Thursday, January 27, 2011

Gimme That Old Time Religion

It seems that Malaysians are going gaga for Lord Murugan, a Hindu fertility God whose holy day is coming up shortly. While Malaysia is overwhelmingly Muslim, the Hindu influences on the population are growing. The festival, called Thaipusam, is so popular that the government declared it a national holy day in 2008 to allow people time off to celebrate.

As part of that festival people giving thanks to Murugan fast for 48 days prior to Thaipusam. On the day itself many will shave their heads, cover themselves with sandalwood paste, and chant themselves into a trance at which time their bodies will be pierced with spears and hooks.

Lest you think this is only for Malaysians, there is a Murugan Temple in Maryland, though their website says nothing about Thaipusam.

Now I’m liberal when it comes to religion, and have no desire to deny or ridicule anyone’s faith (though there may be a fine line between my sense of humor and ridicule), but I don’t think I violate either by asking the question, why do people choose to believe in a God who requires body piercing?

Maybe it is just that I’m squeamish, and phobic about pain. Maybe I’d like it if I tried it. But I’m not going to try it. My preferred God would rather I repay Her kindness to me by having me be more kind to others.

On a similar note, I met a Jewish fellow in New Orleans recently who told me he was involved with a Jewish group in Israel that has reinstated animal sacrifice and is killing animals for Yahweh twice a day. He insisted he was telling the truth, and that they were preparing for the day when Judaism would once again be all about killing animals.

I get why we killed animals thousands of years ago, but not why anyone would do so today. There is a violent streak in religion that some people cannot avoid. It is a kind of pathology. Christianity, too, is nothing without the belief that God needs the death of Jesus in order to restrain himself from killing all of humanity, but at least they don’t want to bring Jesus back so they kill him again (though I do know Christians who believe that Jesus is still tortured by God every time a human sins; talk about child abuse).

The more I know about religion the more bizarre it seems. No wonder it can’t get enough of it.

Monday, January 24, 2011

You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Be Happy But It Helps

Jews are the happiest people in America. At least according to the just released Gallup–¬Healthways Well¬¬–Being Index.

The Index questioned 550,000 Americans over a seven month period, and found that Jews ranked number 1 in well–being followed by atheists, agnostics and other nonreligious folk, who themselves are followed by Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, and those of other nonProtestant faiths. Protestants came in dead last.

This curious statistic demands parsing. Are Jews happiest because they are the most religious? Not at all. While it is true that among these happy Jews the religious are the most happy, even atheist Jews are happier than atheist non-Jews.

So why do Jews win the happiness prize? Maybe it has to do with our history: it sucks. Our motto is, “It could always get worse.” With that idea stuck in your head, no matter how bad it is today you figure it could be worse tomorrow, so you better be happy now. Or maybe it’s because religious or not, Jews are big on community, and having a community is somehow uplifting. Or maybe it is because Jews, even religious Jews, just don’t worry about the after–life, and therefore tend to make the best of this life. Which may explain why Protestants come in last in happiness: the Protestants I know worry a lot about the afterlife. Of course if they’re right that only they get to go to heaven, they will be happy a lot longer in heaven than we Jews are here on earth.

On the other hand, neither Martin Luther or John Calvin, sort of the founders of Protestantism, strike me as very happy people. Martin Luther thought his Church had gone to the dogs, and Calvin was convinced that humans are totally depraved. Not much to be happy about in either case. Maybe a steady dose of “you are sinner in the hands of an angry God” is enough to depress anybody.

Jews concerned with growing the tribe should use this study in their marketing. Every intermarrying couple ought to get a copy of the survey with a banner headline saying, “Want Happy Kids? Raise them as Jews!” Or how about huge billboards on highways that read, “Be Happy. Be Holy. Be Jewish.” Or maybe an anti–drug campaign like, “Don’t Smoke That Lid, Just be a Yid.”

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Governor Bentley: Christian and Colorblind. Which is Worse?

