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Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

A reader recently left the following comment on my “about” page. (Sorry, Marjana, I’m going to delete it since I’m addressing your question here in a lengthy post and, well, no offense or anything but I kind of like my about page to just be my personal “about” statement). Anyway, here is the question:

Hello. I was wondering whether or not you ever looked into what Islam has to say about the world…its perspective of reality…? Just curious. I take it you are not one to be fooled by the news media and what it has to say about Islam. I take it that you are one to read with an open mind/heart and not with prejudice/bias.

First of all, I’m happy that I come across as open minded. That’s what I strive to be. Second, I’m not going to go into what the question may or may not imply. Well, I will a little bit. I don’t know if Marjana is Muslim or not, and I think the answer would make a difference in how I read the question. At any rate, here goes:

1) It is commonly understood (meaning I am not going to provide sources) that the rise of agriculture about 10,000 years ago resulted in people organizing themselves into larger groups such as towns and cities. This seemed to first occur in the “fertile crescent,” the area of land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and also the Nile delta. When large groups of people come together, there must be some way of keeping order so that people can go about their daily lives in relative comfort and safety.

2) There seems to be a universal human tendency to feel that there must be a force larger than us, a being or intelligence that gave rise to all of the amazing aspects of life on earth. When good things happen to us, we must somehow be in the favor of this being, and when bad things happen, we must have done something to displease this power.

3) Over the course of the next several thousand years, people living in the fertile crescent developed some pretty complex civilizations, with many different religious systems. Often rulers claimed the divine right of kings; that is, they themselves were divine and had the approval of the gods to rule the people. To question the authority of your leader was to question the will of the gods. Religious systems often were nature-based, with animals, agricultural symbols and even insects taking on religious significance in the turning of the agricultural seasons.

4) One group of people, the Jews, were among those who believed in a single, all-powerful deity, rather than a hierarchy of different gods. This monotheistic group believed that God was intimately involved in human affairs – he could bring his wrath upon humans for their wrongdoing, and could likewise smile upon them with grace and love. Monotheism began to spread throughout the Middle East.

5) Religious upheaval and changes mirror human upheaval and change. Jesus, the humble Jewish prophet, arose at a time of great social unrest, at a time of conflict when many changes were afoot. Likewise, 600 years later Mohammad, the Arabian prophet, also arose at a time when things were rapidly changing (mainly due to trade and broader contact with the greater world) on the tribal Arabian peninsula. Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, came to prominence during a time of rapid expansion and change in America and gave birth to the first homegrown Christian religion (some would say sect or cult) in this country.

6) For a religion to be successful long term, it has to be flexible in order to reflect the changing needs of the society it serves. For example, the early Christians worked with the Pagans, or nature-based religious adherents, to incorporate their rituals and beliefs into the growing Christian tradition. The winter solstice became Christmas (the birth of the Sun/the birth of the Son). The spring equinox and all of its fertility rituals became the return of the Sun/Son to earth. As people change, so too do religions. Religions that do not adequately reflect or address human needs, desires, fears or joys will eventually be amended or die out in favor of something else.

7) Peoples’ faiths have been used, for many thousands of years, as a means to control and manipulate people. This doesn’t mean that religions are bad. It means that abusers of power are bad. According to Mohammad, the only requirement in order to become a Muslim is to submit to the will of God. Unfortunately, the holders of power were generally the ones who got to decide what the will of God was, depending on their particular agenda. They are still doing this. Those with an agenda are telling young, disenfranchised people with no prospects that the will of God is to martyr themselves (and those within the reach of the explosives they carry on their bodies) in order to further their political goals.

8) Christianity and Judaism, as religious faiths, are flexible in the sense that today they can exist and flourish within secular states. Islamic leaders, on the other hand, tell people that there cannot be a separation between faith and government. Islamic law must also be state law. Again, this is not necessarily an inherent flaw within Islam specifically – it is a flaw of the people who use Islam to further an agenda, in the same way the Spanish Inquisitors used Catholicism to abuse their power, in the way Rome ruled political affairs in Europe.

9) Because of internal problems and external meddling, Middle Eastern societies are in turmoil and appear to be collapsing. One of my favorite sayings is, “there is nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing to lose.” How true this seems to be in regard to acts of terrorism.

10) I studied Islam for a year in college (using the excellent Marshall Hodgson’s “The Venture of Islam” as a guide), and have come to no profound conclusions. People are imperfect creatures. People and societies under certain types of stress behave in predictable ways. The Germans under the weight of reparations after WWI were easily seduced by the Nazis, who gave them somebody to blame. Islam itself is not the problem. The political upheaval that has been going on in the Middle East for the last two thousand years is causing pressure cracks, and things are about at the tipping point, especially as world demand for oil increases, while supply decreases. It’s a whole big mess, and if it weren’t nutty terrorists who happen to be Muslim, it would be somebody else. If it weren’t for the Jews and Palestinians, it would be some other toxic combination. The recipe for this particular type of disaster is flexible like that.

