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The true religion

December 1st, 2012


This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.
— John Adams

I write about religion a lot, so I may be plowing some old ground here. Religion permeates every corner of our world, its politics, its laws, its culture, its personal relationships.
Allegedly a force for good, for comfort, for strength, it is more often a tool of oppression, repression, rancor, and avarice. It is historically in league with the tyrant, an excuse for torture and mass murder, for control of one over another.

The golden rule exists in some form in the religions I know something about, and is honored more in the breach than in the observance. The priest, or what you may call him, too often loses sight of the distance between himself and the deity he serves. Sadly, the ministry to the flock becomes camouflage for unspeakable acts, from larceny to child abuse, more and more in our time. Or are we just more willing to expose it these days?

Among Christians, the rock on which Jesus founded his church is gravel, in pieces. There are some big ones, like the Catholic Church, and some whose entire membership can fit into a storefront on a side street in a small town.

Ecumenism, the idea that the Christian shards should be more united, can’t work. The Interfaith movement, attempting the same unity among all religions, is a delusion, a feel-good will o’ the wisp.

Religion engenders differences among people, as if there weren’t enough already. What gets you into heaven, good works or grace? Well, it must be good works, right?

Read Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.”

Yes, but in James 2:24 it says “that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.”

This is known as the “Lordship salvation” controversy. It exists among Protestant sects. (Catholics have their own ways into heaven, and dissent surfaces only on occasion, like the current Nuns on a Bus. You go, girls.)

What this debate says to me is that being good is not as desirable as being lucky. Or, in some cases, arrogant. How many preachers have we seen in recent decades who lived like robber barons, fleeced their flocks for personal gain, behaved badly with their female congregants, and were confident that they were saved? A tearful confession on The 700 Club, prostrating themselves on the floor of the megachurch, and they are cool.

Parenthetically, if this debate seems pointless to you, and makes you question the purpose of the teachings of religion, so much the better. So many have argued niggling points of doctrine, and killed and died for it in the history of religion, and this has resulted only in more division and rancor. The rabbinical academies discuss fine points of the Torah and Talmud to absurdity, the medieval scholars argue over the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin, the Protestants debate over grace or works. What a waste of time.

Not to single out the Christians, necessarily, but they are thick on the ground here in the USA, have held the reins of power since the colonial era, and so provide most of the examples. I have no doubt that among the sincere, the inspired, and the good of all religious leaders, there exists a rotten component that gives the whole group a bad smell.

After all, I have been told for my whole life that it’s not religion that’s at fault, it’s the flawed human animal. And I agree with that. It’s just that this alone seems a fatal flaw in the concept.

The Judeo-Christian religions have a common heritage, if not a united philosophy, and I have read the Torah and the Christian bible. I haven’t read the Qur’an, but I assume it has all of the virtues and vileness of the others.

The Hebrew god I grew up with was a bloodthirsty son of a bitch. He demanded much: total allegiance, total compliance with his silly commandments, and woe betide you if you fail him.
Sure, he tells us not to kill, not to steal, not to bear false witness or commit adultery. But he also tells us not to cook a kid in its mother’s milk, or wear clothing woven of more than one kind of fiber, and not to eat shrimp or rabbit.

He also tells us to stone to death unruly children. He also told us to commit genocide on a tribe, the Amalekites, that attacked the Hebrews when they escaped slavery in Egypt. He also told Abraham to kill his own son. It was at this point in my yeshiva education that I began to doubt, and soon after to lose my faith.

Sometime thereafter I recall asking the rabbi about a line in the Torah that defied logic, specifically, in Exodus 22:18: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” I had recently read that this was the basis for the witch trials in Salem, and I knew that there were no such things as witches.

He said, “There are some things we are not given to understand.” I replied, “If I want to hear that, I’ll become a Catholic.” I spent the rest of the day in the principal’s office, and the rest of my time at yeshiva in a state of apostasy.