During a speech at a Baptist church in Montgomery on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Robert Bentley, Alabama’s newly elected governor, admitted to having a serious handicap: color blindness: “I was elected as a Republican candidate. But once I became governor ... I became the governor of all the people. I intend to live up to that. I am color blind."

I think the Governor should have told the citizens of Alabama about this during the campaign. It might have impacted their voting choices. My dad is colorblind and he often mixes up the wrong socks, and sometimes wears an orange shirt with red pants (he lives in Miami, red pants are cool there), and when he does it is embarrassing to the entire family. Imagine the governor of your state going out like that. It would make you the laughing stock of the nation.

Rebekah Caldwell Mason, the Governor’s communications director, wasn’t available to comment on the issue of colorblindness, nor was she available to answer another question reporters had about the fact that Governor Bentley only considers his fellow Christians to be his brothers and sisters:

"There may be some people here today who do not have living within them the Holy Spirit. But if you have been adopted in God's family like I have, and like you have if you're a Christian and if you're saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister… So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother."

For some reason some Alabamans are more upset by the Governor’s Christian bias than by his colorblindness, but I think they have it backwards. I don’t want to be the Governor’s brother. The last thing I want is for Governor Bentley to invite himself over to my house for Thanksgiving, or to ask me for money, or any of the other things brothers may do. But I do want him not to wear orange shirts with red pants.

Look, if the Governor doesn’t care about nonChristians, fine. If he thinks we are all going to Hell, so what? If he limits his compassion and concern to Christians, well, that is what you get when you put a fundamentalist Christian in office. The Governor isn’t evil; he’s just that kind of Christian. I’m sure voters knew that before casting their ballots. But if he is going to inadvertently dress like a clown—my God that is grounds for impeachment.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Wrong Message

American Muslims are feeling nervous. Their mosques and clerics are under increasing scrutiny, Rep. Peter King plans to hold hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims, and the legislature in Utah passed a law that bans the influence of sharia on Utah law-making. Is there a war on Islam?

I doubt it. But it makes for good conspiracy theories, and Muslims are just like everyone else when it comes to conspiracy theories.

But even if there is no war on Islam, there is a wariness of Islam and Muslims among many Americans, and I do not fault American Muslims for worrying about their place in the United States.

And I can even understand why the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) plans is holding a conference called, “FBI Raids and Grand jury Subpoenas: Know Your Rights and Defend Our Communities.” What I don’t understand is why the poster for the event urges Muslims to “Build a wall of resistance. Don’t talk to the F.B.I.”

The poster, featured on the CAIR website has been removed, but the message may not have been stopped. The response of the Muslim American community must be to open itself up not close itself in. We need all Americans to talk to the F.B.I. when they suspect terrorism, and if Islamic leaders are promoting the opposite view it is going to be all the more difficult to convince the average nonMuslim American that Muslim Americans don’t have something to hide.

If Muslim Americans fall victim to the same anti-government conspiracy theories that flood some right wing Christian communities we are on the road to losing the very soul of our nation.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Barbarians at the Womb

Are you a Jewish woman, or do you know any Jewish women? If so you must read this blog.

Are you or some Jewish woman you know planning to have a child with a Gentile man? Are you or some Jewish woman you know planning artificial insemination using Gentile sperm? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, stop! Do not do it. You are endangering the life of the entire human race.

Rabbi Dov Lior, a prominent leader in Israel’s Religious Zionist movement, in a speech at a women’s health conference, explained that sperm carries the character traits of the donor, and Gentile sperm, being the sperm of Gentiles, carries “negative genetic traits that characterize non-Jews.” Using such sperm will, Rabbi Lior said, “lead to barbaric offspring.”

Rabbi Lior’s position is in opposition to the mainstream rabbinic ruling that a Jewish woman using donated sperm is better off using the sperm of a Gentile than that of an anonymous Jew since the latter might be related to her. When having to choose between Cohen and Conan, most rabbis go with Conan; Rabbi Lior suggests the opposite:

“The character traits of the father pass on to the son. If the father is not Jewish, what character traits could he have? Traits of cruelty, of barbarism! These are not traits that characterize the people of Israel.”

