Friday, March 9, 2012

Murder First, Belief Later

I suppose, as a historian, it’s nice to know the centuries of religious persecution are still with us.  A pastor in Iran has been sentenced to death because he was raised in a Muslim family, but is a practicing Christian. That brings back long buried accounts of heretics burned at the stake, witches crushed under heavy rocks and secret Jews being handed over to the Inquisition.

Nostalgia has such a warm glow.

Naturally and understandably, the death sentence passed on Youcef Nadarkhani (right) has caused outrage. 

"This action is yet another shocking breach of Iran’s international obligations, its own constitution, and stated religious values," the White House said in a prepared statement. "The United States stands in solidarity with Pastor Nadarkhani, his family, and all those who seek to practice their religion without fear of persecution -- a fundamental and universal human right."

Actually, the idea that religious freedom is not universal. It’s not even very old, being implemented in the 18th century.  Long before that, zealous Christian leaders cheerfully killed and burned those who followed a different version of their faith or questioned it.

Before that, Jewish leaders also demanded racial purity and happily killed fellow Jews who violated that concept.  

They could simply cite the Bible where God gives his approval of the sacred murder:  

And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping in the entrance of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation and took a spear in his hand and went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly… And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel. (Numbers 25)

The Romans cheerfully picked up on that thread by making martyrs of Christians who refused to worship the emperor and who insisted that Jesus was the true king.  After Christianity assumed control, their leaders happily joined in to massacre nonbelievers and those who accepted a variation on the orthodox faith.

Islam, which starts in the 7th century, was not far behind.  The Quran gives the authority for believers to slay pagans who will not convert.  That’s been borrowed by the Mormons, whose writings permit apostates to be killed – exactly what Iran is planning to do to Youcef Nadarkhani.

The whole purpose of such drastic action, of course, is to guarantee that members in the fold don’t even think about straying.

My goodness, if they did, why they might even (gasp) convert.

That’s what has been happening in this country, which has enshrined religious freedom in its basic laws.  In a 2009 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, only 56 percent of adult Americans had the same faith as they started with.  That’s half the 2007 results.  Of those, many had changed their faiths, but returned later.  Some did so because they moved; others because they intermarried.

The only solution, apparently in Iran, is to kill those thinking of following suit.

That ignores a basic fact: no baby “belongs” to any religion.  Parents choose for their children.  At some point, a child may decide the imposed religion is not for him and try something else.  Typically, young people spurn all faith before returning to a religion that appeals to them.  There’s no mark in or on a child that identifies a particular faith, except in Jews related to the priestly clan.  There’s a marker in their DNA.  Even that doesn’t make them Jewish.  It simply shows they have Jewish ancestors.

There’s something else to consider: if God had any concerns which religion people followed, wouldn’t He have the power to do something about it?  Based on the plethora of beliefs, the clear answer is that He isn’t particularly interested.

The truth is religious leaders are willing to murder because apostates undermine their claims, and cost them money and power.  There’s nothing religious in their decision to kill an opponent.  They are simply following the same human emotions that have forever clouded interpersonal relations between people, countries and cultures.

Youcef Nadarkhani may become another martyr in a long list that stretches back to the origins of religion. 

God has nothing to do with it. Neither does religion.

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com.  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. 



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