Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Religious Hatred Darkens Human Life

For the past five months, I’ve been working on a book about anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish inmates in American prisons.  They face several basic problems: Judaism is not understood outside the prison; there’s no difference inside.  The inmates and guards are overwhelming Christian, a religion convinced it possesses the only “truth” and that everyone else is condemned for not worshiping properly.

Unfortunately, those problems are not just limited to Jews and Christians.  A Kansas City woman who converted to Islam from Christianity was recently awarded $5 million after being harassed unceasingly because of her religious choice.

Susann Bashir (right) won her case against AT&T’s Southwestern Bell after enduring “a pattern of offensive and discriminatory conduct by her supervisors” six years after she started working for the company as a network technician in 1999.

According to the testimony, colleagues called her a terrorist, said she was going to hell and generally insulted her.  One even tried to tear off her head covering. 

When Bashir filed a complaint, she was not protected and ended up being fired in 2010.

She hardly is a lonely figure. In Iran, Youcef Nadarkhani, a Christian pastor who converted from Islam, faces the death penalty.  In his case, absurdly, Nadarkhani (left) was raised Christian, but had Muslim ancestors.  That’s enough to have him face a hangman’s noose.

Another convert was executed by the Iranians in 1990, and at least six Protestant pastors have been killed in Iran in the last few years, presumably for violating the legal code that condemns people who dare to proselytize on behalf of another faith.

Such behavior goes far back into human history.  Across the last 2,000 years, adherents of different religions have spent so much time attacking each other that it’s a wonder they had time for prayer.

Christians invented the idea of heresy just to have a reason to murder anyone who might stray from the party line.  Pilgrims who journeyed to Massachusetts to escape religious persecution killed several settlers who chose not to follow Puritan dictates.  Quakers were particular targets.  The Puritans also turned out Roger Williams (right) into the cold of a Massachusetts winter.  He promptly founded Providence, Rhode Island as a haven for all religions.

His efforts lit a spark.  Maryland was created specifically for Catholics.  Pennsylvania was set up to welcome Quakers. That same effort was echoed in the 20th century when Israel was carved out of a British protectorate as a refuge for downtrodden Jews, persecuted in the Soviet Union and killed en masse in Germany during World War II.

That hasn’t stopped persecution of religions by other faiths.  If there is a difference today, it involves the amount of lip service about the pleasures of diversity.  AT&T, after all, has a policy discouraging mistreatment of employees based on religion and/or ethnicity, gender or age.  It’s the same policy espoused by the Federal government and encased in personnel files nationwide.

It’s a great policy.  It’s just a shame few follow it.

Instead, bigots are anchored by age-old sentiments still enshrined in religious teachings.  In Islam and Christianity, people who leave the faith, known as apostates, can be killed.  There are Mormons in jail in this country for living up to that creed in their belief’s teachings.

Artist Pieter Bruegel's view of hell from the `1500s.
Apostates who survive are condemned to the lowest rungs of hell in both Christianity and Islam. 

Yet, people change religions regularly.  According to a 2009 study by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, “half of American adults have changed religious affiliation at least once during their lives. Most people who change their religion leave their childhood faith before age 24, and many of those who change religion do so more than once.”

That’s a lot of folks in hell.

Religions typically condemn apostates or encourage murder to keep adherents from straying.  The more believers, the more power and money a religion has.  It’s simple economics.

However, the end result is another type of prison, one that keeps hatred seething inside an age-old bastion erected in a vain effort to stem the free flow of ideas and the increasingly widespread realization that no one has a monopoly on religious truth.

Long-time religious historian 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.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

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