Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Knowledge Would Temper Religious Fanaticism

In Afghanistan, what must be a complete moron reportedly strangled his wife for giving birth to a third girl instead of a boy.  The moron’s mother helped him.  The husband fled when police came.  The mother was arrested.  Her explanation: the wife committed suicide over guilt.

The husband and mother should do the same over stupidity.  Women do not determine the gender of a baby.  Men do.  The wife had three daughters because of her husband.

Why didn’t the husband know that?  Because his version of his religion teaches that women are responsible.

While the tragedy is limited to one person in this case, this is hardly the first time religion has generated dreadful consequences. Anyone who has studied history knows about the various religious wars during the centuries, the people burned at the stake because they dared to believe something different than the ordained faith and so on. The battles continue today, such as between Sunni and Shiite sects in Iraq.

People just don’t know about their religion and accept blindly whatever they are told, regardless of the consequences.

I see it regularly on a much smaller basis in my religious history classes.  I’ve been studying religious history since I was a kid and teaching the subject for some 30 years.  I am appalled regularly by the abject ignorance by my students in what should be a very important subject.

They profess a belief.  They read the holy books.  They talk about their faith.  And they know nothing about it.

I had one student who walked out of class because I didn’t say the Bible was written by God.  It may have been divinely inspired, but there’s no question man put stylus to parchment.  The many missing words, strange phrases, puns (in Hebrew), and the multiple conflicting ideas and faulty attempts at history clearly indicate that.

Another man left angrily because I said Christianity was about 2,000 years old.  He said Christ lived for all time.  I told him that may be true, but he only manifest himself two millennia ago.  That didn’t appease him.

The reality is that all of our religions today grew out of existing faiths and were affected by the events of their time. For example: Hinduism is the last of the ancient pagan faiths with the multiple gods that once populated everyone’s household.  Judaism is the last of the ancient Middle Eastern faiths whose gods interfered in daily life.  Christianity is an amalgam of Judaism and Greek paganism. Mormonism is a combination of Christianity and ideas circulating through upstate New York at the time.  Some religions – Buddhism and Zoroastrianism come to mind – only endured because some would-be military leader needed a new religious banner to fight under.

Religions influenced each other.  Buddha wanted to purify Hinduism.  His followers generated a new religion. Jesus wanted to rid Judaism of what he considered onerous elements.  His followers instead created a vastly different belief. Muhammad wanted to bring monotheism to his pagan countrymen.  He saw himself as the new Paul.  His followers saw him as the last prophet from God.

That’s how the system works.

We know that because records still exist, particularly for more recent faiths like Christian Science, Latter Day Saints and Scientology.  However, there are plenty of documents that help historians piece together the origins of religions like Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism.  For older faiths, like Judaism and Hinduism, historians can only speculate and rely on archaeology.

None of that means the faiths in any of the religions are misplaced.  No one can “prove” any belief is wrong, no matter how absurd it sounds to someone else.  I don’t believe my late uncle has been reborn as a cow, but I can’t prove he isn’t.  All historians can do is show how such a faith developed. 

That’s’ enough to demonstrate that all religions have been created by man in a desperate effort to understand what is not understandable. They are avenues to reach the divine.  There is no one avenue.  There is no one truth.  The existence of so many flourishing faiths is evidence of that.

If believers would start accepting the facts and stop insisting they alone own the secrets, then morons in any country will stop trying to impose religious tenets as facts.  Maybe we’ll have fewer inane murders and more peace.

We don’t have to follow John Lennon’s advice in “Imagine:” 

“Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace….”

 We just have to learn a lot more about why we believe what we believe.

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.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. 

Monday, January 30, 2012

Evolution and Religion Fighting Again

Recently, news accounts reported on several Muslim students in England who refused to attend classes dealing with evolution.  Nidhal Guessoum, a professor of Professor of Physics and Astronomy at American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Republic, decided to take on this issue by arguing on line that the students may not have any objection to evolution per se, but may have been objecting to what they see as a “purely western theory, one which embodies a materialistic, atheistic philosophy; they then target it as an expression of a very different worldview.”
If I have this straight, Guessoum is saying that the students see evolution as nothing more than a way of insinuating Western culture into their beliefs.

So the 150 or so years of research, the studies that have systematically demonstrated the accuracy of evolution mean nothing?  Evolution is just an avenue to attack Islam?

This guy is a professor?  Of what, nonsense?

Let’s be serious.  Repeated polls in both the Western and Middle Eastern cultures have shown that religious people spurn evolution.  Guessoum knows that.  As he wrote: “Surveys have shown Muslims almost everywhere largely rejecting the main concepts and results of the theory of evolution, particularly when it applies to humans. Even educated Muslims … consider evolution as ‘only a theory’ and refuse to accept that we humans share common ancestors with apes, and that all creatures (animals and plants) came from an original cell.”

