I've been kicking around this piece for a while, but it hasn't quite gelled before. I think its time has come, though -- what better way to observe a Sunday on a holiday (as in "Holy Day") weekend for a good old-fashioned bashing of religions?
I've said several times I am an agnostic -- often tacking on "born-again" to both signify that I arrived at that conclusion, not born to it, and to irritate certain types. I was raised Methodist, but that never really "worked" for me.
I came to my agnosticism relatively young in life -- I was in my teens. I had nothing against religion per se, it just didn't "work" for me. There is something deep within me that simply cannot accept the tenets of faith, of believing in something that not only cannot be proven, but by its very nature must not be proven. (See Oolon Coluphid's seminal work, "Well, that about wraps it up for God.")
I tend to have a very laissez-faire attitude toward religion -- if they don't try to convert me, I won't attack their faith. I think of it as a form of mutual respect. I have major issues with the core beliefs of most of the world's faiths, but as a matter of manners I don't bring them up. (For example, why does the Bible list the lineage of Jesus from Adam twice, and why do they differ so radically?)
So as a matter of practicality, I don't judge the religions on their beliefs, but by the behavior of their adherents -- especially those with some level of authority.
For example, I don't get Mormonism. What little I've learned of its basic tenets strikes me as, well, profoundly silly and require not only a whole lot of faith, but a complete discarding of common sense and rational thinking.
On the other hand, nearly every single Mormon I've ever met has been polite, respectful, decent, honest, and an exemplar of morality and honor. So I find myself completely baffled and befuddled over their faith, but still having a great deal of respect for the individuals who practice it.
Catholicism, though, I have some troubles with. When it was the sole faith that governed most of Europe, it was rife with corruption and tyrannical impulses. Even today, it is a bit too totalitarian for my tastes, and as a New Englander the pedophile priest scandal is still fresh in my memory. (At one point, over 60% of American bishops had either been accused of sexually abusing children or of protecting priests who had done so.) I think that the Catholic church has done many great works throughout its history. But it, like most monolithic institutions, has also committed many wrongs as well. As a result, I tend to find individual Catholics, for the most part, decent folks, but I have a deep, ingrained suspicion of the Church as an institution.
I have a special fondness and respect for Judaism. For one, they are the least annoying of faiths. "Jewish Evangelical" is a wonderful oxymoron. They not only don't actively seek converts, but they make it quite difficult to convert on your own. Theologically speaking, they just want to be left to their own devices. They aren't interested in changing the world, or compelling others to abide by their beliefs. (In fact, they have a tradition of embracing non-Jews who do not follow Jewish law and custom.) Yeah, I could never convert to Judaism (Not even God could convince me to give up pepperoni pizza), but it seems to be the religion I could best get along with.
Other Christian denominations, I must confess, tend to blur together for me. Again, I see them as mostly positive, doing good works and living decent lives, so I consider them a "plus" in our society. As long as they respect my right to not believe and not belong, I cheerfully accord them the same.
Some of the Eastern religions leave me puzzled. (Much like most Westerners.) I have almost no grasp of how Hinduism works, and Buddhism usually gives me a headache. But again, I judge them by their results. Hindus probably don't appreciate my fondness for steak and hamburger, but apart from that they really don't seem to be that troublesome.
Buddhists, on the other hand, tend to be troublemakers. Troublemakers of the best sort. They have their own moral and ethical standards, and refuse to compromise over them. But their idea of refusal is in the finest form -- they refuse to use any sort of force, just overwhelming moral compunction. The Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire to protest the Viet Nam war showed just how deeply they believed in their cause, yet would not violate their beliefs even for the greater cause. They seem to have assumed the burden of the world's conscience, and while we might not always agree with them, they definitely ought to at least be listened to.
And then there's the elephant in the room, the one I've been tap-dancing around all this piece. Islam.
Individual Muslims, by my own experience and those others have related to me, can be among the most decent and peaceful and considerate people on earth. But there is very often a cauldron of fury bubbling beneath that surface.
The tenets of Islam (which, despite what many say, does not mean "peace," but "submission") are simple and universal: the world is divided into two houses, Dar El Islam ("House Of Islam") and Dar El Harb ("House Of War"). It is the duty of all Muslims to expand the former to embrace all of the latter. There will not be true peace on earth until Islam rules all. Other faiths may continue, but only if they acknowledge Islam's supremacy and abide by its restrictions. (See "dhimmi.") It also inculcates intolerance and hatred for other faiths, especially the Jews -- see Sahih Muslim, Book 40, Number 6985: "The Hour [of Resurrection] will not arrive until you fight the Jews and the rock and the tree will say: O Muslim, servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him!"
But to judge a religion based on the tenets of its faith is against what I spelled out before. I should rather judge it based on the conduct of its adherents. And on that scale, how does Islam measure up?
For one, it seems extremely aggressive and violent. Perusing a list of major conflicts going on in the world today, it seems that nearly every single one of them has an Islamic faction on one side (some times both). "Muslim" and "terrorist" are terms that are almost inextricably linked, and the first thoughts many have when hearing about a terrorist attack is that it was an Islamic extremist -- and they are almost always right. (Cue the "Timothy McVeigh/Unabomber/Aum Shinrikyo/Eric Rudolph" exceptions.) The ones who commit these atrocities are not singing the praises of Jesus or Moses or Buddha or Krishna or Reverend Moon or L. Ron Hubbard or even Satan, they're shouting "Allahu Ackbar!" as they set off bombs, saw off heads, stone people, hang people, or commit other atrocities.
I do not come by my distrust of Islam readily. I don't like the feeling of fear and suspicion and resentment I get whenever I encounter Muslims. But it won that the old-fashioned way -- it earned it.
No, not all Muslims are terrorists. I'd be surprised if the terrorists were even a significant minority. But it is the failure of mainstream Muslims to forcibly reject the terrorists in their midst, to denounce them, to cooperate with others in rooting them out, that makes me so concerned.
For example, we are often told that the Palestinian people only want peace, and are tired of the long conflict with Israel. That flies in the face of certain established facts:
1) They set up a children's summer camp, with the assistance of the United Nations through UNICEF, named in honor of Wafa Idris, a female suicide bomber.
2) After a suicide bomber killed 15 people in a Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem, Palestinian college students set up a re-creation of the massacre at Al-Najah University, complete with fake blood and body parts.
3) The Palestinian people frequently dress their children -- even infants -- in tiny suicide bomber suits, complete with fake explosives (at least, I hope they're fake) for public demonstrations.
If the Muslim people really want to convince people like me that Islam is a religion of peace, they need to start by turning on those who they claim have "perverted" their faith and working on bringing them to justice. That means that they need to stand against those who claim to be fellow Muslims and work with the "unbelievers" -- and so far we've seen precious little evidence that they're willing to do so.
President Bush has been roundly criticized for his "you're either with us or you're with the terrorists," but a variant of that holds true for the rank and file Muslims of the world -- you're either against the terrorists, or you're not. The time is long past for them to declare where they stand, and to put action to those words.