Does this answer the question of how I think Islam in particular views the world? No, it doesn’t. I don’t think it’s really possible for a non-Muslim to answer this question comprehensively. But I view Islam as a religious path that contains many truths, yet ultimately gets snagged on the particulars of how people should live their lives. I think all dogmatic faiths have this in common. However, as members of the human species, religious or not, we need to ask ourselves: do our actions help make the world a better place? Or do they cause yet more suffering and misery? After all, we judge ourselves by our intentions, but others by their actions.

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People are funny creatures. At a time when the right wing is warning us that we need to keep vigilant lest we find ourselves wearing burqas here in the good ol’ U.S. of A, it is apparently failing to take a peek at itself in the mirror. It just might find a teenage girl who has embraced the “modesty” movement and has officially “devoted her virginity” to her father before God and her peers.

During the Cold War, the United States inserted “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance. The idea was that we wanted to show the world that it was our national spirit, not our bombs, that made us an invincible nation. A godly nation. We needed to prove to the Soviet Union that our people had superior moral and spiritual fortitude, that our hearts and minds were united and pure. We wanted to look, feel and behave differently, to make a moral case for ourselves in our quest to come out as the government truly by the people, for the people. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, was doing basically the exact same thing.

Since our focus has shifted to the Middle East, we hear daily reports of human rights abuses in the Muslim world. Young girls being murdered by their brothers, uncles and fathers in honor killings. Women being tortured and killed for allegedly not wearing their burqas correctly, or for being in the presence of an unrelated male. Even in India we hear about bride killings, where a new wife dies in a mysterious house fire, leaving the husband free to remarry and obtain a second dowry. And anywhere male sons are prized (because they are their parents’ retirement plan, whereas daughters are a financial and social liability), female infanticide and abortions of female fetuses remain a tragic human rights failure. The World Health Organization estimates that about three million girls, mainly in Africa and the Middle East, are subjected to genital mutilation each year. There is one cultural tenet that unites all of these practices: women’s bodies are not their own. They are property.

Now there is a new and growing trend in America. Christian teenage girls and their fathers are attending “Purity Dances,” which look and sound a lot like wedding ceremonies. Father and daughter walk down an aisle, daughter vows to remain chaste until marriage and father vows to “protect” his daughter’s virginity. Father gives daughter a ring. Daughter gives father a key (the key to her vagina, apparently), and father keeps the key until daughter’s wedding day, when he hands it over to the groom. According to the Chicago Tribune, one in six teen girls are signing virginity pledges. Also according to the Tribune, 88% of them will wind up having premarital sex.

American Christians are also embracing a move toward more modest dress. This I can truly get behind, as long as it is voluntary and falls into the parameters of what I would consider reasonable. Butt cracks and exposed pierced navels just aren’t what I’d consider to be attractive, and I think that women and girls (and men, for that matter) who don’t leave a single thing to the imagination are doing themselves a disservice. However, the advertising can go the other way. Girls are now announcing their chastity, with t-shirts that read “Abstinence Ave. Exit When Married,” and, even more creepy, underwear that states, “Notice: No trespassing on this property. My father is watching.” Whose property is it? The daughter’s or the father’s?

The idea of a father “owning” his daughter’s virginity is fraught with problems. What does this say about the relationship in terms of sexuality? What happens when daughters break their vows (as, apparently, 88% of them do)? Do they tell their fathers and face the possibility of being disowned? Or do they feel guilty and ashamed, in silent anguish when their fathers fork over their virginity key to their new husband, who is not their first lover? Do they feel they betrayed God and their fathers when, at as young an age as ten, they were asked to promise to remain virgins until their wedding night? Is this a fair thing to ask of such young girls? Would we even dream of asking boys to do the same?

Back to my original thoughts. We are told we have a new enemy now, an enemy that doesn’t treat its women so well. An enemy that holds double (and triple) standards, where girls are property but boys will be boys (with girls held responsible for their irresistibility). An enemy that condemns our fast and easy western lifestyle, yet when the cat’s away will often attempt to emulate it with a singular fervor.

So the Christians are buckling down and waging their reactionary cultural war. They are dressing more modestly, covering themselves up more, if you will. They are advertising their virginity with as much zeal as a prostitute advertises her lack thereof. They are conducting ceremonies wherein daughters embrace their status as sexual property in a patriarchal religious system. They are beginning to exhibit a similar world view to the very people they feel most threatened by, and they are too myopic to even realize it. Different war, same old human nature.

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