Ardent fundamentalist Christians feel the same way.  They reject the idea for the same reason: it contradicts their belief in God.

This is not a cultural argument; this is an attempt to hold onto a sliver of belief by spurning facts.

Guessoum tries to counter that reality by calling on Muslims to “open their minds to all new ideas. They must be confident that their faith and worldview are robust enough to deal with modernity in its various facets.  Islam,” he insists, “not only does not forbid studying evolution or any other theory; it welcomes new knowledge and deals with it objectively. Muslims are called upon to engage with science, philosophy, and art with confidence and open minds.”
He’s only at least 800 years too late for that advice.  That boat has sailed. 

Islam, like all fundamentalists faiths, deliberately rejects knowledge that contradicts religious teachings.  History demonstrates that easily. 

The Arab world was once the most scientifically advanced culture beyond China.  Arabs made important contributions in such diverse fields as mathematics, biology, astronomy and other sciences starting in the 8th century.  The Crusaders were crude ignoramuses compared to the Islamic doctors and scholars.  Many of them migrated into Europe later and shared their knowledge.  For example, that’s why we still call numbers Arabic numerals.  Algebra is one of many Arabic words that have become part of our language.

However, all of that died out around the 1200s.  There have been no prominent Arabic scientists since then simply because scientific research continually ran into the sharpened blades of religious zealotry.  Eventually, the West surpassed the Muslim world, which slowly slid back to the pre-educational morass.  It would have remained there except for the discovery of oil, which has funded massive infrastructure but done nothing apparently to open the minds that Guessoum addresses.

We have the same problem in this country as religious fanatics push such pious twaddle as intelligent design rather than confront the reality of evolution.

Ironically, the Roman Catholic Church has accepted evolution.  Pope Pius XII in 1950 opened the discussion by saying evolution was worthy of valid scientific inquiry.  Some 46 years later, Pope John Paul acknowledged that the studies have shown that “the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis.”  Before becoming pope, Benedict XVI approved the statement of the International Theological Commission, which reported that “mounting support for some theory of evolution (accounts) for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution.”

For once, the Church is on the right side of this debate.  The study of evolution has boosted our understanding of a wide array of fields, such as medicines that can cope with the ever-evolving viruses and other diseases.  At least 47 of the last 50 Nobel Prizes in medicine or physiology have been awarded based on research built on evolutionary theory.

Anyone – Muslim, Christian, Jewish or believer in any other religion – who refuses to accept the tenets of evolution will simply find himself falling further behind in the quest for knowledge and understanding.  No amount of rationalization will change that.

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.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  Many of his essays are posted at www.williamplazarus.blogspot.com.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Misunderstanding God

God has spoken again.  This time, He told Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain to get out of the race for the nomination.  That’s a change of heart.  Before, Cain said, God told him to run.  In a November 12 speech, Cain said, "When I finally realized that it was God saying that this is what I needed to do, I was like Moses: 'You've got the wrong man, Lord. Are you sure?'"

Cain was right.  He was the wrong man.  However, that makes God mistaken.  Who would have guessed that?

Of course, God also told Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum to run, too.  Then, he told Perry and Bachmann to get out.  He must have been covering his bets. 

On the other hand, maybe God was suggesting a nice restaurant for the evening or a new Commandment, and they just misheard.  That’s possible.  After all, as the Bible records, God has a “still, small voice.”  (1 Kings: 19:12) Candidates who are a bit long-winded may have trouble translating comments uttered sotto voce.

There’s another option:  maybe God wasn’t the one taking.  Maybe Cain heard his girlfriend chatting on the phone in another room and misunderstood.  That could be true for all the people who recently claimed God had whispered in their ears.  A search of the internet turned up the following bits of supposed divine guidance.

  • A man who said he killed his young son because God told him to save the boy from the antichrist.  A New Zealand man who chopped off the heads of two women and shot a man following God’s directions.
  • A woman asking for advice after a man approached her in church and told her God chose her to be his wife.  Presumably, the same tact was used in the polygamist sects to convince little girls to become wives.
  •  A Texas pastor who paddled eight women because God told him to.
  • The Rev. Pat Robertson claiming God told him that the U.S. would be attacked by terrorists – that was in 2007.  God hasn’t apparently got around to following through yet.

Unless God is talking out of both sides of His mouth, someone else must be mouthing off for Him, sort of how English Prime Minister Winston Churchill had a sound-alike give speeches for him during World War II.  To this day, no one knows which radio speeches Churchill actually delivered. 

Maybe that’s the same thing with God.  He designated a stand-in who tells the candidates what to do.  They think it’s God and fall for it.

Why stop with today’s run of mediocre politicians?  Maybe God didn’t really speak to Abraham, Moses or Samuel.  Maybe that was his stand-in or, worse yet, Satan acting like a ventriloquist.  Was Muhammad misled?  Or Joseph Smith?  They are among multiple religious leaders who said they received the divine word.  Maybe the gods who spoke through the Delphic Oracle, the Sybil and other renowned visionaries were perpetrating a cruel hoax.