What traits do characterize the Jewish people? According to Rabbi Lior, Jewish traits are mercy, shyness, and generosity. And if Rabbi Lior is any proof we might add xenophobia and stupidity as well. But better to be a boor than a barbarian, I always say.*

*(Well, not always. Truth is, I’ve never said this before, but I intend to always say it starting now.)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sarah Palin and the Blood Libel

I’m not a Sarah Palin fan. I didn’t read her books, and while I have watched her kill a few animals on her television show, I am not a regular viewer. I say this because I want to be clear that when I say that I find it beyond the pale that anyone would accuse Governor Palin of kidnapping and murdering Christian babies, and using their blood to make bread, I do so as a challenger of her policies and not a supporter.

I know people are accusing her of this because she said so in a video she released earlier today. The Governor said that her critics “should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the hatred and violence that they purport to condemn. This is reprehensible.” I agree. Whoever is manufacturing this blood libel must be condemned.

While the false claim that Jews sacrificed Greeks in their Temple in Jerusalem was spread by Apion in the first century CE (a lie that caused the murder of thousands of Jews in Alexandria), the “official” blood libel was the invention of Christians. And while it pains me say so, I suggest it is among Christians and not among Greco-Egyptians like Apion that we must look if we are to find the accusers of Gov. Palin.

In 1144 Christians accused Jews of murdering William of Norwich. About a century later they accused Jews of kidnapping and crucifying eight-year-old Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln, and using his entrails for purposes of divination. In 1475 Christians burned alive fifteen Jews for supposedly murdering two-year-old Simon of Trent. Baby Simon was made a saint by Pope Sixtus V in 1588, but his sainthood was revoked by Pope Paul VI in 1965. A double blow to Simon’s family, I’m sure.

In a sign of interfaith cooperation, Muslims picked up the blood libel in 1910, and as late as 2007 Raed Salah of the Islamic Movement in Israel accused Jews of using the blood of Muslim children in the baking of bread.

This is serious stuff. The blood libel is not to be taken lightly. The fact that Jews are forbidden from eating blood in any form (Leviticus 7: 26-27) is irrelevant to those hate-filled perpetrators of this slander. And though it is true that Sarah Palin is not a Jew, and therefore is permitted to consume blood, it is no less slanderous to claim that the blood she consumes is that of little children.

So let’s be clear: while Governor Palin, like millions of Americans, may enjoy a good slice of wheat or rye, she does not spice her slice with the blood of Christian or Muslim babies. Whoever is saying this about her must stop. Argue against her policies if you must, but do not claim that she eats the blood of the innocent. Unless, of course, they are caribou.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Let's Drop Religious Labels

Iraqi war criminal Tariq Aziz may escape the death penalty. Convicted for his roll in the murders of thousands of Shiite Muslims, the President of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, refuses to sign off on offing Aziz saying, “I feel compassion for Tariq Aziz because he is a Christian.”

Does that make sense? I could see it if President Talabani said he has compassion for Aziz because he, President Talabani, is a Christian and Christians are supposed to have compassion, but the President isn’t a Christian but a Muslim. It is Aziz the Christian who is supposed to have compassion. It is Aziz the Christian who should have said “no” to the murder of thousands of his fellow Iraqis. What good is being a Christian if you can still commit mass murder?

And what about the Muslim Talabani? He’s a Muslim not a Christian. Why is he feeling compassion? I read the paper, watch Fox News, and listen to Glenn, Shaun, and Rush on the radio, and I thought Islam was all about killing, especially about killing Christians and Jews. Here is his chance, and he says “no” because he is too compassionate?

This is all so confusing. If you are a Christian, be compassionate and stop killing people. If you are Muslim, be brutal and start killing people. Stop confusing me. Or maybe we should simply drop the labels Christian and Muslim and go with compassionate and not compassionate instead? Rather than tell me you are a Christian or a Muslim, which really tells me nothing about you since the Christian Aziz is a war criminal and the Muslim Talabani is a “saint,” why not tell me whether or not you are compassionate. Yes, that would be much better.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Is Religion a Scam?

