God said to Abraham “Kill me a son…”
This blog post is prompted by the Pope’s visit to Ireland – a secular, utterly changed, country in the 40 years since Francis’s predecessor visited the country. I say good to that. Let’s talk religion.
As a humanist, I obviously reject all religions (although Buddhism doesn’t require its followers to believe in a non-existent deity, so I’m OK with that.) The rest contain some superstitious nonsense about God, Yahweh, Allah or whatever and generally also a belief in some form of afterlife. Neither is for me. The Humanist position is clear and simple. We have but one life, here on Earth. And people are free to believe and practice any religion as long as it does no harm to others. That’s the acid test.
There are some deeply troubling trends in India in relation to Hindu nationalism, leading to state-tolerated anti-Muslim discrimination – but that would be a distraction from my main arguments. So I’ll stick to the main Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). For reasons of brevity and familiarity, I’ll use “Abraham” rather than the Islamic form “Ibrahim” in this post.
Orthodox and Enlightened
Broadly speaking, Humanists like me have most problems with the orthodox / traditional wings of these three religions. That’s because they are “book” religions and the words are taken literally by the traditionalists. Liberal Jews, Christians and Muslims recognise that the world and social attitudes have changed since the words were written. So they “interpret” what’s been written in the light of what we’ve learnt since.
There is no shortage of enlightened, liberal and even secular Jews to engage in a debate. “Secular” doesn’t work for Christians and Muslims: it’s an oxymoron – despite Home Secretary Sajid Javid claiming he’s a “secular Muslim”: logically impossible! I suppose it helps him to be more accepted by the Christian traditionalists in the Tory Party.
The concept of “secular Jew” works because Judaism differs from the other two Abrahamic faiths in one important way. The term “Jew” is conventionally applied as both a religious and ethnic grouping. It is part of the reason we can all get quickly into hot water over debates about antisemitism. I believe that, under Benjamin Netanyahu, the actions of the state of Israel make it a rogue state: a democracy with a coalition government dependent on right-wing extremist parties. But my fundamental belief in anti-discrimination makes it easy for me to distinguish between criticism of Israel and criticism of Jews in general.
I do also believe that Jews, as an identifiable group, have been discriminated against – including genocide – more than any other over the past 2000 years. About 90% of the discrimination was done in the name of Christianity: anti-Jewish sentiment and actions by Muslims are – with one or two notable exceptions – a relatively recent phenomenon. And the Holocaust, as the most evil state-sponsored event of the 20th century, behoves us all to be very sensitive in our choice of words.
Again, taking a 2000 year view, Christianity has been the main culprit when it comes to killing and torture in the name of religion. The Renaissance, in Christian Europe, led to a rediscovery of classical Greek and Roman art and philosophy, secular in nature. The Reformation gave us Protestantism, which, via the Enlightenment, led to secularism. This and scientific discovery have brought progress to the point where over half of Brits have no religion. There are more non-believers than Anglicans.
And yet, the Church retains many privileges in Britain and certainly in England, thanks to a combination of factors. Detritus which needs to be swept away includes state-funded faith schools, the requirement for our head of state to defend the established church and the general legislative drag on enlightened, secular policies. It is a disgrace that a part of the UK (Northern Ireland) violates the human rights of women over abortion, for example. The UK and Iran are the only two countries in the world with clergy formally and constitutionally part of the legislature.
Which brings us to Islam. Humanists have one big problem which we cannot avoid. Traditional Islamic teaching states that the Qur’an, as told to the prophet Mohammed, is the final word of Allah / God, which cannot therefore be challenged. A lot of Islamic teaching and cultural practice is not in the Qur’an itself, but in the many additions, not least the Hadith, bolted on to the faith subsequently. It’s primarily about 7th to 12th century politics, when things in the Middle East were pretty patriarchal (see Misogyny below). But asserting the Qur’an as the unimprovable word of Allah doesn’t exactly encourage open debate.
I continue to strive to gain a better understanding of Islam, for two opposing motives. The first (and by far the more important) is to enable me to be culturally sensitive in my regular dealing with Muslim people, as a matter of respect for them and their right to practice their faith. The second motive is to use my greater knowledge of their religion to disagree with Islamic beliefs from a humanist perspective. Much of the culture in Muslim groups in 21st century Britain is highly socially conservative, and I am keen to gain a better understanding of where this comes from.
In the 10th century, a phenomenon known as closing the gates to Itjihad occurred: in plain English, the law-makers of the time “laid down the (sharia) law” and there it stays until this day. One thing I can say for sure: Islam has never had the equivalent of Christianity’s Reformation. But it’s more complicated than that! (Read on in the Wiki article linked above to get a brief overview of 19th century Islamic modernism and Salafism – but many of the most extremist groups in Islam and individuals such as Osama Bin Laden hark back to a mythical “Golden Period” of early Islam – which only makes things worse!)
I think what really matters is that nearly all Muslims living in Britain get on with their lives in such a way that they do no harm: that’s the Humanist litmus test. It’s a key tenet of Humanist thought that all people, of all faiths, are free to act this way without fear of discrimination.
All the Abrahamic faiths, but especially Christianity and Islam, seem obsessed about women and what they may, or may not, do with their bodies. There is a strong propensity towards misogyny. It’s easy to spot where this comes from in Christianity and orthodox Judaism. Women are unclean, as a result of menstruation and childbirth (Leviticus 12). (Incidentally Leviticus 18:22 is the only Biblical source of Christian anti-gay bigotry.) It’s worth reading Leviticus in full, as I have done. You’ll learn that it’s OK to eat locusts but not prawns, it’s a sin to wear a garment made with more than one fabric and how to deal with mildew as a nomad in the pre-Christian Arabian desert. And a whole lot more: how times have changed.
The other great driver of religious misogyny is the Adam and Eve myth. Specifically, it’s in the role Eve plays as temptress with the apple (Genesis 3:6). Echoes of this myth filter down to today in Islam around the issue of Muslim women’s right to wear what they choose or forced to by men(?). This Polly Toynbee article intelligently addresses the issue.
Misogyny and the violation of women’s rights remain the biggest example of what I meant by “legislative drag” in the earlier section on Christianity.
The Pope and Catholicism
Which all brings us back to the Pope’s visit. Good luck to Francis with his reforms – if he truly means it. Church politics will resist all moves towards a more enlightened position. Thought control is hard-wired into the Catholic hierarchy. And the interests of the Church always take priority over the victims of abuse. Steve Bell’s cartoon from 8 years ago got there first.
The Catholic Church is intrinsically evil. It has caused more anguish and misery than any other man-made institution in the past 2000 years. (Its supporters will argue it has brought comfort too. That may well be true, but the evil is greater than the good). To be Catholic is to learn guilt at a young age. If I remember rightly, wanking is a sin in the eyes of the Catholic Church. So that gets 90% of Catholic schoolboys for a start!
The pope said some words earlier this week in advance of his visit to Ireland. But victims’ groups were unimpressed: it was just words with no sense that anything will change. A bit like the “prayers and thoughts” offered by Trump and other NRA apologists in the USA after each school mass killing.
I hope that everyone has a nice time in Dublin today, even those with whom I disagree over matters of faith. But, like gun control in the States, don’t expect real change any time soon.