the area’s Christians, Jews and Arab polytheists into his Abrahamic flock, and it reflects, in turns, both his bitter disappointment at failing to do so and the many theological and ritual overtures he had made along the way. (For a time Muslims celebrated Yom Kippur, and they initially prayed toward Jerusalem, not Mecca.) That the suras aren’t ordered chronologically obscures this underlying logic.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A Waste of Oxygen

It never fails to amaze me the abundance of people out there who are chomping at the bit to insult another person's opinion with no motive other than simply to be a screaming fuckstick. I can understand if a person disagrees and takes the time and intelligence required to propose their opinion, or the flaw with mine. However, there are so many humans out there that lack not just time but intelligence, and their response to intelligent discourse is to resort to the playground antics of name-calling.

I find it amusing. It's proof that Darwinism works. Those with a modicum of intellect evolve to absorb higher levels of understanding of the world around them, sharing it with others and allowing free thought to expand and flourish, thus making a better quality of life for everyone they've touched. Those with miniscule brain matter spin their wheels and waste their energy attempting to cause their narrow view of the world to become smaller and smaller until there's nothing left but a pinprick hole of light blocked by their large and vacuous heads. This makes them happy because it relieves them of the threat of anyone else having valid opinions that may rock their unstable little boat and force them to admit that they may, in fact, be pretty damned ignorant. It doesn't work, however. The more they spin the less they accomplish.

So here is a cheer to those who are not afraid to speak their opinion, those who are not afraid to back it with valid fact, unimpeachable logic, and the decorum of respect. These are the people who strive for a better world. These are the people who sow the seeds of enlightenment. 

And here's a jeer to the name-callers, the haters, those who never crawled out of the primordial ooze, those who are still on the playground getting off on being bullies (because it relieves the stress of knowing that they are fuck-ups who don't have enough grey matter to figure out how to be anything else): your hatred of the world is an outward reflection of your hatred for yourself. You know it's true because if you attempt to deny it you're just lending it truth. How I pity you for the gift of life you've squandered in exchange for the ability to get off on a few dirty words. Silly boy, some of us graduated elementary school and went on with the rest of our lives. So get off the playground and go back to class. Fail.

Friday, September 3, 2010

A Trojan Horse in the House of the Crescent Moon

South Carolina is currently lauding the possibility of Nikki Haley “making history” if she should win the race for governor of the state. Her outstanding contribution to that history would be the fact that she’s female. Many may view this potential win as an accomplishment and advancement in women’s rights; however, they fail to see the forest for the trees.

Simply being something does not necessarily suggest that one supports ideas and/or beliefs regarding the needs and/or rights of her/his existence. An excellent example of this concept exists in the form of Sarah Palin (incidentally or not, a strong supporter of Haley), the ultimate Trojan horse of the feminist movement. Yes, Sarah Palin is female. No, she is not a feminist. The ill-informed logic that being female immediately qualifies one as a feminist is equivalent to the belief of battered women who believe that they deserve their abuse, and/or that it is their place in the world to be used, abused, neglected, molested, and mistreated. It is the same logic of emotionally traumatized children who, in an effort to make sense of what has happened to them, blame themselves for having been molested by a family member, a family friend, a priest, a pastor, a teacher, or any other such role model.

I repeat, Sarah Palin is not a feminist. She supports, maintains and nurtures a patriarchal political structure that impedes women’s quality of life and maintains the status quo. She is not pro-life, she is anti-choice. Her history as governor of Alaska, as well as statements made during her run as McCain’s presidential running mate (a position in which she played mascot to what constitutes ‘progress’ in conservative politics) and her romp as the spearhead of the Tea Party movement are proof positive of her duplicity.

Feminism is not about usurping men and ruling the world. Feminism is about allowing women to have a choice, a voice, and a right to their own bodies and their own lives. Undoubtedly, there are many splinters of feminism. Some have used this fact to suggest that the movement is fractured, flawed. Yet I perceive it as an illustration of the complexity of feminism. The point is not whether or not we all agree on every issue, the point is that we are a consortium of various views and beliefs that come together under a multifaceted web in which we are unified in our belief that, in order to thrive, women deserve and require equal voice and equal movement in this world.

Thus, Sarah Palin is not a feminist.

A feminist does not encourage, romanticize, or glorify a narrow view that every woman would be happy if she could just stay home, nurture children and support her husband. A feminist believes that every woman should have that particular right if she so chooses, but that she should have the freedom to exercise her right to other lifestyle choices as well.

A feminist does not try to restrict a woman’s right to make choices about her own body, choices that affect the rest of her life, indeed her quality of life. A feminist believes that there should be no laws impeding a woman’s control of her own body. A feminist believes in a woman’s right to privacy as concerns her body. Feminists may not agree on the issue of abortion; however, they almost all agree on this: if you don’t believe in abortion, don’t get one.

 A feminist does not establish laws that further persecute rape victims by mandating that they should pay for their own rape kits. Enforcing such a law subliminally suggests that women who are raped did something to encourage and/or deserve their having being sexually assaulted. It maintains the concept that most women are liars, devious, not to be trusted. It also prohibits women on a limited income to pursue a rape charge, thus allowing sex offenders to further victimize more women. In no way does such a law protect women.

A feminist does not support programs that are ideologically based but realistic failures, especially when her/his own child is walking poster-child for said program’s flaws, especially when substantial analytical information proves that the program does not work. Indeed, such programs maintain the subjugation of women to their bodies via the laws that bind them. These programs perpetuate the notion of many people that women are bad because they could not live up to an impractical ideology. In its extreme, this notion is shared by the women who themselves fail at the ideology, an insidious infiltration of a woman’s psyche reminiscent of the Trojan horse.

Having explored the duplicity of Palin’s ‘brand’ of feminism, let’s return to the subject of Nikki Haley:  what makes her prospective win as the first female governor of South Carolina so remarkable? A quick search on my crystal ball (in other words, the internet) reveals that the first female to be sworn in to the office of governor in the United States was Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming. Incidentally, she was only technically the first as she was sworn in on the fifth of January in 1925. A few days later the second woman to be voted into the office of governor was sworn in, Miriam A. Ferguson of Texas.

Eighty-six years and thirty-two women later, we are supposed to get our collective panties in a bunch over another woman taking gubernatorial office. This stinks of an offering from the Tea Party to me, and it’s not chamomile in our cups.

Have Americans become so myopic in their world-view that they greedily accept whatever’s given them with no contemplation or awareness of the world outside of the two-foot radius around their persons? Other than being female, what does Nikki Haley have to offer South Carolinians?

The success of women in South Carolina politics is not a celebration of women’s accomplishments so much as it is testimony of the pre-historic condition of the state’s view of a woman’s competence. Nikki Haley, as Palin’s acolyte, is merely another wind-up vagina that goes chirping along as long as there’s a man behind her to wind her key. She supports and promises to continue Sanford’s policies, which benefit corporations instead of people and the environment, and which persistently endeavor to limit and even eradicate women’s rights. This is not a step forward in the progress of women in the state of South Carolina, it is plainly a canter to the Right, and anyone could see it if they’d simply open their eyes and look that Trojan gift horse in the mouth.