How would anyone know? It’s not like there’s a recording somewhere of God to compare the latest message to.   The CIA did that with tapes made by Osama Bin Laden, confirming their authenticity.  God’s vocal pattern remains a mystery.

Maybe God didn’t say anything at all.  Maybe Cain’s libido gave him the impetus to run, noticing that candidates have unfettered access to unlimited numbers of women ala Tiger Woods.

Maybe Bachmann’s smug conceit served as the impetus or Palin’s lofty intelligence.

Maybe the mouthpiece who told Joseph Smith to look for golden tablets with a fable about Jesus visiting Native Americans was the same one that told former Massachusetts Governor and master flip-flopper Mitt Romney to run for president.

We can only guess.
Or we can consider the words of retired author and Christian pastor Robert Tillman Kendall:

“Most often we mention Him for one reason: to elevate our own credibility. It is not His name we are thinking of, it is our reputation. Adding the weight of God's name to our words gives us authority and respectability. But the truth is, we're not thinking of God's name and glory when we do this — we're thinking of our own.”

While making sure God gets the unwarranted credit.

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.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Limitations of History

Every time I read a history book, I learn something new.  At the moment, for example, I’m reading about the beginnings of the modern world.  The author, Stephen Greenblatt, spent part of his enjoyable book explaining why monks carefully copied ancient manuscripts.

Most of us know that any documents that survived from ancient times were copied.  They had to be: avaricious insects, fragile materials, watery inks and the like guarantee that texts written on papyrus and animal skins would eventually disappear if not carefully protected.  Most weren’t.  Even the first Dead Sea Scrolls, hidden away in air-tight containers for some 2,000 years, crumbled to dust after being exposed to air.  As such, the rest had to be unveiled inside special rooms to ensure their survival.

Greenblatt, however, asked a question about the monks and their copying that most of us probably never considered: why did they copy anything?  It’s understandable that monks would copy the Bible and religious texts, but why did they devote so many years laboring in terrible conditions to preserve ancient Greek and Roman pagan documents?

That’s when I learned something new: the monks had to.  Founders of monastic orders insisted that their followers devote part of their day to reading.  It was mandatory, right along with prayer and manual labor.  Without libraries – familiar in the Roman era, but demolished by Christians – the monks had no choice but to continually copy any manuscripts they could find.   That’s also why such material was still around when 1400s scholars – convinced their era was corrupt and wanted to locate information from “better” time periods -- began to search monasteries for samples of ancient writing. 

To me, such arcane facts make history so fascinating.  It’s also what frustrates casual readers.  They prefer history in small, clear blocks.  Sort of the Walter Cronkite signoff: “And that's the way it is”   … followed by the date.

But that’s never the way it is or was.

History of one event gives only a snapshot of a time period.  There are multiple nuances no longer visible to us, such as the culture, personality, outside influences and the like.  No history can capture the complete essence of life in a different era or even the then-current ideas that greatly affected people living then, but which are forgotten now.

We see such limitations all the time.  For example, a reader wrote to tell me about the 1979 burning of the U.S. embassy in Libya by Islamic radicals.  He said he was there, and that there was no fire.  He said the embassy never closed.  However, there are multiple stories about the fire by reputable news agencies and a picture or two on the internet.

Was there a fire?  I believe the writer.  I know him; he’s quite honest.  However, it’s obvious something happened. Reuters, UPI and other news agencies didn’t conspire to report a non-event.  Maybe there were two fires.  Maybe the fire was so small at first, when my friend was there, and then got bigger.

I don’t know.  I just know that history doesn’t have the answer.  It’s just a collection of facts.  It’s the responsibility of the historian to put those facts together in a coherent package.  Unfortunately, facts aren’t neat, like jigsaw puzzle pieces.  They can fit in multiple places, creating multiple and equally plausible pictures.

That’s also why politicians can make conflicting claims over the same byte of information, such as in the ongoing Republican presidential debates.  The same would be true for any political party.  Each candidate is trying to create the image matching his beliefs.  The facts haven’t changed; how they are combined has.

The process works for religion as well.  Take the case of Jesus: he must have existed, although the information about his life is extremely limited and filled with mythology.  The few facts were easily reorganized to generate multiple scenarios, some of which ended up in what are now sacred texts.

Those documents may be right; they may be wrong.  Regardless, we need additional information.

That’s why continuing to learn remains so paramount.  All historians like Greenblatt can do is present the information as they understand it.  We are responsible to add that knowledge to an expanding storehouse until we can see a wider panorama of events.

That’s how we all learn more about what “really” happened, although, in truth, we never can come close to the real truth. 

 “For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known,” as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians.  He was referring to when he got to Heaven.  For us, we’ll have to rely on what little knowledge we can glean on Earth.

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.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.