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Friday, July 26, 2002

For the last week or so, my life has been deeply saturated in religion. I myself am not religious at all. I was not raised with religion, other than coming from a vaguely white anglo saxon protestant(ish) family background. My mom ran far from her religion of childhood (Southern Baptism) as soon as she could get away from the screaming preachers. My grandparents were on a break from their religion for most of my childhood (until their youngest son got sick and died). My aunt was always a rabid Southern Baptist, but even her husband didn't join her at church. My dad's side of the family are a bunch of white trash egg ranchers from Rio Linda. They had no interest in religion. So basically, I was raised essentially godless, which suits me just fine. But religion, and others faith in it has always fascinated me.

So I've studied various religions in various ways over the years. I took The Bible as Literature, Babylonian Religion, and Magic, Religion, and Witchcraft classes in college. I've read lots of other stuff on my own. I've participated in Jewish Seder for Passover. My group of friends began their own brand of neo-Hellenic paganism, and I ended up initiating with them, but found it fundamentally unsatisfying because there was still the demand for blind faith and submission - doing things you wouldn't ordinarily do because you have faith that the gods (and your friends) will guide you. This quarter I'm took an Intro to Islam class through continuing studies here at Stanford. It was a fascinating class on so many levels. First, finally sitting down and reading the Qur'an was an experience. The first line of the thing is "This book is not to be doubted." No asking questions. No deviation. Very sure of itself. This is the faith. Don't quibble. I almost put it down immediately. Any faith that offers so little room for self-reflection and coming to the path on your own just gets under my skin. But I kept reading and my initial revulsion subsided. It really is a fascinating religion. It basically argues that it is a continuation of Judaism and Christianity, but that over the years, those faiths have become corrupted, and that God talked with Mohammed and told him how it really is, and Mohammed had it written down. That's why it has to stay in its original Arabic - to avoid corruption. Anyway, it's an interesting religion, and one which I now have a much deeper respect for, but still could not subscribe to myself, if only for that first statement alone. Any religion that asks you not to doubt is ripe for abuse, and Islam certainly has been abused for the sake of politics and power.

Last Friday I was working from home. Curled up in bed reading documentation, I heard a knock on the door, and suspected it was my manager with some information from PG&E (long story). I was wrong. It was the Jehovah's Witnesses making a pass. I've never had much respect for religions that come to you rather than letting you come to them. They seem to prey on the weak minded and lost. And when they come to me, I have no moral problem with trying to shake their faith, because they've come knocking on my door, they've asked for my opinion. I spent about a half hour discussing things with a young woman, while another Hispanic mother and child stood behind her, clearly paired up with the young woman as talker and the mom and child as witness. They got more than the average earful with my recent study of Islam. After the preliminary questions and answers, they asked, “But don’t you believe that God could’ve preserved his word on Earth?” implying that the Bible is his word as it was handed down. I said, “No, of course not. It was oral tradition first, then written down by various different authors with various different world views over many years and in several different languages. Heck, look at the New Testament alone. It wasn’t even starting to be written down until about 40 years after Jesus died. And besides, the Islamic believe that the Qur’an was sent to Mohammed for that very reason – that god’s word had been corrupted over the years. But even Mohammed was illiterate, and had others writing down what he said, and heaven knows what got written down wrong there, or whether Mohammed was really even hearing the voice of God. And even if he was hearing the voice of god, what was written down was written in human language, and our language is a huge limiting factor on our world view. We don’t write down what we don’t really have a word (and a cultural reference) for.” After some more debate I finally said, “Look, I can never be a Christian. To subscribe to a faith with my eyes wide open is to take it wholly, faults and all. Too much war has been waged in the name of the Bible. Too much hate and violence has erupted based on how “Christians” interpret the Bible. I won’t be a part of that. I won’t let myself be counted with you.” It wasn’t long after that that the rest of their vanload had finished pestering my neighbors, so our conversation ended shortly. Clearly I was not to be converted today. After it was over, I went upstairs to check the web. Looking at Beliefnet, I was fascinated to see how much the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Islam have in common. Both perceive Jesus as a prophet, but as a man, not a god (or son of god). Both avoid having a clergy. Both believe in one god (no trinity). Both believe in separate realms for men and women.

