Sunday, November 8, 2015

That's what I'm saying

I went looking for more on Irshad Manji, the author of the book review that I responded to last week. That led me to the interview below. If you would, read what I have to say, then see what you think about her idea of “reclaiming God's good name.”

The more I listen to so-called moderate believers, the more I find that we are in almost total agreement. They are saying that their prophet, Jesus, Mohammad or Buddha or whomever challenged the earlier prophets. That the religion they created was a step forward for human progress, a movement of love and inclusion and forgiveness that did not exist before they came along. They then use that to justify continuing to study their prophet's words and actions thousands of years later.

I agree, almost. When the New Testament was written, Jews were enslaved, they had no homeland, no army. Rome was a brutally oppressive society with a pantheon of gods and emperors who were claiming to be born of a virgin and claiming they were gods. When the Koran was written, female babies were killed and tribes traded off enslaving each other as power shifted back and forth. Gautama Buddha was born into a wealthy family that kept him isolated from the horrors of the caste system. When his eyes were opened to it, he knew it had to change.

The story of Jesus challenged not only the Romans and their gods, but it directly spoke to the corruption within Judaism. This can be found in the early chapters of the book of Mark, as well in the character of Herod, a puppet Jewish King who cut deals with the Romans and of course Judas selling out to the High Priests. Even ignoring the scripture and just looking at how the early Christians acted shows a break from traditions. They held small meetings in homes where women studied alongside men and they took care of their neighbors, regardless of their backgrounds.

I hear words and passages thrown around when moderate Muslims talk about the Islamic golden age, between 800 and 1200. They may use ijtihad, which has to do with reasoning, or falsafa, meaning philosophy. I'm not sure where exactly these are in the scripture, and when I've seen them, they are mixed with praise for Allah. I don't really care. I note that they are explicitly honored in Islam as opposed to the way philosophy and thinking are denigrated in the Bible, but words from history only matter if they did indeed influence a culture. We know that Muslims built libraries, improved their infrastructure, their agriculture, wrote poetry and generally flourished while Europeans were 99% illiterate and worrying about the end of times.

But of course all this ended. We know more about the tribal aspects of Islam that are left over from before Mohammed than we do about the progressive movement that people would have actually embraced at the time. Conquering was the normal course of events at the time, so the fact that they swept across North African “converting” people was partially due to their military power, but just as important was that the conquered people accepted them as leaders because they did a better job than the idiots they overthrew. And they allowed people to practice the religion of their choice, with restrictions, but it was allowed.

When I say I “almost agree” with these moderates about how their religions are based on peaceful and progressive ideas, I'm not not sure where we actually disagree because they won't talk about why those progressive movements failed. Once you start talking about how the Catholics eventually partnered with the Romans and started burning pagan churches or how the Islamic golden age ended and Jews were expelled from the universities and the death penalty for apostasy was actually enforced, the discussion becomes irrational. You get accused of bringing up the worst aspects of religion or of cherry picking history. This is ridiculous of course because it is they who are refusing to discuss that history and only want to discuss the times and the players in history that promoted what we now think of as modern ethical behavior.

I don't bring up Augustine or Al-Kahzali as proof that religion will always fail, I bring them up to ask the question of why did the progressive movements fail? For that matter, why are they failing now? Right now, we are all hoping that the leaders of the Westboro United Baptist Church will just die and no one will replace them or continue on with that work. They don't allow anyone to have a reasonable conversation with them and I don't know of anyone interested in trying. Once someone has chosen the Bible as their only guide for how to act in the world, it is not possible to use that Bible to change their minds. But just because you aren't a Bible thumping fundamentalist, it doesn't automatically make you reasonable. What is the progressive movement doing to directly address the problems created by fundamentalism? 

The first century was a time when Jews changed how they looked at their own laws by bringing in a new way of relating to god. Slavery ended because the world grew to where more people could see that no single tribe had a special place in the hierarchy and that thinking that way was toxic to the world. Homosexuality is gaining more and more acceptance because we are gaining a better understanding of the mind and we know that just because we don't have certain impulses that doesn't mean other people don't. We have learned to examine right and wrong by examining the whole world, all living things, the entire eco-system and the future of the planet. Soon we will be considering the future of other planets.

Those religious movements failed because they couldn't incorporate new information fast enough. The Islamic movement is the last time in history that a new world view took hold and united enough people to become an empire and last for generations. Cultures were already mixing and oddly enough, Islam accelerated that by taking paper making from China and translating and copying knowledge from all over and spreading it further West. When they got to translating not only the words but the ideas of the ancient Greek texts they reawakened philosophies that had been lost due to the barbarism of the 4th and 5th centuries. After that, people had tools to question why they were being forced to worship a god. They began to expect a logical argument for it.

Where I agree with these moderates is on the amazing work some small groups of people in history have done to bring reason and progress into cultures that were literally killing babies and promoting horrendous acts we would never allow today. What they don't want to discuss is that those same small groups also had some backwards ideas about where the universe came from and how to deal with meat products or what clothes we should wear. We've dealt with many of those beliefs and they don't seem to mind that we all break most of the rules every day, but if you suggest something like their prophet does not deserve to be worshiped or that prayer doesn't work or the resurrection didn't happen, they lose the ability to form a coherent argument, sometimes to form a coherent sentence. If you suggest we shouldn't teach children these things until they are old enough to think critically, they bring up ethics and traditions and community and other issues that to me are completely unrelated.

My suggestion, and I have brought this up with pastors, friends and whomever cares to engage me, is that their prophet had something to say, and so did a bunch of other prophets and philosophers. Why not just include them all? Why fight over which character in a story is the coolest and instead really dig into which ideas can actually bring about progress right now? I have as yet not received an answer. 

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