David Silverstein, president of the American Atheist Group was on The O’Reilly Factor the other evening to explain why his group is claiming that religion is a scam. His answer, “because it is.” Reaffirming as true something you claim is true is not the same as proving it is true. So right away viewers knew that they were in the presence of a propagandist rather than a philosopher.

Now in the interest of full disclosure, I too sometimes say that religion is a scam.
When I use the “s” word I mean to say that all religions can be used to manipulate people to adhere to whatever rulings their respective leaders find it in their best interests to make. It is always easier to get people to do evil things when you can convince them that it is God’s will. As the Qur’an says, "Fighting is prescribed for you, but you dislike it. But it is possible that you dislike a thing which is good for you, and that you love a thing which is bad for you. But God knows, and you know not (Sura 2:216)." As long as you believe that God knows and trust that your leader knows what God knows, you are apt to do what the leader says because you believe it is what God wants.

When I read the Book of Leviticus, for example, I see the Priestly Writer promoting the power of the priesthood, and when I read the Book of Deuteronomy, I see the Deuteronomist promoting empire sometimes through genocide. I suspect that these authors knew what they were doing, i.e. that they were using peoples’ belief in God to promote their respective agendas. And thus what they were doing was a scam.

I suspect the same was true when the Roman Catholic Church invented Papal Infallibility in 1870, and when Mohammed received the revelations in Medina that conveniently allowed him to expand his power and the power of Islam.

Priests, popes, prophets all too often hear what they want to hear to promote what they want to promote. This doesn’t mean that religions don’t contain timeless and universal truths, they do, only that they also contain self-serving propaganda as well.

If this was the conversation Bill and David had had, it would have been wonderful. Unfortunately they couldn’t rise to the occasion, and took refuge in ignorance in stead.

When seeking to explain why he believes in God Mr. O’Reilly pointed to the regularity of the tides: the tides go in and out and nobody knows why, he said. Bill has obviously not gotten the news about gravity. Unfortunately, neither did Mr. Silverstein who admitted that he too couldn’t explain how tides happen, but he was certain that it wasn’t caused by an invisible man in the sky. Honestly, David, without gravity in the equation, the invisible man is as good a cause as any.

Stupid is as stupid does, as Mother Gump told us, and discussions of religion on TV are really stupid.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

American Exceptionalism

Is President Obama opposed to American exceptionalism? Many Republicans, including many running for his job in 2012, are suggesting he is.

The term was first used in the 1920s by the American Communist Party. It referred to class mobility within American society, and to the resources (both natural and human) that America contains. These factors, the Communists believed, would allow the United States to postpone (but not escape) the collapse that all capitalist societies are doomed to experience. In this it was exceptional.

Today American exceptionalism has come to mean that we are better than everyone else, and that the spreading of American values (religious, social, and economic) is the gift America can give to the rest of the world.

I understand American exceptionalism to be rooted in the uniqueness of our Constitution. We are the first and only state based solely on a set of ideas—freedom, equality, individuality, capitalism, and consent of the governed to name but a few. In a world still given to power rooted in blood, tribe, religion, we are an exception to the rule. Sure we have huge blind spots in our history, but that doesn’t in any way demean the idea or the ideal.

Is President Obama opposed to these ideals? I don’t believe that for a moment.

As long as we demote American exceptionalism to American superiority we may lose our devotion to the ideas that made and make us exceptional. As long as we equate American exceptionalism with being number one, we may fail to defend the things that make us exceptional: freedom of religion through separation of church and state, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, etc. As long as we mistake American exceptionalism for American jingoism—USA! USA! USA!—we betray the very country we imagine we are celebrating.

And as long as we reduce our politics to personal attacks rather than focusing on competing policies we will soon find ourselves anything but exceptional.

I am looking forward to real debate in Congress. I want to see principled people on different sides of an issue passionately (and politely) argue. This is part of who we are. When we demonize the other as un-American we spitting on the very heart of America.