Thursday, September 18, 2014

Good Religion vs. Bad Religion

Atheists are frequently charged with the crime of painting with too broad a brush when it comes to religion. As Islam has held a monopoly on cruelty inspired by religion in the recent past, it is said to be unfair to compare Christianity, Judaism and Islam when discussing the problems with faith. This is certainly a valid point. Everyday on the news we hear about the acts carried out by Muslim fundamentalists against Western civilizations and even other Muslims. ISIS is becoming more of a global threat everyday. It is not being dramatic or apocalyptic to say that a great war lurks in our near future that may spell the end of the world.

Judaism and Christianity have been somewhat benign for a long time now, and even though there are, of course, fundamentalists in each of these religions as well, their rare acts of violence, however vile, scrape only the surface of the evil that has been unleashed on the world in recent years in the name of Allah. It would be irresponsible of us to forget this distinction in our discourse regarding religion.

It therefore, is irrational to place all religious faith or dogmatic obedience on the same scale. Clearly, some sacred texts have evolved, at least somewhat to fit the modern world, where others have not. To put it another way, a way I have heard it from religious moderates, there seems to be "good religion" and "bad religion."

Let us examine these two phrases. What does a "good religion" consist of? Does a "good religion" necessarily fit snugly with a 21st century mindset? Does a "good religion" change whenever the moral zeitgeist does? If the answer to this question is yes, I don't see why we even call such a practice "religion" anymore! Perhaps, it is more fitting to call such a religion, a tradition instead. That is, sacred practices observed fervently, unless it conflicts with the morality of the generation.

Certainly many, if not most, religious people would be repulsed by such a description of their faith. They wish to follow the word of God, not distort the word of God to fit pop culture. This type of religious faith is certainly more respectable, but what then, is a "bad religion?"

Do Islamic fundamentalists go against the word of Allah? Do they corrupt the text in order to live lives of temptation? Perhaps some them do, but others are just following the words emblazoned in the book they believe to be the infallible word of the one God. "Slay them wherever you find them. Drive them out from the places they drove you. Idolatry is worse than carnage. (Qu'ran 2:190)" These fundamentalists are following the word of God to the letter. Where the "weak-minded" have modernized and changed the texts to better fit into society, these "pious crusaders" are ridding the world of the evil infidels. Can this be called: "bad religion?" Are they not, in principle, acting the same way believers of other faiths do? Are they not simply going according to the text they believe to be sacred? To act any other way would be irreligious, would it not? It would seem that the only difference between religions is that some texts are more hostile to modern society and others less so.

Of course, it can be said that interpretations of these verses vary, and therefore, other Muslims believe such verses to be time-bound, and no longer relevant. This is, of course, what religions like Judaism have done. It is clear, for example, that most religious Jews do not hearken any longer to such commandments as: "If your brother, the son of your mother, or the son of your father, or the wife of your bosom, or your friend who is like your own soul will entice you secretly saying: 'Let us go and worship the gods of others'...you shall not accede to him and not hearken to him; your eye shall not take pity on him...Rather, you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be the first against him, and the hand of the entire people afterwards." (Deuteronomy, 13:7-10) For reasons of interpretation, the religious Jewish people have abolished such commandments. One would be hard-pressed to find a case of a Jewish man killing his brother for trying to entice him to Buddhism.

It would seem then, that the real distinction is not between good and bad religions, but rather interpretations that are more compatible with Western culture and interpretations that are more dangerous. How is one to know which interpretation of a given verse to follow? Say, for example, a Jew were to kill his brother for trying to convince him to convert to Buddhism, could he not simply cite this verse and explain that his interpretation varies from the norm? Surely the Jewish people would rise up and condemn such an act, but could they say more than that such an interpretation isn't the popular rabbinical one?

Indeed, once we allow ourselves to believe without needing evidence, we have, in a sense, opened the door for religious extremism. This is a harsh statement to make, and it must be read in the spirit in which it was written. Obviously, I am not claiming that all religions are the same, nor am I stupid enough to think all religions pose an equal threat to the continuance of our species. I am merely saying that faith as a principle, belief which "transcends" evidence, is a dangerous and uncertain path from which the human race should distance itself. We should try our best to expel such dogmas from our minds. We must demand evidence before accepting fantastical claims, or we run the very real risk of cultivating men and women who will do as we did -- that is, accept claims without evidence -- with simply, more adverse interpretations. This is a danger every religion, every faith-based dogma, poses to the world at large. To compare religions is certainly unfair and inaccurate, but to point to their common "thinking error" is perhaps the most important thing we can do. Such "thinking errors" are currently plunging parts of our world into a dark abyss, and making large strides towards complete annihilation of the human race.

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