But the experience of discussing it always refreshes for me why I am not a Christian, or a Muslim, or subscribing to any faith at all. I will either do so wholly, or not at all. I will not be a selective Catholic, who goes to church every Sunday and uses birth control every day while having premarital sex.

On Sunday, my class was invited to the mosque at Peace Terrace in Fremont. It’s a site shared with a Methodist church near 880 and Alverado-Niles Blvd. A man named Mohammed showed us around. He is a local dentist, an Arab, and a Muslim. He has been on Hajj twice, once with his wife and 10 year old son. We toured the mosque, including watching the midday prayer. We talked with him about lots of things, but one struck me when we talked about September 11th. He said that, “Of course, we all bear the shame of these terrorists who did this in the name of Islam, but that is not Islam. Killing civilians, killing themselves, is not Islam.” This was quite a refreshing statement after talking with the Jehovah’s Witnesses 48 hours earlier. They had distanced themselves from other Christians, saying that they didn’t fight in wars, nor serve in the military, because that is not being a Christian to them. They claimed no commonality with what has been done in the name of their faith. But Mohammed was quite willing to accept the shame, because it is one community, not a hundred fragmented faiths. True, Islam has it’s fragments as well (Sunni, Shia, and Sufi to start), but there seemed to be a better depth of understanding that they all stand together in the eyes of Americans at least.

Meanwhile, through all of this, I’m listening to Stranger in a Strange Land on tape in my car, which is basically Heinlein’s treatise on religion. He says, "The most ridiculous concept ever perpetrated by H. Sapiens is that the Lord God of Creation, Shaper and Ruler of the Universes, wants the saccharine adoration of his creations, that he can be persuaded by their prayers, and becomes petulant if he does not receive this flattery. Yet this ridiculous notion, without one real shred of evidence to bolster it, has gone on to found one of the oldest, largest and least productive industries in history." I’ve long thought of the Catholic church in particular as the single most successful corporation on Earth. They’re tax exempt, sell an intangible product which necessarily has no overhead cost, have a volunteer workforce, and people willing to die rather than switch to another brand. In the book, The Man From Mars has much the same reaction to religion that I do. How can any one religion be right? What happens to all the others who are wrong? How do you determine which one is perfection?
His answer is "Could it be that everyone of all religions are true?"
"Huh? How could that be? Mike, if one is true the others are wrong."
"So? Point to the shortest direction around the universe. It doesn't matter where you point, it's the shortest...and you're pointing back at yourself."
"Well, what does that prove? You taught me the true answer, Mike. Thou art God."
"And thou art God, my lovely. But that prime fact which doesn't rely on faith may mean that all faiths are true."
His final solution is to create his own Church of All Worlds based around the teaching Martian language and the concept of Water Brotherhood. He is then promptly villainized as an anti-Christ and his religion is demonized as a cult.

In the past, I’ve been questioned about how there could be morals without religion. In fact, the two are so totally dissociated. Religion is the morality of some (or one) codified so that others need not reflect on questions of right and wrong. But it doesn’t make that morality perfect. You still should reflect on what your told, measure it for yourself, and decide what is moral to you. Perhaps that’s why the Islamic tenet of “This book is not to be doubted” so thoroughly gets under my skin. Most religions have some variation on the Golden Rule. Why can’t we simply be taught such a rule, and then be expected to think for ourselves? I think human society would be so much healthier if we were all asked to think rather than asked to believe. Too often we look to the differences in our beliefs, rather than the similarities. In the meantime, Irish Protestants and Catholics will still kill one another, as will Jews and Muslims in the West Bank, as will the Shia and the Sunni in Kashmir, as will the Muslims and the Christians in Serbia. And righteous Americans will kill doctors who perform abortions. And the KKK will burn crosses in the yards of black families. And righteous young Christian men will beat young homosexual men to death. And “Islamic” terrorists will continue to attack Americans. And so on in a never-ending cycle of violence in the name of God. I do not trust a god who would let his name be abused so.

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