What he should have said was, “Look, kid, the Torah was written by Bronze Age nomads with no idea about anything we understand today. These jokers thought the sun revolved around the earth. These are just folk tales, no different than the stories of American Indians or African tribes, and the quicker you understand that the better off you’ll be.” Fat chance.

I was in the eighth grade in 1954, my first year in public school, when the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. We were instructed that the pledge we had known was no longer valid, and the new one was now to be intoned in home room. I refused to say it the very first time, simply remaining silent, and every time since. Even as an eleven-year-old, my sensibility was outraged, although I would have been hard pressed to explain why. Given my attitude about the Big Daddy in the sky, it just made sense to me not to include him in my pledge to our country.

As I got older and fell into schoolboy cynicism (mommas, don’t let your babies read Mencken, or Phillip Wylie, or Samuel Beckett), the showy agnosticism of my nascent-hipster friends struck me as weak and a hedge. By the time I was off to college, I was a full member of the atheist congregation, and have seen no reason to change since then.

My education, most of which occurred outside academe, led me to learn about Torquemada (grandson of conversos, yet), the Borgia popes, the Crusades, Pius XII, pogroms, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, Islamic conversion by the sword, and the generally repulsive nature of religious history. For every St. Francis of Assisi, there was a Grand Inquisitor. For every Mother Teresa, there was a Pope Damasus I. For every Catholic martyr, there were dozens of victims of religious murder.

Again, not to single out Catholics. They were just the major player in most of Christian history. Jews do not have clean hands, although we are far from evening up the score. I read with horror that Buddhists and Hindus have been killing each other in India.

Sunni Muslims love to kill Shia Muslims, and vice-versa. Sects and offshoots, like Sikhs and Sufi and Baha’i, are regularly murdered by the orthodox. Do we really need another excuse to snuff one another?

At this writing, two religion stories are in the news. First, and worse, are the riots around an inept and stupid film insulting Mohammed. The filmmaker allegedly hired actors for a low-budget costume epic, and then re-recorded dialog accusing the Muslim prophet of unsavory crimes, including pedophilia.

The dishonesty does not end there. Again allegedly, the man responsible hid behind a false name and announced that funding for the fourteen-minute movie came from a cabal of Jews. This is classic, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion for the viral video age.

What is not in doubt is that the alleged responsible person, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, has been convicted of fraud and intent to manufacture methamphetamine. He is also a Coptic Christian born in Egypt. The Copts, an ancient Christian sect, have been badly treated by Muslims.

But rather than making a film detailing the sad history of his church in Egypt, he makes a vile hatchet job and blames it on Jews.

And, of course, rioting and assassinations ensued in several Muslim countries. If Nakoula is truly guilty of this horror show, there is hardly a punishment that would fit the crime. Where is Torquemada when we really need him?

The video has been promoted by an inbred malignant imbecile preacher from Florida. Yes, the same one who announced that he would burn copies of the Qur’an on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. He actually got around to that earlier this year, having been out of the headlines for too long. He also hanged an effigy of the president in front of his sick little church this year.

Jesus would be proud.

The other, and far more entertaining, flap is about a scrap of papyrus from about the fourth century A.D. in which Jesus appears to be referring to his wife. To wit: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’ ” Naturally, this has been like a skunk tossed into a garden party.

The scholars are very cautious about the whole thing, saying only that the scrap was written, in Coptic, by the way, long after JC died, and is too fragmentary to indicate anything. I like to think that he was doing a kind of biblical Henny Youngman routine: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife, take her, please. You’ve been a great bunch of disciples. Don’t forget to tip your slave girls.’”

Dan Brown made a fortune with a sloppy potboiler on just this topic. I imagine he’s sharpening his #2 pencil even as I write this. The DaVinci Code 2: The Papyrus.

For all of you who find religion a balm to your soul, and something to lean on in times of trouble, whatever gets you through the night. Live and be well.

For me, it is a sad saga of death and repression, deceit and division, false at the core. I’ll have none of it. It is not the opium of the people. It is more like the counterfeit Viagra that comes in from Mexico. It promises much, delivers nothing.

Amen. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Religion Issue, Goldberg | Link to this Entry


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